Cowboy Changed Me – Is This Really Goodbye?

In September of 2020, during the Covid pandemic, I bought a Horse. Though I only spent just over a year with this older ex-ranch horse, the red roan gelding taught me so much during my time with him.

This is that story

I was introduced to Cowboy in August of 2021 and purchased him in September (that following month). While some people called him “crazy” and some called him an “asshole”, Shawna (his previous owner) and I were certain that there was something more to him that was causing his unsafe behavior. From September 2020 through February 2021 I had spent the time starting him over with basic ground work and eventually got on his back. Cowboy had been so responsive under saddle as we focused on just walking while I was riding him and working on getting him supple. We worked on yielding to the leg and building up his hind end as well. It was the second day that we trotted while in a relaxed, loose reign, that Cowboy exploded into a violent buck. As a result, I started him back at square one, but shortly after Cowboy had another explosion, this time with just the saddle and no one on him. During that time, Cowboy injured himself with a puncture wound that lead to a joint infection in which surgery found pieces of wood lodged in his hock. While the Vet was checking him during his recovery, it was discovered that he could have a possible Sacroiliac Joint issue, but the bone scan test for it showed so much more. The decision had to be made to put Cowboy down.

The First, Second and Third Opinions

After Cowboy’s bone scan (Nuclear Scintigraphy) at Rainland Farm Equine Clinic in Woodinville, WA (just a ferry ride and 1.5 hours drive from the Island we live on), I spoke with Dr Fleck on the phone just before leaving to pick him up. Dr Fleck said that Cowboy’s sacroiliac joint was showing some problems as expected but his neck, shoulder and pelvis were all showing damage. In addition to his recent injury showing in his left hock, his stifle was showing damage as well, which could have been from his recent injury, or possibly from something before (we don’t know). There was some osteoarthritis showing in Cowboy’s head, where his neck and head connect which had generated a sharp bone spur causing a constant stabbing. It was obvious now why he was bucking the way that he was.

Towards the end of our conversation, Dr. Fleck agreed that it would be best to put Cowboy down.

While I was coming to terms with the decision, I wasn’t ready to make that call quite yet. I wanted to talk with Dr. Perkins (Cowboy’s Vet throughout Shawna and I owning him) and Dr. Thorn (who discovered the Sacroiliac issue).

I emailed Dr. Perkins a copy of the scans and waited for her response. A few days after, she responded with “I think it’s reasonable to put him down….or just turn him out, but I wouldn’t feel obligated to do that especially not knowing if and when these things could affect his overall quality of life.”

“Quality of Life” those three words rang in my head as I flashed back to being a fly on the wall for so many conversations that Dr. Nichols had with owners of his patients 30 years ago. I left my job, working for the large animal Veterinarian, because of the people. The owners of the horses, dogs, cats, etc. that I came across during my time there were frustrating. So many times I saw people deciding to put their animals down when they still had some time left, and so many times I saw people prolong their animals suffering when they should have ended it. Was I making the right decision with Cowboy? Was I saying to just be done with this when he could live a comfortable life as a pasture pet for someone? Perhaps that is what was supposed to be of him when Shawna bought him. He was a retired ranch horse being sold as a trail horse, but maybe they had it all wrong then. Maybe he shouldn’t have been ridden at all.

As I spoke to friends and family about the situation, we seemed to come to the same conclusion. As I thought about “quality of life” for Cowboy, what sort of life would he have as we managed his pain as best we could through so many medications? What if I found a nice home for him in a pasture and over time they think he’s ok because of the nature of how he doesn’t show his pain, and then ride him again? I couldn’t bear for him to continue to suffer. I was even feeling guilt for what I put him through with all of the work to build up his hind end. The cavalettis and then the small jumps. Hindsight is 20/20 and I know I can’t go back and change anything, but I also couldn’t help feeling guilt for what I had put him through. The least I could do at this point is listen to the Vets now that we know more about Cowboy and make the best decision for him.

