When our horse, Albert, passed away in May, my sister, Leigh, offered words and images that helped me move into, with, and through my grief. In her health care practice, hospice volunteer work, and honoring ministry for people and pets, there’s a common thread of accompanying people through transitions. In particular, she’s devoted to nurturing the bond between people and animals. She is also an artist. Her photography and artwork reflect these themes, too. The photos of Albert in this post were taken by my sister over the course of his life with in our family.
I like looking at this pretty girl’s face – both sides! Even if just in photos on my phone’s camera roll. She’s the pony I wrote about in Wonderponies, earlier this year. In that post, I was still shaking in my chaps from a freaky trail ride where she was so awesome. In that post, I mistakenly called her ‘Saved by an Angel.’ Which I was that day.
Her real-true whole name is: Angel, Sent from Above. And, she is.
I’ve been riding Angel weekly since January. When Albert was still with us, whenever I went to get Angel from the mare field, I could see his old, white face leaning out his stall door up the little hill. Then, after my lesson, I would go up to the south barn to hangout with Buddy himself and try to help him shed out. [The Cushing’s made him a Curlylocks all year round.]
Anyway, Angel’s such a friendly mare. But, I wouldn’t call her needy, you know? With me, anyway, she’s not real snuggly, though she always comes walking up to greet me in the field or her stall. She’ll trade exhales with me – my favorite way to greet a horse. She’s solid as the earth. In the ring, the wash stall, or on the trail, you can rely on Angel.
Still, I would never call her a babysitter, either. What I mean is that I can’t not do my job and just let her carry me around. With Angel, I do have to work and think and act consistently.
She’s a good listener, and I can tell that sometimes I talk too fast or too slow with my aids. I tend to be a chatterbox with my hands, a space cadet with my legs. So, there’s some accountability there between us. She will let me do all the work if I really insist, ha!
All my life, since I first started riding about 15 years ago, I’ve noticed a pit in my stomach every time before getting on a horse. Usually, the feeling would go away and, sometimes, not.
It’s just that my brain is, well, I think it runs with a dull processor in some areas. I don’t right away get the mechanics of certain things – movements, shapes, procedures – until they’ve imprinted in my mind. Really.
It’s no exaggeration that I learned to put a saddle pad on a horse by looking at the pad and saying to myself, “I think it goes this way, so it must go the opposite way.” For years I did this every time.
Now, after so long of repeating the process, I see the way the pad should fit. Halters? Same story. I STILL, sometimes have to hold the halter out and let my eyes find the shape in order to get it right. Same story with posting on the diagonal. For years, my eyes just couldn’t detect, couldn’t isolate the movement of the horse’s outside shoulder that I was supposed to rise with at the trot. But, now I can see it, so that helps me feel it.
So, I’m thinking that maybe I’ve always started out feeling kind of scared or unsure because I know there is so much about horses and riding that my brain struggles to translate. Because I know so much of the technical, mechanical parts of riding, I just don’t recognize or can’t easily replicate.
You know what, though?
Never have I felt a pit in my stomach near or on Angel. We’ve become friends at a good time in my riding life. I’ve worked through some of my spatial-mechanical challenges. My yoga practice, which I started the year I cracked my sacrum in a riding accident [THAT horse’s name was Achy Breaky, no-lie], is helping me now even more than I could have imagined. Especially, with releasing my calves, opening my hips, breathing in and breathing out.
The absence of a scary stomach lately is partly due to this deeper awareness of my own body and breath, I think. And, I’ve figured out how a few things operate by now.
But really, I credit Angel, Sent from Above, who is very likely really truly sent from above.
My sister recently reminded me that after our grammy died in 2007, I didn’t write for a while, either. She’s right about that. Then, I withdrew to my garden and spent the summer weeding in my nightgown.
I miss my pony and think about him every day and night. But, it’s awesome to consider the outpouring of support from people who knew and loved this horse. Some of them for longer than I knew him.
