When our horse, Albert, passed away in May, my sister, Leigh, offered words and images that helped me move into, with, and through my grief. In her health care practice, hospice volunteer work, and honoring ministry for people and pets, there’s a common thread of accompanying people through transitions. In particular, she’s devoted to nurturing the bond between people and animals. She is also an artist. Her photography and artwork reflect these themes, too. The photos of Albert in this post were taken by my sister over the course of his life with in our family.
My horse died yesterday, sometime in the early black hours when morning is still night. Or maybe just as dawn was breaking.
I should say our horse not my horse. The litany of Albert’s belonging goes like this:
He belonged to my family – my daughter, my husband, me. During our first twelve years of becoming one, he belonged to us. He belonged to every child he ever taught and every kid that ever lifted up a kitten or a puppy to his nose. Every bird that ventured into his space. And, to every man, woman, and child who brushed his mane, mucked his stall, or put hot compresses on his eye. Albert belonged to his friends: Winter, Woody, Dart, Latte, Mia, Lily, Norman, Bo. He belonged to every grieving woman he attended, and there were many who brought their suffering hearts to his stall after the loss of a mother, a grandmother, a child, a marriage, or a horse-companion of their own. Whether they know it or not, Albert also belonged to every person who ever read Chancey.
Our horse passed peacefully.
I imagine he finally lay down because he was exhausted. In the last weeks of his life, he could not sleep on his feet because his feet wouldn’t hold his weight. He shifted continuously, resting one foot then another. We built him a bench, and he used it.
The bench could not reverse the damage to his legs from torn tendons or to his feet from laminitis. He lost weight. Neither bench nor stall rest nor fresh, cut forage could stop his body from breaking down. And so, I imagine he finally fell asleep and fell down.
And, I imagine, too, there are angels who rejoice that God has appointed them to accompany equines to new pasture or sea or mountains. That’s the kind of angel I want to be. If people get to ever be angels.
There’s a lot that I want to write about: practical information about preparing for a horse to die, his last day which I did not know was his last until it was, and the good fortune of having a good vet. I want to write about some of the children who knew and loved Albert.
So there’s your warning. I’ll likely be writing an awful lot about our horse, even though he’s gone.
Right now, I think I’ll just remember him. Remember what a good life he lived. What a blessing he offered to me and to so many.
I’m writing this post on a plane to Portland. This morning in the security line two people cut in front of me – a grown woman and a teenage boy. Tit for tat goes against my personal code of conduct, but I shook my head and, nearly shouting, said, “Dude! That’s so not cool to cut in line. I mean, really, it’s just uncool.”
I tried grabbing my outburst by the tail, hoping to coil that beast right back to where it originated, so I could pull it out and examine it later. My heart is suffering, and a suffering heart sometimes cloaks itself in wrath. The part of me that tries to do better by folks than I did by those cutters almost explained to them, “My horse died. And, I’m so sad.”
But, I just turned away, took off my shoes, and then put them back on.
All horses need to be able to rest their feet, take a load off occasionally. For Albert, this has become nearly impossible, because he can’t get up from the ground any longer. This must be hard on him and frustrating, too. He used to love to roll. Not a half-roll, but a full roll. He’s never been a horse that has reclined often, but now he hasn’t much of a choice.
With his recent leg and foot problems, the need to get some relief from his weight is key to his recovery. Recently, our vet suggested that we build him a stall stool, a place where he can sit down and rest his legs. One of her clients with an older horse built such a stool, and it’s been of great benefit.
This past weekend, my husband and I set out to build a chair of sorts for Albert. I searched the web for more detailed instructions but found nothing. Maybe there are other old horses who could use a stool, thus this long post describing exactly what we did and how.
We started with this:
and finished with this:
Here’s how we got there.
2 eight-foot 2 x10s (cut in half at Lowe’s and cut again at the barn)
2 1/2 inch exterior wood screws (1 box)
1 inch foam (cut to fit bench seat)
Foam spray glue
Fabric spray glue
Muslin fabric for inside cover of cushion
Indoor-outdoor fabric for outside cover of cushion
Total cost: less than $100 (my awesome mother-in-law gave us fabric and foam for the cushion.)
Total time: 7-10 hours
Description: This is a simple corner stool made with 2 x 10s. The purpose is to give our a horse a place to rest for short periods that allows him to easily transfer his weight up and down.
Step 1: Take Measurements. Select which corner of your horse’s stall to build the stool. Take two measurements to be sure the seat will fit into the corner.
The most important measurement you need is how high the stool should stand. Our vet suggested that the seat hit six inches below the end of Albert’s butt, where his hamstring muscles start. Measure from the ground to this point. That’s the height of the seat. Albert measured 37 inches from the ground to this muscle group. With the foam cushion his chair actually sits 39 inches high, but we’re expecting that his weight will compress the foam.
