Although the first several months went by fairly uneventful it became clear to me that if I wanted to ride this horse I was going to require some assistance. Ibby Jane, who was giving lessons at our barn at the time introduced me to someone she knew who was a kind & caring trainer, Crissy (Brown) Lynch.
Crissy’s a petite woman who comes across very quiet but she connects with horses like no one I’d ever met before. The first day she came to help me out she brought her daughter, Carlen. Both are from New Zealand and have these marvelous accents that I didn’t understand completely in the beginning. I grew to love their words both in the manner in which they were delivered and the insight they provided. Carlen (who I thought was “Callen” because of the accent) was actually visiting from New Zealand and it turns out she was going to be the first real rider. Crissy had moved here permanently a few years prior.
They showed up with a funny looking Navajo print synthetic saddle and a simple headstall with a bit, no reins. These were not the typical tack expectations from an Eventer, but I suppose they served the purpose. The first tid-bit I learned with her is that she expects every horse to “suit up” for work. So each time I took Coconut out I was to tack her up. A saddle and bridle indicates work time. She also introduced me (and Coconut) to the rope halter and a long detachable rope-weight lead rope/lunge line. So, off we went to the round pen (or as she calls it the round “yad”) for our first groundwork session.
Crissy showed me that the horse picks up on our energy and eventually you should be able to Think it to make it happen. She had Coconut on the long rope that acts as the lead, lunge line and whip. She told me that the center was the safe & quiet place so she placed herself in the center and asked Coconut to move off to the left by lifting her left hand. She held the rope most closely connected to Coconut’s face in her left hand and let the rest of it drape in front of her with the other end of the rope folded in her right hand with about 4 feet or so hanging free. She lifted that left hand, directing Coconut to move off to the left and if Coconut did not respond she raised her right hand in support: Direct/Support. If Coconut still did not move Crissy would increase the pressure of the rope in her right hand by tossing the folded length of the rope behind Coconut all while the left hand remained in position. Direct/Support/Inrease Pressure. Once Coconut moved forward all pressure was released & both hands were returned to a neutral position not above her waist. As long as Coconut maintained that speed, gait & direction no additional cues were needed. Crissy says the horse is expected to continue as asked until further notice. If she slowed down or stopped, Crissy directed again and went through the steps, if needed, until she got Coconut back into the action she had requested.
Next she showed me that I could control the speed by concentrating my energy through my hand and pointing at the horse. She demonstrated a few times, talking it through as she did it…pointing at her shoulder to move out/widen the circle and to point in the dirction again to speed up... pointing at the flank to get her to slow down or close the circle in more. Then she pointed at Coconuts flank and not only slowed her down in her circle but brought her to a stop and Coconut turned in to look at Crissy. All acomplished without one verbal command to the horse. As Crissy continued to point at Coconut, she began to drawn a line from the horse to herself by pointing to the ground in front of Coconut and then bringing it to the place directly in front of her, slowly. I watched Coconut walk up and put her head down directly in front of Crissy…. Good Pony! She said as she rubbed her head. I was convinced I had just hired the horse-whisperer.
Center is the quiet, calm place. The place where the horse would rather be if you create that as it’s safe zone. I could see through the session that Coconut would look to see if it was time to come in yet and would do what she was asked so that she could come in and have a rub. Crissy then invited me into the round yad and asked me to stand behind her as she went through the Direct/Support/Pressure exercises until they turned into just Direct/Perform. Then she put the rope in my hands and stood behind me as I “asked” by directing and taught me how to use my support hand. By the end of the session, I had successfully “asked” Coconut to move in both directions, had been required to “support” my request and maintained pressure until I got exactly what I was asking for…but most importantly, I learned to release the pressure. I also was able to speed her up and slow her down but there’s nothing like that moment when I asked her to slow down and come to a stop, having her turn and look at “me” and by pointing slowly to the ground and drawing that line, bringing her slowly to me. I gave her a rub on that sweet spot on her forehead but my heart was excited and full! We’d connected that day in a way I hadn’t expected. It was in her all along, I just didn’t know how to ask for it until then! Learning to handle the rope was challenging but I understood that the rope was probably more of way of sending a signal to Coconut from my spot in the center. Eventually she would be able to get all the same cues without the rope. She would connect with me mentally (or perhaps she reads my body signals very well..but for now I'm choosing to believe it's a connection). She's with me!
The second session the following week actually included Carlen getting in the saddle. Things were going pretty well from my view on the sidelines until Coconut bucked & threw Carlen into the mud. I felt horrible but she was a very good sport about it and climbed back on. It was rather exciting (minus the bucking incident) to see Coconut beginning to show that she might actually be able to do the one thing I was hoping to do with my horse…ride! This little glimpse into our future was as big a reward as a blue ribbon.(which, by the way, in New Zealand is Second Place! but we'll go with the US version!!)
