Little Joe

May 2005 - June 9, 2006

I'll always remember the first time I saw him, and I'll never forget the last.

It was Memorial Day weekend and he was standing under the roof of a loafing shed, out of the hot Montana sun, with his golden dun dam. He was a dark, mahogany bay colt with a lightening bolt, zig-zag star, a snip, one white hind sock and the longest legs I've ever seen on a foal. He was less than a day old, and he made us say "Wow!"when we saw him. My husband and I seldom agree on a horse, we have different tastes, but we agreed on this little fella. As we approached, his mother, unused to seeing humans, lifted her head and snorted, causing him to perk his ears, throw his head and tail in the air and scamper around to the far side of her. Not wanting to disturb the pair, and having verified the health of the colt, we left.

We almost left the ranch the colt was born on. Finding things not working out between us and the Quarter Horse breeder we were working for, we'd given our notice and were packing to move when the owner's wife called. She said a colt had gone through the barbed wire fence the day before and having been unable to catch the mother, the colt was still in the field, just lying there. She knew my husband would be able to catch the pair. He did, and he hauled the mare and foal to the vet. It was the golden dun, Loni J, and her colt, "our" little "Wow!" foal. He was only 6 weeks old. It took Dr. Pat Trindle, our vet, more than 4 hours to stitch him up. There wasn't a place on that baby that wasn't cut; he even lost the end of his tongue! The pair came home to the ranch with Dennis for doctoring. We did not know, at that point, that we would be given the bay colt for having rescued him.

That colt changed our minds about leaving. We knew if we left, he would not receive the care he required to heal, that if we didn't do the doctoring he needed, he would be so badly scarred he'd never be worth looking at, no one would want him. We knew if we worked diligently, he would heal with minimal scarring. We were aware it would take at least a year to get him healed up, but we also knew he would be worth the effort. Somehow that bay stud colt was special, there was something different about him, he had Heart.

At first he lived with his dam in a small, makeshift pen outside the barn, set up in a grassy area where his bandages would stay clean and dry. He required IV antibiotics for several days, and getting hold of him to administer them was akin to catching a baby deer. Loni J was suspicious of humans, and did her best to protect him from us. Dennis had to be quick to catch him, and then he had to all but ride him until he'd quit struggling. The colt managed to cut up another front leg in his attempts to escape before he became gentle and even began to look forward to the friendly scratching that occurred after the doctoring was complete.

With bandages on three legs, Little Joe, as he came to be known, having been sired by Watch Joe Gamble, a Watch Joe Jack stallion, would lie down and be unable to get back up. He managed a number of times to get cast against the panels and required rescuing. In his struggling to rise he popped a hernia.

Once a week we hauled Loni J and Little Joe to see  "Uncle Pat", get the bandages removed, the wounds scrubbed, and new bandages put back on. We stove off the danger of infection, slowly the exposed tendons were covered with meat, and risk of permanent lameness gradually diminished.

The vet and the gals at the office always seemed happy to see us pull up with Loni J and Little Joe. Tenderly they cleaned wounds, while Little Joe, drugged and held up by Dennis, tried to nuzzle the girl's hair. He never tried to kick or bite or paw them. He knew they were helping.

It was a big day when the stitches came out, an even bigger day when the last bandage came off. The next visit to "Uncle Pat" and the girls brought hernia repair. For being less than 3 months old, Little Joe sure had his share of trials, yet he never displayed ill humor.

The hernia repair caused Little Joe more difficulties. The hernia was banded, then the site above the "stump" was injected with iodine, and Little Joe had a reaction to the iodine. His whole underside swelled up, causing him great discomfort for some time. A cycle of antibiotics were administered again. The stump took longer than usual to dry up and drop off, but the day after it did, we were finally able to turn Loni J and Little Joe loose in a larger area. Oh! How Little Joe RAN!!

We had set up electric fencing around a small area we could see from the kitchen window and a living room window. Up until the arrival of Loni and Little Joe, Chance, an orphan filly we were raising for the owners, lived in that area alone. She was beside herself to have a "herd" of non-humans, for surely SHE was human. Little Joe, although very young when taken from his birth herd, still knew what another foal was, and could not understand why this filly, who was 2 months older and twice his size, was chomping at him! He did not understand why she would not run and play with him. It did not take long before he convinced Chance he wasn't going to eat her and they began to play as only foals can play. Loni J became quite personable and friendly, and even wound up "adopting" Chance, helping to look after her and teaching her to be a horse.

As long days of summer slipped by, we became busy halter-breaking yearlings for the Production Sale to be held in October. Little Joe thrived on grass, his mother's milk and good grass hay. He began to fill out and finally grow. The stress of his injuries had kept him stunted until now. We had to scrub the "scabs" off and slather him with ointment twice a day, three times if he managed to rub the morning's "grease" off by lunchtime! His front legs had begun to grow a bit crooked due to the strain of packing his hind legs for so long, so we began trimming his hooves to get him straight. He accepted our ministering to him with gracious appreciation, in spite of the pain the scrubbing must have caused him, nuzzling my hair if I was doing the doctoring or Dennis' backside if he was the lucky one.

