The new year started out great. I joined three other ladies at Phelps WMA for a lovely 8-mile ride. I knew one lady well, but the other two were new to me, so we spent most of the ride just walking and chatting. As it turned out, one lady knew part of the park very well and I knew another part of the park well, so between the two of us, we managed to create a wonderful figure-8 that would be perfect for conditioning purposes - lots of small to medium-sized hills, a couple of water crossings, and a few places to let the horses stop and grab a bite of grass.
|Nimo and I after our ride|
During the first week of January, I didn't get any riding in until Saturday. At the time, I was starting to putz around with a new aquarium, and I admit my focus was on that instead of riding. By the time Saturday rolled around, the very lovely 40s and 50s we'd had all week plummeted to the low 20s and we got a bit of a blizzard. Because I'd procrastinated about riding all week, I sucked it up and rode during the snow for about an hour. I had planned to take Nimo around the trails on the farm where he is boarded, not realizing that apparently it was the last day of deer season, so there were several hunters out. I tried to move to a different section of the farm to stay out of their way, but Nimo threw a fit at a water crossing and absolutely would not go across it, even though he's done it dozens of times. I either had to get off and drag him across or head back to the arena. I decided that I would try to salvage the ride with some arena time.
|Riding out in the woods at Nimo's barn|
The next day, the temperature barely cracked 20 degrees with winds only someone from North Dakota could love. Thankfully, I had already planned to have lunch with a couple of friends, so I didn't feel compelled to ride. Not so thankfully, as I was leaving the restaurant, I got a call from the barn - something was wrong with Nimo. The staff working that day were not knowledgeable about horses, so the best information I could get was that Nimo had eaten his breakfast, there was no sign of trauma, and something wasn't right with his hind end.
I drove home, took care of a few things that needed to be done quickly and conscripted my husband into driving me out to the barn, so I could focus on diagnosing my horse before I'd even seen him. By the time we got there, I was borderline hyperventilating and I'd convinced myself he was colicking and dying. I cursed myself for not bringing the truck so I could quickly hook up the trailer and take him to the nearest emergency clinic and I mentally reviewed my parameters for what we could pay to treat any problem and where I would draw the line for euthanasia.
I tried to keep it together because my daughter was with us, but I was worried sick. I grabbed a few treats from my tack locker in case I needed them to convince Nimo to move, checked his feed bucket to confirm it was empty (he was fed dinner between the call with the barn and me getting out there, although I wasn't sure if they had brought him in or fed him in the field), and walked as fast as I could to Nimo's field. On the way, I caught a glimpse of him and saw two perky ears, which went a long way toward alleviating my concerns. I came around the manure storage area, which has an 8 foot fence, and finally could see all of Nimo. He was standing near the fence, alertly watching for me. As I got to the paddock gate, he started walking toward me, and it became obvious that he was very lame on his right hind leg.
I took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on what I was seeing. He was happy to move forward, but he definitely had a grade 4 lameness (he was only using the toe of his hoof to bear weight and using it as little as possible). As he got close enough for me to touch him, I looked for any obvious swelling or blood that would mean I shouldn't move him any more without stabilizing the leg. I didn't see anything, so I decided that because he was willing to walk, I would lead him to his stall, which wasn't too far away, so I could do a better examination.
I got him to his stall and carefully palpated his whole leg. I didn't find anything until I felt some heat and swelling at the coronet band. At that point, I thought the diagnosis was clear. Nimo had an abscess that was trying to burst out through his coronet band. That probably explained his behavior the day before under saddle. Even though I didn't feel an unevenness in his movement, that abscess was probably causing at least pressure and making him reluctant to move well.
Nimo has only had one other abscess, and that was about 10 years ago. Interestingly, it was in the same hoof and I remember that for about 2 weeks before we knew he had it, my trainer had accused me of riding so poorly that I was making my horse lame. Then, Nimo manifested the usual lameness that looked like a broken leg and the abscess burst out of his heel bulb in three days. For that abscess, I kept him turned out and did no soaking. My vet had advised no Bute, turnout as much as possible, and no soaking unless it didn't resolve fairly quickly or he was in too much pain to move and eat. I know there are different ways of addressing abscesses, but I decided to stick with what had worked before for him. So I turned him out, gave him a little more hay than usual in the run-in shed (there are round bales in his field, but I typically give him 2 flakes of alfalfa in his run-in shed at night because all of his field mates are stalled at night and it is a way for me to balance the orchard grass hay that the barn feeds), and let the barn owner know the situation.