I had texted Dr. Thorn the same day that I emailed Dr. Perkins and heard back from him on October 13, 2021. It was around the same time I had gotten Dr. Perkins’ email. I met Dr. Thorn in his office on the Island to go over the scans in more detail with him. He looked through the scans trying to make sense of what all was in there, and read the notes sent from Dr. Fleck. He looked up for a moment and said “Bone scans are informative, but should be used as a guidance and not a definitive diagnosis.” at that moment I leaned forward to listen intently to what he was saying, “The scans will get darker where there is heat. Usually from inflammation due to an injury, infection or possibly a tumor of some sort.” We looked at the scans together and he pointed out all of the darker spots that were showing up in Cowboy’s various body parts as we read the hand-written notes that were jotted down in various places by Dr. Fleck. Dr. Thorn pointed out a few bad spots, and also noted the left hock where Cowboy was recently injured. He leaned back and said “It appears he has osteoarthritis of the cervical articular facet starting with C2 and C3.” I looked puzzled, but also intrigued since this is the part of the conversation I truly enjoy. I missed learning “veterinarian things” (as I call it) since I stopped working for the Vet 30 years ago. At that point Dr. Thorn explained how the joint connects. Like a sort of hinge that locks in just below the ear canal that connects the neck and head. He pulled out an old text book he had and opened up to some diagrams of the horses head and neck as he pointed out where the joint is located. I asked him if that’s why Cowboy liked to put his head on my shoulder and rest. He excitedly replied “Possibly. Yeah!” He then asked if I wanted to see a horse skull, to which I exclaimed “Yes! Do you have one?” He jumped up and pulled on a string that was hanging down from his ceiling. “I have a few of them!” He exclaimed as he unfolded the ladder and climbed up into the abyss that was his attic just above his desk.

I could hear him fussing around above me as he moved things around and dug into, what sounded like, boxes. “Here it is!” and he came down quickly with excitement. He then showed me where the joint connects on two different skulls. One of the skulls had the bone spurs he was talking about. “Is that the ear canal there then” as I pointed to the funnel shaped hole where the horses ear would be. He said “Yes, and see where it comes out this side just where the bone spurs are poking?” as he pointed to the other side “Some horses will have trouble hearing which causes them to start spooking when they weren’t before.” I said “That would explain why he was so focused on everything outside of the arena and not on me when I first got him.” Dr. Thorn replied “Possibly, Yes!”

Everything in that conversation was explaining Cowboy’s behavior for the last year. I pulled out his past paperwork from all the Veterinary workups, massages from Donna and the chiropractic work that Shawna had hired to be done. Stiffness in the neck was consistently mentioned throughout all of the documentation. I said to Dr. Thorn “The first time he had his feet done with me, his neck felt like a rock.”

“Oh really?” said Dr. Thorn.

“Yeah, I thought it was tension from stress or anxiety from being shod. That’s when I started working on his lateral flexion focusing on coming back up high rather than down low.”

“That’s good.” he responded.

It was all coming together in that 2 (almost 3) hour conversation I had with Dr. Thorn. I felt like the pieces of the puzzle that were missing were finally found. They had just been lying under the rug just next to the table where we could barely see them. We had just lifted up the corner of the rug, and viola, there they all were and now we were just finishing up the puzzle.

Unfortunately, this also meant that Cowboy was damaged beyond saving at that point. Dr. Thorn came to the same conclusion that the others had. He said “I will support you if you decide to put him down.” also mentioning “quality of life” during the lengthy conversation. We decided on a general timeframe for Cowboy to coincide with Dr. Thorn’s schedule on (and off) the Island. He would be gone for a few weeks and agreed to text me when he was in town again to make arrangements.

Horses change lives. They give our young people confidence and self-esteem. They provide peace and tranquility to troubled souls, they give us hope.

Toni Robinson

Should I Go to Veterinary School?

Back in August, as I was going through the conversations with Dr. Perkins and Dr. Richardson from Pilchuck (the emergency facility in Snohomish) for Cowboy’s joint infection I had mentioned to my Mother that I sort of missed that Veterinary stuff. My heart races and my blood pumps with excitement when I get into conversations regarding wounds, surgery, after care and all the in-between. My Mom said to me “Why don’t you go back to school?”.

