Keep the Faith

Pirate has a huge fan club around the barn; he is the world’s best babysitter.

It is surreal the way a moment can change a life. It just doesn’t seem possible. You take your beloved horse on a hack up the road one afternoon, and suddenly it’s his last. In an instant, your world is turned upside down, and you walk through the days as if they, or even you, aren’t real. All you want is to wake up from the dream, or perhaps to stay in that state between sleep and awake before you remember what’s happened, and what you’ll have to face. Your reality can break your heart…and you start to wonder if it will break you.

 In January, I posted this status on my Facebook page:

 “It is with a heavy heart that I announce Pirate fractured his spine in a pasture accident, and at only 9 years old cannot ever be expected to be ridden again. On the outside looking in, it could be seen as a sickening waste of talent that was only beginning to be tapped into, and a horse that should be moving up to Advanced this fall and one day jumping around Badminton & Burghley will instead spend his days walking around a paddock with my sweet (and wild) old Laddy Pony. But there are so few people in this world who ever get the chance to sit on, much less own, a horse as brilliant in every way as Pirate. He has never said no, never done wrong, and spent every day of the past 6.5 years with me making all of this worth it for me. My career as an upper level rider ends with him as I always knew it would, because I have ALWAYS been more in love with the horse than I was with the sport…all the time when I thought I was falling in love with the upper levels of eventing, I was really just falling more in love with him. I will miss desperately the feeling of galloping around cross-country that only he – of all my mounts – could give me, the moment I know all is right in my world. But I am the luckiest girl alive to have this horse standing in my barn – making his goofy faces at feed time, politely grabbing my clothes as I walk by to pull me over to his stall so I can rub his ears, following me around like a puppy whenever he’s out in the paddock (because ever though to look at his X-rays he shouldn’t be able to walk, my tough Baby P walks around almost normally), STILL managing to break into the feed room and then look at me innocently with grain spilled all over the floor, and redeeming himself by being tolerant enough to let barn kittens swing from his tail. NO ONE has this horse…except for me. The best decision of my life was driving up to that track in Ohio in 2006 to buy “Bub The Scrub” for $600, and he gave me everything he had each day to make sure I’d accomplish my dreams….though I don’t know if he realized just sitting on a horse like him was more than I could have EVER dreamed. And I’ll have my Baby P until he is so old and grey it seems silly to call him that anymore, and I’ll remind him over and over of the unreal things he’s jumped, the big fancy horses whose butts he kicked in dressage, and all the fun we had galloping around the field in his fitness work pretending it was Rolex we were preparing for. Forever I will be grateful for the love of my life.”

 I couldn’t process what had happened to us at first. How could the horse I wanted to move up to Advanced this year suddenly be un-rideable – for the rest of his life? It was good-bye to the goals I’ve had since I was so very young, ones that were only becoming a reality because of this brilliant horse, but worse than that was the thought I would never sit on my beloved Pirate again, would have to see this beautiful soul confined to a small paddock for the rest of his days…a life that doesn’t seem fair for a horse like him, no matter how many people say that all a horse wants is food, water, and company. If you know Pirate, you know better.

 But as we all have to do in life, I had to pull it together, because just a few days after receiving this terrible news, I had CCI**** rider Francis Whittington flying in from England for a clinic I’d organized – all because I’d wanted him to teach me on Pirate. I couldn’t help but wish with everything in me that Francis could come at any other time but then, because it had to have been the worst POSSIBLE timing for me to have to pretend everything was alright….right? WRONG.

Goofy behavior with Francis…he kept my spirits up during a tough time.

 God has this strange way of always having the perfect timing, something He likes to prove to all of us now and then. He sent Francis over here at exactly the right time to get my head on straight, something my sweet friends and loving family had been trying desperately to do. Because while Francis was devastated for me, and did not for one minute make me pretend I was okay when I needed to fall apart, he also refused to lose hope – nor would he allow me to. And while the rest of us accepted what we thought had to be true – that all hope was lost, that Pirate had no chance of recovery – Francis stepped in and said I mustn’t lost hope, a quality that I’m sure has done a lot to get him where he is today.

 Aside from just being the mentor I needed more than I realized, Francis was there to teach…and heartbroken though I was, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. While I’d written the upper level career off, I’ve never for a moment thought I would stop riding. Even in the worst of it, the horses define me in such a way that, in times of pain, riding is the only thing I know to do, and even when they are the source of my tears, I have nowhere to turn but the horses themselves. I rode mere hours after being told Pirate was more or less finished, because what else was I to do? Riding always helps, even if you can barely see through your tears. So, while I couldn’t ride my Pirate with him, I wasn’t going to miss the chance to ride with Francis, and he coached me through several jump schools on both the wild little Appy and my lovely mare Gracie (Three Days Grace, who was shortly thereafter bought by the Johnson family – couldn’t have found a better home for her!!). He even hopped on Jaz himself, in muck boots I might add, and proved what I always suspected, which was that he could even make a donkey look fancy! (Sorry Jaz, you know I love you, little mare!). I hated that I couldn’t ride my super cool baby Geno, because he had undergone surgery just days before for shattering a bone just underneath his eye (my horses…I swear), but I had fun with the mares. The lessons were a great way for me to clear my mind a bit, and focus on something other than Pirate…which, though I didn’t want to, I needed to do.

