In My Boots: Brokeback Mountain

Broken withers? There’s an injury you don’t hear about every day. Kristen Kovatch got her introduction this week when her Quarter Horse came in from the field with five fractured vertebrae.

From Kristen:

With about sixty horses under our care at the University equestrian center, I’m not a stranger to the emergency calls at odd hours, driving in the dark back to the barn to handwalk someone for a few hours, debating the necessity of calling out the country vet. Our evening staff is mostly work-study students who are trained to look for problem signs—horses off their feed, laying down or rolling excessively, changes in personality or actions.

This call was different.

“Your horse is hurting,” the student worker told me. “He came in from the field and he’s all swollen from his withers to his dock.”

This was a new one. By “my horse” the student, Aly, was referring to Tres, a pleasure-bred Quarter horse gelding I had purchased less than a year ago and had on loan to the program for the students to ride in the western program (he also moonlights as a novice hunt seat flat mount.) At the time of purchase, I already owned two other horses, so the little bay gelding became known as “Tres,” the third in my little string.

When I pulled in at the barn fifteen minutes later, I confirmed Aly’s observations—Tres was uncomfortable, swollen in his withers and shoulders, the swelling beginning to melt down into his legs. Completely stumped, I conferenced with my more experienced coworkers over the phone. We tossed around ideas from a bad bruise from rolling on a rock to bursitis, but it wasn’t until the X-rays a few days later that we were able to reach a diagnosis: Tres had five fractured vertebrae in his withers with one significant displacement. He needed six to twelve months off to heal.

Tres is spending his extended lay-up at a quiet farm just a few miles up the road from me. It’s one of those beautiful old-style bank barns with the expansive hayloft, box stalls the size of my kitchen, beautiful green pastures rolling right up the hillside to the edge of the state forest land, the very top of the hill. In the face of the approaching Hurricane Sandy, it’s been foggy there, the mist hanging in the air and super-concentrating the colors and smells, the sweet scent of home-baled second cutting like perfume within a fifty-foot radius of the barn itself. The other long-term layups and retirees who reside there (nine in all, counting my retired team of driving Percherons) spend their days out to graze and their nights tucked cozily into the barn. Here Tres will simply hang out for the next half of a year—there’s nothing much else to do for broken withers.

We start hand-walking next week, so I’ll be driving over every day after teaching and coaching and taking my bunked-up gelding for a lovely stroll (read: I will be dragged all over the hilltop) in the dark as the nights get longer on the slide into winter. After a month of that, he’ll finally be cleared for some turnout in a very small pasture, gradually building up to full turnout in a few months. In the spring, he’ll get X-rays again and then hopefully start returning back into work.

In the meantime, however, I look forward to a long winter of daily drives out to what I’ve started calling “Brokeback Mountain,” the pretty little barn on the top of the hill containing one very foul-tempered lay-up: I grabbed this photo an instant before he attempted to destroy the camera.

Here’s hoping that six months from now I’ll have a better tale to tell, maybe a story of Tres’s grand recovery and return to the show pen and his winning ways.

Go ride your horse. And never take him for granted.

About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian, Take the Reins, and most recently Ranch & Reata.

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