A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Lyn Hacker: A long life, well lived, did not make saying goodbye to Chief Redbird any easier

It was the worst possible combination of traits that he could have inherited – that foal I found standing wobbly, still wet, in the thick straw with Lover, his mother. An anathema to every standardbred horse person, he was bright orange, with a glaring white blaze running down his face. To put the nails in the coffin, he had four white feet.

My mother, father and I had been taking eight hour foal watching stints waiting for his arrival. It was my turn to stand guard, and I was dutiful. I had been taught the proper way to foal a mare under the tutelage of Castleton Farm.

Hacker’s father with a young “Red.”

Be there, let the mare do the work, don’t pull, clear the nose and mouth and prevent the foal from nursing until the milk and blood could be checked for the dreaded NI (neonatal isoerythrolysis) factor, (in which the mare produces antibodies against the foal’s red blood cells causing deadly anemia).

Any trouble, call the vet. I was trained and experienced in many foaling scenarios and potential disasters – breach birth, red-bagging. etc., but Lover had her own ideas and threw me a curve nonetheless. She had not shown one sign of emminent foaling. No major filling in her udder, no sweating, very little softening of her flanks, and no “waxing” of colostrum on her teats. I did my checks, thought I was safe and stepped outside the barn about two in the morning to take a quick pee. She promptly laid down, in the brief time I was out of sight, and without a by your leave, spit out the biggest, orangest thing I had ever seen.

With a singularity of purpose I would learn to expect of him, he hopped up, and on still wobbly legs, grabbed a teat and was nursing before I could head him off. So there was no testing for the NI factor. He was strong, healthy, and boy, he looked good. Didn’t matter if he was orange with white socks.

I would have to suffer through the next 24 hours for any signs of NI, but when my mom and dad came down to welcome him, they cooed, which he loved. My father was instantly in the stall, fooling with him. I warned him, “please don’t play with his mouth,” and went in the tack room to get more towels. Sure enough by the time I came back, dad had hold of his mouth like you play with a dog’s nose. That colt spent the rest of his life determined to bite me.

Holding on to both his ears, which the colt also loved, Dad asked me what I was going to name him. I briefly thought of March Madness, since he was born in March, but then the name Chief Redbird came to mind.

Chief Redbird had been a local hero in our family home in Clay and Leslie Counties, an elderly Cherokee, friends with Dillion Asher, one of the original white settlers in the area. Redbird and his friend Willie had been killed for their furs, murdered by a couple of white savages, bodies left in the river that would bear his name. My father’s face softened a bit, remembering the beloved childhood story. Folks had loved and respected Redbird. The whites and Natives had lived in peace in that area. He nodded and said, “Chief Redbird was a good man.”

Red’s foalhood was spent with humans and his mother, so teaching him manners became paramount. There were no other foals to play with, so all of the things that young horses do, like rear up on each other, strike with their front hooves and kick – all of those things he tried to do with his mom or us.

He thought we were fellow horses.

His mom, being twice his size easily, just ignored him, but it was a lot harder on us. He was too spirited for his own good, and since he really didn’t have the pedigree to breed, I decided to geld him hoping it would settle him down somewhat. It did not. What he really needed was to be turned out with a herd of cranky open broodmares, but I didn’t have that option. So there was little relaxing when you were handling him. Red could flat out worry the chrome off a trailer hitch when he took a notion, and I swear he spent his free time thinking of ways to best me in one way or another.

He grew up a beautiful, gleaming and super strong horse. Head strong. There was no use selling him at the yearling sales – that would just be money thrown away.

Standardbred people did not like their horses any other color but bay and they especially did not like white feet. So my thought was to take him to the Red Mile, break and train him and see what happened. Red and I spent two years there, significant mostly in all the work we did and the money I spent. It sadly didn’t amount to a lot of racing.

His one big race was his qualifier, and he did wonderfully in it – even though he threw a front shoe in the starting gate. But he did not break stride, nor even bobble. The driver didn’t even notice. He came in fourth in 2:04 with three shoes on. Amazing, because the hardest thing about a trotter is keeping them flat (on the trot in a race) and not having them break into a gallop. Proper shoeing is paramount. Losing a shoe is disastrous.

That’s when the offers started. Sadly, though, the thrown shoe caused problems in the tendon in the leg it came from and after a scratched next week entry and a lot of therapy, I decided to quit with him and bring him home for good.

There were other reasons I left racing behind. I probably could have worked through the tendon, but I was just not rich enough, nor important enough, nor even talented enough (being a newbie) to warrant respect from those satellite people needed to keep a racehorse going, ie, a veterinarian, a blacksmith, a trainer and a dentist.

Very few people are capable of doing all that is necessary training any horse by themselves. I did most of Red’s basic training, and it was pretty much the blind leading the blind, if the truth be known. But I got him to his qualifier.

