A Natural Evolution
Vashka, a very happy 11-year-old Arabian, cantering on his 'racetrack' around his pond.
Sometimes, the Universe gives us hints about what lies ahead. My hints were more like huge boulders dropping on my head. But I was so excited about moving across the country to live with my Arabian, Vashka, and his Shetland Pony, Harley, that even boulders didn’t daunt me.
Oh, the plans I had. My horses would have 3 and a half acres of lush, green pasture, complete with a pond. I was going to “go natural”, feed them all natural, ride Vashka without bits or shoes. No more barn managers rationing out hay or making fun of my barefoot ways. No more boarding fees. My horses would be free of tradition - happy, healthy, and invincible! But the vision I moved here with was like a mirage - it served the purpose of luring me here. Then it all but disappeared.
The boulders began crashing down as soon as my best friend, Claudia and I hitched my trailer to my truck in Miami and began hauling my two horses, two dogs and three cats to Southern Oregon.
On our fourth day my truck - my brand new truck - fell apart in Louisiana. The culprit: an epidemic of bad gas swirling throughout the country. Then, our next catastrophe - a freak hail storm in the middle of June - hit before we were able to leave the state. The storm stranded us at a horse hotel/show barn, where we met a 17-year-old named Ashley and her prize-winning hunter/jumper Basque Arabian, Sunny. He would eventually become my third horse. But that is another story.
Finally, we made it to Texas. Within three hours, we drove smack into the middle of a tornado. We hunkered beneath one of those tall gas station ceiling awnings where I sang, “The sun will come out tomorrow” to Harley and Vashka. The tornado sirens screamed around us.
But it was in New Mexico where everything came to a screeching, blinding stop. That was where I poked my head out of our camper trailer to find Vashka three-legged lame, his feet hot and his fetlocks swollen. For the first time, it occurred to me that my horse might not actually live through the trip.
“He’s got laminitis,” said the emergency vet who examined him. “It’s from all the stress of the trip. You have got to stop and rest.”
We stayed in New Mexico for five, dusty, depressing days. During that time we packed Vashka’s feet with fresh, local clays, and walked him for hours in the cold water of a nearby lake. He recovered quickly and seemed entirely his old self again. We would have let him rest longer, but there was a record-breaking, 1,000-acre fire moving in - we could see the smoke - and we had to leave. Fast.
No, I am not exaggerating. All of this really happened. And a trip that was supposed to last no longer than 9 days turned into a 28-day, cross country trip from he--.
Sunny, my gorgeous Basque Arabian, enjoys a fresh treat from his mom.
When we finally arrived in Oregon, I turned the horses out into their new pasture and breathed a sigh of relief. Our ordeal, I thought, was over.
If only I had known then what I know now.
I would have rationed the horse’s intake of lush pasture. I would have given them lots of probiotics to protect their stomachs and adaptogenic herbs to help them stay strong before, during and after the trip. I would have given them enough vitamins and minerals to balance the new hays they were eating, grasses so very different from that back at home.
Now I know that horses left to live natural lives are blessed with coping mechanisms that aren’t suddenly stripped away from them. They adjust to the seasons, forages and terrains as they travel through them. They aren’t suddenly on one side of the country and then in another. Would have. Could have. Should have.
But regrets don’t help. Only learning helps.
The summer the lessons began is forever etched into my heart. Vashka came up three-legged lame again. This time, there was no quick recovery. His back hurt and his eyes started to drip. Then Harley grew cresty and fat. I know I would have done something about it before it heightened into that inevitable laminitic attack, but I was so overwhelmed with trying to find help for Vashka in a town where I knew virtually no one, that Harley’s condition just kept getting worse.
Adding to an already dire situation, Sunny, the Basque Arabian from Louisiana, arrived at the ranch. (My friend Claudia ended up buying him from the 17-year-old, who could no longer afford to keep him.) Adamant that he be barefoot, I called a trimmer who studied the same trimming methods as my trimmer in Miami. I thought that they would therefore trim similarly. The new trimmer arrived, pulled the shoes, and aggressively trimmed Sunny’s feet. He foundered from the stress of his first trim.
A NEW LIFE WITH NEW DREAMS
Some dreams die hard. It took me months to realize my horse that had earned the nickname “The Energizer Bunny” in Florida had truly run out of juice. When the denial broke, it was not pretty. I was a worried, anxiety-filled horse mom without any answers. Luckily, I was also a journalist with nearly two decades worth of experience asking questions.
