Pale Horse By Bill Vaughn
If there were ever a filly born to barrel race Greenwich was the one.
WHEN YOU LIVE WITH HORSES your ears are always on high alert for the sounds of trouble. Although they’re the second largest of the continent’s native beasts, unlike bison horses are astoundingly vulnerable, fragile, and prone to accidents. One day you might be struck with how heroic they are, as well, tears streaming from your eyes, divots flying, as you charge across a pasture on a horse galloping 35 miles an hour. The next day this very same warrior might shy at a kitten, or cower before a scrap of blown newsprint, or rear up in terror at the sight of its own shadow.
So one chilly spring evening when the hush of Dark Acres was shattered by the crash of ahoof against a plywood wall, we went running. We hoped it was just a mare in heat, bitchy and full of herself. Or maybe our gelding had lost his temper at one of our little cattle dogs—who dart inside his pen to bark and snap at him just for the sport of it—and he’d lashed out with a wild shot upside his house. Or it could be that someone had cast himself—rolled next to the wall of his shelter and into the trough a 1200-pound body can make sometimes in the thick bedding of pine chips we lay down. When this happens the horse simply can’t stand up. Just like a beetle turned on its back it has to be nudged or pulled to a place where he can get his feet under him.
On the outer edge of our dread was something more exotic: A starving and disoriented mountain lion had wandered down from the Bitterroot Range across the Clark Fork River, and charged into the corrals figuring, hey, here’s something tasty that can’t run away.
As it turned out, the problem was none of the above. And considerably more dangerous. The moment we turned the flashlight on Greenwich, our elegant six-year-old paint, we knew she was suffering horribly from colic. Flat out on the floor of her house, she was soaked in sweat, flailing with her front legs, breathing in great shuddering gasps. My heart sank when I saw that her lips were pulled back from her teeth in the rictus of death. She was my favorite horse of all time, a gorgeous eccentric who became the boss of our foursome of paints and Quarter Horses the moment she was big enough to get her own way. My wife, Kitty, grabbed a halter. And to our vast relief we bullied Greenwich to her feet.Colic is caused by all sorts of things, on a continuum from harmless to death-dealing. The word itself is just another way to say bellyache. Sometimes the problem is only a little gas. We turn out our horses year-round onto the floodplain for a few hours every day to play, and eat what they can. In the spring, after months of hay and grain and random bits of desiccated grass they uncover under the snow, they’re gluttons for those first succulent shoots pushing through the dead matt of winter. That’s when we have to monitor carefully the amount of time they spend afield. After a week or two of this high-octane fare the gloss returns to their coats and their lust for life gets recharged.
But once in a while the methane released by the digestion of fresh forage can cause excruciating pain. “It’s not the grass that’s the culprit so much as the change in diet,” says Dr. Claude Ragle, head surgeon with the Colic Team at the Washington State University veterinary school. “Horses who live in pastures have more time to adjust.”
The unbearable intestinal pressure usually passes—literally. That’s why, despite her haggard appearance, I began to hope that as we walked Greenwich in tight circles the exercise might loosen her bowel (since horses can’t vomit there’s only one way out). But after a couple of circuits she threw herself on the ground and began thrashing. Kitty ran to call our vet, and then grabbed a painkiller called Banamine. When we got Greenwich to her feet again I squirted a dose of this white paste in the back of her throat with a plastic syringe. It should have calmed her down within minutes, but it had no effect.
What is dangerous about unrelieved gas pressure is that in trying to make it go away a horse can twist an intestine, or tear a rent in the abdominal muscles and the mesentery, the sack-like membrane holding the intestines in place. Then, it’s only a matter of time before a coil of sausage-like intestine works its way into this hernia. If the blood supply to this section of gut is cut off by the strangulation, the tissue dies. And if this necrotic tissue isn’t surgically removed, it will release a septic shitstorm into the bloodstream, and the horse will invariably die as well.
Sometimes gas can’t exit the intestines because the way south is blocked by a fibrous wad of half-digested food. When simple exercise doesn’t free this blockage a laxative sometimes will. But there are situations in which the GI tract can only be cleared by flooding it with mineral oil and water administered through a rubber tube snaked down the horse’s throat. If this blockage is still adamant the gas has to be removed from the intestines by sucking it out through the same kind of tube. And if that doesn’t work the only solution is surgery. And pronto.
We didn’t know what was happening inside Greenwich, of course. But we’d seen colic before and understood that when she threw herself on the ground again only ten minutes after the Banamine should have taken effect her case was serious. Just as we got her up yet again, everyone’s breath now clouding in the damp, chilly air, Rollette Pruyn, our vet for twenty years, drove his truck down the county road and into our driveway. (Yes, vets make housecalls, even on Sunday night.)
Pruyn examined her belly with his hands and looked at her gums, which were a ghostly shade of pale. Then he injected her in the neck with Percodan. But a few minutes later not even this powerful analgesic was strong enough to overcome the growing pain. Greenwich fell to her knees, flopped on her side and began thrashing again, trying to rid herself of the demon in her gut. After another dose of Percodan she finally turned docile and sleepy. When we got her back on her feet Pruyn tapped the fluid in her belly with a syringe to check for blood, which would indicate that she had torn something. But the fluid was clear. If she goes down again, he said, you’d better bring her in.
