Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Murray on the Lam

I should know better, but sometimes it's easy to forget.

It's mid-afternoon on a Thursday, and a sudden downpour sends sheets of rain cascading off the roof. I rush outside to open the doors to the horses' stalls so they can avoid getting drenched. As soon as the horses are in, the rain stops. The sky is still grey though, so I figure I'll wait a bit before putting them back out.

I leave the door to Murray's stall open (the one which leads into the barn, not out to the paddock) while I move to Maggie's stall to spread some fresh bedding. Murray moves forward so that his toes are just touching the edge of the doorway. Standing like this, he can stretch his neck practically the entire width of the isle. I say "Murray", in my deep, meant-to-be intimidating, don't-you-dare voice, and he backs up a step or two. I consider closing his door, but I'm almost finished, and as I look up at the big garage-style barn door, the one that leads to our driveway, I see that it's pulled down halfway. He'd have to duck to get out underneath, and I can't see why he'd bother. So, I figure that even if he does leave his stall, he'll only wander the isle ways for a few minutes. I am wrong.

Now, I should point out that I leave Murray's stall door open on a regular basis. It's something I've always done, and something he's always accepted. He's allowed to stick his head out of his stall and look around so long as his hooves don't cross the threshold. This is quite disconcerting to people who don't know him. They see me leave his stall with his door open, they see him advance forward a step, and they rush to close the door before he can escape. My explanations are generally met with skepticism--until people see his manners for themselves. Over thirteen years, Murray has only disobeyed the rules twice-- that is, until now.

The first time he "left" his stall was only 18 months or so after I first bought him. I stopped at the barn on my way to a night out with friends. I was in a hurry. It was summer and I was wearing a long blue skirt and matching blue sandals. I opened Murray's door, fed him a treat, and walked around the corner to write a note for the stable owners. Suddenly, I heard the muted sound of metal horseshoes making contact wtih wooden boards. I turned to see Murray's lanky legs strolling down the isle, and out the open barn door. He sauntered into the nearest paddock-- a small one, just about the size of three box stalls-- and stood there looking at me. I grabbed his grey nylon halter, lifted my skirt, and walked purposefully toward him. He promptly took off, cantering round and round in tiny circles just out of my reach.

Two hours later, with a layer of dust covering my sandals, and a plenty of dirt between my toes, Murray was still lose. A fellow boarder arrived at the barn, and between us, we rigged up a series of lunge lines to form a chute from the gate of the paddock, into the barn. We opened the gate, and Murray darted out. He ran into the barn, tried to run out the back door (found it was closed), then trotted back to his stall as though nothing had happened. I was late for my date.

The second time Murray left his open-door stall was just a few years ago. It was summer again, when the horses are turned-out overnight. I finished riding Murray just as the other horses were being ushered into their pastures. I put Murray in his stall and took off his bridle. I walked the four feet to my locker to put it away. I felt a gust of air brush by my shoulder. I turned to see Murray following his friends out to the pasture with his new saddle still on his back, and his boots still velcroed to his legs. I ran out in front of him and managed to force him to change course. He re-entered the barn, and I herded him back into his stall. I'm sure this only worked because unlike the other horses, he had yet to eat his supper, which was waiting in his feed tub for his return.

I wasn't thinking of Murray's previous misadventures when I left his stall door open last week.

I'm just about to leave Maggie's stall when Murray decides it's time to make a break for it. He thrusts his body forward, and in an instant he's standing outside of his stall, in the isle. I shout "hey", and for a brief moment he turns to look back at me-- his expression like that of a toddler just about to do something it knows it's not supposed to. I try to get out in front of him, to stop him, but Maggie's hefty bulk is in front of me, and since she's eating hay, she takes her time in responding to my "move-over" nudges. I stumble out of her stall just in time to see Murray trotting determinedly toward the half-open garage door. It's obvious to me that he's not going to make it. His towering withers are clearly higher than the bottom of the door. But Murray's either too determined to notice, or too unaware of his own height to understand. He ducks his head and neck, but, as predicted, his withers crash into the bottom of the door, bumping it up an inch or two. Un-deterred, he trots into the backyard and around the tool shed. He's free now and he knows it.

