In the six months following Jess’s death, I could barely bring myself to go to the barn except to feed and water the other horses. What was once a refuge and an inspiration had become a spot that was too tender to touch. I allowed myself a luxury that I began to realize I’d never experienced – grief.
“It’s just a horse.” Yeah, I know.
But, we lose ourselves in the things (animals, people) we love, and that’s often where we find ourselves as well. Having lost Jess, my first real experience with grief was completely overwhelming, and now, more than half a year later, it still shows up from time to time, poking its long fingers into my heart.
The idea of getting another horse was the furthest thing from my mind until the chilly day in November when I found myself standing in the massive facility of a horse-trader up the road from my place. I’d seen an ad for a jet-black percheron gelding so enormous that he would have easily dwarfed the Budweiser Clydesdales. He was in the neighborhood of 20 hands high, and no doubt weighed a ton or more.
His name was Tiny. Right.
A horse-trader is never a good person to buy a horse from. That’s a fact. This place is no exception to the rule. My stupid heart though, is always on a rescue mission of some sort, and so I gravitate to this place. They reap what they can find at auction for a rock-bottom price, haul them here, talk them up and sell them for triple what they paid. The lame, the old, the wormy and the neglected find themselves here in dark airless stalls that remind me of cheap motel rooms. Each stall bears the marks, the dust, sweat and stench of decades of pass-throughs.
Tiny is at the back of one of the barns. In the stall next to his are more than twenty goats of assorted sizes and shades of mud. A thick man in coveralls wades through the ruckus and dumps feed into their trough. Before he’s finished pouring, the goats clamber up into the trough, trampling each other as they dive for a mouthful of food.
Tiny turns his head to look at me as I fiddle with the latch to his stall. He’s filthy. I feel no connection with him at all. Grief taps me on the shoulder and snorts an “I told you so.” Bastard. I can’t deal with this. Steve is enthusiastic. “Just look at this guy! Man, he’s big!” But I tell him I just don’t think so. Besides, it’s a hell of a time of year to bring home a new horse. For the next five months there will be nothing but mud, days too cold to ride, and the misery of introducing a new horse to the others in freezing rain. No way.
Back out in the glare and chill of the driveway, I start thinking – If I were to ever get another horse, it would have to be one I could ride. Neither Kit nor Little Horse are safe enough for me to even think about riding, and I’m too old to casually break bones in the attempt. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt just to look at the other available horses.
I wander into one of the other barns, where there’s a large indoor sand riding arena. On either side of it are long dark aisles lined with stalls. I wind my way through the mud and poor quality hay, peering into the gloom whenever I see an occupant. Some horses look away, some dash to their gates, and some are lost in their worlds, weaving or asleep.
Over the next hour, I bring at least five of them into the sand ring to get a sense of them. They’re frightened, or too exuberant to be out of their stalls. A beautiful Oldenberg nearly knocks me over. Nope. Nothing for me here.
Steve wants to see Tiny again, and goes to get him. “Ok.” I say. I go outside to clear my head, and when I return, Steve is in the sand ring with a ton of Tiny. He really is a sweet horse. He walks well on the lead, isn’t pushy, and backs willingly – good traits in an animal the size of an ambulance.
As gorgeous, dear and gentle as Tiny is, he is also quite sick. Thick green slime pours from his nose, an indication of the kind of care that he’s getting here. He won’t pick up his titanic feet, and there is so very, very much of him. For once, I manage to say no to an animal that I know I can help. Steve is visibly disappointed. Steve is also out of town most of the time. I don’t need this much horse. Steve walks Tiny out into the driveway and back to his stall in the other barn.
Standing in the wide aisle between a row of stalls and the sand ring, I let myself feel how tired I am. This whole morning has been wasted. Grief nods, knowingly.
With reflexes trained by bad experiences to react NOW when panicked horses are loose, I hear the hoof beats behind me on the concrete floor. Before I can turn around to assess the danger, I feel the horse behind me and a gust of wind that pushes hot against my back. I spin around, already balanced to dodge to the right or left, ready to throw up my hands and lunge forward if I can manage to redirect an escape.
There is no horse. Only the sounds of the birds in the rafters of the sand ring.
And suddenly, with a shuddering inhale, I feel her. I know beyond any question that Jess is here. I also know that I have only seconds with her. I hear my intense whisper, “Jess, find me a good one.” and she is gone.
Steve and the girl who has been helping us are coming back and I crunch across the gravel to meet them. “Do you still have the gelding that you advertised a while back as dead-broke?” She nods, but says he’s down in the back pasture. “Go get him”.
He’s absolutely covered in mud. There’s a thick, hard, yellow plastic auction collar tight around his neck under his jaw. He’s short-backed, about 16 hands, a generic bay – dark brown with black mane and tail. At least I think there’s a mane and tail. There are literally thousands of burrs as big as my thumb snarled into his hair. His tail is a solid mass of burrs. His feet haven’t had attention in months and he’s about to throw a shoe. His eyes are runny. Still, he’s quiet and alert.
I take him into the sand ring and he stays by my side, neither frantic nor fearful. When I walk or run, he matches me step for step with or without the lead rope. My heart is pounding. I saddle him, carefully avoiding the burrs. The girl says, “He’s a retired police horse”. I climb up on his back and I’m not afraid. He’s one of those horses that responds to your thoughts as easily as he responds to the reins. He neck-reins. He side-passes.
“I want him.” I say to Steve, sure of this.
I call him Captain, to honor his service. The trailer backs up to the barn. The woman opens the back and drops the ramp. “You’re going home with me” I tell him. And before I can lead him there, he trots forward and leaps into the trailer. I shake my head with a smile.
It will take hours just to get the burrs out of his mane. I don’t think he’ll mind though.
Late that night, I go out to his paddock in the dark. “Captain, My Captain” I whisper. I hear a low whinny, and the sound of hooves, walking into my heart.
Thank you, Jess.