Just Like That

“The bright intelligent eyes, the high whinny that never failed to answer a greeting, the fuzzy ears, one tipping in just a bit lower than the other — all of these were still and silent.”

Photo courtesy of Jenna Stauder

By Jenna Stauder

Just like that, fifteen years was so much dirt next to a hole in the ground.

Just like that.

I felt oddly blank watching the backhoe working, my emotions exhausted and the air shimmering in that way it seems to after your eyes become exhausted from crying. The sound of the machinery was almost mundane as I stood vigil next to my best friend, or rather the shell that used to house his sweet soul and wonderful intelligence.

How surreal that the world kept turning, that this man preparing my horse’s final resting place had no idea how much of my world he was getting ready to put in the ground. The world had shattered, the universe surely wasn’t whole anymore, so how could this stranger be making small talk with me as he worked like everything could ever be the same again?

I was an incredibly shy, shut down seventeen year-old when I got Benny. I finally convinced my dad to get me a horse, and circled a few ads in the local classifieds. “7yo Arabian gelding, $700.” It was not a lot of information, but he was the one I wanted to see the most; I had always been entranced by the Arabian breed, and the low price made me feel better about this expenditure I was asking of my dad.

He was the first one we went to look at, and I knew him as soon as I saw him. He walked up to the fence with those bright eyes and perked ears, and I knew his face and who he was. I have known hundreds of horses since, immersed myself completely in the lifestyle of a working equestrian, and not even once again have I experienced that instant knowing feeling.

Of course, as soon as I got my leg over him, he showed me that I didn’t know everything about him. I was a green rider with minimal experience and training, and had convinced my poor father that buying a horse would be cheaper in the long run than paying for lessons. This little red rocket of a horse ran, he tossed his head incessantly, he baby reared, he tried scraping me off under trees.

I had never wanted anything so badly in my life. The woman selling him saw the stars in my eyes and agreed to $600. I spent the next week until his arrival at the barn we would be boarding at writing down all the things he needed work on and how I would address those things. I was not an educated horsewoman at that point, but somehow I knew how to approach this horse.

That didn’t stop me from getting run away with on him for the next few months. I had no idea that a horse could gallop full speed straight ahead with its nose touching its riders knee. I had heard of the stamina the Arabian was known to have, but now I got to experience it firsthand. He rarely broke a sweat and more than once I led him back into the barn after finally getting a few moments of good, and someone asked me if I had stayed on.

Fifteen years later and far more wise, I now see how very lucky I was. Benny was fast and uncontrolled a lot of the time, but now I realize so much of that must have been my own ineptitude, and I also realize that he never once offered to hurt me. He took care of me, and taught me horsemanship in a whirlwind crash course of physics, grit and balance. The woman who owned the barn later told me she used to watch me with him and ask herself, “Why is that child riding that horse?”

Photo courtesy of Jenna Stauder

It took a year, but suddenly we were working on things other than just being in control. I guess something shifted in Benny’s brain and he realized I was determined and it would maybe be easier to run on a normal power mode because I was going to come every day, and I was going to ride every day, so he might as well slow down and conserve a little energy.

A year after that, my calm, cheerful little red Arabian was being used for lessons occasionally. Eventually he was a favorite lesson pony for beginning little girls who had to carry a small crop to get him to trot. A pair of students used to argue over who got to ride him every week, because his jaunty trot was so much fun over cavaletti.

One of those girls as a six year-old threw her arms around his neck one day and told him, “You are a big sweet horse and I love you so much!” I turned around while she took his halter off to turn him out so she wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes. That was when I knew he had made it — he had manifested as the horse that lived in his liquid eyes and stared at the world with a soft, bright sweetness.

Benny taught little girls to ride for over a decade. The little ones, he took painstaking care of. They would ask him to trot and you could almost hear his Uncle Benny voice asking, “Are you sure? You mean actually trot, or can I just kind of shuffle?” Riders who were still learning but were good enough for him to expect due diligence from them, he would test them. Not paying attention? Not enough leg? Not riding with purpose? Benny would tell them. Advanced riders? Boy, could that horse shine for a rider who could put him through his paces.

He was a $600 unpapered Arabian, not an imported warmblood bred to be a Grand Prix mover, but he was surprising and people always watched him. He never went over a jump with anything less than an expression of keen interest, and if his rider had him forward, he could put in a beautiful dressage ride.

Benny did so much for so many little girls, but what he did for me is remarkable. The shy doormat of a teenager he was saddled with turned into a young woman who was confident in her environment of choice. At the barn, I was in my element and I blossomed. I could talk to people I didn’t know. I could confidently help the farrier hold an anxious horse and make conversation. I could assist the veterinarian and follow care instructions on a wound, an illness, a lameness.

I became a full time barn employee and discovered that I could hold a position of authority with the barn kids and their parents. I could be a confidant, a shoulder to lean on, someone who could capably give advice to boarders about their horses’ needs and behaviors. Benny did that for me. I imagine the end of my childhood without him, and I know I would have withered away into silence, or gone down a path to destruction that so many broken young people find themselves on. Benny saved me and turned me into a whole person. A whole adult.

Over the years, things changed, as they will. In the summer of 2017, I found out my husband and I were expecting a child. We made the decision to move twelve hours north to be closer to his family and bought a little property so I could have my horses, now numbered at three, home with me. Benny stayed with his lease for a couple of months before we were set up to come and get the horses.

His little girl, whose life he also changed, threw him a going away party at the barn. And then Benny, who turned out to be about seven years older than we had thought, settled into his well-deserved retirement, although I generally had to pop up on him bareback for a few minutes every time I rode my mare if I wanted any peace.