I make a few attempts to catch him, but I know it's useless. I can't catch him in an enclosed area, much less in a wide-open space. At least he heads for familiar territory-- the paddock that he and Maggie had been sharing before she unsuccessfully jumped the gate. He prances around, clearly proud of his mischievous behaviour, and I try to figure out what to do. We've repaired the gate to this paddock, but we haven't put it back on its hinges yet, so it's just laying against the fence. I know I can't catch him, and he's welcome to stay here and be stubborn, but I need him to stay INSIDE the fence. I wrestle with the heavy gate and manage to lift it onto one hinge. It's hanging precariously, but I figure it should hold for now. I make one last, unsuccessful attempt to catch Murray, then I curse him and go inside as the drizzle starts up again.

It doesn't take long for Murray realizes he's alone. Not longer prancing in triumph at his great-escape, he mournfully wanders the paddock, whinnying loudly for Maggie (I've purposely left her inside, out-of-sight, in hopes that it might make catching Murray a bit easier). After a half-hour or so, I try once more to put a halter on my forlorn horse. He's desperate for company, but too stubborn to capitulate.

As the minutes tick by, I start to wonder whether I'll even be able to catch him at supper time. Normally, after pulling a stunt like this, I would say to heck with him, and I would leave him out for a few extra hours and that would serve him right. But today, my good friends Katherine and Wade are coming for a visit. They're picking me up, and then we're spending the rest of the evening in the city. And I'm not keen on leaving my lonely horse outside for hours with only a half-attached gate to keep him there.

When Katherine and Wade arrive, we decide to trick Murray into coming in. First, I let Maggie out into her paddock (in clear view of Murray). We lavish her with all kinds of attention and treats. We put on her halter, we make a big show of parading her up and down the drive. We pay no attention at all to Murray. Inside the barn, I prepare the hay and grain, making as much noise as I can. Murray eyes us all suspiciously. Finally, when we're ready to leave, Katherine leads Maggie slowly toward the barn for supper (even though we could have just opened the outer door to her stall). I walk up to the half-on gate of Murray's paddock and wait for him to come to me (which he usually does at supper time). It takes a minute, and I end up having to meet him partway, but eventually he reluctantly turns himself in, presumably deciding that freedom is no fun without food or company.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Getting Rid of the Evidence

The evidence of Maggie's ill-fated leap over the paddock gate is slowly disappearing. The scars on the fence (the splintered posts, and kicked-down boards)have all been repaired-- thanks to Dave and his dad Fred, who was in town this past weekend. His jaw dropped when he saw how much damage Maggie had actually done, especially to the otherwise sturdy metal gate. He and Dave lifted the gate from its hinges, laid it on the driveway, placed two boards on it, and drove the truck over it in an attempt to straighten it's warped, bent, twisted frame. It's not perfect, but it is usable again.

The scars on Maggie's body aren't so easy to erase...though she is improving. On Saturday, Maggie trotted for the first time. Well, perhaps "trot" is a bit of an overstatement. I was throwing a fresh flake of hay into her paddock, and instead of the toe-dragging shuffle she has been using, she gingerly jogged about 5 steps toward the pile. She was very lame, but I still consider it a small step forward on the road to recovery.

Her cuts and scrapes are healing well, but her stifles are still puffy and sore. She pins her ears, swishes her tail, and spins her head toward me violently when I try and touch her left stifle-- very out-of-character for this laid-back, "laissez-faire" girl.

Unfortunately, as a side-effect of her lack of exercise, and of my sympathy toward her, I'm pretty sure Maggie's full-figure is expanding once again. I've tried cutting back her grain, but even when I'm riding her six days a week, she only gets a handful of sweet-feed plus vitamins. If I give her anything less, she won't get anything at all, and then I'll have a cranky, door-banging, tantrum-throwing, head-tossing mare on my hands.

