Tribute to Ebony’s Blue Sky

The afternoon was growing long in the desert, but every stride my Skymare took rippled with strength. We crested the last hill and could see the rigs of camp scattered between the shooting range and the sandy road into Inyokern. Sky picked up a running walk and I took out my camera to video the yellow flowers starting to carpet the desert floor. Noting my momentary distraction, she kicked it into a higher gear as I fumbled with the reins and the camera. I eventually slowed her down chuckling at my wonderful horse, here at the end of 155 miles and still game. The gravel road eventually crunched under our feet and I swung off Sky, jogging to keep up with her familiar high powered walk back to camp. I marveled at her grace, beauty and strength in those final moments of the ride as the sun sank low over the Sierra Nevadas.

Sky

The last time I ever rode Sky, coming into camp at the Cuyama I ride. She was pulling me, even after 3 days. Photo: Brenna Sullivan

I didn’t know it, but that was the last time I would ever ride my beloved Skymare. She had completed 3 days, 155 miles at the Cuyama I Pioneer Ride at Laurel Mountain. This was somewhat of a comeback ride for Sky; she had gotten a nasty virus after Death Valley earlier in the year. But she felt amazing those last 3 days; we rode virtually by ourselves the entire time and she never wavered, never tired and never asked to slow down. True to form. Truth be told, even though she was wonderful, the memory is tainted. I believe that Sky was already affected by what would eventually kill her almost a year later.

A bit earlier in 2017, Sky had sliced her heel bulb in the pasture while recovering from her Tevis finish. I was meticulous about her healing and by November of 2017, she cruised through 3 easy 50s at Gold Rush Shuffle. I brought her in from the pasture a couple days after the ride and noticed that she was shivering a bit. There were no other symptoms and a blanket helped. I chalked it up to the cold front starting to move in. After December’s Death Valley Ride, Sky got very sick with a virus that caused a high fever and colitis. We assumed it was Corona Virus. At the time, I had a weird gut feeling I couldn’t shake that there was something underlying with my horse. There were no other symptoms and afterwards, she felt fine under saddle. Still, to this day, I don’t know why I thought there was something beyond getting cold one evening in November or a simple virus picked up from a water trough at a big ride.

But she recovered quickly and was back to training a couple months later. By the spring, we were back at Laurel Mountain and I was certain I finally had my horse back. Those final moments I swung off her and walked back to camp were filled with joy and hope. However, that elation was brief; 3 days after we returned from Laurel Mountain, Sky started to show a litany of strange but seemingly isolated symptoms. I came home one afternoon to a large hematoma on her shoulder. I assumed she had been kicked by a neighboring gelding, but the severity of the hematoma did not seem to add up to a kick through pipe panels by an unshod horse. I treated that with PEMF over the course of a couple weeks. The next strange symptom was a very slight nose bleed at the end of every day for about a week. And she also had a bit of edema on the right side of her neck. Sky already had a vet appointment to ultrasound her shoulder and the vet could not find anything amiss when she examined her nasal cavity. She told me I might need to scope at UC Davis.

Two mornings later, on April 28, 2018, I walked out into the pasture with their breakfast and called Sky. She was far out in the back corner just standing, but I knew at once that something was very wrong. It’s a useful phenomenon that happens when you know a horse so well for so many years. When I jogged up to her, I could see the entire left side of her neck and back were swollen from poll to loins. She nickered when I approached then dropped her head and her eyes went dull. We rushed her into my local vets where she was put on fluids and steroids. My vet ran through the list of possibilities and treated her for anaphylaxis. My gut told me, however, that whatever this was had to be related to the hematoma and the nose bleed. Over the course of the day, the swelling continued and Sky’s symptoms became more painful. She tried to jump out of the stocks and bit me in frustration—two very out-of-the-ordinary behaviors for my sweet girl.

She had seemingly stabilized by the night time and I hauled her home with fluids and steroids so my vet could go home. However, she took a turn for the worse about an hour later and I found myself rushing Sky to UC Davis at 3am. Her neck was so swollen by the time I got there, it was starting to impinge her breathing.

