Real Rider Stories: My horse of a lifetime

Sarah-Salsa-2009

By Sarah Allen

I first met Salsa in October of 2005 and finding him was a complete fluke. My father and I had bought our first horse, Jacob, together five months earlier and once all the early teething problems had been straightened out I felt like I wasn’t getting as much out of the shared arrangement. It also meant that unless I could borrow a horse, we couldn’t hack out together, so in the September I asked my step-mother how she felt about buying me out. A few weeks later, I drew up a list of what I wanted and what I wanted to avoid. I didn’t mind the idea of having a project to work on, but I also knew that I needed something sane and mannerly. I was born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disorder which causes widespread chronic pain and frequent dislocations and subluxations of my joints, and my mobility had been gradually degenerating since my mid-teens. Riding has always been wonderful therapy, both emotionally and physically but I couldn’t afford the risk of a horse that would barge or drag me around on the ground. I knew that I wanted an Arab – my childhood dream horse! – and completely discounted ex-racing Thoroughbreds as all of the ones I had worked with in the past had been complete lunatics!

After digging through a lot of adverts and working out my budget, I made an appointment to go and see an Arab mare. My step-mother and my dad came along, and I was both excited and apprehensive. As it turned out, the mare wasn’t what I was looking for. She was tied to a rail for the entire viewing and I got the impression that the sellers had hoped that we would simply turn up with cash and a horsebox to take her away there and then. She looked like she had worms, her feet were awful and she had next to no muscle on her at all. The sellers seemed to be trying to make the sale on the strength of her bloodlines and wouldn’t even trot her up for me. When I asked about the possibility of seeing her ridden, I was told that they didn’t have a saddle for her and their teenage daughter piped up with “and I wouldn’t get on her if you paid me!” As heartbreaking as it was, I knew that she was potentially a walking vet bill and much more of a project than I had anticipated, so we returned to the car, my step-mother and I in tears. Determined to have a good viewing, I chose an advert at random and called from the backseat of the car to see if we could go immediately. The seller was very accommodating and an hour later I met Salsa, a seven year old, 15.2hh ex-racehorse! The moment I clapped eyes on him, I turned to my step-mother and whispered “that’s my horse.”

My father and I both rode him in the seller’s schooling field and the following day, I returned to hack him out. He was very green and very quirky to ride but there was something about him that called to me. A few days later, I returned with my riding instructor to get her opinion and he passed his vetting with flying colours. A week after I had first met him, his seller delivered him to our yard and he was officially mine.

In early January of 2006, I had an accident that left me with a dislocated hip, a subluxed shoulder and severe pain in my back and neck. The hospital x-rayed me, doped me up and sent me home only to call me back the next morning with a suspected fractured neck, which was fortunately only a shadow on the x-ray. I was signed off work for nine weeks and spent a week as an in-patient at the hospital having intensive physiotherapy and saw a variety of specialists. On my second day in hospital, my parents told me that Salsa had an abscess on his jaw that had burst suddenly. Our riding instructor helped them to treat the wound and the vet had been out to see him. I felt completely helpless and very guilty that I couldn’t be there for my horse, but I had no option but to leave him in the care of my parents and our vet. Following x-rays at the veterinary clinic, he was diagnosed with osteomyalitis of the lower mandible and hadto have the dressing changed twice daily. He was also put on a variety of medication to manage the pain and kill off the infection. The vet even called me at the hospital to keep me up to date and reassured me that they were doing everything they could – but he did tell me that I had to be prepared for the worst. If the medication didn’t help, Salsa would need a trip to Newmarket, some 200 miles away, to have the infection surgically removed. At that point, the vet was only willing to give me 50/50 odds on whether he would survive the operation.

But the medication did its job. After I was released from hospital, I spent several weeks housebound while my injuries healed although I was impatient to get to the yard and see Sal for myself. Eventually, I was able to get into the car and sit in a chair at the yard, holding Salsa’s lead rope while he grazed beside me. The poor lad really struggled with his enforced box-rest and his weaving, which I had been told about when I bought him, went into overdrive. He remained on box-rest until early-March when the vet gave him the okay to start having restricted turnout. A few weeks later, the vet and my doctors happily gave us both the all-clear for me to start building us back up to riding. After lots of groundwork and several physio appointments to prepare his muscles for ridden work, and a lot of physiotherapy for me, we finally set off on our first hack in four months. Unfortunately, it quickly became a nightmare.

We rode out with two friends, intending on a quiet walking hack around the woods. When one of the other horses trotted up alongside him, Salsa surged forward and I struggled to bring him back to a walk. The second time it happened, he was straight off at a flat out gallop, leaving the others behind. I tried everything I could think of to bring him back under control, from asking for a half-halt to bridging the reins. It was the most frightening few minutes of my life and seemed to stretch on for hours. What I remember clearest was telling myself to stay on – he would have to stop eventually and so long as he didn’t slam the brakes on or swerve too hard, I would get him back under control. Up ahead of us, I could see another horse approaching from the opposite direction and my heart just sank. I think I called somethinglike “I can’t stop!” and made a last ditch attempt to pull him up. The other rider turned her horse across the path to force him to stop and at the very last moment, Salsa did try to stop. The next thing I remember was being upside down looking at a tangle of equine legs and then hitting the other horse face first on my way to the ground. I was badly winded, had dislocated my shoulder and could feel several ribs moving in ways they weren’t supposed to. The entire backside of my jodhpurs had been torn out where my momentum had sent me skidding along the bridleway. Later, one of my friends told me that the skid marks from Salsa’s hooves from where he had tried to stop and where we had finally collided were between twelve and fourteen feet long. The other rider broke her leg in the collision, and despite the pain and shock she must have been in, she was absolutely amazing and helped calm me down until I could breathe again. Both of the horses went tearing off, but fortunately they were both unharmed.

Salsa-2010The aftermath of the accident was horrible. Cars were summoned to take us both to hospital and people from both yards volunteered to look for the horses. The police were informed of what had happened, in the event that either horse found their way onto the road. I was phoned less than an hour later to be told that both horses had been caught and were fine, and that one of our neighbours would feed Salsa and bed him down for the night. Later that evening, one of the friends I had ridden out with came over to see me. I was still very shocked and tearful, and I was completely mortified when she told me how irresponsible and stupid I had been, that Salsa was dangerous and should be shot and that I had been arrogant in my decision to buy I horse I simply could not handle. These same opinions were drilled into me relentlessly by other liveries, with even my step-mother telling me that I should consider selling him and buying a “ploddy cob.” Not one person wanted to hear anything I had to say on the matter and I was deeply hurt to find out what they thought of me. People I barely knew would stop by, ostensibly to see how I was and would invariably advise me that a bullet was the only thing for my horse. I tried to contact the rider we had collided with to apologise and find out how she was but no one seemed to know who she was. In the end, I found out which yard she had come from and contacted the farmer directly to see if he could put me in touch, but as soon as he realised who I was and why I was calling, I got a serious telling off and the suggestion of a shotgun.

The months that followed were difficult ones. I was determined not to fail Salsa and refused to let him be passed from home to home labeled as “dangerous” when I was convinced that wasn’t the case. We went right back to basics and, with the support of my riding instructor, re-started him under saddle. But we just couldn’t get that transition to canter. Every time I asked, he would fling his head up and go straight into racehorse-mode, completely heedless to any aids. I had the physiotherapist back to see him several times and had four different saddle fitters out to get their opinions, but no one could give me any answers. We tried adding a calmer to his feed, and looked in great detail at what he was being fed to see if there was perhaps something going on there. I also consulted three nutritionists, two from feed companies and one independent, but none of their suggestions made any difference. By the October, I decided that walk and trot was good enough for now and that we would just leave cantering until we were both ready to try again.

We went to our first show that summer and although we didn’t get placed in any of our classes, I was very proud that he came away with a “special place” rosette in his in-hand showing class with my step-mother. The judge told me afterwards that they would have been placed if Salsa hadn’t suddenly had an attack of shyness and refused to let the judge look at him – he spent half of the class trying to hide behind my step-mother! But it was a great experience for us and I began to plan to enter him for some walk-trot dressage classes. All of a sudden, the cantering issues didn’t seem to matter very much. I had a horse that I adored, who I had an amazing bond with and we were still able to

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have fun without worrying about cantering, going for quiet hacks on the surrounding bridleways and working in the school with our instructor.

In February 2007, I had the opportunity to take him to an ex-racehorse clinic with a trainer who had a great deal of experience in working with horses like Sal. I explained at the start of our session that we didn’t canter, but that I wanted to work on our walk and trot transitions in preparation for starting to enter dressage tests. However, the words “we don’t canter” were like waving a red flag and the trainer immediately leaped on it! It was the most incredible, if slightly terrifying session I have ever had in my life. I gave a brief outline of our accident and the difficulties we had been having since, and the trainer really bullied me into cantering so he could see what happened. I was in floods of tears and so embarrassed in front of all of the spectators and clinic attendees, but the trainer picked up immediately what the problem was – it was me.

He told me that there might have been a genuine reason for Sal bolting the first time, but that he felt confident in that it was now my reaction that was causing him to tank off with me. I became tense, hunched forward and stopped being as effective with my seat. He reminded me that Salsa had been trained to race and that the distribution of my weight and my position was essentially telling him “let’s go!” as well as making him nervous with my own fear – I needed to find a middle ground with him to enable us to work effectively together. Through the use of distraction techniques he got us cantering again, completely calmly and in control. By the end of the session, we had achieved a nice canter on both reins, with Salsa listening to me and alert to my aids. It was the most incredible feeling and I will never forget that day.

