Thursday, December 2, 2010

Three Years of Freedom

It's time to celebrate! In a few days, Argus will have been at Watermark Farm for three years. He'll do something low-key, like gaze at me with kind eyes while I blanket him and add a few extra carrots to his grain because, after all, Argus is a real horse now.

Our big grey boy is doing so well, and I hope you will join with me, wherever you are, to say a silent word of thanks to all the people who came together to free Argus from his prison. It has been a long haul for him, but I'm pleased to say that life is very good for Argus, and he is one happy boy.

Argus' days are a pleasant and predictable routine. He's just one of the boys here at the farm and he knows it. At night he stands quietly while I throw his big Rambo blanket over his back, and he weaves in anticipation of his big tub of feed that he knows is waiting for him in the barn. I never get tired of caring for him. It's one of those pleasures I savor, for every encounter with him is joyful. He's cooperative, kind, respectful and easy. I just adore Argus and even more I adore watching him live the life he was meant to have.

Argus continues to share a pasture with his buddies Odie the Mule (who is in serious dressage training at present), Indy the Dutch Warmblood, and my new, leased horse, a Thoroughbred from New Zealand called Perigrin. (The horses all make fun of Perigrin's kiwi accent...) I'm getting a fair amount of good-natured ribbing for my collection of greys. Argus, Indy, Perigrin and the sidelined Ridge are all greys. Odie the mule is white with brown spots. Needless to say, we go through a lot of horse shampoo here.

For those that have asked, Argus' buddy Ridge continues to be on long-term rest for a severe bowed tendon. The good news is that his most recent ultrasound showed tons of healing, and he is now handwalking. With luck and good care, Ridge will join the horses out in pasture by next June. Argus misses him, but they play over the paddock fence every day.

A few months ago, I bathed Argus and trimmed him up and made him model for some photos. Here he is in all his summer-coat glory (you didn't really want to see him covered in mud, did you?). He's posing with my daughter, Shelby, and my daughter Demi and her mule Odie.

Happy Holidays to everyone!


Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Happy Summer for Argus & Valentino

I'm writing this from a kitchen table in Mocksville, North Carolina, where humidity hangs in the air like a filmy curtain, and I am hiding inside, avoiding the inevitable and most desperately-needed exercise. Fried chicken, hush puppies, gravy and grits have a way of navigating one's intestines and squishing straight through to the stomach and thighs, and I'm no exception. I swear, I would weigh 400 pounds if I lived here for long.

But I bear happy news, which I'll give first. Valentino, whom I profiled on the last two blog posts, has found an adoptive home, saving his tush from euthanasia. His new owners are Caroline and Patricia, a local couple who saw a flier that led them to Val. It was love at first sight (as someone said, the photo says it all), and now Valentino is happily ensconced at a nearby full-service equine retirement facility where he will live the good life in a large pasture with three other "active retirees" and see his moms weekly. I am deeply grateful to Caroline and Patricia, who are really fine, enlightened human beings, for making Valentino part of their family.

I worried about taking Val away from Argus, who looked up to the big bay horse like a big brother, following him everywhere. Valentino was the kind alpha leader, and all of the horses liked him. He seemed to make them feel safe as he led them around the pasture. Argus especially so.

Argus' twin and Best Friend Forever, Ridge, has been on stall rest again, having severely torn a tendon in his leg. We don't honestly know if he will make it long-term, but Ridge is such a bright spirit and so full of patience for the whole process, that I decided to give it a try. Ridge being my heart horse, my soul mate, and my best friend, it pains me to see him have all these problems. He misses Argus, and Argus misses him. They nuzzle over the fence. If Ridge recovers, he will be retired from riding, and then Argus will at last have a permanent pasture companion again.

Surprisingly, Argus seemed to take Val's leaving in stride, looking wistfully at the trailer as I led Val on, and then going back to munching his hay. Argus has been especially snuggly lately, coming to the fence for a scratch or a quick hug. He's usually a rather standoffish, "businesslike" horse, not very demonstrative, so we're all pleased by his friendliness. He loves his pasture, his "brothers" Odie the Mule and Indy The New Horse. He loves evenings, when we serve him a flake of alfalfa hay. He loves coming in for a good grooming, the girls brushing out his tail until it is like a massive curtain of snow white (Argus has an impossibly thick tail).

