Farewell, old soldier

In November 1992, the owner of the small hunter/jumper barn where I trained young horses called to tell me about a 6-year-old gelding she was going to see. She had heard about him from a trainer at the local racetrack; the horse’s owner had stopped paying his training fees and if she wanted the horse, she only needed to come pick him up.

I’d been looking for a jumper prospect of my own, so the barn owner suggested I come along and take a look. The gelding had some old hock problems, but if I wanted him, I could have him. If not, she’d take him and we’d turn him into something and sell him.

At the track we found a smallish, stocky bay. He looked lonely. He looked hopeful. He looked like the line between “Are-you-going-to-love-me?” and “Whatever” had gotten painfully thin.

I wasn’t sure.

Of course he broke my heart. But if I passed on him, he’d come home with us anyway, so he wouldn’t be abandoned. I’d been thinking bigger. Flashier. Something.

I asked the barn owner to give me a day or two. We took him home, and the next day I put him on a longe line. Suddenly he came to life, seeming to be filled with speed, power, ambition. Joy!

I told the barn owner I’d take him. I named him Ernie and turned him out for six months so he could remember how to be a horse. Meanwhile, I worked with our other prospects. At month five, he caught himself in some old cow fencing that had washed up in our big pasture, cutting into the tendon sheath in his right front fetlock. A veterinary surgeon repaired the damage, and to keep Ernie quiet while he recovered, I stood with him singing “Old Soldier,” the old David Crosby song, over and over and over. He stood still, and healed.

Six months after that, I taught him to jump. The same fire that once fueled his racing career now powered his desire to jump things. Any thing.

He was a bit of a mess at first. He was rock stiff through his right shoulder, crooked and unsure how to approach a course. We did dressage exercises and horse yoga, and we learned to trust each other. We went to clinics with George Morris and Anne Kursinski. We took lessons at a high-end jumper barn that cost at least a day’s salary.

I loved Ernie beyond measure, and he loved me back, purely. We moved around a bit, and he got older. But the fire never abated. He knew all my secrets, saw me through most of the worst days of my life. My father’s death. The end of my marriage. Other failures. Other endings. My friends joked that he was the love of my life. I wasn’t sure it was a joke.

On 9/11/2001, at the end of the day, I went to clean his stall. I was so shocked, so horrified, so completely frozen that I’m not sure I even spoke to him when I got there. All I remember is this: I was in one corner of his stall, picking through straw. Ernie was against the other wall, eating hay. Somehow, he turned himself around, came across the back wall, walked past me until his shoulder was at my body, and stopped. Then he wrapped his neck around my body and held me there. And for the first time, after all of the horror and tragedy and fear of that day, I cried.

We got older. He got Cushing’s. He got ulcers.

When Ernie turned 30, I rode him only when the weather was perfect. And we kept to a walk as we meandered along the flat trail through the woods. I still told him all my secrets, and he grunted and muttered as we walked along, as he always had.

I stayed away from the hills, worried his shoulders couldn’t handle them. We also stopped going into the ring, because if he saw an obstacle, he wanted to jump it. He still just wanted to go.

And in the back of my mind, I betrayed him, because I still wanted to go, too. I once took a lesson on a different horse—cantering, jumping, all of the things that had always been my outlet, my joy.

I couldn’t do it a second time. The guilt was too painful.

Last January, a tiny cut on Ernie’s fetlock led to cellulitis0. We did broad-spectrum antibiotics and then intravenous antibiotics. The leg healed.

And he stopped eating.

On the 11th day, he ate, and for two days more, I thought we’d dodged a bullet.

Then he stopped eating again, and slowly his temperature crept up. The next morning, he had a full-blown fever and the leg was swollen and hot again.

“He just can’t fight it this time.” The barn owner hugged me as she said it.

I knew what she meant. And I sobbed like my heart had broken, because it had.

As we waited for the veterinarian, I led Ernie on one last walk, and we talked about our glory days. I sang his song to him (“Listen, old soldier, to the sound in your ears, of too many battles, for too many years…”). And as he died, I was holding his head, looking him in the eye, and telling him how much I loved him.

We who spend our lives with horses are used to death. What’s unusual is getting to spend 25 years with a horse that you love. Ernie was a gift to me, in so many ways. And the wound left by his loss will probably never fully heal, and in a way, I hope it never does. Because I am so grateful that I got to love him, teach him, learn from him and, now, miss him.

As I always will.

This article was originally published in EQUUS 485, February 2018




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