Outside Of Horses, Inside Of Men

by Dianna Dandridge-Rystrom

“The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man,” has been attributed to Winston Churchill and former president Ronald Reagan. I’m not sure who really said it first, but I do know it is probably one of the truest statements I have ever heard or seen played out. There’s just something healing about a horse. It’s more than just a therapy-- it’s a healing property that makes us well inside and out.

Events of the recent years had left me and my son with a very strained relationship. I had my horse and he was certainly good for everything that ailed me, but my son still battled with emotions and feelings from the divorce and my mother’s death, some bad relationships and some bad choices he made. I had tried to get him interested in my horse, but being the hard head he was he wasn’t interested in anything that was mine. He didn’t want to be told how to use the reins or leg pressure. He just wanted to ride hard and fast. Personally I think he was just trying to outrun the demons he thought were dogging him.

A friend from the Cowboy Church I attended saw the problem and offered a reasonable solution.

He said he had a five year old palomino mare that needed some work. Steve offered to let Joshua ride her for a while and try to work the kinks out. I understood Steve was trying to give Joshua an outlet for his frustrations, but Joshua thought it was merely what it appeared. He jumped at the chance. We went to get Star that afternoon after church. Joshua’s girlfriend, a tall rangy brunette, came with us and her comment said it all, “I think I just lost him to a blonde!”

I’ve got to admit when I saw her she nearly took my breath away. Talk about a fantastic blonde, Whoa! Beautiful lemon yellow hide and a flaxen mane and tail, two white socks, heavy boned and big muscled, perfect for roping. True to her name she had a lovely white four-point star between her eyes and running down her nose. Believe me, I learned beauty is only skin deep! I knew when I saw her I would have to get my son a T-shirt that said “Hay, everybody loves a blonde.” Of course it had a picture of a cowboy riding a palomino, racing after a steer.

We arrived with my little one horse trailer and there was no hope of getting her in. To begin with, I think she was bigger than my trailer. We managed to get her about halfway in-- that is her front feet were up near the front bar, but her back feet were still two feet from the back of the trailer. Never mind the fact she was not keen on the idea of entering that dark little tunnel.

Finally Steve suggested he hook up his trailer and just bring her into town for us. He said that way he could see where she was being kept. Star loaded easily enough in the big trailer and didn’t seem to have any problems being trailered. I watched just to make sure.

Steve pulled up to the stables and was unloading her when I pulled up. My horse whinnied when he saw me. We put Star in the next stall and fed her and just let her get used to things a bit. Somehow, just watching her for that first few minutes, something didn’t seem right. She never got curious about us, never acted like she wanted to make friends. Not like my horse at all, who had to be in the middle of anything and everything going on. No, Star just backed up into the far corner and cautiously watched every move we made. She wouldn’t even try to come eat until after we left the pen.

I remember it was cold that day, even for January. The wind was blowing straight out of the north and it felt like snow in the air. Probably not the best time to consider riding a new, unknown horse. Joshua just couldn’t stand it. Finally he put on his thermals, a couple pair of jeans and his boots, as well as a fuzzy hat that tied down over his ears. Asked if he could use my saddle and away he went to conquer this blonde beauty.

I went with him just to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. I didn’t like the idea of him getting angry and taking it out on this horse or the horse taking a notion and making short work of him. I didn’t really have anything to worry about. Apparently, Star and Joshua suited each other right from the start. Joshua was hard-headed and knew very little about riding other than going fast. While Star, had been schooled, but was hard-headed enough in her own right to conveniently forget most of what she knew.

At my insistence, Joshua managed to get her to the round pen before he tried to ride. He refused to do any groundwork with her and all I could hope for was a soft landing. Surprisingly enough she didn’t buck, pitch or crow hop. She took the bit in her teeth and ran at a dead run, circle after circle until all the run was out of her. It was pointless to try to tell Joshua to pick up the reins and make her move in smaller circles. He wasn’t in the mood to listen to me. He rode her, though, until she stopped. Both were breathing hard and sweating more than just a little bit.

When Joshua caught his breath I started giving him directions, which only served to fuel his anger. He knew what he wanted to do and that was run -- hard and fast. He said he was going to get her out of the round pen and really let her go. Star’s insistence to keep pulling at the bit convinced Joshua it might be a good idea to get her in the arena instead of letting her have the wide open fields. Once there he let her open up. Again she didn’t buck, she just refused to take direction from Joshua. That wasn’t good but right then Joshua was a little mixed up and maybe a hard run would be good for both of them.

Joshua rode for more than an hour. Even as fast as he would let her go I noticed she wasn’t as fast as my horse. Joshua noticed it, too. Just before he got ready to put her up he told me, “She’s fast, but not like Shiloh. But she’s built better for roping and cattle work.” I agreed. She was. Joshua walked her back to the stables and cooled her off a bit before putting her away. Even as he released her from the headstall all she would do was back into the corner, keeping a wary eye on us.

Joshua had worked her hard that day, but he hadn’t hurt her. I made sure she got brushed down and was comfortable for the night. She wouldn’t let me love on her the way I did with my horse so, I just left her in peace that night.

