Letting Edgar Rice Burro Get Old

Edgar Rice Burro runs with a gang of misanthropes. A goat whose broken leg healed stiff, so he has an even wonkier gait than most goats. A mini horse that doesn’t like people, so he’s been hiding behind Edgar for a decade. He practically raised a quirky mare until she was mature enough to get along with horses. That took fifteen years. In his prime, Edgar was the bad boy break-out king (a wiz with latches) who then let his best friends (not everyone) out to join in the debauchery that followed. Think of him as Travolta’s character in Grease. He always acts a little cooler than he is. In the end, not that cool, and his heart rules him more than a tough guy’s should. Edgar always pulls for the underdog.

He wasn’t here on the farm at the beginning, it just feels like he was. When I was training locally, he took charge of settling the new horses who came to our farm for training. They went into a pen with Edgar. He refused to fight and shared his hay. If he got chased off, he never took it personally. A believer in affirmative training from the start, he persisted in being good company.

He hasn’t been the only long ear on the place. Edgar is one of eleven donkeys and mules who have come here for training over the years, but he has stayed the longest. He blew his “cool” cover right at the start by braying every time he saw me. When I drove in or out of the farm gate, Edgar let out a squeaky-hinge of a howl. When he heard the back door open, the rasping gasps of a crosscut saw. When he saw me through the window in the shower, he gave a wheezing moan that cranked up into wailing longear blues, interspersed with farts like a backbeat on each heaving honk of his bray. He is that irresistible.

We did horse agility, ground drove, and hiked together. He is reliable with children, a remarkably rare skill on my farm. He protected those smaller or weirder than he was. Edgar would like me to mention that in a herd of extremely handsome horses, he is the real lady killer. He even had a brief theatrical career.

Mostly, we spend hours mucking together. If time was going too quickly, he blocked the muck cart so I had to lobe the manure over his head like a long-distance three-point shot, into the cart. He played the long game, patiently waited, and watched for his moment. It was like a chess game, planning moves ahead until he planted a hoof on my muck fork and checkmate! I pay the donkey toll.

Back when we first met at his previous home, Edgar was hard to halter. Donkeys are deep thinkers and often misunderstood. He’d had some rough handling, as most long ears do. There were some fear issues. The vets hadn’t been patient with him, a farrier had messed up a trim, still oozing when he arrived. Edgar still remembered.

I trusted we could work it out. I’ve done it often enough with sour horses, even troubled long ears. Soon his bawling yells lessened, and he slept in the sun. We had some really good years watching sunsets together. Edgar is a poet.

Nothing about Edgar has ever been frail, but just like me, the years are taking their toll and mortality runs through our barn like mice, scattering as we enter, hidden but still there. Edgar has degenerative suspensory ligament disease (DSLD). His fetlocks are giving up on him. It’s a painful predicament with no cure. When the word degenerative is in the name, well, there you are. Mortality mice everywhere.

But that isn’t the worst thing. He has lost his trust. The old fear has all come back now, dark and primal. He is braying more insistently when he sees me and sometimes wails in the dead of night. He pins me against fence panels and holds me there. Many elders grow into a doddering age, sweeter for their slowness. That kind of peaceful retirement will not be Edgar’s.

I get him haltered for the farrier an hour early and he barely tolerates it. There is no version of slow that is slow enough. He is done, aged out on behaving. The pressure on the standing leg doubles when he lifts a hoof and he can’t trust his leg to hold. When the truck pulls in, he bolts. His fear is wild terror, crushing all in his path. We can cajole him, but I pray he won’t need a trim this time. A vet visit is worse. Is it a kind of donkey dementia?

We lost an important herd member this year. I’m still dragging my toes, but the herd seemed to be doing well. There is always a shift when the herd changes, but they started pushing Edgar around. He is not all that stable on his feet, so he became afraid of the horses he’s always lived with. I moved him, with safe company, into the shadiest, best pen. A month later Edgar colicked. I couldn’t get a vet out till the next day, so I ran next to Edgar to give him a shot of Banamine. Then I watched him paw gigantic holes for the rest of the night.

The next day, I prepared him as I could, and after a very stressful exam, the vet confirmed ulcers behind the colic. I’m the one who’s good at recognizing ulcers using calming signals, but I missed it right under my nose. Edgar, so stoic that he refused to give a hint, was struggling. He is so cranky, he gets his meds in an apple now. He is aggressive about that, too.

Sometimes I think of Edgar’s poor fetlocks struggling to hold the weight of his body as I fidget support hose onto my own misshapen feet. Each year gravity seems to pull Edgar’s bottom lip a little longer and a little softer. Gravity isn’t doing me any favors either. Somehow, Edgar and I have both become elders. Those younger than us don’t know what we know. It’s not their fault, it’s the blessing of our years, but we are on the downhill side. Now and then when I’m working, someone will grimace, thinking I’m an ass. I put a big old smile on my face, and stubbornly bray on. It isn’t an insult to me.

How old is Edgar? Chronological numbers are deceptive and expiration dates are not up to us. Scoring lives by numbers is just another man-made competition. Living the longest isn’t a win if it’s all pain.

I’ve been writing essays about Edgar Rice Burro since the start but when his time comes, I won’t mention it. Death is too common, so ordinary that it isn’t worthy of him. But we aren’t dead yet, there is a new season on the way. The nights are cooler and the prairie sunset will hold us dear, even as the things we love become a little less tractable.

Lately, I worry more while I’m gone for work. It’s been a donkey’s years we’ve been together. I think too much about death, wanting to plan for things beyond my grasp. It’s about making peace with where we are, but some of us are cantankerous by nature. So, I’ll listen for a certain sound like a foghorn in a sandstorm, a gasping honking yodel, the song of my people.

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Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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64 thoughts on “Letting Edgar Rice Burro Get Old”

  1. So poignant and so beautifully said. I’ve enjoyed reading about Edgar through many of your books. It’s sad but necessary to hear about his not feeling as safe as he used to, it’s something we may have to accept with all the creatures we love. And with ourselves, as you say.

  2. I loved this! I, too, am in “the senior years” as are my 2 horses but am not ready to take the walk. Not sure of the time left but am making the best of it. Blessings to you and, of course, to Edgar. Thanks for writing.

  3. I find it so much harder to accept my animals aging than I do my own (which I HATE). Chico? Its been more than 20 years & feels like yesterday. Juliette last year? As she aged – she got more affectionate & loving – which were not the words Suzie(dog) or Axel(present boy) would EVER use. Which made it harder to let her go. And thats what we do “let them go”. Axel is only 11 , but his hearing is almost nonexistent – even worse than mine!! Luckily, we both have slowed down together, I guess.
    Having read so much from you about Edgar – it feels closer than it really is. I’m so sorry for his aging body and mind, too.
    I guess the gist is “I feel for you”, Anna. And you know everyone here does.

  4. When I first met you , through your essays, your conversations with Edgar sealed the deal. I wanted to know who you all were. I think that might have been 2013.
    This essay is a a bitter sweet tribute .
    Not for Sissies …Yup

    • Donkey voice is closest to mine. Thanks Kim. He was here before the blog in 2007, but I wrote about him from the start. He isn’t dead yet!!!

  5. A tissue was searched for. Of course I have none, I never need one when considering topics such as these. But the voice. More pain there than what lives with those hooves. And a tissue was found. <3

  6. Thank you Anna for reminding me:
    “It’s about making peace with where we are.”
    Oh how hard is this? There is something about a sick and/or aging four legged friend that drives home how every day is a blessing.
    And we pray each day that they will be ever so clear and adamant on the day it becomes too much for them.
    Sending hugs to you and Edgar.

