Mark and I had been visiting the ranch for my birthday in March of 2015. We had already decided that we were going to move, we were just getting everything straightened out in California. Mark had decided to go into town for a couple things while I lounged around the house enjoying a much-needed quiet break. Mark came walking in the door and said, “I found you a birthday present but I don’t know if you want it so I want to tell you before I buy it.” I thought this was funny because Mark and I don’t exchange “birthday presents.” We usually do activities such as hot air balloon rides, go-kart racing, and visiting vineyards so the fact that Mark wanted to get me something was very unusual.
He told me there was a guy down the road that sold horses and he had two for sale that were older that would be perfect for me. My very own pony?! Who would say no to that?! Now, the only horses I’ve ever ridden were trail horses and usually someone was guiding me around. I was a little nervous but I knew that Mark wanted horses on the property and I wanted to learn so what the heck, lets do it!
We hopped in the truck and drove to our “neighbors house” about 10 miles down the road. I was so excited I could hardly sit still. We were introduced to Duchess, a 20-year-old mare, and China Doll, a 15-year-old mare. They are both retired Morgan show horses and have been brood mares for the past several years. They are both patient under a saddle and because they are both older, they would be wonderful for me to learn from. He agreed to keep them on his property until we moved later that year. Just like that we were horse owners!
When we moved in October I was just as excited to get Duchess and China Doll home, as I was to start unpacking. The excitement was even higher because we found out that while at our neighbor’s property both China Doll and Duchess got pregnant. We would have foals come springtime!
I started learning how to ride and quickly took a liking to Duchess. She was patient with me and when I couldn’t figure out which way to move the reins she just stood there like, “come on lady, left or right?” She was understanding when it would take me an hour to clean her hooves because I was terrified of getting kicked, and she was tolerant of the 1000 selfies I tried taking with her.
Duchess has a huge scar on the side of her belly that she got at my neighbors property years ago when she tried thinking she could go through barbed wire instead of around it. They didn’t think that she would make it through that accident but she is a fighter and she has the scar to prove it! Little did I know that soon, she would prove to me how much of a fighter she truly was.
In November of 2015 I started noticing that Duchess was walking with a little bit of limp. I checked her hooves and couldn’t see anything but being new to owning a horse, I wanted to get her checked out. We waited about a week to see if it would get better but it got significantly worse so we took her to a local vet. He explained that she probably has an abscess in her hoof, and it would come out with some soaking. What the heck is an abscess?! Basically, it is an accumulation of pus within her hoof. That didn’t sound so bad so I gathered Epsom salt and started soaking her hoof three times a day for 30 minutes each session. This was quite the task, the water had to be warm and it was November in Colorado, lets just say I learned to appreciate thermals really quick.After about two weeks of these soakings, she was getting worse to the point where she wouldn’t put any pressure on that hoof. We decided to take her up to CSU and find out if they would see anything that our local vet didn’t see. We agreed to have her x-rayed, which showed she indeed had an abscess it was just incredibly deep. They wanted to try and drain it that day so they numbed her leg and started digging. They did this for about 30 minutes but decided that it was too deep so they wanted to keep her for a couple of days and slowly drain the abscess out. I think I told the doctors about 100 times that she was pregnant so they needed to be extra careful with her. I was extremely reluctant to leave her but knew that it was for the best and the doctors at CSU are some of the finest in the country. I walked up to Duchess as she stared at me with her big beautiful brown eyes and promised her I would come back for her.
The next couple of days, the doctor that was overseeing Duchess’ care called me in the morning, afternoon, and evening to give me updates (I am telling you these people care more about the animals there than most human doctors). There wasn’t really any movement in the abscess so we decided to do a more intense x-ray that showed what the problem really was. Yes, Duchess had an abscess but it was infecting her bone. This had just turned from an “annoying abscess” to an extremely serious situation. So serious that the doctor told me, “I need you to start preparing yourself, I don’t know if Duchess will make it through this. If she doesn’t start showing some improvement we are going to have to discuss other options.”
Excuse me, what? I could not believe what I was hearing and became very emotional. All I could think about is that I may have to break that promise I made to Duchess a few days ago. I was sad that I didn’t get very much time with her and that she was pregnant. I asked the doctor to please, do what he can, she is a fighter, so if anyone can come out of this she can.
Over the next few days Duchess was starting to show some improvement. It was not as fast as the doctors had wanted but it was an improvement and I was going to take anything she was going to give me. Duchess ended up staying at CSU for almost two full weeks. The doctor called me and said, “She isn’t 100% but I think it would be best for her to continue recovering at home. She is nowhere out of the woods, she would need to stay pinned up for 90 days, you have to give her shots, pills, and clean her bandage every day. After 90 days, we want to see her again and we will go from there.”
The day we picked her up, I made boxes of cookies for the doctors and all the students that took care of her. (Hey, I was a college kid at one time; cookies were better than cash sometimes). Everyone was excited that she was going home but sad to see her go. The students commented on how big of a sweet heart she was and that she soon became a hospital favorite.
The doctor showed me how to administer shots, how to flush the wound out, how to wrap her hoof, and how to give a horse pills. Apparently, she wouldn’t just willingly swallow it, they have to be crushed and given through a syringe. We had very strict orders to keep her inside, in a stall, with little to no walking. It was December by this time and he was extremely worried about any moisture getting in her bandage. She was in a plastic boot (I tried to get a pink one but we settled on black) but the doctor told me we would need to get a farrier and get her shoed ASAP.
The next 90 days were tough. I said from the beginning of this that I would do whatever I needed to do to help Duchess through this as long as she was fighting, I could not be selfish in this situation. As long as she was progressing, we would continue. Duchess hates being alone and being pinned up, she was all by herself (we didn’t have all of the animals that we do today). She would stress herself out so bad that she would sweat immensely and pace. I noticed when I came down to the barn she would calm down, eat, drink, and relax. So what did I do? What any reasonable person would do, I got a portable WIFI device, brought down my laptop, and sat in the barn for as long as I could to keep her company.
I would put her halter on her and we would walk in circles in the barn for her to get some exercise and to get out of her pin. If the ground was absolutely dry then we would walk around outside, I would bring China in for short visits but sometimes that worked her up even more because she wanted to be with her. Slowly, she started getting better and for a brief moment, I started to get hopeful that she would be ok.
Springtime came and we went back to CSU for her checkup. They were blown away by how much progress she had made. The doctor told me that she had a lot going against (being older and pregnant) but by the progress she made in those 90 days, he said that he had no doubt that she would make a full recovery as long as we kept up with her treatment and she remained shoed until her hoof grew back.
A huge sense of relief came over me and I felt like I could finally take a deep breath for the first time since we took her to CSU. She was released and given permission to be out in pasture with the rest of the horses.
I watched her like a hawk for the next few weeks making sure she wasn’t limping, making sure the other horses were being nice to her, and we were on baby watch 2016!
May 22, 2016 Duchess gave birth to a colt right outside our dining room window at around 830pm. That was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever been apart of. She knew exactly what to do and was concerned only with her baby and helping him stand up. After the colt stood up, I walked over to her and she looked at me with approving eyes as if to say, “go ahead.” I walked over to the Colt and started rubbing him. I felt as if she trusted me enough to let me be the first person to touch her baby.
I knew that getting horses would be life changing but I never knew at what capacity it would change my life. Duchess taught me that I am not afraid of hard work, that I will do anything that is required for my animals to live a comfortable and healthy life, that she is resilient, and most of all, the bond between human and horse can be something indescribable and unbreakable.