I had never trained another horse except for his mother. As a groom on the track working for others, I would jog my assigned horses, and sometimes, if personnnel was sparse, would go the first leg of 2:20 or so on a training day. (Standardbreds train in three heats, one around 2:20, one around 2:10 and the last or race lap in less than 2:00, generally speaking). I was a successful groom – two of the horses I rubbed for someone else took track records. They were never the expensive ones, but generally the ones they called “ill-breds.” The horses they gave to me weren’t the ones they expected to make it, but surprise, several of them did. I got them because it was known I wouldn’t be shipping with the horses when it came time to go to another track. Most of mine got to the races, though, and several won or placed in their races and made some money along the way.

But developing a young horse requires ancillary personnel. So it was, when I started working as a student respriatory therapist and had to cut my time at the track, I hired a trainer. If your trainer is a coke-head, well, let’s just say I quickly got into debt to the vet for more than $4,000 for a problem a $.75 cent jar of petroleum jelly would have taken care of. My main problem was the blacksmiths. I came to expect that my carefully scheduled appointments for shoeing would be given to somebody else without even telling me. The dentist I found was always good, but not needed as much as the vet and the blacksmith and the trainer. Especially the blacksmiths.

It’s not that I expected these people to march to my drum. But I did need them to hold up their end of the bargain, to do their part. I thought I did my part. I didn’t leave things to the last minute. I always paid my bills up front, in cash, on that day.

It’s just true that there are important relationships you enter into in your life where each party is expected to perform some action in return for another. But many folks have this passive/aggressive thing going, where they’ll mess you up, but won’t be up front about it. Leaving a message on a phone is a good example. It’s implied, when you leave a message, that the call will be returned. If you don’t want to bother with the person, be an adult and tell them.

You know, thanks for the call Lyn, but I don’t need your business anymore. Don’t leave them hanging and twisting in the wind like some empty bird feeder. I wish I had a dollar for every minute of every day that I waited, frustrated, for a call to be returned as the clock ticked down to an important moment.

Everything I ever asked Red to do, on the other hand, he was more than willing to do.

Aggravating in the barn and stall, when he walked out to the track, he was a model horse. His mouth was so soft a child could have driven him. He didn’t need any special equipment to “make him right,” although I did put a beautiful pair of trotting boots on him that a very nice trainer had given to me. The thing with Red was that if you respected him, he would respect you.

He had a great attitude towards work, but he had his quirks. He didn’t like it when people around him were high – and he could tell when they were. Since I was working full-time by then, I sent him up to New York with a trainer, and the trainer had taken him to the blacksmith. Both were high, and he had aggravated the blacksmith. So the blacksmith hit him over the head with a rasp. In return, Redbird kicked him, and the trainer, and tore up the blacksmith’s shop.

The trainer sent him back to me that day – he arrived home with a massive head wound covered with hair and clottled blood. I carefully cleaned and treated the wound on my horse’s face (while he tried to bite my belly), and accepted the dream was over. It had become too laborious, too expensive, no longer worth it. I put my dream horse out back with his mother and became the proud owner of two yard ornaments.

So many years passed. He and Lover were pasture bound and spent their days eating grass, hay and a little feed. I would visit them every day to feed them, and on days off from work would clean their run-in stalls and groom them. I didn’t ride them due to my inner ear problems, but there was a great deal to be said just enjoying being in the barn on a summer day, listening to the birds and fooling with the horses.

It was like a drug to me.

Came the day when we had to move. I bought a little farm in the hills and we built a new barn for the horses there. An old injury of mine starting flaring up due to the constant walking on concrete floors one does at a hospital, and I finally had to have knee replacements. It became necessary for Bob to take over the physical work of the horses. Still we all marched on until the awful night when I had to put my 28 year old Lover to sleep and then shoot my rifle off all night long trying to keep the coyotes off of her.

It seemed like it took Red forever to get over losing her, and he turned to us even more for company and emotional well-being. We would spend long afternoons in the barn just tooling around to keep him company. He was so attached to us I know we could have opened his gate and he would have just followed us around the farm putting his head over our shoulders to find out what we were doing. We were his “herd.”

Then the awful day dawned when he suffered a bout of Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Disease (DSLD), a systemic disease of the whole horse involved with connective tissue that causes the muscles, tendons and ligaments to break down.

I thought he had dropped his suspensories behind due to the terrain on the new farm, which he wasn’t used to, but no, it was a medical condition. We treated him with therapy, steroids and pain killers and he pretty much came through it, although we had to keep him off the hills from then on.

Hacker and “Red”

My farm is a hill, so it was a bit of a challenge cutting a flat pasture out of it for him. Still we persevered. Often times I wondered if we were being selfish in keeping him alive, but he didn’t show much lameness and after the vet asked us would we want to be put down for our arthritis, we shut up. The vet said Red would show us when he was ready to go – he would go off his feed, wouldn’t be able to get up, things like that. “He’ll let you know,” he said.

Last week he let us know. I went to feed him lunch and found him dead lame, hardly able to walk. He hadn’t touched his hay or feed from the morning. I noticed his front suspensory had dropped and was on the phone to the vet immediately. He came out and made the prouncement that things were dire, and it was time. All that was left was to “make the arrangements.”

