Words by LM Johnson

Photography by Stephanie Fisher

The patient eyes me momentarily, then concentrates again on the task at hand. He is chest deep in running water, beneath the water and his feet a treadmill is also running. This is state of the art sports medicine; 15 minutes on the AquaTred is the equivalent of an hour of running on dry land. Running being perhaps the operative word, since the patient is a speckled grey quarter horse named Laredo, and he’s getting an early morning fitness workout at Cold River Equine Sports Medicine & Rehab.

Horses in all conditions of need and injury have been coming to Cold River for 13 years, their owners seeking services and help that is often not available elsewhere. The issue may be a simple matter of ramping up conditioning prior to a long trail ride, or the more complicated and serious one of healing a potentially fatal injury. It’s all to be had on the 15 acres with its 100 X 200 arena, located at 5901 Monroe Hwy, off the Weatherford Hwy, just north past the intersection in Cresson of 171 and 377.

Cold River is the brainchild and passion of owner and founder Melissa Neal, a native of San Antonio (b. 1969), and it began with a life-changing tragedy. “I’d always wanted to work doing something with horses. Then my own horse, Kenya, got hurt.” The hurt was one of the worst possible. “We got T-boned by another horse when we were riding in competition. Broke my horse’s leg, and it was like my whole world disappeared from under me.”

But giving up was not an option. “I decided to see what I could do myself. So I just kept looking until I found a vet brave enough and smart enough to operate on him. Then there was rehab, and that took so long and was so intense that it inspired me.”

Kenya survived (he is now 18 years old), and his owner had found her calling. Fourteen years as a dental hygienist gave way to an internship at KESMARC (Kentucky Equine Sports Medicine and Rehab Clinic. “Sort of a Cold River on Steroids.”), classes in Oregon for electrical stimulation therapy, and certification as an animal care specialist. The eventual result was a full-service center dedicated to restoring healthy horses to grateful and delighted owners.  “Nothing’s more rewarding than seeing that smile on the owner’s face, and a horse that’s just shiny and healthy and ready to go. That’s just great.”

Services and treatments offered include not only the AquaTred, but the EquiCizer (a huge enclosed horizontal exercise wheel with individual compartments for up to six patients), ultrasound, and electrical stimulation therapy—a therapy familiar to plenty of humans who have spent time in the hands of a competent chiropractor.

This is not a coincidence. Horses, it seems, can also benefit from getting an adjustment—as well as acupuncture and Asian herbal remedies. Among the many veterinary health specialists who work with Melissa and Cold River are equine chiropractors like Dr. Joseph Parish, and their collective ministrations have, over the years, saved many horses otherwise doomed to premature retirement—or worse. As Melissa notes, “We get a lot of last ditch cases. And we’ll try anything that works.”

Patients range from the saddle horses that provide weekend pleasure to so many in the North Texas horse culture to the top athletes of the equine world. “We get cutters, 3-day eventers, ropers, lots of barrel racers. About 50/50 are racing horses.”

Horses with other, more esoteric histories come as well. Chip and Dale, a pair of black Percherons, spent their early lives as a coaching team before coming to Cold River for treatment of work related injuries, afterwards going on to a different employment with an Amish farmer. A beautiful, half draft, half thoroughbred bay mare is the likely offspring of one of those unfortunate mares kept permanently pregnant in order to serve as a source of the hormones used by the pharmaceutical industry for hormone replacement in human females. She boards at Cold River, enjoying a leisure only occasionally punctuated by time under a saddle.

When asked, Ms. Neal confirms that Cold River’s 30 stalls have also hosted more than a few equine rock stars— mega-pricey beauties whose identities and presence are as closely guarded while in rehab as that of any human celebrity. “No names, please.” She points to a young thoroughbred stallion, adding, “He sold for a quarter million as a colt.

But whether the patient is a young girl’s first horse bought with babysitting money, or a six figure, 4-legged investment owned by a multinational consortium, the focus is always on the patient. “Horses are individuals just like we are. That stallion I just showed you is as gentle and sweet as he could be.  He’ll walk right past any other horse, even a mare, and he doesn’t even turn his head.  But that gelding over there by himself is a bully. He tries to beat up everyone, but now that we’ve put him off by himself, he’s started to behave. After a bit, we can try putting him back with some of the other horses.”

Services and treatments offered include not only the AquaTred, but the EquiCizer (a huge enclosed horizontal exercise wheel with individual compartments for up to six patients), ultrasound, and electrical stimulation therapy—a therapy familiar to plenty of humans who have spent time in the hands of a competent chiropractor.

There have been memorable cases. Monet, a black Friesian mare, suffered a rare and potentially fatal case of whiplash, possibly after being startled by a storm and wheeling into a tree. The resulting damage was horrific: “Basically, it just destroyed the nerves in her neck on one side and down her back. The whole side of her body was just withering. She’d been to all these vets who all did the same thing and none of it was working.” As for many other horses, Cold River and its multiple therapies was the court of last appeal and eventual salvation. “It took us four and a half or five months, but we got her fixed. The muscles came back. She went back to the show ring.”

Besides Ms. Neal, there are three part-time employees at Cold River, and their work extends to not only the ailing, but those in need of some chill time. “When a horse is about to go into the ring for roping, they’ll be waiting and moving for hours, then they get that one minute with the calf. That gets to them the same way it gets to us. They get stressed out.” Arguably, a stay at Cold River is spa time—at least for the ultimate clients.

Not so the owner, who routinely, cheerfully, pulls fifteen hour days (“Getting to do what you love isn’t a job.”). But there is still time for the hard fun of competition. Melissa finished second in her class at the 2016 Ft. Worth Stock Show. The event? Mounted shooting with pistol and rifle. “It was good! Yes, yes, yes! I shot well.” Her mount was Laredo, who spent eight months training to deal with the sound and smell of gunfire.

There is the future to consider. Among the four to six interns (many of them from the cowboy campus of Tarleton State University in Stephenville) who come yearly to study and learn at Cold Water there may be a successor. “It’s something I learned from my grandparents, who were Depression kids. You’ve got to give back to the community. Maybe one of these interns will finally come back to me and say, “Hey, the work was hard but I loved it here. Wanna sell?”

But not now. This morning, rain has slowed the daily routine, keeping everyone in their stall.  But the weather is lifting, and it’s time to go outside, where horses are happiest. The lane between the two sides of the barn fills quickly as Melissa opens each stall and snaps a lead on the occupant. For a moment, the three horses wait while vacuuming stray bits of alfalfa off an otherwise immaculate floor. Then they fall in behind their leader, following her into the sunlight like so many giant puppies.