My friend explained a concept to me I’d never heard of, on our long, horrible ride home from the vet clinic yesterday morning after one of the worst nights of my life. She called it the “Grief Box.” Grief is like a big red button inside a box with a bouncing ball; at first the box is tiny, so the ball is constantly hitting the button, burying you in grief, crushing and immediate. Over time, the box gets bigger, so the ball hits the grief button a little less, but each time the grief is the same, always hitting just as hard.
Last night, safely home but with an empty trailer, it felt like the ball was crushing the grief button and I couldn’t move for it. I certainly couldn’t sleep, as soon as I closed my eyes the gnawing guilt and “What Ifs” tore at me. What should I have paid attention to, what should I have noticed? If I had just a bit earlier, if I’d made different choices along the chain, would my golden steed, my friend still be here?
A week ago I was so fucking proud, so happy and in tune with my horse. We led a trail ride at McIver, hung out with his best horse buddy, and showed we still had some work to do with obstacles, namely sidepassing. But we did it all together and calm, in a bitless bridle on a dry fall day. He was so beautiful and perfect, and though I still had fitness to build post baby, he was fitter than I was but gentle and willing with it.
48 hours ago I was cuddled in the back of the trailer with Cyrus, keeping an eye on Flash in the corrals at the beach in the rain, making sure his hay net and water stayed full.
The next morning the rain let up and Flash was dry under his blanket, demanding breakfast and hollering for a buddy across camp. This is where the what ifs begin. I could see he had eaten all his hay and drunk water, but was it enough? If I had pushed electrolytes here, would that have been enough? He’d never needed them before and we would be riding less than we had last weekend, but riding in sand is harder even for fit horses.
We had a fun shake down ride along the bay with a small group, mostly loosed rein and marching out willingly on a cold but beautiful blue sky day. My trainer captured some beautiful shots of us together, and I will always cherish them, evidence that life was good and we were together.
We had a long lunch in camp, I ate my croissant and shared my apple with him as he munched more hay, peed and pooped and hollered again. I was feeling good enough to try tackling the actual beach solo, just him and me. He was a little distracted on the beach, but it was super busy, and he was convinced the fat tire bikes were just wrong. We rode back up to camp and out a little ways, much calmer and happier than with all the distractions on the beach. I was, in every sense of the word, on top of the world with my beautiful golden pony on a blue sky day, loose reins and a willing forward walk. I’d almost gotten my entire rig and gear right where I wanted it, and was loading up a bucket list of places and activities to try throughout the winter and into next year. I’d already tried a non formal drill team (a blast!), mountain trail obstacles (an hilariously poor showing but still fun), and fit in as many trail rides as I could between pandemic, surrogacy and wildfires.
I knew something was off as soon as we returned to the trailer. I always give him treats after untacking, and he always demands more as his due for packing me around, and oh is that a granola bar, I’ll have that too thank you very much. Plus one extra carrot…nah, another one human! He wouldn’t take anything, and he just stared at me instead of demanding food. His legs didn’t have any heat and his feet looked good, but I took him over to my trainer anyway.
She was just saying he looked ok when he wandered over to some grass and laid down, which I didn’t try to prevent because I always let him roll after a ride, he’s not clipped and he gets sweaty and itchy and his post ride roll is always entertaining.
But not this time. This time he plopped down in a bad, awkward spot and just lay there. Everything from that moment starts to blur a bit, covered with fear and panic and pain. There were plenty of horse campers that were connected to my trainer, so I had many hands and banamine and electrolytes to push…but he still wasn’t himself, trying to lay down and looking like a zombie. We were out on the Oregon Coast, where most vets work out of their trucks and treatment options are limited. Was it the right call to load him up and trailer him two hours away? Should I have called a local vet and tried to treat him on site, without the stress of going down twice in the trailer on the way? Sure the vet he ended up with was one of the best in the state, but still.
The sight we found when we finally reached Oakhurst will haunt me forever. He was down, his head wedged against the door and it almost fell out when I opened the back door. A horse who was tall and beautiful and vibrant just hours earlier, taking 5 people to get him up and out of the trailer to hobble into the barn.
I had already made the decision when I first brought him home that he wasn’t a surgery candidate, in just this eventuality. Surgery on horses is expensive, risky, and only done at a few facilities, one of which was another two hour trailer ride away. But there’s always that one stubborn part of you that has to wonder, would I have eked another year or two with him if that had been our first stop? Would he have even made it there?