I had a moment of panic when she uttered those words. I am 48 years old. I make very good money in my well established career at Microsoft. Not to mention I wasn’t the best student 30 years ago when I finished with High School, and College wasn’t much better. All the things I mentioned to my Mother in response to her statement to which she retorted with “People go to school when they are older all the time. Some even find they do better.” she added “You did well in the classes you were interested in. Maybe now you’ll have a different mindset and be able to learn easier.”

From August through October (when Cowboy got his scan results) I seriously thought about going to school. I know I don’t want to leave my job, but my role allows me to work from home which provides me time to study. If I take 1-2 classes a quarter then it shouldn’t take away from work, and should be just enough that work wouldn’t take away from school. I also reminded myself of why I left working for the Vet in the first place. I can’t stomach sitting idly back as I watch people abuse animals and expect the Vet to “fix” it. I couldn’t go through not saying something as they put an animal down that still had some life, and keep animals alive when they shouldn’t be just because they don’t want to live without them. I couldn’t bear seeing puppies and kittens being bred by puppy mills and backyard breeders and not be able to put a stop to it. If I were to become a Veterinarian, then it would be purely for me. Not a career, but because I just want to learn. I could possibly use the D.V.M. degree to volunteer in organizations like H.A.R.T., spaying and neutering in the villages to help control the rampant populations.

The possibilities are endless, and the reasons why I should do it were outweighing the reasons not to. There were no excuses left.

The Photo Session

In the weeks following, Cowboy was given pain medication to help manage things. He also got all of the love that I could possibly give him. I drove to the barn 5 days a week, sometimes twice a day, to either give him some loves and treats or spend some time going for walks around the property.

There were no more expectations of him other than to follow me around like a puppy dog and get showered with love.

I wanted very much to take the time we had to have memories of Cowboy that would last forever, so I scheduled Rick Dahms, a local Island photographer, to take photos of Cowboy and I together.

On Halloween 2021 (October 31st) Rick arrived to get some photos of Cowboy and I. Audrey was kind enough to let some of the others at the barn know we would be there and to give us some time. She wrote it on the calendar so that we could have the arena and the time to ourselves.

Rick set up the big light between the wall and the middle of the arena and I walked Cowboy up to it as he flashed it a few times for him in hopes that there wouldn’t be any drama. Cowboy perked up, but then settled back down as if the light was just a nuisance rather than a big scary monster out to get him. He stood with his body towards the end of the arena and then looked to the right of Rick and the light as Rick snapped the first few photos.

I previewed the first few photos, and they were exactly what I wanted. I wanted to try to get the same pose, but with his nameplate on his halter. Rick moved the light a bit and I repositioned Cowboy as Rick’s wife tried to get his attention (so his ears would be up). The next set of photos proved to be much more difficult as we moved Cowboy, shook the whip for attention, snapped the shot, previewed and tried again. We started to realize that that right ear (the one he would shy at, and had the plaque build up in) might have been hard of hearing due to the osteoarthritis (bone spurs).

We did manage to get some good shots, however I also noticed that his nose was “crinkly” (as I call it) and he was reluctant to put his ears forward. Perhaps this was because he was uncomfortable even just standing in the arena. I was also noticing that my senses are now a bit more heightened as I am now more aware of his very subtle queues of discomfort.

A couple of the ladies who owned horses that were boarding (and in training with Audrey) showed up to ride. Since we were taking a while, I told them they could use the arena as we moved to the barn to get photos of Cowboy with his saddle. When we moved into the barn and got all set up, I hid a few treats in crevices of the saddle and Rick snapped a lot of great photos with the fancy new custom saddle I bought for him.

Our final shots were back in the arena with the light and the saddle on Cowboy (though not cinched up so as not to hurt him). I got into the shots this time with him this time so we could have our relationship forever stamped in time.