We strapped a horse coat around her and walked her. She suddenly fell into a juniper thicket and cast herself, forcing us to get a rope around her legs so we could pull her free and get her upright again. Now there was no choice. If we were going to have a chance of saving her she’d have to go under the knife. When we led her to the trailer she hopped in eagerly, not knowing of course that she was headed to emergency midnight surgery. But maybe she figured a road trip might take her away from her pain. Wrung-out and useless, I watched the trailer’s tail lights disappear into the dark. And then I headed for the vodka.
In 1981 we bought a blood bay mare named Timer for $1800 from a rancher on Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation named Jerry Hamel. Three years old, she was the granddaughter of a famous Oklahoma sprinter named Three Chicks, whose kids made him the top sire of money-earners on the Quarter Horse racing circuit in 1968. For years Kitty and I barrel-raced on Timer and rode her in the mountains and competed on her all over the state in O-Mok-Sees, a Blackfeet phrase that means “riding big.” In these games, inspired by the gymkhanas of English imperialists in India, the best time wins as you kick up clouds of dust break-necking around different sorts of patterns inside an arena.
When we decided in 1995 that we needed fresh horses Timer was the logical source. The sire we chose was a black-and-white stallion named Montana Sinner, who was also descended from speed demons. While Timer was stocky and barrel-chested in the manner of cow ponies, Sinner was built more like a thoroughbred—tall and lean. We figured that the fruit of this union would not only be muscled and big-boned, he’d be tall and long of stride, all the traits Kitty was looking for in a horse to launch her career as professional barrel-racer. And Sinner would bring another genetic gift to the party, something that made his $400 stud fee seem like a monster bargain. He was a “tabiano,” one of the two main varieties of paint horses that were just becoming all the rage among breeders. Paint is an accurate enough word to describe the markings on these horses; indeed, some of them are so extravagantly spotted and calicoed they look as if Jackson Pollack had heaved a can of white acrylic on them, and then dolloped that with splatters of black or brown, dun or mahogany. This color would add to the value of Timer’s babies, I reasoned, deluding myself into believing that I would ever be steely-hearted enough to part with one for mere money.
Eleven months after her first date with Sinner, Timer gave birth to Rolex. This colt had everything on our wish list—he was tall, plus he had the sloping shoulders, powerful chest and hindquarters, and straight, short back of a speedster. Not only that, although Sinner’s owners had promised no more than a 60 percent chance that their showy stud and our solid-colored mare would produce a foal with color, Rolex was extravagantly painted. On a canvas of black and bay, he sported a cape of ivory across his withers, four high white stockings, and a white patch stretching from his rump to his belly that looked like a map of Mexico.
We had fretted that Timer might be an indifferent mother. Her temper was unpredictable, and she snapped at all other living beings for no apparent reason. One night after I turned away from feeding her she bit me on the shoulder so hard I saw stars. But the moment Rolex was born she channeled all this fierce wacko energy into rearing her boy. Two years later we decided to have another go at parenthood. Confident that Montana Sinner would do good work again we took Timer back to renew their affair.
When I first saw Greenwich, five minutes after she was born, I was disappointed. Just like her mom she was a plain Jane bay with only one spot, a white star on her forehead. But Kitty was ecstatic. Since she always scored higher than I did ranking horses in the conformation tests the horse magazines publish—which demand that you ignore color and concentrate on substance—I looked again. As Greenwich nursed, and worked the wobbles from her legs, Kitty pointed out that the only difference between our filly’s Olympian physique and her brother’s, apart from sex, was the absence of paint.
Then Greenwich did something extraordinary. Less than an hour old, she suddenly exploded into a full run and began sailing around Timer in widening gyres, making sharp turns at first one fence line, then another, whinnying with the wild joy of being in the world. If there were ever a horse born to compete it seemed that this was it. When Greenwich finally went back for more food Kitty stepped into the pen and coaxed the new child into accepting a full body massage, the beginning of a kind of Head Start program for equines that would make the day when Kitty finally sat on the back of this animal just another step in the program, and not some crashing buckaroo scene from a hopelessly dated oater.
Four days later, while Timer watched, Greenwich allowed Kitty to slip a pint-sized halter around her head and lead her across the compound to meet first her brother, and then the mare who would become her best friend, a palomino named Scarlett. The day after that, Greenwich took her first ride in the horse trailer, when we were forced to evacuate because of the threat of floods. In the coming months whenever the other horses practiced barrel-racing or pole-bending she came to the front of her pen and studied their every move, like that precocious girl in class whose hand is always in the air. When she turned a year old and was allowed to go along on her first trail ride across the floodplain, there was none of that silly head-throwing against the halter or the pointless bucking typical of young horses on their first big adventure, an apparent understanding that if you want to do the things grown-up horses do there are rules.
