When he was so sick with toxic laminitis that his feet hurt too much to stand, the bay Thoroughbred nicknamed Lazarus would lie down in a tranquil pasture near his barn.
And, Kristen Shellenbarger would lie down beside him.
As she reached out to caress her first horse, dread of his impending euthanasia gripped her. She made the appointment because, at this point, all medical advice pointed to this sad, inevitable conclusion, she explains.
“I didn’t want him to be in pain, and I didn’t know what else I could do for him,” she says, adding, ” I’d just lie down with him in his field and rub his back.”
Several weeks earlier, back in October 2009, the big, bay ex-racehorse was suddenly struck down by illness. First, came the high fever. At its peak, it reached 104. Next, he stopped eating and drinking, and from there, his health spiraled downhill, she says.
Race name: Lycius Two
Barn name: Lazarus
Dam: Sew Reasonable
Foal date: April 25, 2001
Earnings: $105, 195The veterinarian rushed to the farm every 12 hours to check on Lazarus, while Shellenbarger worked in vain to stave off the inevitable laminitis. Filling baby diapers with ice, she wrapped the gallant gelding’s legs every three hours.
And his stomach, which had filled with ulcer-producing acid, was pumped.
Toxic laminitis had attacked his right, hind leg, causing his coffin bones to rotate bilaterally, and Shellenbarger was out of ideas.
“From October to February, we did everything the vet and farrier told us to do. We did X-rays every month-and-a-half, and by this point, they didn’t believe there was anything else that could be done to save him,” she says.
And yet, Lazarus wasn’t acting like a horse who was ready to die.
No matter how sick he felt, his goofy personality still shined through. A favorite trick was to reach out with his rubbery lips and pull her coat zipper up and down; managing this from his prone position on the ground.
“I think that if he stopped acting goofy, and stopped connecting with me, I would have known it was his time, and would have acted immediately,” she says.
But, while there was still some time before he was put down, Shellenbarger sought the advice of other horse owners.
A network of friends and supporters who followed Lazarus’ progress via her blog Sweet Horses Breath, encouraged her to try letting her horse go barefoot, suggesting that by having his shoes removed, it may encourage better blood circulation in his feet.
So she contacted a hoof trimmer in Michigan where she lives and had the shoes removed. Almost immediately Lazarus started to improve.
“It wasn’t a total miracle overnight, but he was better,” she says.
She canceled the appointment to have him put down, and dedicated herself to helping him recuperate.
Over the next two full years, Lazarus made steady gains.
She took him for long walks on the lead rope, and when he grew more confident, she led him over tarps and poles to help desensitize him from spooky objects. When he was finally well enough, she hopped on him bareback and rode him at a walk with only his halter on.
“I clipped the reins from my bridle onto the halter and I noticed that he would lick and chew while I rode him,” she says. “He seemed so much calmer than when I rode him with the bit.”
Now she rides him bitless everywhere. She has cantered him in an open field and taken him on trail rides. And never has he tried to run off, or gotten too strong for her.
He may never be a show horse, or even hop over a small jump, but the obstacles they have cleared together have tightly bonded Shellenbarger and the first horse she ever owned.
“Before I got him, he traded hands several times. Although he was always a gentleman, and he recognized me, I don’t think he cared who I was,” she says.
“After he got sick, I think he understood I was there to help him. Now, he nickers to me when I come into the barn, and he burrows his head, really sweetly, into my chest.”
And when she crouches down with him in a field, it may only be for a moment. Because he is apt to pull himself up, shake off, and canter playfully off.