Friday, August 7, 2009
Requiem for a Black Horse
Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone
The plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song
I just can't remember who to send it to
Yesterday morning I had to make the call that every animal owner dreads. Shorty was down, uninterested in food, feverish, and miserable. After a six-month battle with cancer (and after being told he wouldn’t live to see the end of January), it was finally his time. Nobody wants to play God and make the decision to end a loved one’s life, but in times like this, you’ve just got to do the best you know how. So I gave the boy a few pats and hugged his neck and shared some tears with my mom, then I dialed the vet.
By the time she arrived, Shorty was standing, but his breathing was labored and his appetite still very diminished. The bute he had been given had brought his temperature down somewhat, but not enough, and he was hot to the touch. My mom sponged him off with cool water and we offered him all the treats he would take. The vet checked his vitals, then turned to us for the go-ahead. We all agreed there was no point in carrying on. Even if by some miracle we were able to nurse him through this bout as we have the previous two flare-ups, the cancer was certain to rebound again in the near future—perhaps at the hottest time of the day, or in the middle of the night, when no one was around to help him. No, as difficult as it was, it had to be done.
We led him from his stall to the place we had decided he would be buried. At first he was reluctant to move, and we feared we’d have to euthanize him in his stall and then drag him a quarter mile with the tractor to reach the grave. Once we got outside, however, he seemed to liven up. He wanted a drink of water, which we gladly provided, and red clover, which we picked in handfuls and fed to him. Seeing him like that, rallied, was almost enough to make us second-guess our decision. But Shorty has always been a stoic horse, and we knew he was suffering. His eyes were tired. Always the good boy, he walked along obediently, oblivious.
We found a shady spot in the back pasture, and decided that this was the right place, if there can ever be a right place for something like that. My mom said her final goodbyes and left, but I elected to stay, for whatever reason I don’t know. The vet tech held his head while the vet injected a sedative. He drooped and grew limp. I bawled and stroked his muzzle. Then the IV was attached and the lethal cocktail was administered. Halfway through the dose, he crumpled and fell. His eyes rolled and glazed. We all three knelt over him and rubbed him, while the vet spoke comforting words. And then, a few violent but unconscious spasms later, he was gone.
Won't you look down upon me, Jesus
You've got to help me make a stand
You've just got to see me through another day
My body's aching and my time is at hand
And I won't make it any other way
We walked back slowly and silently. The vet had cut a lock of his braided tail, which she discretely slipped to me. I hid it from my mom. A man with a backhoe was summoned, a hole was dug, and that was the end of that. So anticlimactic.
I cried off and on all morning, but I’d already expended so much grief over the past six months of trials that I didn’t have a whole lot left. I was just glad that he didn’t have to suffer; that he went easily, that we wouldn’t have to worry anymore. But just the previous midnight (24 hours before me typing this now) he had felt fine. We had been out to see him, and he was grazing contentedly in the light of the waning moon. Ten hours later, and he was dead. That’s life. Things change in an instant.
While Shorty was cheated out of time he should have had (at 15, he was only halfway through his life expectancy), at least he had the best retirement a horse could ever hope for. He was pampered and spoiled. He had free reign of the barn and could come and go from his stall at will. He was given all the most delicious and expensive treats, and he was checked multiple times a day to make sure he felt well, was eating, and did not have a fever. I gave him all the drugs the vet ordered and bought him all the time we could. Most of the time throughout his ordeal, I think, he actually felt pretty good, if tired. He was living the good life—the one we all deserve.
Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun
Lord knows when the cold wind blows it'll turn your head around
Well, there's hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground
But I make it sound as though Shorty was lucky to have us. While that is true as far as it goes, we were the lucky ones to have him in our lives. He was my first horse, and I got him eight years ago this month. He taught me so much, and tolerated my novice whip-jerk-kick horsemanship. He won me innumerable ribbons, trophies, plaques, halters, saddles, checks, and prizes, besides. Even last year he was still winning pole bendings without even trying. He took care of me in my youthful foolishness, and when I outgrew him, he proved to be a faithful and steady trail horse for my mom. Unflappable, kind-hearted, and quiet, he was lazy as could be with a beginner rider on his back, but a wild spitfire whenever I asked him to run. He knew the difference, and he knew how to deliver exactly what his rider needed. A horse like that—who is simultaneously an athlete and a babysitter—is hard to come by. Shorty truly was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of horse on so many levels. He was a good, good boy.
And there’s more than that, too. Shorty came during a transition period in my life, and he saw me through all seven of my years at Central as I grew and changed completely, throughout adolescence and the upheavals of the teenage years. And he changed the course of my life, too, for he indirectly started me on the path of Veterinary Medicine, and he taught me how to ride and train, and he’s the reason that I now live on 31 gorgeous acres in the country. That’s a big influence for such a little horse. But you can’t measure that unseen quality: heart.
Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I'd see you again
For the most part, my mom (who loves the horse even more than I do) and I have been handling the grief as well as can be expected. I only lost it when Buddy started crying for Shorty. Bud came here seven weeks ago as a loaner for me since all of my other horses are, for whatever reason, out of commission (it’s been a really bad year). From the first night of his arrival, he immediately latched onto Shorty, who has always been solitary by nature. Buddy wouldn’t leave his side, however, and whenever another horse came too near, he’d run it off and herd Shorty away from the perceived threat. I’m not one to look for deeper meanings in things or believe in spiritual sentimentalism, but it was almost as though Buddy came as a guardian angel during Shorty’s time of need.
Anyway, as we were leading Shorty to his final resting place, I caught up Bud and put him in Shorty’s stall so he wouldn’t get too nosey or upset. But he just watched out his window and called loudly to his friend as he walked away. And, hours later, when we turned them all out for the night, the first thing Buddy did was run to the spot where he had last seen Shorty, neighing all the while, looking around, ears pricked, distressed, concerned. I hate to anthropomorphize, but it was quite clear what was going on. Anyone who says animals don’t experience emotions and attachment is cold and deluded. The same goes for anyone who claims that, if there is such a thing as a “soul,” only people possess it. Again, that’s sheer arrogance, as far as I’m concerned.
Eventually Buddy quieted and calmed down, although he’d still periodically lift his head and look around for his pal. Yes, Shorty, you’ll be sorely missed. Godspeed, little buddy. And thank you.