When it came time to say goodbye to my dressage mentor, a trainer that I’d ridden with several times a week for five years, she cried. I was surprised. I knew I would; she’d changed my life. But I was a bit flattered that she cared that much. By the time I got to the end of the driveway, I came to my senses. She was saying goodbye to three of us, and the tears were for the two with hooves in the trailer. Now I have her job and I think of horses I knew even briefly, decades ago. Horses who have passed through my life leaving a gift with me; I’m blessed by their uniqueness and by the good fortune to meet so many. I remember horses. I think we all do.
Two horses dear to me died this week. I didn’t own them. I just thought I did.
Damien was a massive Percheron stallion. Okay, he wasn’t a stallion but standing next to him gave that indelible feeling, his pride and self-confidence shone. He was nothing short of regal. I’d been hired to get the herd of rescue draft horses and donkeys ready to be loaded on a huge semi-trailer transport for a long-haul move. Think gangplank onto an ocean liner. It was scary, and some of the herd would be extremely challenged by it. But I knew who would go first. In the weeks of work with the herd, he was the horse I understood from the start. He was the one who had the courage to lead. It’s been years ago now, he must have been quite elderly. Go on ahead now, Damien, we’ll catch up. I’m grateful for the part of you that will always be here in Colorado.
Lou was a horse I met online. He was in New Zealand, living with a couple of donkeys and a truly kind, funny owner. Lou was handsome, a deep chestnut. The stoic sort with the kind of backside that you wanted to rest your head on. He was the perfect Lou of a horse. Just Lou. He arrived with a fair amount of baggage from his past. Who doesn’t? But he became curious, and he loved a good debate about a halter. He was engaging once you proved a few things about yourself. Maybe not the easiest horse, but the easy ones don’t set a hook quite this deeply. At 20, perhaps he could have stayed longer, but sometimes I wonder about horses like Lou, who have carried more than their share in the past. I wonder if when the fighting stops and the anxiety leaves, once they finally know they’re home, if they feel safe enough, rich enough, to let go. No more worries, Lou. And never forgotten.
Why mention them? They are not the only ones I miss. These horses were not elite, they didn’t have walls of ribbons, legends written, or even progeny. Hardly any of us knew them. They were ordinary horses. As if there was ever such a thing as that.
It’s been a year of death like every year is. Common as it is, each passing has a ripple effect. We share condolences and we certainly cry. Horses are worthy of mourning; the rest of the herd agrees. In the immediacy of the death, all that’s visible is the hole they have left. We can only see what we can’t see. Sometimes the passing is slow and sometimes lightning quick. We say it’s always too soon, words trite on our tongues. We remain a bit arrogant as if we can change the law of nature; as if death is an indicator of our personal failure. It just isn’t. There is no shame in living a life of negotiated twists and turns. They are not so unlike us. All mortal bodies will come to rest as souls fly free.
A horse’s life, all his precious days, is so much more important than the small moment of his death. We do horses a disservice to focus on his limitations, a chronic health issue, or the wishes that did not come to pass. Most of all, it’s impossible for his last hours to negate the truth of all the days that have come before. At first, we cry because we think they have left us but when we catch our breath, we see them out of the corner of our eye grazing with a ghost herd. Our ears atune to the muted beat of hooves, the scent of their skin wafting on the breeze. They travel easier now; no old joints, no trailer needed. The hope of oneness becomes true at last, just behind our eyelids. Not trodden upon, we’re carried lighter than in life. Now running with our childhood ponies and all the others, a herd unbound by time or place. Let their memory might be their finest gift, for they are never out of reach.
We have an involuntary love. We cry for our own horses and for horses we’ve met or seen photos of, or dreamed about. We also cry when we see weanlings flinging their legs in all directions at once, or when we see a courageous ride. Tears well at their intelligent soft eye when we first notice that we’ll probably outlive them. We think we each own a part of all of them and we do. We have paid in so many kinds of currency. Honestly, us crying about horses is not a special occasion. Even us old cranky horsewomen get things in our eyes coming in from the night feed. It’s the time nickers can be heard from those who have walked on. Parts of life might be hard but loving horses is the easiest task of all.
If the day ever comes when we look at a horse and are not knocked back and brought to tears by the sacred blessing of knowing them, it’ll be time to quit. Or it could mean we’ve died already and gone off to the Big Pasture ourselves.
Until that day, we are blessed with their memory but more than that, blessed with seeing a part of our horse in every horse. We have come to float in an infinite sea of horses as vast as the sky, our own life’s blood vibrantly intermingled with theirs in every wave of light, sunset through to sunrise. We couldn’t lose them if we tried.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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