Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Heather Smith Thomas – Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Fahleen — Part Two: Losing a Friend

She always looked good at the vet checks.

Fahleen was with me for only 7 years, but in that short time this sassy chestnut mare earned a very special place in my heart. We were a team. She and I traveled hundreds of miles together riding range, chasing cattle, and doing some long-distance competitions. The first year I campaigned her on some 40- to 60-mile rides, she always finished in good shape and at the vet checks looked bright and eager, ready to go again. She always placed well in the lightweight division.

Trotting for the judge after a ride, showing her
eagerness, willing and ready to go some more.

But during the 60-mile Bitterroot Ride, our second year, we had a little accident coming into a checkpoint near the end of the ride. As we waited our turn to be checked, a young girl rode up behind us and bumped into Fahleen, causing my mare to jump sideways and collide with a parked car. Her hind leg caught under the bumper, taking all the skin off the cannon bone. She finished the ride without being lame, and one of the ride vets helped me clip the dangling flap of skin off her leg after the ride. There was a chance she might have bruised the bone, so I put cold water on the leg, hosing it for several hours, to reduce any pain or swelling. She traveled sound the next morning at the final vet check in spite of the injury.

Fahleen being checked by TPR crews
at the halfway point of a 40-mile ride

I suppose I was a bit rash, trying to use this particular mare for competitive distance rides, since she didn’t like strangers handling her at the vet checks. On our first two competitions I took her temperature myself, so the TPR crew members wouldn’t get kicked. But Fahleen’s attitude got better about the check stops, and by her third competitive ride she was almost nice.

She was fun to ride on these competitions because she really liked to go and she put her whole heart into it. Her tremendously strong trot was a joy to ride. You really haven’t lived until you’ve ridden a trot like that for 40 miles; it’s like flying! This was her kind of sport, and she loved it. Forty miles in 6 hours, 30 miles in 5 hours, 20 miles in 2 hours, even on a badly scraped hind leg. For pure heart and willingness and athletic ability, I’ve never ridden her equal — and she always looked good after a ride, bouncing and full of eager energy, looking like she could easily go another 40 miles and relish every minute of it.

After the first few competitive rides she got used to
other people taking her temperature at the vet checks.

She was an excellent range-riding horse for the same reason, carrying me 20 to 30 miles in an afternoon checking cattle. We covered a lot of country in a short time, to see all the cattle and check the water troughs, fences, and gates. In 1973, during the summer she was a six-year-old, I rode her more than 2,500 miles. Part of that distance was on competitive rides, but most of it was riding range, checking our cattle.

But I only got to ride her a few years. The spring she was seven, we started out great, chasing cows and riding range, and competing on one 40-mile ride (placing second in the lightweight division). I planned more distance rides that summer, but we never got to do that. True to form, she got into trouble because of her exuberant nature and high spirits. But this time it was serious trouble, and there was no way out of it. She was bucking, leaping and running, expressing her violent displeasure because I had walked through her pen to go catch one of the yearlings and hadn’t stopped to catch her. In this burst of activity she must have twisted her intestine, probably by charging full speed from one side of the pen to the other, stopping abruptly and then flinging herself off in another direction, bucking and jumping.

She put her whole heart into endurance rides,
and riding her was like flying!

As soon as she stopped her violent exertions, I could see she was in pain. She immediately began to paw and then to roll, breaking out in a sweat. I quickly put a halter on her and gave her an injection of smooth-muscle relaxant (the standard drug for colic, in those days) to help ease the gut cramping and relieve her pain. I walked her to keep her moving so she wouldn’t plop down to the ground and roll. Violent rolling can make a colic problem worse, putting twists in the intestine. She got better for a little while and then steadily worse again, descending into deeper pain and shock.

Our veterinarian came out to the ranch and examined her and suspected a twisted gut. But there was nothing he could do to correct this problem. Fahleen needed surgery, but at that point in time there was no facility for doing equine abdominal surgery at the local clinic. We would have to trailer her 140 miles to the closest equine hospital, over winding mountain roads, or take her 170 miles to another town in the opposite direction. She was in no shape to withstand that kind of trip.

Riding range on Fahleen: The summer she was six years old
we traveled more than 2,500 miles together.

So all we could do was treat her for shock and relieve her pain with drugs, walking her when the pain made her want to lie down and roll. She was cold, from shock and from being drenched with sweat, so we put a blanket on her. As the drugs relieved the terrible pain, she didn’t try so much to crash down and roll and thrash, and we were able to let her rest. There wasn’t much more we could do but stay with her, comforting her, easing her pain — as hope sifted away and we began to realize she wouldn’t survive this trauma. And a person does hope, always, even until near the end. There’s just something inside us that won’t let go until it is utterly hopeless.

She finally became too weak to stand, and my husband trudged to the house to get a gun and end her pain, but before he could return, Fahleen died with her head in my arms, trusting me. My brave, good mare, not afraid of death as humans are, but merely puzzled because her strong, young body was failing her. And as she nickered softly in those last moments before she went down, I had the feeling she was seeing things beyond me, something I couldn’t see.

She and I were a team, and good friends.

I’m too sentimental perhaps, but when Fahleen went out of my life, I realized I lost a lot more than a horse. I lost a good friend. And it took a long time to get to where I could think about her without tears coming to my eyes. The empty corral in front of the house was a constant reminder. I had to walk through it daily to go feed and water the other horses. I used to wake up in the night and look out the window just to check on her, to make sure she wasn’t lying too close to the fence, just to make sure she was okay after a hard ride or an exhausting day chasing cattle. I’d wake up to check on her and then realize she was no longer there.

Relaxing together at the noon stop; she was my best buddy

A hundred little things kept reminding me about her each day — the trails we traveled together, the wire gate out on the range that she caught her foot in and tore apart (I still think of her every time I open it, and we call it Fahleen’s gate), the place on one trail where she spooked at a grouse flying up in her face and nearly lost me, and so on.

She's always in my heart, and I'm glad that her life touched mine.

Many years have passed since I lost her. Time has blunted the sharp pain of loss, but not the wealth of memories. She taught me a lot; she fine-tuned my horsemanship and understanding of horses and gave me much more than I was able to give her. I’ve raised, trained, and ridden many good horses, but she was different, and very special. Like the teacher who is exasperated by (and yet eventually so very proud of) the smart-aleck kid in class who ends up being head and shoulders above the rest, I feel glad that I knew her, that her life touched mine, that for a while we traveled our paths together.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

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