Cowboy Changed Me – Quality of Life

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

After being introduced to Cowboy, making him my own and spending many month of working him through basic ground work I eventually got on his back. Despite acting as an unpredictable and explosive horse in the beginning, he had been exhibiting calming behavior with me, was good with the farrier, and was excellent under saddle… until… one day he showed me his explosive behavior. While in a relaxed, loose reign Cowboy exploded into a violent buck. I started him back at square one with ground work to where he was doing well again. Unfortunately he exploded with just the halter and saddle on and injured himself badly. As he was recovering I was really starting to think that there might be more to Cowboy than what he was letting on.

The Sacroiliac Joint

On August 16, 2021 Dr. Thorn showed up for Cowboy’s follow-up and to give him his second dose of Excede (as prescribed by Dr. Richardson at Pilchuck). Dr. Thorn and I went over Cowboy’s Bute dosage and wound care. Since Dr. Thorn likes to allow the wound to breathe. It’s what I was taught when working for the Vet, sort of an “old school” way of thinking, but seems to be the most affective way to heal. We came up with a plan to not wrap his leg, but continue to scrub the wound as I had been doing several times a day. Cowboy’s appointment was at 11am in the morning, which allowed Dr. Thorn and I a bit more time to talk about Cowboy than we had the last time.

I told him the story of how Shawna had gone to upstate New York to ride Cowboy with Shelly. That was when Shelly was bucked off of the other horse. The funny thing is that Cowboy was calm as can be while the other horse was freaking out. Shawna liked Cowboy so much that she bought him and shipped him to our Island where she planned to use him as a trail horse. After Shawna had Cowboy for a while, she wanted to learn Dressage and started to train with Audrey. I was months after Shawna bought Cowboy, and a few months after Dressage training started, that he bucked Audrey off. Shortly after, he bucked the other woman and she broke her pelvis. Shawna had lost confidence with him, and sold Cowboy to me. I told Dr. Thorn about how Cowboy wasn’t aware of my personal space at first. I mentioned how he was cantering with his left hind leg crossed over his right, and how he would fall down sometimes. I talked about the ground work I put in and eventually got on him then was bucked off. Then his bucking while tied up just a few days later. I covered how I worked on building up his hind end and worked on cavalettis then the jump before he injured himself bucking for 40 minutes. Dr Thorn listened to it all and asked clarifying questions when he felt he needed a bit more information. It was a lot to cover, and a lot for him to take in.

As I was talking Dr. Thorn walked around Cowboy touching him on his neck, his back, and his legs. As I was finishing up, he stood directly behind Cowboy and said “See how his left hip is lower when he stands?” then he added “I don’t know if that’s his injury or if he has a sacroiliac joint problem.” I asked if that explains his leg when cantering and he responded with “It could be.”

Dr. Thorn suggested that I follow-up with Dr. Perkins once we get the leg completely healed up. We talked about treatment options and when Audrey walked by, I stopped her and told her what he was saying. She mentioned that there was a horse she knew with sacroiliac joint problems that got an injection and he was good to go. I had renewed hope for Cowboy in that moment.

Vet Checkup With Dr Perkins

For the next two weeks I visited Cowboy two, sometimes three, times a day. Checking his temperature, running cold water on the wounds, scrubbing them, rinsing with diluted Chlorhexidine, and finishing with the wound repair I had bought. I continued to help Rumor (Alyce’s Daughter who cleaned stalls daily), Lauren (the one who cleaned on the weekends, and who rode Cowboy on the trails when Shawna first had him) and Audrey keep Cowboy’s stall clean. There were times that the stall was filthy (by my standards) so I found myself pulling out a lot of the shavings and replacing them with new. With Cowboy’s leg remaining unwrapped, and he was in his stall 24/7 I wanted it to be kept spotless.

Cowboy’s temp was holding steady throughout each day and his wound was healing up really well. It felt like Cowboy was pulling through this and on his road to recovery.

On August 28, 2021 I took Audrey and Alyce to a nice sushi dinner in Seattle. Unfortunately I planned the night at the same time there were two major sports games going on. T-Mobile Park had a Mariner’s game and at the same time Lumen Field had a Sounders game. We spent a good part of an hour driving around the area trying to find parking (including a wrong turn through the new 99 tunnel). I finally gave up when I passed down Edgar Martinez Drive S and pulled into the garage across from the stadium. Alyce and Audrey say to each other “Does that sign say ‘event parking $70’?” I spoke with the attendant who told me the price (confirming the $70) when both Audrey and Alyce yelled “Noooo” at the same time, and we all broke out laughing. I explained to the attendant that we have dinner reservations and have been driving around for an hour. She said “oooooh, you picked the wrong night to go out for dinner.” Audrey and Alyce both laughed again. The attendant took a minute then said “Let’s do this, go ahead and pull up to that spot right there and I’ll charge you the motorcycle rate.” I said “Deal” and gave her my credit card. Thank goodness my Mini Cooper fit in the motorcycle spot.

