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Cat Hill


About Cat Hill

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Where Do I Go From Here?

Nicki Henley enjoying his favorite view. Photo by Cat Hill.

Grief is an odd emotion. It teaches you to be humble, about how well you know yourself, and about how you treat others. I have always found myself wondering at the public nature of some people’s grief. I am a private person, and don’t often feel the need to put myself on a stage of any sort. A groom’s behind-the-scenes nature suited me just fine. Yet here I am, writing.

Last summer, I wrote an article about realizing I may never ride my best friend, Nicki again. Several people reached out and asked how he was doing, so here is the final chapter of that story.

Growing up, horses were my constant. I was an awkward child — quite bad at reading social cues and making friends. My parents noticed my love of all things with fur, and especially ones with soft muzzles and brown eyes, so they bought me a fat, failed pulling pony. She was my best friend for years.

Almost immediately I realized I could read horses better than people. They made sense to me. The barns I rode at were rather uneducated in their horse care. We cleaned stalls occasionally, thought horses would “learn” not to dump their water buckets if we didn’t refill them until the next day once they tipped over.

I used to read Practical Horseman, Horse Illustrated and any horse books I could get my hands on cover-to-cover. I memorized the names, watched the Olympics on TV and dreamed. I couldn’t imagine knowing those horses. Yes, the riders were like celebrities to me, but the horses were like gods. My biggest goal was to be on the U.S. Equestrian Team.

Fast forward to my twenties, when I walked onto Willow Bend for the first time. Mara DePuy was a name I’d read as a kid. Nicki Henley was a horse that I’d read about in the Chronicle, a horse I’d seen from across the warm-up at shows. I remember walking into the barn, and disbelieving that I was going to be responsible for the care of these horses, especially the bright bay with the white eye and the attitude.

Over the next several years, he taught me how to be a groom — how to make a horse with a myriad of GI issues eat, how to hold on to a horse-shaped kite when a horse was on stall rest and needed hand walking, how to feel the start of skin funk before it takes over, how to listen to a horse who is so tough he won’t ever say “ow”. He also took me on my first team trip, and showed me that a goal re-invented could be just as rewarding as I’d dreamed.

When I left Virginia to return to my hometown in New York, I was ready. Grooming at the elite level is emotionally and physically draining, and I was ready to invest more time with my husband and family. The only drawback was saying goodbye to Nicki. I was so upset; he had become my best friend by then. My husband referred to him, only half in jest, as the other man. I saw him as frequently as I could, sneaking him treats at events and getting regular updates from Mara.

The spring after I left, he injured himself and his competitive career was over. Mara planned to rehab him and then let him live in her luxurious retirement field with her other old Advanced horses. Nicki hated that plan. He paced the fence line. He ran the field, he colicked himself. So Mara brought him in and started hacking him, and he immediately settled.

So a little under a year after I left, I got a call. I was going to be in Aiken working for Dr. Kevin Keane as his assistant for the winter. Did I want Nicki for the winter? He could only hack at the walk (which often meant walk, spin, spook, walk, repeat). My answer was a loud, emphatic yes. At the end of the Aiken season, Mara tearfully asked if I wanted to take him home to New York.

By then, I was used to being trusted with top horses. I was an experienced groom and vet tech to some of the best horses in the country. Yet being trusted with Nicki, to take him home, to call him mine, was an enormous gift. I spent the next several years in utter bliss.

Nicki was never an easy horse. He hated bugs and had to be brought in at first light in the summer. He also hated cold and could only tolerate a few short hours outside in the winter. He had difficult skin, which meant you could never skip his daily curry or risk having giant holes develop in his coat. He was prone to colic, so had to be carefully monitored.

Yet his leg got better, and he was able to do more than I could have ever hoped. I took him to some dressage shows, earning some very respectable scores. He even healed enough to go cross country schooling and compete at a few derby crosses. Jumping him made me feel invincible.

He had one scare, when he had a colic-like episode that turned into colitis-X, and I came very close to losing him. He spent over a week at Cornell but came back to me, and returned to himself.

Last spring, he looked great. He came through the winter fat, and shining, and strong. He was downright wild to ride, and I had to put draw reins on him for a couple rides just to have enough control to accomplish anything. At 22, it looked like we had years left.

Then we started having some problems. I spent the summer nursing him, lying to myself about how poor he looked. He was always a horse who lost condition easily, so I fooled myself into thinking it was just the stress of the regular trips to Cornell.

Then he fell, and it looked like he’d injured his pelvis. I realized I may never ride him again, but still refused to look at the reality of how poor my man looked. He went into shock one night, and I rushed him to Cornell, finally being forced to face the truth.

The staff at Cornell was amazing, and stabilized him, and we waited for bloodwork. The next morning, I walked into his stall and he looked comfortable and happy. I waited for the vet, but I already knew. She came and confirmed my worst fear — a fast-moving and nasty form of cancer. We made sure he was comfortable, took him home and had his regular vet come to put him down, to be buried in his favorite spot in his field.

