We only got her through happenstance. While leaving a relative’s horse farm, my mom asked about the horse trailer in the drive and its lone occupant. The trailer’s tenant was a retired racehorse destined for the glue farm. We had no experience with horses and gathered around the trailer, gazing in at the poor doomed giant, a glistening chestnut-brown thoroughbred racehorse with that classic white stripe down her nose and white “socks” on her feet. She had a minor back injury that made her unable to race, so she was useless to her owner. Without a stable or any sort of field, my parents agreed to take her on the spot rather than let her meet an early end, and, without proof or expertise, we named her Sweetie, because that’s how we wanted everything to be.
Accepting this responsibility caused that special kind of crisis that my family, historically, does not deal with well. Our relatives agreed to house Sweetie, but only for two more days. We thought it was a great deal they were offering us: free boarding and a free horse. While a normal family might have found a place to board the horse for longer in order to have enough time to build the stall and fence a field, the following morning found us looking up stall dimensions and construction instructions before heading to the hardware store with a half-assed list of the necessary materials. We had to convert part of a building intended to be a garage into a stall. I am not sure how much we spent for tools and wood, but looking back it couldn’t have been less than seven or eight hundred dollars. “So much for a free horse,” my dad complained.
Special drill bits ground anchors into the cement floor. Strangely shaped metal pieces connected those anchors to fresh smelling four-by-four posts set to rafters, and four-by-eight beams stretched horizontally between the posts. Hanging the stall door was more difficult and soon became a functionally approximate operation. Unlike a symphony, the elements I’ve just described did not easily go together, and my father quickly became frustrated when he was not able to make the world harmonize with his designs. So, my brother and I spent most of the construction time playing backup instruments, hoping not to be yelled at.
Then there was the field. We spent hours hammering “T” shaped metal fence posts into the ground by hand. I tried to help, but my dad, again, did most of the work. Next, a high and a low wire connected the posts through which a pulse of electricity went every 3 or 4 seconds to deter the horse from pushing out. The pulses were set so that the animal could feel the sting and then move away rather than get stuck like one would on constant current. We had gotten the weakest pulse generator we could—about 2000 volts: to an animal the size of a horse that was only a little snap. My mom thought that the whole setup was barbaric: “How could you shock Sweetie?” mom asked, “She would never try to run away!” “Sweetie” tried 4 times.
And so, we slapped together (our preferred method of construction) a stall and horse field in two days. An ark for one animal. We put it together so fast that the field didn’t even have a gate. When we needed to move Sweetie in or out of her field, we had to go in, shut off the pulse generator, and take down a section of fence. I wonder how long it took Noah to install a gate. Anyway, it was probably three months until we got around to it (and the workmanship would not have been Noah-approved). We were always putting out fires as they came up—some more literally than others.
An Ecosystem Changed
The speedy addition of a horse and an electric fence caused some changes around the farm. Every time we played soccer we would end up accidentally kicking the ball into the horse field. We either had to turn off the fence and get the ball, or, lazily and stupidly, try to slip between the active wires. We got pretty good at slipping between the wires and pretty good at taking the shock.
Meanwhile, our dog, Joey, was clearly upset that her territory had been occupied. Our house was on a small hill with a deck overlooking the land from under which Joey ruled her realm. All summer, Joey would sit under the deck watching Sweetie before tearing down the hill in an uproar, halting just short of the wire for a final bout of bawling. Joey continued her assaults almost every day in spite of our attempts to stop her, until she went just a fraction too far and stopped herself.
One undated day, Joey tore from under the deck’s cool sanctuary and began her usual, loud maneuver. Before she could even deliver her final vituperative rage, she bleated a yelp and turned back towards the deck, her tongue hanging strangely far out of her mouth: she had shocked it barking. Despite her stupidity, we coddled her, and she ended up happily lapping water in only a little while. You don’t want to dwell on someone’s stupidity in the aftermath of a personal disaster. Things could always get worse, and you never know when that might happen.
One Ticket to the Water Park
When some of our less sophisticated relatives came to visit, however, you could count on it. One day we invited some cousins to visit the farm. We went to the nearest grocery store, a thirty-minute drive, to buy an inordinate amount of food to—I suppose—dazzle them with our refrigerator’s storage space, of course intending to return before their arrival. While we were on this voyage, the cousins turned up at the farm and, seeing no one at home, decided to take a self-guided tour.
