When I first moved to my beloved California barn last year, I heard a lot of rumblings about a big horse show coming up. We’ll be at year end. Everyone’s getting ready for year end. They were referring to the IEHJA, our local circuit, year end show. No stranger to local horse show finales, I figured I knew what it’d be like. Maybe a nicer facility, a few special classes here and there.
All year, everyone gushed about how great the year end show was. I agreed to go, but I didn’t have any stellar expectations. It wasn’t until I got the prize list that I realized that this wasn’t the same kind of local finale that I was used to. It ran three days instead of two, the classes were more expensive (but also had nicer prizes) and there were all kinds of special events and recognitions: a $1,000 “Jump Scoot & Bounce” costume relay race, $500 2’6″ – 3’0″ Hunter Derby, stall decorating contest, junior and amateur scholarship essay contest, all the regular divisions and of course — medal finals.
I signed Simon and I up for all of the things, and told my competitive nature to shove it. I knew that if I came into the big horse show with expectations, I would ride like an idiot and disappoint myself. Our lessons at home had been going really, really well… but I told myself it wasn’t likely to all come together in the show ring. Our lead changes at home were spotty, and I couldn’t expect magic to happen overnight. We would do the best we could.
The first day, Friday, was all jumpers. Instead, we schooled and Simon was his usual rockstar self… except he hated this giant hill that you had to walk up to get to the big ring. I swear, my flatland Texas Thoroughbred has never experienced an overlook in his entire life. The fact that he could walk up the hill and look down at the rest of the horse show blew his mind. Aside from that, he schooled great.
THERE ARE LITTLE HORSES DOWN THERE!
The first class we actually showed in was the Jump, Scoot & Bounce. Luckily I got to jump for our team, because my knees cannot handle scooting around on a bouncy ball. The best part about this class was our costume. I recycled my rainbow Dalmatian Lisa Frank Halloween costume, and made Simon my unicorn!
The actual competition was pretty much won and lost on the bouncy ball. One team had this young boy who FLEW up in the air. It was an impressive athletic feat, and nobody could touch their time for the rest of the 30 some groups. My team did really well, but I missed the first inside turn with Simon because it caught me off guard. For the rest of our little course he channeled his inner Ricky Bobby and we flew through it like jumperland, much to my trainer’s delight.
Saturday was our first day of actual hunter classes. Since Friday night was a late one, I opted to splurge and pay a braider instead of doing it myself so I could sleep for a few extra hours. This was an excellent choice since I was already driving an hour each way versus staying at a hotel closer by, and when I warmed up Simon on Saturday I was taken aback at how much he looked like a proper hunter. My boy has really grown up this year!
Trainer took him in a 2’6″ class as a warmup to re-install the brain (aka fix wild Simon that I created from the jumper classes the night before). We expected him to be a little bit wild, but he immediately settled in and did the job without any issues.
Next she had the pro 2’9″ division with him. He put in nice rounds, although it’s obvious he’s not an easy change compared to some of the other horses. Still, he jumped around with a smile on his face and because she’s not an amateur brain like me, trainer doesn’t miss and gets all her leads.
He got some 3rd’s and 4th’s in a competitive class, which was good because points and it was mostly to school him for me anyway.
Later that afternoon, I went in for my 2’6″ Low Ch/AA classes. Somehow, and I wish I could tell you how because I’m usually a nervous wreck, I managed to swallow any nerves and just went in there to do the best I could with my horse. Our first hunter round wasn’t super remarkable. Fine, but nothing to write home about.
Our second round was the handy hunter, and I pretty much live for anything handy because Simon is so good at those. The course included a gallop jump, which I was so pumped about. I asked my trainer if I could really gallop, and she said I needed to have a noticeable change in pace but then maintain that pace. So I went in with that plan.
And. It. Was. Awesome.
2018 IEHJA Fall Finale Low Ch/AA 2’6” Handy Hunters - YouTube
We did the trot jump! We did the gallop jump! We landed on every lead! I have never had such a good course in my life, and I didn’t need to see trainer’s face to know she was proud when I walked out of the ring.
