They say: If you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans. I say: If you want to make them guffaw, tell them your life-long dream, then taunt them by writing about it.
I can almost hear them guffawing down here in Ocala (and I’m pretty sure the bits of thunder I’ve heard were them rolling on the floor) as I wait for the veterinarian to come for the third time to try to figure out why my horse, Jules, is dead lame one week after arrival in the horse capital of the world.
I come from a family that paid heed to The Evil Eye, that vengeful, malignant god who shoots death rays at those who displease him. My mother tied red ribbons around all the handles of our luggage and car doors. And she spit over her left shoulder every time a compliment was paid to my brother or me, lest we be the object of anyone’s envy. That would greatly displease The Evil Eye, because envy must only be directed toward him. Her spitting was quickly followed by the incantation “kina hora,” a contraction of three Yiddish words: kayn ayin hara, “not (kayn) the evil (hara) eye (ayin).” As in, the saleswoman at the shoe store notices the two ginger kids and says to my mother: “Why, what pretty red hair those children have.” My mother’s response: “Ptew! Kina hora” (and she says it loud enough for The Evil Eye to hear).
Have I carried on this ridiculous tradition? Not entirely. (Though my husband would say, “Yes, entirely.” He accuses me of magical thinking all the time.) I’ve done away with the red ribbons and spitting. However, when someone says something nice about anyone I love, I still intone “kina hora”—but I say it to myself because I don’t live in an area where Yiddish is easily understood.
And to further my husband’s case, I did pack a pair of turquoise socks for warding off The Evil Eye into my tack trunk that went with Jules. They were ostensibly a Christmas present for Carly Williams, assistant trainer at Shadow Pond Stables and the young woman who would be riding and taking caring of him in Ocala. Merry Christmas to her, and bug off to The Evil Eye.
Apparently The Evil Eye hates turquoise. He struck Jules with a swift vengeance, the day before my I’m-finally-realizing-a-lifelong-dream column ran on the Chronicle’s website. Who knew The Evil Eye gets advance notice of chronofhorse.com content? And to make matters even worse, that pugnacious god rendered Jules so lame that a vet who saw the video of my horse’s painful attempt to move his left hind leg, practically gasped and said, “Oh boy, that’s bad.”
How did it happen? Turnout with new horses? A slip in his stall? A bad turn on the dewy morning grass? Who knows? Jules is a horse, and horses specialize in injuring themselves the exact moment you think everything is just right to finally realize the dream of your life, in this case, showing in Ocala. And at the end of the day, what does it matter how it happened? What matters is the prognosis. (I, like most of us horse-crazed, have too many heartbreakingly early equine retirees. Upon seeing the video, my immediate fear was that Jules, at age 6, would be joining them.)
The call came in the afternoon. We were still home in Virginia. Jules had been in Florida eight days. I saw Carly’s name flash on my phone screen, followed by a million emojis—hearts, horses, unicorns. (Perhaps the millennial variation of an incantation?) Before I answered it, I said to my husband: “Uh oh, this is trouble.” He rolled his eyes. After living with me for 20-plus years he knows what a catastrophist I am. But in this case, I had reason to catastrophize. A call from the trainer mid-day when I knew she still had a barnful to ride could only mean one thing: TROUBLE.
I was right. Jules was lame, she said, and she sent a video. He wasn’t just lame, little “l.” He was Lame, capital “L.” But not LAME, all caps, as in an abscess lame, which would have been better. That’s when I knew the trouble would only get worse. I know this horse intimately. I pulled him out of his mother; I nursed him back to health after five-hours of surgery and six weeks of recovery following castration complications; I’ve watched him his whole life. He’s never taken a lame step (other than from an abscess). He has no history of anything.
My husband and I were poised to drive to Ocala the next day. Should we wait to hear from the vet, with the possibility that we would cancel our trip and send Jules home? Should we head down? Should I just shoot myself now?
We’d already rented a place in Ocala for a month; there would only be bad weather heading our way in the Shenandoah Valley; and I wanted to be there to manage Jules’ medical care.
As you might imagine, seeing the video of Jules that lame unnerved me. The dashed dream part was upsetting, but the severity of his lameness and its implications were heart-wrenching. Being a catastrophist—backed by the evidence of my last two horses who retired at ages 8 and 11—I could only imagine the worst. I had a hard time sleeping that night and was so distressed I slept-walked into a door, nose first. The next morning I woke up looking like I’d gone a few rounds with The Evil Eye.
We got in our car and drove straight to Jules. He was different horse. Bug-eyed and shaky at the smallest sound. He has been reactive in the past but nothing like what I was seeing. As I hand-grazed him, every noise made him jump. Then Carly told me the latest: The day after the vet came and prescribed, “monitored, small turnout,” something spooked Jules in the paddock. He bolted, and he jumped out, crashing through the top of the four-board fence, then galloped to the back of the farm.
Bad to worse.
Jules had never done anything like that at my farm, or my trainer’s farm where he’d lived for more than a year. He’s docile in my field and barely musters up the energy to do more than mosey around. Under saddle, just getting him to canter is a workout for me. But he had been reactive in the ring in the past, and in that case we suspected ulcers. The first dose of omeprazole was like turning off the spooky switch, so he’d gotten a two-month courses that ended in November.