My aunt loved horses and wanted to get a close look at Sweetie, but the horse was just down a small hill. So, craning her neck, my aunt leaned against the nearby excellently-conductive sheet-metal barn and pulled on the nearest thing she could to leverage herself forward for a better look: a thin silver wire. I don’t think she understood when the first shock hit her, so she didn’t let go in the intervening few seconds when she should have. It was the second, third, and maybe fourth shock that made her pee her pants and finally let go the wire. Fortunately for her, she had luggage with a change of clothes in the car. But it’s a strange thing to drive down the lane and see your aunts bloomers and pants hanging on the clothesline. Meanwhile, the only comfort we could provide was the inordinate amount of food we had just purchased.
We all loved Sweetie to some degree, but my dad bonded with her. The half of the horse barn that hadn’t been converted into a stall was where we kept all the tools and mowers, which is also where you could find my dad, often fixing something or improving how the tools were stored. It was his tree house, his sanctuary, and if you snuck up on him you could hear him talking to Sweetie. But unfortunately, in time, his refuge was violated.
A few years after we got Sweetie, we looked off the deck to find her struggling to get up. This was cause for panic, because horses cannot lie down for very long. If a horse lies down they can get what’s called a reperfusion injury; basically the weight of the horse can cut off blood flow to parts of its body. They then have problems when they try to stand and the blood flow returns. It’s like when your arm or leg falls asleep: that tingling sensation you feel is due to the blood flow to the limb being restored. Imagine that sensation for an animal that weighs an actual ton. That’s a problem. We called a friend from a horse farm down the road, and he helped us push her up. He said that it just happens sometimes. A few days later, it happened again.
This time we pushed Sweetie up and called the veterinarian. An examination and a few tests later, we learned that Sweetie had EPM, that’s Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis if you are interested. It’s a parasite that attacks the central nervous system of horses—if you’re a little interested but don’t want homework. There is a treatment for it, but at twelve years old, the vet said that Sweetie wouldn’t benefit from it. If you weren’t interested at all but need context for the end of this story: the disease would be terminal.
Not that we gave up on our free horse. We had the vet try some alternative treatments. We even had a horse chiropractor come out and adjust her spine several times. It all helped, but only to defer the end. Over time, she fell more often. Soon it wasn’t enough to have a few people push her back up in the field. She spent more and more of her time in her stall and it became increasingly difficult to push her up when she fell in such a confined space. Often we couldn’t get behind her to push and our efforts simply weren’t enough.
With the help of the same neighbor who originally advised us, we contrived a system. We mounted a hoist in the rafters above her stall, and whenever Sweetie fell, we would place a stripe of heavy carpet on the ground. We would then loop rope around her feet and roll her onto the carpet before joining the ends of the carpet to use it as a sling. The sling was finally attached to the hoist, and Sweetie was pulled up.
It was a strange procedure for both horse and man. Sweetie, being a horse, did not understand what we were doing and so strenuously objected to having her feet roped, being rolled, and being bound in the sling that would eventually drag her up. Me, being a man, did not want to get kicked by a horse. You may be familiar with the objections of a friend or an unruly child, but the objections of a horse are decidedly more dangerous.
Sweetie worsened over the following month until picking her up became routine. The neighbor no longer came to help, so it was mainly my father and I with well-intentioned help from my brother. It was a bitter winter by this point, and in the final weeks my father slept in the horse barn with a wood burning stove. I remember sleeping in the living room in my Carhartt, habitually awoken by my mother saying “The horse is down again.”
Near the beginning of spring, the toll became unendurable. A friend brought his backhoe over. We called the vet. Sweetie had fallen in her field down by the creek, as if picking her resting place. I think I cried a little as the vet injected Sweetie, but my mother turned my brother and I away as my father began to sob. He had not cried at his own father’s funeral, but he cradled that horse’s head and wept openly as the vet put it down. He stood there as the backhoe filled in her grave. We weren’t wealthy enough to buy a grave stone, I suppose we had spent all the extra money on treatments. But we know she lies down by the creek, unforgotten.