With my hand in a cast (courtesy of my last hunter pace), my plans for fox hunting that season were nixed. Instead of sitting around and sulking, my husband and I decided it was time to take my horse, Joey, to a driving trainer. We had previously purchased a harness and I taught Joey all of the preliminaries, such as ground driving and dragging poles in the tugs of the harness. I could still use my thumb and index finger with my hand in the cast.
Driving appeared to be second nature for my Belgium-cross. He learned quickly and looked the part in harness. We went to a couple of shows and he seemed very comfortable. What we did not know was that there was an old injury to Joey’s sacrum. The injury flared up at a driving show and Joey took off like a bullet across the ring. I was thrown 15 feet out of the cart and taken away in an ambulance.
X-rays showed that I needed back surgery. A vet check showed that Joey needed a rest and no more driving.
I decided that I would rest along with Joey before agreeing to have surgery. During our down time that November, we purchased Clyde, a 17-hand Belgium draft mule from the Millers, the same family who sold us Joey. Clyde was 18 years old and had been an employee all his life. He grew up as an Amish work mule. At the age of 15, the Millers purchased him to use as an exhibition mule for parades and festivals. Now that the work was becoming harder, he and his identical partner Bonnie were being replaced by younger mules. It was time for my husband George to turn Clyde into a pet instead of an employee.
Bonnie was a year older than Clyde and had been sold a few month prior. When George’s cousin Johnny heard that the two had been separated, he asked us to please find her. “I’ll buy her and put her back with Clyde where she belongs. The two can live out their final days together,” he said.
We agreed and, a few days before Christmas, I phoned Mr. Miller and asked him about Bonnie.
“I sold her to a friend of mine,” he informed me, hesitatingly. “I haven’t heard anything for a while, so I better check up on her.”
An hour later he called me back; his voice was on the verge of tears. “Can you take her today? She is outside with no shelter. Another storm is coming and I don’t think she will make it.”
Bonnie looked like a skeleton when she stepped off of Mr. Miller’s trailer. Her eyes were filled with despair. Her coat was dull and her legs were swollen with scratches. “I should have checked up on her sooner,” Mr. Miller said as he slowly walked her to the barn. “I thought she was being taken care of.”
Then he looked over at me and smiled, “I know you will take good care of her.”
George and I did take good care of Bonnie, as we do all our animals. I put a blanket on her to keep her warm and save calories. We fed her, took care of her scratches, and groomed her every night. Bonnie would stop eating her hay and close her eyes, indulging in every stroke of the brush. Her eyes filled with gratitude and love instead of despair. Little by little, she gained weight and her coat began to shine. Still, she was a long way off from being healthy.
In January, I started riding Joey again. His condition improved with each ride, while my own was deteriorating. In March of 2009, I had surgery at the local hospital and was expected home that same day. However, the surgery went wrong. When I awoke in the recovery room, I was unable to move my left leg. There was an urgency in the nurse’s voice when she said, “I will notify the surgeon.”
As arrangements were being made to send me to the intensive care unit, the nurse called back to me and asked, “Is your horse’s name ‘Joey’?”
“Yes, my horse is Joey,” I said, “why do you ask?” I thought it was rather odd she would want to know about my horse instead of my leg.
“You were calling for Joey,” the nurse responded. “I know your husband’s name is George.”
The surgeon met me in my room about an hour later. His hands were shaking as he examined my leg. Then he prescribed physical therapy. Not knowing any better, I did whatever he told me. I did not know at the time I had been misdiagnosed.
For several weeks, I had pain attacks in my knee that were unbearable. Each time, I’d flop on the coach and cry like a baby. Upon hearing my cries, my dogs rushed to my side and offered their comfort. Magic, a Doberman-cross, rested his head on my shoulder. Minty, the long-haired Chihuahua, climbed up on top of me. Their comfort was very soothing and always brought a smile to my face.
