It was the perfect weather to fall in love. Sun shone from a deep blue sky, while the wind played gently with my hair. Sunflowers reached towards the light, wildflowers bloomed in the meadows, and there she was, standing before me.
Her chocolate eyes were soft and playful. Her red coat gleamed in the sun. Muscles rippled as she walked. Gently, the giant warmblood reached down to place her nose against my heart, resting there for several breaths.
I met Catera on early on the morning of September 11, 2001. By the time the planes had crashed into the buildings, I was already in love—and horrified to hear the news on the barn radio. How could anything so vicious happen on such a beautiful day?
People told me, repeatedly, that I was too inexperienced to adopt a “green” horse. At the time, I had not yet given up riding horses. I hired trainer after trainer, and gave all that I had to learn to ride this giant of a being, but instead I broke many bones.
The first time, she broke into a gallop in an open field. I lost my seat, catapulted over her head, and landed on my head in front of her. She tried so hard to avoid stepping on me that she injured herself. I broke my occipital bone, cracked a rib, broke my shoulder, and tore my rotator cuff. Another fall from her back fractured my neck.
There was not a single person in my life that did not advocate for me to either euthanize Catera or to return her to the rescue she had come from. But I couldn’t do it. I had given her “Indra’s Lifetime Guarantee”. From the time I was a child, this is what I called it when I committed to an animal. My lifetime guarantee was that I would never give up on them, that I would love them no matter what, and that I would lay down my life in defense of theirs. She had my word. If I lost every person in my life, or every bone in my body, so be it.
I did not do this to be a martyr. I did it because I believed that we can only be redeemed – I can only be redeemed– through a pure, selfless love. Catera was giving me the opportunity to redeem myself.
Over time, spending hours and hours with her, I began to understand her better, and learned to adjust my behavior to meet her needs. She did not like being ridden—especially in a ring.
On the other hand, she loved taking me for a ride in the woods—and by that I mean she made the choices about when and where we would go. We used to disappear together for hours. When I relaxed and gave up control about where we would go, and at what speed, she began to trust and take care of me.
On our adventures, we got close to many, many wild animals that never would have trusted me to approach them on foot.
Once, she stepped on a ground wasp nest, and we both were stung multiple times. Even then, she did not bolt or rear or throw me. She calmly walked away from the bees. We had twin swollen faces for weeks.
Another time, when crossing a creek, we wound up in a tar pit. Instead of moving forward with each stroke of her powerful legs, we were sinking downwards. I swam around to her face and asked her not to move, and to wait until I could get help. She stayed still, patiently waiting, and then allowed herself to be tied with ropes and pulled out.
She used to love to open gates and barn doors. One of her favorite activities was to roll in the mud and then let herself into the barn where she would roll in pine shavings. I would find her in the barn covered in pine shavings with a goofy grin on her face.
She used to put her head against my chest and fall asleep while I rubbed her ears and called her “pretty girl”. Her head was the size of my entire torso.
Almost 15 years went by, and our trust and friendship deepened. Catera grew into the role of benevolent alpha mare and gentle giant.
Early one morning just a few weeks ago, I saw that something was not right with Catera. Her heart was racing, she appeared weak and in tremendous pain. I called the vet and began to run a wash cloth soaked in cold water along her body, trying to soothe her and bring her temperature down. It was nearly 100 degrees that day, and her body temperature continued to rise dangerously, along with her heart rate.
I stood her, soaking wet, in front of a powerful fan and tried to keep her calm while we waited for the vet. After a thorough exam, he diagnosed an impaction of the large intestine. He gave her medication for the pain, and threaded a tube through her nose, pumping mineral oil and water through her GI tract, in the hopes that it would help resolve the impaction.
And then the waiting began. Either the impaction would resolve and she would get better, or she would need surgery to keep her alive. Until a few years ago, Catera experienced similar impactions at least once annually, and it always resolved on its own. So, the vet and I thought her chances were decent.
Per the doctor’s order, I left her in a stall with lots of water to drink, and instructions for everyone to check on her frequently, while I led a tour. The people were lovely, as they always are, and despite the heat, I hoped they and the animals enjoyed each other’s company.
As soon as they got in their cars, I was back in the barn to check on my girl. What I saw will never leave my mind. My beautiful, strong, kind girl was belly up, with her feet too close to the wall to be able to move, breathing rapidly. The whites of her eyes revealed the extent of her fear.
Even then, she trusted me enough to wait while I got help and materials to get her back on her feet. With our heroic team assembled, we tied ropes around her legs and rolled her over.
She was a big girl, well over 1500 pounds. Her powerful back legs were too heavy for me to roll, even using all of my body weight. However, I did not want to place anyone else in the corner of a stall rolling a big, potentially flailing horse. Finally, we decided to have someone else stand behind me. Between an intern at her front end, the two of us at the rear, and two more caregivers pushing from the other side, we were able to roll her over. As she attempted to get her feet back under her, our intern and I jumped out of the way as planned. However, the young man who was standing behind me was not quick enough. One of her back feet grazed his chest and slammed into his chin.
His t-shirt ripped, he stood panting beside the panting horse. I wasn’t sure who to take care of first. “Are you ok? Can you breathe? Do you need an ambulance?” Miraculously, he was ok, but we did arrange for him to rest for the remainder of the day and ice his injuries.
Catera, on the other hand, was no better. We took her into the paddock, thinking in the larger space she would be safer. Every 20 minutes, we hosed her down. She refused all offers of water, and food was out of the question.
At 5pm, she went down again, this time with her feet stuck in the gate.
All but one team member had left. I couldn’t imagine how the two of us alone would have the strength to roll her again, but we had to try. I tied the ropes around her legs, and miraculously, our strongest volunteer (who was not scheduled to be here) appeared. A power lifter with a deep love for all of the animals, she was easily able to roll Catera’s back end, while I rolled her front end. We called the vet again, and this time his examination revealed that her large intestine was displaced, a life threatening situation.
The vet called the hospital to provide background to the doctors and our heroic volunteer kindly agreed to come along with me. Catera was terrified, but once again, chose to trust me. She followed me into the trailer and we were off on the three-hour drive to save her life.
Forty-five minutes away from the hospital, Catera could be heard trembling and flailing in the trailer. We pulled over and found her shaking uncontrollably. A call to the vet confirmed the dire nature of her condition. We were instructed to give her more pain medication and get to the hospital as fast as we could. The valiant trailer driver drove the trailer safely and confidently, in a lightning storm, in the dark, on winding roads, faster than I dared drive in my little, easy to manage vehicle.
On arrival, a team of earnest and caring veterinary professionals was ready for her. She fell as she made her way off of the trailer. By then, she was clearly incoherent, and barely able to stand at all. They worked valiantly to keep her on her feet long enough to start her on IV fluids.
But it was too late.
Her huge body crashed to the ground as she began to seize right there in the hospital’s entrance hallway. The kind vet asked for permission to euthanize her. If we did not, she would die painfully. I agreed.
With my hands on her head, my beautiful girl’s huge spirit gathered into her eyes, and with a last look, she was gone.