Happy, Healthy, & Horsey: Thoughts on Grief & Gorging

My two lovely horses, Lady Grace and Kaliwohi, are perfect, each in their own individual way. Grace, being half-mustang and half-Arabian, is an ebony sports car – quick, easy to handle, and oh-so-smart. English trainers have called her “athletic.” Western trainers have called her “handy.” I call her the most perfect mare in the world. Once my dressage diva, Lady Grace is now happily retired, other than the occasional quiet hack around the farm, just because she’s fabulous and I love riding her.

Kaliwohi, being full BLM wild-captured mustang, is a bit like an Abrams’ tank – big, bold, and willing to plow through anything if given sufficient incentive. His herd instinct is incredibly strong, despite the fact that his “herd” consists of Grace.

Lady Grace and Kaliwohi. Photo by Esther Roberts

(A note about the photo above: I believe in taking halters of any type off  before turning a horse loose. However, when I turn my kids out to graze around the house, I put on rope halters because halters with metal (e.g., leather halters with brass fittings) will trip open my farm’s entry gate’s safety release. But! – I also stay outside with them while they’re turned out around the house, so I promise there is minimal risk of any snafus related to rope/non-breakaway halters. #SafetyFirst)

I am so incredibly blessed to have these two animals in my life: words are insufficient to describe my gratitude to God for two such fabulous friends. Every morning, I look forward to seeing their eager faces waiting for breakfast and scratches in all their favorite spots.

And yet…

Neither one is Sam.

Ginalii Sami – My Friend Sam. Photo by Gretchen C. Harvey

Sam was my very first horse. I was just a kid when my mother bought two-year-old Sam for me. Sam was perfect. As in, perfect. At least, for me, anyway.

I’ve never been a bold rider, nor a particularly competitive one. And sweet Sam, despite being half-mustang half-quarter horse, was all kindness. The horse never so much as snorted in frustration, let alone kicked or spooked or bolted or anything.

Throughout our twenty-six years together, My Friend Sam accompanied me on every adventure, dried every tear, celebrated every victory, and literally defined my life and my career and a million things that make up this glob of cosmic dust called Esther.

I have never loved another being the way I loved Sam. He was my friend, my confidante, my protector.

I could write a book about all the things I learned by sharing life with Sam (oh, wait! I already have!)

But the one thing I cannot articulate is how deeply I still grieve for my beloved friend. Words are simply inadequate. It feels like yesterday when he left me, yet it was November 2001. I had graduated law school in May of that year. I had been at a very prestigious legal position for merely six months when Sam suddenly got ill and rapidly declined over the course of just a few days. I had no vacation time or personal leave time accrued yet. And none of my then-colleagues, and most certainly not my then-supervisor, would have understood at all if I had walked into work and said, “my horse unexpectedly died and I need to take some time to grieve.”

So I buried Sam on a Sunday and went to work Monday morning – numb, in shock, and heartbroken.

Eighteen years later, I am finally realizing that part of the burden I carry, weight-wise, is an indicator that, deep within my soul, I still have a great deal of pent-up grief for losing Sam.

Yes, I have twenty-six years of wonderful memories. Yes, I was one of the very fortunate few who got to experience decades of “life in the saddle” with a rock-steady, reliable horse who was an absolute gem every single day of his life.

And yet, some days, I still hurt. Raw, brutal pain that rips my being apart as the sadness crashes through my soul like a tsunami. There is no escape. Only devastation.

Throughout these many years since losing Sam, I’ve tried to repress that grief through gorging myself on sugar and fat, or maxing out a credit card buying “stuff,” or isolating myself by locking my emotions up tight and working twenty-hour days because surely-if-I-run-fast-enough-the-pain-cannot-catch-me.

But all that my grief-repression has accomplished is this: here I am, eighteen years later, overweight and overflowing with sorrow.

So here’s my raw, painful truth.

Sam was one of one.

Lady Grace is not Sam.

Kaliwohi is not Sam.

It is unfair to my beautiful mustang to ask him to be different that who he is. And it is unfair to both of us to try and build a bond of trust while one of us has a heart that remains in a million pieces.

I know this column is supposed to be happy and upbeat. I want my life to be happy and upbeat. But from day one, I promised y’all raw honesty, and this week I have missed my sweet Sam so badly it hurts. A lot. But today, I weep, instead of eat. Katrina tells me this is courageous and brave – to face such overwhelming pain that I’ve kept locked away for well over a decade. I feel neither courageous or brave, honestly.

I feel broken.

And so I go and hug Grace and Kaliwohi, and brush their coats til they gleam in the sun, and thank them both for sharing life with me, even when I wish there was another face greeting me with each sunrise.

Not long ago, I read something about, “the only flaw a dog has is they never live long enough.” I think the same is true of horses.


Go Riding

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