[Speaker] What kind of horse can touch the lives of millions? A racing superstar, a showjumping legend? How about a petting zoo pony named Coco. Hear her story in this episode of Barn Stories.

[Laurie] Welcome to the Barn Stories podcast. I'm Laurie Prinz, editor EQUUS magazine.

[EQUUS] And I'm managing editor, Christine Barakat.

[Laurie] This podcast features our favorite essays and articles published in EQUUS over the past 40 years. Although EQUUS is known for articles on horse care and veterinary research, our editorial mission has always been guided by the bond that exists between horses and people. And each issue has featured a real-life story that celebrates how horses enrich our lives and touch our hearts.

[Christine] We've searched our archives, chosen the stories that resonated with our readers and given them new life in this audio format. Longtime subscribers may recognize some of their favorite pieces. And if you're new to the EQUUS community, these stories will confirm that no matter what sort of saddle you sit in, a deep emotional connection to horses is something we all share. 

I'll start off by warning everyone: this story is sad right out of the gate. It's about the end of the life of a pony, but it was a good life—a humble one for sure, but good. Coco the pony lived at a petting zoo with a sheep and an alpaca for roommates. Together they greeted children every day and introduced them to the wonders of farm life and horses. For some of the children, that may have been their only exposure ever to horses and Coco made sure it was a good one. That's a job as important as any ranch horse or Olympic mount.

[Laurie] I love the affection that Coco's caretaker, the author of the story, shows the pony. We hear all the time about the bond between famous racehorses and their grooms, but a horse doesn't have to be a champion to be beloved by those around him. Just being a sweet pony is enough. Before we listen, I'll note that this story was published in 2009, which will help put some of the author's timeline into context.

[Laurie] So with that in mind, here is, "Legacy of Love," written by Yvonne Bachman and read by Taylor Autumn.

[soft music]

[Taylor Autumn, story reader] How do you say goodbye? I've been grappling with that question since Coco passed away earlier this year. 

I first met the little Welsh pony mix in 2001. When I was hired as Head Animal Caretaker at a local children's park. I would be looking after a variety of animals, but I was immediately drawn to Coco. Already 29 years old, the mare was skinny and head shy, but her sweet personality was evident nonetheless. 

Her best friend was a Suffolk sheep, named Bobo. I had been involved with horses as a young adult, but as so often happens, life took me in different directions than I had intended. With my new job, however, I was quickly reminded that there is nothing like the smell, touch and look of a horse. So began my nine years with Coco. 

One of the first things I did was work with our veterinarian to adjust Coco's diet. And soon her hip bones and ribs were much less prominent. The staff and I also spent hours brushing and combing her, revealing, at last, a gleaming coat. So many times over the years, I wondered about Coco's past. She came to the park in 1989 when she was 18. Her records were sketchy at best and there was no prior history. Where did she come from? Had she had a happy life, had she ever had a foal? I'd never know the answers to those questions, so I focused on making the remaining years of her life perfect. 

And before long, our tender loving care brought a mischievous sparkle to her eyes. Our routine was blessedly simple. Early in the mornings I would arrive and open up the barn door. Inside were Coco and her two-member herd, Bobo the sheep and Juan the alpaca. First out the door was Coco. She tossed her head as she walked out the gate, then she'd trot briskly along the duck pond, make a sharp turn to the left past the rabbit yard and make another sharp right turn to the teddy bear picnic meadow. Bobo would follow closely on her heels bleating the entire way, while Juan loped behind. 

Sometimes Coco would take a couple of fast gallops around the meadow, long mane and tail blowing straight behind her. She never failed to make me stop my chores and smile. Over the years, I often yearned to sit astride Coco and enjoy the wind in my hair as well, but given that she was only 12 hands tall and had a swayback, I knew I would have to settle for being her caretaker. After her gallop, Coco would graze on the fresh dew-covered grass. She'd have a couple of hours in the morning to relax before being brought back to her corral for her most important job: greeting the children who came to the park.

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[Taylor Autumn, story reader] Coco was wonderful on the job. During her tenure, literally millions of children and their families came to see her and pet her. On holidays, we would dress up Coco. She would wear a Christmas hat, a Halloween scarf and a red rose tied to her tail for Valentine's day. So many children, so many smiles and so much laughter and giggles surrounded Coco's corral. The little mare did more in promoting, the love, caring and understanding of horses than we will ever know. 

As the years passed, we saw Coco through a couple bouts of colic, a strained muscle or two, a torn ligament—the usual things we face with horses. Eventually, though, she began having old pony problems. Her teeth were wearing down, her vision was fading fast and her arthritis was a constant challenge. Coco would no longer trot down to the meadow in the morning, and there was no more galloping around her field. It broke my heart to see her slowly shuffling down the path to her early morning grazing spot, her companion Bobo, now mostly blind himself, walking slowly by her side. Our daily focus was to keep her comfortable and hold old age at bay for as long as we possibly could. Yet, she seemed to know that this is a normal part of life. She still had that spark in her eye, still ate her carrots happily and would still nicker whenever those she loved approached her corral. 

The children loved her as much as ever, even as their parents, looking at that sway back, graying muzzle and arthritic joints asked if she was doing okay. Of course, I would patiently explain that she was receiving wonderful care, which included bimonthly acupressure treatments, chiropractic sessions and a plethora of supplements and herbal treatments. But before long, we had to admit the inevitable. It was time for Coco to retire. She needed to move around more and not be restricted to her corral and barn for so many hours. So, after much searching, we found someone who had the property, the kindness and the finances to adopt our old pony and her sheep Bobo, who would not tolerate separation from his friend. 

In July of last year, the children's park had a retirement party for the two of them, in which a city council member read a proclamation, announcing Coco the Pony Day in our fair city. Hundreds of children came to say goodbye and there were many tears. 

Coco and Bobo settled down nicely in their new home. The transition appeared to be much easier for them than for me. I went to see them every Sunday, taking two close friends along. We helped oversee their care. Then, on the morning of January 17th, I received a call at work. It was from Coco's new family. She had broken her right front leg and gone down sometime during the night. The veterinarian had been called and was currently on site, but there was nothing that could be done and she was in pain. 

The decision I had been dreading for so long was made. I understand that was munching on her favorite equine cookies when she left. I guess there's no better way to go than with a mouth full of cookies. But I should have been there with her. I wanted to be, but I had 23 animals at the park to care for, including a new Shetland pony, and I couldn't make the one-hour drive. I'm comforted by the knowledge that when she passed, Coco was surrounded by her new family and, of course, her best friend Bobo was at her side. I still think of my old friend Coco every day, especially on Sundays when we drive out to visit Bobo, who is now almost 15, well beyond the average lifespan for a sheep. 

Coco was 38 years old when she passed and what she left behind cannot be overstated. She brought joy to so many children over the years. There must be thousands of photographs of her with young visitors. Decades from now, when those children are adults, they will no doubt look at their photos of Coco and smile. So how do you say goodbye? I still don't know the answer. Maybe there isn't one. Maybe, instead, you wait for the day when you can say hello again. On that day, I have to believe, I will grab hold of Coco's blonde mane and swing my legs over her back, and finally, we will race the wind together.

[soft music]

[Christine] Thanks for listening to Barn Stories. We hope you enjoyed this episode. If you have a favorite article or essay from the EQUUS archives that you'd like us to feature in a future podcast, let us know. You can reach us at EQUUSBarnStories@gmail.com.

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The Barn Stories podcast is a production of the Equine Podcast Network, an entity of The Equine Network.

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