TRUE TALE

I sought to re­ha­bil­i­tate Frankie af­ter he was dis­fig­ured in an ac­ci­dent, but in the end he was the one who helped me.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Janet Stein­bach

Scars and strength: I sought to re­ha­bil­i­tate Frankie af­ter he was dis­fig­ured in an ac­ci­dent, but in the end he was the one who helped me.

At the cen­ter of the pad­dock stood the sor­rel geld­ing--tall, lean and mus­cu­lar--with his head low­ered al­most to the ground, his hand­some face turned away. Although I had vis­ited of­ten, he would not look up. I lin­gered, lean­ing on the pad­dock rails, rest­ing my head on my arms and will­ing him to lift his head and look at me, but he never did. Even­tu­ally, it was time to head home.

When I first started vis­it­ing Frankie, I was new to the horse world. I’d never owned a horse nor known any­one who did. But as I en­tered midlife, I de­cided it was time. So I sat down at my com­puter, googled “horse rid­ing lessons,” and lo­cated this Quar­ter Horse ranch about 45 min­utes from my home.

I will never for­get the day I ar­rived for my first les­son. A perky young girl got me started groom­ing the mare I was to ride. Then we tacked her up and fol­lowed the in­struc­tor to a round pen. Set­tling proudly into the sad­dle, I took up the reins. Cir­cling on this big animal, feel­ing her nat­u­ral rhythm and the rush of air on my face, was mag­i­cal.

I was hooked. I re­turned for weekly lessons and be­came a ded­i­cated stu­dent. And af­ter each les­son, I strolled the ranch, vis­it­ing the brood­mares, stal­lions, year­lings, foals---and a large col­lec­tion of goats, chick­ens, cows and ranch dogs.

Th­ese strolls led me to Frankie, short for Franken­stein. I was drawn to this horse, so tall and hand­some, yet also so aloof. I got per­mis­sion from the owner to bring a bag of car­rots with me on my les­son days, hop­ing to at­tract his at­ten­tion with the lure of a treat.

Each week, I would cau­tiously ap­proach his pad­dock, lean qui­etly against the rails with my hand out­stretched, bal­anc­ing a few car­rots in my palm and just wait. But I may as well have been in­vis­i­ble.

Then one day, Frankie fi­nally lifted his head and looked to­ward me---that’s when I saw the dam­age. The nar­row white blaze that started be­tween his nos­trils stopped abruptly at a thick mass of scars that stretched from eye to eye and con­tin­ued up his fore­head. I did not move as he walked to­ward me, stretched his neck to scoop the car­rots into his mouth, and backed away.

I sought out the owner to ask what had hap­pened. I learned Frankie had out­stand­ing breed­ing and had once been a highly trained rein­ing horse with su­pe­rior po­ten­tial. But some ag­gres­sive horses had driven him into a pas­ture fence. His fore­head was badly lac­er­ated, and vet­eri­nar­i­ans tried to mend the in­jury with skin grafts from his belly. De­spite their best ef­forts, Frankie was left with sig­nif­i­cant scar­ring. Af­ter the ac­ci­dent, his owner ex­plained, Frankie was ef­fec­tively un­sal­able. He proved re­sis­tant to train­ing and fought ev­ery time some­one tried to get near his face. Com­pet­i­tive rid­ers just weren’t in­ter­ested in him.

I thought we were per­fect for each other. At the time, I was a li­censed clin­i­cal psy­chother­a­pist with a suc­cess­ful pri­vate prac­tice. Each week, I helped dozens of pa­tients learn to cope with anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion, trauma, grief, anger and dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ships. To me, Frankie was a 16-hand, 1,200-pound pa­tient, and I was drawn to try to heal his spirit. I bought him, found a small board­ing fa­cil­ity closer to home, and we be­gan our jour­ney.

Our first year to­gether was chal­leng­ing and re­quired ev­ery bit of pa­tience

HEAL­ERS: “Friends have told me how lucky Frankie is to have me,” says Janet Stein­bach. “But I am the grate­ful one.”

I had. For one full month, I stood mo­tion­less, wait­ing for Frankie to ap­proach so I could slide a hal­ter over his head and at­tach a lead rope. We cir­cled his pad­dock over and over at the be­gin­ning, get­ting to know each other while I talked to him, re­as­sur­ing him with my voice and calm.

Even­tu­ally, I swung open the gate and led him out for a walk around the board­ing fa­cil­ity. Frankie stayed be­hind my shoul­der as we went. Some­times we stopped and I let him graze, talk­ing to him the whole time. This was our rou­tine for an­other month as we bonded and learned to trust one an­other.

In the mean­time, I was busy read­ing every­thing I could find about horse care, watch­ing videos on ground train­ing, ed­u­cat­ing my­self about ap­pro­pri­ate equip­ment, sup­ple­ments, im­mu­niza­tions, equine ill­nesses and in­juries. I se­cured a far­rier and a vet­eri­nar­ian, and I pur­chased a used sad­dle and other tack.

Af­ter three months, I moved Frankie to a big­ger fa­cil­ity, which of­fered the com­pan­ion­ship of other sea­soned rid­ers with quiet horses and plenty of woodsy trails to ex­plore. I met new friends I could ride with and who could help guide my train­ing and build my con­fi­dence.

It wasn’t all smooth sail­ing. I sto­ically climbed back into the sad­dle many times af­ter be­ing bucked off. And Frankie and I had to work out many is­sues. I loved ev­ery minute of it.

All that was 16 years ago. To­day, Frankie is known as the “trail boss” among those we ride with, as he gen­tly leads new rid­ers on the trail. He helps keep their horses calm and fo­cused, paus­ing now and then to look back and make sure ev­ery­one is safe with all four feet still on the ground.

He has a special place in his heart for chil­dren, and he will pause, drop his head and stand still so that a small tod­dler can pet him. I am still in awe as I watch lit­tle ones cau­tiously place tiny hands on his scars while Frankie re­mains calm and af­fec­tion­ate.

Watch­ing Frankie in­ter­act with peo­ple of­ten re­minds me of the say­ing, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It would be easy to un­der­stand how a horse who’d en­dured a trauma like this might re­main head shy and wary of peo­ple. In­stead, Frankie stands tall and is eas­ily ap­proach­able. At 20, he is healthy, en­er­getic and sleek, gal­lop­ing around the arena with tail high and nos­trils flar­ing.

Friends have told me how lucky Frankie is to have me. But I am the grate­ful one. It was I who needed his de­vo­tion and steadi­ness when my own life crum­bled, and I needed time to heal and re­gain the abil­ity to hope.

There were many days I sat on the mount­ing block in the mid­dle of the arena, tears rolling down my face, while he calmly stood over me, his head on my shoul­der and warm breath ca­ress­ing my cheek. Frankie has re­mained stead­fastly present for me when fam­ily mem­bers passed away and my dogs ful­filled their time on Earth. His strength and love and quiet loy­alty has never fal­tered. We are un­ques­tion­able part­ners for life.

It would be easy to un­der­stand how a horse who had en­dured trauma as Frankie had would re­main head shy and wary of peo­ple. In­stead he stands tall and is eas­ily ap­proach­able.

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