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Killacky: When Things Go Wrong

Brad Pettengill

My Shetland pony has been pulling me in a cart for four years. There are occasional off days when nothing goes right. Harnessing up is annoying. She refuses the bit. Once hitched up, the pony’s skittish. She rushes through corners, bucks when I ask for speed, and rears up when I try to come to a halt.

This aberrant behavior has to be understood for everyone’s safety. I first check equipment dysfunction. Is the girth cinched too tight? Does her bit fit properly? I examine her mouth to see if something might be up with her teeth. Vermont’s long winters can make a horse barn sour. Maybe she just needed to let off a little steam.

I sign up for coaching to counter driver error. We recalibrate my hands on the reins. My trainer reminds me that the first impulse is to pull back when something goes amiss. Better to relax, give the pony a slight bit of rein, and ask her to move on. It’s easier to control an animal moving forward.

With newfound confidence, the next few drives go beautifully. I’m relaxed, she’s happy, and we’re once more in sync. Then she begins to cough. Over the next few days, the cough gets more pronounced. The vet prescribes antibiotics with quiet turnout and no forced exercise. Every night we slowly walk together just to get her out of her stall and moving. In midwinter’s deep freeze, it’s difficult for us both to breath.

Her hacking persists for weeks, despite continued antibiotics and the addition of steroids. I feel helpless and increasingly anxious. We try to eliminate possible environmental factors: wetting down hay to decrease dust, changing her grain, putting different bedding in the stall, even a medicinal powder mixed with beet pulp and maple syrup to soothe her airways – all to no avail.

Then winter breaks and mud season is finally upon us. The cough - although fading - still lingers. Her temperature and blood work are normal, and her lungs are clear. The vet feels it’s important to begin exercising again.

Groundwork and easy drives go well until I set up obstacles with rubber cones. A freak accident lodges a cone in the wheel, pitching me out of the cart. The pony’s fine, but I have a concussion and see double. Now it’s my time to recover. So, as spring begins in earnest, we slowly rebuild strength, stamina, and focus. I dust off the cart, clean tack, and hope to drive together soon.

John Killacky is the executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington.
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