Thursday, May 16, 2013


Yesterday was beautiful in its opening moments. Bluebirds were sitting on my shoulder and the hardest decision I thought I might have for the day was what flavor my smoothie for the morning might be. Then I had planned for a bit more of the saddle experimenting I had begun earlier in the week trying to see what fit Cistine. I fed Heidi, the GSD, and Gracie, the diminutive Yorkie, and sat to watch them and drink my coffee. Heidi finished her bowl and was wandering around the kitchen and eventually ended up near my stool. Gracie came over to join us. Then, out of no where came the attack. Heidi placed a huge paw on top of Gracie’s back and suddenly Heidi had Gracie in her mouth.

Gracie’s shrill screams were curdling and I instantly, but in that freeze frame time standing still mode, pounced on Heidi and tried desperately to get her to release the little dog from her teeth. I don’t know how, but did, and Gracie ran away with the screams of an animal in sheer terror piercing the now not so still morning air. I put the shepherd away in our room and went to find Gracie to assess her injuries. She had some bite marks on her neck and she was already in obvious deep shock so I grabbed her and left for the vet’s office while my daughter called ahead to let them know to expect us.

I drove in a daze. Where had this attack come from? And why? These two unlikely pups, theirs a pack of two, had gotten along so incredibly well since Gracie joined us, playing together, and even the day before I had seen them cuddled up in the cool grass under the martin houses, waiting for me to finish barn chores. This, I had not seen coming, and I was stunned.

The attack had not been Heidi’s first to other dogs over the years, nor second, each time violent, terrorizing, and brutal but always with some provocation. A shepherd bites once and holds on and requires a very serious effort to get them to release their prey. Fortunately for Gracie this attack had been made from a very old dog with broken teeth and her death would have been the most likely outcome had it come from Heidi in her youth.

I left Gracie in the hands of the vet, but before leaving I spoke with my vet about the possibility of euthanizing Heidi. I knew that my thoughts were emotionally driven but I had to admit that I could not allow the risk of another possible attack, to Gracie, any other dog, and certainly not my grandchild who frequents our house. Even though Heidi had shown nothing but tolerance for little Margaret’s climbing on her bed and cuddling up with the “big dog”, my trust in her was gone and even the thought was intolerable. I drove home devastated in my dilemma. It was my responsibility and my decision to make, and either way was not good.

Over the years of dog ownership I have had way too many suffering animals put to sleep. The first was another shepherd, the dog who never left my side during my high school years. I returned from college once to find a pitiful suffering shell of my old friend and I took her to the same clinic Gracie was taken to. I held that old dog in my arms and felt the life slip silently away. Since then I have had to repeat the same painful dance with life and death many times, each time excruciating in its sadness of loss but with the knowledge that in their death the dogs were relieved from the bounds of their suffering or illness.

The contemplation of euthanizing Heidi was different though. She suffered daily getting up and down stairs with joints that no longer worked and hurt her constantly despite the pain meds I stuffed her with, and her quality of life was very low. The difference was that she had not given up yet as the others had when it was their time, relieving me of some of the difficulty of the decision . My decision for Heidi was a heavy and overwhelming burden that weighed on me through the rest of the morning. Heidi was my best friend, my shadow, my companion. She was my, dog. How could I really imagine intentionally killing my buddy? I spent the hours in a blind funk until I made the choice, and then I cried deep and hard.

Knowing her hours to be her last, in a very surreal way, I spent them focused on making them good for both of us together. Heidi knew something was up and never took her eyes off me nor left my side. We went to the barn for her last visit. She swam in the pond and even watched, the ever vigilant shepherd that she was, as we dug the grave we would put her in later in the afternoon. I groomed her thick coat and fed her a full bowl with chunks of steak mixed in, this her last meal. Finally the call came from the vet that Gracie could come home. I loaded the big dog in the back seat of her truck and we headed down the too familiar road to the vet for her last ride. My head was throbbing and tears were burning my face and Heidi sat contented on her bench seat, her throne for ten years, doing what she loved the best, going for a ride.

