The relationship I had with my late Quarter Horse, Mouse, developed in a restorative way while each of us was contending with injuries. We were a good match because her navicular restricted her. Upon a back diagnosis, it was decided that I needed a smooth-gaited walk-trot horse, one providing minimal jarring on spinal maladies that would withstand only gentle riding. Mouse’s no-bounce, perky gait was smooth enough to keep my back fairly comfortable. The “gift horse” as I called her, often placed her head on my shoulders in a loving testament to our bond, reinforcing what I needed to know to sustain my back health and continue to ride. The bay mare with expressive eyes came as a companion horse to where I work and reside. For a time, veterinarians questioned if she should be ridden, but Mouse overcame her limitations with persistent care and support. One year after I got her, Mouse and I competed in our first Introductory Level schooling class together, capitalizing on her even walk and trot and lightness to the aids.
Mouse has remained a part of me since she left the world, having colicked at the beginning of 2015. I felt a kinship with her—my spine injuries were like her bone condition—not stopping either of us from being mobile but requiring maintenance to reduce pain and move comfortably. She motivated me to do my physical-therapy exercises because they enabled me to ride her. We were akin to exercise buddies and I’d tell her that she had to do her physical therapy as well—stretches on the ground and mounted, basic dressage movements to balance out the unevenness in her body.
Mouse didn’t go placidly on the trail when she started. We didn’t even know if she’d ever been on the trail. She hadn’t been given the kind of training needed to respond to the aids at all times, though she was smart and light to them nonetheless. The time spent on the paths eventually grew rewarding as she slowly yielded to walking forward through the spooky settings. It was all because she began to trust me, and I spent a lot of time with her, riding and on the ground to gain that.
Her owner eventually dubbed her “my horse,” as a therapeutic gift. I learned how to take care of my medical matters, learning to transfer the same lavishing attention and time that I gave to Mouse toward my well-being. Checking in every time I came home was an opportunity to say hello to a friend I never tired of, and my spirit was lifted by her presence. For Mouse, it was a chance to get a good massage, as she stretched out her head horizontally as I rubbed underneath that strong Quarter Horse jawbone. She looked content, and I was happy to give her that.
The day I found Mouse distressed I’d just come home from a doctor who thought that I should have lumbar surgery. Without time to breathe and process the recommendation, I went to check in as usual. Her face didn’t have the typical lively presence, but had a somber, distracted look. No greeting. Mouse went down in the stall searching for a way to relieve the pain. I couldn’t connect through affection, and the vibrant spirit expressed often through the whites of her eyes wasn’t there. When we came to a place where we could not get her up and vital signs diminished, the dressage trainer told me it was time to say my goodbyes to her. I knelt by Mouse and told her that she was a beautiful girl inside and out. “You were my therapy horse,” I said. As I wept goodbye, a friend’s trainer told me something comforting: “There will be another horse to come into your life because that’s the way it works with horses,” she said.
A new horse, Zen, came into my life recently. The retired Third Level, dark bay Dutch Warmblood is recuperating from a hind suspensory strain. He, like Mouse, reminds me to be patient and compassionate as I ride. When my back has a flare and riding is not possible, I hand-walk him in the twilight.
Zen affects my life in the same ways that Mouse did, helping me treat my musculoskeletal conditions and still ride safely, just being the horse he is. I will forever be grateful for the enrichment that these two horses have brought to me simply because, as that trainer once told me, that’s the way it works with horses.