An Unbroken Spirit

Equine Care

by, Steffany L. Dragon

“When you get into a tight place, and everything goes against you till it seems as if you couldn’t hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that’s just the place and time that the tide’ll turn.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe 1811–96

Most of us are profoundly touched by true stories of Underdogs or unsuspecting champions, such as Seabiscuit, or The 80 Dollar Champion – a true story about a man who picked a horse from a truck bound for the slaughter house, purchased him for eighty dollars in 1956, and went on to win the National Horse Show open jumper championship at Madison Square Garden in 1958. Throughout time, accounts of true stories exist of horses healing the broken and in the case of War Horse, for example, the beautiful situation of “who rescued who?”. These stories stir the human heart and give hope in a world so desperate for it. This story takes place in an equally inspirational setting and a theme of Spirit runs concurrently through the journey of the horse and the event around which the story is centered. The Spirit of the West combined with the Spirit of Healing.

Let Us Begin…
Sue led one of their homegrown and trained young geldings she and her husband Ray affectionately called, “Chief” off the trailer and into a grassy paddock. As she slipped the leather halter over his ears, he felt the freedom to stretch his legs and take in the senses of this new ranch he would call home. Wade had eagerly awaited the sound of the diesel rig, delivering Chief, who had just recently ranked in the top 10 in Cutting at the AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association) National Western Horse Stock Show. After a couple short snorts, Chief whinnied to make his introduction to the mares in the nearby pasture. After a couple spirited laps, he settled casually into grazing the fence line where he could scope out his new friends.

Wade motioned for Ray and Sue to join him in the barn office to do the paperwork where they were welcomed by the rich aroma of fresh coffee. While wrapping up the sale contract, Sue couldn’t help but notice a change in Wade’s demeanor. After a minor hesitation, Wade started, “Sue”, he said, in a defeated tone…”I gotta admit something to ya”. His index finger tapping on the dusty glass window in the direction of a bleached out, plain looking Red Dunn mare standing about 14.3 hands in the back pasture. “Remember that horse I got from the sheep ranch in Utah?” He asked.
Sue gave him a knowing look and replied, “The one I checked out a year ago and told you I suspected had an issue with her stifle?”.

“That’s the one. Goldie. Well, I hate to admit it but she seemed to be sound about the time the 3R Big Ride came around, so I took her on it this year & she didn’t make it more than a day before that damn stifle pull had her lame again. Finally had the vet check her out. Seems it’s a soft tissue injury that just keeps coming back even after we lay her off…the vet said there is nothing we can do. I guess I should have listened to you and not tried to put her back to work. She’s become a pasture ornament here. It’s a shame.”

The annual “Big Ride” Wade referred to was hosted by a group of horsemen dedicated to the heritage of the West and Horsemanship called The Roundup Riders of the Rockies (3R). The Big Ride event is a rigorous seven-day ride in or around Colorado each year that horses and riders should be in peak physical condition to enter. Ray and Wade were among the members of 3R, sharing a common appreciation and respect of the American West, the spirit of the cowboy, conservation, environment, and the love of horses and the occasional mule. Riders and staff numbering more than 200 gather for the week-long, self-contained ride across high mountain trails and through small towns. The ride includes 100 miles of rigorous terrain and combines equine trail sports with endurance that require top horsemanship of the riders, & impressive athleticism, stamina and agility of their horses. Sue was disappointed that Wade had even entered Goldie in the ride, given her inability to fully heal. He did say a veterinarian had cleared her to go, however, prior to the first day’s failed attempt and injury.

Wade then proceeded cautiously, “I know you have a reputation for working with horses who have been ‘written off’ -so to speak. Since you already have your truck and trailer here & obviously seem to be able to read the horse…if you want to give her one of your hail mary last chances…she’s yours.”

Sue was caught a little off guard…somewhat frustrated he hadn’t heeded her warning last season that the horse was not sound. Sue glanced at the little mare through the window, remembering exactly what she had felt in her stifle when she had palpated it on a prior visit. The mare raised her head and slowly bent her neck around to look behind her…seemingly at the window at just that moment!

With a little laugh at that sign, Sue replied, “I guess she’s interested. But I suppose how well she comes around will be up to her. I would love to give her that chance.”
And that’s how this little mare’s journey of healing began. Sue had gotten into preventative health years ago after deciding not to wait until their horses needed joint injections or had a problem to start focusing more on health and injury prevention. While injections after some damage had occurred was common to keep these equine athletes comfortable and going, Sue was committed to a better, proactive standard of care for their horses. She became an equine massage practitioner and incorporated essential oils into her equine energy and body work. Being a little off the path of the traditional cowboy, these modalities were initially met with strong skepticism by her husband. Still, Sue was determined to hone her skills and give their horses their best shot at health and performance from an early age by incorporating these practices into their training program. Even though “Goldie” was just considered a ‘Senior’ horse, at age 15, Sue felt a spirit in her that she wanted to work with. One of the energy work practices to which Sue attributes much of her success in healing horses is called Reike and she used this method extensively with Goldie.