It’s been five months, and I still struggle to write that. His blankets hang in the barn. His stall stands empty. His feed instructions are still on the board. For over 10 years, my day started and ended with Nicki, breakfast and night check. I framed my life around him, built the barn for him — with a giant corner stall he could hang his head out into the aisle, or out the window to see the house.

As I became a mother, I depended more than I knew on the time with him — the quiet moments currying and brushing, the rides into the dawn before the kids woke up, his breath on my neck, his habit of kissing my face with his lips curled back and his closed teeth touching my cheek.

I wanted to quit horses for months after I lost him. I went and taught my lessons, rode my clients horses, and hated it all. I eventually decided not to quit — it’s been my entire life — but that hasn’t made it easy. I can’t explain the hollow feeling in my life where he used to be. Horses have been the one constant in my life for over 30 years, and I’ve been trying to reconnect with that feeling.

A few weeks ago, I barn-sat for Daisy and Richard Trayford. They breed some really lovely youngsters, and for the first time since Nicki left, I felt a little of the old love. The weanlings would put their muzzles on my shoulders when I scratched their chests. The gigantic 4-year-old (who must be part Labrador for all his 17 hands) would walk in every night lipping the back of my head and tickling my head with his whiskers.

I remembered that a previous version of me had loved young horses. I always used to say that if I were to have my dream horse job, it would be as an equine kindergarten teacher, taking horses from weanling to 4 and starting their life with people.

So as soon as winter clears out, I plan on getting a young project — something to re-sell, not one to keep. I am not naive enough to believe that I will find what I had with Nicki, possibly not ever again. My relationship to horses prior to him was rewarding and I had several horses I loved, so now I will try to find my way back to that.

It’s as if my life with horses has been climbing a mountain — the view is amazing halfway up the climb, if you’ve never been to the top. So now I will put on my boots, thread the belt with his name and hair woven into it through my breeches, and walk back down the trail and look out, and I’ll try to appreciate the view from a lower elevation.

The Last Ride

Photo by Penny Wilson.

It’s funny, there are so many moments in life that we can mark as the finale. The last day of school, or a job, or the last meal at a favorite restaurant that is closing. With horses, we rarely get that pleasure. If we are lucky, we get to chose the last event, we know it will be their final time with us going down centerline. They will get a retirement ceremony, either a large one, or a private one where we stuff them full or carrots, or mints, or bananas, and wipe a tear from our eye. It seems more often though, that we cling to the idea that they may do more, we get to the end of a season thinking there will be another and then winter takes their youth and spring doesn’t return it. We can still ride them though, and maybe hack, or work on the flat, or canter them around on the days they feel spritely. It gives us an extension on the final date. It allows us to get used to the idea of it being the end of their career. To cozy up to the knowledge that the horse we love deserves a field and a shed more than a saddle fitter and new shoes

This spring, I was planning my fall competitions. My old man had an extended break due to his naughtiness and my pregnancy, but I finally had him back in shape. I was ready to get some lessons, take him cross country schooling at the new course in town, maybe finally aim for that medal I’ve been talking about for five years. He was going beautifully. He was having fun again, and looking forward to our rides with his sharp ears hard forward and his white eye rolling. Then the nose bleeds started. A couple at first, but we loaded up to go to Cornell to make sure there wasn’t anything seriously nasty going on. Three visits and four weeks later they still weren’t sure what was going on, or really how to stop them. I was getting sprayed with blood almost every time I rode, and finding puddles in the aisle where he hangs his head out to gossip with his girls. So I called Dr. Keane, my go to when I’m in a pinch vet wise. Thank goodness for Dr. Keane, who had some good advice and a couple things to try. (The poor man, I bet he didn’t know when he hired me all those years ago that he would be stuck answering random vet questions and being sent videos and pictures 10 years later with the message “help!”) However, he said these words. “Cat, you must stop riding the horse.” Such simple words, such clearly good advice.

He stops bleeding, a few simple changes and vitamin additions and he was all good. Then his sheath swelled up so I couldn’t ride. No clear cause, just a hot, uncomfortable swollen sheath. Well, warm hosing, some SMZs and we had that taken care of. I got up early to ride soon after, only to find him with a nasty case of cellulitis in his hind leg. Phew, OK, steroids, SMZs, warm hosing, got that taken care of. Maybe we can enjoy the cool weather coming our way next week. Let’s get back in the tack and get in shape before the winter locks us in the indoor.

Photo by Penny Wilson.

Then Thursday. I walk out to bring horses in, and see the ponies at the gate but no Nicki. He is always at the gate, he must be the first brought in every day, since he is the king. So I bring the ponies in and walk back out. Still no Nicki. My heart sinks a bit, I had seen him grazing across from the house, why wasn’t he coming up to the gate? I walk down to him, softly calling for him. He always comes to me, sometimes at a terrifying gallop daring me to play chicken. I get to him, halter him and ask him to walk. Thunk, thunk, thunk, hop. My heart stops for a second, then I calmly walk him to his stall and call my vet. Dr. Mix comes out, and thankfully says she doesn’t think he’s broken his hip, but has injured his hip rather badly. He will be on stall rest and should heal.

