Sometimes, the best you can do is enough.  Being strong for someone can be the hardest thing a soul can endure.  But, you do your best – for love, for duty, to be of help.  You stumble.  You make mistakes.  Your fear makes little unexpected appearances, cameos, and you pray that you’ll hold fast long enough to see this thing through.  You fail in a hundred tiny ways.  And yet, in the end, it’s good enough.  It makes you honest, though.

Friday, July 6th 2012 was dead in the middle of the most horrific heat wave ever.  The whole country had suffered triple digit temperatures for over a week.  People were dying.  The fists of a sudden cataclysmic storm had pounded out power lines from Ohio to New Jersey to North Carolina.  In its wake, the staggering heat, with no power for air conditioning, was too much for some to live through.

It broke my heart that Jess would know this as her last day.

It was over one hundred degrees by nine o’clock this morning when I shuffled the familiar path from the back door to the barn.  Crunchy brown wisps of grass clung to the concrete-hard clay beneath my work boots as they found their way through the paddock.

In the shade and relative cool of the barn stood Jess, Kit, and Little Horse, as placid and calm as the heat was heavy.  Like ten thousand times before, I stepped into the sweet, hay-smelling aisle, and greeted Jess first.  She’s the alpha here, and her presence radiates both authority and a tender gentleness that can be heartbreaking.

Summoning strength, and fighting an instinct to utterly dissociate, I drew a strong image in the mind between us of cool, dew-laden green fields with dancing clouds in a clean blue sky.  I said to her, “Today, my love.  Today.  You’re going home.”  I sent her the image, then had to turn away.  Had I stayed longer, I wouldn’t have been able to keep the other images from arising.  I wanted to touch her, to wrap my arms one more time around her massive neck.  I wanted to sob into her mane, my face plastered into the copper strands.  I wanted to smell her one more time.  Instead, I manufactured a brilliant ball of radiant confidence and joy to uplift her as I walked past her to the tack room door.

Whack-thunk. Squeak of the bolt, and the rattle and jingle of her blue halter, hanging from a nail on the back of the door.  Then, the familiar ritual of putting the halter over her nose, buckling the brass fastener under her ear.  She lowered her head gracefully, willingly, and I thought, “you… know…”

“Look!  Aren’t you beautiful in blue.”  I smile, and let her feel my joy.  I almost feel it too.  Now, she’s ready.  I don’t stay.  I can’t.  I reach out a shaking hand and gently brush a fly from her eye.  I turn and leave the barn.

Under the oak in the small pasture just behind the house, Steve is clearing the low branches.  The back hoe has to be able to do its work unimpeded.  I stop to help.  The heat surrounds us and sucks us down like an undertow.  But, that’s what we have, and we’ll work with it.  There’s something about work that lends a much-needed order and purpose to the hour, as you wait for the vet to arrive.

He’s late.  We’ve paced every inch of the driveway.  We’ve talked about the tractor.  We’ve picked gravel out of the treads of our boots.  Finally, the white Ford truck eases up the long drive and crunches to a stop.  Dr. Ferguson is a slight man with a kind smile.  I don’t remember the names of the interns as we shake hands.  A flurry of preparations, medical supplies, a laptop.

I think I’m telling him where to meet us under the tree.  He is blessedly quiet and understanding.  This can’t be easy for him.

I hear my boots walking to the barn again.  The heat leans against me; it’s like slogging through water.  Steve has followed me, but doesn’t intrude.  I make a mental note to give him credit for that.

I’ve left the blue cotton lead rope near the door, draped over the ladder to the hayloft, knowing that my hands might not be able to find it otherwise.  It’s soft and frayed, and so very blue.  I walk to Jess and say, “Let’s go for a walk, Sweetheart.  Let’s go for a short walk into the shade of your tree.”  Click.  The blue lead rope, now fastened to her halter, rests like liquid in my hand.  She’s so calm.  She trusts me.  Her breathing is peaceful.  She moves forward, her mangled knee taking proud horse steps into the sunlight.