After a couple of days, Nimo started to gradually improve with respect to the lameness. After 6 days, he appeared sound at the walk to me, but I could find no evidence that the abscess had burst in the location I'd first identified in the coronet band. We did have a lot of mud that week, so I thought maybe I missed it somehow because all of the hoof tissue was softened and maybe the abscess had come out a fairly small hole?
I had a lesson on January 15th, so I thought that would be a great opportunity to have a second pair of eyes evaluate Nimo's movement to make sure he was sound. He felt great under saddle, and we had a really nice lesson. We did lots of walk to canter transitions and he worked pretty hard. My instructor saw no sign of lameness.
But it was weird - I mean, I had expected severe lameness for 1-5 days and then immediate soundness after the abscess burst and drained. It was bothering me that I couldn't find the point the abscess had come out and it seemed unusual that he'd had an almost linear improvement in his lameness over the course of the week. Yet, he seemed sound. I rode him barefoot on gravel and rocks and he was fine. I did a couple of conditioning rides and he was fine. So I put it out of my mind.
|View from the ridge at the Shenandoah River State Park|
I admit that I didn't take this call as seriously as the last one because I was convinced it was the same abscess that had somehow not come out the previous month. When I got to the barn, there were indications right away that this was different somehow. Another boarder was at the barn taking care of her lame horse and she mentioned that Nimo was laying down in the field and he didn't get up when she'd gone out to see him. Nimo doesn't lay down in the field. He rolls sometimes and there are signs that he does lay down for short periods, but I have never seen him lay down during the day and stay down. I have owned this horse for almost 14 years, and I have never seen it. Which is not to say that it has never happened, but I'm out at the barn a lot.
I grabbed some treats and his halter and asked if the other boarder would come with me. She did and we walked out to the field together. Nimo was standing when we found him, but he had clearly been laying down in the hay next to the round bale and he did not move forward at all when he saw me. He was putting zero weight on his right hind leg. It was just lightly resting on the toe, but I could see all his weight was on his other hind leg. He took the treats I offered, but made no effort to move forward. He was in extreme pain.
Despite that pain, I knew I needed to get him in his stall. I palpated the leg before moving him in case there was trauma, but I found nothing specific. He was, however, generally painful no matter where I touched the leg. He was very sensitive to even the slightest touch.
I asked the other boarder who had come with me if she would provide some encouragement from behind while I tried to lead Nimo. She agreed, but we were largely unsuccessful. Nimo did not want to move. We got him a few steps forward and I sent the other boarder for a whip. I hated to do it, but I needed to get him out of the field. (Note to self: Have multiple gates on each side of a long field for ease of removing an injured horse. Nimo was literally right next to the barn, but I had to lead him around the perimeter of the field to get to the nearest gate.)
While I was waiting for the other boarder to come back with a whip, I realized I had fallen into an old habit - using force. So I tried just using a super happy voice and asking Nimo to move forward and telling him how awesome he was. Guess what? He absolutely moved for me. He sometimes just took one step at a time and then rested, but I managed to lead him what seemed like miles just with an encouraging voice. (Note to self: Trust matters with horses and it is worth spending the time to develop it for just this kind of situation!) It became clear, though, that he could not put any weight on the right hind. He was mostly hopping on his left hind.
It broke my heart to watch, but somehow, we got to his stall. I set him up with hay and water and told the staff to leave him in. I would come out in the evening to check on him and re-assess.
I was convinced it was still an abscess, but the pain he was in was giving me second thoughts. I could not find any other potential reason for the lameness, though. No swelling, no specific area of pain. Yet, the coronet band was not hot nor was there any evidence of any specific location on the hoof that there was an abscess.
I spent the day debating whether I should use Bute and eventually decided to give it 24 hours. With as much pain as Nimo was in, I expected the abscess to be coming out any minute.
But it didn't come out. The next day, Nimo was in so much pain, he was shaking and wouldn't eat. I immediately started him on 2 grams of Bute a day and continued to keep him in his stall. Except that I came out twice a day to "walk" him for about 20 minutes. For the first few days, that walk was literally just him hopping a short distance from his stall to a small patch of grass in front of the barn. I don't think I can describe how I felt internally when I asked him to walk in that much pain. (I would cry all the way home from the barn because I felt so terrible about the pain he was in.) But I knew that the less he moved, the longer it would take for the abscess to come out. The Bute helped take the edge off of the pain, but Nimo was still at a grade 5 lameness. He seemed comfortable enough to eat, though, so I decided to give it a couple of days and then talk to my vet about giving a stronger pain medication.