From there, we went from strength to strength. We began cantering in the school with a friend on the ground to step in with the distraction techniques if I started to get tense and to keep an eye on us if things went wrong. A few weeks later, I went for a hack out by myself. I had intended to walk a short circular route but we came across a lovely stretch of bridleway that was great for a mid-ride canter and I just thought “it’s now or never.” I didn’t even give myself time to think about it, just sat quietly and asked for the transition. He was foot-perfect, listening to every aid and came back to a trot as soon as I asked. I grinned from ear to ear the whole way home.

Not long after we attended the clinic, my marriage broke down. It was an incredibly difficult time for me and I went into my first serious mental health crisis in five years. Salsa kept me sane, gave me a reason to get up in the morning, gave my life a purpose. He had always known instinctively when I was having good and bad days with my physical health, and when I had begun to need a walking stick to get around the yard, he wasn’t ever remotely bothered by it. He had always adjusted his speed to mine while being led, and quickly picked up voice aids both on the ground (such as picking his feet up so I didn’t have to bend so far) and under saddle. In the days and weeks following the separation from my ex-husband, he seemed to become even more attuned to my emotions. He was my rock and gave me something to cling to when my world felt like it was falling apart. My ex-husband left me suddenly juggling all the bills, the mortgage and our joint debts alone, and there were a few months when I worried that I was going to have to sell Salsa just to keep me financially afloat. The support I received from my family and friends was invaluable, and after a failed attempt at having a sharer for him, I decided to move to grass livery and to give him a holiday while I got back on my feet.

I genuinely didn’t know whether we would manage living out at grass. Almost everyone I spoke to was aghast at the idea of a Thoroughbred living out all winter. He had the stereotypical Thoroughbred feet, and struggled badly to keep his shoes on, often taking large chunks of hoof off with his shoes, so I decided that since he was going to be at grass and not ridden for a while, we would take his shoes off and give his hooves the opportunity to grow. My farrier solemnly warned me that he would be “dog-lame” without shoes, but did as I asked. I wasn’t really expecting the great grass livery experiment to be a success, so I was amazed to find that living out really agreed with him. His hooves improved hugely, his weaving came to an abrupt end and with careful management of his rugs and feed, he got through his first winter living out looking incredible. Suddenly I had a very relaxed, very happy and very healthy horse, a stark contrast to the stressed, weaving creature he had been when stabled, with his weight dropping relentlessly no matter how carefully he was fed and rugged.

During the summer of 2007, I met someone new and we got married in 2012. Despite never having had any contact with horses before, my new partner was keen to learn and quickly got to grips with looking after Salsa. In December 2008, we decided to buy another horse – a seven month old, entirely unhandled filly foal, River. Salsa quickly took her under his wing and they became inseparable.

Due to transport issues, we never did achieve my goal of entering dressage classes together, but our relationship only grew stronger as time went on. It was almost as though he could read my mind and he seemed to try his best to look after me. On one occasion, Salsa spooked while I was riding him and his enormous sideways leap managed to dislocate my ankle. The pain was so intense that I could barely move my leg at all, so using only the voice aids we had practiced, he stood patiently and waited until I could bear to move and then took me straight to our barn, where my step-mother was mucking out Jacob’s stable, only a few doors down from Salsa’s. Salsa stood outside his door and waited while my step-mother helped me dismount onto the mounting block. There were many more examples of Salsa learning to adapt to my needs, but that one really sticks in my mind as I think it was the first time I really had to put that training to the test. He was my perfect horse, my partner and my best friend.

On the morning of Sunday the 7th of July 2013, I was woken up by my husband who had been out taking early morning photographs. He had received a call from our yard manager to say that there had been an accident in the field and that she had called the vet as she thought Salsa’s leg was broken. We hurried to the car and were about half way to the yard when the vet phoned me to confirm that his right hind leg was badly broken, probably the result of a kick. There was nothing that could be done for him and she asked my permission to put him to sleep. I was heartbroken and I couldn’t believe that life could change so suddenly in such a short space of time. The yard manager called me back a few minutes later to tell me to turn around and go home, that she would see to River and arrange for Salsa’s remains to be collected. Not getting the opportunity to say goodbye to him and to tell him how much I loved him, how much he had changed me for the better, is one of the biggest regrets of my life. Going back to the yard knowing that he wouldn’t be there to greet me was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but I am so grateful that I had River. Salsa had been her constant companion for most of her life and we both grieved for him in our own ways, but I like to think that we were able to make it a little easier for each other.

A month ago, my husband and I used Salsa’s insurance money to buy a new friend for River, a seven month old Arab x Friesian filly, who we named Stormy. While she will never fill the hole Salsa left in our lives, she has already made her own place in our hearts. Having River and Stormy to love and look after has helped us to begin to heal from losing such an important part of our lives, and we can now look back at photographs and memories of Salsa with a smile. He taught me so much about myself and changed so many of my training and riding methods for the better – I wouldn’t give up a single second of our time together. We may not have been superstars in the show ring or winning rosettes, but we achieved so many meaningful victories of our own. As the saying goes, “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I still cry for my loss but I smile with gratitude at every memory we created together.

29th-April-2006