“Somehow, seeing those white strands helped me to understand that my horse is aging. My beautiful, sassy, occasionally high maintenance dance partner is getting older. I’ll admit, this small seemingly silly realization sent me into a bit of a spiral for a few days.”
By Ryan Killam
A few months ago I was grooming my horse and as I brushed her face, I noticed some white hairs had sprung up around her eyes. “When did that happen,” I thought to myself. She had turned 17 earlier that spring. I had brought her a strawberry doughnut to celebrate and she almost inhaled my hand. While I knew she was in the “senior” category, I felt like that was a technicality and her age really was just a number. She’s always been my sour patch kid — the perfect combination of sour and sweet, and she hasn’t slowed down at all in the years that I’ve had her. I still rank my rides on her in terms of peppers; some days she’s my spicy little Habanero with lots of fire and opinions. Other days, she’s a sweet little Bell pepper, toting my toddler around for a pony ride once we’ve finished our work.
Somehow, seeing those white strands helped me to understand that my horse is aging. My beautiful, sassy, occasionally high maintenance dance partner is getting older. I’ll admit, this small seemingly silly realization sent me into a bit of a spiral for a few days. It made me wonder how many rides we would have left together and, eventually, what life would look like without her. While I did dig myself out of the mountain I had made of this mole hill after talking it out with some good friends, I decided to treat this new awareness as a gift. I found a new appreciation for our rides, even the ones that don’t quite go to plan.
Whenever I’m in the grocery store with my toddler, an older person will inevitably stop me and tell me to enjoy the time with my child because these days will be gone before you know it. I try to apply the same mentality to my mare (and frankly it’s much easier since I don’t have to potty train her and she always eats the food I give her). If we have a ride where she’s struggling with the work, or being particularly hot or spooky, I don’t feel pressured to just ride her through it. I usually change gears, go for a hack outside or hop off and do some ground work. Sometimes we’ll even just do a long walk ride around the indoor if the weather’s bad. It’s not that I let her get away with things just because she’s getting older — I think all horses do better with consistent boundaries and exercise (also not unlike toddlers!), but I try to give each of us a little bit of grace in the moment. One of the benefits of having a long term partnership is knowing when to push and when to put a pin in it.
I’ve also started thinking about our non-riding future and what that might look like for us. I’m fortunate to have the guidance of some wonderful professionals around me — veterinarians, trainers and barn managers. They help me give her the best care possible as well as assess her needs as they begin to change. I’m confident that the people I’ve surrounded myself with will let me know when it’s time to step back.
Inevitably, thinking about aging brings on thoughts of death. It’s inescapable, even for unicorns. I’m a planner, knowing what to expect makes me feel less anxious. Trust me, I’m totally aware of the oxymoron for planning with horses. They are accident prone glass figurines with a penchant for unpredictability. For me, the planning is less about the act of dying and more about what I’ll have to do afterwards. While I’d love to believe that my mare will pass away peacefully in my arms, at the ripe age of 82, I’m fully aware that some bizarre pasture accident could happen tomorrow. She does prefer to eat tree branches over grass — after all, she’s not always the brightest. What I’ve done instead is research costs on euthanasia and cremation, which would be my choice, and companies in my area. This way I can start putting away some money so that I’m not dealing with the financial strain on top of the grief I’ll already be experiencing.
I’ve also had some professional pictures taken of my mare and some of us together. Some people take tail hair from their horse before they cross over the Rainbow Bridge, and I also have some treasured strands from past beloved horses, but after thinking about it I decided that what I usually went back to the most often when I missed those horses was pictures of them. I’m very lucky that my best friend is a professional photographer and she’s provided me with some beautiful shots of my girl throughout the years, and hopefully there will be plenty more to come! I love looking at them and seeing her soft eye and her kind face, especially in the shots where we’re together. As the saying goes, “Time is the thief of memory” and having these beautiful photos will help keep her memory alive long after she’s gone.
In the meantime, I’m going to relax and enjoy the ride.