Second wind: Retired racehorse adventures

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Pirate, formerly known as Dread the Pirate, enjoys his new gig at Summit Equestrian Center. (Photo courtesy Summit Equestrian Center)

Horses are a big deal in Kentucky. When I first toured the Louisville Seminary campus, I was delighted to see a beautiful fountain/trough at the historic Gardencourt Mansion that once held water for horses to drink. I never attended the Kentucky Derby, but if you are in Louisville in April and early May — even if you are a graduate student with your nose to the grindstone — you hear about horse racing.

Like the Indy 500 in my hometown, the Derby is a beloved tradition, full of flash, fun, and gobs of money invested and wagered. Yet I’ve always wondered and worried about the cost of racing to the horses themselves.

Those concerns escalated when Barbaro won the Derby in 2006, only to break his right hind leg at the Preakness shortly thereafter. His owners and an esteemed veterinarian tried mightily to save him, and for a time it looked like he’d make it. However, the injuries ultimately led to him being euthanized in January 2007. Then Eight Belles broke both front ankles during the 2008 Derby. She was euthanized on the track.

Horses are big and powerful, and some love to run … especially if they’re with a bunch of other horses all running in the same direction. Still, there is much about their physiology that makes them subject to career- and life-ending injury, especially if they are not treated well. Thankfully, there have been efforts in recent years to 1) improve the working conditions and well-being of racing horses and 2) ensure a humane and happier future once their racing days are done.

That’s about all I know of the ins and outs of horse racing. The horror stories and success stories are out there. What I can tell you now is how a couple of retired racehorses at Summit Equestrian Center, where I volunteer as an animal Reiki practitioner and animal communicator, are reinventing their lives and helping humans do the same.

Pirate, formerly Dread the Pirate, was named 2012 Indiana Colt of the Year. He raced 23 times over four years. Between 2012 and 2015, he won nearly $200,000 before an injury cut his racing career short. This big red horse with the white star and kind eyes could have gone to a stud farm, but opted to come to Summit instead.

At 9, he’s got all kinds of aches and pains left over from his racing days, and his ability to carry riders faster than a walk is limited. Sometimes when I watch Pirate walk across the pasture, it looks like every step either hurts or requires extra effort, and I can hear him saying, almost like a mantra: “I’m moving … I’m moving.” Last summer, when a couple aches and pains slowed me down, he looked at me and asked, “Are you moving, too?” (I made sure that I was.)

Though he can be a downright stinker with the other horses, he’s made friends with one who was involved in a severe neglect case over a year ago. Her physical and emotional injuries continue to surface and heal, and Pirate told me he wants to “show her some hope.” She could not ask for a better buddy.

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Retired racehorse Beau, left, teaches retired farm horse Duke how to play at Summit Equestrian Center. (Photo by Nancy Crowe)

Beau raced as Jangle in Michigan, West Virginia, and Ohio. He raced 17 times over two years, earning $18,500, and was retired after a bowed tendon at the track. Now 11 and rehabbed, he is a go-to trail rider at Summit.

Beau has his own ideas about what should be happening at any given time, but he does know how to adjust his approach. When Duke, a retired farm horse with his own share of injuries, came to Summit, this big athletic guy was a little too eager to greet him. Their first meeting did not go well. On the day this photo was taken, the two were scampering around like colts. I watched each of them open and give just a little.

As an individual who’s been around the block/track a few times, he’s developed some insight, which serves him well as a therapy horse in our veterans’ program. Like most of us, he doesn’t always choose to use that insight, but when he does, he gets to the heart.

This winter, Summit’s director, Allison Wheaton, asked me to communicate with Beau to see if we could figure out what was behind some uncooperative behavior. I was having a rough week and processing some old grief, but I tried to put that aside long enough to connect with Beau. The first thing I heard from him was that he noticed I was sad, that I didn’t have to hide it, and he wished he could help.

Touched and honored, I thanked him. With all of that on the table — in the hay bag, if you will — Beau was able to tell me what was on his mind and I was able to listen with an open heart.

The tales of two racehorses may be a drop in a bucket of heartbreak and hope, but we don’t have a person, or a horse, to waste. If you want to learn more about helping retired racehorses, a good place to start is Friends of Ferdinand, Inc.







Helping veterinarians heal

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How can we better support those who care for the animals we love? (Pixabay)

I’m as skeptical about studies as the next journalist, but this one got my attention. Veterinarians committed suicide between two and 3.5 times the national average between 1979 and 2015, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. Mounting student debt (without the salaries “people” docs get), the physical and emotional strains of the job, scathing public criticism, and the ever-present shadow of death were among the reasons cited in a Washington Post story.

The story describes a second-career vet who was beset by debt, depression, and increasing chronic illness that fueled gossip and anger in real time and online. A conversation with an “old friend” was the last straw. She wrote goodbye letters and, using drugs meant for euthanizing animal patients, prepared to end her life. Then she looked into the eyes of her dog, and couldn’t do it.

Others are no longer here to take that chance.

You can stop here and say whatever you want about personal choice, being cut out for the job (or not), or those darn media people playing stuff up. So much is hidden from the view of everyone but God. I do know the depths to which a heart can sink, and break, over animal suffering and death.

If you’re still with me, let’s consider how we as pet parents, people who work with animals, and animal advocates might support the veterinarians among us so that we can all do what we do best: love and care for God’s creatures. Here are a few thoughts.