At dinner, Audrey and I made the call to move Cowboy back up to his paddock. He was showing sings of getting antsy in his stall, so it would be good for him to be able to walk around in the confined space just outside of his stall. Instead of walking him up and down the hill, I made a plan to walk him around the long way to the arena down the more gradual slope. This gave him the opportunity to walk a bit more as he continued to heal up.

Beth had scheduled Dr. Perkins for a standard farm call on September 1, 2021 (just a few weeks after Cowboy returned from Pilchuck. I included Cowboy on that visit so that she could check on him and I could talk to her about his sacroiliac joint. When it was our turn, I told her the story of Cowboy bucking around the arena for 40 minutes in more detail. I followed with the joint infection, going to Pilchuck and what Dr. Richardson had done. I added that Dr. Thorn looked him over and mentioned the sacroiliac joint as a possible cause of all of this bucking. She said “We were talking about him on the way over here and that was going to be my next suggestion. I really don’t know what else it could be.” I replied “If it’s not that, then maybe he was started as a bronc and turned into a ranch horse and then for trails.” She perked up and said “Yeah, that’s definitely a possibility.” then she looked down at Cowboy’s injured leg saying “It’s healing up really nice”. She then looked at his back “We could give him an injection and see if that helps with the bucking.” she added. I quickly jumped in and said (sort of sarcastically) “I really don’t want to go through the ‘see’ part with him.” We both sort of chuckled and then I asked “Is there some sort of test we could do to know for sure?”

“You can take him to Rainland in Woodinville and get a bone scan done.” she said.

“Will we know for sure then?”

“Yes.”

She wrote me a referral for him to get his bone scan (Nuclear Scintigraphy) at Rainland in Woodinville. I was feeling hopeful that this could be the last piece of the puzzle.

Alyce was there as Dr. Perkins was looking in on her horses as well. Gaelen had recovered from his colic nicely but needed a hock injection. Alyce asked me how Cowboy is doing so I told her that he is healing well. I mentioned the bone scan that I could have done for him. Of course, that would take another trip, but this time in Woodinville (not as far, but just as long). I asked if she was up for a couple more road trips (there and back) and she was happy to help me out.

I bathed both Moe and then Cowboy so that he would be clean before going into his scans.

When I called Rainland in Woodinville to get Cowboy’s bone scan scheduled they told me that it would be a few weeks before they would have the room for him. Thankfully this gave me plenty of time to work with Alyce in getting our schedules figured out to haul him there and pick him up at the end of the week. I spent the time with him healing up his leg, walking him more and more each day and trotting him a little. We also continued with bending, leading around and switching up, backing up and all the other basic groundwork we had been doing from day 1. With all of this time spent he had became a dream at the wash rack with the hose to where I was able to bath him while tied up no problem and I could pass the boom over him without him panicking.

In all of our walking around, Cowboy had learned to just pay attention to me and follow without any prompts from me. I could walk, stop and back up and he would just do the same. All while remaining directly to my right. On September 19, 2021 I spent some time and braided his mane to try to get it to lay down, and on September 22, 2021 I posted this photo of him on Instagram of him putting his head on my shoulder and stretching out his neck (something he did quite often). Our relationship had grown very solid to where Cowboy not only trusted me, but he learned that he could really rely on me to be there for him.

Getting Cowboy’s Bone Scan

Getting Cowboy to Woodinville was much easier than that time I had to get him to Snohomish with one day’s notice. On October 3, 2021 we dropped Cowboy off at Rainville in Woodinville, WA. I took some photos of where he was staying for the week, and home we went.

Cowboy was with the Vet for a week, getting his bone scan scheduled and waiting for the results to come in.

On October 8, 2021 Dr. Robert V. Fleck left a voice message for me:

I immediately called the Vet back, but there wasn’t an answer so I left a message with them. I texted Shawna immediately and told her that the Vet called and said that there was a lot going on. I then called my Mother to let her know what was going on and to get a pep talk from her while I waited for the Vet to call me back.

The Diagnosis

At 11:32 am that morning (just before I was leaving to meeting Alyce to pick Cowboy up) I was able to talk to Dr Fleck on the phone. He went over all of the damage that was showing in the scan in detail.

He repeated what he had said in the voicemail. Cowboy’s neck, shoulder and pelvis all were showing damage. We talked about the scan showing his recent injury in his left hock, but his stifle was showing damage as well (from his recent injury, or possibly from something before we don’t know for sure). He mentioned some osteoarthritis in his head (where the neck and head connect, just below the ear canal) which had caused a sharp bone spur that was stabbing him constantly. He also talked about the sacroiliac joint showing some problems (as expected). He said that he needed to be retired, or possibly allow small children to ride so as not to put much pressure on him. I mentioned his history of violently bucking under saddle, to which he agreed that Cowboy wouldn’t be a good riding horse for anyone. He mentioned that the ground work I had put in was showing in his behavior. He mentioned how they would ask him to put his hoof in a certain position and he just did it and held until they moved him again. He was surprised that Cowboy would be dangerous, but also understood why he would be bucking when he was in such pain all the time.

