In Loving Memory of Phoenix

?? years old
17 hand White Thoroughbred
Passed away September 15, 2003 

Today I write to tell you the sad news that Phoenix, TGC’s recent rescue, has passed away. I can’t tell you too much about Phoenix’s past, because the three conversations I had, and one Helen DeLatte had with the prior owner contained many inconsistencies. I’d like to tell you what I know from personal experience with and observation of Phoenix, formerly “Arizona Highway”. When I went to get Phoenix, I found a 17 hand white, lightly fleabitten Thoroughbred gelding, who was little more than a skeleton with skin. He was an anatomy lesson – everything you never wanted to know about a horse’s bone structure, laid out to be seen and felt. He was in a dirty pen with the remnants of poor quality stalky alfalfa, and a single 5 gallon bucket of dirty water. He was filthy himself, having obviously not been groomed in ages, and although his feet were short, it appeared they were so more because he wasn’t getting enough nutrition to grow feet than because they’d been trimmed. His teeth were horrible looking – with almost no upper front teeth due to cribbing, and very long lower front teeth as a result – but the molars did meet, enabling him to grind his food, if he’d just been given some.

In the first 20 minutes, Phoenix circled me as I stood in the center of his pen. I offered a carrot, and Mike and Helen stood outside the pen offering the same. He wanted the food, but was wary. The owners were there too – and he never even looked at them. Phoenix then displayed his most defining characteristic – his courage. Despite his concerns and fears, he slowly approached me and stood to be petted – and DID NOT take the carrot. I knew then this was a horse who needed help, who didn’t understand why his life was so horrible, and wanted someone to care for him. He did nibble the carrot and got carrots from Helen and Mike, and then came back to me for his halter. With Mike and Andy’s help lifting his weak back end, he was able to get into the trailer. He came with us willingly – as things turned out, that’s an important memory for me.

At TGC, he wobbled out of the trailer and lifted his head at the welcome sight of 23 fat happy curious horses, of every color, size and importantly, sexes. We housed him in a temporary enclosure which abutted Falcon, Orion and Andy’s stalls. The first week he seemed too frail for me to allow him into the herd, but he cried and cried for them when each morning they said hi to him and then filtered out to the main paddock, leaving him behind. I finally gave in to his pleas, and with Mike, Alex, Mary and I standing by to get him out of any jams, we let him out to join the herd. O, did his courage and spirit show that day – he was head high, tail flipped up, moving with a ghost of his former glory, first around the fringes of the herd, and then deftly cutting Sunny out to be his girl. PC didn’t much like that, but Phoenix never offered violence to him, simply insinuated himself between PC and Sunny insistently, until PC gave up. For three days, Phoenix kept it up and then, when I went to let him out, he looked at me like I was crazy. He was just too exhausted – he didn’t have what it took to mingle any longer, and he now knew it..

Each day thereafter, I opened his stall when I went to clean, throwing him a feed outside his stall to lure him out, and he would wander the stall line keeping close to me while I worked. Each night, when the herd came back to their stalls for dinner, Phoenix would call for Inch, with whom he became enamored, and in the last two weeks of his life, he would stick his head out of his stall as I came down the line with dinner, urging me to hurry up.

The first two months, I worried greatly because it didn’t seem that he was gaining any weight. But reading has indicated to me that he was healing, and probably replacing the fat layer around his internal organs. He did show increased energy and alertness, and began to move more easily despite having obvious structural problems in his back end. In his next two months, he began to develop actual muscle mass, and when he hurt himself (which he seemed prone to) his owies would heal much much faster. At this point I began to see what a beautiful horse he had once been, with a coat of white satin, made more glorious by his little brown freckles.

He stood quietly to get his feet trimmed; he obviously knew about being groomed and bathed and loved it. Yvonne Murray fell in love with him and came several times just to groom and hand walk him. Nick Cuevas gave him a bath also, and many others checked with me constantly to see how he was and what his progress was. At first he was nervous around other people – when he would look over at me, I wondered if he thought I was looking to sell him – but he began to enjoy his visitors, and began to show them little signs of affection and interest. (Notably absent were inquiries from his former owners, who had provided me with an email address which never worked, to “keep them informed”.)

Although I continued to worry (his progress was steady but very slow) about whether I would be able to get him through the rough Anza winters, still hope grew in my heart with each week that passed and I saw little signs of improvement.

It was one of those encouraging signs which ultimately cost Phoenix his life. I could see that Phoenix was finally laying down and getting up on his own which made me feel his back end problems may not be as bad as they looked. But then came the morning, September 17, when we found Phoenix cast in his stall. It is possible that Phoenix had a stroke, or simply a bad fall, which caused him to go down in the enclosed portion of his stall. Up to that day, he had always laid down in the open portion of his stall. Mike found him wedged in the corner of his stall, obviously in a very bad way. We tore the stall apart to get him room to rise, but he continued to be unable to do so. When Dr. Zadick arrived, he looked immediately worried, and began to get me ready for the worst. His observations were that Phoenix didn’t have proper motor control of his legs; that either Phoenix had had a stroke, or some injury incurred while down, possibly a reinjury of some sort, had damaged his spine.

I insisted we had to give him a chance – we gave him pain killers, electrolytes and fluid for strength as he was a little dehydrated, and the doctor checked to be sure he wasn’t colicking as well. But it was a Wednesday, in the middle of the day, and I couldn’t find help to get him on his feet – and in the next three hours, after a brief rest, I watched him try and try to stand, without success. I tried to help him – bracing him more or less on his sternum thinking that after a brief rest he could go the rest of the way up, but he couldn’t do it. Again his courage showed itself – he would rest, and then try, rest and then try, rest and then try. He let me syringe water down his throat, and he laid calmly between efforts, but those efforts were progressively weaker. He never panicked – but I could see he was afraid and confused about why he couldn’t get up. I groomed him, and held his head in my lap between efforts, and did all I could to make him comfortable before Mike could return home from work, and end his pain.

 I must honestly admit that I made a mistake in not letting the doctor put him down immediately. I put him through three hours of hell because I couldn’t admit that he had no chance, the damage was done. I had lost so many friends this summer, that I suspect it clouded my judgment, and I am sorry for it.

Phoenix was harder to lose than Joey, Andy or Domino, because he never had a chance to enjoy TGC the way they had. The only thing I can truly offer these old and disabled horses is a chance at a proper, horse like life. Plenty to eat and drink – protection from the harsher elements – and most importantly, some freedom and some equine companionship which so many of them missed out on during their working careers. In the case of horses like Bonnet, Teke and Phoenix, I had a chance to remind them that all people are not mean, bad or careless, that many of us do value them and appreciate all they bring to our lives. I would have loved to have given Phoenix more.

Today, one of my young volunteers and Mike will put up Phoenix’s nameplate in the memorial garden, and hopefully he will join the other ex-residents of TGC in a happy carefree horse heaven. But his courage and spirit will not be forgotten.

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