As we pulled up to the clinic, she must have smelled the place and knew it. Heidi let out one of her typical shepherd sounds that is part sigh and part question, looked at me, and then back out the window. The vet came out to the truck to give her the first shot which sends them into a deeply relaxed state. We held her and patted her broad and beautiful head and said our goodbyes. The vet gave the final shot and with a few lingering breaths, then one last exhale, she was gone. My beautiful, gorgeous, intelligent, friend was gone and would be no more, forever. We gathered the very lucky to be still alive Gracie and left to go home with a now silent shepherd laying behind us.

In the hours after I had let my anger and horror subside at the attack, I pondered so many things, weighing them all and came to the terrible decision that I made based on two things. One, I could not trust the dog to not repeat this behavior, and two, that she was miserably making it through each day in pain that I can not gage because she was the most stoic beings I have ever been around. I feel horrible and have a pressing guilt that perhaps if had done something different in her life that it wouldn’t have had to end this way. I will never know that answer. It was what it was, imperfect, beautiful and at brief times horrifying, but I loved that dog and she me. We buried her with her favorite toy so that she can play with it forever in her final sleep and we covered her with dirt and tears.

Today Gracie is more alert with the pain meds fading, but is traumatized, scared, and confused. She timidly keeps looking for her buddy, the buddy who taught her the ways of being a dog, where to potty, what to avoid, what to chase,  and how to survive being a farm dog. Heidi was the one who took her under her wing and was always her back up. Theirs was a complicated and comic relationship with their size differences and  breed types, and despite that it was sweet and good. Heidi was Gracie’s buddy and mentor, but who, inexplicably attacked and very nearly killed her. Gracie’s trauma, on many counts, will take some time for her to heal.

 It will take time for me to heal, as well. 

RIP Heidi.  


Monday, May 13, 2013

Saddle Whoas

Any kid who has gone through a basic science class knows how experiments are run. There has to be a set of controls so that a theory can be tested and in the end all things can be measured, evaluated, and a conclusion or hypothesis can be resolved. That is  until that resolution is proven to be a false answer by a further experiment. It is a logical way to deduce and figure stuff out. That was my plan of attack today, but variables played a rather large factor, regrettably, and so my experiment for today was inconclusive.
No beakers, no burners, and no white coats in a lab, what I needed to begin to figure out began in the barn with the backs of three very different horses. As of late I have begun to notice a pattern of behavior that was running in similar fashion with each of my horses, to varying degrees, but with enough of it that is was time to find out what the issue was. My suspicion was leaning towards a saddle fitting problem, as I have three mares with three very different backs, and one saddle that has one fixed shape or tree.

A saddle is basically a frame that rests on the long muscles that run the length of the rib cage on a horse. It is covered with leather, usually, and padded on the bottom to accommodate the shape of the horse’s back. It has to clear all of the bony processes and provide a comfortable way to lug a live load around. This is no small feat and the evolution of saddle design is long and is far from over. Like a hiker wearing a heavily loaded backpack that is ill designed and which inevitably causes sores, bruises, and strains, so too is the importance of a good basic fit and design for a saddle. It must fit both the horse, and the rider, so that they can work together in harmony, and both be pain free. 

My saddle is a Stubben, one of the best made, with top quality leather and workmanship on a spring, or semi-flexible, tree. Every time I climb aboard it is like sitting down into the most comfortable leather easy chair ever, which always makes me sigh. It has zero leg rolls, (which place a rider’s leg in a predetermined spot on the horse’s sides), it has a fairly flat seat, and the leather is soft, supple, and is a well tanned black. My saddle allows my legs and my seat the freedom to go wherever I want them to go and not be rigidly held in place as though I was off to go jousting, like some saddle versions do. I bought the saddle years ago and have thrown it on everything in my barn and have had no issues with it fitting any horse, until now.