Evenings I rode in the truck with my husband to feed Joey and the mules. On good days, I could hold onto a stall door and do my exercises while talking to the equines. Clyde never paid me much mind. He was George’s mule and didn’t care too much about me. But Bonnie always noticed me. She would stop eating her hay and study me with her soulful eyes. She gave me courage and hope. Her condition was changing for the better, while mine was staying the same.
Joey was devastated by the whole ordeal. His eyes always looked sad and confused. He was happy to take a cookie from my hand, but didn’t nuzzle me with his head like he usually did, as if he was aware of my fragile condition. Lana, a friend of ours, exercised Joey a couple of times a week for me. I slowly walked with my cane behind Lana and Joey to and from the ring. Every few steps, Joey turned his head to check on me. While they worked, I would sit at the ringside with my leg propped up. I enjoyed watching my horse, and Joey would turn his head toward me with his ears up every time he trotted by.
The last week in June, I was sent to Philadelphia to see Dr. William Welsh, the chief neurosurgeon at the University of Penn. Dr. Welsh performed surgery two days later and put me on the road to recovery.
“It will take six to eight weeks for the swelling around the nerves to go down. When the swelling goes down, you should start to have movement in your leg,” Dr. Welsh told me gently, but with confidence. “No bending at the waist and of course, no riding until I give you clearance!”
I spent four days in the hospital, then another two weeks St. Lawrence rehab, not far from where I live. I didn’t realize that I would be away from home for so long. My husband came to see me first thing every morning. Each day, I gave George my night shirt to take to the barn for Joey to smell. I wanted Joey to know that I was okay and that I would see him soon. George said Joey always sniffed my shirt and he was sure that he understood.
The morning that I was released from rehab, the sky was a beautiful deep blue, the color of depth, stability, and faith. I took a deep breath and thanked God for giving me my life back. George drove me straight to the barn. As we pulled into the driveway, George yelled out the truck window, “Joey, your Peggy is here!”
Joey and the mules were grazing in the yard. The sunshine glistened off of their chestnut coats as they picked their heads up and made their way up to the barn. Joey was first, of course. He stuck his head through the stall door and recognized the smile on my face. He perked his ears up and nickered. His sad eyes were now content. George put a halter on him and brought him to the truck so I could pet his head and give him a few cookies. Bonnie, too, put her head out another stall door. Her big ears were relaxed to each side and her eyes were bright. She knew that all was well. “We are getting better, aren’t we girl?” I said, before reminding George to give Bonnie her share of the cookies.
I continued with physical therapy and six weeks after surgery, my leg began to move. By the end of the summer, I felt strong enough to walk with my cane into Joey’s stall. For the first time in six months, I put my arms around his thick neck. Joey turned and hugged me back with his head and neck.
I recalled the day, some time ago, that I tried to ride him when I had a terrible migraine. I had only owned Joey for less than a year, but even then, I knew he was my soulmate. The migraine was stress-related, so I thought some “pony time” would make things right. Time at the barn would have been acceptable, but I wanted to ride. I slowly put on his saddle and bridle and led Joey to the ring.
He walked gingerly behind me and stopped several times before reaching the mounting block. Each time he stopped, I coaxed him to continue walking. When I stepped up onto the mounting block and attempted to put my foot into the stirrup, Joey stepped away. I got down and repositioned him. He stepped away again. I tried a third time and he did the same. Attempting to outsmart him, I placed the mounting block a few feet from a jump standard and positioned Joey in between. That worked, and I was able to mount.
Joey walked gingerly around the ring and hesitated when I asked him to trot. After much coaxing, he moved up to the trot and trotted slowly along the rail. When we came to the ring corner, I almost lost my balance. Joey came to a stop. “Okay Joey,” I finally gave in. “You are smarter than me.” I dismounted and took him back to the barn.
Over the years, I have had lessons with some of the best instructors in the world, but no one has taught me as much as Joey has taught me. There is so much more to a horse than what meets the eye. Dog owners often say things like, “My dog knows when something is wrong with me.”
Is it not the same with a horse?
Winston Churchill once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Maybe now that I have raised three sons, I am able to see things in a different light. I am not sure why, but I love that different light.