People have sent embroidered pillows, bright flowers, uplifting cards, and generous donations to horse research and rescue charities. Friends offered to hold a wake for Albert and make a video tribute of his life. Folks prayed for and honored him in some incredible ways. So many good people called and emailed and shared in the joy of his life. Hundreds of people.
I like that a lot better than weeding in the garden alone. Though, I reckon each response is valid and healing.
When Albert passed away, just about three weeks ago now, I immediately left town for a business trip to Portland, which brought me home ten days later via Oakland and Phoenix.
While I was out West, during the week after Albert’s passing, my colleagues and family members let me cry and tell them about how much this horse has meant to me and my family. Folks back East checked on me by phone, listening while I recounted his courage and resolve.
In Portland, I even had help plotting a goofy memorial of tying up a stuffed pony to a historic horse hitch in Albert’s honor.
I didn’t just make this idea up. Portland is an enchanted city. There are all sorts of magical things to discover in the streets of Portland, such as Mill Ends Park, the world’s smallest park .
And, the Portland Pony Project.
So…when in Rome.
The afternoon that I hitched up this pretty pony, I offered up a silent thanksgiving for Albert and knelt to take a photo. As I stood up to leave, from behind me a man asked, “Do you mind if I take a picture, too? We have four at home.”
“Of course!” I tried to sound, I don’t know, extra chipper. “I have two horses!” Then, I burst into tears. “Well, not anymore. My old horse died the day before I came out here. I live in Virginia.”
His eyes welled up, too. “We have a thirty year old Arabian mare at home. We’re going to euthanize her this weekend.”
And, now, we both stood at 10th and Stark, crying in the sunshine.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I told him. “My horse, Albert, was almost thirty.”
He said, “She’s completely blind. Our mare.”
I nodded. “Albert was blind.”
So, us two strangers stood there taking pictures of a stuffed pony that I bought at Powell’s. We talked about Albert and talked about his mare, Kentucky. She was the first horse that his sixteen year old son ever rode.
And, that’s it. No big revelation. Except 2,900 miles from home when I was feeling so sad, I met a nice man named Ed, who loved his horse as much as I loved mine. And, he knew the day had arrived. Time to thank her for her service and let her go. And, time to remember.
My horse died yesterday, sometime in the early black hours when morning is still night. Or maybe just as dawn was breaking.
I should say our horse not my horse. The litany of Albert’s belonging goes like this:
He belonged to my family – my daughter, my husband, me. During our first twelve years of becoming one, he belonged to us. He belonged to every child he ever taught and every kid that ever lifted up a kitten or a puppy to his nose. Every bird that ventured into his space. And, to every man, woman, and child who brushed his mane, mucked his stall, or put hot compresses on his eye. Albert belonged to his friends: Winter, Woody, Dart, Latte, Mia, Lily, Norman, Bo. He belonged to every grieving woman he attended, and there were many who brought their suffering hearts to his stall after the loss of a mother, a grandmother, a child, a marriage, or a horse-companion of their own. Whether they know it or not, Albert also belonged to every person who ever read Chancey.
Our horse passed peacefully.
I imagine he finally lay down because he was exhausted. In the last weeks of his life, he could not sleep on his feet because his feet wouldn’t hold his weight. He shifted continuously, resting one foot then another. We built him a bench, and he used it.
The bench could not reverse the damage to his legs from torn tendons or to his feet from laminitis. He lost weight. Neither bench nor stall rest nor fresh, cut forage could stop his body from breaking down. And so, I imagine he finally fell asleep and fell down.
And, I imagine, too, there are angels who rejoice that God has appointed them to accompany equines to new pasture or sea or mountains. That’s the kind of angel I want to be. If people get to ever be angels.
There’s a lot that I want to write about: practical information about preparing for a horse to die, his last day which I did not know was his last until it was, and the good fortune of having a good vet. I want to write about some of the children who knew and loved Albert.
