When you lose a dog that had an enormous personality you have to expect a change in energy. I always knew Hazer’s persona dominated everything on our farm, but I never put any thought into what it would actually be like when he was gone. Oh sure, I let myself think about it those half gazillion times I was irked with him for one reason or another, but I never seriously considered the changes.
I spent the majority of last week trapped inside because it rained eight days in a row. I got a tad depressed, and several times I had to remind myself that things would get better once I could get outside and start working on projects in the yard and garden. It’s been said that keeping a routine helps ward off the blues, and staying “busy” does too. So when the weather improved and I was finally able to dig into my outside chores I was shocked to find I was more sad than ever.
Again, it’s not like I’m trying to dwell on the fact that Hazer is gone, rather, I’ve actually gotten to the point where I don’t think about him every waking minute of the day. But yesterday as I went about digging and trimming it occurred to me that I’m going to have to go through an entire year of seasonal changes before I can fully wrap my head around this loss. Because every season brought a different role that Hazer played. His personality was so large that he inserted himself into the middle of everything I did. In fact, just last week when I pulled my vacuum cleaner from the closet I hesitated, waiting for the scramble of nails as he dashed to grab the hose and give it a good shake. Every day I go through dozens of little moments like that, moments where I pause to do something with or for for a dog no longer there. Moments that feel empty and profoundly different.
Learning to do things without Hazer beside me is going to take time and a concerted effort to change my focus. I’m sorry to say that the first few weeks Hazer was gone I barely even noticed Gus and Nina. They drifted in and out of my peripheral vision, doing what they always did without any help from me. I’m paying more attention to them now, trying to get a fix on who they are without Hazer here to steal the limelight. Nina seems to be changing the most, which surprises me given how much Gus had to dodge Hazer’s propensity to pick on him. I thought Hazers absence would affect Gus the most, but it’s not.
Nina has always been her own dog; aloof to everyone but me and Velcro without being needy. She’s the perfect blend of “busy,” but with an “off” button, the kind of dog who takes good care of herself, avoids trouble and will do ANYTHING you ask her with no questions asked. Inside, she likes to be near, not on top of you, but I can’t leave with a room without her immediately following. Outside, Nina marches to the beat of her own drum. Sometimes she’ll hang out nearby, but it’s far more likely she’ll be off poking around the property. She’ll pop by every now and then to keep tabs on my whereabouts, but generally she’ll wander off out of sight. (She’ll come lickity-split if called.) And she’s happy to follow me out to the barn, but once there she’ll promptly part company to go off to do her own thing elsewhere. Nina is what I’d call an “independent” thinker: she’ll gladly take advisement from me, but if none is offered then she’ll figure out a way to entertain herself.
Since Hazer died Nina has become more “there” for me, especially outside. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find Nina has been sicking by me in the barn. Prior, she might have made a quick pass through the barn before going off to do something else. “OK, Mom’s here. I’ll just go poke around the stone wall or yard,” and off she’d go only to rejoin me when I was done. But now she’s actually planting herself out behind the barn right where Hazer used to lay to watch me pick the paddock and feed. Sometimes she scoots off for a few minutes, but she always comes right back. Her waiting doesn’t seem to be a fluke because I can tell she’s tuned into me. Every time I glance her way her eyes are on me, following my every move just like Hazer did. At first I thought Nina had an ulterior motive: She’s always been a living Hoover for any of the grain the horses dropped. But she’s not even trying to get to the leftovers. Apparently she’s just there waiting for me. Two months ago that never would have happened because Hazer always had my back.
Yesterday when I was out gardening I noticed that every time I looked up Nina was laying some fifteen or twenty yards away, watching. Granted, she’s not ten feet away like Hazer was, but she’s there instead of going off to do her own thing. That’s VERY unusual behavior for Nina and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Do dogs consciously choose to fill a role when another passes? I don’t know, but I’d like to think so. I could explain this behavior by saying she’s twelve years old and not as active as she used to be, but that’s not true at all. Nina is twelve going on eight and what’s more, this behavior only started after Hazer died.
Don’t get me wrong: Nina is NOT Hazer. Even though she’s doing some of the things Hazer used to routinely do, she does them HER way not his. For example, when gardening with Hazer if I took a little “break” Hazer would move in and flop down beside me looking for some attention. Nina doesn’t do that. Instead, she keeps her distance or uses my breaks as an opportunity to go “off duty” and do her own thing. So the dance is different. It has it’s own rhythm and new steps that are unique to the dancers. And if you’re not careful that’s right where the sadness creeps in: your ear hears an old favorite song, your eyes see your old dance partner. You don’t intend to go there, but you do. Old habits die hard.
It’s a struggle not to see Hazer sitting somewhere nearby, just like he is in the photo above. I thought summer would be easier, but I’ve come to realize it will be rife with memories and habits that are going to be tough to break. Sometimes I’m OK with it, but more often than not this sadness sucks the joy right out of whatever I’m doing. I know this too shall pass, but I don’t know when. Until then I’ll just keep trying to give myself over to the change in our dynamics, knowing that eventually this new will become the norm.
I feel like I should be starting to act more like myself: Less grief, more …. well, less grief? It’s not that I don’t feel happy. Sometimes I do. Gus will do something that makes me burst out laughing or I’ll smile when one of the horses nickers for green grass. (They’ve been getting SO pushy about grazing!) I’m excited things are starting to blossom outdoors and in spite of the chilly temps, last week I saw my fist humming birds. That always makes me giddy. But the truth of the matter is, I’m still battling daily bouts of the blues.
