This is Cotton’s story. No names have been changed to protect the innocent, all characters are intended to be accurately represented, and occasional embellishment is a given. Read at your own risk. And, please, do not try this at home …
This guy. Who on earth wouldn’t fall for this guy? Look at that mug!
This was his first day on the farm, and the first day of what would become a very long journey for me, for him, and for everyone around us.
Cotton came off the track on Nov. 22, 2013 after 33 career starts. I had fallen hard when I saw his listing on a rehoming web page after someone had posted a link on the Chronicle Forums. Even his name was catchy: Cottonpickinwabbit. How much trouble could a horse possibly be with a name like Cottonpickinwabbit? It’s a cartoon for crying out loud.
Anyway, a very resourceful and well connected friend, Pat Dale of Three Plain Bays, was able to track down his trainer after almost two weeks of trying. After sending me some photos of his feet to be sure I still wanted him, she loaded the colt on to her trailer and took him to her farm.
She generously agreed to have her vet perform the gelding procedure and let him recover prior to transport. Certainly a gelding would be easier to manage than an intact, fresh-off-the-track colt? Everything went swimmingly, and on Dec. 30, 2013 the newly gelded redhead arrived on my farm.
He spent a couple weeks just kicking back and taking in his new digs. I, of course, just thought he was the cutest, punkiest, most entertaining horse I’d ever met. His first few rides went like butter and I thought, wow, easiest horse ever.
Feb. 25, 2014, not even two months after his arrival, I rushed Cotton to NC State Veterinary Hospital with what had seemed like a simple choke but quickly turned out to be something much more serious. Cotton was suffering from a case of botulism which had paralyzed his esophagus. For over three days he was unable to swallow anything.
Twice a day the vets would update me and tell me that all we could do was keep him hydrated with IV fluids and wait it out. He would likely colic, they said, and his condition was probably not survivable. Even though sad and stressed and alone in his medical stall, his eyes would follow me when I visited; confusion and sadness behind his lashes, and it absolutely broke my heart.
Then miraculously, almost comically really, he awoke on day 4, looked at his water bucket and said “Hey water! Nice!” and drained the bucket. After 24 more hours of observation, small portions of food, and to the surprise of the entire team, the once skinny, now emaciated, horse got back on my trailer and came home.
We’ll never know where the toxin came from. He shared the same space, food, water and fence line as all the other horses. But if there was one teensy tiny bit of trouble to find, he was sure to be the one to find it.
He was clearly worn out from his week and cautiously ambled around the paddock. Really, when you add up what he had undergone in the last 90 days it wasn’t surprising he was tired: a move from the track, a very de-masculinizing surgery, a trip to his new farm, the start of a second career, botulism, a paralyzed esophagus, IVs, needles, tests, tests and more tests … good grief! No wonder the guy was a bit slow.
Crisis averted and horse safely home. Or was he?
Two days later while at work, I got a panicked call from my husband, Mike, and a simultaneous call from a very composed but very tense vet. Cotton had been placed in a stall during a heavy rainstorm and immediately hit the panic button. Flashbacks of NC State must have rolled around in his head. He threw himself against the walls and tried climbing over the stall front.
Knowing he’d be safer outside, he was returned to his paddock. As my husband walked back to the house after observing for a bit, Cotton took off after him and, unsuccessfully, tried jumping the paddock fence. In his weakened condition he just couldn’t clear the upright and split the top rail sending a large piece of board into his leg.
Hearing the sound of not-quite-thundering hooves, Mike turned around to see a lame, blood-soaked horse standing next to him. He had a torn gaskin, a punctured stifle, a suspected torn ACL, and a litany of scrapes and cuts. My vet believed it was certainly career-ending and with the risk of infection so high, he was unsure if Cotton would even be pasture sound.
That was the first of three times I asked my vet to please euthanize my horse.
“Now, now,” he said. “Let’s just wait and see if the joint gets infected. It’s a long shot but maybe he’ll surprise us. We’ll keep him comfortable and as long as he doesn’t go on three legs in the next 48 hours or spike a temperature, he might be OK as a pasture horse.”
So we waited. We scrubbed. We gave antibiotics. We built a temporary safety stall in his paddock that he promptly body slammed apart. We watched his bony little body make its way to his feed dish. We tended our breaking hearts and prepared for the worst.
And then the oddest thing happened.
He got better.
He trotted around his paddock nickering at the mares. He greeted me at the gate. He bobbed his head around looking at all the sights on our hand walks. And I thought, holy crap, he’s actually going to be OK. In fact, he felt so OK that he got into daily face fights with everyone. He was constantly coming in with a new bump or scrape, but always with a big grin on his face.
All I had to do now was wait for him to be healed enough to start riding. As he started showing signs of boredom, I’d take him out and tack him up just for our hand walk. I even sat on him in the round pen. He didn’t know it wasn’t REAL work, he just knew that for that 10 minutes he had a job and that was enough to keep his mind occupied.
Four fairly uneventful weeks later (by Cotton’s standard anyways) I made my annual trek to Kentucky to spectate at Rolex.
On April 25, 2014 at 6:30 a.m. I left on a plane for the Bluegrass State. On April 25, 2014, some time between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. the next morning, Cotton once again made an unsuccessful attempt to exit the pasture.
