Carol Kozlowski, who campaigned the Connemara stallion through the upper levels of eventing in the ’90s, pens a tribute to her horse of a lifetime.
Erin Go Bragh passed away last month at the age of 30–more here.
Top: Erin Go Bragh and Carol Kozlowski. Photo by Brant Gamma.
Every rider should be so lucky to have a truly special horse in their lifetime. It means different things to different people. In my case, I had the good luck to be given the ride on Erin Go Bragh, a Connemara stallion bred and raised by the Harris family at their Hideaway Farm in Geneseo, N.Y.
My journey with Go Bragh began late in 1987 when his regular rider, Marion Kenney (now Thorne), became pregnant with her first child, and I was asked to ride him. Many people are familiar with his steady rise up the levels of dressage through Third Level and eventing, where he successfully competed at the Advanced level.
Each move up the grades was an unexpected bonus from a horse with a remarkable work ethic. It was an exhilarating time for me. His charisma made heads turn, the judges adored him and he was game for just about anything I could ask of him. It was a 12-year partnership that read like a good book with thrills and spills, injuries and disappointments, and more fun and adventures than I could have hoped for. Go Bragh ended his career as the most successful stallion in American eventing at the time.
He toured at Equine Affaire and Equitana, starred in his own video, graced the covers of magazines and calendars and had the ultimate compliment of being cast as a Breyer horse model. At Breyerfest that year, thousands attended, with most standing in line over the course of three days to meet “The Little Horse That Could” and get his autograph. I traced the outline of his front foot on whatever was presented for his “signature.” This was stuff I never could have imagined as a horse-crazy kid.
Fast forward about 15 years. It has always been a treat to visit my old friend and know that he lived like a king in his retirement. My good friends Beth and Stirlin Harris took great pride in caring for their champion, and his longevity certainly reflected their attentiveness. Beth expressed concerns late this past summer that, despite special feed and the lushest of grass, Go Bragh was not holding his weight well. He was starting to show the effects of his age, a robust 30 years. It was time to consider saying goodbye.
And so it was, on the finest of October evenings, that I found myself visiting my boy one last time. It seemed to be yet another scene out of his movie, “The Little Horse That Could.” A beautiful afternoon turned toward a spectacular sunset. Go Bragh met me at his gate, and I noted with a pang of sorrow his sharp hip bones and the ribs starting to show under the beginnings of another well-knit winter coat.
He made me smile when he tossed a saucy greeting at the lovely mare in the paddock we passed as I led him to the barn for a few moments of grooming. I was lost in thought when Beth emerged to say hello. When I saw her, I lost the tenuous hold I had on my composure and burst into tears. As she described the extra attention that he’d been given of late and his lack of response to more feed, I could only blubber. “It’s time. It’s time,” was all I could manage.
Knowing I wanted a little time alone with him, Beth gave me a hug and left us. I set about currying and brushing and combing, tracing the familiar ground that I’d known so well for so long. Even as an old man, he was still handsome, and the curves of his hip and shoulder were testimony to the power he’d produced from that diminutive body. The interaction began to take on an almost dreamlike quality as I murmured to my friend what a good, good boy he was.
As I led him back to his pasture, I suddenly knew what it was I needed before leaving him. We walked past his gate and down the gentle slope into the jumping competition arena at Hideaway Farm. The thick grass was as green as I’ve ever seen it, and I led Go Bragh across the field to one of the jumps. I knew we were alone; there are hedges surrounding the field. We had the place to ourselves. I climbed up on one of the jumps and as he stood close by, I slid onto his back.
And I felt the years melt away. It was a perfect fit, an absolute rightness. I felt his warmth through my blue jeans. We stood in the field as the sun blazed on the horizon, and I swear he perked up a bit, the look of eagles in his eyes when he turned to gaze at the distance with his short fuzzy ears pricked. For a moment, I just sat there and cried. Not because Go Bragh was leaving, but because I was so grateful he had chosen me for the fantastic adventure that his life had been. It was the feeling one gets when given a gift so unexpected and special that you are moved to tears.
I steered him around the site of so many wonderful memories in his halter and lead rope, a bareback ride in my sneakers. It couldn’t have been more perfect. When we were done, I wrapped my arms around his neck and inhaled deeply. Anyone who has ever loved horses knows that this smell is the finest of any scent, and it was earthy and horsey and all the good things I remembered.
I slid off him and led him back to his pasture and removed his halter. I had a few baby carrots in my pocket, and I bit them into smaller pieces for him. Go Bragh took them politely and asked me if that was it. I told him yes and watched him turn away. As he slowly wandered away, I softly called after him: “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
One last ride, one last gift. Go Bragh was peacefully laid to rest a few days later. I’ve ridden horses with more talent but none with more try or dignity. I’m so grateful to have had him in my life and to have had the opportunity for a very special goodbye.