Today marks two years since I drove myself down to Lexington and made the biggest purchase of my adult life. Though we wound up no where near where I thought we’d be headed, buying Quinn was really the catalyst for so many important changes in my life. As heartbroken as I am that we’ll never meet the milestones I see so many of my peers accomplishing with their young horses, I have so much gratitude for this little bay gelding.

Prior to buying Quinn it had been around 8 years since I owned a horse. At 20 years old, I had struggled to work and go to school and pay for a horse on my own that time and circumstance rarely allowed me to see. When I finally gave my horse up I couldn’t foresee a future where horses would feasibly be a part of my life again. I thought the door had closed on being an equestrian forever, that that part of my identity would be boiled down into a bullet point of my personal history to be offered up as a fun fact during an icebreaker game.

Spike and I, circa 2006 or so

Hi my name is Casey and I used to ride horses.

I soon found out that treating a part of myself that I had once held in such reverence as flippantly as the fact that my hair used to be blond was too painful, so I just stopped talking about it all together. I buried it so deep that people in my current life were a bit bewildered to find out that I had taken a Friday off from work to drive to Lexington and purchase a Thoroughbred. I had kept it largely to myself for nearly the year prior that I had returned to taking lessons. I didn’t want to explain the history or deal with the fallout if I had to give it up again. Like they had been in my childhood, horses were the one thing in my life that existed just for me.

Believe it or not, in spite of everything that’s happened since, buying Quinn marked the beginning of the end of a pretty dark phase of my life. On the surface everything was great. I was steadily finding success in my career, my husband and I had purchased our first house, we were going on great trips, and spending lots of quality time with our family and friends. I could have ticked nearly every box off a list of what people need in order to be happy but on the inside I was empty.

Depression has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I’m fortunate that for the most part it comes and goes quietly, allowing me to acknowledge its presence while still being able to function semi-normally in my daily life. During 2016-17 however, it swallowed me whole. I could see all of the good things in my life – things that I had worked hard for, things that I hadn’t always believed would even be possible, but it all felt meaningless. People would applaud my achievements and I would smile and thank them but on the inside I couldn’t make myself care about any of it even though I knew on some level that I should be proud. At first I thought it would subside but slowly I started sinking further and further until my husband started coming home from work to find me sitting in the living room in the dark, sometimes mindlessly scrolling on my phone and sometimes just staring into the void. I stopped cleaning the house. I stopped working out with my friends after work and started skipping family functions, attending the few that I did under much duress. I gave all of my work projects away. A coworker asked me privately if I was planning on quitting.

Yes, I thought to myself, but not in the way that you mean.

I had a moment of clarity shortly after this and realized how dire the situation had become. I got myself into therapy. It wasn’t easy, looking at the hard and scary parts of yourself never is, but after some time I started to function again. Through therapy I realized that while I had achieved so much and had so many things to be happy about and thankful for, there wasn’t a single thing in my life that I could point to that I was doing just for me.

As luck would have it, around this time my very first riding instructor reached out to let me know she had moved to a new facility and invited me to come check it out. I had received this invitation several times over the years and always declined, the idea of even visiting a barn still too painful to consider knowing that being an equestrian was a thing of my past. This time, with much encouraging from my therapist and my husband, I said yes and now the rest is history. It didn’t take long for me to be all in on horses again, I started looking for one within a few months of starting to take lessons again.

Owning Quinn has been one of the hardest and most challenging things I’ve ever done. I’ve spent 3/4s of the time I’ve owned him either trying to get him diagnosed or trying to rehab him from injury. There have been a lot of moments along the way that I thought would break me. I have questioned more than a handful of times why I even did this, why would I go back to horses when I KNEW that for every ounce of joy they bring an equal or greater amount of pain? Why did I fall in love with a horse that would mangle itself within 3 months of me owning it and then take over a year to find someone who could even figure out what was wrong with him? What was the point of all of this? The irony of having something I did to try and save myself go so horrifically wrong has not been lost on me. I have shook my fist at the universe and asked “Are you fucking kidding me?!” with alarming frequency.

Standing on the other side of it all now, though it’s taken some time to get here, I can see that Quinn actually did save me just not in the way that I thought he would. All of the pain and frustration and adversity was necessary to clear away the parts of myself that had kept me small. I had to go through it all to learn to believe in myself in the face of insurmountable challenge, to learn to filter out all of the noise and trust myself. I had to go through it to learn that fear didn’t have to paralyze me, that I’m so much smarter and braver and more capable than I ever thought I was. Quinn was a door I had to walk through in order to find myself again underneath all of the masks I wore for the rest of the world and the mountains of lies I told myself about myself.