It’s not like I go around looking for all the ways I can miss my dog. I don’t. But so often I’ll start to do something or I’ll be smack dab in the middle of something when it hits me: Hazer always used to do X, Y, Z every time I did this. When you live with a quirky dog you develop a lot of odd habits. For example, Hazer always used to want to drink out of the narrow opening of my garden watering can. He’d come trotting over every single time I filled it and wait patiently for me to turn the spigot off before tilting his head sideways (that’s the only way his head would fit under the handle) to get a drink. Gus caught on to that game, but Hazer always got first dibs. For a dog who really didn’t like water, Hazer loved drinking out of my watering can. Every. Single. Time.
Hazer also licked the rugs obsessively. For some reason this activity soothed him, especially in the evening when we would watch TV. His licking kind of drove me nuts, and over the course of a few years he ruined one of my large wool braid rugs by constantly gravitating to the same place. He didn’t limit his licking to the living room either; he also licked the office rug and a small bedroom area rug. I wonder how many times over the course of his lifetime Hazer heard me say, “Hazer! Knock it off!” When I said that he’d always pause. Sometimes the licking would stop just for a moment, other times he’d quit for the night. I was never sure which was the worse of two evils: Hazer licking or Hazer stressed because I’d told him not to lick. Both had the tendency to be annoying.
I’ve posted pictures of Hazer laying on various pieces of furniture, but he wasn’t the kind of dog who wanted to share your space. He never got up on the couch or a chair unless it was unoccupied at the time, and if you decided to sit down next to him he’d quickly vacate his spot. In all the years I had him Hazer rarely got up on the bed with me. As he aged he started to lay on my bed when I wasn’t home, but I only knew this because I’d hear the thud of him jumping off the bed the minute I walked in the door. Mostly, Hazer was known for sleeping in odd positions: upside down, flipped backwards against a wall and my personal favorite, with a pilfered shoe.
The only time Hazer ever came close to wanting to share my space was when we went somewhere in the car. Hazer would jump in the back of the Subaru and stand with his front feet on the narrow console between the seats. If he was feeling really affectionate he’d even go so far as to rest his chin on my right shoulder. That always made my heart melt and the sweetness of those rare, shared moments in the car almost made up for a lifetime of avoiding any outward sign of affection. Almost. I’d never owned a dog who guarded his affection like it was a resource with an expiration date. To say I struggled to adjust to Hazer’s aloofness is an understatement, and between that and his overpowering sense of seriousness, I learned to cherish this singular display of love.
Hazer was an unashamed, confirmed counter-surfer. He’d step away from the counter the minute I told him to knock it off, but I couldn’t trust him for a second if there was something edible or interesting anywhere near the edge of the kitchen counter. It seems really odd now, to leave a dinner plate sitting on the counter and know it’s not in any danger of losing half it’s contents the second I’m out of sight. Hazer was also a shameless paper-eater. Drop your napkin (which my hubby did just about every night) and it would get snarfed up and swallowed in a heartbeat. The paper towel and Kleenex always came out the other end, as was often confirmed during reconnaissance missions prior to lawn mowing. Sadly, like the year-round tufts of red undercoat, all tell-tale evidence of this quirky habit have now vanished from our yard.
Every couple of days I reach into my kitchen closet and pull out a couple of toys for Nina and Gus to beat up. Hazer always had HIS special toys that none of the other dogs were allowed to share. Now when I see those toys I’m not really sure what to do. His Cuz. His stuffy. His personal squeaky toy; they still cause me to tear up. I’m not ready to let the other two dogs have them yet. For some strange reason that feels disloyal. What do you do with a dog’s personal effects? Their bed. Their food bowl. Their special blanket. I haven’t figured any of this out yet. I gathered up all Hazer’s beds. Yes, plural, because Hazer had a “thing” about beds. Every time I bought a new bed Hazer quickly claimed it as his own. To solve that problem, every room in the house had multiple beds. That way Nina and Gus could choose from whatever Hazer decided to ignore that day. Don’t laugh, it worked. I learned to pick my battles.
Hazer taught me more about failure than anything I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. I failed at everything I tried to do with him, sometimes over and over again. I remember the early anger and frustration that (eventually) morphed into humor at being out-witted by my dog. All of my previous dogs had been wonderful all-rounders. By that I mean they were multi-use dogs, capable of easing gracefully from one situation to another. They got along well with people and they were more than happy to be around other animals and dogs. But Hazer wanted none of that. While Hazer never met a person he didn’t like, he harbored a life-long dislike of all other canines, including (at times) his own housemates. I can say with some certainty that nothing creates better handling skills than a dog who can’t be trusted not to fight in his own home.
No matter what their breed or temperament, all dogs have their own special talent. I don’t mean they’re great at herding, obedience or agility. I mean they have a unique personality trait that benefits you in some particular way. Some are great comforters who want to cuddle when you’re blue, or some are great listeners who solemnly guard your secrets and dreams. Others are clowns who entertain us and make us laugh, while there are the ones whose presence makes us feel safe and secure. Each and every dog has their own unique and special gift to share with us. Some even have more than one. But sometimes we get so caught up in the rituals of creating good, obedient and talented dogs that we forget to give them enough space to let their skills shine. I made this mistake with Hazer and I regret that it took several years before I relaxed my grip enough to really see his strength. Hazer’s gift, his greatest talent, was simply being with me.
Hazer wanted nothing more than to be by my side. You’d think I’d have known that since ACDs tend to be a quirky mixture of independence and Velcro, but I had a hard time coming to terms with Hazer’s idea of a good time. Hazer wanted to do stuff as long as he could do it HIS way, but mostly he wanted to do stuff to be with me. Unfortunately, I set my sights on making my dog a performance dog, and right from the start I set goals and created a general game plan to move us in that direction. Problem was, Hazer wasn’t particularly interested in performing. Oh, he was more than willing to do just about any task I asked, but he didn’t really love performing for performance sake. I can clearly recall his look of frustration the second or third time I sent him over the A-frame. Been there, done that. Next? He was bored to death, which usually morphed into trying to find a classmate to threaten.