Dennis and I spent hours sitting in the little paddock with a golden dun mare, a mahogany bay colt and a brown orphan filly called home. We let the evening sun soothe the sore muscles from the day's work, let the songs of the meadowlarks, the munching sound of horse teeth on grass, and the horseplay of two foals ease our spirits. Summer slipped into fall. Fall brought the Production Sale, yet another weanling, a half sister to Little Joe, and our resignations. We packed our belongings, gathered up our small herd of horses and moved.

It was early to wean Little Joe, he was only a little over 4 months old, but we fed him all the good grass hay he could eat, as well as a handful of oats with Clovite and Calf Manna added in. He never seemed to miss his dam or get lonely with Shy Anne, his half sister, to keep him company, and over the course of the autumn he continued to grow. He grew such a thick, wooly, winter coat we kept telling him he must be part buffalo! I could see Shy and Little Joe from my kitchen window in this new house, and enjoyed watching them romp and spar, and race round and round. They brought so much entertainment to our lives, it was like watching "The Montana Horse Channel". From racing around, to dozing in the sun, from munching their hay and grain in the shelter of the barn on snowy days to greeting me with warm breath, icicle bewhiskered knickers, the two warmed my heart like none before them had done.

Little Joe, still being doctored at least twice a day, no longer needed even being haltered to have the scabs scrubbed off and the "grease"put on. Instead, he'd always turn his head and nuzzle my pony tail. He was never happy with me if I had my hair down when I worked on him; it HAD to be a pony tail. Oh, and mercy me, if I didn't wear a ball cap! He'd lay his head atop mine, just as if to offer to be my cap, to shade my eyes for me. Eyes. Joe had the sweetest, kindest, darkest eyes I have ever seen. I could see his very soul in his eyes, and his soul looking straight back into mine.

Spring finally arrived, shedding began, he slicked out to the prettiest dark bay color, with hair like silk. To pet him was to caress velvet. With the call of "Little Joe, Little Jooooe", he came from the farthest corners of the pasture to get loved on, he adored being groomed. He taught Shy Anne to be a trusting, loving filly.

The time came to turn him and Shy out with our "big" horses. Aspen foaled and we needed the yearlings' pasture for her and her colt for a short time. We didn't expect any trouble, since the yearlings and the rest of the herd had been nose to nose across a fence all winter. However, the next morning we found Little Joe had been run into a fence. He wasn't badly cut up, mostly just scratched, but he had a chunk missing from the corner of his mouth. He did protest doctoring on that, but it just came with the rest. Twice a day he'd make his circle past the house on the way to water, and twice a day we'd "grease Little Joe". He began to lose his hay belly, got rather gangly, and sprouted up like the grass the spring rains brought. His left leg had grown skin completely over the ugly wound, and hair was coming in. His right hind, the worst of the wounds, had only a small amount of skin yet to grow to be completely covered.

We turned Aspen and her foal, a lighter bay stud colt we named Cowboy, with the same left hind sock and a star on his forehead that is very similar to Little Joe's, out with the herd. Little Joe assumed the Big Brother role within a few days. He and Cowboy would spar, and have races, and the two would speed around the perimeter of the herd, spurring Shy Anne into action, and even sometimes getting some of the older mares to run and buck. Little Joe became the babysitter.

Then, just last Thursday, I went out to grease Little Joe, the herd was at water, and I walked among them, but Little Joe was no where to be found. I felt the icy fingers of fear grip my heart. He NEVER, EVER left the herd, would NEVER leave Shy Anne. Had he stepped in a badger hole or a "picket-pin" hole and broken a leg? Had he gone through the fence somewhere? Had he gotten kicked and was unable to come? The whole herd had been in the corner by the drive just an hour and a half earlier. I'd honked at them as I drove by to let them know I was home, and to watch as the youngsters threw heads and tails in the air and did the Pepe La Pew bounce back to the herd. I began to call· "Little Joe Little Jooooe", calling and walking, I caught sight of movement near the fence, just up a ways. Walking quickly, heart in my throat, I watched as Joe struggled to rise. I thought he was caught in the fence, but no, all the wire was strung tight. When I reached him, he struggled to rise again; he was wet with sweat, coated in mud. I could not immediately determine what was wrong, but instinctively knew that whatever it was it was beyond my ability to help. I raced back to the house to get Dennis.

Dennis and I brought the truck back. He helped Little Joe up, and we knew right off, it was colic. Nostrils flared, breathing as rapidly as though he'd just won the Kentucky Derby, sweat dripping, and the continuous effort to lie down and roll were the unmistakable signs. Dennis got him walking, kept him going, while I drove back to the house to get a shot of Banamine and the cell phone. Dennis administered the shot and called "Uncle Pat", while I walked Little Joe. It had rained the past couple of days, had just stopped that evening, and the grass had come on lush and green. He'd eaten too much.

