"Which is your favorite horse?"
This question has been asked of me hundreds of times since becoming the owner of multiple horses. Almost before the question mark exits the inquirer's mouth, I hastily exhale the reply.
"I couldn't possibly have a favorite; I love them all the same."
But do I?
The longer I live with horses the more they mold me into the person I am on my way to becoming. My only hope is that I continue to evolve into a better version of the one I am now. This journey is not void of difficult questions that can be painful to answer if I am completely vested in living my truth.
On December 4th I finally conceded to the euthanasia of a twenty-one year old thoroughbred gelding, Final Target. Unlike Rosemary the iguana, Sandi, a beloved lesson mount and Huxley, the dachshund, Target's obituary never appeared on Facebook or Twitter. Subsequently, there was no outpouring of condolences assuring me that he had lived a wonderful life thanks to my love and devotion. I couldn't bear to hear these words because I wasn't convinced they were true. Over the eleven years that I have owned Target, I have contemplated putting him down more than once. Yet, when the moment of truth arrived each time and for a variety of different reasons, the notion never materialized past a quandary.
Target was originally purchased as a lesson horse shortly before we moved from our tiny Lakeview Farm to the sprawling landscape that is Moose River Farm. I found him on a specialty website dedicated to connecting thoroughbred enthusiasts from around the country so they could buy and sell horses of this magnificent breed.
After driving more than two hours with my friend Michele one late afternoon in the monochrome landscape of March, we arrived at a tired looking fifteen stall barn that housed only two horses. The owners were clearing out; ending a long chapter of their lives spent retraining thoroughbreds off the track. They were on their way into luxurious relaxation of retirement sans the care of horses. Target was about ten years old and stood close to 16.2 hands. He had been the offspring of one of the owner's thoroughbred mares who sadly died two weeks after the gray horse was foaled.
Orphans typically struggle in life having grown up under the care of a human nanny. Good intentions can turn sour because these horses never learn the rules and regulations of being a horse...from their dam. I believe this had an effect on Target his whole life. He remained rather aloof to other horses; humans too for that matter. At times he also lacked respect for people, never going out of his way to please; a desirable characteristic associated with thoroughbreds.
His dingy white coat suggested only a few remaining faded dapples from younger days. Over the next couple of years he would turn completely white. The big horse had not been ridden in a very long time. However, I was assured there would be no behavioral issues. There weren't. Target complied willingly with my leg and rein. If anything he seemed a bit dull. For me this makes a better lesson horse when compared to a demeanor that is flighty or too quick to react to the rider's leg.
Two weeks later, Target was on his way to life in the Adirondacks. He settled into the routine easily and shortly after his arrival I began the task of conditioning him for my lesson program.
It didn't take long to realize that my bargain horse had serious quirks. As conditioning progressed he seemed to become irritated with me. Attributing this change in behavior to physical pain as a result of conditioning, I backed off by riding him ever so lightly.
And then the tripping began. At first the bobbles were subtle. A loss of rhythm here, a balance issue there. I paid little attention to it until one day I counted the number of trips. On average the great white horse lost rhythm in his stride fifteen times in a forty-five minute session. Imagination on my part or physical issue on his? Did he need more conditioning? Did he need protective pads on his front feet? As his conditioning progressed he developed balance and elasticity in his back but required a knowledgeable rider to help him hold himself together. His large size made this a difficult task for beginner riders.
Eventually, I used him more and more for adult riders with experience. They loved him. His trot and canter were just challenging enough to teach the rider's leg and hand how to respond. The bobbles appeared often but never seemed to result in anything more than a hiccup in rhythm. Meanwhile, I rode Target as often as I could. The behavioral quirks reduced measurably once he became acquainted with the trails at our new farm. Away from the schooling ring, he picked up his feet with enthusiasm minimizing the episodes of imbalance. I used to joke with barn family and friends about developing a sport called "road dressage" because as long as Target was moving forward in a straight line, he seemed to float effortlessly along the trail. He also kept his ears on alert waiting for the faintest distraction in the woods to give cause to enormous spooks! More than once he unseated the most experienced riders on excursions in the woods. Fellow riders, Michele and Irene, have experienced his spooking escapades.
Then one day while giving a lesson to an experienced college student, the inevitable happened. Betty was cantering Target in a balanced frame effortlessly between her hand and her leg. Her confidence and Target's balance appeared to be synchronized beautifully. Suddenly, he crashed to the ground without warning. The rider's body projected across his neck and over his head like a bullet.
Thankfully, Betty was not hurt; although a bit stunned. After all there had been no warning, no interruption in the footing, or no explanation for the sudden catastrophic loss of balance. I had no words of advice. "You should have done this....You should have done that...." I had nothing to offer her.
