If you have ever sat in front of your computer, mind racing at Mach speed, having an entire story in your head but finding yourself completely frozen, hands folded in your lap, with not even the first clue where to begin, then you understand my state of mind as so many memories and mental images wash over me as I set out to write this one.

Of the many things that make telling this story especially difficult, perhaps the worst of these is having to re-live a great deal of darkness it took years to get past in order to recover the beauty and brightness of this story about one of the most magnificent animals that has ever allowed me to share a life with him for however briefly our time together might have unfortunately been.

I vividly remember, as if it were yesterday, even though it’s been 60 years, that the very first time I was put on the back of a horse for one of those cheap pony rides at a county fair, I knew at that moment that I was going to own horses of my own when I grew up.

I was your typical fat City kid who only knew about horses because of movies, TV shows, and pictures in magazines in the waiting rooms of dentist’s and doctor’s offices, but I thought horses were just about the most magnificent thing that could possibly exist on the planet. That first time I was put on the back of one, technically a Shetland pony – as if I had any clue there was a difference – it felt like I was on top of the world. I could feel our physical connection, and I could feel him breathing. It felt as if the two of us had become one life.

In a snippet from a poem written by Edna St. Vincent Millay called “Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies” (how I know about this is a separate and incredibly long, and deeply personal story for a later time), there are several lines that fairly well put into words my youthful love affair with horses that I never outgrew:

“Childhood is not from birth to a certain age, and at a certain age, the child is grown and puts away childish things. Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.”

In this story, what never died was my childhood dream of owning horses. Across all the years since my first pony ride, into my first marriage, four children, and countless pony rides where my children were the ones sitting on ponies, my dream of owning horses never faded. I tried countless times, and failed countless times, to convince my first wife to at least consider the idea of buying land and moving somewhere that we could afford to own a couple of horses. She’s steadfastly held firm to a hard NO, and even though our ultimate split was not because of this “silly, childish, unrealistic horse thing,” moving on certainly breathed new life into that dream.

When I met who would become my second wife, I looked over one shoulder, then the other, pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, and discovered that she had owned and been around horses her entire life and said it was the only thing she cared about except her family. I promise not to drag you through years and countless hours of death-defying alcohol abuse, mind-numbing navel-gazing, and self-psychoanalysis, but if ever there was a more fucked up, soul-crushing, fatal irony than finding what you had dreamed of your whole life only to have it ripped out of your heart and soul, ten years later, taking everything from you and running off to share it with someone else and destroying your life, I’d like someone to tell me about it. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.

Having been hired to develop and teach programming classes on multi-million dollar semiconductor test equipment out of an office in Austin, Texas, my new bride, two of her kids, and my recently born first grandchild were scooped up and shipped off to start a new life built with hope and possibility. As you might expect, things were chaotic at first, and settling into country life in the South after lifetimes in the Northeast wasn’t easy. We were fortunate to have found a house to rent that allowed horses (we had my wife’s horse shipped down and boarded until we found a place) and, 35 years after I had first put my fat City kid ass on a Shetland pony, my silly, childish, unrealistic horse thing had finally come true.

By the time he was born, I had just completed all the construction—fencing, hay and grain storage, isolation paddocks, and so forth—necessary to provide a safe and secure environment for the three horses I already had. When we heard about this stunning little Colt, we would eventually name Forrest. He had already undergone one surgery, and discussion was underway about whether he could be saved or had to be destroyed.

Not being a vet, I will keep this as simple as I can: He was born with what they call prolapsed fetlocks, which is rare but known to happen from time to time. You can see in the picture that his front left fetlock is enlarged, and it prevents him from putting his hoof flat and squarely on the ground. The human analogy is to think of that joint as your wrist and the hoof to be your finger. It’s not a great comparison, but the idea is basically the same and in Forrest’s case, his left fetlock (wrist) couldn’t flex forward. The mechanics of this condition matter if you want to understand the surgical approach to trying to repair it; there is a tendon at the back of that joint that does the flexing, and his was not developed enough in this picture to allow him to extend the joint and put his hoof flatly on the ground.

But… That face! Look at that face and the softness in his eye!!

Farriers and vets crafted all sorts of custom shoes to put on that foot, hoping they could force the tendon to stretch. I remember the hilarity at some of the god-awful-looking things they dreamed up, but even though they seemed to help for a little while, things got worse by the day.

