Life without my father is a little easier because I have the horse who meant so much to him.
One last gift: Life without my father is a little easier because I have the horse who meant so much to him.
My father must have been having a midlife crisis. Many middle-aged men buy fast cars or motorcycles. My dad bought an off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding named Shampagne-on-Ice.
Dad was the kind of person who grabbed life by the horns. He never did anything halfway. When my younger brother took up soccer, Dad, not content to sit on the sidelines, took classes to become a referee. When Dad decided to learn to ski, he bypassed the local mountain in favor of a trip to Vermont for a “stay and learn” weekend. He returned home with a love of his new sport that he passed on to my brother and me.
After we both graduated and left home, I guess my dad needed something to help fill his time. He started taking riding lessons. And, for him, the next logical step was to purchase his own horse. Then, to use all of his vacation time to gain more experience working at the farm. When he had developed more confidence and knowledge, he moved Sham to a selfcare barn, where he truly enjoyed being his horse’s exclusive caretaker.
Dad acquired more skills as Sham’s wardrobe and tack began to require repairs. He taught himself to sew and learned to repair leather tack. In fact, he expanded this new skill set into a blanket cleaning and repair business. Meanwhile, he took Sham out
to explore trails in all of our local parks whenever he could.
I could tell his urge to travel was building when he began to drop hints like, “I’ve never been farther west than Pittsburgh.” After a few of these comments, I asked Dad to join me and my family on a trip to Colorado to visit my husband’s relatives. I extended the
invitation while envisioning somehow fitting three adults and two children into my car with all of our luggage.
What I didn’t foresee was how this plan would morph into the family adventure of a lifetime— because, of course, Dad wanted to bring Sham, too. He investigated overnight boarding options along our route from Pennsylvania to Colorado, and I learned to drive the dually truck that pulled the horse trailer.
The drive west took four days. The joke that summer was that for 1,600 miles I could watch as my inheritance was being spent on diesel fuel. The kids took turns riding in the dually whenever my little car got too cramped for the four of us. We all had fun chatting on walkie-talkies. We learned to look for truck stop rest areas, to park in the shade and to feed Sham ice cubes and wet hay to keep him hydrated. Each evening, we all spent time prepping Sham’s stall, brushing him down and giving him food and water before finally settling ourselves down into whatever lodging we had reserved for the night.
We had grand views of the changing terrain as we headed west. We crossed the Mississippi River, saw the famous Saint Louis Gateway Arch, stared out at the flat and windy Kansas landscape and watched as the beautiful Rocky
Mountains emerged in the distance.
In Colorado, we split up. My husband, the kids and I traveled on to Denver to see the in-laws, while Dad turned north with Sham to visit a Colorado dude ranch.
Cowboy for a week! My dad was truly in his element. I held my breath, hoping that a whole week in the saddle wouldn’t be too much for him. I also wondered about Sham’s ability to adapt to life on a ranch. My worries were for naught---Sham did just fine, and Dad relished every moment.
Only now, as we clean out Dad’s house, have I begun to appreciate the planning that went into making that trip such a success. I think our family is genetically driven to over-plan and make lists. For that trip, I had made a list of items to be sure our family did not forget. But when I found Dad’s many extensive lists, I realized that my planning was dwarfed by the work my father did to make sure both he and Sham would have everything they needed. Not only were there things that Sham needed for routine care, such as hay, feed and water, but also the “what-ifs” of first aid, medication and shoeing items. Then there were the lists for the truck and the trailer: spare tires, tools, repair items.
All of this planning had saved us when one of the trailer tires blew out in Kansas. I learned another lesson on that road trip: how to elevate the trailer to change a flat tire. Dad knew how to do it, and now I do, too.
Dad died doing what he loved, caring for his buddy Sham. I got the phone call on August 23, 2017. I was packing the car for an overnight camping trip with my daughter. Earlier, I had been texting with Dad. He’d offered camping supplies if we wanted them. “No,” I replied. We had everything we needed. I was looking forward to talking to him later.
After texting me, Dad went to help another boarder who was having
difficulty loading her horse into her trailer. Then, while leading Sham in from the pasture, Dad just collapsed. He died instantly. We buried him with a lock of Sham’s mane.
The days that followed that phone call are a blur. I was---and still am--amazed and grateful for the number of people whose lives my dad and Sham touched. They stepped forward to make sure Sham was cared for while our family attempted to come to grips with our loss. They even organized a memorial horse show to honor my father---Sham was part of the opening ceremony. The funds raised at this show went to complete the projects Dad had not quite finished at the riding club where he was a member.
My dad was an “under the radar” kind of guy. He didn’t like to be in the spotlight, but he pitched in where he could and was indispensable working behind the scenes. And he always took pride in what he did.
I believe Sham kept my dad young. Beyond simply caring for the gelding, my dad’s days were busy with riding, the blanket business, barn activities, riding club, an occasional horse show and travel. He stayed active. He kept learning new skills. He enjoyed life and lived it to his fullest---often lamenting that there just wasn’t enough time to do all that he wanted to accomplish.
Now I take care of Sham, with the help of another horse owner in Dad’s old barn, and I am the one learning new skills. Sham and I have helped each other grieve, heal and move forward without my dad. It has been hard, but we’re getting there.
ENTHUSIAST: Riding lessons led to horse ownership for George W. Burgess III, shown here aboard his horse, Sham.