But worse than the grain, is the belly-fattening hay. Murray and Maggie are in separate paddocks now, (until Maggie is once again able to defend herself against Murray's constant harassment). I thought this arrangement would be a perfect opportunity to offer skinny Murray all-the-hay-he-can-eat, while keeping Maggie's hay consumption to a minimum. I'm trying, but Murray eats so slowly, and Maggie devours her smaller portions so quickly, that she ends up standing at the fence watching him eat. Then, every time I step out of the house (or even if she sees me through the window) she looks longingly at me and bats her long black eyelashes, and I think about how helpless I felt watching and listening to her gasp for breath while stuck on the fence, and I cave. I open a bail, and I toss her another flake--which she of course devours at hot-dog-eating-contest speed. Then the coy, pleading looks start again.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

When the Well Runs Dry

How to prime a pump:
1. Be sure your well runs dry shortly after a traumatic life event.
2. Be sure your well runs dry when you need cold running water to help heal your horse.
3. Be sure your well runs dry after hours on the day before your husband is heading out of town on a business trip.
4. Be sure your engineer husband is determined to coax the pump into working in an attempt to get enough water to take a shower at 4:20am, precisely 1 hour and 20 minutes before he's supposed to be on a plane to Toronto.

5. Have water delivery guy tell you: "yup, your problem is your well is dry. I can see rocks".
6. Pay to have well filled with water.
7. Turn on pump. Get excited when water trickles out of taps. Get stressed when flow of water stops.
8. Call company you think installed pump and ask for help. Find out company only installed UV filter for pump. Ask them for advice anyway.
9. Take note of company's advice. Double check their advice on Internet.
10. Open taps to reduce pressure in pump. Think that pressure must have lessened. Use giant plumber's wrench to remove plug in top of pump. Find out you were wrong. GET WET.
11. Run upstairs, grab containers to catch water spraying out of pump.
12. Get sprayed with water until pressure gauge reaches zero. Find towels to mop up water on floor.

13. Pour bottled water into pump in an attempt to "prime it". Find that pump is pretty much full. Turn pump on. Trek through house leaving behind wet footprints and turn on taps.
14. Jump excitedly when water spurts from taps. Swear loudly when water stops.
15. Look at pump. Look at pump some more. Double check Internet instructions. Look at pump again.
16. Call back company that didn't install pump and beg for more help.
17. Explain, when prompted, that you ran out of water because you were using it to hose injured horse's legs. Get chastised by company for using so much water.
18. Beg company for more help anyway. Do suggested checks, figure out that filter is clogged. Listen to helpful instructions on how to change filter. Attempt to change filter. Fail miserably.
19. Try again, and again, and again to remove filter cover-- fail again, and again, and again.
20. Call father-in-law. Reach same conclusion. Try to remove filter cover again. Fail again.
21. Run outside to get hose. Hook up hose to tank which by-passes filter. Run hose upstairs and outside. Fill horse buckets with brown, muddy water.
20. Wish for a shower.
21. Look outside and find it's starting to rain.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On the Mend

It's been a long 38 hours, but Maggie is definitely on the mend. Her lower legs are beginning to look somewhat shapely again, though her right hind still has a partial stove-pipe appearance. As for her stifles, well, they still look like overstuffed pillows, but there is some improvement. She's also much more mobile today, and she was clearly able to lay down overnight (and get back up) since her black coat was covered in pale-yellow sawdust this morning.

Now that she's starting to feel better, Maggie's getting a bit fed up by all this extra attention. Now, when I hose her legs, she tugs at the lead line, and moves around to try and avoid the cool stream of water. When I try to syringe her medications into her mouth, she clamps her lips shut, wiggles and shakes her head back and forth, up and down. When I do manage to get the syringe into her mouth, she refuses to swallow and ends up spitting most of the mixture onto the ground (or on me).

I don't particularly mind. I'm just relieved that she's feeling well enough to show some of her sass again.

Monday, April 12, 2010

New Tenants?

Sunday April 11, 2010
About 7pm.
Minutes after I managed to get a shocked, bleeding Maggie into her stall, Muscade darted out of the barn barking and growling. Still shaking, I left Maggie briefly and tore after the dog. She was already halfway across the lawn and hot on the heels of a black, furry animal with a puffy tail. My first thought was that it looked like a cat. In fact, it looked very much like our cat, so as Muscade came back with her tail between her legs (I had yelled at her), I rushed to the front door to see if I'd left it open in my earlier panic. The door was closed, and through the window I could see Ruffles sitting sublimely on his "tree", so I knew it wasn't him.

So what was it? A skunk? Doubtful, I didn't see any white, and Muscade had returned without any trace of the eye-burning odour. Perhaps a raccoon? It moved awfully fast for a raccoon though. No, it really looked like a cat. But where would it have come from? I put it out of my head and went back to nursing Maggie.