When I changed tracks and got Hazer into herding he was a much happier camper. There, he could do something he truly enjoyed while working with me. From Hazer’s point of view that was the best of both worlds. Herding improved his responsiveness and intuition on our own farm and I’m fairly convinced it helped us fine-tune our connection. Unfortunately, we came to herding later in life and because of the rough nature of the sport I decided to “retire” Hazer after a couple of years. But the benefits from herding stuck and I wound up with a dog who wanted nothing more than to be the perfect farm dog. After that Hazer was by my side for every trip to the barn, where he’d calmly park himself in the hay and wait until it was time to go in or time to go do something else.
So it would make sense I guess that I’m feeling the loss of Hazer most as I go about my regular chores and daily routine. I’ll always miss the quirky stuff Hazer did, the oddities that made his personality so unique, but mostly I miss his physical presence. When I’m ready to leave the barn my eye still travels to where he used to lay and wait. And halfway back to the house I automatically turn to see where he is. My body and mind still register him as there, even though he’s not. I don’t know how long it will take for reality to catch up and replace habit, but I’m torn between wanting that to happen and hoping it never will.
A few years ago I started a new ritual. Since Hazer wasn’t particularly inclined to show or return affection I decided I would risk humiliating him and do it anyway. I’d cup his handsome muzzle in my hands, plant a kiss on his head and pronounce my undying love for him. Hazer’s typical reaction to any kind of emotional display was to stare at me with disgust, feign surprise or growl. He was like an adolescent child who despised any outward display of parental affection. Naturally, this made me want to do it all the more. And so I did. Several times a day I’d pause to tell Hazer all the ways I adored him. And after awhile it seemed like he stopped hating the attention and he started to look more smug than annoyed. “Yes, my mom thinks I’m great. She says I’m her favorite red dog. Says I’m the most handsomest dog ever. Says I’m her best bud.” I’d like to think Hazer understood. If not the message, then maybe the sentiment behind the words. Because the truth is, he was all that and so much more.
It’s been three weeks today since I said my final goodbye to Hazer. I try real hard not to “count the days.” I really do. But it happens anyway. Things just automatically get divided into one of two categories: all the stuff I did before Hazer died and the stuff I’ve done since. Trust me, I haven’t done very much since. Certainly nothing that warrants remembering.
At the risk of sounding maudlin I’ll admit I’m not doing great. Oh, I’m past the stage where I can’t breathe and I have to shut myself in the bathroom to muffle the sobs because it upsets Gus and Nina. But I’m shocked (and willing to say, a little bit frightened) by how often the tears still come. Suddenly out of nowhere I’ll find myself going to that dark place where I question my decision to let him go. I’ll wonder if I did everything I could do to help him. I’ll see snapshots of him in my mind, pictures where he’s happy and healthy in one, then languishing and not at all himself in another. When my head gets really messed up I’ll reluctantly grab my cell phone and glance at the handful of photos I took of him the last two days he was alive. My eyes will linger on those pictures a few seconds, which is just long enough to convince me I did the right thing. Sometimes it’s only a matter of hours, or if I’m really lucky a day will pass before the cycle starts over again.
There are a million and one firsts. First time I finished a roll of paper towel and Hazer wasn’t there to get the empty tube. First time I made salad and Hazer wasn’t there to beg for lettuce. First time to the barn, the garden or the car without Hazer at my side. First time I unloaded groceries and didn’t come out to find Hazer rooting around in the rest of the bags in the car. First time UPS or FEDEX pulled into the drive and Hazer didn’t announce their arrival. The first Saturday my husband went in to work without a dog. Those are just a few of the firsts I’ve had to get through and every day brings more; those moments when you pause for just a fraction of a second, waiting for a dog not there. I can still barely sit down at my computer because I’m bombarded by literally thousands of photos of Hazer. I’m still at that stage where I want to look at his pictures, but I can’t. I can’t handle the fallout.
I know it will get better, but I’m afraid it will get better. I’m afraid there will come a time when the thought of Hazer or the mention of his name won’t cause my heart to break and my eyes to fill. It’s like I’m being tortured, but I don’t want the torture to stop because that would be like saying my life is OK without him. And my life will never be OK without him. But I know my heart will heal because that’s just the nature of things. Eventually all my memories of Hazer will become happy memories and the pain of his loss will lessen with time. Perhaps I’ll always remain a little wistful about Hazer, but the bulk of my sadness and grief will wash away and leave me with a lot of gorgeous photos and dozens of great stories about a big red dog who waltzed into my life and stole my heart completely.
Tanglewood’s Who Dunnit Again
11-16-04 – 3-30-16
I don’t know what the last eleven years of my life would have been like if I hadn’t had Hazer. For sure, it would have been a lot quieter. Simpler. Definitely a whole lot easier. But it also would have been dull. Dull in a way that I can only look back at now and see how all the chaos, calamity and constant challenge was exactly what I needed at the time.
Hazer was never a walk in the park: Complex, smart, quirky and both biddable and independent, Hazer was a handful. He never wanted to be cuddled, fussed over or loved on, but he was always with you, right by your side or under your feet. He was my consummate hiking partner, barn chore buddy and yard companion, and while the other two dogs were always eager to be off doing their own thing, Hazer wanted nothing more than to hang out with me while I worked around the farm. No matter where I was, I only had to look up or turn around and there he’d be, quietly watching and ready for anything.
There’s so much I’d like to share about our last few years, even our last few days together, but the pain and sadness keep getting in the way. Maybe at some point I’ll be able to pen something more memorable, but for now it’s all I can do to just look at his picture without getting lost deep inside my head.
Well done my beautiful, big red dog. Well done.
