Saving Stash - “Love at First Sight” Part 1.
by Holly Peterson
The decision to save Stash was not an easy one. You see, Stash is not "technically" mine. He belongs to my farms' lesson program. The bottom line was, he wasn't earning his keep and the program didn’t have the funds to fix him. No one likes contemplating putting an animal to sleep, much less a healthy animal. But Stash had a problem. While it was a seemingly small problem, it was a big problem for Stash…… but I guess we should begin by introducing Stash.
Meet Stash, JC registered as Padero Lane, a now six year old Off-Track Thoroughbred (OTTB). His story with me began before I ever met him.
In the fall of 2012, I was scouring the sales ads for a client who was searching for a horse for her daughter, when I came across an ad on Craigslist for a four year old OTTB. At first, even though I read through the ad, I skipped it. I wasn’t looking for me, I was looking for a young client that needed a steady-eddy she could learn and grow with. This boy was too young, had very little training other than the track, and the listing price was out of my clients’ price range. Something made me go back to look again, and again. He was such a handsome boy. Not at all what my client needed, but cute none the less.
There was just something about him that struck a chord with me. I knew I was in trouble when I kept checking back on the ad. One day I noticed an update towards the bottom of the ad- “FREE TO GOOD HOME. References required.”
Oh Lord, I knew I was in trouble when I felt that little bubble of excitement.
I proceeded to contact the owner. She told me about getting him from the track. He was going to be a project but was turning out to be a little more than she wanted to handle. She wanted to be sure he went to a good home, to someone with experience. I was all too happy to fill her in about how I was a trainer with my own farm, experienced with OTTB’s and looking for my next project. References? Sure! I was able to provide client, veterinary and farrier references. Which, she did in fact check. The bubble got a little bigger.
Padero Lane or 'Prince', as he was called then, was a few hours away from me so I had the owner send me video. With no apparent lameness, a consult with my vet and a plan, we arranged to meet. Of course I dragged the trailer along, you know, ‘just in case’.
It was December 2012. It had been a really wet winter so far, with a lot of rain. When we arrived at his farm, we were greeted by some really muddy conditions, puddle lakes everywhere and no real arena to try him in.
First impression was that ‘Prince’ was a really sweet boy. I touched him everywhere, picked up his feet, poked and prodded at him, all with no reaction from him. I started thinking he may make a great addition to my lesson program, with some training of course. I needed something slightly larger than my ponies for the lesson program.
After meeting him, we ran him around a little so I could see him move at liberty. No soundness issues present and he was a cute little mover to boot. That little bubble just kept growing.
Next step was to see him with a rider. At this point his owner hesitated and explained how he made her nervous. Since I just needed to see his reactions, I asked that she get on him first and at least walk him around for me. For a horse that hadn’t been getting worked, he was an angel baby. He didn’t do anything wrong. She walked and did a little trot for me. The worst he did was toss his head a little. It was the head tossing that was making her nervous. When I got on, he was perfect. He wasn’t doing anything other than what I call- baby-crap. The silly stuff all babies try to pull when they know they can get away with it. ‘Prince’ liked to toss his head because he figured out he could get away with it. A few minutes later, he’d settled the head tossing and was working well with me and never put a hoof out of place. I felt he had a lot of potential but offered him back to the owner.
“Are you sure you want to let him go? There’s nothing wrong with him. All I feel is all baby stuff.” She said she felt he would be better off with me, so we loaded him up and headed home.
He’s not perfect, he’s got his quirks. But, right from the first time I met him I knew he was special. We went right to work that winter on his ground manners, getting him started under saddle ‘our way’, and just getting to know him. It was in the getting to know him stage when we discovered his milk mustache. I couldn’t get over it. It was too cute. So began the “Got Milk?’ jokes with him. We played with variations of it trying to find a name for him because ‘Prince’ just wasn’t working for me. One day, I made the comment “I just can’t get past his ‘stache!”(moustache) We all knew we had finally found his name- Stash it was.
January 4, 2013 He had his very first official training session, in the cold and snow. Everyone who handled him loved him; there was just something about him. Long-time student, Miss Agnes, often volunteered her time to help me work him that winter. She was the first student to ride him, only a few weeks after he had started in full training riding him bareback in a halter and lead rope. He was proving to be everything I’d hoped him to be when I’d decided to take him. He was always gentle, never tried anything and just went.
