On a pale horse, an injured vet soldiers on

Melissa and Zigzag Dan enjoy a quiet moment

Her arm in a sling, Melissa Valliere enjoys a warm snuggle with Zigzag Dan

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
Sire: Ponche
Dam: Northern Danzig
Foal date: March 8, 2000
as 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?

Gardner and Zigzag make the most of grazing time

Valliere and Zigzag make the most of grazing time

“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.”

Zigzag Dan wears a blanket with CRPS logo

Zigzag Dan wears a blanket with CRPS logo

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.

17 responses to “On a pale horse, an injured vet soldiers on”

  1. trina

    Love this story. You go Melissa…… He will keep you getting up for days to come….l thank you for your service to our country….

  2. Nikki Smith

    This is an awesome story! What a wonderful team! I wish there were more owners like Melissa!

  3. Melissa

    Thank you Sue for sharing our story. Couldn’t have said it better and its not even too “Seabiscuit movie-mushyness”! :)

  4. Laura

    Your blog is awesome.Each story brings me to tears…literally!

  5. Lezlie

    A race trainer once told me “They give you a reason to get up in the morning.” What a great story. I hope Melissa finds a way to sustain Zephyr’s lively hood throughout his life. It’s not easy under the best conditions. Sometimes, overcoming terrible challenges have unexpected benefits.

  6. Lynne Jones

    Melissa:
    That a girl. You saved this beautiful racehorse and he in turn is helping you recover, hopefully to full strength. There is nothing like the love of an animal and the interaction of that true love, which is rare to this extent between species, I believe. I had it with an Arabian that was at a sanctuary with a injured hock. He knew everything I said to him. He died of a heart attack before I could bring him to be with me. Treasure your horse and his feelings for you as you never know when it will end. God Bless both of you. I wish you would send me an e-mail at: bcco1@sbcglobal.net Note: the “o” is the letter o, not the number. I would love to follow your improvement and one day maybe meet you. There is a chance I might retire in Northern Carolina from Southern California. God Bless You and continued improvement in your health. And, please give Zepher a kiss for me on his sweet velvety nose. I miss that with my lost horse. I now have three more but I still miss this horse that I only had a small time loving him.

  7. sybil

    GOOD FOR YOU, Melissa!!! You didn’t give up no matter what!!! Even though times got tough for you, you stayed loyal to your soul mate. What a great example for ALL to follow!!!!

  8. Melissa

    I will caution that I am not the gifted storyteller that Susan is, but if anyone is interested in reading more about us (Me and Z) I started a therapeutic blog last year cataloging what we’ve been through together. You can find it here: http://lokilion.blogspot.com/
    I am still backtracking with it, trying to remember everything!
    Feel free to email as well at Lokiliontale@gmail.com

  9. Dawn Willoughby

    Sending you both all the love in the world!

  10. Partnership

    What a great story! I too am living with CRPS, from a crush injury I suffered. That, along with other injuries to the same leg, causes me many a sleepless night and VERY painful mornings.
    Getting out of the house and seeing my boy to feed, clean his stall and groom him are the only bright spots I have a lot of days. And most days he is the only one that I think actually listens to me as I rant, rave and cry. But the comfort that he gives me is just insurmountable. It’s been 8 years now that he and I have been together and I can not imagine my life without him.

    1. Melissa

      You are braver than I am! I board Z at a full care boarding facility so I know if I can’t get out to see him, he will be well taken care of and looked after. The sleepless nights I know all about and the bad mornings. I cannot imagine CRPS in my leg – I feel “lucky” to have gotten it in only my shoulder and so far the gremlin hasn’t moved. I have a tank top that says “My therapist lives in the barn” and its so true! Feel free to email me – we can swap stories and put the pain in a back corner for a time :)

  11. Keith Orsini

    Melissaa;

    I remember when you wrote to American RSDHope a few months back, shared your remarkable story with us, and asked us if we had any of the National CRPS Awareness Ribbons in a type of a patch that you could use to put on your horse’s blanket. We used to have some iron-on transfers but we don’t now. We gave you permission to copy the ribbon and make your own and you did a beautiful job, the horse blanket looks wonderful!

    Just when you think you have seen it all when it comes to awareness something new comes along! We have had patients ask us to use it for tattoos , shirts, pants, hats, jewelry, we even have had it on NASCAR and mini race cars and speed-boats! But your horse was the first animal!

    I hope your story inspires other veterans, and non-veterans, to get out and keep moving. Never let this disease stop you from doing what you love to do. It changes your life, absolutely. But it doesn’t have to be completely for the worse. Find those gold nuggets in the dirty stream even if you have to dig deep and work hard and when you have those difficult days, as Melissa shared, when you can barely get up to do anything … Those are the days you have to dig the deepest.

    If you want your free jpeg of the national CRPS Awareness Ribbon, or just want to know more about Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, CRPS, please drop by our website , http://www.RSDHope.org

    Keep up the great work Melissa!

    Peace, Keith Orsini – 38+ year CRPS Survivor
    American RSDHope Organization
    RSDHope@mail.org

  12. BirdneckArabs

    Yay! Zeffie’s famous ;o)
    Great story; good explanation of the CRPS.

  13. Valerie Carter

    WOW, Melissa, that is an awesome story about you and Zephyr! You are brave and loyal and Zephyr knew that the day he caught your attention!!!! Cold water running down your back will do it!!!
    It is so cool… that I had the honor of riding your big beautiful boy!! He is a magnificent horse!!!
    Please send me a picture of you and him to have on my computer? I would really like that! Also, we have got to go ride at Greenbrier one day very soon. Somehow we gotta convince Zephyr he wants to go too!!! :)
    Happy Trails, Valerie

  14. Tina

    Love your story and would love to know where you got Zephyr’s rug from x

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