In 1990, Pete purchased a young, racing bred mare. Mighty Threat, a two-year old bay filly had built in spirit and speed. We loved her diminutive but phenomenal athletic build, her spunky spirit and the small half-moon marking on her forehead. Mighty also gave birth to some of our favorite horses, like Jet, Threat, Vegas, and Allie.
Whenever Pete rode Mighty he knew he could count on two things: Mighty would buck at least once and she would consistently ride out with great heart regardless of the terrain, the task, or the speed required for the work. Listening to Pete talk about Mighty it’s as though he speaks of a best friend, a friend that comes along only now and then in a lifetime.
Approaching her late teens, Mighty began to founder, particularly in the spring and early summer months. Foundering or laminitis in horses is a painful infection of the tissue that connects the coffin bone to the hoof wall. Laminitis can be caused by a variety of factors, including consuming too much grain, unlimited grazing on rich pasture, weight issues, or overwork on hard surfaces.
Once foundered, a horse is likely to founder again. Unfortunately, this was the case for Mighty. During the winter months she could tolerate a feed of dry hay, but once the snows thawed and the meadow grass began to grow, she would founder on the season’s new grass. So, Pete would confine her to a run and a feed of dry hay throughout the summer months.
Walking by this past summer, we often saw her with head hanging down, her withers protruding, and her back drooping from age. Now, twenty-one, how depressing it must be for her, a horse that instinctually grazes free, to be kept confined. In the mornings and evenings, when feeding time arrived though, she’d stick her head out over the half-door door of the stall hoping someone would come by and say hello, rub her head, or say something sweet to her.
One late summer night, Pete was awakened by a loud banging as though something were hitting the stall walls. Quickly alert, he dressed and ran downstairs to gather up his coat and gloves. Once he reached the stalls he knew it was Mighty. In the throes of colic, Mighty was thrashing about the stall, rolling from her side to her back and back again, her legs hitting the stall walls. The term colic is a general term for intestinal distress. It can be a simple intestinal upset or it can be what is referred to as a twisted gut where the intestines actually become twisted. Colic is often unforgiving and causes unimaginable pain. Pete knew Mighty was facing a formidable foe.
In order to try and prevent her from hurting herself anymore, Pete managed to get her up and walk her out into the arena, about fifty yards away. There, at one in the morning, he immediately gave her a shot of Banamine, an anti-inflammatory pain reliever, to help ease her distress. Sitting beside her on the ground, he stroked her side and thought about their twenty years together. It seemed so unfair that she had to suffer like this at the end of her life.
Over the years, Pete has had numerous experiences with colicky horses. He soon realized Mighty probably wouldn’t live through this episode and every minute she was alive she would be in agony. Even if he could reach a vet at that time of night, he knew the vet would advise putting Mighty down. So rather than prolong her suffering, Pete reluctantly walked to the house to get his twenty-two. Back out at the arena he loaded his rifle and struggled with knowing what he should do and the reality of ending Mighty’s life.
I hadn’t heard Mighty or Pete go out or even the gunshot. I didn’t realize what the night had brought until Pete came downstairs in the morning. Sitting in the kitchen the next morning, through tearful recounting, he said the worst part was listening to her moan and watching her body writhe in pain.
For over thirty years, we’ve come to know that determining life and death on a ranch is very often both a heart wrenching and a compassionate act. For Pete to raise his rifle and stop Mighty’s suffering in this way would never be his first choice, but when there is no other solution at that moment, he was compelled to act.