Married with Horses: The Waiting Game

A horseowner faces a long night, a big bill and the possible loss of his mare's unborn foal. By Jeremy Law for

Continued from Married with Horses: Horse Happens

I’m a night owl, but at 1 a.m. I was exhausted. I had gotten my fill of excitement for the day. Mandy, however, needed immediate medical care for her eye and I felt pangs of guilt every time I looked at her.

To make matters worse, Mandy was calm and sweet, as if nothing were wrong. I hooked up the trailer to the truck and Dr. Shelly and Matt helped me load Mandy. She and I arrived at the North Carolina State University vet hospital around 2:30 a.m. I was fatigued and mildly stressed, which caused me trouble with the required paperwork. What’s our address again? Is that really our zip code? Did I have Mandy’s Coggins paperwork in the truck? My brain was foggy. I really wanted to find a clean, shavings-filled stall and just go to sleep. Instead I completed the paperwork and joined several female students and the doctor as she examined Mandy.

I probably don’t need to tell you, but equine eye injuries are disgusting. That’s mostly because they look painful and partly because the injuries are fantastically unattractive. They’re oozy, snotty, runny and gelatinous, with streaks of white, green and red. Then, all that’s compounded with the guilt you feel because you let your horse get injured. I know that even if we wrapped our ponies in bubble wrap and never let them outside, they’d still find a way to get hurt. Nonetheless, these moments aren’t about logic. I was sweaty, guilt-ridden, grossed out and tired. Watching the doctor poke around in Mandy’s green-tinted, oozing eye pushed me over the edge.

“Um, is there a water fountain around here?” I asked, feeling rather light-headed and weak-kneed. One of the students led me through the labyrinth of aisles to an air-conditioned waiting room with a water cooler.

“You just take all the time you need, OK?” she said reassuringly. I gulped down a few, tiny paper cupfuls of cool water before heading back to Mandy’s stall. The group stood around Mandy, who was still just as calm and quiet as she could be. The doctor then stepped out with me to discuss her findings.

“The estimated cost I gave you earlier was a little low,” she said.

“Oh,” I managed, suddenly feeling nauseated again, but now with a shooting pain in my wallet.

“It’ll probably be more like $2,500-$5,000,” she said.

“Oh… OK,” I said, slightly stunned. “I think I’m going to need some more of that cold water.”

After a few more cups of ice-cold water, we reviewed Mandy’s prognosis. Apparently some strange fungus was eating away at the layers of her eye. The doctor said saving her vision was not likely. Keeping the eye was possible, though removing it might be necessary. Surgery for the enucleation might threaten Mandy’s foal if the injury hadn’t already. The doctor said they would keep Mandy for a few days and call me with updates. It was about 4:30 a.m. when one of the vet students walked me to the check-in window so they could take my deposit for Mandy’s treatment. The student stood with me for a moment while the cashier ran my credit card.

It can be awkward when the worlds of humane compassion and business collide. The student smiled awkwardly, as if to say, “Hey, we do really care about your horse–it’s not about the money. In fact, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t even charge you.”

Then the cashier handed me the paper to sign, as if to say, “Actually, it is about the money. We can’t pay the bills with compassion. So sign here.” The student wished me a good night and jogged off. I hadn’t yet signed the receipt; I sort of wanted to jog off, too. I needed Kimberly there to exchange glances with me. I needed to gently shake my head in disbelief at the events of the day and have Kimberly smile and say, “I know.”

“Do you have horses?” I asked the cashier, hoping for some sympathy.

“No,” she said, looking impatient. She wasn’t helping at all.

I paid and walked to the truck. Naturally, the fuel gauge was on “E.” I realized I hadn’t even looked at it on the drive up. The only gas station that was open and sold diesel was almost too small for the truck and trailer. It took three U-turns before I found an entrance that wouldn’t get me stuck between the station and its car wash. Finally, with a full tank of fuel, some caffeine and chocolate, I started the hour-long drive home.

I was insanely tired when I arrived just before seven. I brought Vander and Ellie in, fed them and gave them the update on Mandy before heading to the house. I made sure the remaining animals were fed and I flopped into bed. As I drifted off to sleep, I was vaguely aware that I was still fully dressed.

On the upside, I was already clothed when I awoke late that afternoon. Both Kit and Jack were asleep on the bed beside me. Kit turned 15 this summer, though she’s become just senile enough to forget she’s too old to climb on the furniture. After a few years of her mild arthritis keeping her from getting on the bed or couch, her new, youthful behavior catches me off guard.

I let them continue sleeping and went outside to call Kimberly. She was at her uncle’s house in Atlanta, so our conversation was brief–just long enough to make me feel better. I sat on our front steps for a long time after we hung up. On occasions like this it occurs to me that I don’t sit down enough. I mean really sit down, without my brain going a million miles an hour. There are people in cities, surrounded by streets and buildings and noise. Some of them would probably love to be out in the country where you can hear birds and distant trains and see the stars on clear nights. And the nights out here are quiet. We can always drive to Raleigh when we need our “city fix,” though it doesn’t happen too often, especially this time of year.

It’s an increasingly beautiful time of year in rural, eastern North Carolina. Summer is waning. The days are still warm, but many nights dip crisply into the 60s. This is also the time of year that traffic in the country slows to a creep. I love it.

The tractors, strippers, harvesters and pick-ups towing multiple trailers come out of hiding to bring in the season’s tobacco crop. There is, naturally, some degree of dissociation to enjoying the weeks-long, countywide tobacco harvest. After the dry, hot summer, I understand that engineering and chemicals likely helped the plants grow tall and beautiful. I also realize that this tobacco is used to make some rather addictive, less-than-healthy products. But it’s hard to focus on that when faced with the romance of agriculture: the endless rows of lush plants; the steady hum of the giant, crimson-painted harvesters working their way through the bright green fields, and the rusted, creaky trailers overflowing with the fresh, tender leaves headed to the tobacco dryers.

During the harvest, the country roads are littered with curling tobacco leaves that dance with each passing vehicle. Some farmers have already tilled their fields under and taken their cured tobacco to market on giant flatbed trucks, filling the air with the “licoricey” sweetness of those giant, golden bales. From this perspective, it’s easy to be enamored. Several tobacco fields flank our little horse farm and the harvest air is fragrant. I could smell curing tobacco and freshly turned earth as I walked Vander and Ellie to their pasture. It’s a strangely comforting scene and, naturally, it beats having close neighbors. I watched the horses graze, backlit by a deep, orange sunset.

I took another breath of the evening air and exhaled deeply, wondering how Mandy was doing at the vet school. At no point during this ordeal did Mandy ever appear stressed or upset. Even if she remains calm and we avoid surgery, she could have already lost the foal. I’m not taking it personally. But despite our best efforts, I’m beginning to believe we’re not supposed to have a baby this year. I would greatly enjoy being wrong about that.

Jeremy Law and his wife, Kimberly, live on a small farm in North Carolina.

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