It goes without saying that we get attached to our horses. In the past, when we’ve taken in projects with the intention of giving a horse a tune-up or filling in some gaps in their education, we’ve always managed to complete that process in a year or less. That’s a short enough time that while we would become quite fond of those horses, they never felt integrated in our lives the way our ‘keepers’ do.
That was supposed to happen with Piper. She was supposed to be a horse we kept only briefly—just long enough to lay a foundation of groundwork and the basics of work under saddle. I liked her quite a bit from the start and was impressed how well she took to all the work. Still, until she came up lame, everything went exactly according to plan. We had no intention of keeping her long term. We were just about ready to list her. She could walk, trot, and canter, stop, soften, and turn, all in or outside of an arena. I thought it was time, and finding her a new home with a doting owner who would love her forever would be a piece of cake.
But then her navicular happened. And all our plans went out the window.
It’s been well over two years since Piper’s diagnosis. And of course she was lame for many months before we had a name for what was happening. As we’ve gone through the process of trying to treat her, it’s been periods of hope surrounded by extended phases of frustration and helplessness. Add the fact that Piper has been such a little trooper through all we’ve done—the shoes, the injections, the exams—and well. Yeah. Despite the expense and the trouble, we just got more and more attached. Which, of course, made the prospect of giving her up harder and harder to bear.
And yet, the inconvenient reality of horses is that they are expensive. While we can afford to keep four, it’s a stretch for us to do so. Supporting four when one of the four comes with many extra expenses has meant tightening our belts in some pretty noticeable ways.
The trouble with a lame horse that you love despite everything is this: the thought of giving that horse up feels impossible. I had all these different nightmare scenarios I would worry about. Piper taken in as a pasture companion but with her feet neglected, limping around in constant pain for the rest of her days. Piper being forced to carry a rider even though she’s not sound. Piper shipped off to slaughter. Piper turned into a broodmare despite all the reasons that would be a terrible idea. The few times we tried to put the word out about her we got such weird, disheartening responses. People asking if they could make payments on the $400 price we attached to her ad to discourage kill buyers. People asking if they thought she’d be up for, “Just trail riding.” People who didn’t seem to even understand what the word “lame” means.
So one month after another passed with a steadily increasing list of failed treatments behind us. Finally our vet recommended a $1200 nerving surgery. This came at a moment when we’d just pushed through a number of unexpected and costly life events. Brian and I both came to the same realization. It was just not an option. We simply couldn’t swing either the cash or the justification. And I’m not even sure if I feel that kind of surgery is ethical.
Which cast the situation in a new light. Basically, if we felt we’d done all we could for Piper, we needed to find her a new home.
Still, I agonized, dragging my heels for weeks, always putting off the moment when we began to try in earnest. There was always an excuse. She would need new shoes soon. It was too cold. It was too hot. We had our big road trip coming up.
But finally, it could not be put off any longer.
I changed Piper’s ad, upping the price to $1100 in hopes of discouraging the sorts of inquiries we got last time but giving all the details of her diagnosis and stating that we were ‘highly negotiable’ when it came to offers from someone willing to continue to treat her. We took some more photos, removing most shots of her carrying a rider. We put it out there and we waited.
And it’s as if the stars aligned for this little mare. Because a few days later I got a phone call. The woman introduced herself as a small animal vet who lives in a nearby Iowa town. She already has one horse with navicular whom she has successfully treated and is able to ride but who she recently moved to her own land. He was alone. He needed a friend. She’d seen Piper’s ad and thought maybe. Maybe she could help Piper and give her gelding a companion at the same time.
Long story short, it is the perfect match. It is literally as if the universe designed the ideal home for Piper and manifested it into reality a mere hour away.
Weekend before last, Piper’s new owner came to meet her. And then last Saturday, I led Piper onto a trailer. We followed it to this lovely little farm surrounded by cornfields and quiet. Piper met Roger, her new pasture-mate, and there wasn’t so much as a single squeal or pinned ear. Yesterday I got a text saying they were standing out there grooming each other.
It’s surreal, to have her gone. And not only gone, but in better hands than ours. Her new owner can get all the meds she needs at cost, can better control her diet and environment, and can provide routine care herself. She’s optimistic she can treat Piper’s symptoms and maybe even ride her again someday. But if that doesn’t work, she’s fine with just having her there being a friend for her gelding. She’s a very kind person and has even ridden with Kip Fladland, Jeff Griffith, and Barb Gerbitz—all trainers we too have learned from and who teach the same founding principles we used to train Piper.
The sad part, of course, is that we miss her. Steen and Piper had developed a particular bond. It’s a bit heartbreaking to think of him without his best friend.
And then there’s us, of course. Going out into the pasture without her there—it’s going to feel like something is missing for a while.
But mostly, this is a good thing. The building sense of relief these last few days has been palpable. Knowing she’s in a good place—that there are no more difficult decisions we must make on her behalf—is pretty wonderful.