There’s no pretty euphimism like “walking the rainbow bridge” for horses. There was little choice to it – he had a degenerative joint disease that, although mild for the last two years, had suddenly taken a savage turn. It was completely incurable. A year ago my vet had told me of all of his elderly equine patients, mine was in the best shape.

Redbird was 25 then. Now, at age 26, he told me he didn’t know how Red was even walking. He cautioned me he could break a bone at any moment, and that doubling the medication could cause a sudden bleed. While grief assailed my senses, I became numb and stumbled into “dealing with it mode,” trying to arrange the death and burial of my old friend.

It’s not so easy with a horse.

They are large, 18 hands or so, very heavy, at least 1,200 pounds, and hard to move around. Disposing of an equine body is expensive. I contacted old horse friends trying to find someone who had excavating equipment so I could bury Red next to his mother on our farm.

I called an old friend who runs a service for the disposal of large animals – either $350 to remove my horse and compost him (yes it is like it sounds), or cremate him and give me the ashes, about $1200, (probably a cut in price because we are friends). I was lucky to find an excavator who would dig a grave for us for $200 – an amazing price. It would have cost $230/day to rent an excavator, not including renting a trailer to haul it on, and even more to hire a friend to pick up said trailer and excavator and come dig the grave. It would have taken a week.

My digger did the job the next day, and I called the vet, who by now was snowed under with breeding and foaling mares. It began to rain – a constant, sometimes heavy rain, that permeated everything. Regardless we were now hand grazing him because he had completely quit eating.

I put a call into the vet, but no reply. We went through the weekend on pins and needles until the vet called back on Monday and we made the necessary plans. Went out to see Red who had hung his head over his gate. I went up to him and took hold of his halter. “I know you’re going to bite me,” I said, “but just this once, I want to hold, you just one time.” I wrapped my arms around his head and drew him to me, rubbing his forehead and ears, stroking his neck. He leaned into me and nickered against my belly. It was the very first time in his life he didn’t try to bite me.

“I hate this,” I told him. “But I can’t stand for you to hurt anymore. I can’t stand for you to suffer.” How had things changed so quickly? I lived on the edge, unable to find any peace, trying not to snap at Bob, or the cat, or the dog, unable to look at him and not feel the despair and pain that I knew he was going through. I needed it to be done and I didn’t want it to be done, ever. And still it rained. It flat out poured. Redbird’s grave became a big, gaping hole, a deep wading pool surrounded by piles of wet clay.

Day of the Deed

Woke up early in the morning from a vague dream I couldn’t remember. Laid there in the quiet until the violent agenda of the day shattered my peace. Felt entirely psychotic, impotent in the face of the situation, trying to battle emotions and take care of details at the same time. Nothing could keep the pain away. My eyes teared constantly. By the time it was daylight, I texted the vet, “anytime, he’s in bad shape, please.”

Then began the long wait. It started raining again. It thundered. Then it poured. It stopped. Bob went out and took Red outside so he could eat thick grass and fresh clover. It started raining again. After a while I went out and took over the grazing. We traded off while the rain poured, soaking us to the bone physically and emotionally. It was miserable. I had wanted so much for Red to feel the hot sun one more time on his back. It had been such a long, cold winter, first time in his long life he had kept his blanket on. Broke my heart for him to go out like this. At least he was chowing down on clover.

At last the vet arrived with one of the biggest syringes I had ever seen. We put Red in the run-in shed, where there was a soft, straw bed he could fall on. I walked up to him and touched my forehead to his, whispering to him to be brave, to find his mother, and that I would find them some day. It’s insane what you say in those moments. Bob then took hold of him and the vet positioned himself. Redbird turned to bite him. “He’s not afraid, Lyn,” he said. “I love this horse,” he continued. “He has so much spirit. I would have loved to work on him when he was younger.” He paused then and spoke again. “Look, he’s trying to bite me.” And with that the needle was in and my old friend’s legs buckled under him and he went down. The vet then gave him a second injection and knealt and stroked Red’s jaw until his heart stopped.

I could not have better orchestrated it, but honest to goodness, in the quiet stillness that followed, the sun broke through. A solid ray broke through the blue/black clouds in the west and flooded us, my horse and the run-in shed with sunlight. The vet got to his feet. “No more pain, Lyn,” he said, then added. “He was a cool horse.” “Yes, he was,” I answered. “Yes, he was.”

He gave me a hug and walked back to his car.

Lyn Hacker is a Lexington native raised by Appalachian parents to be not only educated but proficient in the living arts – working very hard, playing music, growing gardens, orchard management and beekeeping. The UK graduate has been a newspaper staff writer and production manager, a photography lab manager, a Thoroughbred statistics manager, a Bluegrass singer and songwriter, a registered respiratory therapist, a farmer, a Standardbred horsewoman, and a beekeeper. She lives on a farm in Sadieville.

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One Comment

  1. Wilma Bray Gregory says:

    Beautiful tribute cuz! You got me crying! Love you!

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