I Could Be Dead

I could be dead but my horse Concho saved me. No, it was not something as dramatic as my horse pulling me back before I fell off a cliff, but it could have been just as tragic.

Whenever I exercised or rode Concho at the forward trot or canter I would sometimes feel a tightness in my chest that I attributed to anxiety. Most importantly to me was the fact that my usually very calm horse was also showing signs of anxiety such as spooking or shying from something that hadn’t been alarming to him before, so I was also anxious about his behavior.

I rationalized that anxious feelings would not be unusual since I’d dealt with some difficulties in my life (some of which has been touched upon in other blog entries) and because it had been an especially stressful summer beginning in June when we lost my stepdaughter to a suicide event, so I just chalked the feelings up to anxiety. My own diagnosis was supported by the fact that the anxiety medication prescribed by my primary care physician eased the symptoms. However, I was also referred to a cardiologist to rule out any heart problems.

When tests indicated that an angiogram was needed to check for any other issues I agreed reluctantly, because an angiogram is an invasive procedure where the cardiologist would place a catheter into an artery in my wrist all the way up to my heart!! My first thoughts were that I was fine and I didn’t need that. I’m very fit and eat well — my cholesterol levels have never been high and I am slim for my height. I’m not one of those people who doesn’t take care of themselves or ever exercise so I couldn’t have heart problems, could I? The only thing that made me suspicious was that my biological father likely died from a heart attack. I only know this because his obituary indicated that “Donations to the American Heart Association would be appreciated.” I didn’t grow up with my biological father and only determined that fact a couple of years ago, but that is a whole other blog entry.

My first memory upon awakening from the angiogram procedure was being shown a sketch of a heart that had an area circled with 90% written next to it. It was explained that they had found that the LAD or Left Anterior Descending artery had been 90% blocked. I was told that it had been opened and a stent placed to keep it open, and that I would have to spend the night in the ICU. It turns out that was the worst part — being flooded with IV fluids to the point where I needed to make a trip to the bathroom every hour throughout the night. I focused on the fact that the danger was past since they found the blockage and opened it.

I believe that the anxiety I felt was at least partly because my body knew something was not right and was trying to ‘tell’ my mind that something was wrong. But when I was exercising at the gym on the elliptical I would just push though the feelings and continue because I was fit and healthy. To me it was urgent that I address what I thought was anxieties that I felt when riding because I was making Concho anxious, so it was because of my horse that I went to the doctor and kept the appointment with the cardiologist. I didn’t think I needed all of that medical intervention, but I wanted to get to the root of all this to be able to continue to ride well. I wanted to rule out anything possible that was affecting my horse — and because of that, I think Concho at least played a part in saving me from dropping over from a heart attack. I was told that a blockage like mine was called the Widow Maker for just that reason, and likely what had happened to my biological dad in 1986 before they could as readily diagnose and treat the condition before tragedy struck.

This is not the first and possibly not the last time a horse has saved me. The connections I’ve had with them are so profound that people who aren’t familiar with horses would find it hard to believe. I think that I literally rode my horse Uppie out of the darkness I’d been plunged into following the sudden death of my first husband, and we developed a very close connection. I remember the last time I saw Uppie when he was coming out of anesthesia following a pre-operative procedure. I was told that I could see him only if I promised not to go into the padded recovery stall since he would be very unsteady on his feet when he woke up. When I assured the vet that I would stand in the doorway and go no further, he opened the door. My sweet horse was trembling as he’d just gotten to his feet in the safety of the padded stall. When he saw me, he tried to walk to me, but wasn’t able to. I saw the concern in his eyes and told him that it was OK and that he was a good boy. He breathed a big sigh and stopped trembling. The vet was impressed but I was not surprised and I was glad to be able to see and reassure him, especially since that was the last time I saw him because he died on the operating table the following day.

I believe that our pets and horses who have passed on are waiting for us in heaven because it would not be heaven without them. I especially look forward to seeing Uppie again.

However, I hope that I don’t see him for a long while yet since I’m just not ready to leave here. I have way too much to do before then.

 

My Rebound Boyfriend

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No, I haven’t left my husband for the pool boy, I don’t even have a pool. This is another kind of boyfriend.

 

Jimmy Wofford, the famous coach and Olympic and World Champion eventing competitor wrote about a special horse in his book Take a Good Look Around: “The moment I slid onto his back it felt as though I were putting on a glove. That horse was Carawich. I rode him for four years and there was never a time when I did not feel that he could read my mind.” 

In August of 2015, I thought I’d found my special horse. Maybe not as talented as Carawich, but one that was close enough for me. I was convinced, not immediately when I climbed aboard, but when I hopped him over a jump. It brought tears of joy to my eyes.

Imagine my disappointment when I got that same horse home and things began to go south. No matter how much I tried to reassure him or how I rode him, things deteriorated to a point where I felt like the poor horse was convinced that the sky was going to fall any minute, and he used every opportunity to try to convince me that disaster was imminent. That kind of ‘conversation’ with my horse at every ride chipped away at my own self confidence. It reminded me of other difficult times in my life — and worse, they started to catch up with me. Usually, it was around 3 a.m. when all the dark, negative thoughts and memories came back to life, circling my bed as I tried to sleep. 

We’ve all had tough times. They make us stronger and teach us many things. But I’d become so vulnerable that I couldn’t get it all into perspective. One low point was when I turned into a quivering mess who couldn’t even persuade my horse to canter during a riding lesson. It was only the fear of what everyone would think that kept me from climbing off the horse and falling into a sobbing heap in the arena dirt. So I sucked it up and cantered the horse, then made the decision to sell him. To my great relief, a friend bought him and they are doing just fine together. 

But I remained a nervous wreck and I wondered how just riding a horse had pushed me to that point. After all, I’d been a successful fox hunter for years, and before that had won at Training Level Eventing — jumping 3’3″ jumps across country at speed. What exactly had changed me into the mess I’d become? My trainer summed it up best when she said that a bad match with a horse can take away so much.

I told myself that it was like a bad relationship with a boyfriend, so I found another one. 

My Rebound Boyfriend is Dancer, a fifteen-year-old palomino with a broad background that may include western, dressage and who knows what else. He quietly came into my life in the form of a lease, and he has taken on the job of teaching me that he can do calm transitions in gait when I need him to. The ‘conversation’ with him does not have anything to do with expecting imminent disaster, it is more along the lines of, “I’ve got this, just please lighten your pull on the reins to stay off my mouth.”

Because it is so much more relaxing to ride a horse with balanced transitions who doesn’t have to run like a freight train to go into a canter, I am getting back some of what had slipped away when riding my last horse, during those ‘conversations’ where he tried to convince me that the sky was falling and a disaster was waiting around the next corner. 

Riding Dancer, my “Rebound Boyfriend,” the sky is a little brighter these days and it is staying up where it should be. 

Worry, Anxiety, and Getting Up From the Rocking Chair

There is a saying about worrying: “Worry is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do but doesn’t get you anywhere.”

I’ve always been a bit of a worrier and lately I chalked it up to the wear and tear of life over the years. Tragically becoming a single parent a few years ago probably contributed to it. There was no one else I could count on and I felt like I had to anticipate every scenario involving my two young girls and be prepared. Then there was that rotational fall from a horse, and dealing with a troubled teenage daughter, etc, etc. . .

I shrugged it off and reminded myself that all that is in the past, and who hasn’t had bumps in their road of life? But with me, it turned into baggage — and mine is all carry on without the wheels. After lugging it around over the years, it’s no surprise that it turned into the feelings that I learned were depression and anxiety.

Add to that the Empty Nest Syndrome that I’m still dealing with. I always said that anyone who cries when their last child leaves home just needs a hobby. Me? I’ll go to the horse barn to ride and be fine. However, I found that my new horse and I weren’t a good match. I think he had some anxieties that spoke to mine and together we were in a downward spiral. I’ve always sought solace in riding a horse, but when I was riding him it was anything but therapeutic. So I sold him to a good friend and I’m glad they are doing well together.

I could accept the fact that the horse and I weren’t a good match, but not how I was feeling. Why was I such a shaky mess on the inside? It got so bad that during a riding lesson I wanted to climb off the horse and fall down into the arena dirt and wail! I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I mentally told myself, for God’s sake pull yourself together! I am a strong person — or at least I used to be — so why can’t just suck it up and deal with it?

