by Kate Dernocoeur

The dim light inside this old barn eases my tired eyes as I walk through the tall sliding doors. Something about stepping onto the cool concrete of the center aisle quiets me, lets me forget for a little while the frenzy of life away from here.

“Hey, Jake,” I call out. Though I haven’t arrived at his stall yet, I can see the deep brown head of my horse come up fast, looking for me. I don’t need riding boots these days, so I’m wearing rubber-soled walking shoes. My footsteps are muted, but I know he hears me coming.

I draw closer and say it again, softer: “Hey, Jake.” How are you, buddy? I ponder this question constantly these days.
The first time I met Jake, there was something about his expression that was irresistible: intelligent, curious, a bit of sass. He was three years old then, just off the racetrack. His legs were strong and straight, still are. He’s only 13, just entering his prime.

Most of the Olympic horses in our sport are this age or older. What I have to trust these days is that Jake will be well enough to ride again. Maybe he’ll even compete again, which would surely make him happy, knowing how he loves to jump. What I don’t know—can’t know, not yet—is whether his rider will be me.

They say just one hit of cocaine can turn a person into an addict. Horses can have a similar hold. The look in the eye, the ripple of muscles, the flow of the gallop. If I never ride again, I will always be a lover of horses. I was that little kid whose parents finally yielded to the begging for lessons. Riding was at the core of my teens and went with me to college. Then, as so often happens, other things interrupted for 25 years—until it turned out that my daughter was horse-crazy, too.

When taking her to the barn became a daily thing, the idea of getting a young horse seemed to make sense. I’d train it, have a little fun, and sell it after a couple of years.

We took up Eventing, a complex sport also known as Equine Triathlon that involves three demanding tests of horse and rider: dressage, cross-country jumping, and stadium jumping. Everyone’s favorite part—the unique center of the sport—is the cross-country phase. Over the years, Jake and I galloped at full speed across meadows, through woods and water, up and down hills, over banks and ditches, in and out of sunlight, jumping imposing, solid obstacles. As the rider, I had to be part marathoner, part pilot. Jake was the fine-tuned, one-horsepower engine.

Eventually we worked our way to the upper levels of the sport, which meant attending competitions six, eight, ten hours away. I lost sight of my original goals. I never meant to be so consumed. Somehow, years passed. My daughter quit riding and sold her horse. But I still had Jake, still went to the barn six days a week.

Then life twisted into a routine that involved spending half the week in another city. Riding took a backseat and I was almost too busy to miss him. Like a traitor, the idea of selling my equine friend began to well up, a deep whisper inside. Then came the injuries.

Jake was never head-bobbing lame, just a little “off,” so we tried the time-honored thing: pasture rest. Maybe nature could heal whatever was wrong. But every time I started riding him again, the problem returned within a few days. It was a frustrating series of stutter-starts.

Next I strained my elbows carrying an old microwave oven to my office. The athlete in me enjoyed the muscle burn in my forearms as I gutted out the long walk, falsely reckoning it for an unconventional workout. The early pain was like a bruise and I shrugged it off. Besides, there was no time to think beyond the culmination of the semester, my teaching, my own studies, other responsibilities. Not for eight weeks could I pay attention to the amplifying ache and make a doctor’s appointment, get in, get seen. By then I couldn’t lift a plate down from the shelf to the counter, carry a bag, or even hold my steering wheel. It seemed an odd joke: I lost my grip.

Now, both of us are hurt. I’m hoping we can both heal, but it’s going to take time. This old, quiet barn may be peaceful as I stand here watching this horse, but suddenly my mind is not. It is clogged yet again by two persistent questions: how can I justify having a horse, now that my life has changed so much? And if not, what about Jake?

I inhale deeply, blow out the breath fast and loud. My inner tension dissolves a little since I don’t really have to face these questions, not yet. I’m grateful for the short drive to this modest, low-key place from my current job, for the reduced cost of board compared to the busy training facility where he lived for the past ten years. Rehab will take months, and at this barn I have the help I need. How Jake is—how we both are—is not at all how we once were. The worry about selling Jake is not my greatest problem at the moment. After all, you can’t sell a broken horse.

*     *     *

When your sport involves an animal, you can’t just put it in a closet and walk away, as from a tennis racket or golf clubs. It’s not simple to quit after so much investment of hope and commitment of effort. For now, though, returning to Eventing is beside the point. Jake is not only my competitive teammate. This horse, this magnificent animal, is way more than that. Rehab is about getting better whether or not he—well, either of us—ever competes again.

The season before this mess began, I made goals that, with luck, would culminate with a major competition at the Kentucky Horse Park. We qualified, but by fall the new turns in my life denied me the chance to go. A friend—a professional trainer—offered to ride Jake, so I sent him off to Kentucky with her.

