In My Boots: Brokeback mountain, revisited
Broken withers? There’s an injury you don’t hear about every day. Kristen Kovatch updates us on the progress of her horse Tres, who fractured five vertebrae in his withers last fall.
At the end of October I published a column about the discovery of my gelding’s broken withers, anticipating at least six months of waiting and watching and hoping for the best. I spent many evenings in the bare-bulb-lit interior of my friends Hoss and Tammy’s old bank barn, sitting on hay bales and chatting as our breath rose in clouds, Tres’ head buried up to his eyeballs in his elevated feeder, or else letting myself be drug in and out of the barn while the family mucked stalls in the evenings, boots and hooves sliding precariously on ice and snow in the name of a “quiet 20-minute handwalk.”
Tres, notorious for a foul temper and poor manners, got far worse in the first month and a half of lay-up. I armed myself with a lunge whip and chain lead on a daily basis, rarely daring to go beyond the safe square of light out the end of the barn aisle; on a particularly brave weekend afternoon we took a longer walk up the hay field on the other side of the road, not to be repeated again. But once Tres was allowed turnout again, first in a tiny square pen perfectly suited to an invalid with five fractured withers, and then gradually in larger and larger spaces, his attitude changed: his eye became softer, his manners when leading greatly improved, his general demeanor happier, more at peace. I cannot thank Hoss and Tammy enough for their months of patience and good humor dealing with a petulant animal—and Hoss for the critical discovery that most of the time, Tres really just needed a good chin scratch.
And then, surprisingly, Tres returned.
Not full-time, of course—that would be a miracle beyond description. But I picked him up from the bank barn and hauled him back to the Alfred equestrian center for a follow-up exam, joking with the vet techs as we waited for the radiographs to appear on the computer. I stared at the screen, blinked, blinked again, and let myself be amazed: where once had been five fractures looking roughly like the back plates on a Stegosaurus, there were now calcified and re-fused vertebrae, almost unrecognizable. The worst of the breaks, the major displacement, still looked questionable—but the rest of the fractures looked immensely better, well on the way to being healed. There must have been something magical in Hoss and Tammy’s home-grown second cutting.
Rather than being consigned to standing around for the next three months, Tres has been cleared for light work: gradually-increasing sessions on the lunge line, some light ground driving, gentle stretching exercises. I have seen him rolling in his stall on more than one occasion and stretching his head easily to the ground to look for hay; by all accounts he seems to be recovering quite well.
In my daily lunging sessions, I alternate between urging my traditionally-lazy gelding forward and then sitting back on the line frantically as he bucks and plays and bolts, feeling certain that all that twisting can’t possibly be good for him while smiling inwardly at how happy he looks to be back in some form of work. His coat is shaggy and his mane is miles longer than it needs to be; the shape of his back will never be what it used to be thanks to his personal skeletal remodeling—but we’re going to get our horse back, sooner or later, in one form or another.
It’s going to be a lot of work to get this…
…back to looking like this.
But given how far we’ve already come, the rest of the journey seems obvious.
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 thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.
Kristen & her horse Playgirl
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