I’ve only ever seen that look one time – when my husband had to tell me Fritzy, my beloved dog and spirit animal, had been run over on the turnpike. It was a look of sheer dread and horror, knowing what this latest bad news would do to me after watching me crumble to the ground, screaming in agony and begging God to bring Fritzy back.
It was the look on Danny’s face Wednesday morning when he came in from feeding the horses.
“Baby, you’re gonna need to call the vet,” he said, barely able to look me in the eyes. “I don’t think Ani’s gonna make it.”
“No, no, no, no, no, no!” I screamed, wondering what I could possibly have done wrong in those 14 hours I spent out in the heat the day before, setting up fans and misters and hoses and water cooling systems to keep Ani comfortable, then filling 14 bags with the nine supplements that help her tackle laminitis and anhidrosis. What else should I have done?
Damn this Oklahoma heat. Damn this stifling humidity. And damn the cruel and insidious laminitis that tears away at Anastasia’s feet and steals her ability to live like a normal horse. I wouldn’t wish what we’re going through on my worst enemy (and I can wish some pretty gnarly hexes on my enemies).
“If you’ve ever thought or uttered, ‘It’s just a horse,’ this article isn’t for you. Neither is this website. In fact, neither am I.”
Anyone familiar with Ani knows the story of how she arrived at Swingin’ D Horse Rescue. Generous donors bailed her from an Oklahoma kill pen where she’d apparently been saved, dumped and forgotten for months. We didn’t have enough room for her or for Chance, but they were both in such bad shape, we knew no one was ever going to save them.
Say and think what you want about kill pens and brokers and the slaughter pipeline, but the reality is these were two lame horses with no prospect of some owner coming along and saying, “Hey, I’m willing to spend $1,500 to get this horse home, then spend $5,000 getting it well on the off chance that MAYBE I’ll someday be able to ride it. Yes, I realize I could spend $1,500 on a healthy horse I can ride tomorrow, but I’m feeling charitable. And lucky.”
These horses were so profoundly lame (and getting worse every minute they were on the kill lot), they were most assuredly as good as supper if someone didn’t agree to give them sanctuary. We couldn’t stand the thought of these beautiful, broken creatures being whipped and shocked onto a crowded trailer for a days-long, agonizing journey to hell. It was painful enough for them to move – let alone fight for themselves in a terrified, starved herd. We were prepared to spend $1,500 for a vet to humanely euthanize them in a quiet, calm environment, then bury them in accordance with state law.
Happily, both Chance and Ani surprised us all with their indomitable spirits and miraculous constitutions. Chance is still shy a few pounds, but otherwise fully recovered. Ani was pain free and on her way to total soundness when the cruel Oklahoma summer arrived with all its fanfare.
Ani’s history was written all over her feet when she arrived. Every deep groove in her slipper-shaped hooves spoke of searing pain and chronic neglect. Ring after ring told a story of months of sorrow for a magnificent creature that was once someone’s prized possession.
Ani went straight to the vet from the kill pen. When she stepped off the trailer, she literally took my breath away. For weeks after she arrived, we referred to her as The Unicorn because of her ethereal beauty and that magical aura that emanates from her crystalline eyes.
From the moment our eyes met, I felt a connection with Ani – not unlike the connection I had with my Fritzy.
Maybe I felt such a connection because I related on a psychic level to having a spectacular heyday, then being cast aside when someone determined we’d outlived our usefulness. The untimely end to our glory days was not up to us, but to humans who didn’t consult us.
In some humans’ eyes, a middle-aged woman is useless and disposable. In some humans’ eyes, a middle-aged, lame horse is useless and disposable. Thank God there’s not a foreign slaughterhouse for middle-aged women.
Whatever the reason, Ani is quickly becoming my new spirit animal. She’s my best girlfriend, nickering as soon as she hears me stirring, following me around the fenceline as I work, eagerly chattering and communicating until I’m no longer in sight.
When Ani feels pain, I feel pain.
When you say the word, “laminitis,” Horse People reflexively cringe – either because they recall a bout with the nasty condition, or because they know someone who lost a beloved companion to its ravages. Sometimes (fallaciously) referred to as “founder,” the complex disorder is most obviously destructive to a horse’s hooves, but it begins in systems and organs far removed from the feet.
In the simplest terms, founder loves fat girls, and Ani loves food like an addict loves crack.
The internet is replete with articles and videos about founder and laminitis, and I’m certainly no expert. I’m just a rescuer who loves her horses, and who will go to just about any lengths to ensure they’re comfortable and happy (as my rapidly dwindling savings account will attest).
Without getting into the technicalities of founder (chronic laminitis), imagine you have a pointy little bone like the one inside Ani’s hooves. Now imagine that pointy little bone rotating toward the ground, and poking through your skin with every step you take. That’s what poor Ani has been dealing with since the heat index went to hell and when lush green pastures could not be more delicious – or more deadly – for the hungriest little girl in the world.
Nothing comforts a chubby girl like sweets. The more sweet grass Ani eats, the better she feels in the moment; but the worse she feels in her body. As convincing as Ani can be when she urgently chatters she’s on the verge of starvation, the vet was even more convincing when he told me that food will literally be the death of my little tub of lard.
She was lumpy the day she arrived – even after being on a kill lot for weeks – so we knew she was an easy keeper. Our plan was to get her feet healed so we could start exercising her to build muscle and reduce fat. The vet said we had it backwards.
We had already severely limited Ani’s diet – feeding a half scoop at a time of only the lowest starch and sugar grains available; limiting her grazing time to a few hours after dark; feeding alfalfa cubes instead of high-sugar grasses. Through the winter, Ani thrived without a single flare-up. But the combination of the sugars in the grass, the rain and heat brought on a laminitis avalanche that nearly buried us in recent days.
The stress of the pain caused Ani’s cooling system to break down. The disorder known as anhidrosis halts a horse’s ability to sweat – sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. We bought every supplement and treatment money could buy, hoping to kickstart Ani’s sweat factory again. Finally, after about a week of us wrapping Ani and ice and holding a water hose on her belly and chest, her heavy panting gave way to healthy sweat, and the anhidrosis was hopefully behind us.
It was the worst of those days when my husband came to me with “that look.” Ani was down in her dry pen, her head in a pile of her own feces, life drained from her face. I hurriedly threw on my boots and dialed up vets as I rushed outside. After looking literally like death warmed over, as soon as my little BFF heard me coming, she immediately perked up and commenced to chattering. Now up on her battered feet, she could barely move; but I’m her best girlfriend and she hadn’t seen me since the night before, so she had much to share. Once again, we saw Ani’s will to live and lust for life in her crystal clear eyes, and we knew we had to do whatever it took to bring her back.
After a stern lecture from the vet about Ani’s weight and condition, we clamped down even harder on her diet, resolved to make her suffer – no matter how much it hurt – to make her well.
We’ve already spent more than $3,500 on special feeds, farriers, barefoot boots, therapeutic boots and poultices, supplements and veterinary care to coax Ani to soundness. As long as we see that love of life in Ani’s eyes, and as long as the vets and farrier tell us they’ve seen horses in far worse condition heal and return to normal lives, I’ll continue to spare no expense – if only to avoid ever having to see that look on my husband’s face again.
Besides, what’s a few thousand more bucks among best friends?