RedRoom, the site for readers and authors, had a contest this week. We were to blog about our favorite illustrated book. My choice is a highly personal one. Tecolote: The Little Horse That Could is a book I wrote about a remarkable horse. Tecolote was born prematurely on a freezing night. There was no reason for him to survive–but he did. The book tells and shows what happened as Teco (as we called him) grew into a strong, mature horse.
Although the book is illustrated with photographs that show Teco from his birth all the way to an adult riding horse, the story focuses on his tricky first year. We didn’t know if he would live five days. People from our neighborhood gathered outside the corral where he and his mother lived, praying for him and crying. He looked beyond terrible. Even so, he brought people together from the very start.
Later, when Teco was out of the woods, his mother died. She was an older mare with health problems. Teco faced life as a preemie, then a young horse without a mother. The book centers around how we as his caretakers used the other horses of the ranch and its facilities to give the youngster a secure and normal start. It’s about how he found his place in the herd and made dear friends in the horse and human worlds.
Tecolote: The Little Horse That Could is a beautiful tale for children, especially those with disabilities or facing loss. Teco’s story shows people––kids and adults–that those with problems can make it and have good lives. It’s is a kids’ book, 44 pages long.
Why did I stop writing at the end of Teco’s first year? We ran out of photos. Once Teco got his feet under him, he took off. The rest of his life was so normal that there wasn’t anything to photograph. He went under saddle so easily it was laughable, and then just headed down the road.
I cover Teco’s early days in the book, but I’ve never written about what follows here, the final part of Teco’s life.
Tecolote ended up being my horse. I’m an older rider with so many things wrong with me that I don’t know if I should be riding. Actually, I didn’t ride for several years. Due to an improperly set broken leg from a skiing accident, I developed severe arthritis in my knee and ankle. I had to have my knee replaced and my ankle fused. I also have a bad back. Plus I’m a cancer survivor and pretty chopped up because of that. After all that pain and surgery, I lost my nerve. After a lifetime with horses, I became afraid to ride even the calmest horse.
But my husband wanted me to ride with him again. He cajoled me into trying Teco, who had turned out to be the mellowest horse in the world. My husband’s coaxing worked.
Teco took care of me. I needed a special horse like him––gentle and kind and unspookable––to keep me safe. We became a pair as he took me on many safe, smooth rides up the trail.
One of the things that people who don’t ride don’t know about is the bond between horse and rider. Teco and I became as bonded as an equine/human pair can be.
I loved him. And he loved me back. He did a special thing that no other horse has done with me. I’d approach him, scratching his shoulder and neck the way another horse would if grooming him. He’d wrap his head and neck around me, encircling my body. It was the only way a horse could give a hug. (They don’t have arms, afterall.) He gave me a hug every time I approached him.
The book Tecolote: The Little Horse That Could came out and I entered it in a few contests. Life went on. When my grand kids came to visit, Teco amazed me. He’d never seen kids before, yet he packed them around like a trooper. They fell in love.
After the kids went home, I got back to writing. I was working on manuscripts for two books. I didn’t go down to the barn for about a week. Finally my husband called and said, “I’ve got Teco saddled. Come and ride.”
I was high as a kite, euphoric. The book contests I’d entered were announcing their winners. I’d found out the night before that Teco’s book had won 2011 Silver Nautilus Award for Children’s Nonfiction (Gr. 1-6). The Nautilus Award recognizes books that promote spiritual growth, conscious living and positive social change. Previous winners include Thich Nhat Hanh and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I was overjoyed–Teco’s book belonged in that company.
My joy lasted less than 24 hours. I went down to the barn. My husband had Teco saddled and ready. There he was, resplendent in his golden coat with its black trim. I found it impossible to look at Teco without feeling happy. He was a buckskin; his body was golden palomino color. His mane, tail, and legs were black. I could run my eyes over him and appreciate his straight legs and how his shoulder angled back the way that a gaited horse’s should. He had a short back and long hip, an adorable face. All of Tecolote was beautiful.
But not that day. He stood in the barn, head down, mucous pouring from his nostrils. He coughed. I didn’t like the look of him at all.
On the other hand, he was saddled. Show me a horse person who can resist getting on a saddled horse and I’ll show you someone who isn’t really a horse person.
I decided to ride him to the arena and see how he did. He walked slowly, head almost touching the ground. He coughed and had no energy. In fact, he acted as though he might fall down.
