My horse and I have covered many miles together. But the last leg of our travels will be the hardest.
The next journey: My horse and I have covered many miles together. But the last leg of our travels will be the hardest.
I swept out the trailer, filled the hay net and inspected the emergency kit. Tire pressure was good. The truck’s gas tank was full. Pausing for a drink of water, I reflected on the upcoming trip with my gelding, Bear.
Traveling with horses in tow was always exciting. I loved heading down the open road early in the morning knowing that I had a full day of horse adventures ahead. Sure, it was nerve-racking at first; it took me a while to find my “towing mojo.” Still, the anticipation of the adventures that awaited at each destination were enough to motivate me to keep practicing.
I found special satisfaction in traveling with Bear. We first brought him home in a three-horse slant load, but I never felt truly safe hauling a trailer that big. So we purchased a two-horse straight load that was less intimidating for me to drive.
Bear, however, let us know that he disapproved of our new acquisition by refusing to walk into it. So we embarked on a lengthy training process together---to give him the confidence to load, and me the confidence to drive. Our success in overcoming trailering insecurities enabled us to participate in many fun adventures together as the years passed. We attended lessons, clinics, trail rides and horse shows. We went swimming together, worked cows, played horse soccer.
But Bear is now in his 20s, and as I made my final preparations, I realized it had been awhile since I had trailered him off of the property. I hooked up the rig easily, and he quietly loaded right up. The weather was good, and I smiled to myself as I felt the familiar weight of the trailer behind me.
My trailer has a front window that allows me to peer in through my truck’s rearview mirror as I’m driving. I chuckled as I caught occasional glimpses of Bear’s ears and forelock.
Our destination today, however, was different than any of our previous adventures. After a lifetime of excellent health, Bear has developed physical problems, and recently I’d had to retire him from riding. Today he was scheduled to have a removal and biopsy of a skin lesion that was suspected to be malignant.
Bear unloaded easily at the
veterinarian’s office. I felt a moment of pride watching him demonstrate how comfortable he had become backing off of the trailer. After a brief wait, Bear was brought out for the procedure and led into a set of stocks in the exam room. After 12 years together, this was the first time I had ever seen Bear in stocks, and I asked for permission to take some photos.
Then the thought struck me: Instead of at our newest showground or trailriding venue, I was taking photos of my horse in a veterinary clinic. A lump formed in my throat and my eyes became misty. It was a harsh reminder that there would be no more trail rides, clinics or shows in our future. All of those years that we had worked together to increase our skills and improve our relationship were behind us. From now on, the most exciting thing we would experience together would be new veterinary procedures to combat Bear’s ever-mounting health problems.
Bear is not the first horse that I have retired, but he is the first horse that I have retired during a time in my life when I did not have another horse in reserve. I once kept three to four horses on my property so that when one retired, I would still have at least one other to ride.
Over the years, all the others died, and Bear is now my only horse. I feel fortunate that I have been able to keep horses in my backyard for 15 years now. It’s been a childhood dream turned to reality, and I have had a pretty good run. But I have to admit that I am not ready for it to end just yet. I worry that, as I watch my horse age and his health decline, I am also watching the slow death of the equine-centric lifestyle that has become so integral to my sense of self.
After an area of skin was removed and stitches put in, Bear was backed out of the stocks and moved to a stall to recover from the sedative. When the time came to leave, he loaded quickly and smoothly, prompting an
approving nod from the veterinarian.
Heading home, I thought about how, in years past, I would often drive back from an event replaying the day in my mind. Bear was always a shy and cautious horse. Each new place and activity inevitably brought challenges, and we worked to overcome his fears and hesitations. Each time, I reveled in our victories and made new plans for training to make up for our shortcomings.
I must say I was proud of how Bear handled this veterinary visit. The feeling was not so different from how I often felt driving home after a particularly good day at a trail ride or clinic. I reflected on how much I valued the relationship that I had built with him over the years and how I wanted to provide as comfortable a retirement for him as I could.
Time has passed and circumstances have changed, but for a while longer I still have a horse I cherish. Life looks different for both of us than it once did ---and it is a struggle to come to terms with that. I mourn the loss of being able to ride him, and I dread the thought of his death.
With no more riding destinations in our future, we are embarking on a different kind of journey together now. Watching my dreams ebb with my horse’s health has taken no less fortitude than helping him load into my trailer and driving off down the road to face a new riding challenge. Of all the places my horse and I have gone together, this retirement journey might be the one for which I need the most courage.
GOOD TIMES: On one of their many adventures together, Mary Lynne Carpenter rides Bear on a trail in Colorado years ago.