The next morning I went out as usual to feed. Shiloh had been standing at the adjoining fence when I pulled up. I came to a stop just in time to see Star try to kick him through the fence. I kind of figured she was trying to show a gelding where he stood in the rank of things so I let it go, after all, most mares will push a gelding around if given the chance.

I fed both horses out of Shiloh’s feed room, but after I had fed Star I entered the pen in hopes of making friends with her. She didn’t lay her ears down, but she just backed away. She just wasn’t interested in food if I was anywhere near her.

For the next several weeks I carried on with this routine morning and night. Each time she would back away. It was different when Joshua came out. She would walk up to him, even if for just a moment. Then one day, along about mid-March, I came in and found her limping. She finally let me get close to her and even pick up her right front foot. As plain as anything, there was a nail in her hoof. For some reason she let me get the pliers, pull it out and even doctor her foot. I put a medicated boot on her which she really tried to get off, but she let me do what needed to be done. The day I took the boot off for good though, she was through with me. We were back to being strangers.

I rode fairly often that winter and every time I rode I at least put her in the round pen to work her, hoping Joshua would come out and ride. He did sometimes. Often enough that I could see she was becoming more responsive every time he rode. She got easier to catch and didn’t seem to mind working in the round pen at all.

At some point I had been working her for more than a week when I decided to try to ride her. I had no problem saddling her or getting her bridled. She even stood still as I got on her. Unlike Joshua I wasn’t brave enough to ride her hard, even in the round pen. I rode her for maybe ten minutes. I remember thinking “My gosh, she’s a big horse. Falling off her would be like falling off a three story building.” Nothing eventful happened that ride or for the next several rides. I never rode her long or outside of the round pen. I just didn’t trust her. Joshua did and she seemed to be working for him, which was good, seeing as how she was going to be his horse.

Easter weekend, Joshua’s father came to see the kids. Naturally I asked him if he wanted to go for a horseback ride. We got to the stables, saddled both horses and asked which one he wanted to ride. He chose the blonde, saying he wanted to ride Joshua’s horse. That was fine with me, because I much preferred my gelding to the mare.

James has never been a horseman and Star apparently sized him up right from the start. We were riding in the arena and I was trying to explain to James how to use the reins and leg pressure to get the desired reaction from Star. At some point he must have given her some mixed signals. She managed to get the bit in her teeth and started in a dead run. I had just got turned around when she neared the end fence of the arena, made one of those ultra-fast turns quarter horses are known for and left James in the dust.

Giving credit where credit was due, James got up, holding his wrist and was determined to get back on her. I caught her, led her back to James and watched as he got on. He rode for another half hour or so, being sure to keep her in check and listening to everything I told him, before he said he had had enough. By this time his wrist had taken on a pretty dark shade of blue and was swollen a good bit. James refused to go to the hospital, so for the rest of the weekend we kept the wrist packed in ice, hoping it wasn’t broken.

Later that week he called and said he had decided he needed to go have it ex-rayed. It wasn’t broken, but severely sprained. He was off work for about three days.

For us, routines continued of feeding, grooming, riding and making friends with her. Somewhere something happened and Joshua lost that first real interest in her, leaving me to handle most of the work. I had never before met a horse that just wouldn’t cozy up to the person feeding it every day, but not Star. She only tolerated my presence. She let me get the halter on her and even saddle her, but never really accepted me. Even with that I probably rode her four or five times before the accident.

Memorial Day weekend, again James had come to see the kids and again we went for a ride. At first it was just going to be Joshua on Star and James on my Shiloh. I went out to watch. Joshua hadn’t been riding long when he rode up to me and threw me the reins.

“Mom, I don’t feel so good. Why don’t you and dad ride for a while?” He dismounted and held her while I got on. We were all watching the clouds as a storm seemed to be blowing in. We also made a point of keeping clear of the far end of the arena, where some friends were working a colt in the round pen.

Meanwhile James was riding Shiloh and getting a good response from him. Joshua left the arena and was gone in a blink of an eye.

After I mounted Star I realized my right stirrup was crooked and I bent over her neck to straighten it out. That’s when all hell broke loose.

Being off balance, I didn’t have a chance. Star threw me in about three bucks. Everything would have been okay if that was as far as things went. I’m not real sure if she kicked me as I went off over her butt, or if she kicked me as I tried to get up. Somehow her hoof connected with my ribs right under my left scapula. By the time I got up Shiloh was heading for me, while James was trying to keep him away. My friends from the round pen rushed over to help.

James dismounted Shiloh and I told him I was hurt and needed to go to the hospital. He and Pam and her daughter, Joanna, led the horses back to the barn, James wasn’t much help and didn’t really know how to take the saddles off. Pam and Joanna did most of the work. They turned the horses loose in their pens as I was getting in the truck.

The trip to the hospital, probably less than two miles, seemed to take forever. James dropped me off at the emergency room doors and I went through to where the ER should have been only to discover the entrance had been moved. By this time I knew I couldn’t go much further. Some stranger passed and I told her “Get some help. Can’t go any farther!” I was leaning against the wall and was at the point of passing out.