“This horse is sick,” I said to myself, heading slowly back to the barn. When I got off of Teco, he lowered his head. Liquid poured from his nostrils, splattering on the barn floor.
He had pneumonia. It didn’t respond to the massive doses of antibiotics the vet gave him. I was mystified; I’ve had horses for 55 years and have never seen one with pneumonia. Our part of California is too mild.
Teco kept getting sicker. We took him to the hospital. We have one of the best equine hospitals in the country in our valley. Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center is a wonderful resource. They’ve saved the lives of many of our horses.
They’d save Tecolote, too. When he unloaded the horse from our trailer, my husband said a half dozen bright young vets swarmed around him.
“They climbed all over him for hours, discussing what might be wrong and doing tests,” my husband told me. They’d fix our horse.
A day later, we went in for a conference. The vet who was coordinating Teco’s case said, “If we can stabilize him well enough to go home, he can hang out in pasture with his buddies the rest of his life. But you can never ride him again.”
We sat there, stunned. “What do you mean?”
“He’s too dangerous to ride,” the vet explained.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s in heart failure.” He drew a diagram of Teco’s heart, showing how part was greatly enlarged. Their ultrasounds had given them a clear picture.
“But how did this happen?” I couldn’t believe it. “Is it because he was premature?”
“It has nothing to do with his prematurity. It’s been happening over the last two or three years.”
In shock, I realized that no one had ridden him during those years. My husband likes rip-roaring horses with tons of spirit. I wasn’t riding, being too traumatized by all my surgery. Teco stood in pasture, apparently fine, enjoying life with his friends.
And dying. We brought him home and gave him all the zillions of meds the clinic prescribed. Twice a day, my husband ground maybe thirty human pills with a mortar and pestle. He mixed their dust with molasses and water, and loaded the mess into a syringe with the end cut off, which allowed him to squirt the meds into Teco’s mouth. The horse raised his head as high as he could; he did not make it easy.
When the heart begins to fail, it enlarges, trying to make up for it’s decreased strength. It can’t pump enough blood to the animal’s body, and it can’t recirculate fluids. They begin to build up. On a horse, fluids collect along the animal’s belly––the lowest point on his body. Fluid gathers between his front and back legs as well. Teco looked he had a blanket of gigantic kitchen sponges stuffed under his skin from his the front of his chest through his hind legs. The meds did nothing.
Teco’s book kept winning awards. Tecolote: The Little Horse That Could was a finalist in two categories of the 2011 National Indie Excellence Contest: Animals/Pets General and Juvenile Non-fiction.
I was in this crazy world where the awards kept coming in and Teco got worse. I’d go down to see him in his pasture. He’d be standing there, head down, in a corner by himself. He was leaving this world. He was leaving me.
The vet said he had only a day or two to live when we put him down. If we hadn’t, the end would have been horrible. Just before I left the field so the vet could do his job, I scratched Teco’s neck the way I always did. Sick as he was, he turned his head and neck around and embraced me. A final hug, and he was gone.
I ended up in the hospital in the midst of all this. I started getting chest pains as Teco deteriorated. If you call up your doctor––and my internist was pretty far away––and say, “I’m having chest pains,” that doctor will say, “Go to the Emergency Room right away.”
If you walk into an Emergency Room, a haggard-looking lady in your mid-sixties, those medicos will JUMP. They did every test you can imagine. I was scared stiff, not knowing what was happening with my body.
It boiled down to: My heart was breaking. Tecolote was being ripped from my soul.
* * * * *
Tecolote died May 1, 2011, four days before his tenth birthday. He was a miracle when he was born and a joy all his life. He brought horses and riding back when I thought that part of my life was over. I loved him for the obstacles he overcame in his life, and what he helped me overcome.
Here’s Tecolote: The Little Horse That Could’s Amazon page. You can loook inside the book and see Teco. I put up some photos of him and our other horses on the page, too. At the end of 2011, the book garnered two more prizes. It was a winner in Children’s Nonfiction and a finalist in Children’s Picture Book Softcover Non-fiction of the USA BOOK NEWS “USA BEST BOOKS OF 2011” AWARD.
That’s why Tecolote: The Little Horse That Could is my favorite illustrated book. It’s all I’ve got left of him. I’m glad I’ve got the awards and the book.
I’d rather have the horse.
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