I also called one of my friends who has extensive experience with abscesses because her horse had them repeatedly for months until it was discovered that she had a tumor in her foot that grew from the coronet band to the bottom of the hoof. (The tumor was surgically removed when it was discovered and the horse did recover and has been sound for years and is in light work with no issues at all, which is a whole other story.) The reason I called her is because I wanted to know what protocols she had used during all those abscesses. She also uses the same vet that I do, so I knew whatever they told her was likely to be what they would tell me. What she said is that no matter what the vet did, she could not drain the abscess before it was ready to come out. They soaked and poulticed and even drilled into the hoof to try to create a drainage path for the abscess, but it took 13 days for the first of several abscesses to come out. Her recommendation to me was to save my money on the vet treatments in case there was a more serious issue (like in her case). She'd spent thousands of dollars by the time it was all over, and having the vet out every other day to re-assess the abscess and try various procedures cost money that didn't need to be spent.
I spent the first 4 days of this situation second-guessing myself and worried that I was doing the wrong thing. Should I get stronger drugs? Should I have the vet do x-rays and an ultrasound just in case there was something I missed? Also, after the first couple of days, the entire right hind leg swelled up from the stifle down to the hoof. I started worrying that there was an underlying soft tissue injury even though logically it didn't make sense that the injury would happen on Sunday and the swelling wouldn't show up until 2 days later.
The other strange thing was that I couldn't find any specific swelling or heat indicating where the abscess wanted to come out. Everyone who knew the situation kept asking why I wasn't soaking or poulticing. Part of the reason is that my understanding is that soaking and poulticing can cause the entire hoof to weaken, making the hoof more susceptible to abscesses in the future, and I certainly never wanted to go through this again. But I was desperate enough to do it if only I could find the specific location of the abscess. I figured I could target a poultice to that location and then not weaken the rest of the hoof. But at one point, I'd decided I would just poultice the entire leg and hoof to see what would happen.
Before I did that poultice, though, after 4 brutal days, I found swelling and generally yucky squishiness on the heel. I had been expecting the abscess to come out of the hoof somewhere, but Nimo has hooves that are like rocks, so my guess is that the first time, the abscess tried to come out at the coronet band, but couldn't break through, so it migrated (temporarily relieving the pressure), and finally decided to come out above the hoof through actual skin.
Now that I had a location, I happily applied Ichthammol to the heel. At about the same time, Nimo started to perk up and the barn owner was able to turn him out that Thursday (on Day Five of Abscess Watch). He was still at a grade 4 lameness on that leg, but his attitude was much improved and he wanted to go out for the first time that week.
Over the next couple of days, Nimo was able to start walking a little better (although still grade 3-4), and finally on Saturday, the abscess burst out of his heel. The location that it came out was HUGE (see below). I can't even imagine what that must have felt like, and I have rarely been so relieved to see the end to a particular situation.
|This is where the abscess came out of Nimo's foot|
On February 20th, I took him on what I expected to be a light conditioning ride using the 8-mile figure-8 trail at Phelps. I rode with my friend who wanted to do the Intro ride the first weekend in March at the Blackwater Swamp Stomp, and we planned to do a lot of walking with some trotting, kind of based on how Nimo was feeling. It was brutally hot that day (70 degrees!) and both our horses acted dog-tired the whole ride. All I could think was that I was supposed to do a 13-mile ride over easy terrain in 2 weeks and my horse could barely manage to walk 8 miles. I did not have a good feeling about the situation and I was struggling to understand how I'd gone from having a horse fit enough to do 30 miles in the mountains to one that could barely eek out 8.
I was depressed and upset at myself (even though I had made a concerted effort to decrease my training with Nimo, I still felt guilty). But I knew my friend was really excited to do the ride, and part of the reason I was working with her was because I really wish I'd had somebody to ride with at my first ride. It would have made a huge difference in my experience, and I was determined to help her.
So I spent the week doing short rides on Nimo in the arena with my bareback pad. They were only about half an hour, which normally I wouldn't bother with, but something else that had been going on for months was that I was struggling to find time to ride at night. I felt overwhelmed by all I had to do at home (we had contractors come over 3 times to do work on the house, and each time I felt compelled to have the house in what I would consider the bare minimum of cleanliness and it was sucking the life out of me.) We'd also adopted 2 kittens in mid-January (super long story there), and while I adored them, they added more to my list of things to do. Plus, I had two aquariums up and running and had just started a third (I have a problem, OK?), so I was still cycling 2 tanks and had a group of fish in quarantine.