This is why I love horse showing. Going out in the ring by yourself on your heart horse and being able to put it all together is the best feeling in the world. It’s something I haven’t been able to replicate in any other aspect of my life.
I found out a bit later that we won that handy out of a big class of 9 horses, and got 3rd’s in our other two Low Ch/AA classes that day. After my handy, I knew that everything else for the rest of the horse show would be icing on the cake. Spoiler alert – my cake ended up having a lot of icing, but that’s a story for another day!
Last week, I said goodbye to my perfect spaniel. After I wrote the post outlining the details of his cancer, I was flooded with messages of support and love. Those notes gave me so much comfort. Both in knowing that I’m not alone with the immense struggle that is deciding when to release a beloved pet, but also that because everyone echoed that I’d know when it was time… and that it was probably not too soon.
I was completely devastated when I lost BT. Part of that was timing. I had to put her down two months after Tim died, and my bank of emotional energy was completely empty. Having to make a life or death choice for a living thing, especially Tim’s beloved pet, put me in a headspace I hope I never return to. The day she died, I couldn’t do anything but lay in bed and stare at the ceiling. I had never felt more hopeless. It was the only time in my life that I didn’t see the point to living anymore, but Eliot and Pascale got me through to get up and tackle another day.
Watching Eliot decline the last few weeks, I remembered how completely bottomed out I felt with BT. I worried that letting him go would destroy me, especially right now. Fall and the holidays used to be my favorite time of the year, but since losing Tim I slip into a depression every October like clockwork. It doesn’t let up until January, and I push through the holidays with a mix of over the top planned activities (aka wine) and lots and lots of naps. I’ve been feeling low for months, and didn’t know how I was going to say goodbye to my best friend on top of everything else.
After I wrote that post, I started looking at Eliot. Really looking at him. Every week that passed, he had more fits of anxiety/pain than the weeks before. The pain medication I had for him calmed him down most of the time, but not always. Then it started taking two doses, and I realized that our good days were mostly marked by him sleeping quietly in his bed. He wouldn’t greet me at the door when I came home. At first, I excused this because he was a deaf, old dog that slept soundly. He couldn’t hear me come in, and I had been used to the habit of finding him asleep and slowly waking him up with cuddles when I came home.
But he started waking up slower, and if he was awake when I came home he could only slowly waddle up to me. His happy, rolling yodels were gone. He stopped rolling in the grass after his afternoon walks (a favorite tradition) weeks ago. He got pickier about the treats he would take. He withdrew, and spent most of his time on his bed instead of in the living room with me and Pascale. He could see us from the corner, but he didn’t come up to engage as much as he used to. Toys were no longer fun or interesting. Walks seemed like a struggle. I knew we were getting there, so I made an appointment with an at-home euthanasia service for right before Thanksgiving.
The day after I made the appointment, he had a terrible morning. The next morning, he had another. No amount of pain medication calmed him down. He kept trying to climb into the bathtub (a place of comfort for him), but his hind legs didn’t work well enough and he’d get stuck halfway over the tub. I had to go pick him up, only for him to try it immediately again. Pascale ran to me whining every time he tried, because she knew something was wrong. It got to the point that I had to close the door off to the bathroom, and then he just walked up to me and cried.
He needed me to make him feel better, and I couldn’t. I called the service, and had them come much sooner.
His last day was a good one. The night before, I couldn’t sleep. Really, I couldn’t sleep for that entire week because I was so worried about him. Every sound woke me up, because I thought he might be in pain. Around midnight, I moved my pillows to the floor and laid next to him on his bed. Pascale jumped down with me, and the three of us slept in a chain. Me with my hand draped over his forearm, fingers mixed with his long, white feathers. Pascale with her head rested over the crook of my knee.
I made him an egg scramble for his last breakfast with bacon, cheese and ham. Throughout his life, I would sometimes think about what Eliot’s perfect last day would be like — what final gift I could give to him. I always thought the beach or some kind of swimming, but when it came time for that actual day he was too sick to enjoy anything.