Target's fall resulted in a melon sized hematoma on his chest and a rattling of confidence in both him and me. What did this mean? What malfunctioned? Was there really something wrong with him? Should I put him down? This event forced me to pull him out of my lesson program. So far he hadn't hurt anybody seriously and I was not willing to run the risk of that happening.
I continued to ride him after he healed from his bruises. In fact I spent the next winter in the indoor arena focusing on his balance through continued exercises and conditioning. Some days instead of riding Target, I chased him around the ring; encouraging him to gallop as fast as he could. I wanted to observe his abilities without the weight of a rider on his back. I may have seen him bobble without a rider an unimpressive five times.
Over the winter he improved greatly. I rode him six or seven times between stumbles. Some of my best rides took place on the great white horse. These sessions frequently occurred in my lighted outdoor ring under falling snow. Accompanied by the festive notes of popular Christmas music, Target glided across the powdery surface effortlessly responding meticulously to my requests. The experiences were powerfully emotional and kept me smiling all evening despite a long professional day at school. I will never forget those moments and know that I owe him a debt of gratitude for providing them.
The years went by, the bobbles became something I accepted, although unbeknownst to me they were having a detrimental effect on my riding in general. I began to ride all horses defensively with a fear of tripping and falling. I convinced myself that I could control and even thwart a potential fall. To do this I stared at the footing so I could steer around suspicious soft spots and uneven depth that might end in catastrophe. This technique became the new normal and lasted over the next couple of years.
Meanwhile, Target was beginning to exhibit abnormal behavior around the barn. He acted terrified when his halter was placed behind his ears. Bridling him in the wash stall was impossible as he hoisted his head to his highest shaking with fear and eyes bulging. In his stall there was no bridling issue. Sometimes after removing his bridle he twisted his neck and held it stiffly in this position for several minutes. I wondered if he was having mini seizures but our vet could diagnose nothing wrong with him. Was it time to put him down? His issues began to accumulate. Intermittent lameness that required long stretches of rest only to return after a few weeks of light work.
Then one day while riding him on a beautiful promising morning in June of 2011, it happened. The great white horse was cantering effortlessly around the ring. My legs and reins were communicating in perfect harmony when suddenly he dropped to his knees. The event occurred so quickly, I didn't have time to react as I had convinced myself I would be able to. Miraculously, he did not fall. Instead, he caught himself and took two more steps in a crouched position to compensate his forward momentum. Next thing I knew he was standing. Not only was I still on his back but my feet were still in the stirrups. Target's entire body was quaking. Fear? Pain? I too was suffering the effects of fear and in the realization that this time...I had been lucky. Immediately, I steered him toward the gate and exited the ring for the last time astride the great white horse. While walking him in the woods to calm his nerves I had to face some difficult questions. By the time we pulled up at the mounting block where I dismounted, I had decided that he would not be ridden ever again.
It would have cost me thousands of dollars to run conclusive diagnostic tests on a horse that refused to step in a trailer. Regardless of this fact was knowing that whatever ailed him was probably not fixable to deem him safe to ride. Was it time to put him down?
All summer I pondered this question. What was his life now that he could not be ridden? Yes, he could live in a state of permanent retirement lounging in the luxury of care without giving anything back. Had he earned that? Could I justify the expense, (nearly $3000 a year per horse)? Every other horse who had retired at Moose River Farm did so after a long and productive life. Horses are expensive. Target could live another fifteen years. The math was staggering.
Like all gray horses, Target developed melanomas at various locations all over his body. They tend to grow slowly and rarely end the animal's life unless they interfere with the mechanics of breathing or digestion. Two years ago, melanomas began to grow rapidly under Target's tail and all around his rectum. The unsightly large black tumors stretched out to nearly a ten inch diameter mass when he lifted his tail to defecate.
Last spring I declined to have Target vaccinated. I was pretty certain this was the year I was going to put him down. The summer passed and as the horse grew his winter coat in preparation for his twenty-second winter our vet provided the courage I needed to make the decision. We agreed that the mass of tumors under his tail was probably going to become problematic in the future. After four years of existing in carefree retirement in which Target was expected to provide nothing in return except his gallant presence, it was okay for me to let him go.
The end has brought closure to horse ownership at its most complicated. Although I loved this horse, ending his life has brought a bit of relief. Yes it has taken some time to accept it, but now I can move forward while he sleeps in heavenly peace.
Like most gray horses, Target was born dark and lightened with age.
He performed without a rider at Hoofbeats in the Adirondacks in 2012.
The big white horse was a favorite of my two nieces...
...and other visitors.
My decision to euthanize Target at age 21 brings peace and acceptance. Perhaps his mission was to force me to face complexities that arise when living with horses.