Photo by Kerri Lee Smith on : CC BY-NC-SA

(Photo by Kerri Lee Smith on / CC BY-NC-SA)

Respect the profession. Veterinarians have gone to school, learned multiple systems (“people” docs only have to study one), and done all kinds of work that most of us could not. Though I am not a fan of unquestioningly accepting whatever experts say, if you’ve done your homework and chosen a good vet or clinic, trust them.

Practitioners of complementary and alternative modalities such as massage, Reiki, essential oil therapy, etc. as well as vet techs, kennel owners, trainers, groomers, and more — would do well to work with vets as much as possible. We may not always agree, but we’re all in the business of helping animals and the people who love and care for them. Our collective efforts might just surprise us.

When a client wants to address a particular question or problem through animal communication or animal Reiki, my first question is always: When was the animal last seen by a veterinarian, and what did he or she say or do regarding the issue? I make it clear that I am not a medical or veterinary professional and do not diagnose. Anything I do is in support of — never instead of or against — veterinary care.

Show appreciation. Does your veterinarian administer the dreaded annual vaccinations in such a way that your dog barely seems to notice, let alone mind? Was your veterinarian exceedingly kind and gentle with your cat … and with you … when you faced the gut-wrenching decision to put her to sleep? Did your veterinarian come in on a Sunday when your dog got stung by a bee … again? Is your veterinarian patient even when your little darling is doing a spot-on Tasmanian devil imitation?

Notice. Say something. Your comment, however small it may seem to you, could make a big difference if your vet just had to put an animal down because the pet’s owner basically didn’t care, if an angry review just turned up on Facebook or Yelp, or if it’s simply been a long day.

Be aware, and use discretion. If you have reason to believe your veterinarian is struggling with a physical or mental health challenge, especially if it’s affecting his or her work, carefully consider the most kind, fair, and discreet way forward. You’ll have to decide whether you feel comfortable asking him or her directly or taking your concern to the clinic owner or even a state licensing board.

Whichever option you choose, do so in the spirit of help and accountability, not getting even. Likewise, anything you say on the subject to others in real time or on social media — and the best choice may well be to say nothing — should be in that same spirit.

Healing ourselves is so much easier when we can stand together. The animals deserve no less.

Injury, pardon, and restoration

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Maggie and Quincy at Summit Equestrian Center, December 2018. (Photo by Allison Wheaton)

First came months of construction noise and upheaval at Summit Equestrian Center. Even the best improvements are a hard sell to our animal friends.

Then one night a fox breached the coop, taking a chicken and all but one duck. The coop was fortified against further invasion, but the survivors — two sheep, a handful of chickens, and Quincy, the last duck standing — were shaken.

As an animal Reiki practitioner and animal communicator, I sat with them, listened, and offered healing energy to help them recover in whatever way they needed. Quincy roamed around the enclosure eating, drinking, washing, shaking out her feathers, and nipping when a chicken got too close. She was determined to take care of things and find that “new normal.”

A few days later, she couldn’t walk.

Maggie, the sweet-faced black sheep who loved chin scratches, had grabbed hold of Quincy and pinned her to the ground. It was over quickly, but the result was a duck with a fracture. After her vet visit, Quincy was moved to a safe spot and given pain meds, some special supplements, plenty of Reiki, and even a little weekend “hydrotherapy” at the lake with director Allison Wheaton.

But we were mystified. The sheep, chickens, and ducks had all gotten along before, and sheep — especially female sheep with no lambs — aren’t generally aggressive. Why on earth would Maggie attack Quincy?

Gradually, I pieced together accounts from Allison and fellow volunteers with what Quincy and Maggie themselves relayed. In the heightened vigilance generated by the construction and then the fox incident, an anxious Quincy had gotten under the feet of an equally anxious Maggie. It startled Maggie so badly that a violent defense seemed like the only option.

You may not think a sheep could be appalled with herself, but I think this one was. I gently suggested she move carefully in the coop and, when the time was right, try to find a way forward with Quincy. As for Quincy — helping her heal was my first priority. Only when she recovered enough to return to the coop did I encourage her to consider working things out with Maggie … and then only when she was ready.

Though Maggie kept a respectful distance, Quincy was still nervous around her. Maggie also didn’t come to me for chin scratches as before, although she did share the Reiki energy I offered for short durations. She’d either stay where she was or move toward me, then walk away. She was reconsidering how to be and move about in her world, and I let her know that was OK.

We had been preparing for a major fall fundraiser at Summit Equestrian, and with that successful event behind us, things quieted down a bit. The construction moved closer to completion, and as the holidays approached, Quincy moved around with ease. Maggie, for her part, started venturing to the fence to say hello and accept a brief chin scratch.

One day as I shared Reiki with the inhabitants of the coop, I looked up and noticed Maggie and Quincy nose to bill just a few feet away from me. There was not a hint of confrontation in the stance of either. It could have been a “hey, didja smell that new feed the chickens got?” or a simple “Good morning.”

It was one of those animal moments you don’t want to spoil by so much as noticing, but Allison later confirmed the two had been hanging out.

How did they get to that point? When I asked them, Quincy and Maggie both showed me how each had moved toward the other a little bit at a time … sometimes a very little bit … rebuilding trust and parity in a way that worked for both of them.

A beautiful prayer traditionally attributed to St. Francis includes a line about bringing pardon where there is injury. It’s one thing to pardon, or forgive — to free oneself as much as possible from the effects of the injury. This can be done regardless of the injurer’s actions or attitude. It’s quite another for both parties to reconstruct what is broken so that it is better and stronger than before.

A duck and a sheep showed us how to do both.