A nurse and a wheelchair arrived shortly. I was taken right in ahead of others waiting. I remember seeing my reflection in a mirror and thinking what a terrible shade of green I had turned. That was about the last thing I remembered that night. I do remember screaming as they had me lie flat for a CT scan. I also remember an X-ray tech saying, “Look, six broken ribs all near the spine.” About that time the Demerol kicked in thankfully. The next thing I knew I was waking up in a hospital room and the doctor was telling me about my injuries.

Dr. Gregg said the scan clearly showed the hoof print. The first rib had broken clean and the next had followed like a line of dominoes. He said I was lucky to be alive. At that point I doubted that. It hurt to move. It hurt to bend. Hell, it hurt to breathe. For the next seven days I pretty much lived on pain killers and whatever they were pumping in my veins. I remember the kids coming by, and James came by before he left. At some point my friends from church came by. I think they came by a couple of times because the nurses started making comments about the cowboy brigade.

I left the hospital a week later to go to a friend’s house for a few days of TLC before going home to take care of myself. Beds were out of the question. I had to be at a 45 degree angle or I couldn’t breathe. My friend, Naomi, had an ugly chaise lounge that was just perfect. For the next several days she allowed me to take up her living room in that ugly lounge chair.

I was laid up for more than a month trying to let my ribs heal. Finally just days before I was scheduled to return to work, I was to discover just how bad things could really get.

The day had started off alright, but I realized my breathing was more labored than it should have been. Early in the day I attributed it to the high humidity and let it go. By mid-day I was beginning to grow concerned. Not only was my breathing getting more labored, but I had started sweating profusely, even for it being summer, and my chest had started to hurt. For a while I thought I had merely pushed myself to hard that day. About 8 p.m. I tried to take a bath to relieve the symptoms. Getting out of the tub, I nearly passed out. The sweat was coming off me in buckets and the pain was taking my breath away.

“Rebecca,” I said, “You need to call 911. I think I’m having a heart attack.”

My daughter handled it calmly enough, but I could tell she was stressed out. She was not prepared for this.

Paramedics got there, took my vitals and asked about my history. No, I didn’t have heart problems, but my mother had. They got me to the ambulance and ran an EKG, indicating there was some type of coronary distress. They told me to let a nitro-glycerin tablet melt in my mouth and off we headed for the ER, again!

I had never felt pain like this. By the time I got to the hospital I was begging them to just let me die. It hurt too bad to live. Dr. Chase wasn’t about to let that happen. My veins were collapsing as fast as they could set an IV and my blood pressure dropped to something like 25 over 33. At some point they had me standing on my head just to help raise my blood pressure.

Then started the real fun -- moving me for another CT scan. They couldn’t give me anything for the pain, because they didn’t know for sure what was causing it, but my tests had come back and I was NOT having a heart attack!

If I thought the first scan with the ribs was bad, this one was ten times worse. They had pumped some dye into me, which was making me sick to my stomach, plus I had to lie flat, which was causing my blood pressure to drop and the pain was more than I could endure. Every time I nearly passed out the techs brought me right back to consciousness. Finally the scan was over and they sent me back to the ER to wait the results. At one point the pain got so bad, I told one of the nurses I was about to vomit. Before she could get a tub, I hurled all over her. As bad as that was, the vomiting made me feel better, briefly. My blood pressure came back up and I had stopped sweating quite so profusely.

The test results finally came back. I was suffering from a collapsed lung. Apparently, as I had gotten up and started moving around, the top rib, which had been one with the worst break, had rubbed a hole in the lining of my lung, allowing fluid to fill the space. The pressure from the accumulated fluid was pressing on my heart giving every indication of a heart attack. For the moment all they could do was keep me comfortable and wait for the surgeon to get there.

Dr. Gregg showed up a few hours later. He informed me they were going to have to insert a chest tube to drain off the fluid and allow the lung to re-expand. I know I wasn’t in any shape to be giving orders, but I remember telling him that if it was going to cause me any more pain just to let me die. He told me they would use a light anesthetic, but I wouldn’t feel a thing. He was right. I remember the nurse attaching the oxygen monitor to my finger and that was all.

When I came too I was in my room with tubes and hoses coming out from some of the most unbelievable places. All because Joshua’s horse kicked me in the back. When he showed up a few hours later, I told him, “I’ll put a bullet between Star’s eyes if she is still at the stable when I get out of here.”

I guess he believed me because a few days later he borrowed my truck and a trailer and moved the beautiful blonde down to the Austin area on his grandfather’s farm.

Good riddance! I can honestly say I hope to never see her again.

Sometime later, Joshua took a trip down to see his father and stopped by the farm to see his horse. Strangely enough, she came right to him and even let him ride her bareback. That’s still fine. I just want her to stay away from me.

Even a year later, I still feel the pain of her actions, but in truth, I doubt very seriously that I would have put a bullet between her eyes. I’m just glad I never had to find out.

Sadly though, less than two years after the accident Star died of multiple snake bites. I would never have wished that on her. Never!