Thursday, May 03, 2007

Chaco the Warhorse

HoneyGrove - Oct 2004 (fog over farm, cows, Chaco) 009

"A War Horse." That's what the vet called him after the last visit. Chaco, the War Horse. However, rather than the stately Nez Pierce Appaloosa, bred for fierceness in battle, then all but annihilated by the US Cavalary in the 19th Century, Chaco is a homely distant cousin from Arizona. But, boy, can that horse jump! Either over fences in an arena with me clinging to his back or straight up in the air as a bucking bronco at a rodeo, Chaco is a supreme athlete.

Maybe he did have a little bit of the war horse in him after all; although, I don't think that is what the vet was refering to at the time. More likely the vet was wondering how the same horse, out of our three, always seemed to be placed in harms way, while the other two remained relatively untouched. Of course there was that one time when our Arabian cut herself on a rusty car part buried in the undergrowth, as only an old farm can have. The vein blew blood all over us until the vet was able to close it off.

But that's Moralecia's story, and this is the story of the war horse, Chaco. Chaco, who tripped through a barbed wire fence in search of greener grass; who fell in a trench in the middle of the night, after jumping out of the paddock and sliding down an incredibly steep hill; who stood in the loafing shed with his leg hanging loose from the hip and us with no idea what had caused it. And Chaco didn't say and it didn't seem to faze him and we never knew. Except, looking back, I now know Chaco was going blind long before we realized.

It began at the beginning. I know that sounds like a funny sentence. Maybe I should say, "the beginning of the second half of our lives when we moved to a rural farm in the Coast Range of Oregon." Phew. Arriving in Oregon from Arizona, our horses were stressed and nervous and cold. The trip had taken two days in an unfamiliar trailer, with other horses and stops along the way. I hadn't thought to send blankets along because we hadn't used blankets in months in Arizona. The horses had shed their winter coats long ago and now we were changing everything. The temperatures had gone from 95 degrees to 35 degrees in the morning, the fields from one acre to 40, the landscape from dry and deserty to lush and green, the stabling from open air stalls to a dark, scarey barn. Who wouldn't be freaked out. We certainly were!

Our first summer was filled with more vet visits than we had had in all our horse years in Arizona. Farm visits took on an entirely new meaning since we were 25 miles out of town now and privileged to pay not only for the visit but for the mileage. Accidents only happened on weekends so there was that weekend charge as well. I had to explain to vets I didn't even know they couldn't wear cowboy hats or my war horse would be too hard to handle for any of us. Not sure this was a cowboy hat crowd anyway since most of the vets that summer were female and the guys wore baseball hats, if they wore any hats at all. Why cowboy hats turn Chaco from a war horse into a mule, we will never know, but this muley behavior wins him no favors either with vets, their assistants, or me, as he would as soon run over you as stand still.

It's been almost three years now since we saw the vet who called Chaco the "War horse". Chaco's black coloring has been replaced with grey. He is skinnier and a little less muscled than before, because, as I have come to realize, farmers don't often have time to ride for pleasure and, if they do, they feel guilty about all the projects remaining unfinished. (Note to self: start riding the horses...there will always be weeds!)

When Dr. Bergen showed up last week for some preventative health care on the animals, I asked him to take a look at Chaco's eyes. They seemed to be growing more cloudy. Since you can't ask which way the E is pointing, it's hard to say what a horse can and cannot see, but Dr. Bergen was not encouraging. The small, subtle signs I had started to notice: startle responses, hitting his head on the fencing and the stalls, night blindness, all added up to loss of vision.

Dr. Bergen's advice: Best to keep Chaco on solid trails. Best to keep him on familiar ground. Best to keep him locked in at night. But, as I said in the beginning, Chaco is an old war horse and still game for a ride here and there. He and I have worked long enough and hard enough together over the years, he will do whatever I ask.

We shouldn't take that kind of trust for granted. It has something to do with time and familiarity and maybe, just maybe, the reward Chaco gets when he comes trotting into the barn at night to the banging of the feed cans on the side of the stalls. "It's time for dinner; it's time to eat! Wait, lady, that's not enough for a donkey! I am a war horse. I am the son of a son of a son in a long line of war horses. I am Chaco!"

As I close the barn door for the night, Chaco will often add some emphasis to his point by picking up his feed bucket between his teeth and hurling it against the side of the stall, as if to say, "Nobody mess with the war horse or you will be next!" I say, "Cougars beware!"

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