Step 2: Purchase and gather all of your materials for the bench and the cushion. Some questions to answer while you’re planning, before you purchase materials:
*Are there stalls on either side of your horse’s stall? Select screws that will hold your bench but won’t break through to the other side.
*Do you have a power source to plug into or enough battery-juice for your tools to complete the project?
*How will you cushion the bench?
Step 3: Cut the boards for the seat and the sides. Dry fit the pieces into the stall.
Step 4: Secure the boards in place. Each of the side boards is screwed to a corner wall with 3 rows of 3 2-inch screws. The seat is made from two boards cut to fit the corner then wood-glued and screwed together. There are two scrap pieces on top of the seat keep it stable.
Step 5: Add padding and cover. There are countless ways to cushion the bench. We chose to make a cushion with foam and indoor-outdoor fabric. We cut the foam pad to-fit using 1 inch foam, batting, and indoor-outdoor fabric. We made a cushion, then stapled the cushion to the bench, then added board scraps to strengthen the union between the cushion and bench AND to cover the staples. These photos show the progression of cutting, fitting, binding, and attaching the cushion. We had a little trouble getting the fabric perfectly smoothed out. Also, this is an indoor-outdoor fabric, so we can wipe it down no prob.
The key question: Will Albert use the bench? I went out this morning to check on him, and when I got there Albert was already turned out in his recovery-paddock (aka the round pen). But looky here:
Well, what do you think? Have you seen other stall stools? I’d love to hear about them. If you have pictures of a stool you’ve built or questions or suggestions or ideas, I’d love to hear them.
My awesome husband, Bubba, did all of the math, measuring, and making of this bench! I was his assistant and the official photographer. A great outcome of this project: not only does Albert now have a place to lean and rest, but I got to spend the entire weekend Friday – Sunday, every hour in there with my husband. That’s a rare and wonderful treat.! (Thank you, my baby.)
Ok, one last pic.
This week’s follow up visit with the vet brought good news tempered with a reality-check. Albert’s doing better but he’s not all better. After seeing the good doc: Albert’s Lily pads came off of his feet. His front legs are still getting wrapped every day, and his RX regime is geared toward pain management and recovery from the laminitis and healing his two front tendons.
He has a ways to go yet.
His dietary change to a low-starch grain and Safe Starch cut forage is agreeing with him. TEAM ALBERT at the barn is outstanding. Everyone really cares for him and feels genuine affection for the old man. And, we’re putting his team to work: leg wraps, crushed pills, special food, and topical ointments.
More good stuff:
He’s drinking water. He’s curious and interested in what’s happening around him. He’s nickering at everybody he sees and standing right up at the front of his gate where he doesn’t miss a thing. He’s asking to turn out. So, after this week’s check up he’s cleared to graze alone in a small paddock.
Some challenges remain. One of the biggest ones: getting him off of his feet so he can rest.
To help him rest, here’s our weekend project:
As recommended by Albert’s doctor. The goal? To give him a way to rest his feet, since he can’t get down to the ground or up any longer. [Don’t worry, the actual bench will be padded. This picture was kindly shared by our vet via another family under her care.]
My baby is making the bench, and I’m his helper. We started tonight: measuring the stall corner, measuring Albert hamstring to ground, and discussing right-triangles over tacos and guac. Well, Bubba discussed the geometry of the whole thing. I nodded and reached for more chips. I’ll post pics and instructions for replicating after the bench is complete. Wish us luck and good angles!
Yesternight, my daughter often said when she was little.
She liked to make these perfect words,
at that age when precise oddities
of language were so precious.
Yesternight, so dreamy,
so full of possibility already sprung free
from the imagination,
now, today coming into being.
Yesternight, sacred like vespers
sweet like whispers
of horses named Norman, July Johnson, and Dartanian
pure like prayers for mules and cow ponies
who don’t like needles
who need their alfalfa chopped
and a place to be free
she called me, while I sat in a meeting
thinking about today and tomorrow
and too many numbers
Mom, I met a horse named Puddin
She won’t eat
She’s lost her back teeth.
I fed her with my hands,
my daughter told me yesternight.
Now, I can’t stop dreaming of the place
where Puddin and July Johnson or whoever of them needs to
share a field, share a long breath
with me and her and, maybe you,
can come spend all their yesternights.
An Interview with Deborah Sensabaugh of Virginia Mountain Outfitters
About three years ago, I had the joy of meeting Deborah Sensabaugh of Lost Creek Farm in Buena Vista, Virginia. Lost Creek Farm is home to eighteen working equines ranging in age from eleven months to thirty-nine years young, with the majority in their mid-teens to late twenties.
The first time I met Deb my daughter and I used our spring break to volunteer to clear trails through Back Country Horsemen of Virginia with Deb and her mules in the Jefferson and George Washington National Forests. We’ve returned to ride at Lost Creek Farm and House Mountain several times since, but never enough.