If you are a horseman or horsewoman, you’ve probably heard of the Masterson Method, Equine Massage or Energy work. When used effectively, visible signs of licking, chewing, blinking, yawning, passing gas, and profound relaxation are evident. Reiki is along those lines and comes from “Rei”, which means “Higher Power” and “Ki,” which means “life force energy.” A Japanese method for stress reduction, it is a therapy that uses touch (or near touch) to direct life force energy to channel healing energy into the patient. Research has shown that this occurs because the activity of parasympathetic autonomic nervous system in the patient increases significantly. Horses are considered good candidates for Reiki because they are very attuned to our emotions and energy, which every horse person can certainly attest to!

While most cowboys and horse trainers feel a deep connection with their horses and establish confidence, trust, partnership and even submission…it may be difficult for them to believe in the efficacy of energy work unless witnessing its success over and over. Such was the case with Sue’s husband, Ray. In the rare moments over the years when Ray would hit a wall or have a dilemma while training one of his colts, he’d talk to Sue about it. Her approach was often different, but he would reluctantly give her methods a chance. Afterall, happy wife, happy life, right? At first Ray figured it was just coincidental timing that things would click after Sue did ‘her thing’ with the horse. But time and again she seemed to have found the source and reason if a horse was stuck or acting peculiar. Over the years, his standard response to her offer to help had transformed from a reluctant huff where he’d concede to appreciation and expectation for a favorable outcome!

Sue was no stranger to these horses that were written off by owners, trainers, and other professionals, usually for good reason. Some injuries or other health issues are just too severe to ever come back from. Although Goldie fell in that category and appeared as just a plain jane horse; solid…no chrome; grade…no papers; …Sue liked her. She also felt a sense of vested interest since she had been the only one the prior year to warn Wade NOT to ride her in the Big Ride. Wade defended his decision reminding her that the veterinarian had cleared her to ride but Sue maintained that there was evidence of severe injury in her past that she had not recovered from after being convalesced. So now, it was her turn to give this mare the chance Sue believed she needed and deserved.

Sue and Ray prepared for a “marathon, rather than a sprint” with Goldie’s rehab to see what they could achieve together. It would depend on the mare’s spirit just as much as their skills and hopes. Sue took time to notice the horse’s responses to the smallest things..even her name. As trivial as it sounds, Sue had noticed Goldie start to come alive when she received Sue’s focus but lost her attention whenever she used the name, “Goldie.” She pondered at why that might be, and half-jokingly scoffed that Goldie was too plain a name for her and “was she expecting something regal like Queen Elizabeth?”. Just then, the mare flipped her ear and then her head toward Sue, who took it as a sign right then and there to change her name to Queen Elizabeth! They now affectionately call her “Liz”. Once she had that settled, she and Liz got down to work.

The veterinarians and Sue knew Liz would need incredible soft tissue regeneration around the stifle that was unlikely to happen. Using light massage and essential oils that carried and continued the treatment for days, in combination with energy work through Reiki, this horse who had been thrown away began repairing, regenerating, and building muscle. Sue was in no rush and waited until she got clear indications from Liz that she was ready for each next step in treatment or exercise. Eventually Sue was able to start her in light round pen work, lunging her. Liz took it all in and would meet Sue at the gate eager for her sessions. Sue sensed the mare’s spirit for healing, something too often overlooked in our secular world. The condition of the heart and soul can achieve what logic cannot when we give the ‘unseen’ a chance before giving up. It’s not in a cowboy’s nature to give up either. We can’t see the ties that so strongly bind him to the land, the horse, the Western Traditions but they are just as strong as anything tangible. So is the will to overcome. As a society, we often miss the power and truth in what is not visible to the overpowering secular and materialistic images that bombard us. Working with horses reels us back in.

After a month of groundwork, Sue cleared Liz to be saddled and Ray started some light (re)training. Ray stayed out of Liz’s mouth and got her used to his leg cues. She softened as he retrained her to his seat. Liz was so responsive to Ray’s style of training, as if she had muscle memory. Through their work and surprisingly easy progress with the mare, both Ray and Sue concluded that this horse who came off a sheep ranch in Utah had at one time been trained for Working Cow classes and Reigning. She clearly had the training at one point in her life and the talent! They also strongly suspected she had been a registered Quarter Horse. Perhaps her old injury had occurred in training and that’s when she was no longer a prospect for competition and therefore sold to the sheep farmer.