Sky

Hemorrhage along her neck. April 2018. Photo: Brenna Sullivan

Sky was in the ICU for 3 days and at the hospital for an additional 2 days while the Davis vets ran as many tests as they could think of. I called in sick at work and slept out in my trailer in the parking lot. The first discovery was that the swelling was actually bleeding. Endoscopy revealed bleeding even into her guttural pouches. Sky had become so anemic that the vets discussed blood transfusions. She tested negative for tick-borne diseases, bleeding/coagulation pathologies and anything else the vets could test at that time.

After a week, I brought Sky home with some steroids and continued to monitor. Through the late spring and summer, I took her to UC Davis 3 more times for ultrasounds, x-rays and every additional test they could think of. I brought her into my local vet countless times for any test she could run by pulling blood. Sky’s neck continued a cycle of swelling and then absorption, leaving a large seroma every 2 weeks or so. The hematoma on her shoulder hardened. On May 8th, she peed coffee color and acted very muscle sore, almost like a tie-up.

Throughout my trips to UC Davis, they found no injury, no testable pathology and no nexus for the bleeding. One of their guesses ‘on the shortlist’ of possibilities was hemangiosarcoma, a cancer that can cause widespread bleeding. But at this point, the bleeding seemed concentrated in her neck. The high powered ultrasound at UC Davis couldn’t image anything beyond a large blood clot and multiple biopsies of the area revealed more blood clot. The hematoma on her shoulder had become hard and the muscle fibers were blood-filled and traumatized upon ultrasound. However, on Sky’s last trip to UC Davis at the end of June, the best diagnosis was either some type of vein malfunction or some autoimmune bleeding problem. It didn’t seem to fully explain all the symptoms, but we had run out of diagnostic options at UC Davis. I could haul her 12 hours down to San Diego for exploratory CAT scan, but as the head vet at Davis explained, it might not show anything. He also conferred with his colleagues around the country. No leads.

Sky was put on Dexamethasone and then Prednisolone for about a month through July. Her neck, while never completely down and seemingly resolved. Her behavior returned to normal, though I was very careful to keep her quiet and stress-free.

Those plans soon went awry about 3 days before I left for Tevis with my gelding Ranger. Mom and I were in town when we spotted smoke cropping up in the hills behind our house. We rushed home before the road closed, crammed all six horses into two trailers and drove them hurriedly down to a friend’s house. I worried about how Sky would fare in the stress of evacuation, but miraculously, we returned home a day or two later with no ill effects.

Just a short week later, however, we got a call that the hills just to the west of us were burning uncontrollably in what would eventually be the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest in California history. I rushed home from Auburn with the rig as the sky turned from a sickly yellow, to brown to grey with smoke. Our entire community of Lakeport and Kelseyville had been evacuated and traffic backed up on the two-lane highway as the temperatures reached 105 degrees.

Back at home, Mom and I packed the rigs efficiently and methodically. The horses got tied to the trailers with multiple identification markers as we gathered and packed our personal belongings (a quick task as we had just done this drill!). My beautiful, wonderful Skymare sat munching out of her haybag amidst the chaos, a calming presence facing the firestorm. Eventually, 6 horses, two dogs and 2 people in two rigs rumbled down the road to a friend’s house in Clearlake for two weeks while we awaited news. We were lucky; our property made it and Sky settled back into life at home for the remainder of the summer.

By October, Sky’s neck and shoulder hematoma had seemingly resolved. She was back to her normal antics and running the herd with her usual quiet confidence. I had been communicating with the vets at UC Davis for some follow-up diagnostics, but there was really no further tests they could run. My search for answers was relentless as I sent her medical records to different vets asking for advice. I held onto a sliver of hope that time would heal whatever-this-was and my Skymare would be back to full health someday. In November at the Gold Rush ride, I even discussed the possibility of giving Sky another year off and trying to ride her again.

