I hadn’t seen Satts for about 16 months and was a little apprehensive that he might come back to me in the same freaked out state that he was when I first met him. But the instant the driver swung the divider to his stall across, I knew he was okay. Satts stood at the top of the ramp gawking around as if he was trying to get his bearings. He made one call and received a reply from Chops in the nearby paddock. That seem to satisfy him that he was where he thought he was. At the request of the driver, Satts gingerly followed him down the steep decline until he was on firm ground.
I led Satts the twenty metres to the stable that would be his home for a short while. It had fresh bedding, hay and water. Once I returned the halter and lead rope to the truckie, he wasted no time in wishing me luck and hopping into the cab to make his way to the next job.
Before going to the house to telephone dad with the news that his horse arrived safely, I made a cursory examination of Satts. He had the greyhound frame that all racehorses have when in work. His leg was clearly still swollen, but apart from that, it was hard to tell if he had an injury. He stood equally on all four legs and did not seem to be protecting the damaged limb when he moved.
He took a momentary break from eating his hay to come to the door to sniff me, but my intrusion was not enough to distract him for long from filling his belly.
Dad had arranged for copies of the scans of Satts’ leg to be sent to my vet. So when the vet arrived two days after Satts’ arrival he was already armed with the necessary information. After a thorough examination of the leg, watching Satt’s movement and reading the report from the Sydney vet, my vet was not as optimistic as dad seemed about Satt’s prognosis. He said it was a very bad tear and there appeared to be some damage in the other foreleg too. He didn’t think Satts would ever be able to do much more than walk around the paddock. And even that may cause him some discomfort.
My next move was to insist on a referral to Geoff Hazard at the Werribee Veterinary Hospital. I had some experience with Geoff in the past and found him to be brilliant when it came to diagnosing musculoskeletal and leg problems in horses.
The next week I loaded Satts into the float and drove across Melbourne to meet Geoff at 9am. We were there for three hours while Geoff went over Satts from head to toe, took more scans and consulted with colleagues. With each minute, I was becoming less sure that I wanted to know the verdict. One vet had already been pessimistic, did I really want to hear it confirmed? Finally, Geoff met with me and said that he thought Satts would come good for normal riding. He’d be no super athlete again, but there was no reason that with rest and time that Satts would not be able to cope with light riding in the arena and on the trail. No jumping, no racing, no barrel racing or polo or cutting or reining or anything that was going to raise his heart rate! I was to take him back for another examination in six months time.
Satts spent another two weeks in the stable before I introduced him back to the paddock. I didn’t want the other horses running Satts around the paddock, so I put him in a paddock adjacent to the others. Over the next few weeks, I introduced each horse one at a time to Satts’ paddock. This gave Satts and the other horse plenty of time to get settled with each other before adding another horse to the herd. Overall it worked pretty well, but of course, it was going to be impossible to ensure there was absolutely no galloping and cavorting. Nevertheless, Satts showed no sign of further damaging his suspensory ligament and except for the swelling in the leg, it was difficult to detect any injury.
It was close to three and half months before I was certain that the swelling in the soft tissue has significantly subsided. At the six-month mark, it was time to visit Geoff Hazard again. Palpation of the lower leg revealed ongoing healing in the soft tissue, but he remained relatively even in his movement. Geoff was pleased with the progress. The scans showed a lot of remodelling of the tissue. Geoff said he would look at Satts again in another 3 months. In the meantime, Satts was to be kept rested and living the life of a spoilt horse. Geoff made mention that Satts had lost his hard-bodied ripped muscle look and replaced it with the look of an overfed show hack. At least his appearance now fitted in with the rest of my herd.
A couple of more visits and finally I got the all clear from the vet that Satts could begin light riding again. It had been 15 months since he arrived and I’m sure it was a surprise to him to see a saddle again. I think Satts had become comfortable with the comforts of retirement and was not expecting to ever see the inside of a round yard again.