By international rules, the soundness exam is the first order of business. I was unprepared for the call that came through that Wednesday around noon.

“Jake’s out. He didn’t pass the jog.”

I held my cell phone to my disbelieving ear. I could see it all: October in Kentucky. Clear blue skies. White-fenced pastures stretching to the tops of the hills. Fifty autumn-fit horses and their riders, dressed in khaki and button-down shirts, the female riders sometimes in skirts and heels, leading the glistening horses in a wide circle until their turn for inspection.

You don’t send a horse to the jog-out if you don’t expect it to pass.

“He’s not right behind,” I heard through my cell phone.

“What does that mean?” I hated being four hundred miles away, hated not riding him myself.

“I’m not sure. It’s very subtle.”

*     *     *

There followed a yearlong litany of lameness exams with several different vets. The events that began when Jake failed the Kentucky inspection have ultimately led us here, to this quiet place.

When I arrive at the barn and call him, Jake always greets me. To do this, he pivots his front end from where he was munching his hay, like a long ship maneuvering in a snug harbor. He stretches his nose to me, smells my hand. I press the other palm, hand open, against the flat place between his eyes, rub gently in circles. My arm can do that much. It is a routine we both enjoy.

I step off the hard edge of the center aisle onto the spongy bedding in the stall. It’s darker here, and with the duskiness comes a welcome hush. Predictably, he lowers his head into my cupped hands, nuzzling for a treat—a carrot, perhaps, or an apple. His breath on my hands is warm as his whiskered lips tickle my palms, searching.

While his head is low, while he is relaxed and happy, I lean close and press my face into the area just behind Jake’s ear. Regardless how badly he needs to be groomed, the hide there always feels like satin. For one brief, uncomplicated moment, I can breathe him in and all that’s good about him.

Jake doesn’t get to go with the others when they head outside in the morning. His rehab plan confines him to a twelve-by-twelve stall. For a horse lover, stall rest always seems harsh, denying as it does both the physical freedom horses crave and the emotional reassurance of the herd. But Jake must not run free right now. The program we have undertaken, I’m told, will—should—repair his frazzled back ligaments. His confinement to stall rest is relieved only by fifteen-minute walks, at least three walks a day. Five is better. So we traverse the grassy lanes of this twenty-acre property. No trotting. Walking, nothing more. We do this in wind, sun, rain, every sort of weather. Someone (most often, me) has done this with Jake through the last sweaty days of summer and into the fall. We will go on with this very specific process into the biting wind and deep snows of winter until spring arrives again.

Just being in this place encourages me. The property was in really bad shape two years ago. Diane, the proprietor, tells me that when she first saw it, the barn was derelict. The manure in the stalls was three feet deep and the horses who lived here chewed on the rafters, they were that hungry. The twelve stalls have been excavated and it isn’t possible any longer to reach the rafters, but you can still see where the rough beams were worn away in halfmoon bitemarks.

Now there is newly poured concrete in the aisle. The wooden walls outside are painted yellow, trimmed in brown. Thick, high weeds in front have yielded to the mower, and there is a lush green lawn again. The wrecked fences and piles of scrap barbed wire are gone; new wooden fencing frames two big pastures for the horses that live here now.

I move to Jake’s side to look him over. He has the long neck and fine head of a Thoroughbred. It’s hard to see in the light of his stall, but he is the rich deep brown of seals and his coat always has an unusual sheen, even now that I don’t—can’t—ride him.

I reach under his neck with one arm and tickle the other side under the mane, the way he likes. But I can tell even before he shifts his weight when he’s done with it. He pivots back to his hay, lips another bite, begins to chew. With a muffled crunch, he grinds the dry grass and alfalfa between his molars, his jaw working side to side. It is a peaceful, steady sound.

*     *     *

Jake’s halter hangs on his stall door, but as I reach for it shards of hot pain rip into my arm. Severe inflammation has pinioned both my arms and has reduced my grip practically to zero. I never knew how much we humans rely on our elbows. Mine are both as stuck and creaky as the Tin Man. This odd situation has deepened my appreciation of strength and good health. Even this two-pound halter is too much. I step out of the stall, anchor my arm to my side to reduce the leverage, lift correctly. Better; less pain.

I put the halter on Jake’s head, but I can’t bear to pull him away from his contented browsing, not yet. I linger, let this animal who has long been a part of my life have another bite of hay.