Argus never, ever fails to make me smile.

Enjoy your summer, wherever you are. Life is good, isn't it?

Monday, May 24, 2010

An Unpleasant Surprise

"Even experienced examiners may differ as to the cause of a horse's abnormal performance or gait. One reason is that many horses, which we suspect of having neurologic disease, may also be lame - the hard part is sorting out which is the most important problem."

--Tufts University, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine website.

Surgeon Mindy McDonald and staff meet Valentino at the University of California at Davis.

Foster horse Valentino made his way to UC Davis a few weeks ago, accompanied by me, my two teen daughters, and a lot of warm wishes from supporters.

At UC Davis, we met with surgeon Dr. Mindy McDonald, who had agreed to evaluate Valentino's old splint fracture to see if it could be improved.

Dr. McDonald and her team of veterinary students and a resident gathered round. I trotted Val out. By their furrowed brows I could tell instantly that something was wrong. All of 5 seconds in to our lameness evaluation, the surgeon was sending for the neurologist, telling me that Val was showing signs of neurological trouble.


I felt like I had stepped into the twilight zone. Wasn't I here for a surgery consult? Hadn't two vets at home looked at Val? Why hadn't they noticed neurological issues?

The neurologist and his team arrived, coaxing Valentino into a kind of a dance of walking figure 8's, having his tail pulled on, trotting in circles. "Ooooh, watch that!" said the neurologist to the students, "See that?"

A crowd develops as UC Davis students and veterinarians from both surgery and neurology gather to watch Valentino as he's put through neurological tests.

And then, as if sealing the deal, he asked me "Do you mind if we videotape this, for teaching purposes? We don't see cases like this all the time."

Sigh. Those are not the words you want to hear.

So to make a long story short, Valentino is a grade 3 out of 5 with clinical signs of neurological deficit in all four legs. That can mean one of several things, past spinal injury or a disease like EPM that affects them neurologically.

Cervical radiographs showed "severe" arthritis in Valentino's neck (C6 to C7). The vets also noticed that Val's neck muscles have some atrophy and he can't turn his neck with carrot stretches much at all. The EPM test came out negative.

If you're wondering, as I was, why the local vets did not catch this, we're not alone. Neuro issues tend to be fleeting, better some days, bad on others, with shifting leg lameness and clinical symptoms heightened by stress (a 2 hour trailer ride to Davis) and other factors. I'm told this happens all the time, that very qualified vets miss the diagnosis at home, and it's often caught when owners go to places like Davis for the "big guns."

I stood with Valentino in the xray room. He was sedated, it was dark, but the sadness of the pending diagnosis seemed to pour in on me.

The official diagnosis for Valentino is that he is a "Wobbler."

Looking back, it all makes sense. The vague lameness that seemed to move around, the wide-legged stance in front that I chalked up to Val being footsore. The lack of muscle in his neck, his slightly wooden movement when turning to look at something. I had a fear that Val's lameness might extend past his rear leg (which now seems to be completely fine!) but I never figured it would be something like this.

Surgery can improve a horse a grade, but in Valentino's case, he is not considered a candidate for surgery. Because his sense of proprioception (awareness of the limbs) is not 100%, he can never be ridden again.

Does Valentino know all this? No. He's a happy fellow who's so easy to be around. He is now out in pasture with Argus, who looks up to Valentino like a leader and follows him everywhere. They are now inseparable (Ridge is once again banished to stall rest....but that's for another post!). He is comfortable, he is not in pain. The vets all say that he can live perfectly well in retirement and that wobblers can live many years without progession of symptoms.

The sad fact now is that people are not exactly lining up to adopt an unrideable horse, let alone one that's a wobbler. I cannot keep Valentino permanently, and the rescue that is fostering him is not making much effort to place him. If I cannot find him a suitable home, he will be euthanized.

That would be such a shame. Valentino is a wonderful friend who has much to live for.

If anyone lives in Northern California who might be interested in adopting Valentino, please contact me immediately at

Below is Valentino at a May 1 horse show. My daughter Demi, 15, braided him and entered him in a halter class, the only class he could do. Val was a star and took 3rd place, then stood tied to the trailer all day, munching happily. He is such a good horse.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Valentino Update: The Money Has Been Raised!! Thank You!!

