The Stars are Misaligned Tonight

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.  King Lear, Act IV

There are certain days that everyone will always remember.  People of my generation uniformly remember where they were and what they were doing the day that John F. Kennedy was shot.  My children’s generation will never forget 9-11.  For my parent’s generation, images of Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were burned into their brains.  But these were all public moments—John John’s salute, the mushroom clouds, the fall of the twin towers.  Amongst these more public iconic moments are the quiet ones, the ones that hit each of us hard individually.  For me, I think of the Challenger disaster, played out on the television screen in the waiting room of my department.  I tried to go on seeing patients as Christa McAuliffe, the first Teacher in Space, and her crewmates exploded before our eyes.  I had wanted to teach, and had dreamed of being an astronaut while growing up in Houston.  They were there, and then suddenly, they were gone.  The bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City was another of those moments—for me, that firefighter will be carrying that baby out of the carnage forever. Thirteen years after it happened, I dragged my youngest son to Oklahoma City to visit the museum, and to sit and contemplate one of the loveliest and saddest public memorial spaces ever built.

Today was another of those days for me as I tried to keep my patient flow going and stay on time while watching the Connecticut school shooting play out on my computer.  I can read the eyewitness accounts, and I can put my thoughts on paper, but it is the images, the pictures that will forever haunt me—the teachers and SWAT team members leading the frightened children, eyes and mouths open in terror, from a school which will never be the same out into a town that will likely never be able to celebrate Christmas again.  Where is the soul of a human being who can fire point blank into the heart of a child?  I asked my friend, who is a devout Catholic, “Where is God while all of this was going on?” She did not have an answer which I could believe or understand.  It rained a cold wet rain all day, here in this city where it never rains.

As I was driving home tonight I got a call from Daniel, my farrier.  Daniel never calls me at 7 pm on a Friday night, so I knew something was wrong.  He said, “Come home quickly, Gabriel called– Dash is colicking.”  Dash is my 27 year old Quarter Horse, recently laid up and on antibiotics for lymphangitis, an infection in his legs brought on by a late season of heat and drought which triggered a swarm of blood seeking flies.  Colic in an elderly horse who has never colicked before can be a bad sign—a stone perhaps, or a lipoma twisting the gut.  John, my horse vet for twenty years, got here quickly, sedated and tubed the old boy who is now resting comfortably.  I will be on horse watch for the rest of the night, armed with syringes full of painkillers and sedatives.  I know one thing for certain—this old horse has had a full, long and happy life—something those children who died today will never have.  It is almost midnight here.  Can this day be over soon?

He Was Just Lucky

Maybe it was the half-starved little bay mare I saw on the San Diego Humane Society’s website today, or maybe it was the sight of my husband cleaning his saddle, the one he hasn’t used since old Veronica died back in 2005—I don’t know—but something’s got me thinking about horses again.  And remembering the first one I called my own.  His name was Lucky T Bonanza and he was foaled in 1977, a grandson of the Quarter Horse legend Coy’s Bonanza, but when I met him he didn’t look like much.  He was underweight, under-exercised, and had big sores on his withers from an ill-fitting blanket.  And he was sixteen years old, not exactly a spring chicken but “well-seasoned” for the rank beginners that we were, and of course the price was quite right.  We bought him for my husband, since I was able to ride my kid’s Quarter Horse mare, Rosie, barely bigger than a pony at 14.2 hands, but plenty big enough for me.  I like my dogs big, and my horses low to the ground for an easier landing when I fall off!

Although a local horse trainer brokered the deal, we met the old man who was selling his horse.  Stiff with arthritis, he had swung his bad leg over that horse’s back one too many times, and had accidentally kicked the horse, spooking him, resulting in the old man losing his balance on the mounting block and having a bad fall.  His doctor said, “No more.”  For a few weeks after he sold us the horse, I would see him slowly winding his way between the corrals with a large bag of carrots in his hands, feeding the horses one by one, until the bag was empty.  After a while, he just didn’t come any more.  My husband rode Lucky a few times, but then there was another incident where the horse bolted, literally BACKWARDS into a pipe corral, ejecting my unfortunate spouse.    Suddenly, Lucky was for sale again.  But there was one problem—nobody wanted to buy him.

