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Copyright 2011 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

Fahleen — This Mare was One of a Kind

By Heather Smith Thomas, Salmon, ID

 

April 2011 Issue  

 

 

     I had her for only seven years, but in that short time she changed my life. She was a chestnut Arab-Thoroughbred mare named Fahleen. A clown, a sassy, naughty redhead, she had a unique sense of humor as well as tremendous athletic ability; she was the best range-riding long-distance horse I ever owned. She had a lot of determination and a lot of heart.

     She came into my life on a cold day in March 1967, as a wobbly-legged filly with an irregular marking on her short face. As a young foal, she was exasperating to handle. Her Thoroughbred mother, Nell, came from a long line of very independent equines and Fahleen was a challenge for me to train. I had to earn her respect, and it took several years. In reality, she was training me.

     As time went on, she came to accept and tolerate me, and then to think of me as sort of a second mother, trusting me as completely as I trusted her. After I’d ridden her for a couple of years, our relationship was well grounded in trust. I could do anything with her that she considered reasonable, and we were a team.

     Our first years together, however, were very trying, partly because of her unique sense of humor. She’d often toss her grain tub into the air, or fling the water hose over her head just for fun. She beat on her water tank with a front foot if it wasn’t full enough to suit her. I had to use a metal tank because she thought rubber tubs were just for playing soccer. Sometimes she’d take the top strand of fence wire in her teeth and pluck it like a banjo string, just to hear the sound it made.

     She was very bold and curious. When she was young, there was only one electric wire separating her part of the pasture from our hayfields. If the electricity went off, she immediately knew it, and walked over or under the wire. She wasn’t afraid of anything, and would walk out on the ice-covered creek in the winter without hesitation—something none of our other horses would do.

     Her boldness sometimes got her into trouble. One of her worst tricks was trying to open gates with her front feet. When she was four years old, she got her foot caught in a gate, and by the time she pulled free, she had injured the joints in her lower leg. The leg swelled up as big as a fencepost, in spite of the cold water and ice I soaked it in (using a tall, homemade, soaking boot created from a rubber inner tube, held in place with a leather strap over her back). She could hardly walk for several days. I had to lay her off for the rest of that riding season.

     The leg healed, but the pastern joint fused as it healed, leaving the joint solid (no movement) and a calcium lump on the side of it. When I started riding her again, I discovered that the fused pastern joint made the action in that leg a little different. Not only was there limited motion in the pastern, making her stride a little shorter on that leg (and hence making her land harder on the good leg), but she no longer picked up that foot straight. She broke over to the outside and then because it took more effort to break over (due to the fused pastern joint), the leg had an exaggerated swing, creating a twisting motion that brought the foot inward (instead of outward, like a foot would normally do when breaking over to the outside).

     I rode her a little that fall, checking and moving range cattle, and then to round up the cattle off the range. Even though she wasn’t lame, she was hitting her good leg with the crooked-moving foot. Since I’ve always done my own shoeing, my husband, Lynn , and I experimented with corrective shoes because Fahleen was getting a sore fetlock joint from bumping it so much.

     We finally figured out a way to shoe her that solved the problem. Lynn made a square-toed shoe and welded a dab of borium (hard-surfacing material) on one side of the toe—on her off-to-the-outside breakover point. This forced her to break over the center of the toe instead, making her pick up the foot straight. Hence it traveled straighter in its flight, without the added twisting motion, no longer hitting the opposite fetlock joint.

     But she had enough other problems to keep me occupied. Her digestive tract was very sensitive, perhaps from early parasite damage as a young horse. She was the first of my foals born on this ranch, the spring we moved here after Lynn and I were married. The pasture where we kept Nell and her foal had been used for decades by horses of previous owners, and was probably heavily contaminated with worms. Those early ranchers didn’t deworm their horses. Deworming was a relatively new thing in the early 1960’s and even though we tried to keep our horses dewormed, the ones at pasture probably were continually reinfected—and a foal wouldn’t have as much resistance as the older horses.

     Fahleen had a tendency to colic, so I became very careful about her feed and water. I always limited the amount of cold water she drank while working hard, even though a horse needs to drink a lot during a day’s work on the range to keep from becoming dehydrated.

     I learned the hard way about her extra-sensitivity after she drank from a cold stream in the mountains one hot day when I was searching for stray cattle. Even though I limited her intake to about twelve swallows at a time and spaced her drinks out over several different stream crossings, she became crampy, wanting to roll. I had to lead her home ten miles, wearing holes in the soles of my old boots.

     I also discovered that she couldn’t tolerate grain. By trial and error, I found that she did much better without grain, except for maybe a handful of grain early in the mornings. She stayed fit and in good condition on good hay, even during our hardest distance riding campaigns. Since she was in such good physical condition from all our range riding and cow checking, I rode her on several endurance rides during the early 1970’s.

     But during the 60-mile Bitterroot Ride, we had a little accident coming into a checkpoint near the end of the ride. As we waited our turn to be checked, a young girl rode up behind us and bumped into Fahleen, causing my mare to jump sideways and collide with a parked car. Her hind leg caught under the bumper, taking all the skin off the cannon bone. She finished the ride without being lame, and one of the ride vets helped me clip the dangling flap of skin off her leg after the ride. There was a chance she might have bruised the bone, so I put cold water on the leg, hosing it for several hours, to reduce any pain or swelling. She traveled sound the next morning at the final vet check in spite of the injury.

