This post was originally published July 5, 2010.
When I decided to get my 4-month-old colt, Cody, a playmate, I reluctantly turned to a local breeder after not finding an appropriate youngster in any of the local shelters or foster homes.
Now let me explain that a generation ago I haunted dog shows and hung with breeder types. In fact, for a time I wanted to breed Chows and lovely long-tailed, floppy-eared Dobermans. Then I figured out that 1) there was way too much politics going on in the ring and 2) breeding to an arbirtrary standard is like breeding for the writing talent: odds are someone will turn out to be a great author but the majority of offspring will be talentless wastrals forced to live life as doctors or politicians or software engineers instead.
My dad named the new colt Ricky and he and Cody bonded immediately. All was exceptional for a couple of weeks, until Ricky started throwing his back legs out and swinging them in wide circles when he walked. It looked like some horrible neurological disease, and I got that hit-in-the-gut feeling when I first saw him stumbling about.
It was stifle lock. A horse is able to sleep standing up because it has a trick ligament in its back leg that locks its knee in place while it sleeps. When the horse is ready to move, the muscles around the ligament push it off the knee so the horse can bend his leg and walk or run again. Sometimes, because of a genetic disorder or because the surrounding muscles aren't built up enough, the ligament doesn't slip off the knee when it should and the leg "locks up." It isn't really painful, but it is very uncomfortable for the horse.
Lunging him, or putting him on a long lead and making him run in a circle around me, was impractical because of his fear of leads. So morning and evening I chased him and the other horses around the pasture, forcing him to keep moving. Occasionally, he'd have enough confidence to break from a trot into a real run. His joy in those moments as he streaked along, his legs biddable as they stretched and bent and drove him forward, was palpable. He was as eager as I was for him to be a normal colt again.
Only now when I look back the year or so it's been do I realize how much effort it really was. I suppose whenever we love something we put on blinders when it comes to how much work it takes to keep that something in our lives. We simply shoulder the responsibility and do it without much thought to the time and energy suck that it is. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to Ricky if he had still been at the breeder's when his symptoms started showing up. She certainly wouldn't have been able to sell him in that condition. Nor would she have invested any effort in him. Would she have literally thrown away this remarkable little throw-away?