Saving grace

In the wake of a tragedy, my love for a special horse pulled me from the depths of a depression.
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The warmth of summer was fading quickly as the first of September dawned. The low moon still shone brightly as it sank toward the horizon, and the dark land was quiet and still. I looked across the fields to the back paddock to see if I could make out his silhouette. I knew he would be anxious for his morning feed.

I first saw Nation, my 3-year-old Thoroughbred, a year ago, at a barn near our local racetrack. The owner often made deals to purchase unsuccessful racers for a minimal price. I remember walking out to a large arena where too many horses stood huddled together in a mixture of straw, muck and hay. Nation stood alone to one side of the pack. His ears were pinned, and he lunged with bared teeth at any who strayed too close.

Nation had been at the barn for almost two weeks, but he simply refused to get along with the herd. He had a thick, dark-bay coat and was still in racing trim.

I took him home with me that day. Nation quickly proved to be an intelligent and talented horse who showed his mistrust of people through defiance and uneasiness with being touched. But he soon realized that no one would hurt him here. He was an easy and natural jumper with seemingly endless energy. I decided to leave him outside on summer nights. He enjoyed having his own space and the freedom to run. He was a “lone horse,” as they say, and I loved him.

At the time we lived on a farm in Ontario. The owners, good friends of my parents, had purchased this 10-acre property and invited my husband, Mike, and me to live in the house, train and care for the horses, and develop a riding program. The facilities were in need of repair but the place had potential. At 29, I had an opportunity to live my dream of running a horse farm without the huge financial investment. Within six months, we had 15 boarded horses, with a rapidly growing lesson program, and Mike and I were starting our own family.

When the feeding was done, I decided to ride outside in the back ring, to enjoy the nice weather. Although Nation was an obedient horse we had been working on a new dressage test, and some of the movements were a challenge for him. Suppleness and forward movement can be difficult for a young horse, and Nation’s willingness was waning as he began to toss his head, resisting the bit. I decided to stop before he completely fell apart, hosed him down, gave him some treats and put him back out in his paddock.

Walking back to the house I felt a strange dizziness. It passed quickly so I ignored it and went inside, tired and hungry. In the kitchen, the strangeness returned and progressed into nausea. I sat at the table, trying to will it away. I stood up to get my breakfast but was stopped by a piercing pain in my abdomen. What the hell? I thought, rubbing my stomach. What’s happening?

Rising from deep within, a new wave of pain took hold, and I dropped to my knees. I slowly gathered myself, using the counter for support, but before I could fully stand, the sharpness returned and a fresh assault began. My knees buckled, and I began bleeding. “Mike!” I screamed. “Help me!”

My husband came running to find me on the floor soaked in blood. The alarm in his voice was evident as he called my name, demanding that I look at him, to stay awake and focus. My vision faded into darkness.

I awoke to the noise of beeping, the buzz of voices on a radio and an oxygen mask on my face. I was in an ambulance. Tears stung my eyes as I softly announced, “I lost the baby.”

When I returned home from the hospital, I was medically sound, but I found myself unable to leave my bed. I simply could not bear to join the world again. My poor baby was gone and I was sure I was responsible. I was so engulfed in sadness I could only cry and hope to fall back to sleep.

Mike’s support was quiet and unwavering, but this depressed, sad wife was new to him. Every day he would come in and ask if I wanted anything, tell me kids had come for riding lessons, try to entice me to go see Nation. Every day he was met with no response. There simply was nothing to say.

The guilt was overwhelming. How could I have been so selfish to ride while I was pregnant? How could my body be so weak that it couldn’t even carry a baby? How could my husband love me? Dark thoughts consumed me.

One morning, Mike woke me and demanded I get up and shower. I had an appointment for a follow-up examination. Like a child, I silently rose and did as I was told. When we met the doctor, I answered a few routine questions. Physically, I was recovering well. Then the doctor asked, “And how have you been feeling?”

“OK,” I lied. An awkward silence filled the room.

“She is not OK,” Mike interjected. “She has been unable to get out of bed and seems not to care about anything.”

I flashed him a resentful glance. How could he betray me like this? “I’m fine,” I asserted. Then, “I thought you said it was OK if I rode my horse,” I said sharply.

“Yes, it is OK for an experienced rider to ride until five or six months,” the doctor replied. “Why? Do you think riding caused the miscarriage?”

“I don’t know. Maybe,” I said.

“Kerry,” the doctor said, “there was something wrong with this baby. Nature has a way of expelling fetuses that won’t survive. Riding had nothing to do with it. You had nothing to do with it.”

I wanted to believe this, to be relieved of this guilt, but I couldn’t. I fought to hold back my tears.

My parents came for dinner that night, and for a while I tried to enjoy the company. Before long, however, I longed to return to my bed. The darkness had become strangely comfortable, and it was exhausting trying to act normal.

My parents left and I went to bed early. It was windy and rainy outside, causing the storm windows to rattle. I dreamt for the first time in a long time about Nation. I saw him standing in the distance, his head high, his mane dancing in the wind. I ran across the field to see him, expecting his usual friendly nudges, but he lunged at me baring his teeth. I jumped back in surprise. Again I extended my hand in friendship, but he reared up in defense. “Nation, what’s wrong? It’s me,” I said. Suddenly, I saw a open gash in his chest. The blood poured from the wound as he continued to defend himself against me. “Nation, let me help you,” I pleaded. He leapt forward and his front legs came down on my chest, crushing my ribs. I gasped for air, feeling helpless under the pressure, desperate to be free.

I awoke panting and fighting for breath, covered with sweat. I bolted out of bed and raced down the hall and out the door, pausing only to scramble into my work boots and barn coat. Then I beelined toward the back pasture.

“Nation!” I called. I scanned the area for his dark silhouette and finally saw him grazing in the corner. His ears pricked and he made a small noise of acknowledgement before trotting over to me. His nose jutted out slightly to touch my outstretched hand. “Nation,” I cried, “I’ve missed you so much.”

His damp neck felt warm against my face. It felt good to be outside again. Remembering my dream, I stood back to scan his body for injury, but there was no mark on him. His coat glistened in the moonlight.

I stared deep into his dark eyes and felt the quiet power within them. I raised my head high to see the clear, bright moon and feel the freshness of the rain on my face. I closed my eyes as the sorrow seemed to drip from me, and a feeling of absolution washed over me.

I realized at that moment the true gravity of the natural world---both the brutality of natural selection, but also the grace of healing. There was no room for blame here, or regret, or loss---there was only the here and now, and a world that would continue with or without my participation.

The sound of distant whinnies broke the silence as the sun began to rise. I walked toward the white wooden gate as Nation followed dutifully behind. It was feeding time soon. I clipped his halter to the end of the damp rope and we walked back to the barn together.

This article first appareled in EQUUS issue #452, May 2015.