I know I’m supposed to credit for whatever equine skills I might have to my trainers (I worked with the best,) and the famous clinicians I rode with (they were famous for all the right reasons,) but when the scabs all healed, my greatest mentor was Spirit, a $600 spotted colt. He has done it all. Twice. And with me on his back. That last part was really hard.
No one taught me more about wet t-shirt contests and unplanned vaulting. About reining and dressage. About how to be a horse. He quite simply taught me everything worth knowing. I don’t believe in soul-mates, but if I did, the Grandfather Horse is mine. I doubt the Dude Rancher would disagree.
I’d like to say Spirit, retired to the respected place of Grandfather Horse in our herd, was such a good teacher because he was easy to understand. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He was a challenge to ride: quirky, emotional, not particularly athletic, and with a little too much try. (As I a trainer, when clients tell me who their horse is, in my mind I switch the pronouns–what she says about her horse is true about herself. Probably true in my case, too.)
These last 12 years of forced retirement have been sheer hell for both of us. Watching him slowly deconstruct with old age has taken more courage than anything I ever tried in the saddle.
We had a decrepit routine. He shuffled along, baby-stepping with his eyes perpetually teary and sunken. I learned to schedule his Annual Emergency Sheath Cleaning. The first time, I thought he was dying. His sheath doubled in size in one day; his eyes showed the pain. Now I mark Old Man Smegma on the calendar. The vet probably has a less descriptive name for it.
There was chronic diarrhea and the tendons in his front legs gave way to bent knees a decade ago. His arthritis was audible. As much as he loved a roll in the sand, he did it rarely. Neither of us thought he would make it back up. I tried being stoic like him. He was holding his own, the best he could, but he lacked his usual humor. Maybe he didn’t recognize himself. I notice at this age, I don’t.
It changed last spring. He held a good weight all winter and come February, his weight plummeted. He didn’t eat differently, but he developed a decidedly bovine appearance. He had thigh gap, significantly less cool in horses. His back dropped even more; he barely had a memory of muscle. It happened so abruptly that I thought I was losing him. It was obvious enough that people mentioned it to me, with a euthanizing look in their eyes. Like I didn’t know all of his contemporaries were gone already.
The Grandfather Horse was already getting twice as much beet pulp by the time the dentist mentioned his missing teeth. I reminded him of the one pulled a few years earlier, but he corrected me. Most of the rest on that side were gone–since his last check-up! Shouldn’t I have seen that many on the ground?
I started trying different feeding strategies, I broke a couple of my own rules and slowly, the weight came back. I scrutinized everything every day.
Sometimes he trotted a few strides to his dinner when he came in at night. Then the first real sign of change: when our farrier was here and he flicked his tail in her face and actually pulled his hoof out of her hand. Both of us cackled like hens–he felt good enough to behave badly for the first time in years.
He’s laying down more again. It sounds like 2000 books falling off a table and I flinch to see it, but he’s rolling and sunbathing again.
All horses, no matter how good they are, have a tragic flaw–that rude love of a bad habit. When he was younger, Spirit liked to bolt when the halter came off for turnout. A split-second lapse of focus and you could simultaneously get your toes crushed and an arm dislocated. Zero to sixty in a joyous rocket launch. It’s happening again! On especially fine days, he even spooks.
My Christmas present? I heard hooves pounding and when I got to the pasture, the Grandfather Horse was running the younger ones ragged. He was flashing his tail and galloping along like a box of rocks.
He just seems to feel happier. My friend–with the oldest horse I know–says at a point her mare’s joints fused a bit and the arthritis hurt less. I think my Grandfather Horse may have lived long enough for this special senior discount. Either way, he’s got a second wind and he thinks aging gracefully is the worst kind of lame.
The Grandfather Horse is happy again and I’m like the teacher’s pet who raises her hand, “Oh, oh, oh!” and tries too hard. He’s had decades to get used to my awkward ways, he knows I catch up eventually. So, he’s sterling in the moonlight. He shows me how to feel the afternoon sun in a whole new way. He’s born-again beautiful; it’s irresistibly bittersweet.
This week we lost a beloved barn member and when the dead animal transport people came, they gave me a senior discount. Perhaps an ironic call to arms?
We’re still not the most graceful pair, but world, beware. It’s 16 days till Daylight Savings time and less than a month till calendar Spring. New grass is on the way. There’s a good chance we’ll plan a Spring breakout–me and the Grandfather Horse. We’ve got nothing to lose and we’re not dead yet.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.
(Wishing my cootacious Dude Rancher a defiant birthday.)
PS. If you like this blog, you’ll love my book, making its way to publication at AnnaBlake.com