Jake has been unexpectedly polite about stall rest, not as peevish as some horses about being cooped up all day. He walks quietly beside me down the aisle through the tall end doors. As we emerge into the yard, I see Fancy and Maxi, Duke and Tee in their pasture. Then Kansas and Max, Genius and Brago come into view around the end of the barn. One blessing of this place is that Diane has rigged up an outdoor “stall” for Jake so he can be near his friends during the day, and still contained according to the rehab plan. After our walk, I will leave him there instead of in the barn.

A lane runs between the two pastures, wide enough for the tractor that hauls manure out to the pile. I know a dozen ways to mix up the route. We usually go to the far end of the meadow along the property line. For variety we sometimes turn onto one of the three crosswise paths, weaving in and out of the posts of a half-finished fenceline. Or trudge up and down the paved road running past the farm. But it’s all the same: walking, only walking. That’s the plan, anyway. Jake may be relaxed now, but he is a Thoroughbred, hot-blooded and unpredictable.

As we come around the end of the pasture fence and up the gentle rise toward the trailers, his head raises and his ears go sharply forward. He snorts.    I say, “Knock it off.” The moment passes. He relaxes and we head toward the north, where the neighboring field is a sea of unharvested, desiccated corn on dry brown stalks that sometimes rattle in the chill wind. Jake jogs nervously for a moment, but I speak to him again and he settles down.

He gets tense this way most days, but things generally go well. This routine reminds me that these past ten years have been much more than one competition after another. Just walking beside him for fifteen minutes absorbing the peacefulness of this place is good for both of us, I think. At the moment, I may be unable to lift a water bucket or heft a bale of hay, but I can manage to halter him, hold his lead rope, take him outside to walk. My body can still do that much.

I try to anticipate upsetting moments. Pheasants might explode from the tall grass. The neighbor’s dog sometimes ambushes us along the south property line. Jake shies at such things, often violently. Today, everything is fine so far. The weather is autumn-hued, clear, sunny. No wind. The green grass of the lane is bordered by browning, knee-deep meadow growth, and the tree on at the far end offers ripe apples. I can hear birds calling, it’s that still.

Then for no obvious reason, Jake transforms into a thousand pounds of fright. It begins with a “whump!” as he drops low, gathering himself, then explodes sideways with an impressive buck to the end of the twelve-foot leadrope. I find myself at the center of a flurry of bucking, crow-hopping horse.

“Jake!” Goddamit! Stop! Somehow, I keep the rope from tangling in his forelegs when he rears, pawing. He snorts, percussing the air, and I shout, trying to penetrate the prey-animal flight response coursing through him.

My words don’t matter; it’s the authority in my voice that eventually pops his balloon of unwarranted panic. Thank goodness for the knot in the end of the leadrope, or it would have slipped through my hands and he’d be running like the racehorse he was toward the barn. It has happened.

I manage to hold on, and he settles down. We are both breathless. My heart is pounding, but it doesn’t matter: Jake didn’t get away. My arms are on fire from gripping the rope.

The fractiousness when Jake spooks is not part of the vet’s prescription. Whenever he falls apart like this, I have to wonder: how much of his rehab has just been undone?

*     *     *

After such explosions, the idea of letting go of my horse habit—of Jake—has some appeal. Even back when we were experimenting with trials of pasture rest, the daily barn routine had begun to fall away and to be honest, it was a relief, given the pressures of my new job and commute. I rediscovered the hours that had been consumed for so long by grooming, handling, training, riding, cleaning, being with Jake. I remembered a world beyond the barn. There was a chance to ponder the larger questions: Wouldn’t Jake maybe be better off with someone who had time for him? Wouldn’t he be happier elsewhere, once his injuries healed? I could not speak such traitorous thoughts out loud.

Yet, escaping this situation might not be all bad. Being at the center of such violence is harrowing. I regard the divots from his hooves and shake my head. Others will see the circle of torn earth later. They will say, “I see you had an exciting walk with Jake.” We keep it light, but my frustration is bigger than being at the vortex of Jake’s eruptions. I know how to handle horses. The bigger wrestling match is with myself. I’ve never been at the center of such conflicting emotions as those swirling in me now. Jake. What to do with him? What about me? Us? I know the pilgrimage I am making on the lanes of Diane’s farm has to do with more than Jake’s rehab.

*     *     *

When my elbows were at their worst, I didn’t have time to think about the future. All I knew then was that I couldn’t even hold a brush, much less pick up Jake’s feet to clean his hooves. Lifting a saddle to his back was out of the question. Even if I could get Jake ready, I didn’t have enough grip to hold the reins. We were both in bad shape. That was the summer of his extended pasture rest and some work-related traveling for me. Surely three months off would cure him.
When I arrived home, my bags barely hit the floor before I headed to the barn.

“How is he?” I asked.