I made appointments with three local vets. Their diagnoses ranged from EPM to Vitamin B deficiency to Herpes. Frantic, I searched the Internet. There, I found a professional horse consultant who began to help me understand how truly imperative nutrition is. She laid out the basics: Lots of grass hays, vitamins and minerals for balance, immunity and overall health. Freshly ground flax for Omega 3’s, and magnesium for the stress, sore muscles and cresty necks. For the first time, I felt hope.
Next, I met Equine Nutritionist Eleanor Kellon, DVM. Dr. Kellon helped me refine the diets for Insulin Resistant horses - which it turned out all my horses were, to some degree or another.
I will be forever grateful to Dr. Kellon, who took me on as a trimming student over the Internet. Sometimes we trimmed three horses in one day, going back and forth and over and over my trims until the horses were comfortable. There were days it took me three hours to trim two feet, take digital photos, send them in, get them critiqued and adjust whatever needed to be fixed in the trim. I felt too tired to pursue my professional life, let alone a social life.
I’ll be honest: For awhile, I was an angry woman. I hated my life. I wondered what I had done to deserve three sick horses and a life that focused solely on helping them survive - which I often wasn’t sure was a realistic goal.
Then one day life got better. I stopped thinking about what I couldn’t control and I started focusing on what I could do. I began to accept that my life was no longer only about riding in parks with friends. It was about healing and about learning as much as I could as fast as I could.
“It’s time to stop being a victim,” said a blunt friend from Miami. “Learn what you need to, Lori. And don’t even think about giving up.”
Trimming stopped feeling like drudgery and became a time of bonding and deep caring. Nutrition stopped being an overwhelming concept and turned into a topic with which I became fascinated. I interviewed healers, massage therapists, energy workers, and talked to as many equine consultants and nutritionists as I could. I studied with trimmers from several different philosophies. Far more importantly, however, I learned how to incorporate the true meaning of “natural” into my horses’ lives.
Vashka, Sunny, and little Harley no longer live solely on lush pasture but also have access to a gorgeous pine and oak filled forest. They have unlimited grass hays, different terrain to romp around on, and their own private “racetrack”, which I made by building a small fence inside the huge lush pasture. It has a 25-foot span of dirt that they have flattened as they have run around it so many times. And of course I stopped feeding them anything that had molasses, fillers or grains. I think that for people who face the challenge of rehabbing their horses as naturally as possible, there simply comes a time when it is imperative to turn away from what everyone else is doing and to listen to the true experts - the horses.
Once mine were no longer in danger, I searched the local feed stores and the Internet again - this time for treats. But I couldn’t find a single treat without molasses, grain or wheat!
Research revealed low sugar and low starch hays in a pellet form without any binders or fillers. Excited, I filled my barn with them. I already had access to lots of fresh, aromatic herbs, some of them - like peppermint - next to the water spout in my own backyard. One day the thought simply occurred: I could mix the herbs, flowers and hay pellets together, working carefully with the amounts to make sure they were safe for my sugar sensitive horses. I sent them off for laboratory analysis to make sure I was on the right track. My horses loved them. Turns out, a lot of other horses did, too.
Long ago, I lived in a suburban townhouse and boarded my horse. Once upon a time, I was a reporter at a big city newspaper. I had a 401k plan and what I considered security. Now I have my own ranch, three horses, and a company that is based on my love and respect of the true nature of horses. My idea of security has nothing to do with knowing what is going to happen next.
Vashka is better than ever. His energy is true and strong, his feet sturdy. Every morning he meets me at my front gate to bow his head and take his treat. Then he runs away, tail flung high. There is something even wiser now about his countenance, and people remark on how beautiful he is.
This morning, as I was writing this story, Harley cantered for the first time since that attack of laminitis a year and a half ago. I was so grateful I cried.
Sunny sometimes misses his old life with his teenage girl in Louisiana. But he is proud of his big, beautiful feet and he is beginning to love me and even Oregon. I can see it in his eyes. He became my third horse when my friend Claudia decided, only months after moving to Oregon, that country life was not for her.
I don’t miss my old life or even my old dreams. Life has had its way with me and I am grateful.