Compassion Fatigue?

I sat in session today talking about how “this” (what I do) doesn’t resonate with me. When did that change? When did I stop giving a shit. Did it drift away long ago? or is it something new? As I think, long and hard, about it, I think it has been a more insidious process. Slowly and surely chipping away at my resolve. I do not think it happened over night. I’m sure the never-ending financial pressure hasn’t helped, but it is more likely a cumulative effect. With each horse we put in the ground,having fought for and loved. With every fiber in our being, we loved them. and we lost them. That takes a little piece, makes it hard to come back. Somewhat like a boxer getting clipped with a straight jab. Makes them less likely to step inside. The jabs hold the perimeter, and allows the other boxer to win. I think that is what has happened. We have laid ourselves out there, not ever holding back. Never putting our hands up. We are defenseless when fate lands that jab. When we lose one, it is like taking it flush on the chin. I knew things were changing when I couldn’t name the mare that came in this past June. They come to us like ghosts, no past, no nothing, not even a name. Just a number stuck on their hip. That is their identity. We have always named our horses, often within a short time of meeting them. They speak to us, in their own way. I could not name this mare. A horse I had laid my head on and cried into her mane. A horse I tended to, and treated with antibiotics. I have spent time with her each day, but she remained nameless. I know now why that is, I don’t want to walk into that jab. My hands are up and I am defending myself. A horse with no name is far harder to fall in love with. They are just another number, not an individual. I couldn’t bring myself to name her. This is fatigue. Compassion is something close to breathing for people like myself and my partner. The ability to empathize, and to love enables us to engage fully with these animals. It also allows them to thrive. Those that knew only fear, learn about a kind word and a positive experience. Those that went hungry, know we are there every day at the same time, with the same amount. It never varies. It gives them security. But for us, it takes its toll. We are their lifeline. We provide all that they need. In times of illness and disease, we must provide unflinching and steadfast support. There is no running for cover, or looking the other way. It isn’t an option. That is a huge responsibility. It makes our lives hard. I’ve never been one to turn my back, or withdraw from a fight. Here I stand back against the ropes, flinching from a feigning opponent. No jab, but still I flinch. How do I get back to that confident place? A place of love and compassion, a place where horses get names, and get loved. Where an incoming blow is blocked aside and easily handled. The match won with a return flurry- an animal rescued with kindness and love. There is no living when you are in hiding. There is no rescue if there is not 100% commitment.

I don’t know how to rekindle the passion for what I do. Nor do I know how to get past the pain and the loss. I don’t think the answer is getting hardened and shut down. It is far too easy for me to hide behind a rough facade. That isn’t the answer. I don’t want to change anymore than I already have. I don’t want my partner to change anymore than she has. There has to be a way to do what we do without shutting down. I know we are fatigued and burned out. I just don’t know how to remedy that while still keeping all the balls in the air. We can’t just drop everything and leave. There is no easy answer.


Today was the first normal day in more than a week. It felt foreign and wooden. I went through the motions and followed the routine. The routine of countless other Mondays. The work is the same, but somehow the scaffolding behind it is different. I’m not even sure what is holding it all together. I slowly inched my way into the flow of life again. Missing was the nerves on edge, and the adrenaline coursing thru me. It was a day without horror, or death. It was a normal day. Each animal was fine, nothing amiss. I found myself checking and double checking them all. A simple nap in the sun was met with a long examination and finally a determination that it was, in fact, just a nap. It was nice to have a day like this, after so many awful ones. As we reached the end of the chores I found myself sighing in relief that we had made it through the day.

I guess there is no answer, as to why this week was the way it was. There is no answer, as to why we lost a vibrant healthy mare in the prime of her life. I spent more time searching for any clue. Reading any article pertaining to small intestine disease in the horse. I don’t like questions, I want answers. I hate being unable to answer why. The reality remains there may never be an answer. I hope the pathology report gives us something. I was able to find some rare accounts of perforated jejunal diverticulosis in horses. The presentation and outcome the same. Maybe that is what claimed her life. But, does it really even matter? she is gone, there is no bringing her back. It really doesn’t matter. Though to cling to the academic gives distance, and for me that means not having to wallow in this vast abyss of loss and misery.

The old horse continues to do well. I am happy for him, and for his owners. He is a miracle, for sure.

As I spoke with Virgil today, I talked a bit about all I learned this week. I guess that is the silver lining. I found myself stretched well beyond anywhere I had been before. I did okay. I took care of my charges. They were given everything, be it blood, sweat or tears. It was an endless week. Sleep deprivation praying on each of us. It is remarkable how the mind works, or doesn’t when not given enough sleep. Time seems to stand still. Hours feel like days. Tasks done in the previous hour felt like they had been done last week, or worse not at all. I found myself writing everything down, or I couldn’t be sure what I had done. It was surreal. Eating was an after thought, though our clients worked very hard to keep us well fed. It all just became a weird twilight zone type experience. Much like the movie Groundhog day, each day a repeat of the one before. Always striving for a different result. We made it out of that, but we lost a part of ourselves. The cost was great. I feel so much like a different person. It may just be the last of the adrenaline wearing off, and my nerve endings finally relaxing. All of the same shit is still here, just as it was a week ago. It pales in comparison to this past week. It was as if some omnipotent being reached down and shook everything- as if to say “you think you have it bad? here’s bad!”. Yeah, it was hell. It made the life we have been living a walk in the park. I don’t want to live that again. EVER. I don’t want to spend endless days so far out on the edge. When sleep becomes impossible, because you are so caught in a fight or flight scenario. The brain firing on all cylinders trying to keep everything okay. I would try to take moments to step away, to come down to the house and just lay down for a bit. It was impossible. It was as if someone had hooked up some jumper cables to the mattress. Every nerve fiber in my body raw and painfully aware. There was no reprieve, no rest, no break. As we came into the third day, I was finally able to rest. It still took hours to fall asleep. My mind still racing along, even though my body was beyond exhausted. Sleep was fitful, and uneven. Often times I would wake with a start, staring at the phone. Worried I had missed a call from the barn. Convinced something bad had happened, some turn for the worse.

