Friday, December 9, 2011

Goodbye Argus, Goodbye Ridge

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

~Emily Dickinson

It is with great sadness that I announce that Argus' journey on Earth ended on a mild winter day on Tuesday, November 22, 2011. He was accompanied by his best friend, Ridge, who also died the same day.

Five days earlier, Argus sustained a sudden and severe shoulder injury. I had spent time with him earlier that day, checking him thoroughly and making plans to have the vet out to look at him. He had been having a lot of trouble with his knees and was dropping weight rapidly. Little did I know that that day would be his last happy time in pasture.

Around 2pm, I looked out at Argus in the field, grazing with Odie, Ridge, Dallas and Indy. I remember thinking about how content he seemed. I watched him as he lowered himself down to roll in his favorite spot in the pasture, then went to take a shower. Only a few minutes later, I saw him in pasture, his left front leg extended awkwardly. He was unable to bear weight on it, and his shoulder was rapidly swelling. A large lump that had not been there previously was also apparent.

A vet was summoned immediately. He felt that Argus had sustained some sort of severe muscle or nerve damage but did not suspect a fracture. "Only time will tell," he said tentatively. We loaded Argus up on bute and banamine, and made him as comfortable as possible. With the passage of five days, Argus did not improve, but rather worsened, and with his severely arthritic right knee bearing all his weight, he was in tremendous pain. A trailer ride to a large animal hospital for more in-depth diagnosis was not possible, but I had a second vet out for a second opinion. He sadly concluded that Argus' injury was grave, with no hope for improvement. With a heavy heart, I made the decision to end Argus' pain. Sadly, Dr. Miller was unable to attend to Argus that day.

While waiting for the vet to arrive, Ridge, Argus' best friend and constant companion, began to colic.

Argus' last hours were filled with love and care. He was brushed and loved. I talked to him about all the hope and joy he had brought me and so many others. He ate buckets of treats. He crunched carrots and apples. Yet his eyes were distant. His pain palpable. I ached at the thought of letting him go, and yet ached at seeing him suffer so much.

The end was quiet and peaceful. Argus stood in the pasture, surrounded by all his friends. Odie the mule stood stoically at his side, comforting him. Ridge was cared for by the vet's assistant. The vet administered the first of two syringes that would end Argus' life, and I stroked him and told him how much I loved him. I stepped back, Argus' eyes fixed on me, and told him, over and over, "I love you. It's okay to let go now." He seemed so tired, yet he stood for a long time, and when the drugs finally overtook him, he gracefully crumpled to the ground. I held his head in my lap; he died in my arms.

Unable to really grieve or process the loss of Argus, I immediately turned to the colicking Ridge, who received veterinary care that made him more comfortable. Throughout the day, I nursed Ridge and kept in frequent contact with the vet. By early evening, it was apparent to me that this was not a minor colic. Numb and in shock, I called the vet out again. By this time, Ridge's pain was becoming unmanageable, his gut sounds had diminished, and he began refluxing stomach fluid out through his nose.

So on this terrible day, less than seven hours after Argus left us, I found myself saying those words yet again: "I love you. It's okay to let go now," to Ridge as we released him from his pain. It was dark outside. The only lights reaching Ridge were the headlights of the vet's truck. And once again, Odie stood nearby as Ridge crumpled gracefully to the ground. I held his head in my lap as he took a few last breaths, which seemed almost ghostly as the warm air from his lungs met with the cold air outside, illuminated by the lights. And then Ridge was gone.

My two boys, the best friends we called "the bookends" and "the twins" because of how similar they looked, and how closely they always stood together, had gone to the Rainbow Bridge together. Argus could never stand being alone, and even in death, he was accompanied by his buddy Ridge.

It was a shocking and exquisitely painful day, and yet, when I think about it, there was something amazing in this turn of events that comforted me, knowing that some unseen force, be it God or the universe, had kept them together.

