I had been feeling uneasy for a few days concerning Alex, my horse, like something dark was coming, although I did not know what. He was “summer lean”, as those in the horse world would say, but that is the norm for him. Physically, I could find nothing with him that would support my uneasiness. I started to tweak his diet, as I usually do this time of year anyway, to help him bulk up for the coming cold months, and I had already started to see him respond. All I could do from then on was continue to watch him from day to day, and hope that the dark cloud in my mind was imagined, and not the foreboding premonition that it felt like. The other day, when I woke up, the cloud was still there, along with a healthy case of nausea. I went to the barn to check on and turn out Alex and his stablemates, and noticed nothing wrong with him or any of the others. I set them up with fresh water and hay, then proceeded with my day on the road with Susan, my farrier friend. As usual, it was a good day, as I always enjoy her company, horse knowledge and wisdom, but I felt antsy throughout the day. The horses that I helped with that day all knew me well from past visits, and they knew that I was a bit off my game. The one thing about horses is that you can hide nothing from them. They see and feel everything, and I wasn’t able to interact with them as I usually do. I did my best to leave my uneasiness at the barn door, but I couldn’t, and they held me at leg and hoof’s length, both physically and mentally.
The Man arrived home from work shortly after I did, and after spending some time with him before he ran into town on errands, I went out to replenish everyone’s fresh water and hay. I grabbed a few flakes of hay on the way through the barn, and as soon as I stepped into the back yard to greet the wee ones (both donkey and horse), their tension hit me like a wave. They were on high alert, especially the donkeys, and on first glance, I could see nothing wrong with either them or their surroundings. Then, I heard it. Heavy pounding coming from the big horse’s paddock. My first thought was that Diva had decided to play in the giant water trough, as she has a fondness for doing, but then realized that it couldn’t be her, as the pounding was too erratic, coming in a flurry for a few seconds, then stopping completely. I dropped the flakes of hay and headed towards the gate, not knowing what I would find, but it didn’t feel right. In seconds, I had reached the gate and was quickly scanning the field, hoping that I was wrong and that it actually was Diva who was gleefully destroying another water tub. And then I saw him.
He was on his side, with most of his lower body inside one of the horse shelters, and he wasn’t moving, even when I called his name. My immediate thought was that I was too late for whatever was happening, and that he was dead, but as I neared him he started thrashing and kicking his legs up against the inside wall of the shelter. My mind shifted to colic, which in horses quite often can be deadly, and I knew I had to get him up and moving. He was clearly exhausted, and the panic in his movements mirrored what I saw in his eyes. Having just spent the day trying, and failing miserably, to keep my anxiety hidden from horses, I knew that this moment was key to whatever came next. I took a deep breath, centered my thoughts, and quietly said his name. “Alex” I whispered, as I knelt down beside him, laying one hand on his neck. His huge head swiveled towards me, and as he looked up at me, I saw the panic and fear in his eyes instantly disappear. I am not sure if a horse can feel relief, but in that moment, that is what I felt from him. Good sign, I thought, for in my small handful of colic experiences, the discomfort and fear in a horse’s eyes that is feeling that much pain does not go away that quickly. After calling the Man, and asking for his help, I again knelt at my best friend’s side, trying to figure out what was happening. I soon realized that Alex had been trying to get up, most likely after napping or rolling in the dirt, and had become wedged up against the wall of the shelter. With no room to get his legs under him to either get up or simply roll over, he had spent all of his energy pounding his feet and legs against the close wall trying to move. He lay there breathing heavily, his muscles shaking and his eyes following me intently. Far from relieved at realizing it wasn’t colic that had brought him down, I now worried that he might have injured a leg, hoof, or somehow injured himself internally while struggling so heavily for who knows how long. Or, possibly, all of the above.
I cradled his face with my hands, whispering to him that I was going to help, but that he had to preserve his strength so that he could help me help him when the time came. His eyes followed me as I rose, and as I turned towards the barn, I heard him sigh deeply. When I returned moments later with a halter and a lead, he had remained still and was waiting for me. I went behind him, and with my hands dug as much of the hard packed stone dust away from his body as I could to help him roll away from the wall. Wrapping the lead around his front legs and planting my feet, I looked him in the eye and whispered “Now, Alex, now!”. I knew me being able to pull him over was a long shot, but that was my only thought at the time. He kicked and arched his back, trying to roll over, with me pulling on his front legs with all of my might. It might have worked, and nearly did each time we tried, but his arching caused him to stop the roll with his head. By the time the Man arrived, I had slipped the halter over Alex’s head, and while the Man braced himself to hold Alex’s head and halter still, I again wrapped the lead around his front legs. I met Alex’s never wavering gaze, and he knew it was time to try again. He pushed, I pulled, the Man held, and after much groaning and straining from all of us, and with the Man and I dodging flying hoofs, Alex rolled onto his left side and onto his feet. I held my breath, watching as he shook off the dirt like a phoenix rising from the ashes. With still held breath, I watched him run out of the shelter to greet Diva and Sassy, who had remained close throughout the whole ordeal. I had expected him to be limping after what he had gone through, and he was, though his head was high and majestic as he ran around the paddock a couple times, as if he were checking to see what worked and what didn’t. His body language told me all I needed to know for the time being, and as he ran and stretched his legs, the limp nearly disappeared. The Man and I continued to watch him for a few minutes, and after giving him some medicine to help with the muscle soreness, we left him in Diva and Sassy’s care, who continued to follow and watch him closely with concern. It wasn’t until a few hours later that we realized how scared those two must have been watching him struggle. He is their Alpha, and as with all of us here at the Farm, all things truly do revolve around him.
I spent the next few hours cleaning stalls, and the Big 3 all had brand new, clean and dry bedding waiting for them when they came in for the night. Alex’s bedding was extra thick, because though he usually doesn’t lay down to sleep each night, I knew that on this particular night, the chances that he would rest those overworked and aching muscles were pretty high. When it came time for them to walk the short road that led from the field to the barn, I watched Alex closely for any signs of injury that might still be setting in. I could still see a slight limp in his back legs, but by morning, that would most likely be gone. His head was high, ears were alert, and the average man would see nothing that would indicate what had happened just a few short hours before. After everyone was settled into their stalls, happily munching on some grain and hay, I went to spend some time with Alex before turning out the lights for the night. He has never been one for being overly affectionate, so I wasn’t expecting anything different from him this night. True to form, he didn’t want to be fawned over, but he did lower his massive head, gently placing his forehead onto mine. We stood that way for about 10 seconds, eye to eye, then he turned back to his grain. For those 10 seconds, he offered love and gratitude in the only way that he knows how to show it. It was freely given, and gratefully accepted.
In the few days since, the uneasiness and foreboding that I had experienced leading up to that day has disappeared, and life has returned to normal here at the Farm. Earlier tonight, I stood next to Alex, with my head buried in his neck, while he ate his grain. As a rule, he has never liked to be bothered while he eats, but tonight he leaned into me as I wrapped my arms around him. For now, he still wants me near, and I am happy to oblige him. He is content, and tonight he will sleep feeling safe and knowing that all is well within his kingdom. I, too, will sleep peacefully knowing that in the morning, I will be greeted by the knicker of a horse that truly understands how much he is loved…