I’ve had so many things go sideways on me lately, I’ve taken to saying my life has turned into a bad country western song. Most people chuckle when I say that, which makes me laugh a little too. I suppose that’s the whole point of saying something like that when the truth of the matter is, you’ve reached the end of your rope and you feel like your heart is breaking about a million times each day.
About two weeks ago, right around the same time I broke my leg (and around the same time I came down with a nasty stomach virus), Hazer decided to stop eating. Given this isn’t a dog who plays “games,” I took his aversion to food somewhat seriously. At first I thought maybe he was just having an ‘off’ day, but that’s not his typical MO. So I kept a close eye on things. Well, as close as I could given I was hugging the toilet and pinned down in bed for several days with my own form of hell. Some days Hazer would eat a little, other days not so much. I knew how he felt, but once I was fairly confident I could hobble around on my broken leg without barfing, I made an appointment to see the vet.
As I stood on one leg and heaved Hazer’s forty-two pound butt into my (previously) clean and dog hairless SUV, I was once again thankful that he isn’t an eighty-five pound GSD. Riding in the car is one of Hazer’s favorite things to do, but he didn’t show much enthusiasm for it that day. After a few wobbly attempts to copilot from the console, he curled up in the back corner of the cargo bay and didn’t move until we pulled into the office. As per his usual behavior, Hazer sprang to his feet and commenced shrieking while I went in to announce our arrival. Probably a moot point given the cacophony of noise coming from the parking lot.
Fortunately, the office was deserted. Hazer is dog-reactive and even in his weakened state I knew he’d never miss an opportunity to try to kick some doggy ass. We didn’t need the drama, so he waited while I got the all-clear. (Pet peeve: Vet’s offices that are designed in a way that fail to allow enough space for reactive or shy pets to get in and out without having to endure or cause additional trauma.) Thankfully, I was able to wrangle Hazer out of the SUV and gimp our way into the office together.
I love my vet. That bears saying again: I love my vet. First on the long list of reasons to adore her: she’s an experienced ACD owner herself. She GETS this curmudgeonly, stoic, serious breed. That makes for oh, so many things I don’t have to explain to her about my dog because she’s been there, done that with her own gang of bad-ass dogs. Whereas one vet might suggest an elderly dog sometimes plays mind games over their food, my vet believes me when I say food and games are not his gig. Like me, she’s known this dog since he was thirteen weeks old. She knows his quirks and his “death doesn’t scare me” attitude about most things in life. She knows that while he’d try rip any dog a new one, he’s never met a person he didn’t like and while he looks kind of mean, he’s really got a heart of gold. (Well, unless you’re another dog) But most important, my vet knows that when she looks Hazer in the eye and asks him how he feels, his answer is always going to be “ready to roll!” even when he can barely stand up.
We ran tests, took vitals (borderline temp), and did a very thorough exam (fine) while Hazer ate liver treats like they were gummy bears. (They’re about the ONLY thing he will eat). On the up side, nothing looks way out of whack. On the down side, obviously something is wrong. Since blood tests take about 12-14 hours, the best I could do is hope that I’d have a few answers in the morning. We talked about things I could do to try to tempt Hazer to eat (none of which have worked for us thus far) and returned home to wait for a call with the test results.
Meanwhile, Hazer is no longer interested in tagging along while I do barn chores, so for the first time in eleven years I’m flying solo. Between multiple trips to and from the paddock I still expect to see him laying in the hay, waiting with that expectant look on his face that says.”I’m here if you need a hand, Mom!” And when I’m done, I can almost hear his shrieks of joy as he jumps back and forth behind me, herding me as we walk toward the house, hoping there might be enough time for a quick toss of the Frisbee too. Instead, as I limp along the well-worn path my eyes glance toward the edge of the woods, to the place where a smattering of early spring flowers are ready to bloom , flowers that mark the place where Dozer and all the dogs before him have been laid to rest. I choke back a few deep sobs and wipe away the tears. I’m not willing to admit defeat yet, but I’m worried that I’ve been so laid up myself that I haven’t had time to contemplate Hazer’s final resting place. The thought shatters me anew and my guts clench with dread.
Late the following morning the vet calls. Her voice is cheery and bright and because I know her so well I realize the test results are good. Actually, they are beyond good. Hazer is a very healthy senior dog. Well, mostly healthy. There is that one little issue with anaplasma. Again. *Sigh* We live in Tick Central. Both of my ACDs have been treated multiple times for three persistent tick-related diseases. Hazer has been treated about seven or eight times. That’s a lot. And while it’s very difficult to know if we’re treating a NEW infection or just the old antibodies, we go on clinical symptoms. So if the dog has a low-grade fever and no appetite and everything else is OK except the titer numbers, then we treat it. Again, with thirty days of harsh antibiotics. It’s a necessary evil.
Unfortunately, by Friday the lack of interest in food or water and the fever had taken a toll so that afternoon I had to shovel Hazer’s butt back into the (now hairy) SUV and run him back to the vet for fluids and a shot that we hoped would calm his tummy enough so that he might eat. Or at least get the antibiotics down his gullet. Because prying his mouth open and sticking your hand down his throat is NOT a pilling option for this boy! But before he could get that shot he needed X-rays because you don’t want to mask an intestinal obstruction by giving a powerful drug to settle the gut if there’s a blockage. I didn’t object, especially since X-rays would give us even more information that we could maybe use. (The X-rays were read immediately by the radiologist and they were EXCELLENT!)
Home I went with a lumpy, but well-hydrated dog who looked none the less for wear. He perked up a bit, had a little pep in his step and small spark in his eye, but he still wouldn’t eat more than a handful of this or that. Have I mentioned how frustrating it is to be opening multiple cans of dog food, frying eggs in bacon grease and cooking all different kinds of meat while combating the dregs of my own five-day stomach virus? Ugh. For a dog who would normally eat anything offered, it’s just weird to see him not want to sample much of anything. And we’ve tried it all. I even made a last minute, eleventh-hour drive across town to pick up a frozen specialty that’s known to snap all but the most finicky eaters out of their funk. He refused to even try it.
