Losing a horse is always traumatic, but especially so when you’re a child. Young rider Haley Ruffner tells the story of how she channeled her grief into the creation of a colic research fund to honor her pony’s memory.
Top: Haley, then 12 years old, riding Bebe, age 6, at the Houghton College Horse Trials in 2010.
On the eve of her eighth birthday, a little girl’s parents told her that she was the owner of her first pony; so began what she thought would be a lifelong friendship. In the beginning, for the sake of honesty, I must admit my repulsion the first time I laid eyes on Bebe, the sorrel pony I was to ride. Having been rescued from a slaughterhouse, the two-year-old filly’s coat lay in tatters, her belly swollen with worms. Nevertheless, her quiet, liquid brown eyes and inquisitive nature soon won me over.
As we grew up together, I trained her in trivial things: how to canter on the correct lead, how to jump, and how to trust. Although these seemed of utmost importance to my childish mind, today I can reflect that what she taught me was vastly more influential in the formation of my character and morals. Bebe instructed me in the ways of patience, kindness, and courage.
I learned to be patient when she remained unable to comprehend my cues. After all, we did not speak the same language. Over time, however, our bond increased to the point at which it almost seemed that we did. As to kindness: when I grew older, my parents saw fit to share with me that my equine friend, an unwanted yearling, had been sent to an auction at which the horses’ only identities were tags on their ears that displayed their value in pounds of meat. Through this, I concluded that compassion was integral in association with others (human or otherwise) because who knew what kind of terrors they had experienced in their upbringing?
Similarly, the extent of my courage and positive thinking formed in my last few years with Bebe, when we began jumping in earnest at Houghton College and SUNY Geneseo’s cross-country courses. The idea of galloping headlong through a field or forest over jumps varying in size and scariness thrilled and terrified us as one. There is an oft-used expression for equestrians: “If you throw your heart over the jump, your horse will follow.” Translated into real-world applications, this meant it was imperative to trust the 1,000 pounds of muscle and adrenaline beneath me to carry us both safely to the end of the course, for if I was unsure of Bebe’s ability, there was a high likelihood that she would falter.
However, falter she did not until nearly five years later. The day remains scarred vividly into my memory: a cool July morning beginning for me at five o’clock and blurring into a humid afternoon until my world ended. The previous night, Bebe had contracted a brief but panic-inducing bout of colic. The local vet had been called and speculated that it was a small matter of excess gas built up in Bebe’s abdomen; she gave us Banamine and instructions to check on Bebe throughout the night, but she was confident that the colic would not return. Nevertheless, I awoke to the sound of shod hooves on the driveway at dawn the morning following that sleepless night.
Observing through my bedroom window as I rubbed the last vestiges of sleep from tired eyes, my mother and horse could be discerned through the fog, tracing yesterday’s incessant footsteps up and down the cement. This steady, reassuring rhythm was occasionally interrupted by heart-stopping pauses in which Bebe tried to lay down. As the day progressed, Bebe’s condition worsened until she stumbled around the indoor arena (we had moved inside so that she was cushioned by sand when she tired and fell) with her head cradled in my arms. Several vets visited throughout the day, only to mumble and shake their heads, saying that the only way to save my best friend was to make her suffer the two-and-a-half hour trailer ride to the nearest surgical institute. They also told us she would not survive the trailer ride.
Thus, it came to be that my very first horse, Bebe, rested her tired head in my lap while the final vet pumped two fatal syringes of poison into her veins to stop her heart. “So unfortunate, unfortunate,” the vet murmured, tearing the sterilizing cover from the deadly syringe, studiously avoiding my accusing, bloodshot, and tear-glazed eyes. I recall a bitter, hysterical sense of irony at this action; what did it matter if the poisoned needle contained pathogens? At that point, I experienced a panic-stricken urge to flee that scene of impending death, to run until I could pretend it was a nightmare.
However, I did not leave Bebe’s side. I recognized that she deserved at least the small comfort my presence might provide in her last moments. The courage we learned from each other was exemplified the most in those final painful moments: I suffered the entire euthanization process alongside my best friend, whispering through the falling tears to tell her how brave she was and that I would see her again someday. Likewise, Bebe shared her quiet strength with me even as she faded away, unflinching as the needle punctured her skin. Later, I would be told that multiple vets had commented on the bond between Bebe and I, and had shared with my mother that a lesser horse would have given up much sooner in the face of such debilitating pain. Bebe fought until the very end for my sake as much as hers.
Though this statement is cliché, its veracity is proven time and time again: the true value of something often is not discerned until after it has been lost. For this reason, every second with loved ones must be treasured. Even the things that one assumes he or she would have forever can be wrenched away in a heartbeat; such is life. The wound loss leaves in the hearts of all affected by it is among the slowest to heal. Bebe acted as an anchor in my ever-changing childhood, and I am doubtful that there will come a day when recollections of that miserable July seventh will not invoke sorrow. Death is an inherent part of life, and yet the regularity of its occurrence does not deem it any less heartbreaking. All that can be done while on this earth is to always remember what is truly important in life and cherish time with loved ones above all else.
After Bebe’s death, I thought my 12-year-old heart would be forever left in tatters–I am sure that many of you can relate to that feeling. I wanted to be angry at myself or the vets that had been so incapable of saving her, but I knew that it was neither of our faults; the technology necessary to heal her simply did not exist. Older horsemen and women would tell me that there had been little to no improvement in the methods of treating colic in the field during their lifetimes. Upon learning this, I became determined that someday, no horse would have to endure what Bebe did.
I contacted the American Association of Equine Practitioners Foundation and, with the invaluable help and encouragement of Jodie Bingham (AAEP Foundation Development Coordinator), created Bebe’s Legacy. All of the money donated to Bebe’s Legacy goes to colic research and treatment in the field. Since 2012, I have raised over $1,600 towards Bebe’s Legacy, and I hope to raise more with your help.
If you are interested in donating, please follow the link http://www.aaep.org/
Haley Ruffner is a high school student who rides on Alfred University’s hunt seat and western IEA teams. She also owns and trains her 5-year-old quarter horse, At Last An Invitation (“Cricket”). Haley is an avid reader and writer and has been riding since she was five.
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