This time was different, though. He actually ran straight into one of the uprights and knocked it over almost to the ground. It was like he was running and didn’t even see it. My guess is a deer sprang through his field and he took off looking backward at it.
Surprisingly, my vet said he thought he would recover as long as he didn’t get an infection and if I could keep him confined to heal the wound.
Confined? Yeah … um … that’s a big fat not gonna happen.
Cotton would at least be pasture sound, he said. A companion horse, he said. I told him pasture-sound horses that make good companions are the ones that actually stay, oh I don’t know, IN the pasture.
Once again we started with weeks of treatments: daily irrigations of the wound, antibiotics of every sort and method, injections of medicated solutions through a long straw down into the cavity. It was a herculean effort to keep up with it all and, to be honest, just a little gross.
On day 3 I realized that he had not produced a manure pile yet. The concern, of course, was that his bowel had been injured in his assault on the fence and he would have to go to surgery to repair it. In his weakened state the odds were stacked against him.
That was the second time I asked my vet to please euthanize my horse.
This time he agreed and arrived at my farm a few hours later with the large syringe of blue juice. Having shed my tears and come to terms with the outcome, I was ready. The burial site was picked and we had said our goodbyes. We walked to the run-in; him with the syringe and me with the halter, neither of us really wanting to talk at the moment.
As we approached the shed, Cotton looked at us with those puppy dog eyes, turned his head away, and then proceeded to lift his tail and drop a big steaming pile of manure right in front of our eyes.
“Son of a b*tch,” I said.
My vet turned to me with a huge grin, put the syringe right back in his pocket and said, “We won’t be needing this today,” and he got in his car and beat feet off the farm as fast as his Chevy would take him.
“Cotton,” I said, “I really don’t know whether to love you or hate you right now. But let’s start with hate and go from there.” The emotional roller coaster was dizzying.
So we carried on for two more weeks of this around-the-clock skilled nursing facility care. I would tell him he needed to be one of three things and he could pick: 1) A good companion horse, 2) A good riding horse, or 3) fertilizer. I always gave him a pat on the neck when I said it, so I’m pretty sure he thinks I was joking.
On May 9 I walked out for the morning routine to find my horse looking like a Macy’s parade balloon. He was plumped up from cheeks to tail like a blowfish and wobbling around the field like a tipsy Weeble. I dropped his food in the dish and stared at him making his way towards me like a drunken sailor trying to pass a sobriety test.
His entire body was encased in subcutaneous emphysema, a condition in which a layer of air is trapped under the skin during respiration, probably from a small pleural tear. If I placed my hand against his neck, it would leave a perfect indentation.
That was the third time I asked my vet to please euthanize my horse.
“Is he eating?” was the response. Yeah, I said, he’s eating happily. He said he’d wait until Tuesday and if Cotton had stopped eating he would administer the medicine to end it.
Fine, I said. We’ll see if he keeps eating.
Well, Cotton ate. Oh, he ate plenty. He ate and ate and ate. He ate everything I put in front of him and asked for more. After a few days he started playing twister with his blanket.
Day after day the wound got slowly better and Cotton’s body returned to normal. He was still never going to be sound to ride, but maybe he’d learn to relax in the field.
On June 6, 2014 I watched that son of a gun canter around his field and thought, “Heck, let’s see what we’ve got .” I pulled him out, threw some tack on a horse that had spent more time on antibiotics than under saddle and I got on. And for the umpteenth time, he surprised me.
I’d be lying if I said the tears weren’t plopping down my face when he carried me around the property with a pep in his step that destiny said he’d never have. He didn’t have much, but he had enough to show me that he had plainly picked option #2.
He never gave up. Ever. I threw in the white towel three times. Each time he caught it before it hit the ground and threw it right back at me.
On October 12, 2014, Cotton went to his first event showing in the Beginner Novice division. He wooed the ladies in dressage with a 28.4, showed off his jumping prowess with great big awkward baby leaps in the stadium, and pinged and porpoised his way around cross country like a kid seeing Disney World for the first time.
To him, it was as easy as 1-2-3. Which, as fate would have, also happened to be our number.
He promptly proceeded to be the Beginner Novice Series Champion his first season out.
Last month marked the third anniversary of the third injury that, by all rights, he should not have survived. Three years ago a horse taught me to dig a little deeper, fight a little harder and hold on to hope just a little bit longer.
He’s quite a bit more mature now. Instead of late night frat parties I think he’s having late night Netflix parties. The rugby games have turned into bocce ball championships (although I’m sure he takes cheap shots at the other team’s knees when no one is watching).
We still have the random WHAT ON EARTH HAVE YOU DONE NOW? days:
And the occasional miscue, like the holy mackerel long-spot to a fence:
The horse that should be dead? He’s pretty spectacular.
I still thank my vet for not putting Cotton down. I don’t know why he didn’t, but I sure am glad. He does fondly call him Crash instead of Cotton. Rather fitting, I suppose.
Cotton is just Cotton. He’s the same horse as he was before, just a lot less self-destructive. He still enjoys being the ever naughty punk, and proved it when he snapped the cross tie while getting braided for a show las month, proceeding to run along the fence taunting another horse with a half-braided mane and a cross tie flapping behind him.
All I can do is smile. The story of Cotton is only on chapter 8 …
Read more about Cotton’s adventures on Jennifer’s blog.