So there’s your warning. I’ll likely be writing an awful lot about our horse, even though he’s gone.
Right now, I think I’ll just remember him. Remember what a good life he lived. What a blessing he offered to me and to so many.
I’m writing this post on a plane to Portland. This morning in the security line two people cut in front of me – a grown woman and a teenage boy. Tit for tat goes against my personal code of conduct, but I shook my head and, nearly shouting, said, “Dude! That’s so not cool to cut in line. I mean, really, it’s just uncool.”
I tried grabbing my outburst by the tail, hoping to coil that beast right back to where it originated, so I could pull it out and examine it later. My heart is suffering, and a suffering heart sometimes cloaks itself in wrath. The part of me that tries to do better by folks than I did by those cutters almost explained to them, “My horse died. And, I’m so sad.”
But, I just turned away, took off my shoes, and then put them back on.
Getting out to the barn to ride Angel or care for Albert brings lots of rewards: the companionship of good horses, the constant light breeze on my face, the distant sound of baying of hounds, and the good birds.
How is that watching a mockingbird find a narrow strip of shade between the slats of the mare’s fence makes me feel cooler, too? Or how the sudden appearance of a certain woodpecker lulls my worries into a sweet hush?
Oh, the good birds. Here are my favorite birds of the barn this time of year, but thank goodness for them all.
Little daredevil acrobats! Somersaulting in the air. Diving, swooping barn swallows.
I think of the Killdeer as a beach bird in the gelding field! Busybody bird always running here and there, checking on this and that, and making a fuss.
While I have only ever seen this bird at my grandparents’ place in Mississippi and on my family’s cattle farm in Cumberland, I hear the Bobwhite almost every day that I visit Albert at dusk. I could listen to bob-bob-white forever. This one truly carries me back to my childhood. My granddaddy whistled the Bobwhite call in the truck, by the pond, in the garden. It’s a bird he took with him everywhere and so no matter where I am when I hear it, I’m reminded that Granddaddy is with me.
You know the rush of breath and wonder you feel when you dive under a white cap? No matter how accustomed I think I am to the great and ancient ocean, the awe of it never wanes. That’s how I feel when I see a red-headed woodpecker.
The Bobwhite is like a ribbon tying me to my granddaddy, the mocker – the state bird of Mississippi – leads me home to Grammy. She and I loved to watch mockingbirds together.
I guess, I never just watch a bird. Each one holds some treasure – a memory, a feeling, a poem, a story.
All horses need to be able to rest their feet, take a load off occasionally. For Albert, this has become nearly impossible, because he can’t get up from the ground any longer. This must be hard on him and frustrating, too. He used to love to roll. Not a half-roll, but a full roll. He’s never been a horse that has reclined often, but now he hasn’t much of a choice.
With his recent leg and foot problems, the need to get some relief from his weight is key to his recovery. Recently, our vet suggested that we build him a stall stool, a place where he can sit down and rest his legs. One of her clients with an older horse built such a stool, and it’s been of great benefit.
This past weekend, my husband and I set out to build a chair of sorts for Albert. I searched the web for more detailed instructions but found nothing. Maybe there are other old horses who could use a stool, thus this long post describing exactly what we did and how.
We started with this:
and finished with this:
Here’s how we got there.
2 eight-foot 2 x10s (cut in half at Lowe’s and cut again at the barn)
2 1/2 inch exterior wood screws (1 box)
1 inch foam (cut to fit bench seat)
Foam spray glue
Fabric spray glue
Muslin fabric for inside cover of cushion
Indoor-outdoor fabric for outside cover of cushion
Total cost: less than $100 (my awesome mother-in-law gave us fabric and foam for the cushion.)
Total time: 7-10 hours
Description: This is a simple corner stool made with 2 x 10s. The purpose is to give our a horse a place to rest for short periods that allows him to easily transfer his weight up and down.