I had formulated a plan that Satts could become a workhorse. He was big and strong and able-bodied enough to bear the brunt of the pushing and pulling that young, green horses can do. If his legs stood up to the workload, I was going to use Satts to work other horses from. But it was to begin with just getting him use to being a riding horse again. I needed to see what he remembered from the training I gave him and also how his emotional state stood up to the months of racing.
Our first session was just some groundwork with Satts wearing a saddle. His whole body froze when I girthed up my saddle, so I loosened the girth a couple of holes and walked him around in hand until I felt him soften. Then I buckled to the next hole and walked him again. I threw in a few hindquarter yields and some backing. Finally, he melted into my hand and I was able to snug the girth to its proper firmness with no sign of worry.
After doing a few minutes of work in hand to check out his response to the lead rope, I removed the halter and walked away. Satts watched me leave for a few strides, then looked left and took off with lightning speed like he was a fashion model being chased by a Big Mac. There was no bucking, just running. He ran so fast he struggled to stay on his feet. As I stood and watched him, I was glad the sand was not very deep and there was little chance of him damaging his ligament again. Since he had the fitness level of a pie eating contest winner, it didn’t take long for him to slow down and regain his composure to the point where we could actually get some work done.
That first session jogged my memory to recall what a nice horse Satts had become. I guess he was always a nice horse, but he hadn’t always had a chance to prove it.
The next session came the next day. I did a bit more groundwork and then rode him in a side pull. After a few turns and transitions from walk to trot to canter, it was time to open the gate and head out across the country. He seemed to be holding back going down the driveway. He was not very forward, but I put that largely down to the fact that he did not have shoes fitted and the gravel was making him a little hot-footed. When we got to the gate I was able to turn him left and walk along the grassy verge. He seemed more comfortable in his movement but was still travelling like he was towing a barge. I could tell his mind was fixated on going back to the paddock. I had not planned on doing little more than take him for a ride to the gate and back, but this was an issue that I felt needed addressing now.
I stopped Satts about 30 metres past the gate. I sat quietly on a loose rein and waited. He called back to Chops in the paddock, but there was no answer. Satts began to look around. After a few seconds, he turned his shoulders to the right and made a move towards the gate. I picked up my right rein and continued his turn. At first, he pulled on my rein every time he became lined up with the gate and then tried to spin quickly through the turn to get his nose pointing back at the gate. But I kept turning him. I was waiting for a change of thought. Just when I considered he was never going to give up on trying to make his way back to the gate, I felt a lack of rushing and softening through his turn. My reins dropped quietly on his neck and he stopped, facing the other side of the road. I didn’t care where he was pointed. I only cared that he was no longer trying to get back home.
We rested for a few moments before I nudged Satts forward where he was facing. But after the first step, he veered right again and looked to the gate. My right rein asked for more turning until he again let go of the thought that the gate was the most important thing in his life. When I put slack back in the rein we stopped, facing the gate. But with my left rein I asked him to about face and look up the road. A few moments of rest and I ask him forward again.
It took maybe seven or eight repetitions of the same exercise before Satts gave up the idea that he needed to be heading home now. We rode on for about another hundred metres before turning back. Satts was clearly glad to get home and see his mates. Although I could see there was potential for a problem developing with regard to being homebound, I figured today was not the day to be doing too much about it. It was Satt’s first ride in more than a year and I didn’t want to make the experience too much like work. There would be plenty of time and plenty of projects in the coming weeks and months.
Overall, I was pretty happy with how Satts handled the session. Obviously, he had picked up some bad habits; with a lack of focus being number one. But dad’s trainer had not done a bad job of keeping Satts settled and sensible. He had neither turned him into a fruit loop nor killed his personality – which I found to be fairly uncommon in retired racehorses. But most important was that I didn’t feel Satts favour his injured leg. I was sure Satts would go on to be the working horse I needed.