When Great Horses Die

On Saturday, my beautiful big palomino QH, Max, passed away from an infection in his hoof.

It was one of the freakiest accidents I have seen yet. The 3 vets who attended him were completely baffled over the week he stayed with them. They tended to him daily, but could not get the infection under control. It was only after his death that an autopsy show the capsule around the pastern bones was severed by the small chunk of wood that was lodged at the front of his coronet band. Once that seal is broken, there is no hope for the horse. Who would have thought 1. a horse can even get a piece of wood shoved into his hoof there, and 2. that it would cause such incredible damage and pain?

Life can be so fragile sometimes. They are with us one day and gone the next. For all our loving and caring we put into these magnificent animals, they still have their own agenda’s for their time here with us on this planet.

Many people have said that Max would not have lasted his 8 years if I had not owned him. He was an exceptionally difficult horse, right from birth. His first owner disliked him. She could not bond with him as he had a mind of his own, and it was far away from what any human could have wanted. I saw him as a weanling, while looking for a horse for a client. Aside from being very tall, very  pretty and a stunning golden palomino, there was something else about this feisty little horse that captured me. I wasn’t looking for a horse. He wasn’t looking for an owner.

By the end of the day, we were a pair. A match made in heaven.

The first 2 years with Max was wonderful. He was out on a half acre with a yearling filly, Peaches, who kept him in line. They were never stalled; they lived free, to come and go, eat and play, argue and fight. The way they were intended to do.

Max had certain qualities right from the start that I loved. You could separate him from the ‘herd’ any time without any fuss. He loved being with us. My husband had always wanted to learn about horses, and this was one of the best ways for him to understand how a horse is brought up to be able to function later in life.  I don’t just believe: I KNOW that the first few years are what makes the mind of that horse for many, many years, regardless of breeding.

We worked with him every day. We went walking down the side road, where he could watch the big trucks from the highway. He began his lessons in desensitizing. He enjoyed it all.

On the spring of his third year, he was introduced to a saddle, bridle and me. I use to hug him when he was very little, so he was use to someone above his head, and pressure around his barrel. He did four days of ground driving beforehand to become accustomed to the bit and to turn and halt and back.

Max's First Ride

He was one of those horses that can suck up anything you throw at him. This is either a blessing or a curse, depending on YOU. It’s one of the reasons I advocate such strong education in foundation training. This is where you either blast into success or wither away trying to figure out what is going wrong.

Max excelled at his work. For all his long legs, he excelled at stopping. He could get those legs under him and slide forever. He had one of the strongest hips I’ve ever seen on a horse.

Everything was moving brilliantly, until one day.

The boarding facility decided he was not to stay out on his field any longer, so in a stall he went. His days were spent in a tiny metal paddock, not much bigger than the stall. His nightmare began.

Overnight he turned into a raging, mean, aggressive and dangerous big horse. They hated turning him out every day and bringing him back in. Our riding together was still reasonably decent, but that little spark of interest was hiding. He was learning it, but not loving it. He also decided to take up cribbing full time. He would wind suck occasionally as a youngster when he was nervous, but you had to hang around him all day if you were to catch him. Now it was chronic.

Eventually he became too dangerous for other people to handle, so we moved him to a new place where the paddocks were large and he had buddies all around. The minute he walked out of the trailer you could hear him breathe a sigh of relief. He had a great summer and fall, and he began to love learning again.

But the winter came, and into the indoor arena we went, where we learned of another of Max’s phobias. Closed spaces.

Because I did not have him from birth, there was ‘history’ that I was not aware of until much later. I was told he was castrated and separated from him mother the same day, where he was put into a large barn alone, locked up for days until he stopped screaming and bleeding.

