Last night, I put my beloved horse to sleep.
I’d gone out to feed her and found her drenched in sweat, her coat caked with mud and clay as evidence she’d been rolling. We’d been through colics before–even bad ones–but somehow this time it felt like The Big One.
And it was. After hours of medical management that failed to make her more comfortable, and with a progression of clinical signs for the worse, it was clear that she wasn’t going to squeak through and make it one more time. At 11 pm, standing in the headlights of the vet’s truck, I made one of the hardest decisions of my entire life. I let her go.
It wasn’t the first time I faced losing her. In fact, she’d nearly died so many times in her life, we jokingly referred to her as The Mare Who Lived. At ten, she twisted her colon, necessitating surgery to save her life. Not many horses survive colic surgery. Fewer go on to be functional riding horses again. But survive she did, and went on to compete as well.
I never did get to do all the things I planned with her, though. Oh, we had such plans. She was my first ever horse raised from the ground up. I chose her parents. I carried her ultrasound photo in my wallet. The day she was due, I spent the entire day with her dam, watching her mother quietly crop grass while meadowlarks sang in the summer fields, noting the changes come over her body as she became ready to foal. It was a magical experience. One I will never forget. I was there the night she was born, imprinting on her even as she imprinted on me. Childless myself, she was the baby I never had.
She was why I got up on my days off and drove four hours round trip to spend the day training her. She was the reason I continued to ride after my car accident, after my doctors told me I should stop, and despite grinding chronic pain. She is probably the only reason I’m still functional today. She is the reason I continued to go and do despite clinical depression, and probably the reason I am still alive after surviving one of the hardest periods in my life.
I rode in weather so cold, my breath came out as a vapor, and the weight of her body crunched ice crystals beneath her feet. I rode in weather so hot I risked heatstroke again and again. We worked together in indoor arenas that had to be watered down so we wouldn’t choke on the dust. We rode in outdoor arenas baked into brick-hard surfaces that had to be dragged so they were useable again. We rode down forest trails under a leafy canopy and forded streams like we had to bring in the herd at the end of City Slickers. We jumped fences, and cleared ditches, and galloped across open fields with the Blue Ridge mountains in full autumn color as a backdrop.
She was so massive–hence the name The Moose–that I needed a mounting block to get on her. Never in all the years I rode her did I fall off–I joked you would have to run to the side and leap to fall off of her. In her youth, turning her was like steering the Titanic–I often said her name should have been Inertia. She was excitable, but she was kind. I was never in fear of my safety when riding her, even though she weighed half a ton and stood at 17 hands tall. And she was brave and honest, too. If I pointed her at a fence gave her the right direction, she’d take it without question. She might have slowed down to give it a stare, and leapt it as though it were six feet tall, but jump it she did.
Life prevented me from doing everything I wanted to do with her. She was bred to be my event horse, though we never made it to a single event or horse trial. The only competitions we made it to were the occasional dressage show. My dad developed cancer and I became his caretaker, and then she had the colic surgery, and somehow, it became good enough to know she was doing first level dressage at home, and able to jump a 4×4 oxer like it was a Kleenex box. (For the uninitiated, “first level” isn’t the beginner level–watch the link if you’d like to know more). We didn’t compete often, but when we did, I like to think there was a collective muttering of “damn” when we showed up because we came home with all the ribbons. When I unloaded her from the van at a show grounds, all heads turned to watch her move. She was simply that impressive. It didn’t hurt that she’d get lit by the excitement of a horse show, and would float across the ground with huge spectacular strides as a result.
I did achieve one life goal with her: I took a jumping clinic with a former Olympic Coach, wherein I discovered we were PB&J in the caviar world of eventing… and you know what? Sometimes PB&J is good enough. It was good enough for us.
Probably my biggest regret is never having had professional photographs taken of her. I took thousands myself, however, because she was gorgeous, she was magnificent, she was The Moose.
I can tell you funny stories that will fail to capture her shining personality: of how she was afraid of pigs, or the time when as a baby she tried to get in my car with me, or the time she spooked and cleared the length of a football field in six ginormous strides–all running toward an enormous cross country fence that she tried to jump from the wrong direction. I can tell you about the time she went galloping with the herd toward a field where someone had forgotten to open the five-bar gate at the other end. Every other horse screeched to a stop at the closed gate. She sailed over it–and cleared the water trough on the other side as well. Or about the time she was like a powder keg with a lit fuse when we competed in our first simple walk-trot dressage test, and she ended up doing airs above the ground in the chaotic melee that passes for a warm up ring–and then calming down enough to win the class by a landslide. Oh! Or how about the time we left her on the van to school some other horses and she broke her chain lead, bent the breast bar like it was a pipe cleaner, and jumped out of the van to graze quietly beside it. Oh, Moose. There will never been another quite like you.
