The Long Road Back

Sep 5, 2019 - 9:15 AM

I know injuries are devastating even to those at the top levels with a string of fine mounts, but when it’s your only competition horse, and your hopes and dreams rest on her, then rehabilitating her takes on a whole new dimension. I love Cairo as a being, but she’s also the partner in a sport that satisfies my soul on a whole other level I am not sure I can even define.

I know other riders who have never had to rehab their horses, and I hope they know how lucky they are. I did know I was lucky for the five years I competed Cairo up to preliminary level without injury. And I knew how lucky I was to have a wild little horse who took me to my first prelim when I’d long planned to go back to the jumpers before the solid fences got so big.

I’m glad I knew what a wonderful experience I was having while I was having it, because it reminds me I have somewhere to get back to.

I feel selfish for being frustrated at this time off from riding and competing because Cairo’s injury is one she should be able to heal from, while others are dealing with career-ending traumas.

I have a rule about bad news. I give myself about 24 hours to be really sad. To cry and be mad. To have all kinds of feelings and not feel ashamed about having them. After that I have to get my act together and push on. My other rule about bad news is if you think bad news is coming, you plan for the worst-case scenario. Because if you have a plan for the worst news, then that’s dealt with, and less terrible news is dealable.

So the night before I took Cairo up to Dr. Rachel Gottlieb at Northwest Equine Performance, I planned for the worst. What if this was career ending and Cairo’s future was as a pasture ornament? Well, then I would breed her. She has lovely Irish Sport Horse bloodlines, and I think every vet who has ever worked on her has asked me when I plan to breed her. Mind you they don’t ask because she’s easy to work on either! I think it’s because she’s cute and little.

When we found the injury—mild to moderate damage to her high suspensory—the worst case did not apply. Cairo is going to make a comeback. Nor did the second worst case apply because it looks like the comeback can happen before next season. A nine month rehab feels like some kind of weird limbo. Way too long, but not long enough to justify knocking Cairo up and losing two seasons of showing.

So the first night I went ahead and cried and felt sorry for myself, and sorry for Cairo who loves to run and play but instead is in her stall and a small 20-by-20 paddock. I ignored everyone who wanted to tell me things like, “You will bond over rehab,” and, “It’s not so bad,” and, “Yeah, been there, done that.” They can say those things to me later. Maybe. Because they are well-intended but don’t soothe those of us who are now on the sidelines.

Then having gotten the self-pity fest out of the way, I went to work getting Cairo organized for nine months of rehab. I am super grateful that Dr. Rachel recommended the paddock because it has kept Cairo sane. Her little pen is inside her normal paddock where her bestie June is turned out. Dr. Rachel also said it was fine to pull Cairo’s shoes, so she’s barefoot, and I feel like that keeps her from being too wild. She hasn’t been barefoot since she was 4.

I don’t board at a full service barn. Full care, yes. Cairo gets turnout and feed and stall cleaning, but extras are up to me. So I’m lucky I live less than 10 minutes from where I board, because otherwise I don’t know how I’d be able to walk Cairo twice a day. Fifteen minutes in the morning and 15 at night for the first two months is what we did. So I pry myself out of bed each morning and am much more awake for our afternoon stroll.

I guess it’s bonding. I groom her before each session and you can tell. Her haircoat glows red and brown, and she’s covered in a splatter of dapples. Cairo likes it best when I just stand and scratch her right where her neck joins her withers; she makes faces and nuzzles me with her upper lip. Those early morning sessions while the barn is quiet are the best part of my day some days.

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She’s not fat, she’s out of shape. No body-shaming! Photos Courtesy of Camilla Mortensen

When we walk, I try to listen to podcasts. But Cairo isn’t stupid, and she knows when my attention isn’t on her. In fact if I pull out my phone, she stops dead. So my full attention is on her, and we are bored together. I try to avoid sharp turns, but we have gotten quite good at walking lower level dressage tests. We just walk and sometimes hang out, graze, and once in a while I remind her she’s a horse, not a kite. In her defense, her naughtiness has arisen only in specific circumstances. Like two white steers running loose in the gelding pasture, after I let her roll in wet sand, and when pinto horses trot by.

OK, well maybe only the loose cattle were a valid excuse to attempt to execute airs above the ground.

After eight weeks of patient walking, we went back to see Dr. Rachel. I tried not to be nervous, but of course anything can happen. Horses get injured in their stalls, and Cairo is a high-energy mare on a low-energy program.

Dr. Rachel assured me first of all that Cairo was not fat, she’s out of shape, but OK. Keeping Cairo from getting pudgy while feeding her frequently enough to keep her ulcers happy has been a balance. I have informed my friends they now need to stop body-shaming my mare on Facebook when I post her photos.

My heart dropped a little when I realized we were there for a lameness exam in addition to the ultrasound. OMG, Cairo trotting and longeing after eight weeks at the walk? I had visions of leaping and bounding.

Dr. Rachel probably had those visions too, so a little hit of Sedivet, and Cairo was mellow and good. I could barely watch I was so nervous—which is actually ridiculous since I could barely see her lameness last time! Dr. Rachel said Cairo was a bit stiff at first, but that wasn’t unexpected, and she looked good.

The ultrasound was also good. Dr. Rachel said it was improved to the degree that if it had looked that way eight weeks ago, it would have been hard to pinpoint the suspensory as the cause of lameness. Fist pump!

We were cleared for 15 minutes in the morning hand-walking, 20 in the evening under saddle! Then increasing the tack walk each week by five minutes. I was excited and moderately nervous. Upon my return from helping out (and hanging out with) friends at the Event at Rebecca Farm, I started hand-walking her with tack on. Then after a couple days of good behavior, I got on. I had some ace on hand, but none was needed; Cairo was super chill.

She’s been so chill that I now walk her bareback. With the saddle on she expects something exciting to happen, and when it doesn’t after about 15 minutes, she starts to club me with her tail. Bareback she just trudges like a condemned prisoner, periodically glaring at other horses in the arena who are clearly having more fun than she is.

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The best view in the world.

So we have about seven months of rehab left to go. We recheck in late September, and I’m so looking forward to trotting Cairo.  Patience is everything and so is celebrating the little victories along the way. I know other people have been through this with their horses, but for each of us it’s our own journey with its own pitfalls and successes. I look at Cairo and tell her, “We got this!”

And she looks at me like I’m stupid and frisks me for treats.


Camilla Mortensen is an eventer from Eugene, Oregon, who started blogging for the Chronicle when she made the trek to compete in the novice three-day at Rebecca Farm in Montana and brought her mare Queen Of Cairo up to preliminary. Camilla works as a newspaper editor by day and fits training and competing Cairo around her job. You can find updates on Cairo on Instagram.

Read all of Camilla’s blogs.

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