So far I can interest Hazer in a few dried liver treats, a moist training delicacy appropriately named “Great Bait,” and an assortment of holistic doggy biscuits. That’s what he’s been living on for the last three days while I cross my fingers and hope today will be the day the antibiotic starts to kick in and make him feel more like himself, more like the dog who used to eat anything we gave him with gusto and glee. He looks a lot better today. He’s got more interest in taking pot-shots at Gus, in pissing everyone off in general and launching into random fits of barking. That’s my boy! *Sigh* He’s also drinking more water (good), but he’s still not interested in eating a real meal. I don’t know how many times I’ve thanked God he doesn’t weigh ten pounds. I don’t know what I’d do if he was a small dog who wouldn’t eat. While Hazer isn’t a fatty, at least he won’t fade away if he misses a couple of meals … or that’s what I tell myself as I wrap another plate of home cooked goodness and shove it back in the refrigerator. (My other two dogs are going to be fat as ticks!)
The clinical stuff is easy to write about, it’s the emotional toll that chips away at me; the hundreds of times a day that I look at Hazer with a mental check-list in mind. Is he resting OK? Does he look like he’s in pain? Is he freakin’ BREATHING? (I actually check several times a night. I’m up anyway.) Am I missing something? How long can this go on? Does he want to go?
That last question is the biggie. Hazer and I, we’ve had “the talk,” the one where I tell him it’s OK to want to go and just give me a sign if you’re ready. (Sob) Hazer stared back at me with clear, wise eyes. Licked my hand. Gave me his paw.
Not ready yet, Mom.
Spring arrived early this year, with unusually warm weather and it’s customary high winds. We had just enough snow on the ground all winter to render riding unsafe, so like everyone else who is infected with horse and spring fever, I’ve been looking forward to riding.
Wind has never been a good combo with any of my Arabs. As my previous Arabs grew older they were able to manage it, but when they were young they’d get too fired up to take them out riding alone. Especially in the spring, when gusty winds prevail. It’s no different with Dharla, so my ability to ride has been pick and choose this spring, based on the wind conditions and the general weather. We had one rather high energy ride with some friends a few weeks ago, but then the weather worked against us and we had to wait for the wind to die down again. Then last week we had a very nice, quiet ride. Dharla seemed very responsive and mellow …for an Arab in early spring … and I found myself wondering if now that she’s almost ten, are the wild and woolly novice years finally behind us? I returned home that day very pleased and so looking forward to moving our training along a bit.
Wishful thinking? I’d say not. I’ve put lots of time into Dharla. I’ve been more patient than I’ve ever been known for being and I’ve used the gentlest, kindest approach possible in my training methods. I mention that because I come from roots that didn’t always have the animal’s best interest at heart. But many years of reading and riding Arabs has taught me there’s a better way. I’ve been more determined than ever to take the right path with this horse, give her all the time she needs to grow up gently, knowing the rewards will pay off somewhere down the line in spades.
Teaching a young horse how to handle herself out on a trail ride takes hours and hours of calm, safe repetition. One wouldn’t think it would be so hard just to “walk down a trail,” but depending upon where you live it can actually take considerable time to desensitize a horse to the plethora of things they’ll meet outside their normal home environment. And while Dharla has a propensity toward spookiness, she’s steadily improved and grown to trust my judgement and hers out on the trail. There are many things we see out out there that she handles better than most horses with far greater experience, and I know I can credit that to patient persistence and hours and hours of riding time together. In my heart of hearts I believe I’ve done (at least) this part of the job right. Dharla has progressed from an green, skiddish spook-monger into a smart, thinking trail mount. That’s not to say I’d trust her 100% or call her bomb-proof, but we’re a pretty solid working team together. Some days it’s still two steps back and not enough steps forward, but for the most part I feel like we’re moving steadily in the right direction.
Unfortunately, last week our progress met the “perfect storm” of tests, and while we did our very best to hold things together, I ended up with an injury. The test involved two elements. Both, we could have handled individually, but together they were simply too much. While riding on a narrow path between two very steep rocky ledges we encountered (first) a partially-visible trail jogger some 2 stories overhead, followed almost immediately by a mountain biker who rode up (unheard, unannounced) on our tail. Just when I had Dharla almost convinced that the jogger overhead wasn’t a mountain lion about to pounce, the biker decided he could pass us while moving at a high rate of speed. Unannounced. On a four foot wide trail with steep ledges on both sides and nowhere to go to get a safe buffer space between us. Since we were currently preoccupied with the scary jogger overhead, neither the horse nor I knew the biker was coming up on us so fast until it was too late. Once Dharla heard the (almost) silent biker who was nearly upon us, I’m fairly certain she thought the “mountain lion” had come down off the rock ledge to hamstring her. I know how her mind works and her reaction was perfectly normal.
Dharla immediately shot forward, then spun quickly to face the adversary who was (at the moment) still advancing. It all happened so quickly. I was able to stay with Dharla until she spun around, at which point I started to become unseated. Normally I’m very hard to unseat, but my focus had been on the problem overhead when this happened, and part of my method for tackling that issue was to stay very physically relaxed and calm. And because Dharla seemed to be responding (momentarily) quite well, when she suddenly bolted it caught me off guard. Realizing I was going to slip off, I kicked my feet out of the stirrups and jumped off. Unfortunately, this also frightened Dharla and she quickly started to back up, which threw me further off balance. As I fell, my right knee collapsed inward and I hit the ground on my right hip. I still had a grip on the reins and Dharla was still backing up … fast. She pulled me about 20 yards up the trail as I gently and calmly asked her to whoa. I think once she realized she was dragging me (and not a mountain lion) she stopped and stood there trembling. As soon as I got on my feet I knew I had a problem. I had shooting and stabbing pain in my right knee and I wasn’t able to put much weight on that leg.
