Barn Stories Ep. 38: The Next Journey

Of all the journeys we can take with our horses, the ones at the end of their lives can be the most challenging. Grab a tissue and settle in for an emotional episode of Barn Stories.
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Christine: Of all the journeys we can take with our horses, the ones at the end of their lives can be the most challenging. Grab a tissue and settle in for an emotional episode of Barn Stories.

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

Christine: 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.

Laurie: The end of a beloved horse’s life has always been a common theme for True Tales we’ve published in EQUUS. That’s understandable, as special horses inspire us to memorialize and celebrate their lives. We chose to feature this particular story, however, because of the moving way the author portrays this bittersweet stage of horse ownership.

Christine:: In this essay, the narrator reflects on the many journies she’s taken with her horse, Bear—to various events, activities and adventures. Of course, trailer travel is just a metaphor for the journey of their relationship. And as health problems arise for Bear and retirement looms, trailer travel begins to signify a different sort of journey—one towards the end of their time together. And, as the writer so powerfully conveys, those last journeys can be the hardest.

Laurie: This story is a celebration of life, but—fair warning—it’s an emotional one. Let’s listen to The Next Journey, written by Mary Lynn Carpenter and read by Taylor Autumn.

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Taylor Autumn, reader:

I swept out the trailer, filled the hay net and inspected the emergency kit. Tire pressure was good. The truck’s gas tank was full. Pausing for a drink of water, I reflected on the upcoming trip with my gelding, Bear.

Traveling with horses in tow was always exciting. I loved heading down the open road early in the morning knowing that I had a full day of horse adventures ahead. Sure, it was nerve-racking at first; it took me a while to find my “towing mojo.” Still, the anticipation of the adventures that awaited at each destination were enough to motivate me to keep practicing

I found special satisfaction in traveling with Bear. We first brought him home in a three-horse slant load, but I never felt truly safe hauling a trailer that big. So we purchased a two-horse straight load that was less intimidating for me to drive.

Bear, however, let us know that he disapproved of our new acquisition by refusing to walk into it. So we embarked on a lengthy training process together—to give him the confidence to load, and me the confidence to drive. Our success in overcoming trailering insecurities enabled us to participate in many fun adventures together as the years passed. We attended lessons, clinics, trail rides and horse shows. We went swimming together, worked cows, played horse soccer.

But Bear is now in his 20s, and as I made my final preparations, I realized it had been awhile since I had trailered him off of the property. I hooked up the rig easily, and he quietly loaded right up. The weather was good, and I smiled to myself as I felt the familiar weight of the trailer behind me.

 My trailer has a front window that allows me to peer in through my truck’s rearview mirror as I’m driving. I chuckled as I caught occasional glimpses of Bear’s ears and forelock.

Our destination today, however, was different than any of our previous adventures. After a lifetime of excellent health, Bear has developed physical problems, and recently I’d had to retire him from riding. Today he was scheduled to have a removal and biopsy of a skin lesion that was suspected to be malignant.

Rider on Paint horse rides away from camera on dirt road toward distant mountains. The ear of a sorrel horse is in the foreground.

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Taylor: Bear unloaded easily at the veterinarian’s office. I felt a moment of pride watching him demonstrate how comfortable he had become backing off of the trailer. After a brief wait, Bear was brought out for the procedure and led into a set of stocks in the exam room. After 12 years together, this was the first time I had ever seen Bear in stocks, and I asked for permission to take some photos.

Then the thought struck me: Instead of at our newest showground or trail-riding venue, I was taking photos of my horse in a veterinary clinic. A lump formed in my throat and my eyes became misty. It was a harsh reminder that there would be no more trail rides, clinics or shows in our future. All of those years that we had worked together to increase our skills and improve our relationship were behind us. From now on, the most exciting thing we would experience together would be new veterinary procedures to combat Bear’s ever-mounting health problems. 

Bear is not the first horse that I have retired, but he is the first horse that I have retired during a time in my life when I did not have another horse in reserve. I once kept three to four horses on my property so that when one retired, I would still have at least one other to ride.

Over the years, all the others died, and Bear is now my only horse. I feel fortunate that I have been able to keep horses in my backyard for 15 years now. It’s been a childhood dream turned to reality, and I have had a pretty good run. But I have to admit that I am not ready for it to end just yet. I worry that, as I watch my horse age and his health decline, I am also watching the slow death of the equine-centric lifestyle that has become so integral to my sense of self. 

After an area of skin was removed and stitches put in, Bear was backed out of the stocks and moved to a stall to recover from the sedative. When the time came to leave, he loaded quickly and smoothly, prompting an approving nod from the veterinarian.

Heading home, I thought about how, in years past, I would often drive back from an event replaying the day in my mind. Bear was always a shy and cautious horse. Each new place and activity inevitably brought challenges, and we worked to overcome his fears and hesitations. Each time, I reveled in our victories and made new plans for training to make up for our shortcomings.

I must say I was proud of how Bear handled this veterinary visit. The feeling was not so different from how I often felt driving home after a partic-ularly good day at a trail ride or clinic. I reflected on how much I valued the relationship that I had built with him over the years and how I wanted to provide as comfortable a retirement for him as I could.

Time has passed and circumstances have changed, but for a while longer I still have a horse I cherish. Life looks different for both of us than it once did—and it is a struggle to come to terms with that. I mourn the loss of being able to ride him, and I dread the thought of his death.

With no more riding destinations in our future, we are embarking on a different kind of journey together now. Watching my dreams ebb with my horse’s health has taken no less fortitude than helping him load into my trailer and driving off down the road to face a new riding challenge. Of all the places my horse and I have gone together, this retirement journey might be the one for which I need the most courage.

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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, LLC.

Looking for more great horse-centric podcasts? Check out the other offerings from the Equine Podcast Network. 

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