Thank you to all of the Argus blog readers for your support of Valentino's surgery fund. As of Tuesday, April 20, $770 had been raised ($500 single donation, $200 single donation, plus smaller donations totaling $70).

Then an amazing thing happened....A donor stepped forward and pledged to cover the remaining balance!

The next step for Valentino is a full set of radiographs (8-10 of them) of the fractured splint bone in order to determine the best method for surgical correction. SAFER (the organization that is helping Valentino) is waiting for direction from the surgeon as to where she wants these radiographs done, here at home or up at UC Davis.

From there, we hope to proceed with a surgery date!

Thank you! Updates to come as things progress.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Shameless Plea for Valentino

Watermark Farm has an unexpected foster horse, and he needs your help.

Valentino is a 14-year-old Thoroughbred gelding who raced under the Jockey Club name "Polkatime." He was bred in Maryland and raced in Illinois, earning $22,000 over the course of his career. Somehow he made it out to California for a second career as a show hunter.

Sadly, Val lost his home to a divorce and has been shuffled through two horse rescues, finally landing in foster care with Sonoma Action For Equine Rescue (SAFER). Valentino's future is uncertain due to the fact that he is not serviceably sound, and SAFER has had a hard time lately placing companion-only homes.

So how did this beautiful and wise gelding wind up in foster care at Watermark Farm? While I was horse shopping for my daughter, I met Valentino, who was quite depressed at the time, and offered to do a riding assessment for the rescue. I brought him home for what I thought was a week or so and tested his lungeing and riding skills. He's very well trained, an old show horse for sure, and he is an absolute gentleman.

Unfortunately, I also noticed that he was not sound in his left hind hock, and that it had a big, suspicious lump on the outside.

A handful of local ladies donated funds to cover some veterinary investigation for Val. I paid the vet call and exam. Sylvie covered the cost of xrays. We expected to hear that Val's hocks were a big fat mess.

Dr. Miller examined him and took some xrays. To our surprise, Val's hock joints were in decent shape for a 14-year-old former racehorse. Dr. Miller suspected the cause of the lameness to be an old, fractured splint bone head on the outside of his left hind leg. The fracture appeared to be somewhat unstable, as you can pinch it with your fingers and I swear you can feel it move.

The splint bone is a remnant of prehistoric days, when horses had three toes. These days, all that's left is a long, thin bone that sits alongside the cannon bone. Splint bones occasionally cause a horse grief if they are kicked or hit in such a way that they fracture. Time and rest usually allow them to heal without incident, and the horse goes on to be sound. Occasionally, a horse will fracture the splint bone in such a way that it causes them discomfort unless the fracture is surgically treated.

Obviously, no one ever did this for Val.

We consulted with three surgeons, all of whom requested an ultrasound exam for Val. The concern was that tendons and ligaments passing over and around this calcified fracture might already be damaged. Last week, Valentino had an exam with an ultrasound specialist, thanks again to a private donation (thanks Heidi!). To our great pleasure and surprise, Dr. Julie Wilkins said Valentino's soft structures in the hind leg/hock are "pristine" and there is no damage.

That means Valentino is a great candidate for splint removal surgery, which is a common procedure that may well restore him to a level of soundness that may allow him to be a riding horse again.

The catch? As a horse rescue, SAFER does not normally cover surgical procedures like this unless they come from donations made specifically for that purpose.

We need to raise a minimum $2,000 for Valentino, $500 to cover the cost of an series of 8-10 xrays that will pinpoint the fracture location for the surgeon, and about $1500 to cover the cost of the surgery itself.

If Valentino can have his surgery, I will donate board and care here at the farm to cover his complete rehabilitation and return to work.

This is a horse worth saving, a gentle, well trained old show hunter who likes people and other horses, is drop-dead gorgeous, and moves like a ballerina. Can you help Valentino with a tax-deductible donation to help SAFER fund his surgery?

Here is Valentino's page at the SAFER site, with photos of Valentino's appointment with Dr. Grant Miller and Dr. Julie Wilkins:

Donations to help Valentino may be made to the 501(c)3 non-profit SAFER. Please mark your donation "Valentino medical fund":

To donate to SAFER via PayPal, click here.

