Many thanks to Area VII eventer Meg Finn for sharing this heartfelt tribute to two special horses. You can read more at Meg’s blog, Tally Ho Farm.
I’m not exactly sure what the stages of grief are, maybe they are different for all of us. I find myself sitting here thinking about so many different things. I’m still in a bit of a fog as I realize that for the first time in more than four years I’m horse-less. Something which has only ever occurred briefly once before in my 30 years as an equestrian. I’m sad, so I turn to the things that comfort me … baking, writing, and teaching/riding. These are the things I know best.
Yesterday, my sweet, goofy boy, Bert, was put down. Bert was a coming 5-year-old Thoroughbred. A beautiful soul with a bright future ahead. He had the biggest eyes, with an expression that was full of curiosity, confidence, and a touch of mischief. He was athletic, bold, and destined to do great things. He was my next up-and-comer, with big shoes to fill. And then he fell.
Bert was playing in his paddock. Not wound up, not running around, but he must have been feeling good and did what horses do, he bucked, or leapt, or something of that sort, and he fell on his knees. Our groom saw him getting up. He went to check him, saw the tiniest of scrapes, and brought him in for me to look at. I was teaching a lesson at the time, so Bert stood in the cross-ties while I finished up. I saw the smallest of scrapes, wiped them off, and put on a bit of ointment. Then I went to put him in his stall and knew it wasn’t just a scrape. He was hurting.
There is nothing anyone could have done differently. Our fencing is safe, the horses turned out individually, Bert was attended to immediately. It was just one of those things that makes me shake my head and utter in despair, life just isn’t fair. Bert had broken his knee.
Last year I was warming up my horse, Swag, at the first event of the year. We were just about to head out on the cross country course when I felt things go suddenly wrong. We later discovered, via MRI, that Swag had torn his collateral ligament. Those who’ve followed my career with Swag know how much I adore him. I’ve had him since he was just a gangly off the track 3-year-old. I took him from his first Beginner Novice to running around Prelim, and had our sights firmly set on the CCI* at Rebecca Farm last year. Then in the blink of an eye, those dream too, were dashed.
Swag has since healed, and while I’ve known that returning to eventing wasn’t in his best interest long-term, I’ve spent the last few months looking for the perfect place for him to land. Swag is a unicorn. He is kind, smart, talented and joyful. He’d run around a Prelim course one day, and teach a beginner the next, with me chasing him around the arena with a whip. Swag has traveled with me from California to Washington and he knows I am his person. I could have kept him and used him as a lesson horse, but ultimately I knew he would never be happy going in circles, he’s an 8-year-old Thoroughbred, he loves getting out to explore. So last weekend, Valerie and Gary came to see him, looking for a horse to trail ride and love, and Swag put his head in their pockets and as silly as it sounds, Swag told me, these were his new people.
This morning, I sent Swag off to his new home, to be loved and adored, knowing deeply in my heart it is truly what is best for him. I’m sitting here, with tears streaming down my face looking at pictures of him in his new home, reading the text “Swag” has sent me, reflecting on all that has happened. Emotionally exhausting doesn’t even begin to describe the past few days. I’m looking back, and am asking myself, what makes us chose this life as equestrians?
Several years ago I tried to “get out” of horses. Needless to say, it didn’t last long, two weeks maybe? I remember being at the store and the cashier asking me what I did for a living, and I caught myself saying I was a horse-trainer, before remembering I had “quit” that job. It was in that moment I realized being a trainer was who I was, it was what I was, it defined me. My love of horses drives me. I am fascinated by them and how we interact with them, and even now, while the wounds are still raw (and the vet bills still very real), I’m thinking about how to fundraise for my next, future equine. I haven’t given up my dreams of riding at the upper levels again one day. I am an equestrian after all — giving up isn’t in my vocabulary.
At the beginning of this year I began a horsemanship class for my students. The idea was just to go over some basic, on the ground, horsemanship that we never seem to have time for in regular lessons. The first session was a success (standing wraps and polo wraps) and today was the second session we had scheduled. I thought it was fitting to go over basic vital signs and vet care, since our majestic creatures are so fragile. We then followed that up with some ground work and ground manner exercises. It is so fascinating to see how these two topics can relate. Having our horses trust and respect us on the ground can help us to help them when it most matters.
What I took away from today wasn’t necessarily in regards to the lessons, but a reflection of of the amazing people I am surrounded by. My students all watched intently today while I worked with a difficult horse for more than an hour. They asked questions, they watched, they learned. I have the most amazing barn, a group of ladies who support one another, who cheer each other on, who are all committed being the best horsewomen they can be. So when I find myself questioning why I do this, all I have to do is look around. They are why I do this.
When I walked into the barn today there were gifts, chocolates, wine, and thoughtfully written cards waiting for me. There have been so many calls, texts, and my Facebook filled with condolences. I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support from friends near and far over the loss of my sweet Bert. It is in these challenges, and tragedies, that I find strength knowing I am surrounded by this amazing village.
Why have I chosen horses, or why have they chosen me? Maybe it’s because I am strong, although I don’t feel very strong today. Whatever the reasons, I take these moments to reflect, and then I put my head down, I dig in my heals, and think about what is next, because, as I teach my horses, the only option is forward.