The thing is, having a clean house is great. Having kittens is rewarding. I truly love my aquariums. But, something had to give to accommodate all of that. And that something was my riding. I finally realized that even though my preference (and Nimo's) is that we ride at least an hour, 30 minutes is better than no minutes. (I believe I've mentioned that I can be a slow learner sometimes!) So, I got my butt on my horse at least a couple of times during the week and that helped me feel better.
A week before Blackwater Swamp Stomp, I decided that my friend and I would do an 11-mile ride out at the Shenandoah River State Park (aka Andy Guest). Andy Guest is significantly more rugged than the trail at Blackwater would be, and it was my last-ditch effort to see if I could get Nimo ready for a ride that we could have done in our sleep a year ago.
So we rode. I planned to push the horses as much as possible to see what we really had. And I got a huge surprise. Nimo was on fire. The temperature was in the 40s, which helped quite a bit, I think. But mentally, he was back. He took the lead right away and after about a mile and a half of walking (that section of trail is pretty rocky and Nimo was barefoot, so I didn't really want to trot it), I asked him to trot and trot he did. For miles through the winding wooded trails and up and down the hills. When we got down by the river, I turned the lead over to me friend, and we trotted the entire trail by the river (about 2.5-3 miles). Then we turned up to the gravel road that runs next to the river, but has small hills, and trotted that for a mile before we headed back into the woods, where Nimo took the lead again. After we climbed for a bit, I asked Nimo to trot again, and he did. He led all but the last mile back to the trailers and basically pulled along my friend's horse, who was getting tired, for 2-3 miles.
Nimo rocked that trail. He was confident, forward, and very adjustable. He felt like a real endurance horse for the first time in a long time. In fact, I'm not sure he's ever felt quite like that with only one other horse. He does do better with a buddy, but pretty often, the buddy has to lead. Especially through the the forest. Not that day, though. He was happy to lead through the winding, undulating trail and actually left his buddy in the dust a couple of times. And I didn't have to encourage him or kick him to get him motivated. In a lot of places, he would just start trotting on his own after he slowed down for a rocky or tricky section of trail.
And, as it turned out, those 11 miles were really almost 13 miles. My GPS must have underestimated it the first time I'd done it a couple of years ago, and I never rechecked the distance until that day. I double-checked my GPS reading with the map to confirm that it was somewhere between 12.5 and 13 miles. So we'd done the distance of the intro ride at a slightly slower than ride pace, but I knew with the easier terrain, both horses would be able to handle as much as a 6 mph pace without any trouble. Whew!
|Our route at Andy Guest|
Work may have been a factor - I had a certain expectation about how things would go between October 1 and mid-January, and that expectation was not realized. Work was stressful and...unpleasant...I'm not sure I can say much more than that, but I'm sure it affected my mental state.
And then there was the Facebook Factor. If you engage in FB posting and commenting, you may have had a similar experience to mine. I discovered that many of my friends, some of whom I've had for decades, turned into horrifying people for a couple of months. I know that the transition to a new president was difficult for many people, and I am not trying to diminish anyone's feelings on the matter. What did really bother me was the way anyone who remotely disagreed with someone was treated. I've never seen such name-calling, swearing, not-so-veiled insults, and bullying. I've always considered dissent to be valuable and have never thought that disagreement or even a heated discussion is a bad thing. But after weeks of trying to engage, I gave up and got off of FB for several days to reconsider my friendships, the use of FB, and my own choices. It was a very reflective time for me.
Eventually, I decided to get back on FB, but I've severely curtailed my own posting, and rarely comment anymore on others' posts. I think that I became hyper-aware of how others might view anything that I wrote, and I became extremely reluctant to express anything for fear of offending someone during a time that has become full of conflict. (Again, I'm not saying there are no reasons to be concerned. I certainly have my own concerns. But I already know that not everyone agrees with me on certain issues - issues that have been a concern for me long before the current president - and I have yet to call anyone names, insult them, or unfriend them because they disagreed with me.)
In the end, though, this is my blog about my journey with Nimo. This journey is unique, and it is full of the highs and lows that characterized the last couple of months. I'm thrilled that Nimo has healed from the abscess and that it wasn't something more serious. I have a new admiration for the gift he has given me by interacting with me. And I'm excited to tell you all about our ride at the Blackwater Swamp Stomp in my next post:)