We walked Little Joe to the gate, Dennis' cell phone rang just as we got there, and he started talking to the vet. I kept walking with Little Joe, I kept telling him he'd already come through so much that he couldn't quit me now. That I knew he wanted no more than to lie down and roll, but he just had to keep walking with me. I sang to him.  I prayed. By the gate, Little Joe just plopped down, no warning like the other times he'd already tried to lie down, he just went down, and before I could stop it from happening, he rolled. Then he rolled back. I was yelling for help, when he jumped to his feet, heaved a big sigh, and looked at me with dark, liquid eyes that said he was back in our world. I felt such relief I nearly cried. And I thanked the Good Lord who hears all our prayers.

In spite of the fact the colt looked and acted much better, we walked him to the house while discussing whether or not to put him in the barn for the night. Suddenly his breathing became labored, his nostrils flared again and he again began to sweat. We administered more Banamine, then Rompun IV, time and again we gave him those shots, and while Joe got a little relief for brief amounts of time, we never were able to stop the pain completely for him. He had a few bowel movements, he passed urine, but nothing we could do made the pain go away, nothing we did made him completely comfortable. The hours dragged by, Dennis let him lay down, and sat on his shoulder to keep him from rolling. The pain would come in waves, crashing in and then abating, only to crash in again. Dennis struggled heroically to keep Little Joe from rolling. Little Joe, who would never offer to strike out at a human while tending his wounds, was unable to prevent himself from rolling right over Dennis or I, if he could, in his attempts to ease this intense pain he felt. It was excruciating to watch the young stallion, who had already battled so much and won, slip away from us into a world ruled by agony and darkness. The darkness of night descended enclosing us all.

Snapshots of Little Joe's life began to flash across my mind's eye like a slideshow; the first time I saw him; Little Joe with 3 legs in white bandages; Little Joe's first halter lesson, head laid in Dennis hands to be cuddled and praised when he figured it out; Little Joe racing around the pasture; Little Joe lying beside his dam snoozing the heat of the afternoon away; Little Joe and Chance; Little Joe sparring with Cowboy, who looks so eerily like him.

Snapshots imprinted themselves on my mind during this, the longest night of my life. Little Joe, pain eased somewhat, lying on his brisket, Dennis lying next to him, resting on his shoulder, starlight playing hide and seek with the clouds, the only illumination; I saw him as the grown horse he would have become instead of as the yearling he was.

And then the last picture as a misty fog descended and closed in around Dennis and Little Joe. The pain became more and more intense and the colt we loved so slipped farther and farther away from us. Little Joe could no longer lie down, nor could he stand. Dennis could no longer hold the colt up, he could no longer watch agony draw Joe's face into a macabre grimace of pain, this young stallion he'd put such time and effort into healing, loving, and teaching. Dennis could no longer hold out hope, and neither could I. He asked me to get him his pistol.

We got Little Joe up one last time; it took tremendous exertion on our parts and on Little Joe's. He showed us his heart in that last great effort, he showed his obedience, love and willingness to do what we, his human herd, asked of him. I watched as Dennis walked with Little Joe, leading him away from the house. I watched until the shroud of mist and fog engulfed them and erased them from my vision. I watched until I could no longer see through blinding tears.

In the end, Dennis took great pain and heartache upon himself in order to take that pain away from the colt he loved so dearly. He had stayed with Little Joe through that whole, seemingly endless black night, he held him up for hours so Joe wouldn't roll, and he had endured for more than 8 hours what other humans could not have endured for two. Then he did what had to be done. He loved that colt enough to let him go, to put an end to the stallion's agony.  "Uncle Pat" later told him he'd done the best thing.

Dennis clipped Little Joe's mane, leaving one notch at the base, just in front of the withers, indicating a True Bridle Horse, even though The Master Horseman would recognize it in him anyway. I thought perhaps the Dorrance Brothers, away off up there on the Heavenly Range needed a new project horse.  Little Joe would WAS the best they could have chosen. Then Dennis laid Joe to rest on the Lonesome Prairie, where he was born, lived and died.

The rains came again the next day, pouring down in  buckets full. Hot tears mingled with cold rain running down my face as I mourned the loss of the colt and watched his hoofprints melt away, knowing he'd left his mark indelibly on my heart.

There are no words to express how Little Joe was so different from other horses, he just was, you'd have had to have known him, would have had to have met him to know. There is a hole in our herd where Little Joe used to be, but when Shy Anne wanders too far off by herself, like she and Little Joe used to do, the herd closes in around her. Cowboy, who, until Friday, was distant, now seeks us humans out for a scratching, as though something of Little Joe gave itself a new home in him. Though my heart is broken at having lost Little Joe, it soars with joy at having had him in our lives, if even for a brief time.

And I remember, this parting isn't the end, we'll meet again in the great by and by - so with this thought in mind, it is with much fondness I bid you, Little Joe - Adios, mi Amigo, Vaya Con Dios.

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