January 3, 2016

Knowing when to say goodbye

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My old mare, Prize, has had declining health since summer. A mare who used to be an easy keeper has stopped being able to keep weight on. She’s been on a complete senior feed for several years, plus chopped hay, joint and anti-inflammation supplements. Her teeth have wave mouth, so their uneven surfaces prevent her from being able to effectively chew grass and hay.  It’s not for lack of trying. Where ever she has been eating, there is a trail of matted lumps of grass she’s tried to chew (called quids).

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Kasane, Prize, and Isis. My three Bay Wonder Mares.

I’ve had a sinking feeling that she wouldn’t make it through this winter, and honestly, that I shouldn’t ask her to. Where she used to be my sure-footed, take-a-mudrock-downhill-at-a-canter trail horse, her gait has lost its stability as her muscles along her topline and hips have deteriorated. She had been retired from active riding for about 1.5 years. We still would do trail rides periodically when she had good days. She had not had a good day where her gait looked stable enough to ride since the summer.

Over the past few months, she has had bad days. At the barn, we took to calling them “episodes,” because that’s what they seemed to be. Most days she would have that mischievous,interested spark in her eye when she saw me. She would carefully pick her way through the paddock to see if I had treats for her. She would nicker and recognize me.

On her bad days, she seemed confused about where she was. Each step was wobbly like she was trying to be careful where she stepped but her body didn’t have the coordination she remembered. Most days her gait was unsteady, but she would still manage to harass her paddock mate and chase the other away from hay piles even at a canter. Not on Prize’s bad days. On days when she had episodes, she didn’t leave her stall or her paddock. She would stand in the same place most of the day with her head poking out of the stall, her eyes focused inward. An episode lasted anywhere from a few hours to a day, at most.

Prize and I at a trail ride shortly after she first returned to me, 2010.
Prize and I at a trail ride shortly after she first returned to me, 2010.

The episodes, at first, were a very rare occurrence. A few months apart, but with growing frequency. We have tried a lot of different things. Pain management meds, anti-inflammation supplements, joint supplements (she’s been on this for years)… In December, she was having episodes once a week.

She had a bad day yesterday, Saturday, and it was worse than the others. Her lack of coordination was so pronounced that she had trouble trying to scratch her hock with her mouth. She tried to position her leg in the right spot and then started to lean around to reach her hock, and would stop. She would stay in that position, with her back legs splayed apart, her back right awkwardly on the ground reaching towards her front legs, and her head turned back staring at her legs. Her front legs were spread apart for balance. She would stand like that for a few minutes, and then it was like a light would click and she would pull her legs back underneath her. She couldn’t walk without losing her footing and almost falling several times.

She refused to eat until we gave her some Banamine (pain meds). Watching her, I could see how much pain she was in. This episode didn’t end on Saturday. It continued into Sunday and lasted the day. At one point shortly after she received the afternoon’s dose (and before it had kicked in), she laid down with her legs straight out and her lips set in a grimace across her face. Several of us stopped what we were doing to watch her belly to make sure she was still breathing.

She has been telling me in no uncertain terms that she is hurting.

I’ve known that this was coming. The sense of dread has been an undercurrent in my mind for the entire fall and winter seasons. That my sweet Prize was going to need to be let go with all of the beauty and dignity that she has shared with me over the past 30 years. I can’t put her through a harsh, wet, slippery winter.

When Prize came back to me six years ago, the girl who had Prize taught her how to give kisses. The girl would hold a peppermint candy in her mouth and Prize would reach up and gently take it. So today I went to the tack shop and bought some of Prize’s favorite treats: thick molasses and oat muffins with a peppermint candy in the middle. She might not be able to bite the peppermint, but she would be able to have the taste of it on the soft treat.

Prize and Kasane having a moment.
Prize and Kasane having a moment.

She hadn’t eaten much today, but she ate six of those treats. And asked for more. And nickered at me. She was spoiled and loved on and cooed over (but always with the awareness that being in a stall with an unsteady horse isn’t necessarily safe). It warmed my heart to see her in less pain after the meds kicked in. The difference in how she felt also spoke wonders.

The barn owner and I talked today. Prize is his favorite horse. (He calls her “my good horse.” On days when Kasane has been doing particularly well, he calls her my “other good horse.”) I asked him if he thought it was Prize’s time. He nodded and said yes, and tried like me to not cry.

The vet will be out on Monday. It is time. As much as I don’t want it to be time, how Prize is physically and mentally says it clearly. I can’t put her through this anymore.

So tomorrow I have to figure out how to grieve for a horse who was my partner in crime for many years. She who did jumping, barrel racing, jousting, gymkhana, ring spearing, trail riding, and trail classes all in English riding attire. She has taught many kids to ride. When the young riders didn’t know what they were doing, Prize would walk over to the instructor and stand there. She took care of the beginner riders and loved when a more experienced rider was on her, then she would get excited. Prize earned the nickname of “the rocket” because she would get up whenever someone like me got on her. Several times, she would be so excited, we’d rip around the ring a few times and then she would settle into work. After so many years of being afraid to jump, she helped me regain my confidence.

She has had a grand life. I am so blessed to have had the chance to redeem my earlier mistakes by having her back to take proper care of her and love her.

Prize and Isis
Prize and Isis

I am going to try and celebrate her. She has touched so many and has been so loved. A lady at my office emailed me once asking about Prize. Her daughter had learned to ride on Prize. I am amazed at the lives this original Bay Wonder Mare has touched.

I know I have to say goodbye. This will be my second, and final, time to say goodbye. That first time I said goodbye when I had to sell her because I could not pay my board, I wrote “Transfer of Owners”:

I felt your breath
soft on my neck
myriad memories
tickling my mind like
whiskers
falling
from clippers

Luminous eyes
glazed with the day’s work
and the field is
dust
flicking through the stall
washed with bespeckled light
and the thrum of horse flies
and the stench of sweat
and the buzz of Osters
trimming, trimming…

The night is vacant now
scents of cedar and straw
drift through the barn into
my dreams–
twice-wet feet cross the stream
to another’s pasture

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