Working with Liz was like finding and placing the correct pieces of a puzzle, uncovering evidence of an unknown past, finding a spirit in this horse possibly overlooked. What started as a hopeless situation for Liz was surely evolving into a moving story of success because someone did not give up on her but believed. One day, Sue found herself humming one of her favorite songs, Amazing Grace, as she brushed Liz and got chill bumps when the verse “How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed”, hit home, and she realized that only because she had dared to believe, were they altering the course of this mare’s life.

After the first year Sue and Ray had Liz in their care, they, as a team, achieved 100% soundness! Ray had begun to use Liz to pony the other young horses in training. With consistent work, he had gotten her legged up and collected while Sue continued the Reiki and using essential oils. Instead of standing with her legs behind her to take the pressure off her hurt stifle, this mare now stood relaxed and strong with a beautifully muscled loin. You could finally appreciate her short back, longer underline, sloping hip, shoulder, and pastern angles. Even her eye had become soft and kind.

Ray had trained and taken many horses n the 3R Big Ride over the years. In addition to it being the flagship event for this group of horsemen, it was a competition. It was now 2 years since Sue and Ray had taken over the rehabilitation and training of Liz and she almost miraculously showed every indication that she was the right candidate for the ride that year. They knew she was up for traversing the roughly 20 miles per day. And during the “layover day” midway through the week, she could either rest if she needed to recoup or participate in the contests like trail classes and gymkhana that she was evidently trained in. Instead of putting limitations on Liz’s healing and ability, they entered her in the ride and went for it! They were surrounded by supportive friends and fellow horsemen inspired by sportsmanship in a competitive ride that was for an important cause. Year after year, the 3R group grew with members dedicated to the perpetuation of the Western Tradition associated with the relationship between the American Cowboy and his horse. Many of them participated in the ride each year and came from 15 different states ranging from Connecticut to California. This diverse group includes ranchers, farmers, businessmen, physicians, law enforcement officers, retired members of the United States Forest Service, attorneys, university professors, veterinarians, retired military, and other professionals. Ray had ridden the event the past 10 years on horses they had raised and trained on their Colorado ranch, but this year was different. Riding a rehabbed, older “underdog” horse this time, he felt a humble appreciation for the sincere comradery and Love of the Horse in the organization.

It turned out that Ray and Liz were a force to be reckoned with that fateful week. Not only did Liz stay sound during and after the event, but it was also the FIRST time in all the years (10 so far) Ray had participated in the ride that he received a PERFECT score! So, Liz took her rightful place as the Queen Elizabeth she had known she could be! How is that for an underdog movie script?

As if the story couldn’t get any better, we can answer the “Where is she now?” question for you too. Life at the ranch settled down from celebrating the incredible comeback story of Liz. Business as usual ensued and Ray had his hands full training the young horses for their careers. Sue knew that Liz thrived on interaction and having a job. It had just started to worry her that neither she nor Ray had enough time for Liz when they got a phone call from an old friend. An older cowboy had kept the Western traditions alive through the generations and his 9-year-old granddaughter had become quite the cowgirl. She regularly worked cows on the ranch but didn’t have a good match for the upcoming ranch workday herding and branding cattle. Her grandpa heard the story about Liz, as many folks had by this time, and wondered if the mare was still sound and possibly available. It was an answer to the little girl’s prayers that she was. The granddaughter was even starting to compete in gymkhana so Liz would be able to continue doing what she did best and have a purpose. Most of us agree that…

“All horses deserve, at least once in their lives, to be loved by a little girl”. -Author Unknown

And boy did this little girl have love to give Liz! Sue would have not let Liz go to anyone that she did not see a special connection with and as soon as the two met, she knew Liz had a new partner in Erica. Since Liz did not come with registration papers, the veterinarians along the way had provided an educated guess as to her age. Liz had thrived so much over the past few years that the veterinarian who prepared the papers before hauling her to her new home had guessed she was the same age as was best determined 5 years prior! The following Winter after Liz went to live at her new home with Erica, her grandpa shared a ‘tear jerking’ letter she had sent to him expressing her love and gratitude for “the most perfect horse on earth.” To this day, Liz is living out her life being loved and ridden regularly by this little girl who showed up as the perfect match for her.

Sue’s own belief in the power of the unseen, the strength and healing in believing and having faith not to give up resonates both in the quote of Harriet Beecher Stowe and in her beloved song, Amazing Grace. Interestingly, the last verse of the song was not added until 1909—136 years after it was written by former slave trader, John Newton. It was added by Mr. Edwin (E.O.) Excell, but Mr. Excell didn’t write the verse. E.O. Excell was a composer who found the verse in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” written in 1852. It is one of the most famous hymns ever written. Some have said it is sung over 10 million times around the world every year. The last hymn is:


When we’ve been there 10,000 years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days
To sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

Keep finding the hope in otherwise hopeless situations and don’t sell short the unseen power of the spirit in healing and overcoming, even against the odds.