He also just radiates joy. He’s one of those horses that to just be in his presence is to be happy. I used to love to sit and watch visitors in the barn because without fail they would be drawn to him. On my worst days, days that I don’t even want to go to the barn, I can hang out with him for a while and whatever I’m feeling will just dissipate. Though it didn’t happen at all like I planned, he’s made me better in every single way. A better horseman, a better person, a better me. I’ve gotten some raised eyebrows over the lengths that I went to in order to try and fix him and over the fact that I intend to keep him even though he’s only capable of being a pasture pet but those people don’t know what this horse has given me. He owes me nothing. He saved my life.

When the Wheels Finally Fall Off

After Quinn’s SI injection we were instructed to give him five days off and then start tack walking for a week. If that went okay, slowly add trot the following week and then if that went okay, try to canter the third week. Given that the last time this horse was under saddle was May 2018 and culminated in me cartwheeling off his back during one of his explosions and tearing a bunch of ligaments in my ankle, we were apprehensive about this. Don’t get me wrong, Quinn is not a naughty horse and there’s not a malicious bone in his body but the pain he had been living with made him unpredictable under saddle and I had suffered the consequences of that unpredictablity more than once.

The first day was pretty uneventful. My barn manager volunteered to be the test pilot, so I led her around on Quinn for about 15 minutes. For his part, Quinn seemed a little nervous at first but by the end had settled in. No drama.

Day two did not go like that. By the time I got to the barn after work, clouds were starting to roll in so we tacked up in a hurry to try and get done before the rain started. We set off to the arena to mount and after walking the approximately 5-10 steps from the cross ties to the barn door I suddenly felt Quinn jerk upwards and my barn manager go “uh oh”. The next 30 seconds unfolded in slow motion. Without looking back, I stepped sideways in case Q was on his hind legs and then pivoted to face him. He was not on his hindlegs but instead leaping straight up in the air, all four legs off the ground. It was like his legs were made of pogo sticks. He would come down and go straight back up, in place. My brain couldn’t process what it was seeing, I just kept thinking “how is he dong that?” as I shifted from one side of him to the other trying to calm him down. He finally bolted forward and I had to let him go.

There’s a variety of feelings one feels as they watch their horse gallop away from them. Fear. Anger. Frustration. Worry. Confusion. I can only say that these feelings are multiplied exponentially when you’ve very recently invested a large sum of money into veterinary work on said horse. We trailed behind as Q took a hot lap around the pastures, pausing briefly to say hello to his turnout buddy before blasting off again and taking off down the hill towards the other barns. We finally caught up to him when he stopped on the other side of the property where the trailers are parked. He managed not to break the reins that had come over his head and had briefly gotten caught around one foot before he freed himself.

There’s a valley on the road back up to Quinn’s barn where you’re briefly not visible from the barn and arena up the hill. I stopped there while leading Quinn back and cried. The adrenaline and all of my hopes and dreams of him getting better came crashing down. I felt the full impact of my fear for the first time. Fear that he wouldn’t recover. Fear that I had made a huge mistake. Fear that I was inadequate to help him. Fear of Quinn himself.

Quinn pressed his nose into my arm, ears twitching forward and back, wondering what we were doing. Mr. Hyde had dissipated, leaving just my sweet, mild mannered gelding. I dried my face on my shirt and continued up the hill.

We later determined that what must have happened was that in our haste to tack up, the girth must have pinched him when walked off from the crossties. Regardless, he was lamer the following day than he had been when we took him to Rood and Riddle. I called and explained what had happened to the vet and was told to give him Bute for 3 days and then start again. If he didn’t improve we would have to bring him back.

The Bute made him sound but after tapering off he was the same as he’d been before the injection. I called the vet again. Equioxx, he said. We could do a 60 day course to get him through the beginning of the rehab and then reevaluate. Equioxx made no change.

At this point we were a month out from the injection. I called the vet again to update and see if he had any other ideas. This time he called me back directly instead of communicating through his assistant. I knew when I heard his voice on the other end of the phone that we had reached the end. We ran through the events of the last month and all of the diagnostics and treatments we had already done.