I lead her out of the barn and across the scorched ground to the oak tree where we’ve spent so many hours.  Dr. Ferguson is there.  Kit and Little Horse have come along on invisible threads.  Someone says, “We have a parade.” They stand like sentinels with Jess, close, not wanting to leave.  But, the vet says they have to go.  Suddenly, and without so much as a look from anyone, they run thundering back to the barn.

I asked for her to be sedated first.  The vet says it might be a longer, harder passing, but I am, for what may be the first time in my life, adamant.  He softly and kindly explains what will happen, what might be disturbing, and how it will be.  I hear only the horsefly tormenting her.  I protectively brush it away.  “Yes,” I say.  “Go ahead”.

I am afraid.  I’m horrified that I am betraying her – that she will know, in this last instant what I have done, even as she trusted me with her life.  But, I rally for that final moment and slow my breathing, sending her waves of peace and joy.

I cup my hand behind her eye, so that she won’t see the vial of iridescent fluid, so that she won’t see the size of the needle, or the vet approaching her exquisite neck.  She flinches, and I tell her it’s just a shot, like all the others she’s had.  She believes me.

The sedative slowly lowers her head and slows her breathing.  I have her face in my hands and I pour every loving thought that my heart can manage into the air between us.  I’m dimly horrified by the color of the fluid in the gigantic syringe that the vet is emptying into her.  Empty, he throws it aside and replaces it with another.  I can hear the flow of the substance through the needle.  An intern makes the discarded one disappear.

“I’m here, baby.  I’m here.  I’m right here.”  The ancient chorus that has been sung by the soul of everyone who has held a beloved one in this final moment.

And then, she simply and gracefully… crumples, and is gone.  I kneel beside her, and through the fog of raw presence, recognize that there are five of us, with our hands on her.  A benediction.

******

The other horses never come to stand by her.  Unusual.  In my heart, I know that she had spoken with them the night before.  Her last act of grace as the leader of her tiny herd.

A red clay mound of hot earth, under the oak tree.  A blue halter and lead rope, draped over the fence.  Her shimmering copper tail, still smelling like summer, bound with a red ribbon, lies in my lap, as I lean against the base of the tree, its reassuringly timeless bark cutting into the sweat on my back.  I put my palm to the ground, eyes closed, and whisper, “I love you, Jess.”

She had known.  She was sublimely at ease, knowing that she was going home.  She had asked me to do this.  And, as they say, “It was time”.  Small comfort.  The words angel of death conjure fearsome images.  I’ll see them differently now.  Once again, she’s teaching me.

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35 Comments on “Helping a Horse to Die Well

  1. I know you posted this over a year ago, but a friend directed me to your previous post “Good Night Jess” a few days ago when my family and I made the decision to put down my wonderful boy.

    Your words are beautiful, and even though both posts have made tears sting my eyes (again), they have a touch of healing in them as well. Your thoughts, actions, and words match mine almost to the letter…as do your Jess’s actions match my Celeborn’s. It’s truly amazing how even at the end they understand far more, and how they continue to teach us even after they are gone.

    Thank you.

    • Thank you for your incredibly beautiful words. It really means a lot to me that my scribblings touched you in some way. Wishing you peace as you come to terms with Celeborn’s passing from this world.

  2. So beautiful, sweet and sad, and so hard to be so brave for them. My Olivia went home very much the same but she didn’t get to stay on the property. How lovely your Jess is right there in the home she loved. Beautifully written.

  3. You are such talented writer. I said good bye to my last two chocolate soldiers at age 32 only a few years ago now. Reading this beautifully written piece that paralleled my own experience moved me to tears as I recalled the day we parted. I too visualized the same scene that you did and my boys knew we would part that morning. It was their time and my beloved horses left in peace.

    • Thank you for your story, timethief. It’s so hard, even when it’s right. Thank you for your courage with your boys.