     I suppose I was a bit rash even trying to use this particular mare for competitive distance rides, since she didn’t like strangers handling her at the vet checks. On our first two competitions I took her temperature myself, so the TPR crew members wouldn’t get kicked. But Fahleen’s attitude got better about the check stops and by her third competitive ride she was almost nice.

     She was fun to ride on these competitions because she really liked to go and she put her whole heart into it. Her tremendously strong trot was a joy to ride. You really haven’t lived until you’ve ridden a trot like that for 40 miles; it’s like flying! This was her kind of sport and she loved it. Forty miles in six hours, 30 miles in five hours, 20 miles in two hours, even on a badly scraped hind leg.

     For pure heart and willingness, and athletic ability, I’ve never ridden her equal—and she always looked good after a ride, bouncing and full of eager energy, looking like she could easily go another 40 miles and relish every minute of it.

     She was an excellent range-riding horse for the same reason, carrying me 20 to 30 miles in an afternoon checking cattle. We covered a lot of country in a short time, to see all the cattle and check the water troughs, fences and gates. During the summer she was a six-year-old, I rode her more than 2,500 miles. Part of that distance was on competitive rides, but most of it was riding range, checking our cattle.

     But I only got to ride her a few years. The spring she was seven, we started out great, chasing cows and riding range, and competing on one 40-mile ride (placing second in the lightweight division).

     I planned more distance rides that summer, but we never got to do them.

     True to form, she got into trouble because of her exuberant nature and high spirits. But this time it was serious trouble and there was no way out of it. She was bucking, leaping and playing in her pen, expressing her violent displeasure because I had walked through her pen to go catch one of the yearlings and hadn’t stopped to catch her.

     In her burst of activity, she must have twisted her intestine, probably by charging full speed from one side of the pen to the other, stopping abruptly and then flinging herself off in another direction, bucking and jumping.

     As soon as she stopped her violent exertions, I could see she was in pain. She immediately began to paw, and then to roll, breaking out in a sweat. I quickly put a halter on her and gave her an injection of smooth-muscle relaxant (the standard drug for colic, in those days) to help ease the gut cramping and relieve her pain. I walked her to keep her moving so she wouldn’t plop down and roll. She got better for a little while and then steadily worse again, descending into pain and shock.

     Our two veterinarians came out to the ranch and examined her, and suspected a twisted gut. But there was nothing they could do to correct this problem. She needed surgery, but at that point in time they had no facility for doing equine abdominal surgery at their clinic.

     We would have had to trailer her 140 miles to the closest equine hospital, over winding mountain roads, or take her 170 miles in the other direction. She was in no shape to withstand that kind of trip.

     So all we could do was treat her for shock and relieve her pain with drugs, walking her when the pain made her want to go down. She was cold, from shock and from being drenched with sweat, so we blanketed her. As the drugs relieved the terrible pain, she didn’t try so much to crash down and roll and thrash, and we were able to let her rest.

     There wasn’t much more we could do but stay with her, comforting her, easing her pain—as hope shifted away and we began to realize she wouldn’t survive this trauma. And a person does hope, always, even until near the end. There’s just something inside us that won’t let go until it is utterly hopeless.

     She finally became too weak to stand, so my husband trudged to the house to get a gun and end her pain. But before he could return, Fahleen died with her head in my arms, trusting me.

     My brave, good mare, not afraid of death as humans are, but merely puzzled because her strong young body was failing her. And as she nickered softly in those last moments before she went down, I had the feeling she was seeing things beyond me, something I couldn’t see.

     I’m too sentimental perhaps, but when Fahleen went out of my life I realized I lost a lot more than a horse. I lost a good friend.

     And it took a long time to get to where I could think about her without a tear coming to my eye. The empty corral in front of the house was a constant reminder. I had to walk through it daily to go feed and water the other horses. I used to wake up in the night and look out the window just to check on her, to make sure she wasn’t lying too close to the fence, just to make sure she was okay after a hard ride or an exhausting day chasing cattle. I’d wake up to check on her and then realize she was no longer there.

     A hundred little things kept reminding me about her throughout each day — the trails we traveled together, the wire gate out on the range that she caught her foot in and tore apart (I still think of her every time I open it, and we call it “Fahleen’s Gate”), the place on one trail where she spooked at a grouse flying up in her face and nearly lost me, and so on.

 

     Many years have passed since I lost that mare, and time has blunted the sharp pain of loss, but not the wealth of memories. She taught me a lot; she fine-tuned my horsemanship and understanding of horses, and gave me much more than I was ever able to give her.

     I’ve raised, trained and ridden a lot of good horses since Fahleen, but in so many ways she was different, and very special. Like the teacher who is exasperated by (and yet eventually so very proud of) the smart-aleck kid in class who ends up being head and shoulders above the rest, I just feel glad that I knew her, that her life touched mine, that for awhile we traveled our paths together.

 

Heather Smith Thomas is the author of numerous articles and 20 books. She and her husband ranch near Salmon, Idaho . For more information about her books, visit www.rockymountainrider.com/Business_Profiles/heather_smith_thomas.htm.

            Heather’s blog online is: heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com.

 

 

Copyright 2011 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

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