“You’ve done everything.” he said “We could maybe try to repeat some things, but you’ve done everything already. It would be wiser for you to invest your money in a different horse.” He apologized that there wasn’t anything else to do and I thanked him and hung up the phone.

In a way, hearing that I had done everything was a relief. I had given him the very best shot. I had done all of things available to me to help him. Left no stone unturned. But hearing this also meant I had reached the end of the road. I had known in the back of my mind that if we reached this point without success it would mean I would have to euthanize. I could not realistically financially support an unsound horse and a second one to ride. I would not allow him to become someone else’s problem.

It was just before the start of Labor Day weekend when I had this phone call. I decided I would wait until after the holiday to call my vet to make arrangements. I emailed the Secretariat Center, where I had adopted Q, to update them and inform them of my decision. I let my barn manager know what I had decided.

Through the weekend I vacillated from being completely calm to totally hysterical at the idea of putting Quinn down. In my head, it was the right thing to do. Though I could reason that he was pasture sound, he was mildly uncomfortable at best, potentially in greater pain than we thought at worst. He was not rideable and likely never would be. I had already spent an exorbitant amount of money trying to get him sound in addition to not being able to ride consistently for nearly two years.

My heart on the other hand screamed that yes, he might be uncomfortable but he was still bright and lively, playing with his pasture mate and mugging for treats from passers by when in his stall. He still met me at the gate every time and had dutifully tried his best throughout the rehab trials over the last several months, never becoming sour or sullen.

By the time Tuesday came I knew I couldn’t do it.

Thankfully, the farm where we board had just opened an adjacent property (literally across the street) for retirees/layups. Kismet. My husband and I agreed that as long as he remained seeming comfortable enough that we would stash him there until hopefully someday we’re able to buy our own little farm where he can come home.

So far, it seems like the best thing we’ve done for him yet. He’s out 24/7 (except for really bad weather) in a big pasture with two other OTTBs, one of whom is actually his very first pasture mate from when I brought him home. They all came down to the fence for a visit when I stopped by over the weekend and Quinn immediately dropped his head into my chest and I knew I’d made the right choice. I’m heartbroken that his career has ended but I can’t imagine not having him in my life.

An Answer

Quinn has had an on and off lameness for a bit over a year now. His most consistent symptoms were being off in the hind end RH>LH, inability to hold either canter lead, and an odd stance when standing in his stall where he would alternate putting all of his weight onto one hind leg while resting the other way out to the side of his body. We would also have periodic bouts of explosions where he would buck, kick out and bolt when working for no apparent reason. The severity of all of these symptoms would range wildly from barely visible to clearly off but have never gotten completely better. While he doesn’t look very off in the video above all together, if you isolate the right hind and watch closely how it moves you can see that it doesn’t have the same range of motion that the left hind does. He doesn’t flex or extend the leg completely and the foot kind of paddles towards the outside of his body rather than following in the tracks of his front feet. Don’t worry if you didn’t see it, last year I could tell something was wrong with the way his hind legs moved but it took a long time to understand what I was seeing (a surgeon touted as one of the best lameness vets in the country also couldn’t see it when he looked at Quinn two months ago but that’s another story).

When this first started I did a lot of research and was pretty sure we were dealing with a proximal suspensory injury (what Q was eventually diagnosed with last year) or some sort of SI issue or maybe both. Every body worker commented that Q was sore in his SI area and a lot of people I mentioned it to (including Mr Best in the Country mentioned above) dismissed it as just something “people say because there’s no way to prove it”. Well I’m here to tell you that it’s legit.

The vet we saw yesterday (who I am absolutely convinced is actually one of the best in the country if not the world) watched my horse jog once, did a quick neuro check and then took two fingers and pressed down over Qs SI region and about dropped him to the ground. Bingo. We did some blocks to the right hind just to be completely sure there wasn’t any issue there since that’s the leg we’ve seen the issue manifest the most and once we determined there wasn’t, made the decision to inject both SI joints with a steroid cocktail. Because this has been going on for so long now and we don’t know what the extent of the original injury was (and the ability to image this area of the body is woefully inadequate), there’s no guarantee that this will work or if it does for how long. It’s possible this is the only time we’ll ever have to do it and it’s possible in a couple months he could deteriorate again. We should know pretty quickly if there’s any effect at all.

