Joanne’s words stuck with me over the next few days. I couldn’t quite get the picture of Togwotee "waiting" out of my mind. When a farm call had me driving past the barn on Friday morning, I slowed. There he was — head down, hip cocked. As I passed, he raised his eyes and stared at me. I hit the gas.
I wasn’t on call for emergencies that next weekend. After seeing to a few patients on Saturday morning, I went home for a nap and dreamed of a chestnut horse racing down the stretch. "Damn," I thought as I awoke, "I might as well go see him."
Togwotee didn’t stop nosing the ground searching for hay as I climbed his paddock fence to sit on the top rail. After several minutes, I noticed that he seemed to be taking very little interest in anything that was going on around the farm. I jumped down from the fence and walked over to him.
"Hey there, bud. How are you today?" I murmured and scratched his neck. He sighed but kept his head low, staring at the ground in front of him.
"What’s this all about? It’s a gorgeous day; you should be enjoying yourself out here. Let’s go get some grass." I grabbed his halter and lead rope and took him out to graze alongside the barn.
Joanne came around the corner, pushing a wheelbarrow full of manure. "Hi, Karen. Enjoying yourself?" She grinned mischievously.
"Don’t gloat," I retorted. "But I do have to confess that it feels awfully good to be out in the warm sun, relaxing for a change. How does that saying go? 'There’s something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,' or in this case, a woman."
"I couldn’t agree more," said Joanne.
"So what do you know about this guy?" I asked, putting my arm over Togwotee’s withers and leaning against him. "Why did your brother retire him? Was he injured? He doesn’t look that old."
Joanne grabbed a bucket from inside the barn door, flipped it over and sat down before answering.
"He’s only five, and no, he wasn’t injured. In fact, my brother’s racing partnership had him thoroughly checked out a few months ago. The vets couldn’t find anything wrong with him. It’s kind of a mystery. He broke his maiden in only his second race when he was two. He won a local stakes his next time out, and I hear that his owners had big plans for him. But after losing a few times in a row, he was sold and has been on a downward spiral ever since, bouncing from owner to owner, trainer to trainer. The partnership claimed him thinking a switch to grass might be in order, but it didn’t seem to help. In fact, Togwotee was getting the reputation of being more trouble than he was worth: balking at the starting gate, grabbing the bit during races, getting increasingly difficult to handle around the barn, that sort of thing."
"Really?" I asked doubtfully. "He seems awfully docile to me, almost lethargic."
"I know," replied Joanne. "He’s been like that ever since he’s gotten here. I was hoping that getting some extra attention from you might help perk him up a bit, and vice versa."
I ignored Joanne’s last statement. "He doesn’t look too enthusiastic, but I suppose I can find some time to get out here and work with him," I said.
"I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist an animal in need for very long," laughed Joanne. "And having something to focus on other than your job might be refreshing."
"We’ll see," I replied. "But I guess I shouldn’t complain too much about my free horse." Smiling, I scratched Togwotee behind his ears.
"You should know better than that," exclaimed Joanne as she grabbed the wheelbarrow and headed for the manure pile. "There is no such thing as a free horse!"
Togwotee grazed and I basked in the sunshine for another twenty minutes. Before returning him to his paddock, I led him by the pasture where some of Joanne’s horses were roughhousing. He paid little attention as they ran and bucked.
Over the next month, Togwotee and I fell into a routine. I made it out to the farm three or four times a week to groom, graze and generally fuss over him. He began to meet me at the paddock gate with a nicker and would watch as I left the farm, following the path of my truck with his eyes until I was out of sight.
On one especially gorgeous fall morning, Togwotee turned right out of his paddock gate and led me past the barn rather than heading for his favorite patch of grass. I pulled him to a stop. "Hey, where are you going? Grass is this way."
He kept tugging, so I decided to see what he had in mind. He marched straight for an opening in the trees and a trail that led into a nearby patch of woods.
"Whoa, what’s with this?" I asked. Togwotee pulled on the lead rope. "All right then," I thought, "a walk in the woods it is." We meandered along the trail. Togwotee watched with interest when a herd of deer bounded away at the sound of our footfalls.
We finally made our way back to his paddock and I turned him loose. He shook his head and neck and trotted over to a particularly dusty area before lying down for a vigorous roll. I hopped into my truck and smiled as he cantered along the fence, following me to the far corner until I turned onto the road.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
This is part two of Dr. Coates's short story, Burnout. It is being told in four parts. If you missed part one, you will find it in Monday's post. Please come back tomorrow to read part three