Strengthening the Bonds

The “dream horse” of my childhood had little in common with the starved and abused racehorse that entered my life 10 years ago. Dave, my husband of one year, smiled as I introduced him to Storm’n Norman.

Norman in his cast. | Copyright Johnny Johnston

From Norman, I learned not just the horsey things, but hidden things about myself. Patience? I learned I didn’t have much-and I needed it. Of course, Norman didn’t have any, either. We had a lot in common. Being with Norman was like looking in a mirror. If I was frustrated, excited, or sad, he projected the emotion back at me.

But Dave was smiling less. I’d bought a second horse; with two of them, I was always late getting home from the barn. As the years went by, we both learned to compromise. I tried to arrive home on time; Dave tried to support me by coming to horse shows. But he wasn’t a horsey person, so I attempted to minimize the impact of horses on our relationship-easy to say but hard to do.

Then Norman fell in a freak accident and shattered a carpal bone in his knee. My vet took preliminary x-rays; Dave and a friend left work to help me trailer him to the nearby University of California at Davis large-animal hospital. (Norman knew I was undone. He walked onto the trailer without hesitation, despite the pain.)

The new x-rays showed vast numbers of fragments; surgery was impossible. But I couldn’t imagine life without Norman. Even if I’d never ride him again, I couldn’t give up.

That night the Davis vets gave Norman morphine, put him in a stack wrap, and told me conservative treatment by immobilization was my only option. Unfortunately, in the morning we found he’d been able to bend the knee. A cast seemed the only answer.

A week later they sent us home with a plaster “bivalve” cast requiring a crew of three to change the bandages underneath every four to seven days. The vets told me they’d never seen this particular carpal bone break-or try to mend. They said Norman would be in the cast for six to eight weeks, confined to a stall for a year, with degenerative joint disease a certainty. But they also said his pain threshold was high and his being fully weight-bearing in the cast improved his chances.

The next few weeks were the worst. People I knew split into two camps: those who felt I was a monster for not euthanizing Norm and those who, despite their doubts, supported me for the sake of friendship. Lisa, my local vet, defended me. Dave tried to understand.

One week after bringing Norman home, I’d lowered his bute to 1 gram a day, as instructed. I’d just changed his cast bandages. Suddenly he didn’t want to move or put weight on the leg. His flank was damp with sweat; his eyes were glazed. . .staring a million miles away. I knew he was suffering. I struggled with myself, then told Dave it was time to put him down. Dave cried. That single act surprised me; I never doubted his love for me, but I didn’t think he cared for Norman.

With a heavy heart, I drove to UC Davis to pick up the pamphlets on euthanasia that I hadn’t had the guts to look at a week earlier. In the lobby, the senior veterinarian on the case saw me and asked about Norman. Tears came-and this senior staff vet let me cry on her shoulder. Then she said it was too early for such a decision, and that cast sores, which can be more painful than the fracture, might be the problem. She told me to change the bandages again-immediately-and put Norman back on 4 grams of bute a day for a couple of weeks more. And she told me there were more drastic tactics we could discuss if these didn’t work.

The vet was right. Norman wore his cast for an astonishing eleven weeks. By four months, I let him have his paddock back; by seven months, he was out of wraps and out to pasture for brief periods. His knee fused; it now bends only about 10 degrees-but he still rolls, rears, and bucks (slowly and carefully). His bossy personality is unaffected.

And he continues to teach me. He’s shown me that always living for tomorrow robs you of joy today, and that things you have to fight for the hardest mean the most.

Meanwhile, Dave-for the first time-goes to the barn and gives Norman his joint supplements when I’m away for work. Norman and I could not have made it through this experience without the help of God, selfless friends, exceptional veterinarians, and my special husband.

The bonds that join us are stronger than ever. Horses and family will always be a balancing act for me. The best I can do is make sure Dave knows he’s the most important thing in my life, but that horses are a vital part of me, too. And I think he’s getting it.

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