I heard my little sorrel mare nicker to me as I walked down the warm barn alley toward her stall, dust motes floating lazily in the air as I scuffed my black boots. When I heard her welcoming neigh I felt a little guilty. Annabelle and I had both shown her over the weekend at a reining show at the Idaho Center and I knew she had to be tired this Monday morning, but you would never guess it from the bright eyes and happy ears looking over the top of her stall door waiting for me. She lowered her head into the halter just like usual and stood quietly as I buckled the latch. I led her over the stall entry and into the aisle, stopping just outside the door to take off her sheet and leave it on the hanger of her stable door.
As I turned to the task of unhooking the blanket straps my eyes went, as always, to each of my mare’s legs, looking for anything out of the ordinary. A quick glance at her right front leg almost made my heart stop. The tendon on the back of the leg was puffy from the knee to the fetlock, and as I gently reached down and palpated it it was very hot to the touch. Tears filled my eyes as I led her out of the barn, walking backwards to watch for signs of lameness.
On any ordinary day I would have called my veterinarian immediately for a consultation. Today, though, I walked her out of the barn, past the saddling area and to the big arena, where my trainer was working a cow. Like me, he was busily preparing for the IRCHA Futurity, Derby and Horse Show that was slated to start two days later. Despite his focus on the subject at hand, Jake stopped immediately when I walked over to the arena and rode to where I stood. “Freckle’s leg is swollen,” I said miserably.
As I waited for him to dismount my thoughts couldn’t help but flash to the previous three days when Annabelle and I had shared Freckles and ridden her for hours combined as we prepared for and then showed in our respective classes. I had felt after the first day that she wasn’t quite right, nothing I could put my finger on, but maybe a little body soreness or one of those hard-to-pin-down lamenesses that seem almost transient as you try to evaluate them. I had asked friends to watch her trot around at the show too, and they saw the same thing I felt. She wasn’t really lame, but she didn’t seem quite right either.
Freckles was wonderful for Annabelle in the show, with the exception that my little girl couldn’t get her to take her right lead, which was the same direction I had felt a little soreness in as I rode her around that day. I chalked it up to the short legs of the rider and the inexperience of the duo together, and didn’t worry about it too much.
Show horses like Freckles are athletes, and it is not uncommon for one to feel a little stiff or sore every once in a while, so since her legs looked fine at that point, and there wasn’t even a definable problem to focus on, I went ahead and showed in my last class early on Sunday morning. She was great in that class.
I didn’t run her hard or ask her to exert herself since I was in the class to practice for the upcoming IRCHA show, but like always my little red mare had given 110% and shown beautifully. We had won the class, receiving a beautiful embroidered turnout sheet and my very first NRHA plaque, along with a check for our efforts.
As I waited for Jake to get off his horse and look at Freckles’ swollen leg I felt sick. Had I injured my wonderful horse by going ahead with my schooling when she had felt a little off?
Jake’s expression was not totally comforting, but his words made me feel a little better. “Go ahead and saddle her, and just ride her easy. It looks like her suspensory is a little swollen, but we can baby her through this last show and then she’ll have the whole winter off.”
I knew I might be taking a chance on some level by riding my horse with an injury, even one that didn’t make her seem very lame, but I desperately wanted to compete in this last show, and Jake didn’t get to be a leading trainer in the NRCHA without a good share of his own diagnostic veterinary skills and proficient judgment about what was safe.
I got Freckles saddled and wrapped her front legs securely with stretchy polo wraps to support the tendons. If I had any choice I would not have ridden her at all, but the show coming up in two days required herd and cow work competitions as well as the reining, and neither Freckles nor I had worked a cow in over six weeks. With the level of competition I’d face at the IRCHA Derby it would be suicide to go into the pen without putting the mare on cattle at least a couple of times.
She felt good as I trotted her around, and in the deep ground I couldn’t even feel the small lameness that I had sensed the day before. When we went into the big wooden round pen to work fast steers out of a small herd, Freckles amazed me. She was just as athletic, fluid and limber as she had ever been on a cow. I felt relieved and even a little optimistic about the upcoming show.
When I left that day, Jake told me not to worry. He’d have the leg wrapped in a standing wrap to take the swelling down, and we’d work a cow one more time in the morning to make sure we were ready for the show.
The next morning Freckles walked just fine as I led her out of her stall. The standing wrap was supportive and smooth, so I was shocked to see her leg still swollen when I unwrapped it. It was still hot to the touch, and now there was a quarter-sized bump right on the back of her tendon. The bump was hot and very sore to the touch, and I felt my dreams of finishing the show season with a win on home turf weaken.