He greeted me every time I stepped out the back door, and my daughter soon learned to yell, “Beeehhh!” when I carried her down the porch steps. I couldn’t resist the temptation and held her up on his back for the first time when she was three months old, and from that moment on, he was “her horse.” I would say that and then make knowing eye contact with him, and smile a little. I could easily share my heart with this new piece of my heart. He was so kind and gentle with her. She would reach up from her stroller with both hands and he would drop his nose down between her little palms, snuffle her hair and then look around at me as if to ask if he was doing it right.

Of course, the new environment and lack of being in my chosen habitat (a big boarding barn) left me feeling shaken and more than a little diminished. Everything had changed, all at once, and the confident, happy adult I had been was cowering in a corner most days, trying to deal with being a new mother who had somehow never imagined being a mom, being in a new place and away from my family in friends.

But every night after my little girl went to bed, Benny nickered at me for his supper, and we shared quiet moments. Sometimes I climbed on his back in the barn and just laid along his mane, ruffling his forelock between his ears affectionately. In those moments, I felt like we were young again and it was just the two of us, figuring the world out.

Photo courtesy of Jenna Stauder

He was diagnosed with Cushings late in 2016, and had worked hard for so many years, and these things take their toll. Late this last summer, he was less willing to prance around when I clucked at him in play and getting up after a roll was a little slower. I started feeding him a third meal in the middle of the day to keep the weight on him.

But all things considered, he was doing well for a 29 year-old dinosaur, even though I glared critically at him almost daily and poked him in the ribs, the shadow of the glorious red Arabian with the sleek curved crest always what I expected to see when I looked at him.

And then.

Then, Labor Day around three o’clock, I cheerfully asked my daughter if she wanted to go feed Benny his lunch, as had become our daily norm. I put her shoes on her and hoisted her onto my hip and opened the back door. (“Beeehhh!”) The horses were turned out in the yard to cut the grass, and I had noticed them trotting around a little bit earlier. It was a little cool and windy, so I had figured it was normal friskiness for such weather. But as soon as I raised my eyes to locate him, as I always did to gauge if he could get to the barn before the boss mare tried to push him off, I realized something was badly wrong.

My calm and affable red horse was scooting backwards with his hindquarters crashing along the front line of the pasture fence, hitting fence posts, the gate, and bouncing off of it like he was unable to go forward. I called his name as I approached, calming him with the normal words, and grabbed his fly mask to steady him. Thinking there must be something inside the mask bothering him, I pulled it off and dropped it to the ground. ‘

No longer held still, he resumed his panicked journey in reverse. I rushed my daughter back into the house and sobbed to my husband to take her, that Benny couldn’t see.

I got a halter on him and got him into the barn, where he calmly dropped his nose into his feed bucket and ate like nothing was wrong. He was a little jumpy and a little wide eyed, but ate every morsel of feed and then went out into the pasture … where he began incessantly circling to the right. He calmed down when the sun went behind the trees, and was calm the next morning when I woke up, but by the time the light got stronger, he was anxiously circling again.

The vet was there in a few hours and diagnosed him with cholangiohepatitis and hyperammonianemia and drew blood to confirm, and the rest of the day, and the next day passed. I watched the weight melt off of him as I fed him and diligently medicated him per the vet’s instructions, and waited for the blood results.

Those results ended up being inconclusive, but it did not matter. An hour after talking to the vet about how to proceed, Benny crashed. He calmly ate his breakfast, and then the world flipped upside down as I called the vet back on his phone and pager, called my husband and finally called the local small animal clinic that makes farm calls for horses on Mondays and begged them to send a veterinarian to euthanize my horse, all the while promising him that I would not let him suffer.

My bonny boy, who I always imagined going in the sun with a mouth stuffed full of peppermints, was freed from his failing body by a veterinarian who had never met him and didn’t know she was showing mercy to a horse that was surely the most beloved pony in the world.

And then he was gone. The bright intelligent eyes, the high whinny that never failed to answer a greeting, the fuzzy ears, one tipping in just a bit lower than the other — all of these were still and silent. Age and his brief illness had even taken that sleek curve of his neck that I so loved to smooth my hand over. All gone.

I truthfully told my husband I was fine to stand with him as he was laid to rest. He was gone — free. This horse laying peacefully on the ground didn’t hold him anymore. I gently fastened the same halter he had come home to me in, nearly fifteen years ago whinnying loudly in the back of an old stock trailer, around his head and told him he had done good, how sorry I was and that he deserved better.

There are so many memories. So many that I think I have a Benny story for everything. I can’t wrap my head around how this tremendous life he led is actually over. Instead of the sun sinking low into the sky, I see a montage of images of his life, the feel of his nose gently brushing the back of my knuckles as he walked peaceably at my side, the way his forelock always stood up after I ruffled it.

Photo courtesy of Jenna Stauder

I don’t come apart until the man in the backhoe pauses to tell me he fluffed the dirt in the bottom for him. This small kindness breaks me, but I stand by his side until he is nestled and tucked gently in, and nod my head in approval at the man in the backhoe.

Benny turned me into a different person. It is terrifying to realize that I have to become whole again without him. That horse was always teaching somebody something, and now it is his absence that will teach me how to move forward and put my own pieces back together. Those pieces are less jagged now — a teenager handed a horse her whole heart and soul in their awkward and painful fragments, and a little red horse smoothed and polished and pieced everything together in a package she could carry.

I barely remember who I was before him, and I am not sure who I will be without him, but I know I am so much the better for having gotten to be his person.

Jenna Stauder is in her thirties and currently lives in Michigan with her husband, daughter and two of her three horses. She dabbles in dressage, low level eventing when her courage is right and draws horses and dogs to satisfy the need to create. 

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