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Beyond the Homestretch
What Saving Racehorses Taught Me About Starting Over, Facing Fear & Finding My Inner Cowgirl
By Lynn Reardon
New World LibraryCopyright © 2009 Lynn Reardon
All rights reserved.
Spider's Bad Day
It was 3 A.M., and I was trying to decide whether to shove pieces of rubber hose up a horse's nostrils. Spider, the horse in question, stared at me dully. His head was swollen to twice its normal size, and truly epic amounts of saliva, mucus, and something else I was afraid to identify were oozing from his mouth and nose.
My flashlight, long overdue for new batteries, flickered sporadically — it wasn't helping me make my decision. The dim light scared three-year-old Spider and he flinched, trying to huddle in the darkest corner of the pen. He was miserable and confused and the last thing he wanted was a light in his face.
I was scared, too. It was critical to keep Spider's adrenaline down. His breathing was already so impaired by the snakebite venom. If he began to panic, nothing, not even the last-ditch rubber hoses, could save his life. I'd never performed emergency procedures with rubber hoses before, not even for the sheer learning pleasure of it. Note to self — maybe it was time to correct this gap in my horse husbandry skills.
Several hours ago, as my husband, Tom, had been driving home from work, he had seen Spider violently shaking his head. I had been out riding one of the ex-racehorses at our ranch, trying to teach a young filly that there's a gait (actually, a couple of them) between walk and gallop. She was surprised — no one had pointed this out to her before.
By the time Tom got my attention and we ran to Spider's pasture, his nose was already starting to swell dramatically. We looked closely — two fang marks dotted his muzzle. He had been bitten right between the nostrils.
I speed-dialed our vet, Dr. Damon O'Gan, as I quickly led Spider toward the round pen near the field's gate. Spider had stopped shaking his head, but he was clearly in pain and kept balking at the lead rope. We made chaotic progress as Tom shooed Spider from behind, waving his arms and hat to keep him moving forward. Big John, Spider's pasture buddy, hovered around us anxiously, trying to help by crowding near Spider protectively. Normally, I would have been touched by John's devotion, but he was a huge horse with the proportions and gracefulness of a dinosaur — he nearly stepped on me twice. It was a distraction I didn't need.
Damon finally answered his cell phone. "Hello," he said in his Wyoming drawl. Even after several years in Austin, he never quite sounded like a Texan.
"Hi Damon, it's Lynn," I began.
"How are you?" Damon replied. He drew out this question with about three extra syllables and an odd offbeat iambic rhythm — as in, "Hoow arree you?" Damon never sounded flustered or rushed. I'm pretty sure I could call him in the middle of some huge task, like open-heart surgery on a horse in a field during a thunderstorm, and he would sound exactly the same ("Hello Lynn. Hoow arree you?").
"Fine, fine. Hey, I think Sp ider got bitten by a snake. He has fang marks right between the nostrils, and, God, his nose is swelling like an inch every ten seconds."
"Ah." Damon sounded relaxed and vaguely pleased. "That's very interesting. Lynn, can you tell me what the fang marks look like? How wide is the distance between them? Just an estimate is fine, no need to measure."
Great, no need to measure — because I don't usually carry a ruler in case of measuring emergencies. Another horse husbandry gap to fill. I squinted at the fang marks. How do you describe fang marks? It looked like Dracula had bit Spider: two pinprick dots, each with a drop of blood, were almost perfectly centered between the nostrils. I relayed this cinematic information to Damon, hoping he wouldn't ask to me clarify which Dracula (Bela Lugosi? Gary Oldman?).
"Lynn, you'll need to give him a 10 cc dose of Banamine in the vein. Check him every hour, especially the breathing rate. It's going to get ugly, and we might have to come out for a temporary tracheotomy procedure."
Damon then launched into a technical lecture on rattlesnake bites and how they can cause massive swelling in the head and upper respiratory systems. Horses can breathe only through their nose, so they can't use their mouth as a backup breathing system as we do. If the nostrils get blocked, horses can't breathe. At all. Which is not good for activities such as being alive.
Damon broke my morbid train of thought with an odd and ominous question — "Lynn, do you have a rubber hose you can cut up?" I did, but why? He said, "Cut two pieces, each about eight inches long, and be ready to shove those up Spider's nostrils if he looks like he is about to stop breathing. If things turn the wrong way, there's no way I can get there in time. It will be up to you."
I pondered the unpleasant images that came to mind. Damon said, "Call me every hour or so and update me. I'm on call tonight, so I can come out anytime. And good luck."
AS I WATCHED SPIDER AT 3A.M., that conversation replayed in my head. Spider looked worse than I ever imagined a horse could look. His head was one huge oval, with no sign of contour from his cheekbones, jaw, or other facial bones.