Even in these currently enlightened times, it can still be considered a character weakness to be depressed and anxious. It cannot be fixed by ‘cheering up’ and being told to ‘just relax and quit worrying about everything.’ But that’s exactly what I told myself until I came to realize that depression and anxiety is a disease that doesn’t make sense because — it’s a physical disease! Telling a depressed friend to cheer up! is like telling another friend who has high blood pressure to think calm thoughts to bring their blood pressure down. Yeah, like it’s that easy to fix.

Anxiety cannot be rationalized away, and it’s especially hard to make sense of it when depressed or anxious people have every visible reason to be relaxed and happy. Recently, Bruce Springsteen announced that he has struggled for years with depression, and who hasn’t heard that Robin Williams, who brought such laughter to others, lost his own battle with depression.

Newswoman Elizabeth Vargas recently spoke out publicly about her anxieties and alcoholism. She said it was the anxiety she was feeling that led her to drink which helped numb her problems, but also blurred anything good and positive in her life. She realized she was being profoundly selfish.

Self-medicating with alcohol, drugs or similar crutches are only a band aide to the problem and I’m lucky I didn’t get to that point. I love being happy and I wanted to get it back. I have some great friends who helped me find a good therapist and the yoga and meditation that I do help me to be in the moment and to control negative thoughts. Properly prescribed antidepressants can be a lifesaver for some people. I know that I may need to go back to the therapist for an occasional tune-up, and it’s OK. It is important to treat yourself like you would your best friend. Give yourself a break, it isn’t being weak to be depressed or anxious. Quite the opposite, a person who is paralyzed with depression and anxieties has to be brave as a superhero to do something about it to get better.

If you are also struggling with anxieties and depression, mentally put on your superhero cape, (or go ahead and tie a bath towel around your shoulders, or whatever it takes to help you make a change) and be a superhero. Life can be rewarding and fun again, get ready to enjoy it.

Saying Good-bye

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Marissa and Badger at his birthday last year, and schooling at home.DSC_0300

For the first time I can recall, I prayed to a Saint a couple days ago. I guess those of the Catholic faith do that, but being a Methodist, it wasn’t something I’ve done.

I was conducting an interview that day by phone before writing a profile article. I record the conversation by putting my phone on speaker and placing it in front of me next to my recorder. So when a text appeared at the top of my phone screen, I couldn’t ignore it. Especially since it was about my daughter Marissa’s horse Badger, who was at the vet’s where he was being treated for a bout of colic.

“He is not responding and he is in so much pain. I think it’s time to end his suffering.”

While my interviewee was answering my most recent question, I tapped out a short text answer. Knowing the time line and treatment we had already tried for Badger, I could only agree, thinking with great sadness how our sweet horse was suffering. The very nice lady I was interviewing is also a horse owner and she seemed very understanding as I mumbled something about Badger, but I couldn’t possibly talk about this without losing control, so I took a deep breath and pressed on with the interview.

I went through my list of questions automatically, having successfully compartmentalized my feelings. I thought of Scarlett O’Hara saying ‘I’ll think about that tomorrow.’ Well, thank God for the recorder, because I’m not sure if I even knew what was said in response to my questions, but I managed to conclude the interview.

I called my friend Richal who had Badger at her barn, since Marissa is off in another state as working student to a Grand Prix jumper professional. We decided that I would go to the vet’s to be with him at the last.

Being able to mentally compartmentalize is a very good skill, especially when driving, and I arrived safely.

Although he was heavily sedated because of the pain, I think he knew I was there, even as he took his last breath. It was then that I prayed to St. Peter, because I’m sure there are horses in heaven — it’s heaven so there must be, right?

In my first conversation with a Saint I said:

“Saint Peter, open the gate wide and send out the light. Call Badger’s name and watch for him in case he is lost in the dark on his way, don’t let him be afraid. He is a very much loved, sweet, gentle soul and deserves one of the best places in the kingdom over the Rainbow Bridge. I didn’t say amen, I whispered in Badger’s ear as he took his last breath, God Speed!”

Opening Hunt

Opening Hunt

Me on Ivan at Opening Hunt

Photos by artbyjewel.com

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Ivan and I leading the field back at the end of closing hunt. Notice the braided mane!