  4. You have written beautifully this epitaph for your lovely Jess. I feel all this every time I send a horse home. Have been an equine vet for 25 years… It never gets any easier, though I am grateful for the opportunity to help horses on their way home. Wish we could do it for those people we love too. Thank you for Jess. I am sure your words will help someone out there make the hard decision that their horse needs.
    With love, understanding and thanks,

    Lizzi

    • Bless you, Lizzi, for what you do, and for commenting here. I never imagined that an equine vet might read this post! I think you guys get a VERY special place in heaven, right next to the horses! Thanks so much for stopping by and for your comment.

      • Cripes, you made me cry AGAIN!!
        An injury last year has ruled out my continuing as a full-on eq vet, so have retrained as a science teacher… and begun teaching.. and am not entirely sure of my choices, thinking about it.. your blog has reminded me of what I’ve been able to do for some. Thanks for the outlet. bit confused today,appreciate your thoughts. Take good care, have posted your site on my FB fun page, Lizzi Tremayne… The universe will sort it if I just stay out of the way. Namaste.

        • I always know when horse people have been reading because of the tear splashes on my pages. Thanks so much for putting my stuff on your blog. I’ve only had a chance to glance at it today and look forward to some good reading

  5. Oh such beauty and sadness. As we share our grief, we also share our love. A wise man, David Wallace, once said – “to honor the dead, take care of the living” – I think you do that beautifully with your words. thank you.

  6. This is heartbreaking. We only ever had to put down one old boy – a rescue – a couple of years ago. Petey was my husband’s first experience with horses. He learned all he could about him, including how to trim his feet, as we could never get anybody who would consistently come to do it for only one horse. Then they were too rough, not understanding Petey’s lack of balance, for one reason or another. My husband is a gentle man, and Petey acquiesced.
    There was so much about life and humans this horse only began to accept with us as his caregivers. Out came the bit, an on went the Parelli; off came the spurs and heavy Western saddle he had been driven with most of his thirty some-odd years as a lead pack horse for 100 (his age unbeknownst to us – the guy we got him from was told he was sixteen less than two years prior to THAT when he bought him for far too much money from the trail riding outfit. A cursory look at his teeth told me he was at least into his twenties …).
    We knew it was the end when it was – mercifully, all of us did, even his good friends, the dogs. He couldn’t digest anything anymore. We had never met the vet, as there had been no need to call one, up to this point. On this island, one can obtain all necessary vaccines and wormers from the local feed store. (Farm calls running upwards of $300 for one horse or six – quite unlike New England where we had come from).
    My husband, in tears, went out to trim his feet. He didn’t know what else to do. The vet arrived with a retinue of the most kind and compassionate people. We led him down to the field where a neighbor had offered to dig a hole – under the guava tree where Petey finally – after well over a year in our pasture – trusted it enough to lie down and RELAX. Feeding him pieces of carrot all the way; crying all the way. Big local Hawaiian guys sitting on machines – nobody made fun of us. Nobody shamed us for our tears. Petey went down, ever so gently, just like slipping into a warm bath. The vet said he’d never seen a horse go down like that – and with so little medication.
    As for us, the grief lasted longer. Even now, I tear up thinking about that sweet old boy. Thanks so much, dear one, for the memories.

    • Thank you, cafecasey. It never ceases to amaze me just how brave we all have to be from time to time. We believe we can’t get through something, and then we find the strength somewhere.

  7. What a touching tribute…

    Reminds me of the souls I have sent home. Tears….

    • Thank you, Karen. So very kind of you. I did the best I could. Had I lead her myself to heaven’s door and safely seen her in, fighting dragons along the way, I couldn’t have begun to repay her for all that she’d done for me.

  8. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story – beautiful in so many ways. I have an older mare that I love, Sweet Suzy Q, and I know someday this will be my story too. I only hope I can handle it as graciously as you did.

  9. Beautiful tribute to your four-legged loved one.

    “…the fog of raw presence” ~ what a beautiful phrase that is.

    Thank you for bringing the post to my attention–and your blog. I look forward to reading more.

    d

      • I felt as though I was right with you, You have captured sights, sounds and smells with words. A tough thing to do. You did it here.
        Several readers have expressed thankfulness for my articles on animals, one in particular is titled Will My Horse Be In Heaven. You may wish to read it.

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