His nostrils were caked with creeping cascades of yellow foam, and their normally large openings were down to the size of a man's finger. When I touched his nose, it was no longer velvety and soft — instead it felt like concrete. The hardness disturbed me the most: How could he breathe with such unyielding membranes in his nose? Worst of all, it hurt him. He tensed at my light touch, clearly in pain.
I never saw the rattler and was sobered by the damage one snake could inflict on a 900-pound horse. If Spider was in genuine peril from its bite, what would it do to a human? It was scary.
It seems strange that our pretty little twenty-six-acre ranch, just thirty minutes from Austin, would be home to such dangerous creatures. But Texas can be a wild and rugged place. It didn't seem untamed, as I looked around at the sturdy pipe fencing and large shade trees and listened to the occasional truck zoom by even at that late hour on Highway 21. But it can be, and I made a mental note to pay more attention to where I walked.
I snapped off the flashlight and sensed Spider relaxing a little in the dark. I walked slowly up to him, gently petted his neck, and put my ear close so I could listen to his watery breathing and count off the rate. I hoped for a good number, so the rubber hoses could stay in my jeans pocket. If the rate was too high, it would be time for emergency hose action.
In spite of his incredibly bad day, Spider put his head down and leaned against me looking for a pat. He was then only three years old and had never been ridden. He had been donated to our racehorse adoption program a few weeks before by a breeder getting out of the business. She loved Spider, her last homebred Texas Thoroughbred, and she had entrusted us with finding him a new home. Spider was a truly sweet colt, a 900-pound puppy with a happy-go-lucky disposition and a love of bananas that bordered on fetish.
As I counted his labored breaths, a finger of panic poked rudely at my mind. Pushing it away, I made an effort to think positive thoughts. I remembered the day I first met Spider. The breeder had donated nine of her horses to us. They had all arrived together in a huge semi-load-sized trailer.
The drivers opened the side gate first, and the mares tumbled out together down the ramp. The mares were all pretty and smart with lively eyes, and they immediately cantered off to the round bale of hay in a corner of the field. They weren't interested in me yet; they had their priorities straight.
Alice, the matriarch of the mares at fifteen years old, took charge of the field and bossed the younger, less-favored mares away from the round bale. In spite of her long trip, she looked pleased that we had the good sense to serve dinner early. She gave me a detached appreciative look, the type that a suburban matron might give to a waitress who was prompt with the drink order. She was dark bay, with deep intelligent eyes and the impressive belly of a many-times mother.
Then the drivers opened the second gate on the trailer, and all the geldings, plus Spider the colt, came leaping down the ramp. The boys weren't quite as smart about the trailer exit as the girls — it took them a while to figure out where the hay was in their pasture. They milled around, jostling each other, like guys heading for the draft beer line in a sports bar. There was tall Solomon, a big affable horse with tremendously oversized ears for a Thoroughbred. Then came JJ, another dark bay who resembled Alice (his mother) but with a macho swagger. JJ and Solomon began nipping at each other and bucking in unison, not sure what to make of this new place.
Eclipse came next, the intellectual of the group, looking embarrassed by the frat-boy antics of his brothers. He lingered near me, wanting to introduce himself properly. He was a beautiful red horse with a striking crescent mark on his forehead and calm, gentle eyes.
Spider was the last one out, following his siblings' big act like a rookie comic in a variety show. As he clumsily scrambled down the ramp, one of the drivers turned to me and said, "That horse is a stallion. Better watch out for him. He might be dangerous."
I looked at Spider and laughed. Spider was the most Bambi-like stallion I'd ever seen. He was a chestnut horse with a cute little star and snip of white on his face. His legs were long and gangly, and he clearly didn't quite know how his body worked yet. His head was a tad big for his body, and he had a sweet face. I couldn't help but like him on sight. He's just a kid, I thought to myself.
In the next few weeks, Spider established himself as the clown of the farm. He liked to turn over troughs and splash the water out. If he saw you in the pasture, he would run across the field to greet you, gangly legs flying, with a delighted "you-must-be-coming-to-see-me" look on his face. It was impossible to be in a bad mood around Spider's enthusiasm. Spider innately assumed that the universe was a benevolent, wonderful place where everyone was there to pet him.
I was looking forward to teaching Spider about ground work, saddles, and bridles. We had gelded Spider last week, and I was planning to start working with him in a few days. Poor Spider! In the past seven days he had been gelded, then bitten by a rattler. Not such a benevolent universe this month.
I felt so responsible for him. And I realized that right then, at the farm, in the middle of the night, I was the most qualified person to take care of him and to make the right decision. Damon was a solid drive away, Tom was not a horse person, and all of our immediate neighbors had less veterinary care experience than I did.
It wasn't an empowering feeling.
I concentrated on counting breaths, trying not to speculate about what exactly was dripping on my hair from Spider's face. The count was good. His breathing rate had stabilized from when I had last checked him an hour ago. The rubber hoses could stay in my pocket for now. I was too tired to walk back to the house, so I kept petting Spider. It wasn't much, but it was all I could think of to do. He wheezed and snuffled and kept leaning against me, not at all put off by my wet, stained shirt. My dirty jeans, grimy from riding, completed my ranch haute couture.