 I also greatly enjoyed watching him coach my students in the days following. It was icy cold, but we made the best of it, although my students and friends did tease me for looking like a homeless person in the ugly green puffy coat I love so dearly. The 2-day SJ and XC clinic was FANTASTIC, even if we did have to cancel the private dressage lessons due to the freak ice storm on Friday. My students loved him and we can’t wait to have him back…we call dibs on your first free weekend after your autumn event season, Francis! ;)

 After 5 days, it was time to put Francis back on the plane, and with all the encouragement he’d given me, my spirits were lifted. I still had a very lame Pirate standing in my barn…but something remarkable started to happen, and very quickly. Pirate went from very uncomfortable and barely able to move, to walking around almost normally. The first few weeks of his injury (it was 2 weeks before we were able to put him on the trailer to get him x-rayed at a vet clinic, simply because I could not ask him to get on a trailer in his early condition), Pirate had no desire to get out of his stall; he was in too much pain. But he met me one morning ready to bust his stall down, the same bright Pirate I’ve always known, and seemingly overnight, much of his pain, inflammation, and neurological symptoms almost…vanished. He didn’t go completely sound right away, but suddenly he was marching around almost normally, even attempting to trot. It couldn’t have been coincidence that Francis had been so kind as to give us his own personal ArcEquine unit (he had brought it with him without even knowing about Pirate, planning – in the fashion of most horsemen – to use it on himself for an injury), and I’d started using it on P right away, wanting desperately to do something, anything, to help my boy. Time could only tell if it would help…and it would seem that it did, because not-so-slowly and VERY surely, I started to see “my” Pirate come back. With the guidance of my wonderful vets; the extremely generous Ian at ArcEquine, whom I thank for providing me with the ability to continue treating Pirate with his system; and one heck of a tough horse with more desire to heal than any horse or human I have ever met – I started to believe that something truly amazing might be able to happen.

Pirate is still his same, silly self!

 My vets know to keep the faith when it comes to this horse. Dr. Sage has said from the beginning that she believes in Pirate (it’s hard not to when you know him), and Dr. Blackwelder said that if any horse could come back from this (a very significant fracture to the C4 vertebrae in his neck), it would be Pirate. Dr. Reid Hanson at Auburn was kind enough to review his scans, and offered encouragement in his thoughts that, IF this heals back in the right way, Pirate could potentially get back to work one day.

 That was all I needed to hear.

 Through the months, my brilliant horse has amazed in ways I think only he could do. Vets, friends, students – all are astounded when they see him trot up, completely sound. Today, I shot video of my punk horse galloping through the pasture, bucking and leaping and altogether actin’ the fool, as well as taking himself on a good 15-minute trot set around and around the field…just because. There is still a long road ahead of us, and this could still go very wrong from here. He’ll get checked again over the summer, and we will see how things look then. I fully understand that, just because he’s sound now, doesn’t mean he’ll stay that way. I know that this doesn’t mean he’ll event again. But it COULD. And for now, that is what keeps me going every day…and I will hold onto it, not only for my own sanity, but because Pirate deserves better than to have me give up on him. I will wait for him as he would never stop waiting for me.

 A friend of mine said, back in January, that we rescued each other that day in Ohio. Thom couldn’t have been more right. Pirate is, without a doubt, the best thing that ever happened to me.

A very muddy Pirate grazing in his field.

 I’ve gotten choked up all over again looking back at all of the heartfelt responses to that post back in January. The outpouring of love and support from my friends, family, and fellow horsemen – some of whom I’ve never even met – is still overwhelming to me. I never realized how many people love that horse, but I know now, and I thank each and every one of you for your prayers and well-wishes. There is not a doubt in my mind that they have been as instrumental as anything my vets and I could do for him. I don’t go to church, but what I lack in religion I make up for in faith. For all we can do, I know God can do more, and this is in His hands now. So please, please keep praying…or if you don’t pray, keep hoping. But please, all of you, in your own ways, keep the faith. I think it’s really working.

 A huge thank you to Francis Whittington for coming over to teach us all in January, at what became the best possible time for you to be here. Thank you for the connection with ArcEquine, as well as for mucking stalls, feeding horses, corralling naughty ponies into their stalls and paddocks, breaking up ice in water buckets in our freak ice storm, and providing laughs during all of it. For patiently watching video after video of Pirate on cross-country, long after you wanted to go to sleep, for being my shoulder to cry on in the feed room that day when it all hit me at once that my life felt like it was falling apart, and for being the absolute best mentor I could have asked for. And most of all, for restoring the faith when I had almost none left. We’ll all be cheering you on from here next weekend, as you gallop around Badminton making it all look easy! And maybe, if a miracle does happen…Pirate and I will be there one day to give you a run for your money. ;)

“Until the day when God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words,—‘Wait and hope.’”

Huge thanks to Francis Whittington and wishing him the best of luck at Badminton Horse Trials next weekend!

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2 Responses to Keep the Faith

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