We talked about possibly pasturing Cowboy to live out his days. Dr Fleck mentioned a few different pain meds in combination that we could put him on and at the fourth med I stopped him and said “I want to be realistic here and do what’s best for Cowboy. Do you think it would be best to put him down?” he immediately responded “Yes” and added “When you consider the quality of life for him, it would be the best option for him.” I asked him some more detailed questions and he added “You don’t have to make any decisions right now.” I then said “That’s good. I’ll pick him up today and keep him as comfortable as possible while I figure things out.” I then thanked him and quickly drove to the barn to meet Alyce.

My short 2 minute drive down the road, a left turn onto the property and down the dirt road I fought back tears. I pulled up to the barn and saw Shawna bringing her saddle into the tack room. She had just finished up her lesson that morning. I hopped out of my car and jumped into Alyce’s truck and she walked up to the driver’s side and opened the door to get in. She must have noticed the sad look on my face because her smile dropped immediately. I said to her “Get in, and let’s just go.” I added “I spoke to the Vet who did the scans and it’s really not good.”

Alyce closed the door and we drove around the corner as Shawna was coming back out of the tack room. I forced a smile and waved at Shawna so as not to worry her before I could talk to her in-person. Alyce said “What’s going on?” and I repeated what Dr Fleck and I talked about as best as I could, but probably did a horrible job explaining since it was all spinning in my head like a bowl full of letters not ready to put into words yet.

The drive there took us roughly 2 hours as I tried to make sense of what was going on and wracking my brain on what to do with him. I knew that I definitely was not going to do any more circles with ground poles or cavalettis. Cowboy was going to get all of the treats I could give him and all of the love I had to give for as long as I could. I wanted to be sure I was making the right decision on our next steps, so felt I needed to consult with Dr. Perkins and Dr. Thorn.

When I arrived at Rainville, I walked into the office and told the girl at the front desk that I was there to pick Cowboy up. She walked Alyce and I into the back where he was and I poked my finger through the bars of his stall saying “Hi buddy” while holding back the tears and the crackle in my voice. He sniffed my finger and made his little “er er er” sound when he is happy to see me. I turned to the front desk lady and said “Can I pay my bill now? … or?” She responded “Sure! You can pay your bill now if you want.” As we walked back into the building, Cowboy let out a big whiney and Alyce said “Awww he doesn’t want you to go.” I turned back “That was him?” She said “Yeah, that was him.”

“Awww” I said as I looked back, but continued to the office.

As I paid the bill the girl in the office told me how much they loved having him there. He was such a sweetheart and very well behaved. I told her how I had done so much work on him, and gave her the quick run down on all that we’ve been through so far. She said “You can tell that someone loves him for sure.”

When Alyce and I drove off and arrived at the ferry dock to wait in line for the next boat, we had some time to look over the scans and paperwork that was sent home with me. Some of what was in there made sense from my days of working at the Vet just out of High School, but it still seemed like greek to me. Alyce spoke to her Daughter, Rumor, while she was finishing up her stall cleaning duties at the barn. Rumor had asked what was going on with Cowboy since Shawna had talked to Audrey (with Rumor there) just after I texted. Alyce told her a very quick version of what was going on while I Googled some of the terminology that was in the report.

What The Report Said:

  • Left hock mild-moderate diffuse IRU
  • Right forelimb elbow, shoulder and navicular mild IRU. Elbow 27% ROI shoulder ROI is 11%
  • Left forelimb navicular mild IRU
  • Left hindlimb stifle and hock IRU
  • Pelvis both SI regions moderate IRU
  • Neck/Head Dens intense focal IRU (Vet notes that this is more intense than acceptable).

I had texted Shawna the above bulleted list that afternoon and mentioned the possibility that I would need to put Cowboy down. That evening we followed up with a few texts as she tried to make sense of what was going on as well. Shawna and I had a planned lunch for the next day with another lady at the barn and Alyce, so we decided to wait to talk about it more then.

That night I was utterly exhausted both mentally and physically. I had such a big and difficult decision to make ahead of me and I just couldn’t fathom how I was going to possibly be able to do it.

From the injury to his leg from 40 minutes of bucking around the arena, the $7,800 vet bill to fix it, through the process of healing him up then another $2800 for the scans, we had both been through a lot. Who would have thought that after all of that time, love and money that he had so many issues going on that he wouldn’t ever recover. Those short three months turned into the most stressful and worrisome that I have experienced in a very long time. In the end, I was relieved to finally know that Cowboy wasn’t an “asshole” but that he was a kind and gentle horse that did his best not to let his pain show. That when he couldn’t take it anymore he just wanted people off of him and that saddle gone too.

I ultimately ended that time with an entirely new understanding of him but with a dread of what was going to come of him in the weeks following.

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