Midweek there was a shift in the pendulum. The miracle of life for one, the ebbing of life for the other. It was unexpected. In our weary heads we just accepted it. The high degree of care began to diminish. It became a waiting game. Waiting for lab work, waiting for antibiotics to work. Looking back now, I know how hopeful we had been. She’d stabilize for 24 hours, only to grow ill again. We had no way of knowing how bad it was. Horses can be stoic beyond measure. I have seen them stand on limbs shattered beyond recognition. They are a product of evolution. A sick animal would be quickly singled out by a predator. They adapted to hide illness. Some continue like that, others do not. Lilo was a tough mare. She did not ever let on to how bad it had become. Until the final morning, when I ultimately made the decision, she had never once looked to be dying. At the other end of the spectrum, the old horse, gave every indication he was dying. “circling the drain” as the vets like to say. Why one lived and the other died, I’ll never know. Nevermind which one did. It defies logic. It taught me a great deal. I learned how tough my girl was. Right up till the very end. I learned how to never count one out, ever. Everything I thought I knew, went out the window. And I have been doing this a while. I guess at the end of the day, I need to consider their capacity to heal. I didn’t think it was possible. It is.

I have learned a great deal this past week, and that is the lesson learned. Each horse has something to offer. I guess you could say, each person you cross paths with has something to offer as well. I prefer to learn my lessons from horses. Far simpler, and less likely to end in heartache. This week was the exception. This week took my heart right out of my chest. It will take me a long while to come to terms with what happened, and for the loss of our beloved mare. She trusted me. Whether it was putting a halter on her beautiful head, or galloping bravely down the polo arena at my urging. I was there with her to the very last heart beat, I hope somewhere in her mind she understood why we took her life. She did not fight, so I take that to heart. She went swiftly into the darkness. To a place without the pain and suffering she has experienced this week. Even as I write this I long to rest my head on her neck, to have just a little more time. It just happened so fucking fast. I didn’t have enough time. I just want to hold her head once more. There is much grief left, it laps against the unconscious levee I have constructed. Nothing more than a shower of thought to break that barrier. With time it will grow stronger, and with distance the breeches will become less frequent. As they say, “time heals”, it does. I just haven’t had enough time. I don’t want distance. I want her back.

Loss revisited



In an instant I was awake, it was 8am. My brain was already at a dead run. Dosages of medications, and vital signs and pending labs. It was all there, like a ticker running in an endless loop. This last week has been one endless stream of information. My brain has been processing and problem solving and processing some more. As quickly as everything developed I have needed to stay ahead of it. Plan the next move, adjust according to what was presenting in front of me. I have seen things nobody ever wants to see. They are searing in my conscience. When I opened my eyes this morning all I though of was Lilo. What would her temp be? would her vitals be okay? The dose of antibiotics….as my feet hit the carpet it found reality. As if someone had unleashed all the burdens and stresses, they came squarely onto my shoulders. It wasn’t just loss. It was images and textures, and feelings of the past week. The smell of her bowel contents sliding to the ground, the endless torment from the flies, the old horse flipping over in his stall. No, it wasn’t just loss. It was the relentless experiences of the week, and the sum total of stress. Not money, or bills, this was life and death. This was holding an animal’s life in my hands. It was sentencing one to death. It rests on me. To say that was crushing is an understatement. I retreated to my bed, hoping to start over. But there is no running from this. The week I have had has left a mark. My head has to come to terms with it, all of it. I know it will take time. I expect the awfulness of it all to settle here for a bit. I know I miss her terribly, no part of me wanted to be in the barn today. I forced myself to go up there. I didn’t have it in me to strip her stall and scrub it down. Nor could I take her name off the door. Her halter hangs there, no horse to wear it anymore. These are the new images that find their way into my brain. They nestle in amongst the rest. How did it get so terrible? Why did this happen to her? I find myself looking for answers and finding none. I am empty, except for the loop running circles in my mind. All this information, pointless now. It means nothing in her absence. It means nothing at all.


It is hard to put into words what it feels like to lose something so close to your heart. This morning we made the difficult decision to put our mare to sleep. We had waited on labs, and it was a rough couple days. In the end she had stopped eating and her vitals told us it was over. She was a tough girl. After seeing the necropsy, none of us can fathom how she was alive at all. I know she suffered this week, but we had no way to know it was this bad. I can’t second guess it now. In the end we did what was right. It would have been terrible to let her linger any longer. I loved her more than words can express. She was a rescue that became one of my polo horses. She was brave and tough and it showed these last days. Some of them just don’t give up, no matter how bad it looks. It was an honor to have cared for her, and to have spent these short few years with her. She is in a better place now, without suffering and pain. I miss her terribly already. After we finished the necropsy I sat with her and thought about all the terrific times we had, and all her silly quirks. I know she was gone, but it gave me time to come back to my head. In order of effectively assist  the vet, and perform the necropsy I could not be in my head. Just had to disconnect and do the job. But I felt we both deserved some time together, so I sat resting on her neck and stroking her face. It was a quiet moment to say goodbye. I need some time to put myself together again, but for now I will just drift in this place of deep emotional connection.