By April, he was moving along well in his training and had started into the lesson program with my advanced students. He was even ridden by a five year old doing walk/trot. My hopes for him to be a lesson horse were looking good.
In May 2012, we noticed he was acting a little off. Not lame, just a bit stiff, so we called in the vet to check him out. She felt he was a touch foot sore and slightly sore though his hocks. So it was decided, with his track history and conformation, to get him started on joint supplements, both oral and injectable, as well as to put him in shoes. Back to work he went.
July was the start of our Summer Program Sessions and Stash was in the trenches, carting kids just like all the other lesson horses. You’d never have known he was ‘only’ five years old with only a few solid months of training and not a seasoned lesson horse.
The 2nd week of July, during our 2nd week of Summer Session, he was being brought in from pasture for a ride. But, when they brought him in he was so lame he could barely walk. He was only bearing weight on his hind-end! When I first saw him I was convinced he broke something, until I saw his shoe… He had somehow managed to rip off a front shoe in such a way as to embed the toe clip into his sole. Every time he tried to take a step the toe clip pushed further into his sole making it impossible for him to walk comfortably.
After pulling the shoe, and calling the farrier, we immediately started soaking it with warm water and Epsom salts. We figured there was no way he wouldn’t develop an abscess from the trauma to his foot. Three days later he got incredibly sore and gimpy. A visit from the farrier, vet and twice a day soakings, he finally blew the abscess two weeks later. We thought we were in the clear.
By August he was back to work, and just in time for the next Summer Session with my advanced group. He did great. He truly had the makings of a great school horse, but he didn’t seem quite right. Nothing obvious, nothing we could pinpoint. He did everything we asked, even started jumping that week. He just wasn’t “right”.
Our final Summer Session that year was a mixed group, including three autistic children. One of these children was Stash’s partner for the week and they both did an amazing job together. Little did we know at the time, but Stash’s relationship with this boy would ultimately be his saving grace.
It was during this week that he started exhibiting behaviors we hadn’t seen from him before, such as pinning his ears, nipping, refusing to move and swishing his tail. Originally we chalked it up to the work load. Our program gets very busy during the summer and all the horses get a little grumpy near the end, but with Stash it seemed like a little more. He’d also started taking trippy missteps in addition to the off attitude. Given his age, lack of experience in the lesson-horse field, and because we don’t believe in pushing horses until they are completely sour, we decided to take him out of the program for two weeks so he could just relax and be a horse.
It’s now September. Just when he was going to start back to work, he sustained an injury to his left hind leg that proceeded to become incredibly swollen and ultimately infected. The entire month of September was spent nursing him back to health with regular cold hosing, wraps and a combination of injectable antibiotics. He was not the most gracious of patients.
My 'free' horse wasn't so free, and I was starting to worry. It felt like all I had been doing was sinking money into him. Chiropractic work, joint supplements, shoes, vet exams, off time, injury, he was having more down time than work time and not earning his keep. These fears were furthered when it was finally time to put him back to work after his injury. Lame. He was head bobbing lame.
It's was now October. Stash finally seemed ready to go back to work. However, there's not a whole lot you can do with a head bobbing lame horse other than call the vet.
Lameness exam, farrier consults, pulling his shoes, back to the vet for nerve blocks all in an effort to pinpoint the issue. Was it just another abscess he couldn’t pop? No small amount if frustration later, we decided to x-ray his hoof.
The results were heart breaking. He had a small mass in his hoof and it was going to require surgery to fix.
Our vet called it a keratoma. I had heard of them but never had experience with a horse that had one. The next question was, what do we do and how much is it going to cost? The only options these horses have are surgery or be put to sleep.
A keratoma is a tumor in the hoof. A growth is not going to go away on its own. It’s only going to get bigger and more painful. At some point, if let go long enough it will also effect the bones in their foot. Stash was already displaying pain.
Surgery! I’d never had a horse need surgery before. I’ve been lucky. What was this going to cost? Estimates ran anywhere from $2,000-$3,000. It might as well have been a million. My program is small; it didn’t have those kinds of funds on hand for this. We keep a small, very small, reserve for emergencies but nothing close to this amount. We were also coming into winter with several other horses to feed and care for that had earned their keep all year. Even if we could scrape the money together, could I really compromise their care for his?
No one likes contemplating putting an animal to sleep, much less a healthy animal. But Stash had a problem, while it was a seemingly small problem; it was a big problem for Stash.
(To be continued….)