Instead, I sat on the floor with him a lot. I rubbed the inside of his ears, his favorite, stroked my finger down the groove between his eyes to his forehead. I told him I was sorry he was sick, and that I would do anything to make him feel better. That he was my best boy, even though he was kind of an asshole his whole life and stubborn as all get out till the end. Told him that even with all the dogs I’ll have for the rest of my life, there will never be another one like him. I thanked him for loving me, because despite everything, he loved me more than a person deserves.
When the vet came, it was peaceful. He walked around a little bit while the pain medication and sedative kicked in. I could see him falling under its spell, because his eyes got a little wide. He waddled over to me, and I helped him go softly down. I held his head up in my palms, his fuzzy jowls folding over the sides of my hand, and rubbed his ears while he shut his eyes. Held his face and tried not to cry until he was completely under.
Pascale laid next to us while he slipped away. I bent over him, completely lost it, and sobbed. It wasn’t a hopeless feeling. More like I couldn’t hold on to all of that love anymore, and it just spilled out of me. I stroked his head until I felt the warmth start to leave. Pascale bent down over his face, closer than I’ve ever seen her dare get to him, and directly sniffed his nose a few times. When she realized he wasn’t breathing, she licked him once on the nose and then laid down next to him with her paws draped over his. And he was gone.
I don’t feel hopeless like I did when I lost BT. Before the sun set that day, I felt confident it was the right decision. He didn’t have any bad episodes on his last day. He even sniffed out a I’m sorry your brother died stuffed dog toy I had gotten Pascale, and played with it for a few minutes because he was spoiled until the end.
Of course I cried, a lot. I still do when I think about how much I loved him, how much I miss him. He was my first real love. The one who taught me what it’s like to love someone as much as your own skin. Eliot softened me, taught me what hard choices are and what they feel like. I have a thousand good memories of him, and just as many pictures.
Saying goodbye to him felt like saying goodbye to the innocent person I used to be. The one that didn’t know how hard life was, or how much it hurts to lose. I miss her almost as much as I miss my spaniel.
But I’m okay, and Pascale is too. He was a terribly complicated dog, but we both loved him. He loved me more than anything in the world, and I can still feel it. That kind of bond never fully goes away.
My last update sharing Eliot’s cancer and my fears about letting him go was a bit of a downer. In case you’re worried, let me get to the punchline early: Simon is doing fabulous.
But it wasn’t easy getting here.
Earlier this year, I wrote a tounge-in-cheek post about Simon’s off again, on again’ness. Although that was a fairly accurate portrayal about how things went for us last winter, the truth was a little bit more serious than that. Historically a pretty gastrically sound horse, he kept showing tummy problems. Nothing major, but a series of mild gas colic that usually resolved with banamine but needed tubing at least once.
Now I don’t think I have to explain to anyone the kind of emotional attachment I have to this horse. During these few months, I was an absolute wreck. I worried constantly about his health, and kept imagining scenarios where I lost him to colic. The horse was a giant source of stress, which is the exact opposite of what a horse should be.
So I did what any rational, super broke graduate student equestrian would do — I threw money at the problem.
I got him insured, so I didn’t have to worry about the “can I afford colic surgery?” question. When his weight dipped, I put him on not one but two high end feeds. First we tried Ranitidine to treat his ulcers. After we doubled the dosage and still saw symptoms, I went balls to the wall and used my insurance to get a huge round of GastroGard. That was the turning point, and I finally started to see a happier, more relaxed Simon. Lesson learned – go straight to the real deal if you’re seriously concerned about ulcers. Do not try and pinch pennies. Do not pass go. Just give pharma your $200 (many sets of it) and enjoy a healthier horse.
Now, many months later, we’ve finally found the optimal situation for Simon. He needs orchard hay, no alfalfa (my vet said it can make ulcery horses worse… an unpopular opinion for some but I’m a believer). To bulk his weight up, I fed stabilized rice bran and Total Equine, which is a mix of alfalfa, rice bran and oil. Once we finished the ulcer treatment and his weight stabilized, I took him off of the rice bran and just do hefty amounts of Total. It gives him enough nutrients without adding sugar. I’ve also bit the bullet and started him on Smart GI Ultra, which is not cheap, but does offer ColicCare insurance and provide gastric support while preventing ulcers from re-growing. Any time he steps foot off the property or is in any way stressed, I give him a GastroGard the day before, during, and after the event. Basically, I treat his stomach like it’s super precarious and in return he’s finally glowing with health.