The biker did eventually stop. I suppose it could have been much worse: my horse could have kicked out at him as he tried to pass or even run into him in her attempt to escape, but she didn’t. She just wanted to get away from the threat as fast as she could and that’s pretty normal. He felt bad. He tired to help me, but the damage was done. I tried to walk the pain out, but that didn’t help. I stood still for a few minutes and spoke gently to Dharla, stroking her neck and trying to reassure her. She calmed down almost immediately. At that point I figured I wasn’t going to be able to walk her home, so I may as well try to get back on her and ride. Once I was up in the saddle my right knee/leg was supported by the stirrup and I decided I should try to ride Dharla a bit before going home. Yanno, to end things on a good note. 😉
We actually had a very nice ride from then on. All told, we rode for another hour and a half. Dharla was quiet, calm and her usual self. Several bikers passed us going both ways and she was fine. In fact, the same biker passed us again on his way back. He stopped and was very apologetic. No harm, no foul, what’s done is done. I knew at the very least I’d probably sprained something, but I just wanted to finish our ride in a good frame of mind. Both of us.
Later that night (because I didn’t think the injury was that bad until then) I went to the ER. Turns out I have two, possibly three tibial plateau fractures. Fortunately, the ACL and meniscus were not harmed. (About 50% of the time one or both are damaged and require surgical repair) I’m not going to have to wear a cast because that would interfere with knee function as I heal. Unfortunately, I’m not supposed to bear any weight on that leg for 4-6 weeks. *Sigh*
Like Roseanne Rosanna-Danna would say, “It’s always somethin’!”
Yesterday I woke up to a disturbing new story that unfolded a stone’s throw from my farm.
NEGLECTED HORSES, DOGS, CHICKENS, RABBITS SEIZED FROM EAST HAMPTON BREEDER
The Connecticut Department of Agriculture today seized 32 horses and numerous other animals from an East Hampton breeder as part of an animal cruelty investigation. The horses, along with two dogs, several rabbits and more than 80 chickens, were removed from the facility after an investigation determined the animals were malnourished, not receiving proper veterinary care and kept in unhealthy conditions.
The horses were taken under a search-and-seizure warrant signed by a Superior Court judge and brought to the department’s Second Chance large animal rehabilitation facility in Niantic, where they will be cared for as the investigation continues. The facility is owned by T. and M., who breed Friesian, Andalusian, and Gypsy Vanner horses.
The investigation began in September when East Hampton’s animal control officer received a complaint from a woman who had leased four horses to the breeder, and said the animals were emaciated when she picked them up a few days earlier. Those horses were subsequently hospitalized after being diagnosed with malnutrition and parasites.
The East Hampton officer went to the facility on Sept. 9, but was denied access to the animals. On Sept. 10, animal control officers from the Dept. of Agriculture went to the farm and found T. on the property, with no hay or grain available for the horses to eat. The initial assessment found that nearly half of the horses on the property were underweight and exhibiting signs of malnutrition including muscle wasting, protruding hip bones and visible ribs and spines.
T. was instructed to have hay and clean water available for the horses at all times, and to obtain veterinary care for numerous horses that had untrimmed of cracked hooves. A subsequent evaluation of the horses by a veterinarian hired by T. found that several had anemia related to malnutrition. The veterinarian advised T. to double the amount of hay given to the horses to 200 bales a week, and made a list of other detailed feeding and treatment suggestions for him to follow.
Dept. of Agriculture animal control officers made regular visits to the property to check on the horses’ progress, and observed that some had gained weight while others had not. T., however, admitted that he did not follow through on most of the recommendations made by the officers and the veterinarian, including supplying copies of receipts for the purchase of hay and grain.
On Dec. 4, state animal control officers returned to the farm and again found the horses with no hay available to eat, and two in a barn with no food or water. Officers gave the two horses water and they drank several gallons immediately, indicating that they had been without water for some time. T. eventually arrived at the farm with a load of hay he had just picked up.
Today, each of the 32 horses was evaluated by Dr. Bruce S., a veterinarian with the Dept. of Agriculture, who determined that all were to be removed from the property to ensure they were properly treated in a healthy environment. “Our goal was to work with the owner to rehabilitate the horses on site,” said Dr. Bruce S., Director of the agency’s Bureau of Regulation and Inspection. “Unfortunately, our best efforts to bring the owner into compliance did not result in all of the horses being cared for to the degree that we required.” The dogs, chickens and rabbits were taken to municipal animal shelters in nearby towns. The Dept. of Agriculture will continue the investigation to determine if criminal charges are warranted.
After I got over the initial shock (the photos were graphic) anger set in. How is it possible that our local Animal Control Officer (ACO) acted quickly, getting the state on the premises the DAY AFTER he was denied admittance to the farm, but the state allowed these animals to deteriorate for another FIVE MONTHS? Excuse me? I understand that in a perfect world the owners would realize their error and make the appropriate effort to correct the situation according to the protocol outlined for them. However, I find it reprehensible that the state authorities would take the word of a chronic and pathologically negligent breeder. (Further reports since the original came out have stated that the owners neglected animals on a farm at a previous location)
This is not rocket science, folks. If you ALREADY have animals that are so underweight they are ALREADY suffering of malnutrition in September you DO NOT let winter advance and just hope that the owners are going to step up to the plate and do their job. No sir. You get your butts back there weekly … or appoint someone who can evaluate their efforts weekly to make sure the owners are in fact supplying hay and grain. If not, then you get those suffering animals out. There is no excuse for letting these animals starve for another five months. None at all. How long were these animals left there starved and malnourished? A MINIMUM of TEN months, if not longer!!