The following morning as I was on my way to meet a customer at 7:30am, I received a call from Ken at the barn. Coconut was sick, I’d better get down there quick and advised that I call the vet right away. Dr. Tooman answered his phone but he was on a ferry to Bainbridge Island. He would not be able to get to us and suggested I call another vet. By this time I was close enough to the barn that I pulled in and got a number from another boarder for Dr. David Best. He said he would get there but it would take an hour. Ken & Jan had been walking Coconut because they suspected colic. She was certainly not happy about the walking and kept trying to lie down. Ken told me I had to keep her moving and not to allow her to lay down, even if I had to get mean about it. He said she could die if I let her lay down and we might not be able to get her back up.We all took turns walking her up and down the road. I kept to the gravel as the soft grass was too tempting for her. Every time she got near the grass I could feel her gravitate towards it, wanting to lie down. We kept walking and talking….Stay with me Coconut.
Dr. Best got there about 9:00am. He agreed that it seemed like colic so he slid his hand in to feel around. As he retracted his arm & removed that long arm-glove he delivered the difficult news. He could not feel a blockage so he didn’t think it was food or sand related. He did say that the intestine felt constricted. It seemed to collapse around his arm. His advice was a five to six thousand dollar surgery that he, himself, could not perform. He warned that there was still only a 50/50 chance that she’d make it and it was an even bigger chance that I’d never have the same horse again. I would need to decide if this was a viable option. In my hesitation he tired to console me with the fact that only about 10% of his clients would opt to go that route to begin with & to consider her quality of life, even if we did attempt it. The window of opportunity was very small. He said that if we didn’t get her into a trailer and to the equine hospital immediately, they would not be able to even attempt to help her…. or…. he could treat it like a regular colic and hope for the best. Either way, he said, I was probably going to lose my horse that day. I did consider her quality of life and painfully decided against surgery.
He prepared a saline solution and fed a long tube through her nose for the fluid to pass through. He gave her a dose of banamine and handed the rest of the tube to me, instructing me to give her a dose every three hours. He had very little confidence that this procedure was going to help and delicately told me to call him when I was ready for him to come back out to put her down. Meanwhile, he told me to let her lay in the grass as long as she was comfortable but to get her up if she started to trash around.
By this time all of my friends from the barn had come down to support us. We set up chairs and had food & coffee to get us through the next several hours. They offered to keep watch over her when I had to leave at 11am to meet my customer but I raced there and back to Coconut’s side. While I was away I made a call to my Mom and told her my horse was very sick and could die. I filled her in on the details and she wished me luck. About 20 minutes later she called me in tears and said that Coconut had let her know that she’s fighting to stay with me. Mom's not an emotional person normally, but she senses things. I believed her message.
At noon I gave her a second dose of banamine and she continued to lie there. Her belly was so big she looked like a cow. As I sat there and watched her I couldn’t help myself and I got down onto the grass beside her and pet her, eventually she put her head in my lap and all I wanted to do was cuddle this very large animal and hope that she knew that I loved her very much. After all she’d been though with her previous neglector, I felt this was just not a fitting end for her. I cried a lot that day.
By 3:00pm I knew it was time to call Dr. Best back. My friends had all been wondering when I was going to be brave enough to do so. I gave her the last dose of banamine hoping to make her comfortable while we waited for him to come and continued to stroke her beautiful face. I could see in the faces of my friends they were afraid to say it to me…but we all knew too much time had passed. She hadn’t shown any signs of improvement but at least she was peaceful. I got up to go get my phone and she lifted her head and looked back over her belly at us. Suddenly she got up on her own and while she was still a bit drowsy and her head quite droopy, she passed some gas…and then she pooped. A cheer let out across the lawn…I doubt any of us had ever been so excited for poops and farts but it was an indication that she’d begun to function again. She then began to graze. I called Dr. Best and he asked if I was ready for him to come back out and told him what had just happened. He was surprised but said she just might have gotten through it & told me to call him back in an hour. By 4:00pm she was still grazing and seemed pretty comfortable, although still a little groggy! His feeling, however, is that she was out of the woods & said it should be ok to leave her for a few hours but to check back after dark and if she was ok, then she’d probably be fine overnight but to keep her on the grass. My friends were elated. Relieved doesn’t even come close to what I was feeling. There’s a reason this horse could not leave yet and her life had just become more of a gift to me.
Training resumed after a few weeks off, but lesson number 3 included me getting to ride her to cool down. Just weeks before I had to imagine that this would never happend but every moment became precious…and obviously we became riding partners though it. Crissy is still our trainer to this day. Coconut continues to make lasting impressions on those who meet her. She’s an amazing horse in many ways. (and sometimes she can be a frustrating horse as well!!)
I’ve heard it said that no horse teaches you as much as your first horse and that is certainly true. I can also say that no other horse will ever be my first horse. She’s not just my path, my destiny and my inspiration. Through her I’ve found my passion.