It was a Tuesday

Shawna had told me the story of when she had to put her older horse she had prior to Cowboy down in his last days. She had a friend haul Cowboy to her place on the South end of the Island and walked him slowly up the hill. Dr. Thorn had put her horse (Mac) down, and he was buried up on her hill. Shawna had a large statue of a horse placed over Mac’s grave to where she looks up and sees him whenever she wants. I thought it would be nice to have Cowboy next to Mac if Shawna was comfortable with it. I called her to bring up the idea, and when talking to her she offered the space before I could even get the words out. Shawna and I had seemed to always be on the same wavelength when it came to Cowboy.

On October 29, 2021 (2 days before Cowboy’s photo session) Dr. Thorn texted me that he was in town for a few days. I didn’t want to try to schedule him that Sunday after we took the photos, as I wanted us to have time, remembering my first rule with horses “Horses have all the time in the world, so don’t ever be in a hurry.” so I tried to get everyone involved coordinated for Tuesday November 2, 2021.

Throughout the day that Monday I texted Alyce to get ready with her trailer and texted Rich (who’s Brother Dave helped me get Cowboy to Pilchuck) to see if he had a backhoe to dig the hole and bury Cowboy. Once they were confirmed, I called Shawna to let her know we would be there around 10:30 in the morning. Soon after I talked to Shawna, Dr. Thorn confirmed with a phone call and we discussed the details of how we would do this. We can’t use the “pink stuff” as I call it (during my days at the Vet) on the Island as it will contaminate the groundwater. We discussed a gun shot to the head. I was worried about Shawna sitting in her house and having to hear it. He also presented the option to give Cowboy a heavy sedative and then inject another into his spine to complete the process in a very humane way. I liked that option, so we planned out the details of when to meet and where.

After a sleepless night, Tuesday cam sooner than I ever wanted it to. I scheduled Alyce with the trailer for 10:30am, so I drove up 45 minutes before to give me time to get Cowboy and spend a bit of time with him. I drove down the road and turned onto the dirt road of the property. As I bipped and bobbed through the potholes I felt my eyes tearing up. I pulled up to the lower barn by the arena and saw Audrey and Beth talking by the arena wall. I learned a trick that if you clear your throat it will stop the tears. Something I had to do often in the tech world I work in so as not to cry in meetings (sometimes I cry because I get angry at someone/people and can’t for it is inappropriate in a corporate environment with mostly men). I began clearing my throat with one “hem” quickly followed by another.

I parked my car still fighting back the tears for fear they would see me. Audrey looked over and shouted “Hi Jenn.” while she waved. I responded “Hi!” trying to keep my voice from crackling. I walked past quickly, around the corner of the barn and up the hill to where Cowboy and Moe were. I unclipped the latch for the door and opened it up to the small barn and the view of my two boys looking back at me from opposite ends as they always do. Moe let out his usual “” and I lost it.

I sobbed.

The kind of sob where you can’t catch your breath. The sobbing that’s reserved for extreme loss of a loved one or family member. I sobbed so hard that I couldn’t even get enough breath to clear my throat and stop it, so I just let it happen.

I told myself “It’s ok to be sad now.”

I leaned on the rail of Cowboys paddock as he buried his head in me using his nose to get into my hair, my jacket collar, and then my arms. I reached up and went to hug his head as he pulled away… because… he’s Cowboy. He then put his head down for me to rub all of the favorite spots. I sobbed while we went through our usual routine. Rub the eyes. Rub between the eyes. Rub the side of his face. Rub under his head.

I took a deep breath and grabbed his halter one last time. I unclipped the stall guard and dropped it to the ground and held the halter out for him to put his head in. Cowboy dropped his nose into the halter and I slipped the top over his ears and clipped the throat latch buckle. I said “Come on boy.” as normal as I could muster up for him and lead him across to tie him up. I unclipped his blanket one last time and slipped it off of his back. I grabbed his brush and started to curry his fluffy hair he was growing from the cold fall air. Then the soft brush to smooth out the now ruffled coat from the circular motion of the curry brush.

I stepped back and took my phone out for one last photo.

I loaded my pockets with two large handfuls of treats and walked down to the lower barn with Cowboy. I wasn’t sobbing anymore at this point, but had tears coming down my face as I walked up to Alyce waiting for us with her trailer. She looked at me and said “Do you need a hug?”