Now I am not a brave person—far from it.  I’ve always been quite cautious in fact—managed to make it to adulthood without ever breaking a bone.  But I am stubborn, and I’d be damned if I was going to feed and house a horse that no one was going to ride and that no one wanted to buy.  Besides, that horse just had the kindest eye.  So about two weeks into Lucky’s second time around “for sale” in less than a month, I announced that if no one else was going to ride the horse, I was.  I won’t lie—I had the trainer hold him steady the first few times I got on, but after that, there was no stopping us.  That horse was my good companion, my therapy, my “go anywhere—do anything” horse, except that he didn’t like getting his feet wet and so I learned to jump in a Western saddle.  Oh, and every so often when we were out on the trail, he’d break into a dead gallop, completely unbidden.  As it turned out, that was where the old man would gallop him, and old habits die hard with old horses.  My heart pounding, I managed to stay on, at least most of the time.  After a while, I had to buy a new house because my old one didn’t have a place to keep horses, and of course Lucky deserved a grass pasture.  When we moved we got him a girlfriend, big Veronica, an 18 hand Dutch Warmblood mare, a retired dressage horse that my husband adored.  He always said she smelled good.  She towered a good foot above Lucky, but he thought she smelled good too.

Lucky died at nearly 28 years old in December of 2004; he was loved every minute of the last 12 years of his life. Veronica joined him two months later at age 26, a grand old age for a girl her size.  But what of the old man who sold me my first and favorite horse?  As I mentioned, we saw him daily for a short time after we bought Lucky, and then no more.  One day, I was sitting having my morning coffee, and reading the obituaries, and there it was—“Dr. Sol Roy Rosenthal, dead at 92.”  Ninety two?  I was in shock.  That man rode that horse and galloped the trails of the San Diego back country until he was ninety two years old.  As it turns out, Dr. Rosenthal was actually famous, not just for one thing, but for two.  He was one of the original developers of the BCG vaccine, used extensively in Europe to help prevent tuberculosis.  But the other thing that he became known for was even more interesting—he believed that high risk exercise makes you live longer. He published extensively on this theory, and he galloped every day, and he lived to be 92.

Maybe he was just lucky.  But I think maybe he was right.

All the Pretty Horses are Gone

Somewhere in times own space
There must be some
Sweet pastured place
Where creeks sing on
And tall trees grow
Some paradise where horses go,
For by the love that guides my pen
I know great horses live again.
~Stanley Harrison

It was a tough week for the ponies, this one.   Earlier this week, Sandy Arledge lost her 30 year old black gelding Delmer, a grandson of the great Quarter Horse Poco Bueno.   Delmer was a fixture at Far West Farm for the past generation of children, who learned to ride on his gentle back.   And Robert Dennis lost Squirt, the old horse that taught his kids and grandkids to ride.  Here is his moving tribute from his, shared by Robert:

‘We lost an old friend around here. Squirt, a little half horse. Chance found him dead in the corral this morning….
He wasn’t real pretty, or of great conformation, but he sure made a lot of little cowboys and cowgirls happy over the years….
He was born on this ranch, out of a little Shetland mare. His sire was a half Quarter horse, half Belgian, we had raised and had not gelded as quick as we should have. He and Topsy, the little mare, had a fling and 11 months later, here was this tiny little horse walking around with this little squirt of a horse following her.
Dusty, my nephew, started him when Squirt was 2 and Dusty was about 13. I lead Squirt afoot while Dusty rode him, after a blizzard, and we went thru’ and over quite a few snow drifts to get him comfortable with a rider on his back. Not much longer after that, if Dusty pointed him at a telephone pole Squirt would try to climb it, so to speak. Once Dusty came in soaking wet as he had decided to cross the water in a creek where he didn’t think it was too deep. It was…..
Another time, I jumped on Squirt bareback to run the horses in the corral from a small trap. For some reason he decided to buck and when his butt went up, my head went forward and the his head came up… our heads collided in mid air. Some say I am hard headed… but not as hard as Squirt was! I fell off like Artie Johnson used to when he was riding his trike on Laugh In, years ago.
Squirt taught my 3 sons to ride and then moved on to the neighbors kids and then on to Dusty’s son and then on to another set of kids. He came back here a few years ago to train on my grandkids and was doing a good job.
He was never bad about bucking, but would kick up, especially in his later years when he was asked to move at more than a trot. All in all, he was a good feller…
He will be missed.”

Back to me now.  Not every horse is temperamentally suited to be a good kid’s horse, but when you get one, you know there is nothing in the world quite as wonderful.  I have one of these good old boys at home myself– named Dash, registered as Red Dee Lux.  We bought him when he was about 14 and he’s coming 28 in the spring.  He’s been a kid’s horse since he was three years old, which is saying a lot if you know horses.  His conformation is terrible—he was born over at the knees and it’s only gotten worse with age.  I haven’t been able to ride him for a few years—he stumbles if there’s too much weight on his back.  He can be ornery in the cross ties and he’s taken a couple of pieces out of me as I lean over to do his feet, but put a kid on his back and he’s as good as gold.
There is no happy face in the world like that of a kid on a good horse.  It’s better than drugs, and they will always remember the ride.