I’m frustrated that it took so long for someone to take me seriously but I’m thankful to finally have a definitive answer so I can make appropriate decisions. I’m grateful that even though this process has been soul crushing that I’ve gained the knowledge to be able to properly advocate for my animal if I’m ever in this situation again. I believed in this horse from the moment I laid eyes on him, he’s changed me for the better, and whatever these next few weeks bring I’m grateful for the time he’s been in my life and hopeful that we’ll get to continue our journey.

When the Plan Doesn’t Go According to Plan

When I first got Quinn I didn’t have any hard and fast plans. I wasn’t concerned with getting out to compete right away though I did want to compete eventually, and I wasn’t in a rush to meet different milestones. I had wanted a partner to go on a journey with, to learn and grow with, and wherever we wound up was wherever we would wind up. “It takes as long as it takes” was my guiding mantra and nearly two years into this journey it’s still something I remind myself often, even if lately it’s accompanied by a sometimes dark, ironic sense of humor. Needless to say, the journey we’ve gone on so far has deviated quite a bit from what I had originally envisioned. I guess that’s how journeys usually go though, right?

We tried to bring Q back into work at the beginning of April, after 8 months off from a (supposed) suspensory strain. Pretty quickly into it (like day 3) we realized he still wasn’t quite right and was displaying many of the same symptoms we saw last year. We immediately pulled the plug and got the vet back out. More blocks and xrays, neither of which yielded anything definitive. Maybe some sketchy spinal processes, maybe the suspensory hadn’t healed all the way, lots of head scratching and confusion. 

After all this we watched Quinn go both directions on the lunge one more time and my vet, a lovely kind man who is well tenured and respected in his field and who’s opinion I trust implicitly, turned to me and after a beat said “You know, you’ve put a lot of money into this horse already…” The statement hung there in space. He was right. In the last year and a half I’ve spent a little more than $10k (about $7k at the time this conversation took place) on vets and lameness exams and scans and chiropractors and body workers and medicine and Chinese herbs. I don’t disclose that figure for shock value or to garner a reaction but because it’s the truth and I think it’s important to be transparent about how much you can spend and still not really know what the problem is.

I knew what he was gently trying to tell me. You’ve spent a ton of money on a horse that’s unproven, that may never be sound, that we have no idea where the problem is. You’ve spent well over the amount of money it would take to buy a different horse, a horse that wasn’t as green, a sound horse, a better horse, a horse I could do more with than hand walk and fret over. I’m a frequent online window shopper. I’m in all the Facebook groups. I’m intimately familiar with the kind of horse I could have for the money I’ve spent on vetting. But that horse wouldn’t be Quinn. 

I told my vet I wasn’t done trying so he referred us back to Rood and Riddle to do a bone scan. To make a long story slightly less long, the scan was inconclusive and after a full lameness workup the answer I was given was to have him reshod with pads in front as he was heelsore in his front feet. They swore up and down that it was his front feet making him sore behind (not that it can’t happen, but given what we’ve been through seemed highly unlikely). I’ll post another day about the frustrations of trying to get professionals to take you seriously. If you’re a woman in the world you already know. Nevertheless, we tried the new shoe setup and saw mild improvement for a short time before he deteriorated again. Semi-unsurprisingly the vet we had been working with at R&R is no longer returning my calls. Classy. 

I’d be lying at this point if I said I wasn’t overwhelmingly frustrated. But I’m grateful too. I’m grateful that despite the fact that he’s been living with an ailment seemingly no one in the world can figure out that Quinn has remained the kind, easy going character I fell in love with almost two years ago, that he still tries his heart out for me. I’m grateful that I was brought up to be a good horseperson before a being a good rider, that I knew to listen when Q started telling me that he couldn’t. I’m grateful for my barn manager/trainer/best friend who has advocated for my horse (and all of the horses under her care) like he was her own, who has been honest with me even when I’ve wanted to believe that things were better than they were. I’m grateful that I live in an area of the country where I have access to some of the best veterinary facilities in the world and that I have a job that even though I’m not rich by any means, affords me the ability to pursue the highest standard of care. I’m grateful that there are professionals in the world like the one I spoke to this morning, who called me from his personal phone number after spending a day reviewing my file with a solid plan of what to do next (including bringing a second vet onto the case for a second set of eyes). I’m grateful that even though I don’t know how it’s going to end, that the journeys not over yet, that there’s still a chance that this all turns out okay. So send Q and I all your good vibes as we pursue our seemingly 47th opinion in a couple weeks that at the very least we find an answer.