Pal for life

When we inherited my mother-in-law’s gelding, we knew we needed to take care of him. What we didn’t realize was how he would take care of us.
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You’ll take care of him right?” asked Leslie.

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“What? Of course,” I replied, “I’ll take care of all of them.”

“Oh no, that’s silly. But Pallie. You’ll take Pal right? I mean if something should happen to me.”

“Sure, whatever you want,” I said nonchalantly.

But she stopped. She was staring at me. She needed to know.

“Of course, Leslie. Of course we would.”

Finally, my mother-in-law was satisfied. She took a deep breath, pulled her shoulders up by her ears and exhaled all at once. Nodding her head, her wonderful hair popped out of her helmet, frizzy and wild.

“OK, then,” she went on. “What were you saying?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s trot.”

And just like that, on an ordinary winter day along the Blue Trail in Wellington, Florida, I accepted responsibility for Palladin. Then, almost two years later, that terrible, awful day arrived---and the gorgeous, dark bay gelding with four white socks and a blaze became ours. Leslie had other horses, and we were slowly finding homes for them. But Pal would be staying with us. Overnight, we went from a family of six---my husband, Scott; our two sons and our two Jack Russell terriers---to seven, but that one was an exponential addition.

Scott grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, and Leslie had been a professional horsewoman most of his life. He understood the daily tasks that were at hand---that even while we were still coming to terms with Leslie’s death, Pal needed to eat, and drink, and be turned out, and his stall needed to be mucked, and, and, and.... He knew we needed to take care of Pal. What he didn’t know yet was how Pal was going to take care of us.

Luckily, we had plenty of support. The barn where Palladin was boarded had been Leslie’s winter home for going on nine years, and the barn manager and the head groom stepped in and held our hands, easing us---well, me---into this new world of horse ownership by keeping an extra close eye on Pal. They had loved Leslie, too, and knew how important he was to her.

Up until this point in my life, I’d had the luxury of riding each winter, when Leslie brought her horses down to show and sell. At the end of the season, they would be whisked away, just in time for the boys to get out of school. I could ride when it was convenient for me, but it was Leslie who handled all the work of horsekeeping. She would try to teach me as things would arise, but it was kind of like being a passenger on a trip. You might enjoy the scenery with only a vague idea on where you’re going---but it’s the driver who knows how to get there.

Now, suddenly, I was responsible for the equivalent of a 1,200-pound toddler who might or might not try to remove himself from his pasture to eat a bag of grass seed, or freak out at a fox in his paddock, or throw his shoes. In those early weeks it seemed that every phone call brought me a new problem: “He did what? When?” And most incredulously, “How!?”

I learned how to wrap a leg, how to use fly spray, how to dress a wound, each time kicking myself for not paying more attention years before when I had the chance.

Thankfully, patient Pal always forgave me. He knew when I was doing things wrong and would stand still until I fixed it. If my vet wrap was too tight, he’d lift his leg and paw the air. He would blow on my head as if to tell me to try again. He listened, and I learned to listen, too. I would groom him daily. Talk to him. Scratch him. He missed her, too. He would let us hug him, resting his big head on our shoulders and breathing a deep sigh. He became fat as I compensated for my lack of knowledge with treats.

For my husband, Pal became a confidant and the barn was a place to mourn and heal. Pal was a sounding board and a source of comfort. He would snuffle Scott’s hair and lick his pockets for treats. Pal was everything that was right---the only thing that made sense in all this chaos around us. Pal’s barn was the first place Scott would go in the morning and the last place Scott would be in the evening.

I loved Pal with all my heart, and I loved riding him---but he was big. And the best rider I knew had just been killed in a freak riding accident … while wearing a helmet … just 100 yards from the barn. If she could die while riding, so could I. Fear consumed me.

Some days just tacking Pal up and standing in the ring was a win---which was fine by him. He’d stand there watching other horses get worked, swishing his tail and waiting for the treat that he knew would come. I knew he deserved a more experienced rider. He was a “made” show horse, for goodness sake. People wanted to buy him. I knew I didn’t deserve him, but I knew he deserved us. And he deserved for me to get better.

We worked our way up, through the walk, trot, canter. It wasn’t pretty. Yet he was steady if not lazy, and I was a jumpy mess. He gamely went around that ring, day after day, week after week---like a 17-hand lesson pony. My friends at the barn would leave their trot rails out, eyeing me to see what I would do. I steered around them. I couldn’t even think of trotting over a rail. What if, what if, what if? 

I knew we were getting ring sour. Pal would look longingly as riders passed by on the canal trails outside the ring, occasionally even whinnying at them. I had to work up the nerve to get out of the ring. Pal would sigh and stomp his foot. I knew we had to go out, to actually leave the ring---something I had done a million times before on many different horses, including Pal. Still, each time I contemplated it, my palms were sweaty. I was a nervous wreck.

Finally, the big day came. I scheduled a trail ride with a group of sensible, well-vetted riders. I arrived early to give Pal the perfect prep, then waited for the time to arrive (shooing people away lest we not get our hour of Zen).

Together, we all made exactly one trip around the farm---a few tenths of a mile, with me nervously chatting the entire time. I’m pretty sure I didn’t take a full breath until my new “trail riding” friends deposited me back in the ring, presumably so they could actually go for a trail ride. But it was a win. Dear, sweet Pal waited for me to catch up. He let me be scared, and he waited for my fear to subside (well, mostly). He took care of me.

Since then, we’ve continued to work our way upward. Now I’m happy to report we go miles together, always with a buddy. Pal has slimmed down. I’ve met lots of people out on the trails, and I am even called upon to take out new timid riders. I have a strict “no man left behind policy,” and just like those first kind riders had done for me, I escort my charges all the way to their own rings. And for Pal, the waiting is starting to pay off. Now, about that pole on the ground.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #470, November 2016.

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