With so many different types of casts and splints being applied and the inability to keep Forrest still, it was a complete impossibility for him to “quietly” mingle around in a herd. He was a baby, after all, full of piss and vinegar and bucking and farting and kicking up his heels… He was doing what he was born to do. Unfortunately, with all of that movement of the joint inside poorly wrapped or easily loosened splints, he eventually developed a severe infection caused by the joint repeatedly sliding around inside them, and in the horse world, this meant only one thing- it was time to put him down.

Our own vet and farrier had told us about this animal, and my wife had visited the ranch where he had been born, and all of us got together for several conversations about what might be done to save his life. We ultimately agreed that the farrier would take on the work of building various types of custom shoes. The vet volunteered her services for Forrest’s Medical Care, treatments, and ongoing maintenance.

My wife and I agreed to bring him home, attend to the feeding and watering, and take over daily wound management in the hopes we could resolve the infection. We got rid of all the bandages and the splints and put him in our horse trailer, where he spent quite a few weeks in total isolation and all but complete immobility. The longer-term plan was to clear the infection and perform a surgery that would sever the tendon, Force the joint into its proper position, and wait for the tendon to regrow and reattach to itself farther up the leg. To his credit, not once did Forrest fuss, fight, or complain. My wife took care of the wound management responsibilities while I was at work, and when I came home, I would grab a tall boy and sit out in the trailer with him, talking away about whatever came to mind while he stood there with his eyes closed and snored. I have pictures, as well, of my ex laying on the ground with him in the shade of a cedar tree while he slept like a baby, and she laid her head on his shoulder to keep him company… I won’t be sharing that here; call me what you will.

By the time surgery day arrived you could tell he was as sick and tired of being in that horse trailer as a horse could possibly be. Once the infection had cleared and the wound had healed up, we took him out of the trailer for 30 minutes at a time and walked him around on a lead line, making sure to prevent him from trying to run or buck or make any sudden movements on the joint. He didn’t like it, but he complied, and every once in a while, he would drop to the ground and roll around, kicking his feet as if to remind us that he was still, after all, a horse.

More than once, he would turn away from the trailer when we tried to put him back in and drag us into the backyard where the riding ring I was building was still under construction. It was almost as if he knew because big objects were scattered everywhere, that it was a perfect place to break a few rules and keep us on our toes. We let him do it once in a while, knowing the surface was all beach sand and that no real harm could come to his joints by walking on such a soft and cushy surface.

The surgery itself was no big deal; it took longer to knock Forrest out than it did to make the incision, sever the tendon, and stitch him back up. The vet and the farrier had already invented a dressing and splint system that would completely immobilize the joint, locking the joint in the correct position to allow the tendon to grow and re-attach correctly back onto itself, and all that was left was for us to change the dressings daily and reapply the customized splint. The poor little guy was relegated to another month of trailer time, but considering that a handful of us saved his life (as I kept reminding him over countless tall boys we drank together while he was back in isolation), he was a pretty damn lucky guy.

The featured image at the top of this entry shows the very first horse I ever owned, in my name and at my cost, that I named Angelina… Angie, for short. The two of us had an amazing run. She was fearless, crazy, adventurous, and could run like the wind. In the photograph, she is watching me reset, for the millionth time, what ultimately saved Forrest’s life.

Once he was freed from the horse trailer, we gave him Free Run of the riding ring, where he got to be a baby again… bucking, farting, grazing, mixing it up with the yipper dogs, and just trying to make up for lost time.

He was happy, affectionate, enthusiastic, and ever-inquisitive about everything around him. When the time came, he took to a saddle with not the least bit of hesitation or resistance. With a lot of lead line training, he eventually (and happily) took on the job of being led around the riding ring (once I had finished it) with two grandkids on his back. He never flinched and was as gentle with those kids as we had been with him his entire life. Along the way, he had even been taken out on trail rides – me on Angie, my wife on Forrest – and loved every bit of those times he was given the opportunity to be a real-life horse.

I wish I could close this with a made-for-TV happy ending, assuring you as you dab your eyes with a handy Kleenex that my little Forrest Gump lived a long, happy, and fulfilling life. I can’t. I don’t know where he ended up or what happened to him because he was taken from me, along with all the other horses – including Angie – against my will, and I will never know the truth of what my ex and her lover decided to do with any of them.

What I can say is that the time I have spent putting this story together, reliving the good as well as the bad parts of it in my head and my heart, has reminded me of what matters most throughout any of the troubles we endure across our lifetime; we have to do the best we can always to do the right thing as it relates to the things we can control and let go of the heartache over things we cannot. How others might feel about themselves as they look in the mirror, I’m okay with what looks back at me when I look into mine. I realized a lifelong dream and saved a horse’s life along the way. That’s something no one can ever take away from you.


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