A bit later, with the calm beginning to return to my brain, my mind flashed back to a scene from 12 hours earlier. Dave let Muscade outside Sunday morning and she streaked off after something. He didn't see what it was, but assumed it was one of the fat crows who bounce around the lawn in the morning hours. Now I started to think that perhaps it wasn't a crow after all.

Sunday night, with Dave back safe from his flying lesson, we got ready to do a final check on Maggie. Dave went out first while I dug the ice packs for Maggie's legs from the freezer. He was back a moment later: "I saw it, it was laying down in front of the sheep barn (no, we don't have sheep). It looked like a cat, but it took off as soon as it saw me. It definitely was NOT a raccoon."

We both wondered where this cat may have come from, but we didn't think about it too much as Maggie was still the priority.

Monday April 12, 7:15 pm
I've just come in from feeding the horses and caring for Maggie's wounds. I plop my tired behind into the living room rocking chair to check my e-mail. Suddenly, Ruffles leaps onto the windowsill to my left and starts "cackling" and meowing. I lean back to look, but don't see anything. Then he jumps down and runs toward the front door. I get up and look out the kitchen window. Our new "tenant" is sleekly gliding up our walkway. For an instant a mostly black, tabby face looks up at me, then it turns tail and runs toward our crab apple trees, spraying every bush in between. Mystery solved. The animal that's been hanging about is indeed a cat-- likely a lookin'-for-love male.

A half hour goes by, then Ruffles stands up in the window and meows invitingly. I look out. This time, I see the tabby in the driveway, and he's not alone. His companion is a mostly white cat with a big black or grey spot on its back. The two cats are crouched, facing each other. They dance around each other like boxers preparing for a punch, then they stop and crouch again. I leave the window for a few minutes and when I come back, they're gone.

There's no sign of the cats as we head outside for the late-night check on the horses. But, shortly after we return to the house, as we're brushing our teeth and getting ready for bed, we hear a string of mournful yeowls coming from the backyard. After a minute or so, it's quiet again.

I hoped I might get a glimpse of our feline friends again today, since Ruffles is an indoor cat, I wouldn't mind having a few mousers around. But so far, the cats haven't come back.

Maggie's Aftermath

Monday, April 12, 2010
I last checked on Maggie sometime around Midnight. I iced her legs one more time, then poulticed and bandaged them for the night. I considered spending the night in the barn with her, but was worried she might be more stressed and less likely to relax with me there.

I'm anxious to get to the barn, but I'm also afraid. All kind of scenarios have invaded my head: Maggie always lays down at night, but what if she did, and couldn't get back up because of the pain in her legs, or abdomen? What if she has punctured a bowel and has been shivering and thrashing in extreme pain for the last few hours? What if, what if?

The blackness of the night is just beginning to ease as I shakily make my way to the barn. I step through the door, into the feedroom. There are no noises from the stalls beyond. Normally in the morning, the horses are banging on their doors, demanding to be fed. Not this morning-- then again, I'm about 2 hours ahead of schedule. I walk into the isle way and flick the light switch. The bulb takes a few seconds to reach its full intensity, but I can make out the outline of Maggie's hind end in her stall, so I know she's on her feet. Blinking, she swings her head toward me then slowly shuffles around until she's facing the door. She looks ok, groggy, but no signs of extreme distress.

Her hind legs have that swollen, stove-pipe look to them-- right from stifle to hoof. I palpate her belly. There's definite bruising, but nothing that leads me to believe there's internal damage (not that I'm 100 percent sure what to look for). I move onto her gums. They're back to their normal colour (they were quite pale last night), and there are no signs of the "muddy purple" that would mean she's heading for septic shock. She didn't drink much overnight, but then she rarely does.

I take off her bandages, re-wrap her legs with ice packs, and give her a light breakfast. She's still scarfing down her hay. That's a good sign. When she's finished, I take her outside to cold hose her legs. Leaving the stall is a slow process. She takes tiny, hesitant, painful steps, but the more she walks, the easier it seems to get. Murray whinnies to her from his stall. She doesn't answer. I let ice-cold water splash over her legs for 5-10 minutes. With her legs numbed by the cold, I lead her for a short walk down the gravel path behind the house. She balks a bit as we pass by the twisted metal gate, it's top wrung still smeared with her blood.

I give Maggie more bute, and turn her out alone in a small, sunlit paddock behind the barn. A worried Murray is close at hand on the other side of the fence. He reaches out to her and they nuzzle briefly before Maggie shuffles stiffly toward to a patch of grass. I call the vet and wait to hear back so we can arrange a tetanus shot and some antibiotics.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Not a Good Day

I just experienced the most frightening, traumatic event of my life.

I always expect Murray to find a way to do something stupid. But never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be Maggie who would send me running with weak knees to phone the vet...or anyone, anyone who might be able to help.

It wouldn't have been so bad if she'd headed for the wooden fence rails, but I have no idea what compelled my sweet, sensible Maggie to try and jump the five foot high metal gate to her paddock. No idea at all.

Sunday, April 11, 6:30 pm
I don't normally bring the horses in until between 7 and 7:30pm, but despite the bright sunshine beaming down on our hilltop stable, there's a sharp cold wind that chills to the bone, so I decide to tuck the horses in a bit early.

On my way to the barn, I see the horses standing contentedly in the pasture, leisurely tugging at fresh stalks of green grass.

Before I bring them in, I head to Maggie's stall to sweep up her bedding, and toss in a flake of hay. A movement outside her stall window catches my eye. I look out. I see Maggie galloping across the paddock, and Murray dancing sideways in his nervous, spooky way. The rest still seems surreal. Maggie is flying flat-out, toward the gate. She has, in the past, galloped to the gate and come to a sliding stop, but this time, she's not slowing down, she's speeding up. She launches herself awkwardly over the gate.

Maggie's over-weight, un-athletic body can't keep up with her enthusiastic spirit. Her front legs mostly clear the gate, but she doesn't have enough power to lift her hind-end up and over. There's a heart-stopping crash, then the sound of splintering wood as the fence rails beside the gate shatter like glass. Unfortunately, the gate itself, while slightly askew, holds fast. I run. I swear at the top of my lungs and I run.

It seems like ages, but I know it's only seconds until I make it to her side at the paddock. I'm horrified by what I see. Maggie is like a teeter totter balancing on the metal gate. Her head is down, nostrils flared, gasping for air. Her front toes just, and only just, touch the ground. Her entire hind end is suspended in the air, held in place by the metal gate which has wedged itself firmly at the back of her belly, in front of her stifles. One hind leg is dangling loose, the other is caught in the fence boards that meet the gate at a 90 degree angle.

I try and unhook the chain on the gate, but Maggie is directly on top of it. All her weight is pressing down on the gate, making it difficult for her to breathe, and making it impossible for me to loosen the chain. To make things worse, she starts thrashing around whenever I try and reach for it. I put my hand on her side, try telling her to whoa, to stay still, but she turns her head and punches me violently in my side with her muzzle. She does this again and again, trying to prod me into action, but I'm helpless. I'm home alone. I have no close neighbours, and there's nothing, nothing I can do.

I always think of myself as someone who stays calm under pressure, the kind of person who can take over in an emergency. I've held tourniquets against horses' blood-spurting arteries while waiting for the vet. I've stroked horses necks as they were given their final lethal injections. But these were never my horses, and I was never in a situation like this.

I try to lift the gate off its hinges, but it's bent, and with Maggie's 1250 lbs on top of it, I know it's impossible anyway. I kick at the fence post, but it's firmly planted in the ground. Helpless, I leave her. I turn my back on her and I run away. I look in Dave's workshop for something heavy, something I can use to bash at the post until the whole thing tumbles down. All I can find is a metal shovel and a pick-axe. I know they're not going to work. Not in time.

I remember that our one neighbour, the dairy farming family living 400 metres down the road gave me their phone number the other day. I run inside my house, I desperately dial their number, hoping that the men will have some kind of equipment, or at least enough brute strength to knock down the gate. Their phone rings. There's no answer, and I remember that they were going to a church supper tonight. I glance out the window. Maggie's still hanging, struggling, gasping. I'm truly panicking now. My legs are weak, my arms are shaking. The tears are rolling down my cheeks. I'm convinced I'm going to watch my sweet girl slowly die a painful death.

Dave is an hour away, about to pilot a plane into the air with his instructor in toe. I call him anyway, even though I know there's nothing he can do. I get his voicemail. Desperate, I grab the pick-axe and the shovel and run, trembling and still swearing back to where Maggie is dangling. I try the gate again, it's no use. I try shaking and pushing the post. It won't budge. Maggie starts flailing frantically. Her right hind leg splinters what's left of the wooden rail running perpendicular to the fence. Somehow in her desperation (perhaps it's that last kick at the fence rail), she manages to get a bit of leverage. Her front feet are fully on the ground now, and using her own brute strength, she kicks, wiggles, flails and heaves her body until she's up, over and off the gate.

I'm overcome with relief; but I'm still incredibly worried. Maggie sways and wobbles her way into the open gate of the neighbouring pasture. The one that leads to her stall door (which is closed). Her eyes are glassy, her head is down, her breathing laboured. She's clearly in shock. I run and grab her halter. I put it over her head, but I can't take her inside.

Murray is still in the paddock. Poor Murray-- who turns 22 today-- has been dancing, spinning, nickering, and fretting this whole time. His eyes are wide, his tail is up, and he's clearly frightened. The further away Maggie wanders, the more stressed he becomes. He wants to be out of the paddock. He wants to be close to Maggie, but he's too spooked to let me near him. I can't leave him. The fence is broken, the gate is twisted and bent. In his adrenalin-hyped state, he's likely to do exactly what Maggie did. He's far more likely to succeed, but I'm not about to take that chance.

I plead with him, "please, please let me catch you. I need to help Maggie". But it does no good. I try to calm myself and talk with him casually, but he can sense my panic too, and he dodges me and tries to shove his way through the slightly open gate. I yell at him and he backs off. I need to get to Maggie, so I take a chance. I wrestle the mangled gate open wide enough to allow him to go through, and I run to grab Maggie. Murray blasts through the gate and heads to the front of the barn. He prances nervously until I bring Maggie through the door, then he follows us in, and runs to his stall. Thank you Murray. I'm not sure what I would have done if he'd decided to head for the road or the woods instead.

I give Maggie a quick look-over--there is no spurting blood, no severed arteries, many scrapes and cuts though, and they're already starting to swell. I cover her with a cooler to help control her shock, and I call the vet. The trouble with this is that I haven't yet found a vet. Several names have been suggested to me though, so I scroll through the phone book (still in a panic), and call the first name I come to that I actually recognize.

The vet on-call is in Truro. I tell him what happened, I tell him I'm most worried about possible internal damage. He kindly tells me that if she's ruptured her spleen or kidney or bowel, there's nothing that can be done for her, so there's not much point in him coming out to check on her. He suggests I give her bute (anti-inflammatory), hose and ice her legs, keep a very good eye on her, and get a tetanus shot and some antibiotics for her in the morning. I would have liked to have a vet look at her, just to make me feel better, but he's right, I can handle the external damage to her legs, and the internal, well, we just have to hope there isn't any.

11:57 pm
I've hosed Maggie's stifles twice. I've iced her lower legs twice. There's so much heat and swelling that the ice melts, and the packs turn warm within minutes. Happily though, Maggie hasn't lost her appetite. She's not too keen on the bran mash (which is laced with bute), but she's eating her hay with her usual gusto. Now I just wish she'd drink some water.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Fool's Choice

Thursday, April 1st, 2010
Thirteen years ago today, I got my first horse. Perhaps the fact that it was April Fool's should have given me some inkling as to what I was in for.

I'd been searching for a horse for months. Here and there, I found horses I was interested in, but none that I really liked. The one horse I adored and truly wanted to buy was not for sale. I had pretty much given up hope, when one Sunday evening, I received an unexpected phone call.

The voice on the other end of the line was that of Stuart Appt. A local farrier, he'd been hammering shoes onto the hooves of the horses at the Fredericton Pony Club for years. As kids we were frightened of his gruff, no-nonsense manner. But as teens, we learned that behind his rough exterior, there was a weathered horseman with a dry, witty sense of humour.

On top of being a farrier, Stuart was also a horse trader. He regularly hauled his six-horse trailer to Ontario, bought horses cheap at auction, then came back to New Brunswick to sell them. Stuart was a born salesman, and we often teased him that he'd sell his grandmother if she were still alive. He never put much effort into denying our claims.

My conversation with Stuart that night was pretty short:
Stuart: "I'm on my way back from Ontario. I've got a horse here I think you'll like. It's a 16.1 hand bay thoroughbred. Interested?"
Me: (too shocked to know what to say) "Yes. Definitely."
Stuart: "I'll drop it off at the club when I pull into town in the morning. You can try him out for a few days."
Me: "Um, Ok."

I don't think I slept at all that night. When I got the call the next morning that Stuart had arrived at the barn, I dashed over there as quickly as I could. When I got there, Stuart was leaning against the rails of the indoor ring, a ball cap pulled low over his bald head, a piece of timothy dangling from his mouth. A tall, thin, chestnut gelding was wandering the indoor ring, suspiciously sniffing the walls and dirt.

Me: "I thought you said he was bay?"
Stuart: "A bay? No, he's a chestnut. He's got a really nice long stride on him."

I tried to hide my disappointment. I'd always dreamed of showing a bay-- a horse with a reddish brown coat and striking black legs, mane and tail. In my fantasy, the horse also had flashy patches of white on its face and legs. Now, here I was, looking at a plain, copper coloured chestnut horse without a single white hair on his body. But buying a horse on the basis of colour is foolish, so I shrugged off my disappointment and tried to find out more about the skeletal pile-of-bones standing warily in front of me.

Me: "What's his name?"
Stuart: "Murray."
Me: (quizzical look on my face) "Murray? Really? Did you make that up on the way here or is that really his name?"
Stuart: (with a definite gleam in his eye) "Sure that's his name. Would I lie to you?"

Oh well, his name's even less important than his colour.

Me: "What's his story? Where did he come from?"
Stuart: "He's about eight years old. I bought him yesterday afternoon from a trader who bought him yesterday morning. Don't know where he's been or what he's been doing. He's got a nice big stride though."

At that, Stuart left, with me promising to call him once I made a decision-- and him claiming to have another buyer in the works if I wasn't interestd.

I walked into the arena to take a closer look at the gawking, gangly, skeletal creature in front of me. I could count his ribs. His hip and shoulder bones poked out like those of a jersey cow. His legs were crooked, his back long, his neck sunken. He could have been a poster boy for poor conformation. I clapped my hands and jumped toward him, chasing him into a tired trot around the ring. He was loathe to move too fast or too far, he looked exhausted, and he was coughing (no doubt a bit of shipping fever), but he did have a lovely, long, smooth stride.

I tried lunging him. He cowered against the arena wall the moment I picked up the whip. I also tried leading him over a few small jumps. He stopped and refused to jump at all. Hmm...and I was hoping to compete in jumper classes and on cross-country courses.

"Murray" was shy and nervous. Anytime anyone came in the ring, he kept one eye and one ear sharply focoused on them, always acutely aware of the tiniest movement. It was clear he wasn't a trusting horse. The "common-sense" side of me kept voicing concerns about what I was seeing, but something about his worried, pleading eyes had captured my attention, and I made excuses for his less-desirable qualities. Then, something happened that endeared him to me forever.

It's mid-afternoon. Our coach is getting ready to give a riding lesson to an enthusiastic four-year-old, pudgy little girl. The little girl, in her excitement, runs through the barn, arms flailing, out to the indoor arena...the arena where a tall, shy, under-the-weather thoroughbred is loose in a strange, new environment.

It takes me a moment to process what's happening, and then I start to sprint after the young girl. But it's too late, she's already crossed the arena, and flung herself at this towering animal. She expresses her joy at seeing this new horse by squealing jubilantly, wrapping her arms AND legs tightly around his front leg, and pressing her face into the lean muscle just above his knee. At any moment I expect to see Murray spin and bolt in fright-- many horses, even quiet old school horses would. I have visions of the child being trampled and crushed beneath his scrambling, panicky legs.

But that doesn't happen. Instead, Murray stands stock-still. He turns his worried, anxious eyes downwards. He lowers his head and presses his muzzle warmly into the girl's soft, curly hair. I approach slowly, cautiously. I pry the child's clinging body from Murray's wobbly leg. Murray tentatively looks at me, and I look back at him, truly grateful for his patience.

The next day, April Fool's, I call Stuart and give him my answer.

Thirteen years later, Murray has proven to be the most challenging horse I've ever ridden or worked around. He's frustrated me to the point of tears, and he's amused me to the point of belly-aching laughter. And I have never, not for one single moment, regretted the choice of my April Fool's horse-- not even when I watch other riders floating by on their calm, quiet, beautiful bay horses with their flashy white markings.