During her second summer her big moment arrived. In gradual steps, she had been acclimated to the saddle blanket, then the saddle, the cinch, and finally the weight of Kitty stepping up into a stirrup with one foot. After Kitty eased her leg over Greenwich’s back and put her boot into the other stirrup Greenwich jumped once in surprise, as if she thought this momentous thing would feel like something else. And that was that. High school graduation. When it was time for college Greenwich had already seen so much barrel racing, the first time she trotted through the pattern Kitty scarcely needed to touch the reins. The reward for Greenwich that sweltering August day was her favorite thing, a cold shower from the hose. After her showers she liked it when you let the water drizzle through her mouth, her lips fluttering against the flow.
Meanwhile, Rolex brought home his first big check, $1200, and Scarlett began winning some small jackpots as well. When Greenwich was five Kitty entered her in an open barrel race, and finished third in a field of 20. The check was only $400, but now the years of training and practice and pricey farriers and feed were paying off. Kitty had two reliable veterans and a sensational rookie, a natural, really. She began to feel like the manager of a baseball team whose starting pitchers could take the mound and shut down anyone on any given day.
With Kitty looking on, exhausted, Dr. Pruyn and the veterinary surgeon, Dr. Douglas Ward, sliced open Greenwich and sorted through all 70 feet of her intestines one inch at a time. They found no blockage. But they came upon a section of tissue in her small intestine that had died of strangulation. They cut out ten feet of this necrotic organ, and stitched the remaining sections together. Then they sewed her back up with three feet of sutures.
Greenwich had been on the operating table for more than five hours. Due to less toxic anesthetics, better procedures and more powerful antibiotics the chance that a horse will survive extensive colic surgery gets better all the time. But that didn’t mean that the odds were good. Because of infection the first three days were critical.
A week later she was healthy enough to come home. We got her out every day and led her around to bring back her muscle tone. She was eating small meals many times a day, digesting what she ate like any other horse, and healing. Kitty woke up three or four times a night to check on her. Some horse people told us that no matter how perfectly she healed, Greenwich would never be sound enough again to compete in rodeos. We didn’t believe them.
The morning after I decided that she was going to pull through after all her suffering I found Greenwich on the floor of her shelter in a pool of blood, her guts oozing through a gape in her sutures. What had happened inside her was something no one could prevent. An adhesion had developed—that is, the sticky surfaces on two portions of the intestine had grown together and twisted the bowel just behind the stomach, creating another blockage and another wave of monumental pain. In kicking and writhing to rid herself of it, Greenwich had torn open her stitches.
She would never survive another surgery. So there was nothing we could do except call the vets to end her agony. When the light shut off in her eyes I turned away. Kitty opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out.
I’ve buried all sorts of dead creatures—dogs, cats, rabbits, snakes, frogs, mice, squirrels, turtles, fish, sheep, deer, a raccoon, a possum, a skunk, a horned toad, the emaciated carcass of a cow, and fourteen species of birds. But never a horse. Not thinking, I grabbed a shovel and started digging, thinking that by employing my chain saw I could bury Greenwich in pieces. But I realized that I would never be capable of something like that. There was only one solution.
After covering her with a tarp to keep away the bugs I tore down two walls of her shelter, which was bordered by a hawthorn wind break blocking access to vehicles, so that Marlin Gettes, the excavator I had called, could use his backhoe to move Greenwich from her pen to the pasture.
We should have taken her clan to the forest where they couldn’t see what would happen next. But we had no more experience with the burial of a horse than they did. When Gettes hooked a chain around Greenwich’s front feet and began to drag her from her pen, the backhoe roaring and belching diesel fumes, the horses reared up in terror in their pens. Then wide-eyed, they retreated as far away from this grisly spectacle as they could get. Kitty threw a halter on Rolex and held a towel around his eyes.
Gettes dug down six feet through the gravel where our meandering river had flowed a thousand years ago, then ten feet and twelve. I wondered how deep it would have to be, but Gettes, who owns horses himself, knew what he was doing. “I did a mule last week,” he assured us. “This is what you want.”
The act of burying an animal weighing more than half a ton is by necessity so blunt and mechanical, offering no chance to lay the thing you loved in its grave with your own hands, that parting words just don’t seem appropriate. Gettes unhooked Greenwich’s feet, and without ceremony, pushed our baby into the hole with the bucket of his backhoe, covering her as quickly as he could.
I thanked him for being so efficient, and paid him $100.
“That’s a nice-looking paint you got,” he said, nodding at Rolex, who was still shuddering. “Anyway, I wish we’d met under, you know, happier circumstances.”
The next day as I was removing the blood from Greenwich’s pen the shovel unearthed something our dogs had stolen from our neighbor’s dog, and buried in order to hide it for later. Brushing it off I saw that it was a little stuffed toy, a child’s plaything. Sewn from cloth, it was a pony, with bright black eyes.
I propped it on a shelf under the awning of a shed that everyone at Dark Acres passes by every day.
COPYRIGHT © 2006 BILL VAUGHN