Step 1: Take Measurements. Select which corner of your horse’s stall to build the stool. Take two measurements to be sure the seat will fit into the corner.
The most important measurement you need is how high the stool should stand. Our vet suggested that the seat hit six inches below the end of Albert’s butt, where his hamstring muscles start. Measure from the ground to this point. That’s the height of the seat. Albert measured 37 inches from the ground to this muscle group. With the foam cushion his chair actually sits 39 inches high, but we’re expecting that his weight will compress the foam.
Step 2: Purchase and gather all of your materials for the bench and the cushion. Some questions to answer while you’re planning, before you purchase materials:
*Are there stalls on either side of your horse’s stall? Select screws that will hold your bench but won’t break through to the other side.
*Do you have a power source to plug into or enough battery-juice for your tools to complete the project?
*How will you cushion the bench?
Step 3: Cut the boards for the seat and the sides. Dry fit the pieces into the stall.
Step 4: Secure the boards in place. Each of the side boards is screwed to a corner wall with 3 rows of 3 2-inch screws. The seat is made from two boards cut to fit the corner then wood-glued and screwed together. There are two scrap pieces on top of the seat keep it stable.
Step 5: Add padding and cover. There are countless ways to cushion the bench. We chose to make a cushion with foam and indoor-outdoor fabric. We cut the foam pad to-fit using 1 inch foam, batting, and indoor-outdoor fabric. We made a cushion, then stapled the cushion to the bench, then added board scraps to strengthen the union between the cushion and bench AND to cover the staples. These photos show the progression of cutting, fitting, binding, and attaching the cushion. We had a little trouble getting the fabric perfectly smoothed out. Also, this is an indoor-outdoor fabric, so we can wipe it down no prob.
The key question: Will Albert use the bench? I went out this morning to check on him, and when I got there Albert was already turned out in his recovery-paddock (aka the round pen). But looky here:
Well, what do you think? Have you seen other stall stools? I’d love to hear about them. If you have pictures of a stool you’ve built or questions or suggestions or ideas, I’d love to hear them.
My awesome husband, Bubba, did all of the math, measuring, and making of this bench! I was his assistant and the official photographer. A great outcome of this project: not only does Albert now have a place to lean and rest, but I got to spend the entire weekend Friday – Sunday, every hour in there with my husband. That’s a rare and wonderful treat.! (Thank you, my baby.)
Ok, one last pic.
This week’s follow up visit with the vet brought good news tempered with a reality-check. Albert’s doing better but he’s not all better. After seeing the good doc: Albert’s Lily pads came off of his feet. His front legs are still getting wrapped every day, and his RX regime is geared toward pain management and recovery from the laminitis and healing his two front tendons.
He has a ways to go yet.
His dietary change to a low-starch grain and Safe Starch cut forage is agreeing with him. TEAM ALBERT at the barn is outstanding. Everyone really cares for him and feels genuine affection for the old man. And, we’re putting his team to work: leg wraps, crushed pills, special food, and topical ointments.
More good stuff:
He’s drinking water. He’s curious and interested in what’s happening around him. He’s nickering at everybody he sees and standing right up at the front of his gate where he doesn’t miss a thing. He’s asking to turn out. So, after this week’s check up he’s cleared to graze alone in a small paddock.
Some challenges remain. One of the biggest ones: getting him off of his feet so he can rest.
To help him rest, here’s our weekend project:
As recommended by Albert’s doctor. The goal? To give him a way to rest his feet, since he can’t get down to the ground or up any longer. [Don’t worry, the actual bench will be padded. This picture was kindly shared by our vet via another family under her care.]
My baby is making the bench, and I’m his helper. We started tonight: measuring the stall corner, measuring Albert hamstring to ground, and discussing right-triangles over tacos and guac. Well, Bubba discussed the geometry of the whole thing. I nodded and reached for more chips. I’ll post pics and instructions for replicating after the bench is complete. Wish us luck and good angles!