Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Soul of a Horse

Buddy liked the camera

Originally Published in Horse Directory, October 2011

By Tom Gumbrecht

At six a.m. the barn was still enshrouded by darkness on a late September morning as I made my way down from the house to the barn.  Had I been paying closer attention, I would have noticed something
different about this particular morning.  DannyBoy, my gregarious Paint gelding, didn’t try to swipe the bin of clean saddle pads from my arms and fling it into the mud. Lola, my OTTB mare, did not whinny gleefully at her first glimpse of me.  Bella, Samantha’s normally somewhat aloof Arabian mare, today looked straight into my eyes and did not waver her glance. The clown was being serious, the sweet was preoccupied and the chilly was warming with unprecedented concern. But I didn’t notice.

I didn’t notice that, Buddy, our senior citizen, the gentleman of the herd, wasn’t with the others. He sometimes stays outside until he hears the banging of feed buckets so his absence was of little concern. As I turned the rest of the barn lights and the paddock floodlights on, I expected to see the huge white blaze on his chestnut face shining the light back at me like a reflector. But I didn’t.

Buddy checking it all out on his first day with us.

Curious now, I peeked around a little. Finally my eye met his on the floor of his stall. He wasn’t looking back.  The breath pulled into me so quickly that it hurt my throat. Oh, the chaos when the mind cannot process what the eyes are taking in. This horse, my horse, a horse who defied all odds and veterinary science to live a full, healthy, happy life seven years longer than the most optimistic of vets had given him… was gone. Normally composed in a crisis, I stood transfixed for a long moment, then went in and kneeled down behind him and stroked his head and neck as if he could still feel my touch. His huge eye, which he had used during his long illness to communicate to me his desire to keep going, was beautiful and fluid, but different.  Sometime during the night the life had left it.

Perhaps oddly, I sought the comfort of routine. I fed and watered the other three horses and cleaned their stalls. I put hay in their racks. As they had their breakfast I called Buddy’s vet, who had been with me on the long road of the big Chestnut’s unlikely recovery.  I hadn’t cried yet and hadn’t felt the need to. That changed when I mouthed the words, “We lost Buddy this morning”. I guess saying it made it real. Without thinking why, I grabbed a brush and knelt by him and brushed his mane and tail. I put a clean blanket over his side, and one by one I led the other horses in to see their friend and pay their respects. The mares were characteristically reserved, but the normally boisterous DannyBoy was quite uncharacteristically respectful.  He bowed his head and touched his nose to Buddy’s leg for a moment.

Finally I walked up to the house to wake Mary and Samantha with the sad news. I called our friend Jeanmarie who had been Buddy’s “guardian angel” during his convalescence. They rushed down to the barn with me and we just sat with him and cried, then alternately cried and smiled, then smiled.  It was sad to see him go, yet we couldn’t help but marvel at his remarkably long and amazing life.

By our best accounting, Buddy passed at the age of 32, surrounded by his horse friends. Men and women of great accreditation at a prestigious institution of higher learning were certain that he wouldn’t make it past 25. But he did. Eventually, there came a point when we got a couple of young horses in the barn. In addition to the medications, treatments and procedures, those youngsters were the catalyst for his recovery. Buddy found new purpose in life teaching the young ones how to be.  DannyBoy, who outweighed him by 300 pounds and backed down to no horse, showed marked deference to Buddy. It was an engaging show put on daily in the paddock.

It’s sad to lose a friend like Buddy, but as each day goes by, the sadness gets replaced more and more with gratitude.  I had an amazing horse in my life for much longer than I had a right to expect or even hope for.  People are kind and remind me what I did for Buddy, but I like to think of what Buddy did for me:  He taught me how to take care of a horse. He didn’t give up. He taught me to not give up either. He taught me that sometimes faith works when nothing else does. He taught me that men and women of high regard in their field can be wrong, and that men and women with much less knowledge but a commitment to keep doing the next right thing, in spite of (or because of) not having a total understanding of the “big picture”, can sometimes make a difference.

I find solace in this: if I had known the day before that it was to be Buddy’s last day, there’s not too much I would have done differently. Perhaps I would have taken him up on the lawn to graze, or brushed him for a while in the sun, but that’s about it. I can stand before his stall now and say that I did my best for him, and that’s certainly not because I’m such a great person. It’s because he brought out the best in me.  Other horses made me a rider.  Buddy made me a horseman.

 Do horses have souls?  Theologians have filled volumes speculating just that.  This I know to be true: the spirit that was in Buddy was obvious to anyone that was in his presence for more than a minute. Part of that spirit is now within me, and part of it is within other people and horses over whom he had influence.  What he has given me, I will not lose. That is the soul of a horse.

Buddy, left, with pasturemates Lola and Bella.

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