Consequently, being in an enclosed arena brought out a horse I had never seen. Now standing at 16HH and 1100 pounds of solid muscle, he was extremely dangerous. All the handling and work may or may not have paid off; it was hard to tell. He swung from being perfect to being the horse from ‘down below’. He could turn it off or switch it on in a flash; you never knew. I solicited help from 2 other professionals – one was Adiva Murphy, who came out for one session with Max in the indoor. She made the most impact on him; it was filmed, put on TV and was one of the most watched shows to date. I may move the clips to Horseman’s U.com one day. He struck at her. He bolted from her. He tried everything. But she got through. I had never been aggressive with horses before, but that taught me a valuable lesson. There are times when you have to give ‘tough love’.

That winter was a learning curve for us both. I had never, in all my years and all my horses, had a horse this aggressive and explosive. I cursed. I cried. I swore. But I learned things very few on this planet will every have the chance to learn. I also realized that horses are a constant experience. Just when you think you’ve ridden, seen, trained them all, a new ‘test’ appears.

I now wanted to really test what this horse could do. I moved Max again to a large Arabian facility that had a huge scary indoor arena. We spent hours a day in there, and eventually, his fears ended. We trailered to parks and other barns to ride. And one very big surprise opened up. Max wanted to be a trail horse, and he was brilliant at it. Nothing scared him. The bush was his friend, as were bridges and obstacles. It seemed to capture his brain. It was like a sedative to him. Funny how we ride our horses ‘in the future’ without any thought of what they may want to do or be good at. My dreams of showing slowly vanished, as I realized I had to give up what I wanted for him and do what was right for him. Besides, I had a million horses to show if I wanted to. I was hoping Max would be my partner in my clinics. It would be great to sit on a horse and teach once in a while. And to have a horse to show others what the end result should look like.

We were at the Arabian barn for 6 intense months, when finally a place opened up at a self board facility closer by. Once again, Max sighed when he walked off the trailer and into his new home. Never again would I stall him. He was free, and he had friends. His mind was healing.

His riding excelled. Everything came easy, just like the days when he was little and absorbing. He learned to jump, and could free jump almost 4 feet. I did this with him twice a week, and then began to ride over courses and build up his ability. He had more than enough confidence. He was unique in that he developed a beautiful set of western gaits, and then switch on cue to jumping and English. Years ago our horses had to be versatile: these days the classes are so ‘defined’ that horses are now ‘specialized’.

This winter he was finally the horse I have always wanted, and was looking forward to taking him touring with me. We had a plan.

Sunday morning I took him to the big ring to see if it was decent enough to lunge him in. He got caught in a deeper muddy corner, and came out of it holding his back leg in the air. I thought he had pulled a stifle, but he managed to walk fine after a few steps. We walked him down the road for a few miles and on return noticed a large chunk of wood was making it’s way out of his hoof. Somewhere, somehow he managed to drive a piece of wood into his foot just from cantering through a “soft spot” in a ring! You couldn’t even see it at the beginning, it was lodged that deep within. The vet came down, pulled everything out that she could find, and the rest is history. He went to the clinic a day later, was opened up and cleaned out again, went back home for one night, and returned the next day, never to leave.

It’s funny, the impact an animal has on us. I have lost my entire family on both sides in 4 months, but never cried like I did this Saturday. It is one of the most difficult things I have ever done, to look in the eyes of an understanding horse knowing you both were saying goodbye forever. I was not there when he was put down, but on the drive home we both were profoundly moved by his spirit when he left this planet. It was impossible to describe: I KNEW he was gone. So did my husband. We both felt it at the same time, and when we looked with horror at each other, we had to pull the truck over. I have sensed the passing of souls, but never so intensely as this. If anyone had every questioned whether we have a spirit or not, this would have confirmed even the hardest of skeptics.

Many questions arise at the passing of our animal friends. Why would a horse come all this way only to leave before given the chance to try out this new wisdom?

His path was a challenging one. He did not accept confinement. I believe NO horse does; but they all deal with it in their own ways. I can walk down a barn aisle and feel the stress pouring off of the horses as they munch their dinners and stare blankly into the wall. Some can only stare back at you in their darkness, asking, begging to know a life of peace and green fields.