If Wishes Were Horses

For Missy

Is there any woman alive who can’t recite the old nursery rhyme “If wishes were horses,then beggars would ride”?  The line is etched into the memory of every little girl who ever wanted a pony, but its true lineage dates back to James Carmichael’s Proverbs of Scots circa 1628 when the original read  “and if wishes were horses, then pure (poor) men wald ride.”  In my post entitled “Nana”, I recounted my short though blissful riding career at age 10, ended prematurely by the illness of my grandmother.  During a brief college fling with a polo player (yes, he had a string of polo ponies and yes, his name was Julian, and yes, his family were Hungarian emigres of questionable political  heritage), I was treated to a ride at breakneck speed that started with an innocent giddyup and very nearly ended in my demise.  Ultimately I decided that I would prefer life and limbs intact and gave up on Julian and his horses that handled like Ferraris, but without brakes.

Twenty years went by– medical school, two residencies and three children later—I found myself as the Radiation Oncology director of a community cancer center equidistant between Cape Cod and Providence RI.  One day, I saw a young woman in her early thirties who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  She had elected to have a  lumpectomy and radiation, and when I saw her for the first time she had just completed her adjuvant chemotherapy.  I noticed two things about her immediately—the first was that despite her hair loss and other effects of her chemotherapy, she was beautiful, athletic, confident and in control of her body, her life and her situation.  The second thing I noticed was her bracelet.  It was perfect—a golden circle made of beautifully worked horses heads, eyes alert, nostrils flared, ears forward, manes flying, the horses of my dreams .  There was no way that I was going to ignore that bracelet. But first things first—the cancer.  We spoke about radiation, the risks, the benefits, the course of treatment, the side effects.  She told me her biggest concern was her little girl who was only three years old—she wanted to make absolutely SURE that I knew that she was going to make it, because she could not bear the thought of her daughter growing up without her.  I told her I understood perfectly, and I did.

At the end of our session, I could restrain my curiosity no longer.  I asked her about the bracelet.  She told me she had always loved horses, and that she had grown up riding on the Cape. The bracelet was a gift from her husband, as was her horse, Percy.  She told me she rode that horse every day, rain or shine, stopping only briefly for her breast cancer surgery, and continuing on right through her chemotherapy.  She said, “He keeps me sane”.  She asked me if I rode horses.   I said, “No, but I always wanted to—I just never had the money when I was a teenager, and as I got older, with career and kids, I just never had the time.”  She looked me in the eye—and said to me, “Well the time is now.  You never know what is going to happen.  You could end up like me, with breast cancer or something worse, when you least expect it.  If you’re ever going to do it, you should start NOW.”

That was it—my wake up call from a patient who was smart enough to see what I had missed and game enough to point it out to her physician—that the only time and the best time one is ever guaranteed is right now, right here.  The following weekend, I got my 8 year old daughter out of bed, made a beeline to the girls boarding school riding stable near our suburban home, and signed us both up for riding lessons. My 5 year old son followed in breeches, knee straps and short stirrups, and my 2 year old– ever the cowboy—well, when he turned three and got his helmet, he loped Old Ellie around Far West Farm much to the shock and dismay of the other boarders, to see such a small boy piloting such a huge animal, completely on his own.

Twenty one years have passed since I saw and treated that patient.  I left the practice to move out west in 1993.  But every year, at Christmas, I get a card from her wishing me well, and thanking me.  Always included in the card are photographs of her, usually on her horse, though Percy is long gone, and also photographs of her daughter, now grown and a beautiful young woman in her own right.  And there is always a gift, a little something “horsey” chosen specially for me– a picture frame, a Christmas ornament, a beautiful box of stationery, a silk scarf—with ” clouds of white stallions with bright fiery eyes”. Every year, without fail, there is that renewal of our friendship, and a reminder of what is important in life.

As for the horses themselves– Rosie, Lucky, Veronica, Harmony, Sissy, Romeo, Truffles, Oscar, Shorty, Besty, Norman and good old Dash—they’ve served my family well over a period of twenty years, carrying us over miles of trails, and through both adolescent and midlife crises. They are the best therapists—they listen without comment or criticism, and they never mind when you cry into their thick strong necks. Winston Churchill said  “No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.”  But I still think that J.D.Salinger said it best in The Catcher in the Rye:

“I’d rather have a goddam horse.  A horse is at least HUMAN, for God’s sake.”