The other big change for me this year is that I’ve become one of those amateurs that has complete and total faith in training rides. Since January, Simon has been in partial training which means two days a week he gets worked by the trainers, and one day I get a private. Lately, I’ve switched to full training because the difference in him is absolutely outstanding.
Honestly, it feels like I went and bought a nicer horse. I know that seems absurd, but it’s true. While he’s never going to win the hack at an AA show, his trot is so much nicer than it was before. He pushes from the hind end, flicks his toes and relaxes his back. He’s straight and forward, and I can actually feel power in his canter when I ride properly. Turns out, jumping is a lot less scary when your horse feels like a powerhouse underneath you.
Long time readers will know that lead changes have been our achilles heel. It’s why we turned to the jumper ring in the first place. However through training magic, he’s getting his changes. He gets them almost all the time with the pro (because mad skills), and it’s starting to happen more often with me. Turns out, if I ask right… he usually does them for me.
^ this lady rides much better than I do, but that’s okay
Things aren’t perfect, and lord knows I still have a lot to learn, but I’ve never felt so pleased with our progress as a whole. I have loved all of the trainers I’ve ever worked with, and learned something from each of them. That will never change, but this is the first time I’ve been at a barn that treats me and my horse like serious competitors who can win.
They don’t look at Simon like the free Thoroughbred who’s sweet to his flabby amateur mom. They look at him like a talented horse they can improve.
We’ve both improved, and it’s really exciting. After years of thinking I knew how to ride okay, I feel like someone just turned on the lights. It’s (ever so slowly) translating to the show ring too, but that will have to be a different post.
A lot happened in my blogging absence this summer. Some of it was fantastic, but a lot of it was not. I promise to update on happier things soon, but something that’s especially been weighing on my mind this week is Eliot’s health.
I got Eliot, the most beautiful dog I’ll ever known, for my 21st birthday. All of my other dogs have been rescues, but Eliot is the embodiment of my deep rooted love for purebred dogs. In his prime, people routinely asked me if he was a show dog. Even in his old age, we’ll go on walks and folks will gasp and tell me how pretty he is. He knows it too. The dog is not humble.
Almost ten years ago
Last Christmas when I was home in Austin, I took Eliot to my Texas vet. He had been dragging his feet more often, and I noticed some unusual wear on the two center nails on his hind feet. My vet told me it was most likely arthritis, and that I shouldn’t worry too much since he could easily go up and down stairs. For a twelve year old dog, he was in fantastic shape.
Over the next few, the dragging started getting worse. Eliot began slowly losing control of his bowel function. He couldn’t tell if he was pooping or not until said poo actually began to drop. Never a dog to have accidents, I had to start keeping a very strict schedule to keep him from defecating in the house in the mornings. Stuck in California without a vet that I really liked, I took to the internet… which is always, always a bad choice. I convinced myself that my beloved old dog had Canine Degenerative Myelopathy, even though it rarely (if ever) occurs in spaniels. I got into this routine where I cried over him for days, convinced this neurological degeneration would kill him, and then realized that his health wasn’t that bad. CDM paralyzes dogs in 3-6 months total. Eliot had symptoms for well over six, so I tried to stop being so neurotic.
Still, the dragging continued. He was happy going for long walks, but I noticed the wear on his claws getting worse and worse. In June, I finally broke down and took him to a new vet in California. They also thought the problem was skeletal, even though I was convinced it was a neurological issue. We took X-rays of his spine, which revealed some minor arthritis but nothing major. The new vet suggested a package of cold laser therapy treatment, but the real discovery of that visit was a dark mass on his spleen. An incidental finding, but something she said we needed to investigate.
So I brought him back to the vet two weeks later for an ultrasound, only to find out that the first vet I saw was no longer with the practice. With another new vet, we went over everything again and this time she agreed with me that he looked neurological. By this point in early July, his balance was way off. If you rubbed his butt in a certain way, he flexed his tail or his back legs in some kind of automatic response. He did not appear to be in pain, but he wasn’t right either.
