Riding Wilson

Stand­ing for the Vet

Last month, when the far­ri­er lift­ed Wilson’s right back hoof to shoe him, the twen­ty-year-old thor­ough­bred lost his bal­ance and almost fell. Hav­ing seen this before in old­er hors­es, the far­ri­er ran his hand along Wilson’s neck and back, and as he expect­ed, he flinched and nipped at him.

We called the vet. He stood beside Wilson’s hindquar­ters and pulled his tail toward him. Wil­son swayed, then stum­bled. “The nor­mal reac­tion,” the vet said, “is for the horse to brace against the tug­ging force and hold his posi­tion. Wil­son can’t do that because he’s not sure where his back legs are.”

Arthri­tis in his neck had dam­aged nerves run­ning down his spine to his legs. Arthri­tis is incur­able and relent­less­ly degen­er­a­tive. “All we can do,” the vet said, “is slow down the skele­tal deterioration.”

Open­ing the Gate

He pre­scribed pred­nisolone. “If the drug works,” the vet said, “Wil­son should be able to car­ry a rid­er bare­back or with a sway­back cush­ion under the sad­dle for a few more years.”

The next morn­ing, I dis­solved 400 mil­ligrams of the drug in water, mixed it with oats and molasses, and spread it over Wilson’s alfal­fa. Lat­er in the day, Janet, my train­er and good friend, rid­ing her horse, Jesse, ponied Wil­son while I fol­lowed on Marge. Wil­son strug­gled, espe­cial­ly on the down­hill slopes. When we fin­ished up, he was sweat­ing; his head was down; and he was drool­ing. Even a rid­er­less walk had bro­ken him down.

That was a water­shed moment for me. I knew then that I would nev­er again allow any­one, includ­ing me, to climb on Wilson’s back. Even if the drug worked, I wouldn’t take the chance of inflict­ing more pain on him.

Tall, Fast, Powerful

It’s the right deci­sion, but I’ll miss my rides with Wilson.

I first saw him almost four years ago on a home-made sales video. A young woman lunged a hand­some, glossy bay in a dirt cor­ral in Bak­ers­field, then rode him on a bare­back pad over a dusty road. Doing his best to ignore a trio of mutts scur­ry­ing around his feet, Wil­son fol­lowed the young woman’s cues, care­ful­ly back­ing up, stand­ing still, and mov­ing for­ward, to enable her to open a gate with­out dismounting.

I liked his demeanor. The way he held his head and the look on his face gave me the sense he was a good soul, try­ing hard to do his job well. The ask­ing price was low and the young woman agreed to trail­er him to Hid­den Hills with­out charge, so I bought him.

Tin Box

She deliv­ered him on a cool, clear Feb­ru­ary evening, and Janet and I walked him up the hill on Clear Val­ley Road toward my barn. A big, tall horse, a lit­tle under six­teen hands (about five feet four inch­es from the ground to his with­ers, the spot where his neck joins his back), his dark brown neck and head framed by a peach sun­set, his black mane and fore­lock rif­fling in a light breeze, his head held high, his eyes alert, he looked around anx­ious­ly at the res­i­den­tial homes and man­i­cured lawns.

When you buy a horse like Wil­son, with no papers or pedi­gree, you know noth­ing about his his­to­ry, what he’s been through, or how he’s been treat­ed. More than like­ly, Wil­son passed through many own­ers’ hands, some who were good to him and oth­ers who were cru­el. Jane Smi­ley, the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning nov­el­ist, wrote that such a horse’s life is like “twen­ty years in fos­ter care, or in and out of prison, while at the same time chang­ing schools over and over and dis­cov­er­ing … that what you learned at the old school hasn’t much appli­ca­tion at the new one.”

Try­ing to Adjust to a New Home

That pas­sage ran through my mind as I watched Wil­son prance ner­vous­ly up the street. Ear­li­er that after­noon, he stood on a drought-parched farm where every­thing was famil­iar to him. With­out warn­ing, the young woman came along, put a hal­ter on him, and loaded him into a small, cramped tin box. For the next two and a half hours, he jounced around inside the metal­lic stall, as it rocked and swayed over free­ways at sev­en­ty miles per hour, speed­ing him away from every­thing he’d ever known. When the trail­er final­ly stopped, the young woman clanged open the rear door, backed him down a ramp, and hand­ed his lead line to peo­ple he’d nev­er met in a place where all the sights, sounds, and scents were com­plete­ly for­eign to him. Head­ed up the hill toward my barn that evening, he had to be lost and fright­ened by the sud­den, rad­i­cal change we’d forced upon him, and yet I sensed he was try­ing hard to adjust to this new world.