Max, for all his challenges, met me half way. I was honored with that. He was not a horse to let go of his spirit for any human desire. It was a wish I had to allow: it is my wish as a human as well. There are some spirits in this world that are unbreakable. We recognized this in each other, and each of us compromised to the place where we both could be happy with each other. We respected each other. Never compromise “who” you are, not “what” you are. Who you are being IS everything. When he fought back it was his way of saying “this is ME. Please listen. Please meet me half way”. This was the first gift he has left me.

“He was not a horse to let go of his spirit for any human desire. This was the first gift he has left me.”

Max had a zest for life that was always fresh and honest. He was very clear on what he liked and didn’t like. He was always ‘busy’. At the end, when his foot was too sore to put on the ground, and the vets had to bandage it several times a day, he would hold it up as best as he could. He never kicked at them. Ever. He remained a gentleman until the very end, regardless of the intense pain he was under. That was his second gift.

“Max was very clear on what he liked and disliked. When things got rough at his last few days, he remained a gentleman until the very end. That was his second gift.”

I have never had a horse like him and may never again. He has given me some of the most valuable ‘tools’ for how to work WITH a horse like this. I will be able to bring those skills forward to the horse world and help others to understand their relationships with their animals. I believe this is one of the most valuable traits of a great clinician: to be able to teach not only techniques and mechanical skills, but to pass forward those skills that demand much deeper levels of understanding. This was Max’s third gift, to me and the world.

“…to be able to pass forward those skills that demand much deeper levels of understanding. This was Max’s third gift, to me and the world.”

This spring he would have had his own farm and fields and a new friend. But it was not to be. He was impatient; he wanted that field sooner.

I hope he connects with some of my old friends. I have had the fortune to have known some of the most amazing horses in the world. My former Polish Arabian stallion is up there waiting. He was one of the most gifted horses I have ever known: not a single challenge since birth. It’s such a different experience to have them from the beginning. He and I were one: and when I left Calgary to bury my family, he quit eating and died. I came back to see him, but the vets could not figure out what was wrong with him. One of them called me the day before he passed, and said “I think you horse is dying from a broken heart.” I was trying to find a place in BC that would take a stallion, when I got the call that he was gone. I knew it that day too. His spirit has stayed with me for a long, long time. He remains the best reining horse I have ever ridden.

Go to your barn and take your horse out for a walk today. Spend time getting to KNOW who he/she is.

What does your horse want in this life?

What makes him/her happy? Sad?

Become more aware of how they speak to you. Listen more. Pay very close attention to the signs: they are always there.

When they ask questions, don’t give them a human answer.

Try different things with them. Ride them on a trail, even if they are worth a million dollars. Ride them in an arena, even if they were free.

Take them to a show but don’t enter them in anything.

Put a chair in your paddock or field and sit there for an hour or more with a book. Your equine friend will tell you, under no uncertain terms, what kind of a relationship you two have.

Learn all you can. Don’t stop reading. Go to clinics you would never attend, just to observe. Listen to all the techniques of all the disciplines: they are all connected.

Clean his/her stall. Clean their feet daily. Brush out the tangles from their manes and tails. Don’t just ride. It’s a very small part of the experience, and it’s you, the human, that will miss out on the best stuff.

Ride on rainy days.

Feed your horse a carrot and an apple a day. Love them with reckless abandon. Love them all as if they were yours.

Remember: it is they who decide their time here with you. Cherish every second as if it were the last. Take that with you into everything you do.

“Remember him. Somewhere in God’s own space, there must be some sweet pastured place where creeks sing on and tall trees grow: a place where horses go. For by the love which guides my pen I know great horses live again”.  Anonymous

The End Of The Trail

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One response to “When Great Horses Die

  1. April- I just heard about what happened to Max today and I wanted to let you know how sorry I am and that I am thinking of you. I love what you have written about Max and having known him in all his handsomeness- I know it’s true! I’m happy for Max that he had you to love and understand him, many horses (and many animals in general) are not so lucky. We buy or aquire animals and expect them to read our minds and then punish them when they don’t get it. I miss seeing you, let me know when you are ready for a get together. Take care-Erin (Doc)

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