Going out into the mountains with Deb is so much more than a trail ride; it’s an education in southern tree history, an introduction to the trustworthiness of mules, a spiritual restoration, and a primer in conservation. She is a woman who lives out her values. Deb loves her mountains and, as director of Virginia Mountain Outfitters, she cultivates forest appreciation by her every action. She is the current chair of the Back Country Horsemen of Virginia, a group that celebrates trails, equines, and God’s creation. She also coaches the Washington and Lee University Polo Club, hunts with the Middlebrook Hounds, and serves on the Virginia Horse Council Trails Committee. Deb is a Leave No Trace Master Educator with pack and saddle stock, and also is certified in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP). The Virginia Horse Council recently honored her with its annual Equine Industry Service Award.
In this post, Deb shares some of her experience in caring for geriatric equines.
Gi: You are such an advocate for good, individualized geriatric care for equines. Tell me why this issue is so important to you, and why it should be for every horseperson.
Deborah: In many cultures, if you save a life, or “take on” a life, then that life is your responsibility, no matter how inconvenient, involved, or lengthy the care. In our EAP work, we see many families in which human life is not honored with love, care or attention– much less animal life. So it is an intrinsic part of our ethic here that all life is honored– if we can show our clients by example that even the animals deserve that respect, then through their relationship with those animals, they may allow themselves to find healing and a sense of self value.
Gi: You’ve had equines at Lost Creek Farm live to forty-one years. At what age do you start to consider a horse or mule geriatric? Does that vary according to breed?
Deborah: It varies according to the individual condition of the horse or mule. Those who have been high performance (endurance, jumpers, cutting, reining, barrels, polo) might reach “geriatric” designation a lot earlier due to job stress on joints and tendons. Most horses show arthritic effect and joint wear and tear between fifteen and twenty. As with any equine ownership, the key is to know your horses better than you know yourself.
Your equine will tell you when it is time to slow down. I was whipping hounds off one of my retired endurance horses. When attempting to mount up again after opening a gate or freeing a caught hound, this horse uncharacteristically moved around, shifted his weight, etc. He was uncooperative, and that signaled to me that something was going on with him physically. I had to get myself out of the way and take a good hard look at what I was asking him to do — and then retired him from hunting/jumping when his back and hocks proved arthritic.He then began beginner polo on the flat and is also one of our best psychotherapy horses — but more about jobs for old guys later.
Gi: The last time I was with you in Buena Vista we talked a good little bit about the special needs of older equines. You’ve studied this area and applied some feed and pasture management strategies to create a more natural, supportive lifestyle for your old ones. How do you feed older horses or mules differently?
Deborah: The two watchwords are:
Because of decreased gut mobility and absorption of nutrients in older horses, I tend to supply more vitamins, micronutrients, richer feed choices than for the younger guys. My eldest critters are thirty-eight and thirty-nine— nothing much left but incisors— so they eat soaked hay stretcher and Triple Crown Senior (or other chopped grain products). They aren’t real happy with that, so I turn them out every night to gum up some grass. I have got to watch their weight– they are too plump at times!
Gi: What I love most about Lost Creek Farm is the way your fields are cut, giving a beautiful blend of open pasture and woods. Your paddocks look natural and interesting to me. What about that works for your horses and mules? Is this blended landscape intentional for their quality of life or simply working with the acreage you’ve got?
Deborah: The majority of my work is in two areas– guided trail rides for our local tourist industry and equine-assisted psychotherapy.
The confusing nature of the trail rides (mostly inexperienced riders) necessitates lots of relaxing and very natural [off-duty] “down time” for my horses and mules. They can roam and play at being “wild horses” as much as they want, and actually be a functioning herd with a herd leader and their own choices. Every time I catch them up (generally daily), they come to the barn as a herd and we re-establish our relationship as they come in and I tie them up (submission to capture) and feed them (I am the overall herd leader), we re-enact the human-equine bond, which is nearly as old as our species.
In our EAP, we want our horses to interact with the human clients out of this bond. They have got to be able to be themselves in order to relate to humans who are often uncomfortable being themselves. So our more natural approach works very well for what we do.
Gi: Tell me about pasture management best practices for the geriatric equine? What are the considerations for turn out, grazing, topography?
Deb: Some shelter from cold rain and wind (although my old guys do better in the elements than some of my fine-coated guys); no special topography limitations as the exercise they get while grazing hillsides and rougher terrain keeps them physically fit. I would watch too much rich pasture– founder is still something to watch for. My horses basically live outdoors year-around, with weather considerations in cold rain, sleet, etc. When I do put them in, they roll, eat and get dry, and then let me know that they would prefer to be outside. Once again, the watchword is: get myself out of the way and look at life realistically from their point of view.
