Monday, July 5, 2010

The Throw-Away

When I decided to get my 4-month-old colt, Cody, a playmate, I reluctantly turned to a local breeder after not finding an appropriate youngster in any of the local shelters or foster homes.

Now let me explain that a generation ago I haunted dog shows and hung with breeder types. In fact, for a time I wanted to breed Chows and lovely long-tailed, floppy-eared Dobermans. Then I figured out that 1) there was way too much politics going on in the ring and 2) breeding to an arbirtrary standard is like breeding for the writing talent: odds are someone will turn out to be a great author but the majority of offspring will be talentless wastrals forced to live life as doctors or politicians or software engineers instead.

My new attitude was solidified the day a breeder brought in a week-old Doberman pup to the clinic where I worked. Its little eyes were still clenched tight, its pudgy face was all screwed up and wrinkly, and its tiny paws flailed the air looking for its mama's belly. I held the little guy thinking of how he would soon be someone's new BFF and play puppy-foolish pranks that would make people laugh and grow into a guardian and protector that would make his owner feel safe when he was around.

He was a black-and-tan Doberman with a little splotch of white on his chest that was his unique identifier in a crowd. Breed standards, however, do not allow for unique identifiers. Those few stray hairs being more than the allowable 1/2-inch worth would disqualify him from the ring. He would never be a show dog or a stud or earn his keep. He was outcast, unclean. And so long as that patch of white hair could be traced back to her kennel, he was a living symbol of shame to the breeder.

She had brought him, not for us to delight in the fresh puppy scent of him or to watch him suckle my finger in happy puppy abandon, but for us to kill him and make her shame go away.

So when I made my reluctant way to the horse breeder's farm, I asked to see the pet-quality foals. The breeder showed me to a pen of just-weaned youngsters in a back pasture out of the way of the casual visitor. A 5-month-old sorrel colt with a creamy mane and tail and white markings caught my eye. He was of questionable parentage, his mother being a miniature and his father quite probably some precocious scoundrel of a pony. Taller than all but one of the dozen or so miniature foals parked in that pen of throw-aways, he was thin and shy, not having been handled much. His ridiculously low price of $150 underscored how eager the breeder was to be done with him and have him off her property.

His beautiful deep brown eyes drew me in as surely as they repelled his owner. Her breeding program revolved around producing horses with blue eyes and any horse with eyes that didn't reflect the sky was an abomination in her pasture.

My dad named the new colt Ricky and he and Cody bonded immediately. All was exceptional for a couple of weeks, until Ricky started throwing his back legs out and swinging them in wide circles when he walked. It looked like some horrible neurological disease, and I got that hit-in-the-gut feeling when I first saw him stumbling about.

It was stifle lock. A horse is able to sleep standing up because it has a trick ligament in its back leg that locks its knee in place while it sleeps. When the horse is ready to move, the muscles around the ligament push it off the knee so the horse can bend his leg and walk or run again. Sometimes, because of a genetic disorder or because the surrounding muscles aren't built up enough, the ligament doesn't slip off the knee when it should and the leg "locks up." It isn't really painful, but it is very uncomfortable for the horse.

I hoped that with Ricky it was simply because he was so thin and not well developed. So we started on an exercise regimen. If I stretched his leg out past a certain point, the ligament would slip off the knee and Ricky could walk a few steps before seizing up again. But not knowing when his leg -- or which leg -- was going to act up made him afraid and reluctant not only to walk on a lead but to walk at all. Still, once warmed up, the more he walked during a session the easier it was. And when I could get him to trot for awhile his knees would usually stay unlocked for a few hours.

Lunging him, or putting him on a long lead and making him run in a circle around me, was impractical because of his fear of leads. So morning and evening I chased him and the other horses around the pasture, forcing him to keep moving. Occasionally, he'd have enough confidence to break from a trot into a real run. His joy in those moments as he streaked along, his legs biddable as they stretched and bent and drove him forward, was palpable. He was as eager as I was for him to be a normal colt again.

Eventually he filled out and muscled up as much as his naturally lean frame would allow. It was enough. The incidences of stifle lock dropped from generally to occasionally to rarely. At last they disappeared altogether. While drugs can be injected into the knee or the ligament can be cut surgically (although the horse is then never able to doze or sleep standing up again), being able to heal it naturally was well worth the time and effort he and I put in.

Only now when I look back the year or so it's been do I realize how much effort it really was. I suppose whenever we love something we put on blinders when it comes to how much work it takes to keep that something in our lives. We simply shoulder the responsibility and do it without much thought to the time and energy suck that it is. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to Ricky if he had still been at the breeder's when his symptoms started showing up. She certainly wouldn't have been able to sell him in that condition. Nor would she have invested any effort in him. Would she have literally thrown away this remarkable little throw-away?

I don't generally believe in fate and kismet and things working out for a purpose -- not really. But sometimes, when things go so wonderfully right, I can't quite bring myself to disbelieve.

* Disclaimer: The puppy in the photo above is NOT a Doberman, but it IS heart-meltingly cute and the same general color and is perfect for demonstration purposes after a short web search.


fairyhedgehog said...

It's so sad that animals get thrown away. I'm glad you managed to get Ricky sorted out.

Whirlochre said...

My animal altruism stretches to a migdet cat and four cacti.

So good on you for taking up the slack — particularly with horses.

Anonymous said...

Saving the animal kingdom, one throw away at a time. Delightful. Ricky has no idea he is really Lucky, with a horseshoe in the right spot.

Anonymous said...

Bald: means white
So a bald headed eagle is a white headed eagle. Used to be spelled balde - but that's English. Ricky is bald - means white faced. Dun isn't brown - a dun has a stripe down its back. What is a stud? Any intact male (but if it is a human he usually has a beer in his hand).
Loved the pic with Lucky blowing a bubble at mommy. How cute is that? Envy envy envy. Man do I miss animals in my life.

Phoenix said...

FHH: I hope Ricky is just the first of many ;o)

Whirl: you have an adorable midget cat. As for the cacti ...

Bibi: Your definition of a human stud cracked me up! Thanks for the laugh.

sylvia said...

This is an amazing story - and I'm learning a lot as well. I thought pure-breds for dog shows was just a case of proving parentage and then a question of how trainable the dogs were. I never understood how horses could sleep standing up (and if you'd had to do the surgery, would Ricky have learned to lie down to sleep or what?). You did great work with him - and I totally know how it can not be clear until later how much time you are putting in. We had a rescue kitten a few years ago who got separated from his mother too young. He was somewhat neurotic and always in some sort of trouble. I only had him for six months (*sniff*) and now that I have a "normal" cat, I'm amazed at how much time and energy the kitten took. But at the time, of course, I didn't even think about it.