TRUE TALE

Life without my fa­ther is a lit­tle eas­ier be­cause I have the horse who meant so much to him.

EQUUS - - Contents - By Betsy Mul­lan

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.

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