Good with the Grandkids

We led him into his stall. He walked around appre­hen­sive­ly, check­ing out the gray stuc­co walls and the wood shav­ings on the floor. He drank from the water buck­et, then looked out the Dutch stall-door, tak­ing in the street below, the val­ley, and the oppo­site ridge. We gave him orchard grass and alfal­fa, and he attacked it like he hadn’t been fed for days. When I left him an hour lat­er, he’d calmed down a lit­tle and seemed to be set­tling in.

His name on the bill of sale was Chip­py. It didn’t fit. I’m not sure why, but the name Wil­son came to mind when I was with him that night in the barn. I went with it, and it took hold.

A few days after Wilson’s arrival, we put him in the cor­ral with his sta­ble­mate, Mar­garine, a lit­tle sor­rel alpha mare. She hates most oth­er hors­es. She tol­er­at­ed Wil­son for about an hour before attack­ing him. I ran a fence down the mid­dle of the cor­ral to keep the peace and called the vet to tend to Wilson’s bruis­es. For a more detailed account of their dust-up, see Ani­mal Pharm.

Janet Warm­ing Up Wilson

The vet said Wil­son was phys­i­cal­ly sound, but old­er than we thought. The young woman said he was twelve. The vet said he was six­teen or old­er. I didn’t care. I want­ed a trail horse who would be good with my grand­kids, and he fit the bill.

Janet spent the next few weeks train­ing him, and he adapt­ed to the neigh­bor­hood streets and trails quick­ly. I first rode him that spring. He wasn’t a com­fort­able ride. His walk­ing gait was irreg­u­lar, chop­py, and bumpy, and his trot was like sit­ting on a jack­ham­mer, but I liked rid­ing him anyway.

Horse­back rid­ing presents a thrilling para­dox. When you climb in the sad­dle, you must take a mea­sure of con­trol over your mount, but sit­ting on a twelve-hun­dred-pound ani­mal, you give up a lot of con­trol at the same time. Wilson’s tall frame and big bar­rel encase extra­or­di­nary pow­er, and his speed lives up to his breed. My aware­ness of his pow­er and speed made rid­ing him excit­ing each time we went out. He turned out to be a gen­tle giant, though. He was always a safe ride except once when he reared for rea­sons beyond his con­trol. See For the Love of Hors­es for a descrip­tion of that incident.

Good Friends

Janet deter­mined ear­ly on that Wil­son was “cold backed” (sen­si­tive to weight on his back until he was warmed up). We lunged him for a long time before each ride to com­pen­sate for that, but the steep down­hills still seemed to strain his back, so we rode him on flat­ter trails.

Look­ing back on it now, I feel guilty about some of those rides. He must have been suf­fer­ing, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the more recent out­ings, but he did what­ev­er I asked of him, always giv­ing his best effort, nev­er balk­ing or faltering.

About five days into Wilson’s treat­ment with pred­nisolone, the drug worked its mag­ic. When I arrived at the barn that morn­ing to feed him, he ran up the hill to his stall like a young horse. When we ponied him that day, the pain seemed to be gone, but I haven’t changed my mind. I know too much about arthri­tis. It crip­pled my knees until they were replaced, and I still have it in my fin­gers. Med­ica­tion eas­es the pain for a while, but it always returns. Wilson’s been through enough. His rid­ing days are over.

There’s a mys­ti­cal com­mu­nion between a horse and a rid­er. I had that with Wil­son. Although that part of our friend­ship is gone, our bond remains strong. I can still pony him, walk him on a lead line, groom him, give him car­rots, and talk things over with him, just like before.

I’m told that some own­ers would dis­pose of an old­er horse in Wilson’s con­di­tion, dump him on a res­cue orga­ni­za­tion, or send him to a kill-pen. I can’t do that. Wil­son did his job well for as long as he could. Now I’ll do mine. I’ll keep him healthy, hap­py, and safe for the rest of his life.

Post Script: “Take care of your hors­es and trea­sure them.” Jane Smiley