We always knew she was on borrowed time after the colic surgery. Many don’t survive the surgery. Those that do frequently become chronic colickers, which she did. Most of her episodes were mild gas colics that resolved without treatment and were probably due to adhesions in her guts after the surgery. About four years after the surgery, I came out to feed her and noticed she was standing in her “colic corner”, the spot where she’d go when she felt bad, and would begin to paw and shift in place. As I’d approached her with a halter, she stood straight up on her hind legs and then shot into the air, kicking out in a perfect capriole, something she’d never been taught. I’d known then, we were in for a bad time.
It was a night that will live in memory. I hand-walked her for seven hours straight as we attempted medical management. The odds of a horse surviving colic surgery twice were slim to none. I wasn’t going to put her through that again. I watched as she became more and more distended and uncomfortable, and as all medical management failed. And just when I was on the point of asking the vet to put her down…. she farted. Long, loud, repeatedly. And ten minutes later she was actively looking for grass to eat.
My vet said he’d never seen any horse look so bad and yet spontaneously recover. He called it a miracle. We suspect she’d been mildly impacted because of an adhesion, which caused gas to distend her bowels but something shook loose even as the request to euthanize her stuck in my throat. That evening, I’d stood at the fence in the middle of the night, watching her graze beneath the light of a full moon, with Saturn and Jupiter blazing overhead. We’d gotten lucky once again, I knew it.
Just as I’d somehow known last night this time we wouldn’t be so lucky. She actually didn’t look as bad as she had as the previous colic over a decade ago. She initially responded to pain management, she had none of the markers that indicate you’re in for a bad time. I grew hopeful that once again, we’d dodged a bullet, even as I mentally acknowledged that sooner or later, one of these colics would get her. We’d been saying that for so long, it was hard to remember that she’d already lived far longer than anyone ever thought she would. Yet as the second round of sedation and pain meds wore off, she gradually began showing signs of discomfort again: pawing the ground, threatening to roll, looking at her flanks which were gradually distending. The parameters of her exam had changed: we now had evidence of displaced bowel, of another twist.
I wanted to believe we’d get our miracle one more time. We’d had so many near misses and spectacular recoveries. She was The Mare Who Lived, after all. She would make it. She had to make it. But as her condition deteriorated, it became clear she wouldn’t, not without surgery, something I wouldn’t do, not a second time, not for a 25 year old horse.
And so I stood in the light cast by the vet truck’s headlamps and made the decision to let her go.
I wanted to rail against the unfairness of it all. I’d had so much loss in recent years. 2017-2018 became known as The Year of Grief. Things had eased up in 2019, only to have 2020 say, “Hold my beer.” Emotionally, physically, mentally exhausted, losing The Moose last night seemed like the one thing that would finally break me. Even now, I’m not sure that it might not.
But the truth of the matter is loss is part of love. It was just an ugly trick of fate that handed me so many losses so close together for such a prolonged period of time. I am not special in my experiences, nor in my grief. And the only way to avoid this pain I’m experiencing now would be to have never loved The Moose in the first place.
The Moose was my last horse. I’d had to euthanize my other horse in the winter of 2018 at the age of thirty-five. Losing him was a wrench because he was my first horse, bought with my hard-earned cash as a green-broke three-year-old off a slaughter truck, and I’d had him ever since. But thirty-five is a ridiculous age for an old horse, and though making the decision to put him to sleep was hard, it was expected as well.
I’d retired The Moose a few years back–she wasn’t sound enough to ride any longer. I’d chosen to lease a riding horse instead, which I kept up until that horse too, was retired. Covid-19 forced me to take a hard look at the risks of riding during a sweeping pandemic, and I’d made the tough call to stop riding last March, at least for the time being. I still had The Moose. I was still a horsewoman. I just wasn’t riding.
Now, for the first time in over thirty years, I am without a horse. And I don’t think I will ever have another one again. This isn’t just a door closing. It’s slamming shut and locking me out. In some ways, that’s the hardest part to bear. Today I called to cancel her farrier appointment for next month. I gave away her winter blanket and sold her brand new, never-worn grazing muzzle for the summer season. I’ll pull out her bridle and saddle, clean and oil them for the last time, and donate them to someone who can use them.
If you’ve never experienced the euthanasia of a horse, it is a tough thing to watch. It’s a bit like felling a tree: done right, it happens in stages and no one gets hurt. I held her head as the vet administered first the sedative and then the euthanasia solution. I promised her that I’d seen her into this world, and that I would see her out. She breathed her last breath into my ear with a shuddering sigh, and we guided her into a controlled fall onto her side. I stroked her muzzle, but the light was gone in her eyes.
She’s being buried today. I couldn’t be there: I had to work. Perhaps that’s just as well. Though she is being laid to rest in a field overlooking the Blue Ridge mountains with the redbud coming into bloom, I know she’s not there. She’s running with her friends who have gone on before her, frisking in the pasture free of pain, ready to eat her fill of grass and snooze in the sun to the lazy drone of bumble bees. She lives on in my memories, in my photographs, and in the cameo appearances she makes in my stories.
And someday this summer, I’ll sit on the hillside beside her grave, with the dogs at my side, listening to the meadowlarks sing.