The First Horse

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From a first-impression standpoint, choosing to write my inaugural column about a dying horse is probably not one of my better decisions, but it’s what’s at hand, so please indulge me and I’ll try not to get too weepy about it.

Second Chance – Chancey, to you and I – was a horse who seemed older than her years. For a start, she looked decrepit when she first came to The Harmony Barn when, in fact, she was only in her mid-teens. Smallish in stature – 15hh or less – and already arthritic, she was largely overlooked by myself and the other volunteers if for no other reason than she didn’t seem terribly interested in making friends. And, there were plenty of other horses at the barn who either required our attention, or just plain demanded it. Chancey was more than happy to stand quietly out of the way and munch hay, which is what she did for ten years.

Naturally, the years have a way of adding up while your attention is elsewhere, and this was as true at the barn as it is anywhere else in my life. The only times I gave any thought to Chancey’s mortality were when she went down and couldn’t get herself back up. This seemed to happen more and more frequently, in the last year of her life. By necessity, barn owners Ronald and Wendy ultimately perfected the art of getting Chancey back on her feet via two sturdy straps and their trusty tractor. I watched them do it, once, and it was by no means an easy task: they could get her airborne, but they couldn’t always get her positioned at a perfect 90 degree angle with the barn floor, and Chancey was is no shape to try to right herself. The last time she went down, it was in a cold puddle of muck and mud. When Ronald got her upright, she went down again a few hours later in a round pen, and that was where I found her when I went out to groom my horse, Bit. I’ll tell you more about him in later columns.

Strangely, Wendy was home in the middle of a work day, and when I asked how Chancey was doing, she told me that Dr. Carrolton was on his way. No one at this particular barn likes to say unpleasant words like “euthanize” out loud, for fear that the horses might understand what we’re talking about. So I spoke in code, asking only, “He’s coming to…?” and making a small slashing gesture across my throat. Wendy nodded. So that’s why she was home. I decided that I would stick around, and after I’d groomed Bit and put him back out with the herd, I returned to the round pen.

Sally Wilkes was already there. Sally owned Big William – who was, at 17+ hh, only slightly shorter than London’s Gerkin. She had recently taken up training a young upstart Paso Fino named Galaxy – a horse so obnoxiously untrained that no one wanted to get near her for fear of being trampled under her tiny hooves. Sally was kneeling by Chancey’s head, whispering soothing things in her ear when Lydia Reecer turned up and knelt down nearby.

At 18 years old, Lydia had been volunteering at the barn for as long as I could remember and, in spite of my long-held antipathy toward children, had earned my grudging respect by showing up in the foulest weather and getting the tasks done without complaint. Evidently, Wendy had called and told her what was happening.

The four of us ranged around Chancey’s head, thinking our private thoughts while we waited for Dr. Carrolton. I watched as Wendy put her hand gently on the mare’s face and said quietly, “It’s o.k., girlfriend. You can go. It’s all right.” And she meant it. Wendy didn’t want any horse feeling that they needed to hang on for her sake.

The vet arrived, knelt down among us, and very kindly explained to Lydia how the process worked. He would give Chancey the first shot to render her unconscious, then, a few minutes later, he would give her the shot that would stop her heart. She wouldn’t have any idea what was happening, he assured us.

I confess that I was watching all this in a rather abstract way. Sally and Lydia had both started crying, and I wondered vaguely whether I would feel sufficiently moved to do so myself when I became aware of what, exactly, Sally was whispering in Chancey’s ear. She’d seen an eagle flying overhead, on her drive to the barn, and she was sure that the eagle was there to show Chancey the way home. (Dammit – I’m getting weepy just thinking about it. Excuse me while I step out for a moment.)

There. I believe I’ve collected myself.

Sally went on to whisper the names of some of the horses who had gone before, and were no doubt waiting to welcome Chancey now:
“Sir Sam – remember him? He was such a champion, and you looked after him so well when he got old. And Newt the mule – he’s waiting for you, too. And old Mac.” (Dammit – feels like something’s in my eye. Be right back.)

I knew those names, too, you see. I remembered Old Sam – the horse with the worst case of swayback I’d ever seen in my life. I knew Newt the mule – everyone loved him. And I’d known old Mac. I hadn’t thought about any of them for quite some time, right up until Sally whispered their names in Chancey’s ear. And then I remembered something else: Chancey, who’d been in the background of barn activity for so many years, a horse who caused no trouble other than going down without any thought as to how she’d get up again, had been my very first horse.

It had been sometime in my early forties when I had the genius idea to start ice skating again. I’d done it in my youth, though I can’t say I was any great shakes at it; I was able to stay upright most of the time, and that was enough. But in the intervening years, my sense of balance had evidently become somewhat skewed, and when, after three decades off the ice, I attempted to skate around the pond across the road from my home, I fell rather unceremoniously on my bum. Every time. Lessons seemed like a good idea. Until, during the very first warm-up lap around the club rink, I fell on more than just my bum, rendering myself unconscious with a cracked skull. I donated my skates to charity and tried horses instead.

My first equine dalliance had to do with a thing called EAP – Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. You may as well know now, with multiple diagnoses including Bi-Polar Disorder and PTSD, I need a lot of help! So when I became aware of a kind of therapy that involved animals, I was all over it: the meds only go so far, and so does talk therapy. I was curious to see what a horse could do for me.

As it turned out, the horse did much more than the counselor who conducted the EAP sessions, and after a few forays into that intriguing therapy, I felt compelled to sack her (Hint: when the counselor has more issues than I do, it’s not going to end well!). But not before getting the name and number of barn-owner Wendy’s daughter Connie, who gave riding lessons. I then spent several very happy years learning the basics of Western riding. And, once I felt that I knew enough – or, more importantly, once Wendy felt that I knew enough, I started leasing the aforementioned Bit.

He and I have been training together for four years, now. Four very satisfying – if somewhat bruising (more on that in a later column) – years. All thanks to Chancey, who was now dying in the round pen while Sally whispered things in her ear, and I suddenly realized that I wouldn’t be where I am today (mainly, with a car boot full of horse-related equipment, and an abiding love for all things equine) without her. Surely that was worth a few tears.

And so I said my good-byes to the very first horse in my life, feeling rather shameful, as I did so, that I hadn’t bothered to appreciate Chancey a bit more when she was alive, hadn’t troubled myself to offer her the occasional snack treat, or even just an apple off the neighbor’s tree. Isn’t that the way it always is with things – that you never truly appreciate something until it’s gone forever?

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about that, but I’ll sign off by urging you to give your beloved cat, dog, ferret, horse – or someone else’s horse, for that matter – an extra helping of love and affection today. And tomorrow.

Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

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