Argus and Ridge, our bookends, passed away together on a day with incredible symmetry: 11-22-11

Of all of the days of Argus' 18 years, and Ridge's 25 years, they went together, and they went on a date that looked itself like bookends. I hope you enjoy these photos of the two of them, taking during the nearly four years that Argus was part of my family. I miss them both more than words can express.

My deepest thanks go to Dr. Grant Miller of the Sonoma CHANGE Program for working so long and hard to give Argus the second chance he deserved, and for providing veterinary care that kept him comfortable for four years neither of ever expected he'd have. This from Dr. Miller: "His life was both tragic and beautiful, and his time with you was a blessing that restores my hope for humankind. Argus was an incredible fighter and I will always think of him as a living representation of perseverance and pride."

Thanks also go to my mother, Carol, who financially supported her "Argie boy" over the last four years. Your support and kindness was always heartfelt, Mom!

Thanks also goes to my family: My daughters, Demi and Shelby, who cared for Argus daily through thick and thin, and also put up with his shenanigans; my sons Drew and Ethan, who are always patient with their mother and her "horse stuff." And to my husband, Ken, who has set many a fence post without complaint. I love you all.

Several people have requested information about making a donation in memory of Argus and to support Dr. Miller's continued work with abused horses. Donations to the Sonoma CHANGE Program's "Special Needs Fund" are earmarked for providing program horses with extraordinary comfort measures such as the twice-yearly knee injections Argus received gratis via Dr. Miller and CHANGE. Donations to CHANGE's "Humane Education Fund" go directly to pay for equine education for Animal Control officers and at-risk horse owners. Please join me in supporting this worthy endeavor.

Thank you to all of you who have shared Argus' journey with me.
This will be my last blog post.
Until we meet again, rest in peace my beloved Argus and Ridge.


Postscript: Argus' body was taken to the University of California at Davis for study and a necropsy. The preliminary necropsy report stated that Argus was riddled with melanomas. They appeared alongside every major organ, and several large melanomas that had formed along his left scapula had caused the muscle to detach. We could not have saved him --- this time.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Happy Days of Summer

Argus after his first full-body soap bath ever. He was so proud of himself, he refused to put his boy parts away!

After a long, wet winter and a short spring, the glorious days of Northern California's summer are here. Balmy days graced by a gentle southwest breeze give way to cool evenings as the coastal fog stretches its slender fingers 20 miles inland to our farm. The horses enter their carefree summer routine of baths, horse shows, moonlight adventures, giggling children and fly masks. It is a happy time on the farm.

Argus is in his fourth summer of freedom and life is good. One day melds into the next as he wanders the pastures with friends, picking carefully through the dry layers of flopped-over native ryegrass in search of the ultimate blade of grass. Occasionally he stops his grazing to stand erect and frozen, sentinel-like, as he stares at something far in the distance: a lone figure walking on a ridge-top miles away; a vineyard worker shuffling down the rows of grapes; a ghost-like coyote hunting in the hay field out back. The other horses rarely notice these things. Argus sees everything. Watches everything. His ability to stand and study the world as it moves around him was how he stayed sane when he lived in Hell. After all, his name is Argus, which means "watchful."

A nudge from a buddy, and Argus comes back to Earth. His newest friend, Dallas, is a mischievous Thoroughbred who came to board with us and has filled a tremendous void left when Half Pint died: leader. Argus, who spent a year as reluctant head of the herd, did not do well without a boss. He was more nervous, less sure of himself. When Dallas joined us last December, life became easier for Argus, more predictable. With a casual glance, Dallas 'directs' Argus, who happily complies, relieved to be second in command once again.

Ridge is in the process of re-joining the group, which includes Argus, Dallas, Odie the Mule and Indy. Four white horses and one bay make for humorous comments from visitors. (Honestly! I did not plan to have four white horses!) Today is the second day Ridge has been turned out into the small pasture with Argus, and the joy on Argus' face is palpable. His bookend buddy, his 'twin,' his best friend is finally back in action, Ridge's badly bowed tendon finally having healed itself (as best it can) after 16 months of rest and rehabilitation.