He likes to sleep directly on my pillows
The ultrasound revealed that the dark spot was most likely some kind of tumor. There was a 2/3rd chance that it was a tumor, and if it was a tumor there was a 2/3rd chance it was cancerous. Since it was located in his spleen, my vet said she thought it was a matter of when, not if, that his spleen ruptured. And a ruptured spleen means a dead dog. We still had no idea what was causing the neurological issues, but I couldn’t sleep knowing that I could come home at any time to find Eliot unconscious and in terrible pain from a ruptured spleen. So I made an appointment to have a splenectomy, and figure out exactly what this tumor was.
We did the surgery in mid-July, and it was a huge success. They poked around inside him, and didn’t see evidence of any other cancer. The first 24 hours were rough for Eliot, but by day three he was acting like his old self and didn’t seem to be in any pain. I waited for the biopsy results, but my vet and I felt cautiously optimistic. It was a really, really good sign that there wasn’t cancer in his liver or surrounding organs.
Close to the end of August, I got the call I had been waiting for but the news wasn’t what I hoped. The tumor was a Stromal Sarcoma, a rare and aggressive kind of cancer. My vet told me that with chemo, he could get six, maybe nine months if we were super lucky. Without chemo, two months was the life expectancy.
I stared at my dog, curled up in the pillows on my bed in a deep sleep. He hates vets. Even going in for his cold laser therapy treatments (which did nothing for the mobility issues) put him into a panic twice a week. After surgery, his quality of life was good. He ate, enjoyed chewies, and went for short walks. Plus, he was almost thirteen. I didn’t feel right pursuing chemo, so I made the decision to help him live out his days peacefully.
That was three months ago. By the vet’s timeline, Eliot should have been gone by the end of September. Instead, we celebrated his 13th birthday in true California style with In-N-Out. Realistically, I’m not sure how much time he has left.
The neurological issues have gotten worse. My vet said sometimes this kind of cancer starts in the nerve sheath, and that may be what’s causing his mobility issues. He falls over sometimes if he loses his balance, but is quick to get up. He still enjoys his walks, but they are slower and it’s pretty clear to me that he’s most comfortable at home in my small apartment. I’ve started making a log of his “bad” days, and a list of the things that he no longer does.
He can still jump on the bed, but he no longer goes through the trash (one of his favorite activities). He likes some chew bones, but only bully sticks or small rawhides wrapped in jerky. He doesn’t care for toys anymore. He doesn’t want to roll in the grass after his walks. Occasionally he yodels and jumps around when I come home, excited to greet me, but more often he takes a long time to get going from a deep sleep. It’s not hard for me to see where this is all trending.
Right now I’m in that gray area that I hate the most. I want nothing more than to do right by my pet, but I don’t know the right timeline. Everyone says, he’ll tell you when, but he’s a stubborn old bastard. He clings to life, and me, like the whole world depends on it. For him, I guess it does.
I’m waiting around, and watching him. Trying to determine when it’s the right time to let him go. I say that I’m ready, that I’ve been mourning him for months, but I’m not. He’s the dog I’ve had for my entire adulthood. The only one that’s been around before, and after, Tim. He trusts me implicitly, and loves me more than he does anything else. I hope I can tell when it’s time.
It’s been six months since my last blog post. That’s probably the longest I’ve ever gone without updating SMTT since it started, and the number surprises me. I could have sworn it had only been a month or two, but here we are.
During those six months, a lot has happened. Most of it I’ll update on the blog in chunks. The short story? The animals and I are well — mostly. Life is hectic and crazy and I’ve put far too much on my plate, but really that’s nothing new. It’s how I roll.
I guess I didn’t realize six months have passed because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this blog. About what it means to me, and if it should continue or not. I’ll be honest. I’ve thought about shutting it down more than once. In January, I started the year with a renewed vigor for blogging and colloquial writing in general. I had big plans for my year, the blog included.