As November clicked over into December, I noticed the hematoma area starting to swell again. It was very slight, but hit me like a punch in the gut. She showed no other symptoms for three weeks, so I hoped it was just an isolated incident. I still had no positive indication that this was all related. We had no diagnosis.

I will always remember the call I got on New Year’s Eve. I was down in Trona for the Death Valley Pioneer Ride and had just enjoyed 4 days in the desert. We were ringing in the New Year when my Dad came into the club house. He had been on a trip from Las Vegas to Southern California and went out of his way to track me down in Trona. I was able to get through to Mom on a phone with limited service to learn that Sky had suddenly started to display neurological symptoms and had been rushed to the local vet.

My partner and I packed the rig quickly and drove all night to get up to Northern California. Sky was stable when I got home, but still acting neurological. She was eating and drinking fine, and spirits seemed high. But she was staggering and rope walking in the front and dragging her hind toes. My local vet was still hoping that this could be managed by steroids and that it was an autoimmune disorder brought on by stress. We discussed options and what Sky’s quality of life and long-term prognosis might be. She wanted me to put Sky back on Prednisolone and evaluate in 3 weeks.

I think one of the toughest lessons to learn in life is ‘knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.’ For 3 days, I painstakingly added up all the factors and tried to boil the situation down to its most rational form. But in my heart, I already knew what I had to do. I knew it the moment I called my Mom in Trona that Sky was never going to get better. I could not put my magnificent horse through any more poking, prodding, hauling, shaving, medicating, confinement or long hours in the sterile vet clinic. I felt guilty for not wanting to wait the 3 weeks, and that’s what made it so hard. But I also felt strongly compelled to give Sky a dignified end as soon as possible. I did not want to find her some morning struggling to get up and have that be it. In a litany of things I couldn’t control, the manner in which Sky left this earth was something I could.

We made arrangements and the weather cooperated. Sky’s spent her last day eating green grass in the warm winter sunshine surrounded by her herd mates. UC Davis had very generously offered to perform Sky’s necropsy for free. I didn’t want to haul her 2 hours to Davis while alive, but I also knew that putting her down in the trailer would add unnecessary stress to the vet, to me and possibly to the horse. However, my Skymare was a good horse, the best. She went down softly in the bedded down trailer and I got to hold her in her final moments and thank her for everything. It took a couple extra shots to stop all heart activity. Of course it did; as my vet said, “Sky was a strong girl.” The evening softly drew to a close and twilight settled in as a giant passed from my life.

The results from the necropsy came back about 3 weeks later. Sky had metastatic hemangiosarcoma presented in her lungs as hundreds of pinpoint to centimeter large nodules. She also had moderate to severe hemorrhage all over her body and damage to uterine, liver and kidney tissues. There was not a concentrated tumor area, however, widespread hemangiosarcoma was suspected throughout her body.

In the end, my gut was tragically correct. Why an otherwise healthy, athletic, 12 year old TWH mare at the peak of her fitness would get cancer will never make sense to me. But these sorts of things rarely do. I hate to think that she already had this affliction on my last ride with her, and probably at Death Valley as well. But she was stoic and showed no signs under saddle; no wavering in her willingness to see what was over the next rise. She was the definition of a war mare.

I was blessed to have this incredible animal come through my life and will probably miss her until the end of my days. Among other things, Sky gave me a Tevis buckle, spots in Regional and National endurance rankings, and more amazing memories than I can count. I will always remember her at her best: whirling around the pasture in the morning dew, napping contently in the winter sunshine, galloping through the dark desert at mile 90, the absolute power surging under me as we crested the hill about Ridgecrest, and the way her slick neck sparkled as we came under the lights in Auburn.

My friend Shari Naylor sent me these words after we finished Tevis in 2017:

“She carried me on the wind,

Elegant mare of mine.

Blue roan magic,

A bliss I will never forget. Cantering along on Sky during the perfect ride. Tevis 2017. Photo: Lynne Glazer

 

 

My beautiful Skymare. Photo: Eleanor Bonner Anderson

 

 

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