Gi: One of my horses, Albert, is somewhere in his twenties. I think of him as an old man, even though he may live a good ten years or more. He’s mostly blind, he has arthritis, and his teeth are coming loose. I work closely with my vet and barn staff to make sure Albert has a nutritious and easy-to-chew feed, and we watch the social dynamic in the field. Everyone pays attention to changes in his right eye, looking out for tumors. What are some of the more common, chronic conditions you’ve observed in geriatric equines?
Deb: Arthritis, hoof changes (often how your horse’s hoof grows, changes you observe in the shape and growth patterns will indicate arthritic changes in joints up the leg and into the larger joints such as shoulder, hip, etc.). Very old horses have little hoof growth and if soil is rocky, they may need shoes to protect their feet. I watch for digestive issues– the manure will tell you so much about how the digestive process is working (or not); watch urine stream for force, color, etc. Exterior tumors are a concern — don’t just turn the old guys out and ignore them, but give them a brushing and a good look-over frequently; watch eye color, pupil cloudiness, etc. You also watch for Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), also known as Equine Cushing’s Disease – the dreaded pituitary imbalance (too thin and can’t get weight on him, or long sometimes curly, hair that does not shed out easily).
Remain a part of their lives, and you will notice when they present a different pattern that could signal a physical issue.
Gigi: Given some of the issues that we figure will present in our aging horse or mule, what roles do wellness and prevention play in maintaining quality of life?
Deb: If you have the privilege of having that animal its entire life, you can assess its physical downward trend and take measures to prolong its overall usefulness. My endurance/whip horse’s mother lived to forty-one; he is going on twenty-five. So a couple years ago, I began backing off on my physical demands for him, in order to preserve his mobility while at the same time coming up with useful jobs for him. Plus, he is my natural herd leader, so without him the herd loses a lot of direction. It is imperative that he remain as sound and healthy as possible for years to come. On the other hand, I’ve got rescue animals whose nutrition and overall health care was compromised for years. They may not age so well. We try to make up for that gap and do what we can.
Gi: If Albert was my grandmother, I would also be thinking about his independence and self-esteem. Do you know what I mean? Living independently, contributing to the family, and feeling good about your role are keys to quality of life at every age. We know about this in people. In later life, sometimes people become isolated or feel useless, and when they do, they deteriorate. I sense that Albert needs to feel valued and needed, too. I don’t think self-esteem is uniquely human. Does maintaining a high self-esteem figure into equine geriatrics or am I totally projecting…what do you call it …anthropomorphism?
Deb: Never minimize the psychological needs of equines. They are intuitive thinkers, and just because they can not talk about their needs or wants, and are generally willing to go along with most cock-eyed human schemes, they do have needs of their own. The idea of having a job to do, no matter how small, gives them the impetus to survive well beyond their expected life span, like humans. Our very wise veterinarian has always reminded me to keep an old horse moving, and give him a job to maintain his health and well-being. And he is right. It is working!
Gi: So we’ve talked about feeding, pastures, independence, and prevention. I think we’re just scratching the surface probably. What am I missing? Oh, I know what I’m missing. How do you judge when it’s time to let go of an old horse? Is chronic and unmanageable pain the best indicator?
Deb: This is one of the most difficult issues right now, especially in these economic times with more than 100,000 unwanted horses in the US today. Here [at Lost Creek Farm], chronic pain is the main indicator we use, along with prognosis and quality of life. There are no redemptive qualities in the suffering of an animal.
Last year, we lost two horses– one forty-one years old and no longer able to digest even the best and finest ground food properly; the other was plagued by flesh-eating bacteria in a club-foot on which he could no longer walk well — even the opposing leg and hip were becoming arthritic. He was in his mid-twenties and could still get around, but the infection was systemic and cancer was a distinct possibility. His personality was changing as a result of the increased lack of mobility and pain. There was no mistaking it, so with much regret we had to let him go as well — with respect and dignity. I still miss them both every day.
There is a therapeutic riding center I know of that routinely euthanizes horses in their late twenties because they simply can’t afford to feed them and don’t set that need as uppermost in their goals and ethics. So I guess it is different for all owners and caretakers, depending on individual ethics. I was always taught to care for your horse as you would like to be cared for—even if it means you have to do without to provide that care. So here expense is never the issue— but prognosis and quality of life is.
Here, when it is time to go, the horse knows it and so do I, although it is a decision that haunts me even when there is no other alternative. I keep telling myself that when I step on the shores of Heaven, the horses who have chosen to partner with me in life will be there to greet me. I guess I will know how successful my theories are by how many of them choose to affirm me at the gates!
Gi: Thank you so much. I always learn from you and enjoy your company (even via e-mail)!
To read more about caring for older horses, check out these fact sheets.
From Rutgers University Equine Science Center:
From University of Minnesota Extension Program: