Loss, Love, and Learning
In the dark minutes before the alarm was set to go off, the phone rang. I jolted upright and fumbled for the receiver.
“Sarah?” said a male voice. “This is Gary from the barn. I’m afraid I have some bad news for you this morning.”
Half asleep, I nodded. I´d had nothing but trouble recently with my mare, LuAnn.
I waited for Gary to tell me she had done something that would cost me a lot of time and money to fix, but I was utterly unprepared when he said, “Your horse is dead.”
Barely able to understand, I retreated to formalities and stumbled to end the conversation. Mechanically, I drove to the barn and hugged the sobbing woman who had found LuAnn dead in her stall. With my emotions firmly locked away, I talked to the vet about the cause of death and made arrangements for LuAnn’s cremation. I insisted on seeing her body despite everyone’s protests. Then I went home and shoveled snow with a vengeance.
The next time I went to the barn, people were quick to offer me horses to ride. I accepted, but the first time I rode was also the first time I understood what I had lost. When I groomed LuAnn, I knew where her itchy spots were; the new horse tried to bite me when I rubbed those spots. LuAnn knew by my body language when to pick up her feet so I could clean them; I had to pry the new horse’s feet off the ground. A certain tension on the rein and pressure with my leg made LuAnn trot; the new horse humped up his back and offered to buck when I applied that pressure. I went home and cried because I finally realized that LuAnn and I had had a routine, an understanding, a relationship that I took for granted.
During the next eight months, I grieved, saved my money, and rode other people´s horses. I rode willing horses that learned quickly and were just as quickly taken away and sold for a profit. I rode sneaky horses that bucked, shied, or bolted without warning and whose owners begged me to continue riding them. I rode stiff, uncomfortable horses with mouths like iron from too many heavy-handed riders. I had one ride on a highly trained dressage horse. Although I couldn´t get him to do most of what he knew, I was impressed with the way he focused on his owner.
I cried for LuAnn and cleaned stalls on the weekends to add money to my horse-buying nest egg. I helped my friend introduce her young horse to the saddle and listened to people brag about the astronomical prices they had paid for their new animals. While I thought about buying a skittish mare, I missed LuAnn more than ever. I tried to convince myself that this new mare was my second chance at forging a relationship with a horse, but I was relieved when she did not pass the vet check.
After a few more weeks of catch riding, I met Corey, an 11 year old quarter horse gelding with almost no training. He was sound and a beautiful mover but had never been off the farm where he was born. While I considered whether to buy him, I had a waking dream. In the dream, I turned Corey out in a fenced pasture with LuAnn. I stood outside as she came to the gate and sniffed noses with him. Then she turned and trotted away. Corey followed for a few steps but then stopped and returned to me. LuAnn trotted far out into the field to graze peacefully, and I became Corey’s person.
Right from the beginning, I knew that every minute we spent together was about laying a foundation of trust. I spent a month teaching Corey to load in a horse trailer, murmuring nonsense while he snorted softly. Day by day we crept closer to the trailer, until first his nose, then a hoof, and finally his whole body was inside. I taught him to carry me on his back at a walk, trot, and canter, first in the arena and later outside. On our first trail ride away from the barn, we stopped to study every rock, tree, and mailbox. It took half an hour to go a tenth of mile, but when we returned home, I rewarded his “bravery” by letting him sneak treats from the waistband of my breeches. Next time we went out, he remembered what he had seen and we rode farther. And then farther. We explored miles of back roads, shared the trail with farm equipment higher than our heads, and waded through snow, mud, and water. We chased herds of deer through the woods and were chased by a coyote defending her pups. We startled a bear cub and were startled by flocks of turkeys exploding from the underbrush.
In time we traveled to state parks and eventually to whole new states, always building our trust with patience, carrots, and praise.
Today Corey comes when I call and follows me around without a halter. I ride with no saddle and barely touch the reins, yet he goes where I want. People assume he behaves the way he does because he is old, but I know what it took for us to get where we are today. It took the quiet hands and solid seat I learned from riding my first horse, a blind, spooky Appaloosa. It took the hours in western saddles, English saddles, dressage saddles, and no saddles on countless different horses. It took the rush of ribbons at shows and the relaxation of trail rides in the woods. It took vet bills, vet wrap, and intramuscular shots, and ultimately it took LuAnn’s death. From all of this, Corey and I have forged a life-changing connection, and this time I know enough to appreciate what I have while I have it.