I nodded my head, fought back tears some more and said “Yeah.”

She put her arms out and Cowboy and I walked up to her so I could get a hug. Audrey walked up to us with tears welling up into her eyes and said “Well, he may have been a pain in the butt but he was a good boy.” as she held back tears and put her arms out to give him rubs and pets. She added “At least we know why now.” and we all talked about the last few weeks for a bit. Audrey mentioned that she was noticing the pain he was in now that we know. She said he didn’t want to go out onto the hill with Moe and while the 28 year old Moe would run to come for his food at mealtime, Cowboy always walked very slowly. His discomfort was very clear, despite the pain meds we had him on.

I loaded him up into Alyce’s trailer and followed her in my car to Shawna’s house. I don’t remember if I talked much that morning, or if I was silent. I think I was in a state of lull most of the day from that point on.

When we got to Shawna’s I pulled Cowboy out and handed Shawna and Alyce some treats as we shoveled them into his mouth and gave him lots of rubs. I don’t remember what we talked about and I don’t remember how we made it to the top of the hill where Mac laid to rest, but I remember Dr. Thorn driving up to Shawna’s and making it up to the top of the hill where we were. I do also remember Shawna and I talking about where we wanted to lay Cowboy. She said that it was up to me, but I wasn’t in a mindset to make any decisions while holding his lead line with him on it eating grass. I remember sort of waving my hands and gesturing where he could be while we talked about it. Shawna went down to her house because she couldn’t bear to witness him going down. Alyce stayed to keep me company.

With just the three of us there, Dr. Thorn began the process with a shot in the neck. I hugged his head and said “You’ve been a good boy Cowboy.” There was a pause for a few minutes while it took affect on him. Then another injection into the bloodstream. There was a pause from Cowboy again and then he wanted to lay down. I held his lead line and let him stumble his way down to a sleep. I said to Cowboy loudly “You’re a good boy” to ensure that he would be able to hear me through all the sedatives. Dr. Thorn took the large needle for Cowboy’s spine and asked me to check his reflexes for him. Somewhere in the process I was in a different mode. It was almost as if it was 30 years ago and I was back working for Doc Nichols monitoring a horse during surgery. Cowboy slipped away as I checked his reflexes and I repeatedly said “Good boy” loudly while rubbing his face.

Cowboy's final resting place
Cowboy’s final resting place

At that moment Dave one of their workers showed up with the backhoe to dig Cowboy’s final resting place. Dr. Thorn showed me on a skull he had brought in his truck where he injected into Cowboy’s spine and I, once again, was fascinated to learn and ask questions.

While Dr. Thorn and Alyce left, I stuck around as Dave dug the hole, pulled Cowboy in, and laid the dirt back over him. Dave had dug up a large stone while digging and set it aside to lay on top of Cowboy’s grave as a nice marker. A gesture that did not go unnoticed.

Dave and his helper pulled away and Shawna and I chatted by the site one more time. When we walked back down the hill I turned back and took one last photo of his home.

Final Thoughts

I learned so much from my one year with Cowboy. I learned to listen more when it comes to what horses are trying to say. I learned that when a horse is acting up, and my gut instinct is that there is something going on, to listen to my gut and keep trying. The bone scans are a procedure I will definitely consider earlier if I end up in a similar situation. I would rather spend the money earlier to get a better picture than keep on with the massages, vet exams, x-rays, chiropractic work, etc. I understand now that nothing I did could have changed the outcome. I also feel comfortable in that I did everything I possibly could at each step in the process. Shawna and I meet now and again and talk about things. We comfort each other in that we both did they right things given the situation we were in at the time.

I have enrolled in school to start over again. I have a long term goal, and plan, to do my best to get through school while still maintaining my job at Microsoft. I am looking for another horse to be Moe’s companion, and to provide a good home for. I know a little bit more of what to look for in what those horses I look at for the first time are saying. Are they in pain? Have they been mishandled? Will I be a good place for them in the future?

It’s inspiring how a person can grow so much in one year with the influence of just one magnificent creature.

A true horseman does not look at a horse with his eyes, he looks at his horse with his heart.

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