It was exactly one year after I met my first horse, my heart horse, when the vet told me the news: Equine Metabolic Syndrome had wreaked havoc on Roman’s body, and as a result he had been living with severe laminitis. Sinking, rotation, bone demineralization, the whole shebang. I had taken the vet’s call during a small break at my office job, expecting to hear confirmation of what a trainer had been telling me for the past year: “It’s all behavioral! He’s just lazy and unathletic...but maybe after more training rides he can have a future as a kick ride lesson pony.” Hearing the truth from the vet sent me stumbling back to my desk like a zombie. Embarrassment began to override grief as I cried in front of my new coworkers: “I think we’re gonna have to put him down.”
I flailed through the grief cycle. Sometimes I felt nothing, other times I felt overwhelmed by every emotion as I waited for the vet and farrier to finalize an “aggressive treatment plan to make him comfortable”. But I didn’t want to just ‘make him comfortable’; that’s what you do when you are out of options. I longed for the days when Roman and I had limitless potential, when our future was unencumbered by a dire diagnosis of chronic pain. Laminitis had eliminated my hopes and dreams in an instant, whittling down the best case scenario to trail rides and low-level flatwork.
A week after our diagnosis was presented, our care team decided on wooden clog therapeutic shoes and 30 Metformin pills a day, a Hail Mary medication choice intended to harness the chaos of insulin resistance. Roman’s pain tolerance was encouraging, and we collectively decided that we would fight for him as long as he generally remained in good spirits- a factor that could change day-to-day. I was left switching internet tabs between searches for horse memorial stones and corrective shoeing success stories; switching mental tabs between preparing for his imminent death and preparing for the marathon of rehabilitation. And burritos - I ditched meal prepping for Moe’s Southwest combo meals and tried to drown the horrible feeling in my stomach with cheese dip (it didn’t work). I was desperate for vindication and for apologies and for the whole thing to just... stop.
"Laminitis had eliminated my hopes and dreams in an instant, whittling down the best case scenario to trail rides and low-level flatwork."
When the waves of bitterness and confusion died down inside, the only thing that felt true anymore was the knowledge that no amount of blame or anger could save him. Every new day would require a conscious commitment to soak up new information like a sponge and then to have the courage and diligence to apply all that I had learned to help Roman feel better.
It’s taken weeks to drain the waves of anger. These days I find myself drowning in the realities of equine rehabilitation. I clock out of my 8-5 desk job, drive to the barn and after being greeted by my favorite familiar nicker, I immediately begin Roman’s treatments: red light therapy, Masterson Method bodywork techniques, stretches, and lots of nose kisses. His clogs and painkillers are doing most of the heavy lifting, but I’m longing for some semblance of control. We are both tired and stiff (but wholeheartedly reveling in our together-ness) and the only thing that breaks up the monotony are the moments in which I can envision a fuzzy outline of my future in the equestrian world.
I did not grow up in a “horsey” family and despite my overwhelming desire to spend all my time with ponies, my parents could only afford once a week lessons in suburban Alabama. I got to choose one schooling show a year and my trainer would let me pick through her daughter’s old, forgotten breeches and jackets so I could masquerade around like a real hunter rider for the afternoon with the other girls in the flat classes. The summer before high school, I took my last lesson for a decade; the lesson ponies couldn’t physically support my new riding goals, we didn’t have the money for a lease (much less a horse of my own), and my parents wanted me to have a social life that didn’t involve the barn.
So, ten years later, during the first summer of COVID-19, I decided to make my 2020 even more interesting and bought a rescued Morgan horse for $1,500, including tack. He was the balm to soothe my greatest childhood wound, an erratic attempt to make up for lost time in a world that felt like it was running out of time completely. However, it didn’t take much time at all to realize that Roman and I were a motley crew that would have to fight tooth and nail to blend into an equitation ring. It took exactly a year to have those dreams dashed for sure by the realities of laminitis.
I know I’m supposed to be with horses, I just don’t know how I fit in here anymore.
The moment that changed everything for me -- the moment that started draining waves of anger out of my body -- was in the middle of a red light treatment. Roman found my hand with his velvety muzzle and started trying to nurse on my fingers. I was surprised, and then I was tickled, and then I was so very aware that this horse was self-soothing and looking to me for comfort. Me! I don’t have a balanced seat, crossrails might as well be oxers, and don’t you dare ask me to define “lateral work”. But this horse still looks to me to be his comfort, his advocate, and his companion. Roman gave me the affirmation that no human could. So, the anger slowly faded, and I replaced that aching, empty space with love for my horse, and love for myself, including all my insecurity and inexperience.
I don’t know how Roman’s story ends, but it will be the result of the most love I am capable of showing. Money I would have used for lessons will be re-allocated for vet bills, and infrared lasers, and graduation papers from a respected equine bodywork program. I still have dreams of rosettes and framed pictures of me and a well-loved horse sporting ribbons and embroidered coolers, but my interest in rehabilitation methods and practices has become all-consuming. I am fueled by the idea that supporting a horse in pain, being a reliable source of comfort, walking slowly next to their short, tender steps is a deep and meaningful honor that I am just beginning to understand.
Written by Kelley Allsbrook
Kelley is a self proclaimed “crazy horse girl” who lives in Chattanooga, TN with her kill pen rescue, Roman. She is passionate about equine health and wellness, as well as influencing positive change in the equestrian community.