I led Freckles into the arena to show Jake her condition, and he surprised me with his evaluation. “It looks like the bandage was just a little tight to me. Go ahead and saddle her up. Wrap her with polos and bring her in to see if she’s still sound. That swelling should go down when you ride her,”
Once again I second-guessed myself, but I had competed all season long with the goal of winning the Intermountain Circuit Non Pro Limited Derby Championship, already showing in several shows around Idaho and in Utah to accumulate points in my division toward the year-end award. I was tied for second in the Circuit going into this last show with my long time friend Shane Broome, and while I wouldn’t have minded losing to her and I knew it would be a long shot for me to earn enough points here to move into first place, I really wanted to win one of the organization’s big events before Freckles and I were no longer eligible for limited age events in the NRCHA.
This was our last derby.
At age five, Freckles was in the final year of her limited age competition. Our future together as show partners was in limbo as I decided whether to stay and compete in the cow horse competition in the regular boxing class or move strictly to the reining arena. All year-long I had planned on resuming competition in the cow horse fence work after this year of boxing derbies, but Jake and I had recently decided together that I wasn’t ready to move back up to that level of competition just yet.
This might not be only me and Freckles’ last cow horse derby together, but our last cow horse show, period.
I wrapped legs and saddled with trepidation. Freckles stood quietly as I pulled the stretchy material around her front leg, although I knew it had to have hurt. I got on her in the indoor arena and walked her around for several minutes. She felt fine.
I kicked her up into a trot and she still felt fine. Jake watched her go and said “Aw, she’ll be alright. We’ll just take it easy on her and get her through this last show.” I worked a practice cow on her with a glimmer of hope that we might make it to the competition after all.
When I got done riding I walked Freckles out to the barn to unsaddle her. As soon as I stepped off and looked down I my heart stopped. During our cow work practice she had stepped on the inside of one hind foot with the shoe of the other, tearing off a silver-dollar sized piece of outer hoof and skin right at the top of her hairline. It hung from a flap of flesh toward the ground as blood dripped slowly in the dust. When I started to touch the wound Freckles held up her leg in pain.
I got my mare unsaddled and took the wraps off the front legs. As soon as I did so I could see that the swelling had not gone down in the right front at all; in fact it was, if anything, even more swollen and tender to the touch than it had been. I waited for Jake to finish riding with a heavy heart, feeling sure now that my hopes for this show and my Circuit award were done.
When my trainer finished working his horses he came out to take a look. He took his pocket knife and cut off the big piece of torn hoof and told me how to bandage it. Then he looked at the front leg and shook his head, saying these chilling words “That doesn’t look good. Looks like she’s trying to bow to me.”
He was referring to a bowed tendon, any horseman’s nightmare and often a career-ending injury to a performance horse. “Put an ice boot on it to stop the swelling and then we’ll sweat the leg. You’re going to need to have it looked at, but it wouldn’t do any good right now because they won’t be able to see anything on the ultrasound with all that swelling.”
Throat tight, I walked Freckles over and hosed her leg with cold water as I waited for one of the assistant trainers to get some ice from the house. As the time crept by Jake and his team of help loaded his eleven-horse semi-trailer and departed for the show. Jake’s wife Jessie had dropped everything she was doing to run to town to get supplies for Freckles’ bandage, so I watched helplessly as the leg swelled further and stayed feverishly hot despite the ice and cold water.
Jessie came back and wrapped the leg and left for the horse show herself. I made an appointment at the vet clinic situated adjacent to the horse show venue for 8:00 the following morning. The first portion of my competition was due to begin midday, and if by some miracle the vet gave her clearance to be shown I would already be right there.
I went home and packed the trailer, getting a temporary-but-needed distraction by the kids’ rescue of Perry the Pigeon II, and threw a show shirt in the pickup along with my chaps and a hat, even though I felt in my heart I would not be wearing them the next day.
I spent a sleepless night thinking about my lovely mare and all she had done for me. I had bought her almost exactly one year previously and shown her at this same IRCHA event last year after two weeks of owning her. I was very rusty, and the mare was pretty green at that show, but the whole experience made me remember just how much I loved and missed showing. (Read Red Mare Beware, my blog from November of 2012, to see how Freckles had come into my life.)
After a couple of months of reining training that winter, I moved Freckles to Jake’s so she would be nearby and started riding her myself. Jake helped me with advice and lessons all spring, and in March I took her to an NRCHA Premier Event, the Stallion Stakes in Las Vegas, Nevada, where we place third in a field of ten, winning more money in one show that I had in all my years of showing cow horses, right up until a fence work accident had ended not only my showing but my riding career for the next several years.
