“And God took a breath of southerly wind, blew his breath upon it, and created the horse.” Bedouin legend.
I remember, years ago, someone telling me that when you are the guardian of a four-legged one, it is sad but true that, in general, the bigger they are, the more difficult, physically, it is when it’s time for them to go. This is probably never more true than with the horse. Horses are very big animals, and unless they’re in the wild, or being ill-treated in a country where they can die on the streets working (hang on a minute – doesn’t that happen in New York?) – then the owner/guardian has to make the decision to have them humanely euthanized. While this is often a decision made easier by the fact that it is, for the most part, glaringly obvious that the decision to end suffering is the right one, it is still hard. And it hurts.
Many of you will remember me writing about my beloved mare, Sara, and her various medical issues along the way. I had brought her back from a sinus infection that would have led to the end of many horses, and had also nursed her through a few injuries - I think I have hand-walked hundreds of miles with her, all told. We fought on together because that horse had a spirit like fire, and she wasn’t a quitter – and neither am I.
A few years ago, when we still had Sally, our black Labrador, my husband, John and I made a decision following her surgery for a type of mouth cancer – we decided that every day had to be a banner day for Sal, and if it wasn’t, well, a conversation about her quality of life would be in order. From then on we made sure that every day was a banner day – a walk along the beach, a drive in the car, a get-together with her pals at the park around the corner – and in doing so, hey, every day became a banner day for us, too. Then one day Sally’s banner days began to diminish, and by the time we took her to the vet, she was failing. “Not a second too soon, or too late, he said.” She slipped easily from this world at the age of fifteen, with us telling her how beloved she was.
I retired Sara two years ago having not been able to ride her for some time. I had a major ultrasound investigation carried out, along with radiographs, and they confirmed for me that retirement was in order. A month of treatments and therapies followed, so I felt confident she could be retired pain free. But Sara did not take to retirement easily – she’d loved her work - though eventually she settled into lazy days spent in fields, standing under live oaks or munching on sweet hay. Yet there was one thing that had always bothered me – I firmly believe she suffered bad headaches due to her sinus issues, despite the fact that they seemed “under control.” I explained this to the vet, and I am sure I was believed, but there’s no measure, no test, to confirm that a horse has a headache. But I could see it in her eyes and when I rested my hand on her forehead, I know she was soothed. It was as if she were saying, “Oh good, you know.”
I thought I’d come to my decision at the end of last year – winters are so hard on Sara – but winter came early and fizzled out in California, so she made it through. However, Sara’s pain – and I know it’s her pain – has now led to behavioral problems and she has become a significant danger to herself and others, humans and horses. When I visited her at her retirement ranch last week – equine assisted living at its best – I took one look at her and I knew the corner had been turned. I looked at John. “She’s had enough,” I said. There were other indicators too, which I won’t go into, but it was clear that, for Sara, the banner days were few and far between, now.
On Monday I will be seeing Sara for the last time. I know I can't be there for the vet's visit because I would be the one posing a significant danger - but she will be with people she knows and trusts, and I am assured of the humanity of the process. I won’t say goodbye to my Sara, but I will tell her that she was the best horse in the world, that to have the privilege of being carried by her was to feel as if I had been borne aloft by Pegasus. I will tell her I love her and she will be forever in my heart. Then I will walk away and I will do my very best not to look back at her - Sara, my beloved breath of southerly wind.