‘Scuse me. That’s the sound of me retching.
In all fairness, the article says the state DID check back …. and AGAIN found the owners in breech of compliance. (And the animals stayed put?) So at that point you’d THINK the state would maybe hammer out an arrangement whereby someone would be given the authority to make weekly random checks at the farm. I mean, it’s pretty darn hard to disguise the fact that you don’t have 200 bales of hay or grain in your barn. What would that have taken … all of ten minutes?
As horse lovers, owners, breeders, trainers and riders we need to FIX THIS MESS. My question is, how do we get the authorities to take quicker action? I’m not interested in the condemnation or punishment of those who do this kind of stuff; the authorities can deal with that on their own terms. Because Honestly, I don’t think there is any way to stop or curb people from doing stupid stuff like this. I just don’t. You don’t have to have a license to own a house pet or to breed them and even if you did, that issue would be rife with problems. And here’s another rub: today these state agencies are getting sent out on bogus complaints about animal abuse: Farms that don’t blanket their livestock, barns that are not heated … truly trumped-up, animal rights nonsense. So how do we get these agencies to operate using good common sense? It seems to me that if you have already starving, emaciated horses with no hay or grain in September, you don’t wait until February (in New England, no less) to see if the owners will comply with your guidelines. Not without going back every week to make sure there is hay and grain on the premises. That’s not rocket science, folks, it’s just common sense!
Do the math, people! To feed 200 bales of hay a week to 32 horses it would cost the owners around $5,400.00 per month. And that’s just hay for the horses, not grain or feed for their dogs or other livestock. This wasn’t a boarding barn or a lesson barn, it was a BREEDING operation. In today’s economy, you’d have to sell a LOT of horses to make an income to run a farm of that size. How could that fact be so very obvious to an idiot like me, yet the state agency just seemed to overlook it?
And enough with the “Oh, those poor horses,” and “We should just hang the owners.” And enough throwing money at fund raisers (Go FundMe) for the state agency that failed to remove these animals when they could & should. Allowing these animals to deteriorate for six long months did nothing but prolong their suffering and make their recovery even harder and more costly in the long run. Meanwhile, the next “vanity breeder” or hoarder is slowly going over the edge … maybe this time in YOUR town. And make no mistake, animal rights activists are just eating this stuff up. Our unwillingness to fix this mess gives them plenty of fodder for their ever-widening campaign to make sure none of us will get to enjoy domestic animals in the future.
Something needs to change. I’ve written my local state representative and I hope when some of the heat dies down I’ll hear back from her. I know my local ACO and I’ll try to connect with him next week. I have questions that need answers. I’ve had enough of waiting for someone to fix the system while these horses suffered right under our noses. And there will be more suffering, mark my words. Because you can’t fix the kind of stupid that’s always just another accident waiting to happen.
If anyone has any experience dealing with this, please feel free to share. I have absolutely no idea how to go about trying to facilitate change. Like anything else, I suppose I’ll just stumble my way through it, but if anyone has any suggestions I’m all ears!
Having animals should teach you something about growing old. The closer Hazer gets to the edge of his life expectancy the more we’re just trying to have fun and make every minute count. It’s not that he doesn’t annoy me sometimes. He does. Make no mistake about that! But I’m trying to overlook the stuff that old age tends to exaggerate. Like his propensity to want to control things beyond his control, and his tendency to shriek at every little thing. Even imaginary things.
It’s ironic that a dog who in all his long years never wanted affection or attention, now seeks it unashamedly. I used to think that would make parting company easier (when the time comes) and then he goes and has a change of heart toward me these last few months. Does he sense his time is growing short or did he just give up the fight to be a bastard to the bitter end? I’d like to think he had a change of heart, that all the years of trying to break through his tough exterior actually had an effect. Either way, I’m enjoying it. Soaking it up like a sponge. It’s nice to be able to touch your dog without him giving you the stink eye and moving away, or sneak in a snuggle and a kiss …. as long as I don’t linger very long.
Hazer, you’ve always had my heart, albeit from the other side of a glass wall. My only regret is that it took age and infirmity for you to break through the barrier. Here’s to making every last minute count.
I read this book on the tails of having read Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter (by Kate Clifford Larson) because I wanted a good look at how the generation before Patrick coped with the “stigma” of mental illness and mental disability. That book was quite eye-opening, and so when I read this book I had a very clear understanding of the deeply rooted, almost pathological need for Patrick’s family and extended family members to either deny and/or keep their mental illnesses and addictions secret. Unfortunately, as Patrick so clearly points out in his book, his family is not alone in this practice.
Stunningly well written, Patrick exposes his journey through the labyrinth of mental illness and addiction, and the price he paid to get supportive help. This is not a juicy Tell-All book about family secrets or shortcomings, but an honest look at the personal, social and political struggles of the individuals and families of those who suffer with a myriad of chronic mental illness and addiction.
At times the book gets a bit bogged down in the details of the political process, but I never felt the author’s story got pushed aside for a political agenda. Patrick does a good job of balancing his inner journey with the events that took place on a local and national level. I’m not particularly given to reading political jargon and yet this book held my interest captive right to the bitter end.
This book touched me deeply on a personal level because my own family has struggled through several generations of mental illness and addiction. Reading Patrick’s personal account of his story gave me a much better insight to the wreckage of mental illness and addiction and the ripple effect it has on the extended family. I now have a greater understanding of why the generation before me didn’t seek treatment for themselves or their loved ones, or when they did, why the treatment failed to deliver any lasting results.