But then I wrote about flying with Eliot as an ESA dog, and the amount of hate I got in response both surprised and overwhelmed me. I’ve blogged at this domain since 2010, and on my original domain (uptonia.com) since 2001. In seventeen years, I’ve read every single blog comment. That’s no exaggeration. Every. Single. One. The ESA debacle was the first time I deleted the comments from my inbox without reading them. They published to the site, but I had to stop reading in order to protect myself. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m (clearly) deeply flawed, and while I am pretty thick skinned there comes a point when I can’t take it anymore. My blog had never been that point until those posts published.
After that, I spent a lot of time thinking about what this blog is and what it means for my writing. SMTT has had many different roles for me. It started as a silly place of free expression. A little corner of the internet for me to flex my voice and, looking back, I realize it was where I began to practice creative nonfiction on a casual level. Then I tried to make it into the best horse blog I could. Forgive my not-so-humble brag but in its prime, it was one of the best. That is until Tim died, and my life, blog included, couldn’t hold a semblance of normal anymore.
Normal in CA looks like lots of pool time.
It started before I moved to California for grad school, but my writing now goes in several different directions. There’s my book. This 108,000 word, hunking, messy thing that I am deeply proud of even though it’s still got a long ways to go before it’s fit for publication. Near it, there’s the other literary work I do. Little blips here, essays there. Some of it is about losing Tim and grief, some if it is about other things that entertain me. This year, I hope to start a second manuscript — a collection of personal essays about being an equestrian. For all of these projects, the voice and the tone and the work involved is completely different from this blog. If my book is an oil painting, this blog is barely a pencil sketch.
I also have my professional paid-for-hire writer voice, which now mostly sits at The Plaid Horse. It’s a role I adore, because I get paid to write about horses. I write, find stories, and work with voices other than my own. It’s a treat to work for the organization, but it’s also a real job with real responsibilities. I don’t exactly have a lot of free time to write about ponies on here, and believe that it’s my duty to give my best equestrian-themed blog writing to my employer.
There’s also the minor little detail that my website got deeply hacked, and it took me weeks of tech work and coding to keep the last 8 years of writing from getting completely lost.
So, the blog sat. It sat while I thought about what role I wanted it to serve, and the conclusion I’ve come to is this:
This is not the space for my literary writing. Writing makes me more fulfilled than anything else I do, but it exhausts me. I can’t create little snippets of that world for you here. I can barely proofread my own posts.
This is not the space for global horse blogging, not anymore. For now, you can find all of that delicious content at The Plaid Horse. Some from me, and some from other people far more interesting than I will ever be.
This is not the space for Russian hackers. I booted those bad boys out, and put in some new security software. Boy, bai!
So what’s left?
This is the place where I write about what’s happening in my life. Some for memory, some for sharing. It’s for horse show updates, cute pony pictures, and little stories that I find funny. Maybe one day they’ll turn into amazing feats of literature… but probably not. That is until they give out Pulitzers for Best Nerd Horse Memoir. I’m winning that shit!
In case you’re worried he’s changed (he has not).
Above all, it’s a place for me to enjoy in whatever means I find entertaining at the time.
I’ve also decided it’s not the place for comments anymore. Everything previously published to the site remains, but that function has been removed. This is partially because the ESA incident spooked me, and I am not in a place right now where I want harsh criticism from strangers. I get enough of that in my workshop, thank you very much.
Comments also have become this very insincere popularity contest in the blogging world. Some think of them as a measure of success, and I don’t believe that’s true. I’m a fiercely competitive person, and know I’d hate the idea of so and so getting more comments than me. So… I removed them. If you have a burning comment, you can always interact on Facebook, instagram or my personal email. I really love hearing from you, but I don’t want reading my blog to feel like work. Feeling obligated to leave a comment trail at every corner of the internet is a part time job. I don’t have time for that, and I shouldn’t expect you to either.
So, that’s it. It’s not beautiful or really all that interesting, but that’s the deal. I won’t promise to post daily or fulfill any ambitious blog quest. My goal is to update about Simon and the dogs and the general happenings of this year eventually. Share a good story as it happens. Flex my voice when I have something to say.