  7. Ah… the verbalizations of a burro! I have an ancient one too and she sounds very much like your descriptions. As much as I don’t like to, she wears a halter all the time because of what it took to get it on her. I frequently have to use it to convince her to move in or out of places she’s not overly willing to be. She was originally obtained as a protection for a couple of ex-show lambs which she resented. Definitely preferred the company of the horses who weren’t especially impressed. She’s never been seen by a farrier and surprised me to no end when she tolerated the vet who diagnosed an abcess that made her 3-legged lame. No treatment was needed fortunately – for her AND me… Love her to death and SO sneaky when it comes to gates.

  8. Rocky recently celebrated the “Big 3-0” and is definitely showing his age in so many ways – as am I, we are at the “celebrating each day” stage of life, I guess. I keep reminding myself that nobody gets out of this alive and our only recourse is to savor what we can. I love your insight into Edgar’s adjustments to life as I’ve always loved your writing and philosophy. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Anna,
    If you haven’t already, would you please write an essay about when is it time to let an old friend go? And if you have, would you mind pointing me to it? Thank you!

  10. “Death is too common, so ordinary that it isn’t worthy of him”. I’ve never thought of it that way and will need to ponder it. I try not to dwell on death, choosing instead to remember & reflect on the life lived. And I cry, letting my heart break, feeling the pain for myself & others, knowing that in time, the hole created by a loss will heal enough to make room for another.
    Thanks Anna, your stoic, philosophical nature is contagious.

  11. OH MY! This one hits way too close! My donkeys are spread across the spectrum, and one is “getting up there.” Went for a ride yesterday, for the first time in a while, and was reminded that the both of us are getting on.
    On the other hand, we put the grandkids on the pair of donkeys, in pretty much every possible configuration, and they very cautiously and patiently toured them around the arena several times with no guidance from me… even down to the 1-year-old hanging on happily, while the 11-year-old cowboy wannabe, “herded” him patiently along.
    Harder days ahead. I hope not for a while. And I’m forever grateful for the yesterdays.

  12. My Arab mare is 16, really, in the prime of her life, and she was diagnosed with DSLD in April. While her hind fetlocks are only slightly dropped, they clearly pain her and she spends almost every waking moment shifting from one back leg to the other, trying to ease the discomfort. Very much a skeptic of the supplement industry, I bit the bullet and decided to start her on a product called Osteomax 100X. I knew she would hate it, as she doesn’t suffer anything added to her feed gladly. Since there is no treat on this planet that will interest her in eating something foreign in her food, I decided to just suck it up and dispense it with a syringe to start. She’s tolerated that insult well, and much to my shock, after five doses (doses, not DAYS) I started to see less swelling in her fetlocks and she was “resting” her back legs less incessantly. Fast forward to not even two full weeks and I’m a believer. I didn’t plan to be, but I can’t deny that she’s looking better and better overall. She’s more rested. Happier. She’s moving about willingly, and there’s significantly less shifting of her weight to try to get relief. She’s actually standing on all four legs consistently for the first time since Feb, and the swelling in her fetlocks has continued to decrease considerably. I’ve started adding half of each dose to her grain (she’s on a twice a day “loading” dose), but being an easy keeper she doesn’t get much gain. Still, she seems pretty willing to try to eat what I give her as long as I wet things down good and pretend to “hide” it under a handful of senior grain that she didn’t used to get and thinks is “special.” I’m not sure if it’s the consistency of the product or the taste that turns her off (it’s thick and sticky), but she’s eating it better than I ever expected. And me? That constant worry I’ve been walking around with for the last six months is starting to ease up a bit. Time will tell. I have nothing to gain by mentioning this product, but it’s rare that I’m impressed with anything in the horse supplement/wellness industry. However, as a confirmed skeptic it’s kind of nice when I’m wrong. Give that old boy and scritch for me.

    • I “do” supplements for my dog – honestly not sure if they help or not – maybe make me feel better? But I have to say when you see improvement like THAT? Darn right I’d keep it up & be so pleased that it works. It depends upon the person and the animal – some are helped – some not. How lucky you and your Arab girl are that shes doing better!

      • I’m a total skeptic with animal supplements unless Vet recommended, and even then I’m not too sure. My Vet did make a recommendation for something which we’d been giving to her for four months with no results. I felt like I had nothing to lose and I had read and heard so many personal accounts of this product working well for various muscle, joint and soft tissue issues. However, I’d read NO accounts of it having great results with DSLD, so I called the company and talked to them and they said they’d been getting some good feedback, albeit limited for that diagnosis, but in theory it should help her. So it was a leap of faith. The alternatives are not good, so I’m thankful for any improvement we get. I’m way beyond doing something just to make myself feel good … I need to see results that can be proven, which, at this point I have in spite of how I tend to feel about supplements. And hey, I’ll take any improvement we can get!

    • I sure like their Gut X product; I’ll give it a try. His fear level is the challenge here. Best wishes to your mare. Thanks Cheryl.

      • I’m guessing if you needed to do a syringe – that might be something he would take offense at or fear. The senior mindset (hate saying dementia) likely will be an issue. But boy, Anna, if it makes him feel better?

          • If he’s willing to eat something tasty (molasses, apples, carrots, banana pudding powder, etc.) you can probably disguise it that way. My mare won’t do ANY kind of treat or top dressing unless it’s just plain old grain. She isn’t thrilled with having it syringed either, but if I go slow and gently she’s trusting and tolerates it just fine now. It’s actually much easier to get it into her that way than take the chance she’ll refuse her grain, waste the dose and then I’ll just have to resort to the syringe anyway. We’re figuring it out though, because it’s been a game-changer here, which means she’ll probably be on it the rest of her life. Fingers crossed that if you try it, it works as well for Edgar.

  13. Oh Anna, ugly crying at work is not a good look! Like most, I fell in love with Edgar through your writing. Helping to deliver a dog gave me the chance to provide some ear rubs and the requisite butt scratches to this distinguished gentleman. I fell for him even harder. I know you will do what is best for Edgar, I also know how hard it will be on you. We have all been down that road too many times. Sending all the love and support I have to you and Edgar!

  14. I hate that our beloved animals age and get painful conditions. Don’t like it in myself either, but it’s really sad in our animals. Don’t know if they make boots that fit him, but would a boot with that sling around the fetlock help him be more stable? You’d have to remove it and clean him underneath it is the downside as he sounds impatient with things that hurt. Maybe a wrap that you just throw in the washer?

    My 14 year old dog is dying slowly with heart failure. I just try to keep her as comfortable as possible and count each day as a gift.

  15. Wet keyboard and all – reading this is reassuring and confirming that there is a whole lot of “We” out there and a whole lot of “Ours” that we were trusted with right up until the end. There is so much we all know together. Celebration and gratitude have to carry the day. I think the best lesson one of my mares taught me was, and in her words, “there should always be cake.” Good times, hard times, sad times, reality times.

  16. Funny thing about words – simultaneously evocative and so bloody inadequate . Being there with you and Edgar Rice Burro over space and into times past present, and the ever-now. Wanting and wishing – all those strong feelings like storm clouds. The rain makes us wet but it doesn’t fall for us, and we are only wise when we remember that. May our wishes take tangible form as calm comfort .

  17. Thank you for giving us a glimpse of how things are with Edgar, and you. It’s sad to watch our beloveds grow old and change maybe in unexpected ways. ERB is lucky to be with someone who understands & can work with his aging issues. Personally, I thought he was immortal. …and so he is, in your writings.

  18. I love Edgar Rice. He was so sweet and gentle with my granddaughter and especially loving and crazy about my grandniece. I think of him often when i’m struggling with someone who isn’t fitting in and i’m trying to figure out, not how to make them “fit in,” just how to help them feel comfortable in their own skin. That’s my image of Edgar Rice, he put humans at ease. Lots of Love to him and you, Anna!

  19. ” He is done, aged out on behaving.” I’m not all that far from this myself I am afraid. He’s probably held out far longer than I will. Glad you’re holding or still holding reverence for him in this stage. Thanks for posting this.

  20. I am so grateful to have access to your columns. Though I no longer ride and have never actually owned a horse — I did rent one for a few years and my husband joked that the only sport I could have taken up that was more expensive was yachting! — they have been my love since a small child (thanks to my cousin Maggie Frazier!). But as one who loves animals and appreciates all they have to give us, I appreciate your patience and humor and humility and wonderful writing — and feel a part of Edgar Rice and so many other people who share your existence. Thank you! And Edgar is in my heart . . . .

  21. You continuously amaze me with your understanding of these creatures,,my equine is aging as well as myself. I have promised to make the last years sweet for both of us. Thank you so much for sharing Edgar’s journey.

  22. Anna,
    Edgar Rice Burro is one unique equid and he is both appreciated in the present for all his foibles, and will be evermore.
    Those whose hearts he has touched in person and online will never forget him. I hope he will continue to be cantankerous…
    like the old English aunts — perfectly described by J. K. Rowling as ‘Nature’s Howlers’. They seem to live forever…
    Edgar Rice Burrow is on of Nature’s Howlers, bless him.

    As we all begin to notice our own creakiness, we stand together with Edgar and with you, Anna.
    If you ever tire, come and live with us in Virginia, where we can do horses and burros together.
    We need a small community to support one another. A friend recently bought a retirement home just 12 minutes from
    ours — so there are three of us now. It helps when you need coverage. It’s horse country here, too.
    Come and visit sometime…
    Love, Nuala

    • Thanks Nuala. For as often as the Grandfather Horse grazes next to the arena, I know Edgar will never be far. And neither will I. Best wishes to you and your friends.

  23. Living and getting older with some of my oldest horses, I am very touched by your writing…
    Ears up, Edgar, and also to all of us brave souls who walk on earth knowing about forecoming heartbreakings, again and again, never getting “used” to it, and never doing anything to avoid those forecoming burning tears… tough as love, we sure are…
    because of all the love we receive from walking together, surely…
    Thanks fro sharing your path, Anna and Edgar <3

  24. ERB and my best buddy Dover share(d) being breakout Houdinis in their day. Like Edgar, he would share his freedom with his best friends. But breaking in as well as out made him an equal opportunity breaker, because sometimes what was inside offered more than what was outside!
    Also, like Edgar, Dover went along for many years with weakened fetlocks, two back feet puffy and swollen. And yet he could run with the best of them all those years. Until he couldn’t. It’s been just 10 days beyond a year without him. I think I can understand your decision not to make an announcement about Edgar when the time comes. But if you change your mind, all of us here will be all ears (short as they are) to hear about it.

  25. I love your stories and your writing style. So much insight from your years of experience and observations. Edgar’s story sounds very personal to you, and you are lucky to have each other to work through this getting older stuff. Nice to have a companion or two on that road to elder-hood.

    • That was my goal with this essay, thank you KC. Yes, it is a path we share, and going together in that direction is the good news and the bad news. Wouldn’t change a minute.

  26. Anna, of all my equine family members that left their mortal bonds here at the Catapult Ranch, only one required considerable accommodations for his aging body, and none suffered changes in mentation. However I suspect that I might be familiar with the heartbreak of witnessing the psychological,social, and emotional changes of an aging loved one. When you love someone and their body remains familiar but their personality is strange, it is confusing, challenging, and startlingly sad. I wish you strength and tranquility, and I wish Edgar peace and comfort. I can’t help but think that the world would be a better place if everyone had the chance to know a donkey because donkeys make us better humans.

  27. Don’t know if you’re aware of the xxx products? Possibly try them. I’ve been using xxxxx on an older rescue standardbred that has huge knees, due to falling on the road before going to the kill pen. Been using it for 3 months and he’s back to pacing and laying down to roll because he can get back up now!

    • Thanks, Vicky. As a professional, I don’t recommend products on this blog…but I’m certainly not letting him languish in pain. The supplement I’m looking for is the one that makes Edgar and I both twenty years younger. Glad your horse is in less pain.


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