This was not the way I had planned to spend my forty-fourth birthday. Aren't people this age supposed to be confident and settled and at the very least not covered in horse mucus? Haven't they mastered their careers, gently settling into that "I'm watching the 401(k) plan grow" phase of life?
I pondered my previous life as an accountant. Had it really been so awful? I didn't remember any rattlesnakes or crushing sense of responsibility in that career. The offices were so clean and cool in August, not like this round pen in Texas, which still radiated heat at 3:15 a.m. The glamour of it all, I thought to myself. Spider nicely punctuated this thought by trying to rub his swollen head on me.
I spotted something white in the pen and bent down to pick it up. It was a napkin from dinner about six hours ago. It cheered me up to see it and be reminded of Tom. My internal whining faded, along with my fragmented panic, both overwhelmed by the distracting chatter in my mind.
Once we had given Spider his shot, all we could do was wait and watch the venom's progress. But I had been too worried to leave Spider, so Tom cooked a huge spaghetti dinner and brought it out to me in the field. We sat in his truck bed and had an oddly romantic al fresco dinner, quietly talking and watching Spider together. Spider's head was less swollen then. I could notice the night sky, always so big in Texas, and enjoy Tom's improvised truck-bed restaurant.
All of this business about changing careers was really Tom's fault. He was the one who started giving me those books on philosophy, the ones that make you think for yourself and indulge in other dangerous activities. The Fountainhead. Man's Search for Meaning. How to Find the Work You Love.
And music, too — Tom was always bringing me eclectic music. One of his first gifts to me was a Sur Sudha CD full of Nepali sitar music. I played it over and over again, as I planned my first trip to Nepal — just hearing the music made me feel bold and cool enough to attempt the trip. No wonder I had married him — how could I resist a man who courted me with philosophy and alternative music? And who catered me Italian dinners in the middle of dusty fields late at night?
Perhaps picking up on my soothing thoughts, Spider was now dozing lightly. He seemed to be in a relatively calm stupor. I tiptoed out of the pen, hoping to catch an hour of sleep before my next check on Spider. As I walked along the quarter-mile driveway to the house, thinking of Tom's philosophy books, I remembered why I had chosen this life.
I quickly glanced at the other horses to make sure all was well. That rattlesnake was still out there somewhere. Irish, the filly whom I had just taught the joy of trotting, was curled up like a sleeping cat. Zuper, our handsome, permanently retired gelding, stood guard over her.
I looked down at my work boots to make sure nothing was slithering under them. My bootlaces caught the moonlight as I strode quickly and steadily down the driveway. Compared to my office days, my shoes were rugged, my jeans loose, and my physique muscular and fit. In my twenties, I was an out-of-shape, pale chain-smoker whose job never required anything more physical than hefting big blue payroll binders.
In that moment, I decided that very few women celebrate their forty-fourth birthday this way, and that it would make an excellent story to tell my nephews. They already thought I was a rock star just because I rode horses every day. This story would knock them dead.
It was guaranteed that the rest of the day would be better — with such a dubious start, my birthday was bound to improve.
Back at the house, I fell asleep quickly and had scattered, surreal dreams about my past life as an accountant mixed up with horse images — of racehorses wandering in file rooms, saddles stacked next to industrial-sized calculators, and Spider splashing in the office water cooler, his head normal and his universe benevolent once again.
HOURS LATER, MY BIRTHDAY MORNING BEGAN with an early call from Damon. I was excited to report that Spider had stabilized — his breathing was steady and his swelling had leveled off. With his huge oval head and puppy eyes, he resembled a sweet-faced raptor.
We agreed on a plan — Damon and his new partner, Dr. Matt Evans, would examine Spider at 7:30 A.M. They were due back here midafternoon for a standing surgery on another racehorse, and they would recheck Spider then.
I was thoroughly disheveled, sleepless, and punchy from the middle-of-the-night nursing sessions. But I was cheerful — Spider was doing better, and the prospect of a birthday nap between vet visits hovered happily before me.
I had just an hour to shower and feed the other horses before Damon and Matt arrived. The shower was a must, for the sake of my relationship with the vets. They already sponsored our adoption farm, giving us huge discounts and lots of their nonexistent spare time. The least I could do was soap off the remnants of Spider's nasal debris.
Refreshed, I flung myself into clothes and grabbed the feed buckets. Storm and Ivy, the two horses in the pasture by the house, circled the porch listening for the tell-tale clanking. They were both slowed down by healing leg injuries, but they persistently lurched around the driveway with hopeful faces, their pace slow but relentless, with a Night of the Living Dead flair.
Excerpted from Beyond the Homestretch by Lynn Reardon. Copyright © 2009 Lynn Reardon. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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