“Don’t know—haven’t done a thing with him,” said my friend, the professional, who had kept an eye on him. As planned. Fair enough.

I walked on August-dry grass across his pasture, halter in hand.

“Hi, Jake,” I murmured. “Hi, buddy.” I breathed him in long and deep, then stepped back to look at him. By this time in the past ten summers, he had been highly-muscled, shining with care, mane tidy, whiskers shaved. That day, he looked like an equine equivalent of a middle-aged couch potato.

We headed off the stalky, weedy summer-tired field. My hand gently scratched that favored place at the top of his neck. “Let’s see how you’re doing,” I whispered.

He was walking fine, ears floppy, relaxed. I could tell he was glad to see me. Up the lane we went, lead rope swinging, through the gate, into the barn. After so much time off, everyone expected he would be well.

I put him onto a twenty-meter circle around me and asked him to trot, then canter. My friend stood to the side, watching.

“You see anything?” I asked.

“No change. It’s still there.”

Jake’s lameness was subtle, just a faint unevenness in the swing of his pelvis, a delicate change in pitch when one hind foot hit differently from the other when trotting on a hard surface. I never really could see it. It was damned subtle.

The last resort was the state vet school. The title on this man’s business card was encouraging. Maybe our “Equine Lameness Expert” could provide some answers.

His assistant walked Jake down the aisle and back, zigzagged him away and back, trotted away and back, trotted him on a ten-meter circle on a hard surface. In the indoor arena she trotted and cantered him on a larger circle. The vet’s eyes never left the horse. He nodded a lot, said, “okay, yes. Okay.” Various tests confirmed the unraveled sacroiliac ligaments, and also some puzzling irregularities in the lower neck.

“Do you have any idea what would have caused this?” I asked.

“It’s hard to know for certain. Possibly, he was running too hard in his pasture. He likely stopped and turned too fast. Or sometimes we see this when a horse gets stuck in his stall and struggles to get up.”

“Is there any chance it was because of too much competing? Could that have been it?” The idea had been bugging me. Could I have ruined him?

“No, probably not.”

The vet seemed very sure of this.

“Why haven’t we figured this out ‘til now?”

He just smiled. Such a crapshoot, horses. He explained the plan: stall rest, handwalks. Re-checks. Gradual reintroduction of trotting, cantering. It would take maybe a year, but Jake should heal. That was the main thing. He should heal fine.

If the miles we have already walked were a straight line, I swear we’d be over the Michigan border to Indiana and past Chicago by now. Before we’re through, we will have walked enough miles to reach the Mississippi River.

Maybe this time the vet has found the real problem. I have to trust that Jake will heal fine, that if we follow the prescription he will stop being lame, stop needing stall rest, stop being unable to do anything but walk, walk, walk.

Even so, I am afraid that even if we do everything perfectly, it won’t be enough. I worry that his eruptions will jinx the process. I want Jake out of pain, no matter how subtle. And knowing his personality, I know he will be most happy if he can resume his sporting life, at least a little. It should work out. It should work out.

Before I put Jake in his outdoor stall after our walk, I let him graze for a few minutes. Head down, forelegs wide, Jake’s contentment shows as his muzzle whiskers feel for the grass in a twitchy way, his teeth rhythmically scissoring the grass. His eyes take on a dreamy, half-focused look. Standing beside a grazing horse is an uncomplicated joy.

But I still wonder: if—when—Jake can go back to work, will I heal enough to hold his reins? Even if I can ride, would it be right anymore? My life is changing. Could I—should I—let go of all this? I sigh. There are no answers, not yet.

I look into the liquid of Jake’s deep brown eyes, smell that satiny patch behind his ear. We go into the pasture and the others come over. In the habit of horses, they touch muzzles, smell each other’s breath. I open the gate to his outdoor stall, take him in, hold my elbows tight to my side as I remove his halter. For a long moment, I regard this horse looking back at me.

“See you later, Jake,” I whisper. I close and lock the latch. Hang up the halter. Head out.

About Kate Dernocoeur

Kate Dernocoeur is a 2010 MFA graduate of the creative writing program at Western Michigan University. Her writing has appeared inFourth Genre, Apropos, Airplane Reading, and Whistling Fire. Her essay, “Intersections” appears in the anthology, Saying Goodbye. Since this essay was written, Jake returned briefly to competition with a different rider, and then began a well-earned retirement with lots of grass and a good pasture buddy.

One Response to “Essay”

  1. wherethewildflowersCynthia

    I really connected with this essay. I am a lifelong horsewoman who has recently experienced a major life-changing health issue. My entire riding world was upended. I made the heartbreaking decision to part with my aging event horse, thinking he would be happier. Perhaps he is, but I miss my friend dearly.


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