A life well lived
It has been a week of despair. I sit woodenly through the fourth memorial service my family has attended in the last eight days. My personal grief is only heightened by the national heartache following in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. I look forward to Monday, when I can return to routine conversations about the mundane things of life.
As I walk into the stable where my daughters and I ride, a barn staffer hurries past and mentions that I should be sure to visit Buddy, one of the school horses, tonight. I stop. I always visit Buddy. I try to catch my informant as he heads off to the grain room. I remain calm. Maybe Buddy is just having a lonely day. Maybe he is recovering from an injury. Or maybe he is finally headed to horse heaven.
Buddy came to this stable around 1997. He had been rescued after Hurricane Andrew hit southern Florida in 1992, but no one had claimed him. No one knew his age and history, but he was probably somewhere in his teens at the time, and he seems to have a touch of Arabian in his delicate facial features and slim body.
He likes to carry his head high. He is an independent yet dependable animal who has horse sense and street sense. Now, in his later years he seems content, possibly even amused, as he watches other horses reacting to frightening events. His nonchalance seems to mock their spooks as they rush by him in a blur of hysteria. His brown eyes say that he has seen it all, perhaps in that hurricane years ago. He has a reputation for taking care of the youngest of riders. His only fault, surprising for a schoolie well into his 30s, is that he likes to go.
My daughters started riding at the stable at the ages of 8 and 6. After a few plodding rides on Tonka, a geriatric curmudgeon of a mustang, my older daughter graduated to Buddy. Unlike Tonka, who seems to be able to trot while asleep and sometimes in place like a dressage caricature (appeasing the rapid heart rates of all mothers), Buddy raises his slim, graceful neck and trots on energetically. The first time my daughter’s skinny frame perched tall on Buddy and he sped down the rail, I was forced to ignore my chest pain and notice what an elegant pair they made. If any horse could look good in a smoking jacket, it would be Buddy.
On colder days he liked to go a little too much, so he was placed behind the slow-motion Tonka or in extreme cases had to be escorted by the instructor to keep from bursting into a canter. On those rare instances when he made a getaway, I failed to breathe and lost my color vision. My daughter, tough as nails like her mount, saw it all as a new and exciting challenge.
The barn staff tells me that Buddy is not suffering, but his teeth are gone and he can’t eat. Being a Floridian, he has always hated the New England winters, and temperatures are already in the 20s. With the coldest, darkest months returning soon, the humane thing to do is say goodbye now.
I find Buddy in his dim stall, bundled up, diligently gumming his feed. His graying winter coat has come in, adding more bulk to his face, but his bones jut out sharply as he grinds his mouth in an exaggerated circular motion like a cow chewing cud. He has been given special senior feed, warmed and softened in water. The food goes in, but a few moments later it trickles out of his mouth to land on the sawdust in a brown, gooey mound. I have been watching this losing battle all summer while Buddy grazed free-range on the farm, leaving a trail of churned grass through the barn and regularly liquefying any snacks I offered him. Now I put serious thought into equine protein shakes, horse retirement homes in Florida, and my daughter’s plan to invent animal dentures. It is all in vain, I know, but as I look into his brown eyes, they still question, “Where’s my apple, person?”
I stroke his soft strawberry fur. He is swimming in his blanket, which covers his gauntness, but I can see his delicate legs from the knees down, and his hooves suddenly look small and diminutive, as if they, too, have shrunk. He coughs and wheezes a bit.
As I stand with him I wonder how I can feel such anguish for a horse who survived two killer hurricanes and lived an extraordinary life well beyond a normal life-span. Maybe I am too raw from the memorial services and the inexplicable ravaging of Sandy. I look at Buddy’s frail dark form in the moonlight that shines through his stall. I appreciate that he is a symbol of the resiliency we seek after such events—a symbol I am not ready to give up at this low moment.
My older daughter is afraid that Buddy was famous or a rare breed of significance in his unknown former life. She fears that he will pass away unrecognized for his unique talents. Nothing is farther from the truth.
Back at home, a collection of Buddy memorabilia is tacked to our fridge. In one photo, from a fun show, my younger daughter is releasing a smile of pride she can’t contain. In another, from a Halloween costume class, Buddy is sporting a huge red bow and a giant card saying, “From Santa,” and my older daughter is dressed as a Christmas tree. He is the gift under the tree she has always wanted. This picture has been transferred onto fabric, immortalizing Buddy in a blanket on her bed. She often drifts off with her hand placed on his face. Buddy will never go unrecognized for his talents—because his talents are not the ones that horses become famous for, but rather the ones that we cherish the most.
As Buddy works his hardest on his feed he turns occasionally to glance at me as I silently weep. I know that I am mostly crying about this tumultuous week. I am, however, also awed at the depth of my affection for this animal. My attachment to Buddy is grounded in a mother’s trust. He elevates my young girls to grand heights, generously carrying them aloft despite the bit tugging randomly in his mouth and the short legs flapping on his saddle. He could cause tremendous harm if he so desired, but he remains tolerant as my girls sit on him like royalty, building confidence and strength as they begin to understand the responsibility of being in charge of another being.
All of this gratitude transforms into weighty despair that hunches my back and causes my face to freeze with wet tears. I return to Buddy’s side and feel his coarse mane. He turns and nudges me, still wondering when he is going to get his apple, which I cut into small, gum-friendly pieces every week. I kiss his warm, fuzzy neck one last time.
As much as I love him for his accomplishments and endearing perseverance, I abruptly realize that I will mourn Buddy simply because I am a person and he is a horse. To him, I am a person who brings him mushy apples. To me, he is a horse who carries my daughters and his head high.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #446, November 2014.