Gandalf’s Terrible Year

Gandalf’s Terrible Year

The year 2010 was not a good year for Gandalf. It was the year he lost a tooth and an eye.

I ran across his pedigree the other day. I’m not in the breeding or bloodline business so his ancestry doesn’t mean anything to me, except to tell me he had Hanoverian, Trakehner and Westfalen ancestors. He was 17 hh and thin as a rake when I bought him in June 2002. I never knew his history. The dealer I bought him from said she’d only had him for a month, and he’d been even thinner when she purchased him. She knew he was a Hanoverian of the G-line, so the kids at her stable dubbed him ‘Gandalf’ after Gandalf the Grey, the wizard in the first Lord of the Rings movie that had been released the previous December.

When Gandalf Lost an Eye: Gandalf's pedigree
Gandalf’s pedigree

You’ll notice the pedigree is for a chestnut horse called Geronimo. The ‘chestnut’ part is hand-scratched out, and ‘grey’ written in. I didn’t acquire the papers till several months after purchasing him, and I always secretly wondered they belonged to another horse. But grey horses aren’t born grey, so I chose to believe the papers were genuine. Because I felt much safer riding a Gandalf than a Geronimo, I decided to ignore the name on the pedigree.

Gandalf was very special to me. He taught me to be brave. At first, I was intimidated by his size, but he was so calm and kind that I eventually thought nothing of hacking him by myself over the beautiful hills and hay fields where I boarded. He was never too keen on the cows that pastured across the road, but the only time he ever got really agitated was the day a man on a bicycle pedalled silently by. It was the fact that he couldn’t hear it that bothered him, I think. On that occasion he bolted, but he was never one for sustained drama. Soon, running was just too much trouble and he slowed to a walk.

Gandalf's Terrible year: Gandalf November 2009, the year before his terrible year
Gandalf in November 2009, a year before his ‘terrible year.’

Practically from the day I bought him, Gandalf was a walking vet bill, but as I mentioned earlier, 2010 was particularly unkind to him.

In September of that year, a nasal discharge turned out to be the symptom of a fractured upper cheek tooth. How many horses break a tooth, for heaven’s sake? He ended up spending eight days at the ‘horsepital’ to have the tooth removed. As I understood it, the procedure involved going through the sinus and pounding the tooth out with a mallet. Don’t quote me on that. The veterinary notes merely refer to ‘oral techniques’. Whatever. Gandalf came home with a packing in the socket which was to be changed every 7-10 days. He was bright and alert, happy to be free of his toothache.

Gandalf's Terrible Year: the pieces of Gandalf's tooth
The pieces of Gandalf’s tooth. Looking at it from above, it had split down the center into his gum. It must have been very painful.

But ten days later, even before the first packing change, he somehow scratched his eye. I still remember receiving the call. It was a Friday. We were just sitting down to supper. Instead of eating, the Scuba Diver and I drove out to the barn to meet the vet.

The injury didn’t seem that serious. She prescribed an analgesic/anti-inflammatory and a broad-spectrum antibiotic ointment. That should have fixed it. But within a week, the eye was very light-sensitive. Lab results identified a fungal, not bacterial, infection. So, different drugs. A week after that, Gandalf was getting really uncooperative about having medications dripped and smeared into his eye, so I had him trailered him back to the horsepital. It still breaks my heart when I recall his arrival at the clinic. He was in a muck sweat, the wetness streaming from his belly on the floor. He tottered down the ramp off the trailer, barely able to keep his balance. Even now, the memory makes me cry.

Looking back, I wish I’d had his eye removed sooner. But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. A situation like this evolves one day at a time, and every day, the injury seems manageable. There is still hope of saving the eye. But after three weeks at the clinic – following a week of illness when I hadn’t been able to visit him – my notes say, “I visited Gandalf. He was filthy [because no one had groomed him], losing muscle. I was crying. He licked the tears from my cheek.”

Soon after, the surgeon and I agreed it was time to remove the eye. It’s a procedure called enucleation, and it was performed ‘standing’, i.e. sedated, but kept on his feet in a press. I had nightmares that Gandalf might have been conscious enough to see the scalpel coming, but I know this was my imagination running wild. The surgery went smoothly, and a prosthetic silicone implant was put into the space to keep it from caving in once it healed. I’m comforted by the fact that, until the day before the surgery, the vet’s notes say that ‘Gandalf’s appetite never wavered and the majority of the time there was very little squinting or tearing’.

Gandalf's Terrible Year: Gandalf on the day he came home from the horsepital after his surgery.
Gandalf on the day he came home from the horsepital after his surgery.

Four days after the surgery, Gandalf came home. I still remember how excited he was, whinnying at the other horses, his head held high as if he couldn’t believe the nightmare was over. Then he slept. For days, he slept. Four days after arriving home, I was able to walk him under tack for 20 minutes. I know he was as happy as I was for this return to normalcy. For the next several weeks, he had the occasional short ride at the walk, but mostly he was off, recovering.

I worried that the ordeal might limit his rideability, but happily, he returned to normal riding. While I was in the saddle, I was always aware that he was blind on his left side, but it didn’t seem to bother him at all.

Gandalf's Terrible Year: Gandalf a year after his surgery
Gandalf in 2011, the year after his surgery.

In his stall, it took a few bumps and scrapes for him to figure out where things were on that side. Within a short time he had totally adapted. When I was working around him on the ground, I almost forgot he couldn’t see on that side. One evening, I had a heart-warming reminder. He was in cross-ties and I was busy doing something off to his left. I was quiet for such a long time that he finally angled his head way around to check on me. Satisfied I was still there, he straightened his neck and resumed his patient waiting.

Those are the moments that make up for the heartache. The companionship of an animal so different from a human, yet sharing so many of the very traits that make us human. Gandalf wondered where I was when his blindness made me disappear. He lost an eye, but licked my tears when I cried for him. The love between us went both ways.

He’s been gone for six years, but I still miss him. Sweet pastures, my grey boy.

Gandalf's Terrible Year: Gandalf 2006
Gandalf in 2006

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