After I got home from that show I continued to work with my horse, getting more confident and enjoying myself more with every competition. Despite her relative lack of experience, Freckles was remarkably consistent, giving me the same ride and high level of performance every single time. We competed in both reining and cow horse events, tallying up a dozen different shows and over thirty separate “goes” or individual performances over the course of the spring and summer.
She just got better and better.
In a sport where a lot of horses need to be in training at least part-time in order to prepare for their non pro riders to show them in competition, Freckles never needed schooling after her initial two months of training. Despite my misjudgments and riding errors, the little mare never got mad or defensive with me or took advantage of my mistakes. There is an old saying that some horses are ‘born trained,’ and I think Freckles is one of those rare ones.
She just did her job over and over again, forgiving my bobbles and exhibiting the wonderful attitude I had fallen in love with when I first met her. Over the entire course of the summer Jake had gotten on her only two times. Even more amazingly, out of the twelve shows I had competed on with Freckles, she won money in 10 of them.
She is just that kind of horse.
I lay awake all night thinking about my friend, worried sick about the chances for her rehabilitation but trying my best to think positive thoughts.
At seven-thirty the next morning I pulled into Idaho Equine Hospital. I had beaten the veterinarians there, so I waited in my truck in the parking lot until my appointment time. When the young vet came out to perform the evaluation, I stuffed a couple of tissues in my pocket and unloaded Freckles out of the trailer.
Dr. Wahl was professional and compassionate, taking off Freckles’ blanket himself before having the technician trot her in a circle on the asphalt of the parking lot. She wasn’t off much at all, “just a titch,” as he said, but I knew not to take comfort in that. I had had plenty of time to read up on bowed tendons on the internet, and everything I read said they many times didn’t cause initial lameness.
We walked inside and the technician unwrapped the leg. To my dismay, it was still swollen, though after several hours of sweating and then spending the night in a standing wrap logic said it should have been as tight as the other front leg.
The doctor took a deep breath and gently felt the leg. The look on his face said it all. I knew it didn’t look good.
Before the ultrasound could be performed the leg had to be shaved. Because it was so sore, one of the helpers had to hold the opposing front leg up so that Freckles would continue to bear weight on that foot and allow it be clipped.
As Dr. Wahl ran the clippers slowly along the puffy area, an amazing sight appeared.
Although it was impossible to fathom how it could have happened, it almost looked as though the leg had a snake bite. In reality it was just one of those obscure injuries a horse gets that you never figure out the source of.
Dr. Wahl let out a long breath. Then he smiled at me. “I don’t want to speak too soon, but I think you are going to be just fine.” He ultrasounded the leg over and over again, up and down with different views and cross-sections. At the end he said “Your mare’s tendons are perfect. We are dealing with a simple infection here. We’ll put some topical antibiotics on it and wrap it up.”
He told me that the injury to the hind foot was likely more problematic long-term, but we could leave the hind shoe on until the show was over and then we’d address the problem.
Then he patted me on the back and said “Go show your horse.”
I drove across the parking lot to the show barns and put Freckles in her stall. We’d given her an oral anti-inflammatory medicine and she was sporting two brightly bandaged and taped legs. She hadn’t had a bath or a decent haircut.
But that didn’t matter. As I kept telling anyone who would listen, I was just happy to be there.
Freckles performed as well as ever in the reining that day, ending the first leg of competition in the lead.
In the cutting pen the next day my mare was as good as she could be despite me. The cattle were fast and I got a little flustered, kicking and hee-hawing her completely out of position a couple of times.
We were soundly trounced by our friend from Utah, Scott Wagner, who had beaten us at nearly every single cattle event in our Intermountain show series and was sitting first in the year-end standings. When our herd work set was over I still clung to the lead but it had dropped to a slim half-point.
As it often does in these shows, it all came down to the cow work. In the end, I drew a better cow than Scott, and Freckles worked like a champ, two-legged or not. We topped the field by a small margin, finally achieving my year-long goal of winning an IRCHA show on home turf.
I even got a new buckle, which was even more fun since I shared that distinction with both Annabelle and my friend Jacki.
Freckles and I were Champion in our division for the Idaho reining affiliate circuit we competed in this year, and we ended up Reserve Champion in the Intermountain Reined Cow Horse Circuit, behind Scott by just a couple of points. But I didn’t mind.
I was just happy to be there.
As for Freckles, Desperate Hubby spent the next weekend building her her own safe enclosure at our place. We’ve pulled her shoes and are waiting to see how the injured hind foot grows out. Her front leg still bears a small scar but is almost completely healed. She’ll spend the next few months sleeping, rolling around in the sand and flirting with Grumpy over the fence.
She’s earned it.