Note: This story contains images that may be upsetting for some, so please leave this page if blood makes you queasy.
A Hard Day To Recount – FEBRUARY 11, 2011 that is.
It’s been a little over 2 years now. I stopped writing much in Ziba’s Healing Journal as everytime I tried to write about this event, I just couldn’t bring myself to do so, however I felt it should be told as it was a critical, albeit unfortunate, event that took place in Z’s “healing” journey that I have been documenting. So please forgive this late share, there may be value in its telling..
In retrospect I have one huge misgiving and can only recommend to other horse owners what many know and probably many such as myself had not addressed but simply put up with. Ziba is and will always be a strong, dominant, smart but willful mare. I am not naturally a dominant person nor was was I experienced in natural horsemanship, I was mainly interested in learning dressage. Now I understand that I had not established a clear relationship between us. (In retrospect, I see that she would often question and/or challenge me as her leader, and then would go along with me – but always with a conversation). Walking her on the ground around the facilities was ok, but walking her around the trails was a huge discussion and not relaxing for either of us. Since I felt confident to ride her almost anywhere, that is pretty much what I did – I simply avoided dealing with the ground work. This day would NOT HAVE HAPPENED had I spent the time and effort to learn how to be a better leader. At the time, I was working on this, but it was too little too late. So if you are an owner of a hot, difficult, or strong-willed horse who you feel fine to RIDE, and can simply shrug off the signals of discord between you on the ground – there is only one simple word of advice I can share with you that may save you hours or years of misgiving, and may even save your or your horse’s life: Make it your highest priority to learn and establish a complete understanding & relationship with your horse wherein your horse looks to you as a Leader to be Trusted In Any Situation. (We’re still working on this). For some horses & people, this may come easier. For the ones who really need this advice, (like me & Z), it is an important commitment and one that should always be the foundation of our time together. Now on with the story..
Webb Ranch land is always beautiful (it is one of the last agricultural & equine properties of a very large scale in Portola Valley, California). One drives down the long gravelled road that takes you past the fields of berries and corn, past horses living idyllically in the front pasture, past more berry fields, and around a picturesque blind-curve framed by trees and shrubs towards a straightaway where one passes the Stanford Polo Ponies, and finally you enter the horse yard as you reach the crooked old Green Barn. In the wintertime, this road seems twice as long with its mud and potholes, and is very hard on the shocks. That is the way it is; boarders would have it no other way.. acts like built-in speed bumps for the busy & non-horsey parents rushing their kids to their much anticipated riding lessons.
On this hard-to-recount Friday, there had been a nice spell of Spring-like weather in February 2011. The sun was shining, the birds singing, a great day to go out for a walk with my horse. Healing from a spinal fracture myself (riding a different horse), I had taken Ziba with a short lunge line that would give me some play without jerking my back too much if she spooked. We walked or rode this loop 100’s of times in the past, it always gets a little exciting near the creek. We had reached the far point near the creek and bridge and Ziba was so calm and well-behaved I thought, why don’t we try a little excursion into the new field that had recently been open to the public. We had ridden the field’s path a few times and it was exciting but doable. I thought it would be a good idea to just walk the field’s roadside stretch which takes you towards the Polo Pony Pasture (she would see other horses) and then back to the entry, this would get her used to the field while hand-walking her near the familiar roadside. In the field and approaching the Polo Pony Pasture, we noticed the Stanford Polo Team was getting ready for an off-site game or practice and the Polo horses were being loaded up on the large aluminum trailers and for some reason it was louder than usual. Maybe a horse was new or agitated, so a lot of pounding inside the trailer. I knew this would get Ziba going, so we turned around and went back to the entrance and up the less familiar side of the field a short distance. Knowing that it would be a little ‘scarier’ on this section, I did not want to go too far, but also wanted to get away from the road a ways as the trailers would be driving past us soon on the bumpy road. The path was more exciting and Ziba was on edge, I let her graze and get used to the new place.
As expected the Polo Trailers noisily jounced down the gravel road and as they approached, Ziba was getting more and more hyped. I tried to calm her & control her, but she was feeling her oats on that spring-like day, plus she was anxious in this new place, and her mind was checked out now as she ran a circle around me. As the Polo Trailers came past us, Ziba ran around again and with a buck and kick, jerked the line out of my hand. Her canter quickly became a gallop as the short lunge line flapped, egging her on towards the field’s exit. The Polo Trailers were passing by and had begun their turn around the blind curve as they headed out of the ranch. Beyond them through the willow trees I could see what I was hoping I would not, a vehicle was coming down the road and was about to reach the same blind curve. I knew what was coming but could not do anything to stop it. Time slowed…
Imagine 3 trajectories meeting or passing one point at the same time – that point being the road at the entrance to the field; Ziba was heading there at a gallop. A blue SUV was rounding a blind curve to the same spot. Both my horse and the SUV’s driver would not be able to see each other for the large trailers passing by them would act as blinders.
It happened in a moment. Ziba had 2 gallop strides to stop. From afar I watched her sit down and try to slide to a stop but unable to stop in time, she launched herself into the air trying to jump the blue SUV. She hit the back passenger’s side window at an angle and then her body slammed against the side of the SUV with a sickening crunch. I knew that this was her end as she went down.