Odie, Indy and Dallas come and go from the property, off at any given moment to a horse show, riding lesson, clinic or Pony Club event. Argus tolerates this for the most part, sometimes weaving nervously as we pull away, leaving Ridge to provide comfort. When we return, Argus is often waiting in the pasture, near the front gate, and heralds our arrival home with joyous whinnies and a gallop back to the barn that would put any racehorse to shame. Argus loves to see horse trailers arrive, but hates to see them go. Despite having ridden in a horse trailer only once in his entire life, he seems to understand what they mean.

I'm grateful to the people who help Argus have the best quality of life possible. Argus lives in a body that bears the legacy of a lifetime of abuse; the people in his life work hard to make every day of freedom a happy one.

My daughters, Demi and Shelby, work tirelessly in the barn without complaint, and who share my pride in Argus' accomplishments ("Mom," Demi gushed recently, "Argus was so good for the farrier that he was the best of all the horses!")

My mom, who slips me a check every month "for Argies."

Eric White, our farrier, who works slowly and patiently with Argus, and tell me what a good horse he is.

Years of confinement have riddled his body with arthritis; Dr. Suzanne Guyton gives Argus chiropractic adjustments and coaches us on carrot stretches, an essential therapy in a horse whose neck is so arthritic that is is threatening to fuse in places.

Most of all, I am grateful to Argus' good friend Dr. Grant Miller, who saved Argus to begin with. Argus is a quiet source of comfort and pride to both of us, this horse who fills hearts with joy and the sense that even suffering can birth beauty. Recently, Dr. Miller came to inject Argus' painfully-arthritic knee joints. We sighed as we looked at his enlarged right knee, wondering how long we could keep Argus comfortable on it. We remind each other that it's about quality, not quantity, but I selfishly want both for Argus. Afterward, we took advantage of the sedation to give Argus his first full-body soap bath ever, the vet and the housewife --- two unlikely friends who share a common bond in a form of a rangy white horse. Dr. Miller took the following photos of our spa day:

Even sedated, Argus was not crazy about the water. Dr. Miller had us face him into the barn wall to discourage escape, which worked!

Once clean, we went to work with Show Sheen, brushes, and scissors. Dr. Miller and Demi were upset with me for Argus' "high and tight" mane trim. This horse has enough hair for FOUR horses and I'm not combing out a long, thick mane every week! That huge tail is enough!

Enjoy your summer, and thanks for keeping up with with the story of Argus! Meantime, check out this story on NPR's California Report about Dr. Miller and The Sonoma CHANGE Program, which rescued Argus!

Katie, Argus & the whole gang at Watermark Farm

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Shadow from the Past

Argus' friend Dr. Miller recently sent me this video taken of Argus standing in the pen where he spent so many years, at the Sonoma County home of Pat Tremaine. This video was shot in November 2007 and used in the felony animal cruelty case against Tremaine (she was convicted of two counts of felony animal cruelty). It's a short clip but it shows a very neurotic Argus weaving (swaying back and forth), something I'm told he did incessantly. I watch it and it makes my stomach turn. It explains the severe arthritis in Argus' knees and neck. Thank goodness Argus no longer has to live this way. He still weaves at times, but mostly when he's anxiously waiting his big tub of dinner.

If you can believe it, this video was shot from the well-traveled road outside Argus' pen (Goodwyn Avenue in Penngrove for you locals), just two doors down from the site of an episode of "Extreme Home Makeover." If you look closely, you can see Argus' fellow prisoner, Bobby (another Thoroughbred Ms. Tremaine kept penned up for years), in the background.

It is only because enough people finally said "ENOUGH!!" and relentlessly hounded the authorities (whose hands were tied because the horses had food, water and shelter) that Argus, Bobby, Starmaker, Athena, Destiny and Sammy are free. Please speak out for voiceless animals in these situations. Often their only hope is humans who stand up for them.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Argus On YouTube --- Finally!!!

Happy New Year!! Thanks to the technical skills of my teenage daughter, Argus has finally been memorialized on YouTube video. These two videos were taken on January 6th and show Argus and his friend Perigrin (the darker grey) exercising in the arena.


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.