As I mentioned before I have three mares: Kitty, the oldest, an alpha of the herd, a short , round, bright eyed bay; Sunset,
next in age, a red tank with lots of chrome, with a work ethic that never stops, solid, and is a part time clown; and last a younger mare, Cistine, a very tall, elegant, sensitive, and very willing mare that floats over the earth she covers with her long strides. The first two have similar backs, broad and well muscled, they are power models. The younger mare is a thinner and longer lined build and has steeper withers which drop off to a much narrower top line, and this, is where my quandary began. Remember the one size saddle doesn’t fit all thing?

Horses are notoriously bad liars. I have known some dogs who were pretty good and pulling the wool over my eyes but horses, no. If they are scared of something they either leave or go nuts trying. If they are hungry they eat, and if they feel bad, they don’t. If they are sore or are hurting they will let you know that too. Lately I had been getting similar signals from all three that something was irritating them and the common denominator was regrettably, my saddle.

I borrowed a saddle from a friend to use in my experiment to see if indeed my saddle was the cause of my horses‘ new behavior. This particular saddle has no rigid tree and in theory shapes itself to any horse’s back bringing comfort to any equine back. My plan was to A-B this saddle with mine in as controlled of a situation as possible. I had let them all have the week previous off to rest any sore muscles and hopefully have a clean slate to test with.

My hope for a controlled situation was first vexed with a cold front that popped through over night and brought in chilly temps and gusty winds, just right for making the steadiest of beasts more excitable and stupid. The second was that my neighbor across the fence thought today would be a good time to run their four wheeler through their back pasture. The driver and another person were talking and moving about causing the horses much distraction even before we got started. Her head was high and muscles were tense on Kitty, who I saddled first with the borrowed one, as we walked out to the arena. My plan was to lunge them, one, so that I could see how they moved and what their opinion of it was, and two, avoid being tossed if they either really liked it and bucked, or if they really  didn’t like it and bucked with determination. Either way being a bystander seemed the more observant, and safer, way to run the experiment.

After finally sort of getting Kitty’s attention, difficult, her reaction to the saddle was difficult to determine. Another variable I had forgotten was that my older two girls hadn’t seen a lunge line since they were started many years ago, so this whole process was going to be exciting to them. It was. Kitty took off around me, though careful not to pull too hard, bucking like a rodeo bronc, digging her short little legs in and letting go with explosive jumps and leaps and bounds. I was very glad I was merely observing these airs above the ground, but I could not draw any conclusion of whether she liked the freedom of the saddle or was just being a nut because of the weather and distractions. I put her away and got out Sunset  to repeat the process.

Sunset was less distracted by the neighbor across the fence but when I asked her to trot a circle around me, there was a pause, followed by her taking off in similar leaps and bounds as Kitty. I was befuddled now because these two mares have had saddles on them since their youth and have never bucked with me on them and I don’t remember such theatrics when I did lunge them. The borrowed saddle didn’t look any different but something was causing them to find the sky, and the question remained as to whether they thought the saddle was yucky, uncomfortable, or if it was really super comfortable and liberating. It looked like it fit okay but I did notice that on them it tended to slide forward a bit, so maybe that was an issue. Still unclear on this test I put Sunset away and tacked up Cistine.

Cistine seemed to like the shoulder freedom at the trot and her stride lengthened but at the canter I could tell she found the new shape weird and she tightened up her back considering a buck, and kept a cocked ear in the direction of the saddle. I put her old saddle back on to compare and her stride shortened up again, but she seemed happy enough. I put her back in the barn and was left to ponder my lack of any conclusion at all.

Tomorrow is another day and another experiment. Perhaps the newness will have worn off, the wind will die down a bit, and the neighbor will refrain from being a mysterious distraction so that I can draw some bit of information from these horses. I think I will remain a grounded observer until I can tell if their action today was buoyancy or annoyance, or both. If only they could speak, what would they tell me?  

to be continued....