by Laura Crum
This is Burt, the first horse I was able to keep until his death. I bought Burt when he was five years old. I was 21 and still in college. Burt lived to be 35—and though I had to farm him out occasionally, as I moved and went through life changes, he remained my horse at the end. He spent his last years turned out in a pasture fifteen minutes from my house, where I visited him as often as I could. He died one sunny winter morning five years ago. I was on my way out to feed him and the pasture owner called me and said that Burt had been trotting around and suddenly fell down. And now he couldn’t get up because he was caught in the fence.
I got there within ten minutes and I got Burt out of the fence and rolled him over, but though we tried and tried to get him up, it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen. Burt was twitching and showing neurologic symptoms, and he wasn’t trying to stand up. He’d had a couple of seizures previous to this, but he’d recovered OK. However, I knew, as I looked at him on the ground that day, that his twitching/seizing was getting worse, and that this was the end.
I called the vet, who was there within a half hour, and she concurred. We put Burt down as he lay in the sunshine, and his death was quick and peaceful. I was grateful, though I missed the old horse, and still do.
Burt taught me a lot. He was a real character, and always made me smile—Burt was a horse with a zest for life right up until his end. It makes me happy to know he was trotting around (and sound) on the day he died. What makes me sad is I wasn’t there to watch his joy. Oh, I saw him often, but I didn’t live with him. I didn’t hang out with him a lot in those last years. I fed him and rubbed on him a little and made sure he was in good flesh and his needs were met, but I had a kid and horses at home and I was always on the run, always busy.
Burt was, I think, happy in his pasture. There were other horses to socialize with and the pasture owner and neighbors gave him attention. I think he had a good life. He wasn’t the one who missed out. I was. And after he died, I was aware of that.
Death is very final. I remember Burt with much affection and his photo is on the wall above my desk. I have many happy memories of riding him on the ranch in northern California where I worked for several years. I am glad that I cared for him until his end. I’m glad he had a long, happy life. But I wish I could just be with him again, and feel his particular upbeat energy. I wish I could watch him trot around, with the sun shining on his bright bay coat. And that isn’t going to happen.
It’s hard to juggle several retired horses along with your current riding horses, if your space and budget is limited. My little horse property is set up to house five horses, no more. Over the years, I have often chosen to turn my retired horses out—in our 60 acre pasture in the foothills (three hours from here—looked after by an old friend who is an experienced horseman), or at that pasture fifteen minutes from my house, which belongs to a friend. It saved me both time and money to do this, and the horses had the benefit of living in a natural way, which I thought (and still think) is good for them. But the downside was that I couldn’t keep an eye on them and spend time with them.
Losing Burt made me think hard about Gunner, who was living in the same pasture where I had kept Burt. When Gunner got to be 30 it became harder and harder to keep weight on him, and I thought he wanted more attention than what he got in the pasture. But more than that, I just wanted to be with him and spend time with him before it was too late. So I brought him home...as one of my two boarders had left me, thus making a space for Gunner.
The good news is that after living at home for a couple of years Gunner DOES look happier. His weight is just right, and he has plenty of pep. It gives me lots of joy to take him for walks and hand graze him. Every time I watch him run around his big corral, bucking and spinning, I get a silly, infatuated grin on my face. Every time I rub on him and see how good he looks, it takes me right back to all our many times together-- gathering cattle, cutting, team roping. I remember the blaze-faced three year old gelding with thirty days on him that I started riding thirty YEARS ago. I remember hauling this horse all over the western United States (Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington) to various events. I remember camping with him. We did so many things together.
So, yes, I am very glad I brought Gunner home. And it gives me joy every single day to see him looking happy and healthy. The bad news? The bad news is it takes a lot of time to care for an old horse properly. I now have two retired horses (Gunner and Plumber) and my riding horse (Sunny) to care for. My son exercises his own horse, Henry, but my kid is still young enough to require some supervision and help. So, in essence, I’m now in charge of making sure that four horses all get the attention they need. And this is on top of a busy life as a homeschooling mom with a large garden. For those who don’t know, both homeschooling and gardens take a lot of time, too.
And then Gunner got cast just before Xmas, and I thought it might be the end of him. Luckily my old horse has made a full recovery, but it was a wake-up call for me. I began prioritizing Gunner’s walks and hand grazing over everything else. And though this DOES give me joy, there’s a limit to how much I can do in a day. So sometimes Gunner gets a walk and the other horses get turned out to graze…and there is no time for a trail ride. It’s my riding time that has taken the hit.
I don’t think Sunny really cares—he is happy to be turned out rather than ridden. My son often rides his horse while I do the other chores. And I usually manage to ride at least once or twice a week. But I can see that, essentially, I’m exchanging riding time for time with Gunner. In a way, it’s a tough choice.
Still, it’s the choice I’m making now. Maybe because I’m older and I’ve been riding all my life…maybe its easier to put time with my old friend first? I don’t know. I just know that despite my occasional moments of frustration, this is what I am drawn to do.
Anyway, I thought I’d ask if any of you have had to make similar choices. Any insights? Because my horse time these days often looks like this.
Instead of like this.