Army veteran Melissa Valliere insists she doesn’t want to seem “corny” when saying, “We fixed each other.” She needn’t worry. As she describes how a gray racehorse with mischievous eyes comforted her on days so painful it was hard to get out of bed, her story becomes one of hope in the darkest hours.
Valliere, a disabled vet, met her lovely gray gelding on the backside of Suffolk Downs in 2003 as she queried trainers about every other horse except Zigzag Dan.
Coming up empty on a chilly April day, she perched outside Zigzag’s stable door, and chatted with a groom.
She hadn’t even glanced at the horse who stood watching her intently; he wasn’t listed for sale so she paid him no attention.
But, Zigzag was determined to get a little rise out of Valliere, and pretty soon he’d thought up a really fun game of “flip the hoodie.”
“He kept grabbing my hoodie and flipping it over my head, and I just ignored him,” she says. “Then he took a really big gulp of water and dribbled it down my neck. That did it. This was a chilly day and that got my attention.”
Watching the interplay, the groom nodded toward the playful gelding and said, “What about him?”
Valliere must have walked past his stall a dozen times that day, so when she finally opened his door and led out the Florida-bred gelding, and he behaved Race name: Zigzag Dan
Barn name: Zephyr
Dam: Northern Danzig
Foal date: March 8, 2000as the perfect gentleman, her search was over.
Paying the $2,000 asking price, Valliere’s life seemed to hit a high note as she settled her new horse into a boarding facility, and began the process of letting him down. Zigzag’s short-lived bleeding issue resolved itself with vitamin K and C treatments, and some mild lameness also cleared.
If only her very painful condition could have been as easily cured.
Valliere had injured her shoulder firing M16s in basic training, and eventually resorted to surgery to address the pain. But nothing worked and after a fifth surgery, in 2006, she developed a rare neurological condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
The condition is so painful that it transmits to her hands, causing her difficulty when gripping. And her right shoulder is so inflamed that the lightest touch of clothing can send shockwaves of pain.
“It’s a degenerative condition that affects the sympathetic nervous system,” she says. “You know how when you put your hand on a hot stove, the nerves in your hand tell you to take the hand off the stove by sending a quick pain impulse and a signal to your brain?
“With CRPS, there is a misfire and the nerves keep sending this pain signal, and the syndrome is considered to be one of the most painful chronic pain conditions known.”
It forced her to end her military career and still incapacitates her on an everyday basis; sometimes making it difficult to simply get out of bed.
Were it not for her feisty gelding, who she calls Zephyr, it’s possible the pain would have defeated her far more often than it has.
“Zephyr is the motivation I need to get out of bed. He has this clownish personality, which is mischievous, and being with him, riding or just brushing him, helps me focus more on him and less on the pain,” she says. “The barn owner tells me if I do not come out for three or four days, he starts looking for me.”
During the eight years she has owned her gelding, her pain has occasionally gone into remission, giving her relief, and the opportunity to participate in a couple of pleasure shows and a number of trail rides.
And yet, keeping her horse, her rock, took a lot of courage.
After she exited the military, Valliere suffered long-term unemployment, and to keep Zigzag and pay his board and other expenses, the veteran drained her military savings account.
After relocating to Virginia in June of 2010, some of her well-meaning friends even urged her to give him up, but she refused.
“I never once considered giving him up,” she says. “I’ve heard too many horror stories about people selling their horse to someone, and then seeing it turn up at auction.”
Although it wasn’t easy to justify her choice to her friends and family, and her struggles with daily pain tested her deeply, her pale fuzzy horse gave her reason to keep fighting.
Valliere finally landed a job as a research technician at a medical school and plans to study medical transcription for a future career.
While nothing is certain, and the physical pain still sometimes wins, there are other moments when even the pain can’t compete with the nicker and the cuddle she receives when she is at the barn, together with Zephyr in their happy place.
“Some days are so bad that it’s all I can do to get up and let the dog out,” she says. “But when I go the barn and get Zephyr from the pasture and I start brushing him, all the tension seems to drain away.”
OffTrackThoroughbreds applauds Melissa Valliere for her courage to ride out the storms of life with her beautiful Thoroughbred.