About two years ago, I grieved with a friend as her horse succumbed to an illness and passed away. As the days, weeks and months passed after Romeo died, I graduated from the painful experience feeling like I’d learned something: Whenever the end was to come for my 26-year old mare, Windy, I’d be ready. Practical. Prepared. I’d be so wrong.
If only she hadn’t taken care of me so well and for so long.
How does a horse take care of a person? When I first met Windy, she belonged to an 11-year old girl – the little sister of my close friend, Scott. I was 20 years old. Sarah let me ride her beautiful mare (a Welsh Cob cross) which led to the best compliment of my life. I was cantering bareback around a field in Virginia, and someone remarked that I looked like I was born on a horse. Magic. Windy and I clicked.
Then one day, Scott was killed in a car accident. Sarah didn’t cry and she didn’t talk about her brother. Instead, she rode out her grief. She and Windy galloped through field and meadow over the next few years. One pounding hoof at a time, bits of Sarah’s sadness were left behind in their dust.
Later, when Windy came to live with me, I could barely support us both. Buying Windy was more of an investment in myself than a reflection of what I could afford. Feeling lost after college graduation, owning a horse gave me focus. But even though I’d been riding my whole life, I knew little about horse care. Windy weathered my mistakes and I learned how to take care of her.
And while I was focused on the kind of horse care that involves boarding arrangements, horse shoes and dewormer, I missed the fact that she was busy caring for me. When stress got me down, I had dreams about Windy. In every dream, I would be worried about getting my horse out of some dreadful situation. But every time, Windy got us home, not me.
This happened in real life, too. On wild trail rides with somebody leading us at a blistering pace through the woods, I knew I would get home if I just grabbed Windy’s ample mane and tucked my head. Out of the saddle, Windy remained my homing device as I pursued a writing career, got married and had children. For 18 years, no matter where I was – traveling on safari in South Africa with my husband, at home in the city, or raising a family – I could always count on her sweet face waiting for me at the gate when I arrived at the farm.
Windy took care of other people too. She served as an unwavering mount when my terrified mother – then in her mid-50s – decided to bridle her lifelong fear of horses. For each of the devoted Pony Clubbers who leased her over the years, it was as if Windy memorized the cross country course at every horse trial.
One of her most important jobs was serving as a trusted nanny for my seven-year old son Max, who I first held on her back when he was a baby. Through the years, Windy carried Max on tranquil hacks through the woods. Spooking was not in her vocabulary if he was on her back. She would pick her steps carefully through streams and over logs as he grabbed leaves, watched for frogs and affectionately referred to her as his “girl-girl.”
Last summer, when I got the call from the barn that Windy wasn’t feeling well, I didn’t worry too much. Even in her late 20s, she was healthy. It was nowhere near her time to go. But when I turned into the farm that morning, gloom overtook me — an unfamiliar feeling at my happy place.
Later that awful day at the equine hospital, I made the decision to end Windy’s pain. The vet said that I should “take one last moment.” The suggestion infuriated me. Windy and I had shared so many moments. I hated this one. He gave me instructions for where take her – around some corner, behind one shed or another. But my hearing failed. Unable to process his instructions, I stalled. I was not ready, not practical and not prepared. I was only a few yards from where Romeo had been euthanized 11 months before.
Windy, who could barely walk or even lift her head, nudged me and whinnied. Then she turned and walked ahead of me – my hands barely able to hold the end of the lead line. She marched to the exact spot where the vet had said to go. Somehow, she went around each corner and made all the right turns to the grassy spot.
How does a horse take care of a person? Even in her last moments, Windy cared for me. She took the lead, literally, when I could not. She affirmed my decision, walked herself to the bed of grass where she would leave this life – in her final act of horse care.
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