RIP Shadowfax – 1986 – Jan 6, 2010


Today I said Goodbye to Shadowfax after a 22-year relationship full of amusement and frustration. I often said that he didn’t cost me an arm and leg, just a knee. He was an interesting horse, who probably had the potential to achieve much more than he did if he had better human handling. He was smart (sometimes too smart), athletic, and unlike many thoroughbreds, he had tough feet and was an easy keeper (unfortunately too easy, which contributed to his demise).

Shadowfax was an unregistered son of Sham, who was one of only 3 horses in history who ran the Kentucky Derby in under 2 minutes. Sham’s only problem was that he achieved this wonderful feat in the same year as one of the other 2. And that other one, Secretariat, ran just a fraction of a second faster, so a feat that would have made Sham a hero in any other year only earned him a quickly-forgotten second place. Like father, like son. Shadowfax also might have had potential greatness that was foiled by circumstances.

After Shadowfax’s breeder failed to pay his stud fee, leaving him unregisterable, I bought him in 1988, as an unbroken 2-year-old who had never seen a saddle. I quickly realized how naïve I had been to think I was capable of tackling a project like that. Fortunately, my brother had a neighbor who broke horses for Claiborne who was willing to help me with his early training.

He settled down very nicely, and at 3 years old, he was well-behaved on trail rides. He had one unfortunate flaw. He was extremely herdbound and hated to be separated from his pasture buddy. This made riding him alone a little …um…. interesting.

One day in the summer of 1989, I was riding him around the farm, when he and his buddy left at home started calling to each other. Suddenly he threw a bucking fit. Realizing I didn’t have much chance of staying on, I semi-voluntarily dismounted before things got worse. I landed on my feet, still holding the reins, thinking everything was under control, until something popped in my knee (I later learned it was my anterior cruciate ligament), and I fell to the ground.

Since all my limbs seemed to be more or less where they belonged, I got back up and took a few steps. At first I thought I was alright, but then the knee collapsed again with much more pain, and I hit the ground again.

In this pre-cellphone era, there was no way to call somebody and say “Help, I fell and I can’t get up”. So I realized that I basically had a choice of remounting and riding home, or lying there and dying. I briefly thought that the second alternative might be the preferable one, until Shadowfax came over and started pawing me.

Rest assured that this was not some Lassie-like concern for his fallen master, or even a show of remorse for his part in the mishap. As I said previously, he was a smart horse. He had scoped out the situation and realized that he wasn’t going to get home unless I got up and opened a gate for him. The pawing was just an impatient demand for me to get up and take him back to his buddy.

I will have to give him credit for giving me a fairly gentle ride back home, after I managed to drag myself back onto him. But after getting my knee put back together, I decided it wouldn’t be wise to ride him alone any more. And since I seldom had a riding buddy, he didn’t get ridden much for the next few years, which was a major setback to his training.

Then, in 1995, after the medical retirement of the horse I had been hunting, Shadowfax got a battlefield promotion to be my next hunt horse. He spent some time that summer with a trainer, who was wisely skeptical about his chances of being satisfactory. But to paraphrase Rumsfeld, you go to hunt with the horse you have, not the horse you wish you had. So I hunted Shadowfax, satisfactory or not, for the next two seasons.

Then, in 1997, early in the season, he started getting antsy as we were walking down a road. He danced off the road into a ditch, and hit a culvert with a hind leg, severing an extensor tendon. That effectively ended his career permanently. Although he recovered to the point where he seemed perfectly sound frolicking in the pasture, it seemed unlikely that the tendon would have held up under any kind of rigorous work. And even if he was sound enough to ride, the extended rest period provided more time for his manners to regress even more from their barely satisfactory level. So he never really got a chance to show what he might have done with better training and better luck.

So he spend the next 13 years providing companionship to my other horses, and alternately amusing and aggravating me with his antics. One night I looked out and saw my barn lights on. I thought I had turned them off when I left the barn, but just figured I was the victim of senility. The next morning when I went out to feed, I opened the barn door and was greeted by Shadowfax. The horses were (supposed to be) outside, but Shadowfax had figured out how to work the latch on the outside stall doors. I had left the inside stall doors open, since the horses were outside. So when he got into a stall, he had access to the whole barn. He turned on the lights, unplugged the electric fence charger, and generally made a mess. Fortunately, he was unable to get into the tack room, which prevented him from pigging out on grain or using the phone to call 1-900-HOT-MARE.

As I said earlier, he was an easy keeper, unusual for a thoroughbred. Every spring we had to worry about founder. As herd-bound as he was, trying to keep him in a drylot separate from the other horses would have been disastrous. So a grazing muzzle was the solution. And of course, he hated that. He found lots of ways to remove or destroy it. And trying to put it back on always involved chasing him for a couple of hours, usually with threats like “OK, see if I care, go ahead and founder so I have an excuse to shoot you.”

This year, he and the weather conspired against me. A warm wet fall provided grass much richer than usual in December. And that was his downfall. In mid-December, I noticed he was a little lame, and then it started to get worse. Although it seemed unlikely that he could have foundered on pasture in December, that’s what it looked like. And x-rays confirmed that he had pretty severe coffin bone rotation in both front feet.

The vet thought he might have a chance of recovery. So he put some fancy shoes on him for a couple of weeks. When he rechecked him last week, he wasn’t optimistic, because we didn’t see as much recovery as he had expected. We decided to give him another week and see what happened. New x-rays on Monday showed that the rotation had improved a little, but not enough to be optimistic about a full recovery. Considering his age, and previous history of being prone to founder, it looked like the best-case scenario was going to be an ongoing battle trying to make him comfortable. So today we said a bittersweet “Goodbye” as the vet gave him the final pink cocktail.

I’m not a religious person, and do not believe in any sort of afterlife. But there have been times when I joked that regardless of what kind of life I lived, I was destined to be reunited with Shadowfax, either in heaven or hell.

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