So we have been handgrazing, and currying, and sitting together. His quiet hand-grazes are interrupted by my daughter whizzing past bareback on her pony, by my son being dragged past us by his pony who wants to join her friend instead of go back to the barn. He handles it all with a quietness that astounds me, he should be bolting and spooking and bouncing. That’s when it hit me. He might be done. I may have put my foot in that stirrup while he marches away expecting me to stay with him for the last time. I may never get to look through those ears, so expressive and tuned in again.

At the end of the day, if that’s the case that is OK. When he came to me, I thought he would only ever be able to trail ride and maybe do light flat. Instead, we competed at Third level, did derby crosses and jumper competitions. I felt enormously thankful for every single second in the tack. I rode him through two pregnancies where he was quiet and kind to me, and didn’t through the last one where he was ridiculous and kept trying to bounce me off. I got on him two weeks after my last son was born, I just couldn’t wait one more day. I have loved every single second of time on his back.

If I’ve had my last ride on him, I will not mourn for more. I already got more than I could have ever hoped for. But I wish I had known. I wish I had been able to say goodbye to that chapter. I wish I had gotten to take him for one last canter up the hill, been able to drop my reins and let him fly, and jump the shadows, and roll his white eye back at me. If he comes sound from this injury, there may be more rides in our future. Maybe I will get my wish, to know the day our riding days are ending. To choose to retire him. I may get the chance to see those ears from the back again. All I know, is that if I do, you can bet they will be blurry.

Quarantine Nightmare! An Excerpt From ‘World-Class Grooming for Horses’

In this excerpt from the bestselling book World-Class Grooming for Horses by pro grooms Cat Hill and Emma Ford, Cat tells us about one particularly “eventful” trip home from the Pan Ams.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books.

Quarantine Nightmare!

When we came home after the Pan American Games in Brazil in 2007, the five US Eventing Team horses had a seven-day quarantine in Miami to check for ehrlichia (a tick-borne disease common in Brazil). My charge, Mara DePuy’s Nicki Henley, was injured so I was asked to stay in Miami and take care of the quarantined horses since my horse needed the most “tender loving care.”

Quarantine is a tough place: only one person is allowed in the stables at a time and only for an hour. Our gold-medal winning equine team went from four or five meals a day of the highest quality grain and constant care and intense exercise routines to concrete boxes with no windows, cheap hay, and one scoop of straight oats twice a day.

I would literally run into the aisleway and fly through getting Nicki into an ice boot, race through the other horse’s stalls to put my hands on them, check legs, and run a brush over them, change Phillip Dutton’s Truluck’s hoof wrap (he had pulled a shoe on cross-country), to finally get Nicki out of ice and re-wrapped.

The last day we were there, Truluck (“Milo”) wasn’t acting like his normal, cuddly self. I talked to the vets on staff and told them I thought he might be colicking. A vet came, took his temperature, and said he was fine. After a great deal of persuading, I convinced her to let me come back in two hours to check on him.

Many phone calls to Phillip and the United States Olympic Committee, and two hours later, Milo certainly was colicking, but since he still wasn’t running a temperature the vets weren’t buying my urgency. After much handwringing I was allowed to walk him in the aisle. He settled a little and I was asked to leave for the night. So I did what any sane, rational groom would do: I sat in his stall and refused to leave. I screamed, I swore, I was physically dragged out of the barn yelling that I was calling the news and exposing abuse. I then called Phillip, crying, apologizing.

The vet ended up checking on Milo and deciding (once he had a temperature) that he needed more specialized care, and they transferred him to Wellington Equine where his colic was treated.

So, after being up all night with this situation, I was thrilled to see the rigs pull in at 9:00 a.m. to take us home to Virginia! We loaded all the gear and horses into the semi-trailers, and I asked the shippers where the hay was. They looked at me blankly and said no one asked them to bring hay. Luckily, the Canadian team was loading their horses at the same time and they were able to spare half a bale. That was one flake per horse!

I then attempted to climb into the cab and the shippers obviously thought I was crazy; they had not expected me to ride up front with them. So I bunked down on some trunks that were stacked in the back with the horses and settled in for the long ride home. We sat at a standstill in traffic during a wicked thunderstorm, but finally made it to the Florida border. The horses were out of hay, wet, and miserable, and I was about the same.

When we stopped in line at the agricultural stop on the way out of Florida, I jumped out of the truck and visited every livestock trailer there, asking if I could buy some hay. I ended up buying two bales for an absurd sum of money.

A long 10 hours later we made it to Virginia. I can honestly say I have never been happier to see High Acre farm in my life!

This excerpt from World-Class Grooming for Horses by Cat Hill and Emma Ford is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (