Bert, my Christmas Miracle
A week or so before Christmas, 2007, Bert approached me-- not in his playful, pesky-self way-- but with energy that told me that he had something rather grave on his mind. We stood together for several minutes; I felt we were sharing a solemn remembrance of Christmas day the year before. In a gentle but accumulating snow I recalled images of the previous Christmas, when due to a really careless action on my part, I almost lost my Bert, my baby boy mule.
On Christmas day, 2006, when Bert was 10 months old, my feeding routine was interrupted when house guests, who had departed at 9:30 a.m., returned in short order. They had discovered huge fir trees had fallen across the road during the night snapping under the weight of a foot of freshly fallen wet snow. Dave, my partner at the time, and I set out to clear the trees.
Quincy and Stormy polish off the alfalfa in the round pen
I remembered that I had left Bert tied in the round pen at around 1:15 or 1:30. I had been feeding the "hard keepers"-- Bert's mother, Stormy, and the other Tennessee Walker, Quincy as well as Bert in the round pen. To prevent him from eating the others' food, I would tie him to the rail until Stormy and Quincy had finished their vitamins. Then I would untie Bert so that he could help them eat the alfalfa hay flakes I'd set out just for them.
It is an indefensible practice. One ought NEVER to leave one horse tied when others are free.
When Quincy had finished eating the last morsels of hay (put out after everyone received grain), he would open the gate and let all in the round pen go out. The horses who had not been allowed in the round pen for this special feeding would then go in and scarf up the crumbs.
When I got there four hours later, Pippen was standing over Bert looking quite worried and helpless, and the rest were standing around like gawking stoners at a fatality car wreck.
"Like, anyone called 911?"
"Gee, you think he's, like, you know-- dead?"
"Bad wrap, man."
Bert lay in an eight inch ice pit in the snow. He was cast against the rails with a hind leg wrapped in lead rope and halter off his head but still wrapped around his neck. His neck hung with an unnatural bend. I considered getting my gun, as the situation looked hopeless. I decided that I would try everything in my power to get him standing and reassess his condition at that point.
I managed to free him of the lead rope and halter and with much effort flipped him over so that his legs were under him and no longer caught in the fence. Leaving Stormy to stand by him, I ushered Pippen and the stoners out of the round pen.
Then I helped him stand, but he assumed the most grosteque neck posture, the middle bulging out to the right in a u-shape while his head was cocked toward the right. He crab stepped several steps before losing his balance and then fell to the ground nearly trapping me under his body. He and I tried one more time to get him up, but he assumed the same posture, repeated the crab step and fell. He would not try a third time. I begged him to live and told him that I had planned for him to outlive me. I told him he was the greatest mule I'd ever known and I could never replace him. And I apologized profusely for having created the situation that led to his wreck.
He was shocky and his eyes (the whites) quite bloodshot. His gums were bright pink. I covered him with a tarp and got a flake of hay. He ate. His mom stood by, seemingly indifferent to his condition, and ate with him. Dave had gone off plowing and I had not heard him return. I decided I must get down to the house and turn off all the burners and the oven, lest we have cajun-style food or simply burn the house down. Somehow though, Dave had gotten home undetected and when I reached the house, he had already turned off the burners and salvaged our crispy dinner. He knew immediately that something was wrong and I told what I'd done and told him I thought Bert's neck was broken and that we should call the vet to see if there was a chance that it might not be so. He called a neighbor, Bob Boyce, who said that with Bert on the ground for (possibly) 4 hours in a bank of snow all cast and tangled up like he was, it was possible that he was cold and stove up and not actually broken. If his neck were broken he'd likely be dead. Bob was sick though, and could not come up to assist.
We returned to Bert and together attempted to get him to stand. He could or would not. Dave's head stayed cool and logical. He instructed me to get my 41' pack rope and we'd use the tractor to hoist him to his feet. While Dave went to get the tractor, I fetched the pack rope from my truck and returned to Bert where upon I rigged a rescue sling. I told Bert what our plan was and tried to impress upon him how very, very important it was that he try to stay standing. Using what I thought were the last reserves of my energy, I had the sling rigged by the time Dave arrived with the tractor.
I shoveled snow until I came to the bottom rail of a section of the round pen that we had never gotten around to correctly fastening to the next panel. Thank God, it was still tied to the neighbor panels with bailing twine. I cut the twine and when Dave got there, he used the tractor to remove that panel. I stood behind Bert and directed Stormy to stand behind me. She responded immediately and Dave drove the tractor in. He lowered the blade until it was a foot above Bert's ears. Trying to keep my head and body out from under the blade and support beams (hydraulics have been known to fail after all,) I took three wraps around one of the support bars on the tractor behind the plow plow blade. While I held the end of the rope Dave raised the blade and hoisted Bert into the air, then gently back down until his feet were firmly on the ground. When we felt he was standing securely, he lowered the blade a little more and I untied the sling. I was sick to think that we might lose this mule whose trust and level head was such that he would remain calm and cooperative even while in the grips of a tractor's plow blade. "Be my Christmas Miracle, Bertie," I pleaded.
We both left to get blankets and more feed, but I forgot we'd removed a panel of the round pen and was a little surprised when Stormy met me at the barn. Dave got back up there some three to five minutes later, and discovered Bert had tried to follow her but had fallen again. He tried to raise him alone, but could not. I don't recall how it got there, but the tractor was back at the house again, and Dave called, "Start the tractor. Get that blankety-blank tractor up here." Dave never ever swears commands, and I took this as a signal that things were taking a turn for the worse.