For the 12-hour trip to Ocala, I gave him two doses before he left and told Carly to give him a dose the day he arrived and another the day after. That clearly wasn’t enough, judging by his bugged-out eyes. Those ulcers must have returned, big time.
By the time I got to Ocala, the vet already had examined Jules twice and still didn’t have a diagnosis. She’d narrowed the injury to the lower hock area, after he’d blocked sound there. X-rays showed nothing significant in the bone to cause that severity of lameness. She wanted to repeat the block and follow with ultrasound.
When I asked the vet if it was OK to bring in a chiropractor before treatment, she said, “Look, I’m just part of the team. Sometimes I’m called in after the chiro, the farrier AND the animal communicator.”
So I did just that. I called an animal communicator and a veterinarian who teaches at the nearby Chi Institute and specializes in chiropractic, acupuncture and Chinese herbs (because that’s the way I treat my own health issues). The animal communicator told me a branch had fallen in the pasture where Jules had been turned out with the other horses. That spooked them all, they ran, Jules slipped and hyper-extended his leg.
Whether that’s what happened is anyone’s guess, but the chiropractor found soreness and injury exactly where the animal communicator said it would be. The communicator also said Jules’ hindgut was bothering him, something I’ve never treated him for. When the chiro-vet stuck acupuncture needles in the colon points to test hindgut, Jules kicked the stall wall repeatedly until she took them out. So now Jules and I are both taking herbs for what Chinese medicine practitioners call liver, spleen and blood stagnation/deficiencies that can manifest in stomach pain. Or in lay terms: Jules and I are both so anxious, our guts are tied in knots. Funny, not funny, how horses mirror their humans. All the adjectives that apply to Jules—emotional, reactive, stubborn—have applied to me.
One of my closest friends, a former riding buddy, is a psychiatrist. We’ve known each other for more than 30 years. She’s a rational scientist. I am not. I have a Ouija board and two shelves of life-after-death books. As a horse owner, my friend knows the heartbreak of broken horses all too well. We had been exchanging emails about Jules and “I’m calling an animal communicator to find out why he’s such a basket case,” I told her after he crashed out of the pasture.
“You don’t need an animal communicator,” she wrote back. “Jules was confined in a truck with horses he didn’t know, no escape possible. Then he was stuck in a stall, then turned out, again in a strange ‘herd.’ From what I’ve gleaned, Jules is happiest at your farm. He’s a reactive horse, ie, easily anxious. You take him away from everything he knows, any horse would be challenged. You can’t underestimate the stress this puts on a horse; some handle it more than others. Your communicator will tell you some version of this, with a little woo-woo added for effect.
“Moving, for humans, is in the top five life stressful events, up there with death of a spouse, imprisonment, divorce. It’s up there for horses, too. So then Jules is excreting all the stress hormones, which make him more reactive, on and on.
“Just imagine the terror for an anxious horse—who lives in the moment with no ability to understand this is temporary—of having his environment changed suddenly and dramatically. Plus, horses have a large amygdala relative to frontal cortex. Humans are the opposite; we have the ability to quickly understand and appraise danger. They don’t understand danger, they just run from it. If they can’t run, they are secreting hormones enabling them to move fast, with nowhere to go. Imagine if you couldn’t rationalize your fears. Even with that ability, humans drown in anxiety sometimes.”
Poor Jules. Everything she said made sense and made me feel even guiltier for indulging my desire over his well-being. But, back to the vet.
The next day she returned for another block and ultrasound of the lower hock area. She spent more than 30 minutes going back and forth between Jules’ hind legs with the ultrasound to get exact comparisons of the structures inside. She found some swelling in the left proximal suspensory ligament, compared to the right. She said Jules had distal hock pain with proximal suspensory desmitis and recommended treatment with IRAP followed by shockwave therapy of the lower hock and proximal suspensory. He’ll need at least two months off with hand-walking and monitored, small paddock turnout.
“At that time, the horse can be reevaluated; if he is sound you can start more work under tack with a program. If the horse is not sound, consider an MRI,” she said, adding that we could start treatment immediately or wait until we returned to Virginia to have the continuity of one vet for the whole process.
I am going with treatment in Ocala. It’s warm here, and there’s no ice, snow or mud for him to him to slip on. But, obviously, there will be no riding, and certainly no showing, during my bucket-list trip to Florida.
So the dream has officially turned into a nightmare. A nightmare that most of you reading this can probably relate to, and truth be told, might even give you a tiny bit of schadenfreude knowing you’re not alone in bad horse luck. I get that; I’ve felt it myself when I’ve heard the woeful tales of other owner’s broken horses.
The only positive thing I can say about my time in Ocala is that it was blizzarding at home, and it was 82 here in the aptly named Sunshine State. Maybe that nasty god is feeling a little remorseful for the havoc he’s creating in my life. Or maybe a hurricane will hit here tomorrow.
Yes, this has been hard. Grief always pulls up all the other losses in your life. And I’ve had my share (perhaps more). But as a result of all that grief and loss, I have the perspective that Jules is a horse. He is not my son, whom I’ve almost lost three times. So onward with profound gratitude for that magical word “almost.”
Jody Jaffe is the author of “Horse of a Different Killer,” “Chestnut Mare, Beware,” and “In Colt Blood,” featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. As a journalist, she was on the Charlotte Observer team that won the Pulitzer Prize, and her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Washingtonian. She lives on a farm south of Lexington, Virginia, with her husband, John Muncie, and too many (retired) horses.