That fall, Dr. Welsh gave me the okay to ride again as soon I felt up to it. It was music to my ears. On an exceptionally warm day in December, my youngest son, Seb, met us at the barn to give me a lift into the saddle (Seb stands 6’3” and is strong as an ox). My friend Lana, who works as a nurse, also met us at the barn. Between Seb and Lana, I knew I was in good hands, but I still had my concerns. My leg continued to feel numb and tingly at times because of the nerve damage. George led Joey out of the barn and I followed using my cane.
George stood at Joey’s head holding his breath and squinting his eyes, while Lana stood on Joey’s right side. I stood on the left side looking up at the saddle. “Mom, tell me what you want me to do,” Seb said softly, standing next to me.
I bent my left leg and explained the procedure of a leg up. I hesitated, taking a few deep breaths, before announcing, “Okay, I am ready, on the count of three.”
Seb slowly and gently lifted me up the side of my horse. I began to feel dizzy and weak. “No, put me down,” I protested, on the verge of tears. I buried my face against the saddle, too embarrassed and ashamed to look at anyone.
“Mom, I am not going to drop you,” my boy gently consoled me.
“Come on, Cowgirl, get up on the horse,” my husband added his two cents.
“I am here with you,” said Lana.
For sure, I was outnumbered, so I took another deep breath and agreed to try again. This time, Seb boosted me higher, then threw my right leg over Joey’s back. I landed with my seat in the saddle looking down at Joey’s blonde mane.
“Mom, are you okay?” Seb looked up at me still holding onto my left leg with one hand. George was smiling from ear to ear.
There must have been fear written across my face, as Lana asked with concern, “How do you feel?”
“I am not sure,” I responded. “I can’t feel my leg.”
“Can you feel that?” Lana asked as she poked my thigh.
“Yes,” I chuckled.
“Then you are okay,” she smiled up at me. “Give it a few minutes.”
As she spoke, the feeling in my leg returned and I knew all was well. George led me around for a few minutes, then helped me get down. I knew there was a long road ahead of me, but I had faith.
Over the winter, we trailered to an indoor ring every week. I progressed little by little, taking one ride at a time. By the spring, I was cantering half-way around the ring. By June, I was ready to get back in the show ring.
Cantering was still a struggle and warm-up in the schooling ring had not gone as well as I had hoped. I felt unprepared when the starter called my number and it was my turn to head up to the dressage arena.
Joey was lethargic and uninspired—that is, until the dressage bell rang. Suddenly, he came to life, and I giggled, “Okay, Joe, let’s go!”
My horse loves to show off and he entered down the center-line full of steam. We halted at ‘X’ in a perfect square. We continued the test with Joey having more impulsion and balance then he has ever had before. I held my breath at the canter depart and Joey picked up his lead without missing a beat. After my final halt and salute at “X”, I wrapped my arms around his neck and cried.
When I came out of the ring, my husband gave me the first hug. My friends surrounded me with warm congratulations while Joey put his head down and ate grass. Ten minutes later, my friend Susan came running out of the office, holding my test. “Peg, get in here and see your score!” she called.
As I entered the room, Susan had tears in her eyes. She handed me my test without saying a word. The sheet of paper revealed the highest score of Joey’s career. When I headed back to the trailer to tell George the good news, he was smiling.
“Well, how did you do?” he asked.
I held up my test and whispered, “Look out first level riders, here comes Joey!”
About the Author
Peggy DeForte Vurgason began teaching horseback riding at the age of 15 and later went on to ride professionally. Today, Peggy competes in Western Dressage and trail riding on her horse, Homerun Joe, and along with her husband George and his mule, Billy John.
Peggy is the author of The American Riding System, a book for elementary equestrian students and teachers, and Long Ears and Short Tales, fiction stories for the Brayer magazine. She is also the author of Hootenanny Spirit, a soon to be published novel about her beloved childhood horse, Hootenanny, and how he has returned to her in Homerun Joe. Peggy and George reside in Newberry, Florida.