I started the tractor and fought desperately with my brain to try to remember how to work the levers to make it go into reverse. I felt like the blonde (or Pollock or whatever) in the joke who, when asked to call 9-1-1 responds, "What's the number?" I throttled up to 10,000 rpm and it began to move backward, but the machine would not steer and I was heading straight for the garage door. Finally I realized that the plow was down and I was dragging a bank of snow backwards. I stopped, fought again with my freaked-out brain and found the lever to raise the blade. Now I had steering, but when I reached the hill beside the barn, the tractor kept bogging down and trying to stall. I took it out of high gear and put it into low range, put it into 4th gear, and fought my way up to Dave and Bert.
By the time I got there, Bert had given up. His eyes were gray and glazed, the life-force gone, and his head started arching, convulsively, up over his back as animal's necks do when they are in the throes of dying. Dave exclaimed, "We're losing him. I've seen sheep and cows do this just before they die. They arch their necks like that and die."
I slapped Bert on the cheek pleading with him to stay with me and telling him it would just be another minute before we'd have him on his feet again. As quickly as my frozen fingers could manage, I re-rigged the sling while Dave drove the tractor into position. It took three attempts this time to get him to participate in standing; the first attempts Bert merely hung limply in the sling. Finally, by some grace of the Grand Spirits of the Universe, Bert did finally stand.
Unwilling to risk having him go down again, we took turns going to the house or barn to get things: hot sugar water with the Bach Flower, Rescue Remedy, in it; more blankets-- wool this time, not flannel; hot soaked hay cubes, electrolite paste, probiotic paste... On one of his trips to the house, Dave called the vet who told us that we were doing everything right. It was important to get him to move so that he could work out the kinks and get a little body heat going, but we had to balance that with having him expend more energy than he could afford.
We took Stormy and him for a few short walks and stopped to let him nurse whenever he wanted to. We had several conversations with Stormy about letting him nurse. She didn't want him to, and I worried that she might know something of his prognosis that made her feel he would be better off dead. But we weren't giving up on him, and continued to put drops of Rescue Remedy and to offer Dynamite's High Energy Supplement pellets, Gatoraide, water and hay.
At 8 p.m. we felt that he was stable enough for us to come in and get something to eat. When we returned 30 minutes later, he was lying down. Again he could not get up alone, but he was able to stand when we both assisted him. After that we did not leave him alone for a minute.
I stayed with him until Dave rigged a stall in the barn. Using the tractor he hauled the round pen panel to the barn, then carried a quarter of a 1,200 lb bale down there. We broke apart two thirds of those flakes, fluffing them up to make a thick, hay bed so that if Bert needed to lay down that night, he would have insulation. We then led Stormy --with Bert following-- to the barn. We took turns spending a couple of hours in the 9 degree barn with the horses. Dave brought out a chair which I piled with hay, sat in and then covered myself with a mountain of blankets and the sleeping bag. He went into the house for a couple hours, and returned at 11:30.
I went in and crawled into bed, falling asleep instantly only to wake, what seemed minutes later, to my 1:30 a.m. alarm. I went out to spell him, but he stayed and we crawled into a corner, covering ourselves with all the blankets except the one Bert wore while Stormy panicked about Dave's snoring. I assured her is was a man, not monster making that noise, but she was not convinced. She finally decided to bravely investigate and, standing over us, her feet touching our feet, grabbed the blankets and flung them aside. "What?!" Dave said, looking at me. "I didn't do it. Stormy did. She wanted to prove you're not a creature from the black lagoon." "Ah," Dave said, "It's really just me, Stormy." She spent the next two hours with her head on my hip and an eye on him. I got too cold to stay outside, and at 3:30 a.m. had to retreat to the house. Dave followed at 7:30 when Bert demonstrated he was able to get up by himself after lying down.
Bert's neck had straightened out a lot over night, but it took a few months before it could be considered "normal."
I started him on Bute the next morning giving him 1/2 tablet at a time and taking him for a brief walk. After he and I returned from our first little walk, the other horses took advantage of an open gate and went for a romp. Quincy, Stormy and Bert missed the opportunity, so they ran up to the round bale feeder and back to the barn twice. The first time Bert made an attempt to trot, slowed to a walk, then tried-- and succeeded in trotting again. The second time he broke into an awkward canter. I felt hopeful that we were out of the woods and he'd recover his graceful athleticism in time.
He made a steady recovery. I fed him Dynamite's TNT vitamin and High Energy Supplement. That first day he eating seemed laborious; he moved his jaw around like horses do when they need their teeth floated. The second day he seemed more comfortable. It took well over a week for the swelling in his back leg to go down. He still has the scar from the rope. Slowly over the next month his posture improved. He walked with short strides on the back right leg and held his head "bending at the neck" to the right as he walked. He preferred to make only right turns. Prior to this wreck he had the most fantastic "floating trot"-- that would be the envy of dressage divas everywhere. It did not take too long for him to "come back" to his playful self of wanting to "bunny kiss" people's lips and of taking things (like lead ropes) out of your hands.
Gandalf and I took Bert out for a walks every day. He was crooked for many, many weeks.
Within the first week I had the chiropractor/ vet come out. He did not make any adjustments, being afraid of doing more harm than good, given Bert's young age, but did some gentle massage that he suggested I do for the next week.
That day in December certainly drummed home the importance of preparedness. For this emergency we needed and could locate:
* wool blankets (4)
* Rescue Remedy
* 41' rope
* probiotic (to get the gut working correctly after stress)
* High-fat content feed
* Hay cubes (serendipitously pre-soaked)
* more rope and baling twine
* foot warmers (for my frozen shoes)
* sleeping bags (for spending the night in the barn)
* One calm clear-headed human
Today, December 25, 2008 I celebrate Bert's Life-- My Christmas Miracle--
There is much for which to give thanks to our Creator.