A Common Struggle was not all train wrecks and despair. In fact, there were several points along the road where I found myself shedding tears of joy and relief. Patrick reveals his highs and lows with such honesty and poignant hindsight that you can’t help wanting to jump for joy when he actually gets things right. I came away from this book with a greater empathy and respect for a wonderful human being who just happens to struggle with a “common” health problem that many people have. I’m so happy and thankful Patrick lived to tell us about it.
My own extended family has a few skeletons in the mental illness and addiction closet. Actually, more than just a few. I grew up in a family full of doctors and lawyers and high powered men who clearly had a vested interest in keeping the family secrets secret. However, in reading the two above mentioned books, I finally came to understand the cultural stigma that my parent’s generation felt they had to prevent: the stigma associated with mental illness and addiction. It never occurred to me (at age fourteen) that the reason my parents were so afraid of family therapy was because traditionally, the medical field attributed the cause of mental illness (in my case, depression and activities with a propensity for addiction) on faulty parenting.
That was an ah-ha moment for me. It wasn’t just that my parents were being assholes, they probably felt judged and most likely they felt great shame when it was suggested our family seek group therapy. At a time when my parents should have been feeling relieved and supported, instead they felt enormously embarrassed. Marginalized. Less-than. Blamed. I can’t begin to explain how their resistance and shame felt to me, but the dread that hung in the therapist’s room could have been cut with a knife. Every time the therapist directed a question to anyone but me, one of my parents would tersely respond with, “Why don’t you ask HER. That’s why we’re here!” I sensed my mother in particular bore the brunt of most of the blame for my shortcomings. After all, hers was a generation where most moms stayed at home and they were considered the primary care-giver and influence on their children. And it didn’t help that my mother’s sister had a lengthy history of mental illness. My father (a doctor) never let her forget that. I don’t remember how many times we went, but I know it wasn’t very long before my father used his medical authority to pronounce the treatment DONE.
Had it not been for a very personable and empathetic school psychologist, I might not be here today. I can say without any hesitation that David Weisner saved my teenage life. That odd, quirky, unquestionably geeky psychologist provided a safe place where I could share my feelings and work on ways to try to cope with my social and familial estrangement. My parents were not pleased that I was seeing him and resisted all requests to join us, but they couldn’t prevent my visits to his office during school hours.
So back in the early 70’s I was having weekly psychotherapy sessions, which turned out to be a positive experience that ushered me into a much healthier adulthood than the path I was on as a teen. Unfortunately, many of my fellow students and friends didn’t have the same good fortune and today, many of them are dead or dying from the long-term effects of addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. The numbers are literally staggering, and sadly, they are frustratingly unnecessary; mostly due to the stigma and the lack of access to good, long-term treatment.
Meanwhile, the ripples keep spreading, and not just in my own family. My husband’s family struggles too. A young girl in her early twenties is trapped in the loop of mental illness and heroin addiction and her immediate family is torn between trying to help and locking their doors to prevent another robbery. She has been in and out of detox and rehab to the point where finances are strained and benefits limited. What do I say to her mother, who tearfully admits she doesn’t want to have to bury her daughter … but knows someday she probably will? What do I say to her sister, who still loves the little sister she used to know, but is tired of being robbed for drug money? What do I say to her father, who himself is in recovery and can’t afford to let her stay for more than a quick shower and a hot meal? It’s nothing but a trail of broken hearts and broken dreams and it’s every where, hidden in every family.
And it’s not just an American problem, it’s a world-wide problem. People who think mental illness and addiction are the product of an affluent society are sadly mistaken. We just deal with it a little differently. Here, we let you wander homeless or stand back and let you get caught up in the revolving door of inpatient/outpatient “care.” Here, we hope your family will shelter you, oftentimes putting their own lives at risk. Here, we blame guns when the mentally ill use them to express their angst and make headlines. In other countries, you get “tied” if you aren’t capable of functioning in society (read the book for that definition), or you are warehoused in institutions that don’t even pretend to offer treatment or rehabilitation for patients.
I wish I could say my own extended family has dealt well with the challenge of mental illness and addiction, but it hasn’t. We have our skeletons, our denials and our methods of self-medicating our demons. Because stigma and shame still runs deep. My generation in particular still suffers from the restraint, hesitancy, conflict and denial of the preceding generation. And even though all but one or two of that generation has long since passed, we still hear their voices in our ear, feel their influence on our daily habits and choices. I can only hope someday our extended family can break free from the secrecy and denial that hovers over us, that keeps the sun from shining on our faces. Patrick’s book gives me hope that slowly, gradually our society will make progress toward helping families get help for their loved ones. Because nobody should have to suffer silently with an illness we KNOW can be helped.
It’s hard to believe it’s that time of year again. I thought about Tia as I rode yesterday, as Dharla fussed and worried, shied at ice frozen on rocks, fret over bikers and dogs, jigged and jogged as much as she could on our way home. It wasn’t a great ride. I try to be patient and open and accepting of Dharla, but sometimes I just miss Tia. Not that Tia didn’t have her faults. She did. But I was younger then and I guess things got under my skin a little less back then.
Every ride I try to keep an open mind, stay positive, try to understand where my horse is coming from. Sometimes I succeed, but other times I fail. And when we fail to connect I start to feel … a little hopeless. Like I’ll never reach that impossible high bar I had with Tia. And I take the blame for any shortcomings we have now. Fortunately, the frustration doesn’t last too long. Maybe a day or two at best, or maybe just until the next ride that goes better. I guess if I have any strong points it’s that I never give up. I keep trying. Some might say that’s silly or stupid, that I have the wrong horse and I ought to sell her and start over. But I tend to disagree. I think Dharla has a lot of potential and if I’m not tapping it it’s only because I lack the skills to do so.
Either way, today’s another day, another opportunity to get out there and do it all over again. So we will. And I’ll always carry the memory of Tia in my heart. Always.