In fact she scrambled to her feet, and ran down the road towards the barn. All I could think was ‘thank god she didn’t break her legs’.. Running towards the SUV I saw that the driver was my friend Margaret. What we both saw as we turned towards her car made my heart stop. Not only was the side of her SUV smashed in, but the passenger’s window behind the driver’s seat had been blown out and the glass at the top edge of the shattered window had acted like razor sharp teeth. My horse’s hide and skin were on it. At the time I did not think about what danger Margaret had been in, only afterwards did I realize that if she had not gunned the engine, she would probably have been seriously injured or killed as Ziba would most certainly have jumped into the driver’s window.
We leapt into Margaret’s car and raced down the road. It seemed like an endless drive..
In the distance I could see Ziba standing on alert with Joan McClaren, the old-time western trainer at Webb. Thoughts were racing, thank god she is standing… maybe everything will be allright..
I slowed myself and took a deep breath and let it out before approaching Ziba – she was standing in a pool of blood, her head up and on alert. Talking to her, I patted her neck and reassured her.. As I turned to examine her front end, I saw that the front of her chest had been ripped open and was hanging like a trap door from its skin, jets of blood pumped a small fountain onto the ground. I tried not to faint.
A few people had run over to help. Luckily all seasoned horse-people. 3 of us picked up her dangling chest and put it back in place. We held it there with as much pressure as we could apply and waited and waited. I remember telling Ziba that it would be ok, we were going to take her to the vets who would put her back together. Someone made phone calls, someone ran for towels. Ziba stood still in shock. By now a large group of people had formed a circle around her.
At the same time Joan called the local equine vets in the area. Everyone was away. Finally she reached Dr. Gary Hanes who was off duty but nearby and who came quickly. Thank You Dr. Hanes & Joan! Acknowledging the severity of her situation, he did not want to operate on her in the field; it was an extreme injury and would need a more septic environment if she were to have any chance at all to survive. We received permission to go to Peninsula Equine Group (only a 5 minute drive) despite the fact the vets were all away on calls. In the meantime, Dr. Hanes pulled out a bandage that he happened to have kept from the Korean War meant for grenade victims (thank goodness for that too!). It was basically a full body bandage. He turniqetted the bandage onto Ziba’s chest with rolls and rolls of tape. It held. We gently loaded her onto a waiting trailer.
Fast forward to Pen Eq’s standing surgical area. As vets returned to base, each and every one of them would exclaim in surprise or perhaps extreme veterinary interest, and then pull out their Iphone and take a photo. (And of course offer to help.) Dr. Bart Halsberghe took charge and with 2 other veterinarians, Dr. Bradley & Dr. McCall began the long and complicated process of putting Ziba back together. Dr. Bart as we call him explained that it would be best to keep Z standing during the sugery.
The team started around 5:30 pm, Dr. Bart first had to clean & debride the jagged injury and then plan Z’s mending. As he worked into the depths of the wound, he commented how lucky she had been, a fraction of an inch to the left, and Ziba’s main artery would have been severed. A while later, he reached the deepest part and found that her sternum and 1st rib had been fractured (this is from the front he is seeing this). He pulled out chips of her 1st rib. Then they began the long and detailed process of reconnecting her soft tissues. Oftentimes 2 worked at the same time on both sides of her chest to sew up first the inner layers of tissue and then worked progressively towards the outer layers of muscle. They were counting stitches but lost track after 200. My friend Edrie and I held the spot lights and stablilized the prop used to support Ziba’s head while we reassured her. As she would come out of sedation, another round of tranquilizer would be administered. I will always be thankful for Edrie’s help that night – she stayed to give a hand although she was facing her own personal crisis. Edrie was supposed to drive home across country because her mother was about to pass. She had made a few phone calls to her sister. Edrie knew she would not be able to reach her mother in time to say goodbye.
At 1am. while standing and holding Ziba’s head, my horse tilted her head and looked clearly into my eyes. I heard/felt her communicate to me – she told me she was “Sooo Sorry” – it was so strong her feeling. This message was unexpected and as clear as day to me and I do not consider myself an animal communicator. I also did not know why she said it as I felt it was all my fault she was there in the first place – if anyone were to apologize I should for not being a better horse person. I told Ziba that everything was ok, that she didn’t need to apologize for anything, it wasn’t her fault. And we would do our best to help her through this.
At some point in the early morning hours, Edrie paused for a moment, and then quietly told me her mother had passed. She just knew. She tried to reach her sister but couldn’t get through. (The next morning her sister confirmed to her that their beloved mother had in fact passed at the time Edrie mentioned.) Edrie also said that she felt her mother with us in the room that early morning after her passing. Perhaps her mother was there in spirit to lend support or to be with her daughter?.. I know this may sound crazy to some of you, believe what you will..
At 3am, Dr. Bart completed his last suture. His back was spasming, but he was done. It had taken over 9 hrs. of surgery and 3 vets, and later I was told over about 250 sutures, but my poor Z was put back together.
Exhausted, everyone helped to clean up and to put Ziba in her hospital stall. Dr. Bart warned me that the next few days would be critical and to realize that it was unlikely that she would survive; if she did survive, then her biggest challenge would be risk of infection, and also complications from the drugs used to control pain and fight infection. Also that the sutures might fail in the next day or two as the size & extent of her wound’s site would cause massive post-surgical swelling. I understood that her chances for survival were slim if none…
story to be continued..
My heartfelt thanks go to Dr. Gary Hanes of Briarwood Equine Veterinary for coming to the rescue, and for Dr. Bart Halsberghe and his team, Dr. Bradley and Dr. McCall, of Peninsula Equine Medical Center for their expert work; and for my friends who helped on that day & were so supportive in the days ahead. I also left a message for Lisa St. John and she leaped into action that weekend..