A week ago on Saturday May 10th, 2014, we had to put down one of our horses, Denny. It was a terribly hard day for me (Sebastian). As many of you probably recall, last year we had to put down another horse, Viper, after he broke his leg in a picket line. I can barely believe it happened again. Though Denny came into our lives only a couple of months ago, we had grown close, working together nearly every day on skills we would need for the trip, building our communication, developing our relationship, and gaining each other’s trust. The pain I felt was the pain of losing a friend.
The accident happened in a split second. One moment all was beautiful and joyous and un-weighted by time as I watched our three horses celebrate the rain-fresh spring grass. Running and bucking through the pasture, feeling their oats, the horses tore from one side of the pasture to the other. They were led by Raven, our third horse, who after weeks of climbing the pecking order, had finally proven herself as lead mare. Denny was having a great time. He was fully alive. The next moment everything was grim and present and final, the cloudy skies suddenly ominous in meaning. He ran too close to the neck of a flatbed gooseneck trailer parked in the corner of the pasture, tried to turn, slipped in the wet ground, and drove his shoulder into the immovable object, glancing off of it, the damage done. He had torn a huge gash from the top of his shoulder down to his chest, and shattered his scapula completely. I grabbed the halter and ran to him. He waited calmly, in shock no doubt, as I slipped it over his head. I shouted to my friend Bryan to call a vet, that it was an emergency, and sunk my hands into the wound to try to stop the bleeding. I thought back to the Equine First Aid class I had taken three years before. “Direct pressure, Direct Pressure, Direct pressure” they had said. Go to the source. The blood was pouring down his front left leg, making his one white hoof brilliantly red. From my first glimpse of flesh and skin flapping as he came to a stop, I thought, “Oh no… We’ll have to put him down…” I thought it might be hopeless, but I couldn’t stand to do nothing. My thoughts tumbled back to last spring, when Viper broke his leg in a picket rope. The feelings of guilt and anguish at having to put him down, feeling responsible for his death, I wouldn’t let that happen again. My fingers found the holes and the bleeding slowed. We waited. Denny was so trusting. He was scared. He looked to me to help. And there was nothing I could do to save him.
Once the vet arrived she told me what I already knew. The injury was bad, the situation grave. She thought the bone was probably broken all the way through, which reduced the chances of any degree of recovery to basically zero. If he did eventually heal, there was a good chance he would develop complications in his other leg and hoof from that massive shift in weight. After talking to Robin on the phone, who was away for the weekend, we decided to bring him to the clinic to X-Ray the bones. We had to see if there was any hope. We couldn’t face putting another horse down, one that we had already grown close with, if there was anything we could do to save him.
Robin had been working with Denny for weeks on loading on and off of a trailer calmly and willingly. He had been resistant for a long while. Just the day before the accident he had followed me onto a trailer without any encouragement or prodding for the first time. Who knew that this is what it would come to. Bryan backed his trailer close to Denny in the pasture and I led him on. Barely able to move his leg, he limped to the trailer and followed me on, brave and determined and trusting. It was incredible. It makes me cry just thinking about it. Imagine having a hip dislocated and your leg half severed off, standing calmly, walking on it, composed, and climbing a flight of stairs. How he did it is beyond me. We drove the mile or so to the veterinary clinic and brought him inside. Several X-rays later, and the diagnosis was confirmed, the shoulder-blade was broken all the way through and largely separated from the body. The decision had to be made. I was stalling. I knew what had to be done but wanted another option. Looking into Denny’s eyes I wanted to see an answer, to see what he wanted. Did he want to hold on, to go through the pain of standing on that mangled shoulder with minimal stitches and painkillers for weeks, confined to a stall for months, all for an uncertain shot at being able to live a sedentary life? Did he want to end it now? It was impossible to really tell. I am sure as a young, energetic, living being, he would have wanted to fight. To not give up. But was that really the best thing for him? And could I even afford to keep him alive? That was the worst part, the financial thinking that crept in and marred the noble thoughts of keeping a friend alive, or even of putting a friend out of their misery. I was coming to the conclusion that putting him down was the best thing for him, and second guessing my reasoning as a rationalization for making the practical, economical decision. It’s hard, sometimes, to know what the right thing to do is, and to know what drives us to do the things we do. A decision had to be made though. With Robin on the phone, we started saying goodbye to Denny. We told him how much we loved him, how beautiful he was, what a good guy he was, how sorry we were, how lucky we were to have had him come into our lives, how thankful we were for the lessons he had taught us. I hated myself for it. I wanted to have more time with him, to travel together and see the country. To see him run and buck across pastures from here to Oklahoma, and taste the sweet green shoots of so many more springs. I handed him a handful of grass and looked into his eyes. He fell fast and heavy after the injection, the veterinarian holding up his head and laying it down gently. I bent over him crying, caressing his head and petting his neck. I looked into his eyes as he faded away. What a good horse. What a good friend.
By opening ourselves up to the animals we work with, we stand to gain something deep and rewarding, and we make ourselves vulnerable to the heartache of losing someone close.
Throughout the day, there were many people who lent a hand, grabbed blankets for Denny and jackets for me as we stood in the drizzle, and showed both of us great love. It was a blessing to be surrounded by so many thoughtful, caring people. I am thankful for all that they did.
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Working with the farrier a few days before Denny died, I (Robin) remember chatting with him about where Denny came from. It was not a nice place. When we first got Denny, he flinched badly every time you raised your hand to pet him and his eyes were full of fear and mistrust. His feet were badly overgrown and uncared for. If they had been left much longer he would have developed chronic lameness and I hate to think what might have become of him. His previous owner wasn’t a good horseman; he didn’t respect the animals he worked with and they grew to fear him. When Denny first came to our barn, he would race around the pen when you went in to catch him, fearing the contact he had grown to expect. After a few months of working with Denny, of loving him and encouraging him and talking to him, he had begun the process of regaining his trust in those around him. As we spent more and more time with him, he would walk up to you in the pen, lay his head in your hand, and follow you around hoping for another scratch behind the ears.
While contemplating whether or not his feet would be in good enough shape to go on our trip, the farrier said, “you know, even if you can’t take him on this trip, at least you got him out of there. It saved his life.” Although his life was cut short while he was with us, I take heart knowing that the life we were able to give him for the few months we had him was a good one. I’m glad that he was loved and that he began to trust people again. He went out with a brand new set of good shoes on while eating the first shoots of spring grass with Lil, Raven, Winnie, and Sebastian by his side, and for that, I am grateful.
Over the last several days Sebastian and I have been talking about how we want to proceed with the trip. It was a blow to lose one horse last year, and it is even worse to lose another again this year. Planning and preparing for this trip has put us face to face with death and dying. It is a hard thing to experience; we have come to learn that it is part of life, and especially of life with horses, who, as strong and beautiful and powerful as they are, are not exempt from coming and going. We want to see what this journey will bring and we want to share what we learn. If we are able to find the right fit for our team, and are able to safely prepare them for the trip, we want to move forward with the project and carry Denny and Viper in our hearts as we do so. For some reason or another, Sebastian is obsessed with grass, I’m obsessed with birds, and we’re both obsessed with the prairie and horses. Thank you for all of your kind thoughts and wishes, and may Denny, a beautiful horse and spirit, one we are lucky to have gotten to share the winter and beginning of spring with, rest in peace.