To mail a check:

9501 Mill Station Road
Sebastopol, CA 95472

For more information about SAFER and Valentino, please contact SAFER President Kate Sullivan at (707) 824-9543

Thursday, March 18, 2010

An Argus Spring Update: Knees, Teeth...And A New Brother!

For everyone that has been emailing and asking for updates, here you go!

After a very wet winter, spring is starting to emerge at Watermark Farm. For the most part, Argus has whiled away the long, bleak days with Odie and Ridge at his side. He continues to learn new things, and experience new things.

Argus loves to eat his nightly bucket of pelleted feeds in his stall, which is attached to a paddock which is attached to the pasture. He panics when we shut that paddock gate, so every night, Ridge and Odie come in from the pasture into their paddocks. Argus' gate is left open, so he can move in and out. This winter, for the first time, Argus was able to not only tolerate eating his meals inside his stall, but he LIKES it! Go figure. Each night, we we bring the horses in from turnout, Argus waits patiently in his stall for me to bring him his dinner. It amazes me that even after more than two years with us, Argus still makes changes.

Argus had his teeth floated and knees injected recently. His knees are extremely arthritic and so joint injections every 9 months are the only way to keep him pasture sound. The difference with those knee injections is incredible.

Argus goes from quivering knees that he can't straighten fully to being almost normal. Big thanks to his friend Dr. Miller for providing this service (which normally costs $500) to Argus at no cost.

Good news! When Argus arrived in foster care, his front teeth were a mess of black cavities. I'd never seen a horse with cavities like that. During Argus' recent teeth floating, Dr. Miller worked on the incisors. He noted that the cavities are disappearing! Since a horse's teeth constantly erupt, as the vet has filed them down each year, combined with Argus' good diet, the decay has stopped and now with time will simply be ground off. Dr. Miller says the cause of all this decay is because Argus was fed bacteria-laden rotting produce ---- lettuce, bell peppers, etc. The constant stream of bacteria in his feed also rotted his teeth.

Argus has had a hard time adjusting to Ridge, who is now being ridden regularly and has healed from his fractured pelvis (yay Ridge!) being taken out of the pasture and going on rides. At first, Argus panicked so much that we had to lock him in his paddock so he wouldn't run around and hurt himself. He ran himself into a lather, even if he could SEE Ridge in the arena right next to him. When we removed Odie for a ride as well, it was awful to see how miserable Argus became. With no Half Pint to stand in the pasture and calm him, this was a different experience for everyone.

Over time, and with a lot of patience, Argus is now able to tolerate our taking Ridge and Odie away in the trailer for a trail long as our sole mare (Angel) stands in the paddock next to him, AND as long as I ply him with alfalfa. It's taken several months to get to this point, but Argus is slowly getting used to having his friends come and go.

Argus' bond with Ridge and Odie is very strong, but at the same time, it's important that horses don't become so "herd bound" to each other that they cannot ever be separated for grooming, riding or farrier or veterinary care.

On New Year's Eve, we had a scary night. It seems that every person in our rural area decided to light off entire packs of firecrackers, or illegal fireworks, or shoot their guns. From 10pm to 1am, I stood in the barn, on guard. The horses were all calm, except for poor Argus, who was simply terrified of the noise and flashing lights. I could not catch Argus to calm him. A funny thing happened. I noticed that Ridge and Odie kept moving themselves so that Argus was sandwiched between them in the pasture. They stood very close to him, touching. He shook very hard. They calmly stood for hours, moving slightly to keep enclosing him. Thanks to those two sweet and brave horses, Argus made it through the night without panicking.

On a sad note, we lost our dear Shetland pony, Ginger, in February. She had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure last fall, so we knew it was coming. She lay down in the barn late one night, and could not get up. The vet came at 1am and put her to sleep. Ginger was about 35 years old, and we miss her terribly.

On a happy note....our little shrinking horse family just expanded. "Indiana Jones" is a 20 year old Dutch warmblood/Arabian cross that has joined us as a Pony Club mount for our 12 year old daughter, Shelby. Indy is also a rescue horse! It is entirely coincidental that he is also white. So this year, we'll have three white horses and one partially white mule out in the pasture. It should be fun!

(NO! This is neither Argus nor Ridge!)

Love and hugs to everyone from Argus, Ridge, Odie, Angel and their new "brother" Indy!