That was the most brutal night of my life. Nothing the vet tried seemed to work for long, and his symptoms puzzled the vet. If it had been a simple dehydration, pumping fluids into him should have worked. Instead he had a seizure, his whole giant body shivering and stumbling around, one of the hardest things any of us have ever experienced. A dose of sugar brought him out of it, leading the vet to ask if he was known to have HYPP (not in a million years would we have thought of it). We hung onto the vet’s puzzled optimism, every good sign; good gum color, some gut sounds, decent heart rate, and a definite appetite that lasted deep into the wee hours of the morning. Sabrina and I stayed up for hours while the vet, Adriane and Kiara tried to sleep, pushing saline and keeping him doped up.
He and I did the zombie shuffle together for hours; he would shuffle two steps forward towards the hay, and I would ask him to take two steps back so he wouldn’t dislodge the IV, over and over again. The vet kept saying he’d only lost one horse to colic that had an appetite like him. By 4am we were all zombies and Flash was left blanketed in a stall to rest, and the vet sounded relatively optimistic so I fell asleep on a blanket in the recovery stall. Adriane woke me up enough to move me to my camp cot and take over the vigil…and I should have stuck it out with her.
Sometime between 4am and 8am his system gave up, and I woke to the morning vet giving him an ultrasound while he tried to play in the automatic waterer…to be hit with the news that his small intestines were dead, and it was time. No more treatment options, just our beautiful Flash to make the final decision for.
I managed to hold it together to cut his tail and watch the vets put him down. It was a sunny day, if cold, and the Oakhurst facility and grounds are beautiful. All the vets, all my friends say I made the right calls at the right time, and we still don’t know what was really wrong. But I’m not sure I can forgive myself for taking him to the beach, that “What if” voice telling me if we’d just stayed home and tried another weekend somewhere else I’d still have my golden boy, still have adventures yet to seek and miles yet to ride.
It’s so bitterly unfair. I’d only had him just over a year, a turbulent year of pregnancy, pandemic, wildfires and losses. I’d just dialed in my gear and my rig for trips. We hadn’t ridden Black Butte together, or the Ochocos or the Met Win or tried the indoor trail course at the Oregon Horse Center (Kade rode him there last year while I was pregnant and he was amazing and Kade had so much fun!). We’d just been complimented on our trail ride last week on how far we’d come together, how much more in tune we’d seemed. On Wednesday he cantered and trotted around me for 15 minutes, full of fall spiciness before his farrier appointment. He was as healthy and sound and happy as I and my barn owner and friends knew how to keep him, and now he’s gone and I’ll never shake the nagging feeling it was my fault, somehow, some way, something I should have known.
I only had him barely a year, Adriane and Kiara had him for 15, how could anyone trust me with a horse again? Where would I even find such a wonderful match, a horse who doesn’t mind hauling my middle aged, significantly less than fit butt around, who is so calm for lightsaber duels with my son, who flirts with my husband and willingly lets a panting boxer dog follow at his heels?
Reading all the comments from friends and such on Facebook, each one brings fresh tears. I was a catch rider for so long, loving and appreciating every ride I was offered but holding a bit of myself back, not part of the large and small decisions and daily care of the animals I was privileged to spend time with. I offered everything I had into Flash, thrilled to finally be a part of the horse owning crowd, pouring over research to dial in his supplements just right, spending hours at the barn with him, grooming and playing soccer and sometimes just eating dinner with him and getting slobbered all over. I bought him things we didn’t really need just because I finally could, he was finally mine, why shouldn’t he have a beautiful breast collar, all the best treats, a modified trailer just for his giant golden butt and tack all in a lovely dark blue that contrasted his palomino coloring so well? I researched and debated for hours on hi tie versus panels, which one he’d be safer and happier with. I never got to use the set I purchased for him, not on a trip. I’ve never taken the hi line set I purchased out of the bag, not even to try him out on it.
Yesterday, I let the What Ifs and missed adventures and the stolen years overwhelm me. I did my best to process through the guilt and pain I need to be able to set aside if I’m ever to move forward and ride again, to try again with another horse.
Today Adriane helped with another rough part, the final arrangements, which I will be forever grateful for. She found a beautiful farm that will bury him in a field we can visit later, and I cleared the final bill with the vet. Kade handed the vet a card he’d drawn to thank him for working so hard for Flash, and the vet told me there’s nothing we should or could have done differently, which is helping a little.
Today I celebrate the mere year we had together, all the work we did to improve, all the stupid human requests he tried willingly in search of more carrots, all the compliments I received on how well cared for and beautiful he really was.
Tomorrow it will hurt a little less, until 6pm rolls around and I’m not putting on my boots to visit the barn, to feed him and tend his feet and play soccer with him, to hop on and wander around bareback and watch the sunset through his ears. I miss my friend.