What Do You Do With a Dead Horse?

Many people say that one of the most important things you can learn from death is to think more about the living. After suffering several losses in my family in a very short period of time, here’s what I learned. I now tend to focus in on the idea of the living…dying. If my mom doesn’t call for a couple of days, she’s probably dead. If my friend is supposed to meet me and is a little late, I’ve likely planned a eulogy in my head. I’m getting used to it, as much as one can, but there’s one scenario that I just can’t seem to get a grip on. As soon as I hear Linda’s gravelly voice on the phone, my heart beats into my throat and feels like it might escape out onto the carpet. My horse is 22, which isn’t ancient, but the fact of the matter is, everything dies and horses are fragile. In general they live to about 35, but there’s always the risk of colic or a broken leg or a trailer accident or….

Maybe this whole issue is putting the cart before the horse, but I can plan a eulogy for my friend and a funeral for my mom. What the hell am I ever going to do with a one-and-a-half-ton dead horse?

Something happened to me recently that really got me thinking about it.

Linda, a friend from the barn, put her horse down last week. We had all watched Chaco slowly deteriorate, wincing in pain as he stepped. It was pretty clear that he would never be ridden again; his arthritis had finally caught up with his lousy conformation. His lanky dark brown body was crouched up like a cat, in sharp contrast to the happy pictures hanging on the tack room wall -- Linda and Chaco going on trail rides, Chaco with his first blue ribbon, Chaco going over a jump. The barn is usually a bustle of events, between the 5 dogs, 15 horses, and unknown number of inbred, mutated and deliriously friendly cats that you‘re always tripping over because they are too stupid to get out of your way, but on that day things were a little eerie. I saw Chaco’s winter blanket on the rack, awaiting a new owner, and that put me in the mood to get the heck out of there. My horse, Lavish, and I plodded slowly out the driveway and I started to breathe a little easier. We rounded the arena and started towards one of the back trails, her reliable hooves crunching softly in the snow, until I saw it. The whitened world was stained with dark red splotches of blood. It was everywhere; we had just walked right into the sacrificial grounds where they shot him. I began to dry heave, tears blurring the sanguine snow bank in front of us.

I watched it all happen in my imagination. They were strangers, the men who came to take him away, wearing blue uniforms from the meat factory, uniforms already stained like the snow with a hard morning’s work. Chaco was confused and so were the other horses; they lined up along the fence watching his blanket being stripped off to the cold winter day and his shivering body, still hunched up like a cat’s, disappear slowly with his stilted gait. I’m sure he followed them willingly, hoping there would be a treat if he was a good boy. Did they stroke his nose and tell him everything was going to be okay before they inserted a cold, foreign rifle into his ear and blew his brains all over the ground? Did the other horses run in fear when the heard the noise? Did they understand that it was for the best? Was it? I wish I could go back in time. Hold your horses, I’d say. Put his blanket back on and let him die the way nature intended, or at the very least allow him warmth and peace, to say goodbye to the world munching carrots and gazing onto the world he had always known and the people who loved him.

Horses make good best friends because they don't pass judgments. They'll still hang out with you if you didn't brush your hair that morning. In fact, smelling like barn is a plus. They are always happy to see you, especially if your pockets are bulging with treats. Tell them all about your life and they'll nod and agree. They don't even charge you for these little counseling sessions. In order to give a horse a happy life, supply them with hay, water, grain, exercise, shoes, and love.

I saved up for Lavish by slaving away at my father’s restaurant, only to “relax” by waking up early the next morning to carry water buckets and shovel manure. I disobeyed my mother and brought her to college anyway, still a point of contention many years later. Mom loaned me some money and apparently felt that I was looking a gift horse in the mouth, but it was never a decision I regretted.

I have long been watching my mare grow old, her barrel filling out with hay and long whiskers growing from under her chin, her eyes becoming tired but always bright and loving. She was watching me grow up all the while. We met in my adolescent years, when I had my own long blonde ponytail and I talked to horses more than people, though I think maybe I still do that. She remembers when she used to race, and then how I used to race her down the back roads on summer evenings whenever I felt the need for a slightly more grown-up tantrum. Her slender thoroughbred legs showed their bulging muscles and opened up, faster and faster she pulled at the ground as the wind pulled the leftover tears from my eyes. Even now, thinking about it, I am free; I am flying; I am a weightless feather on a strong gust. My horse is the current that carries me the way it carries a migratory bird, off to someplace warmer and safer.

She tolerated standing still while I taught awkward boys how to brush her. (“No no, that one’s for her feet, not her face. Here, take this one.”). She carried me through the tough years when I was making choices about schools, relationships, and life. She was the first to notice when my body filled out because she had to bear my weight every day after school. (I‘m still apologizing for my senior year of high school, when I discovered beer and laziness, and she got to bear a particularly heavy version of me).

Sometimes, out on the trail, the going got rough. Storms and loggers ravaged through our safe-haven. There were fallen trees we had to jump over, mud to be waded through, and rivers to be crossed. Sometimes we even had to turn around and find another way. But the logs were surmountable, and we become more confident with each one. The mud slowed us down and made us careful, but didn’t stop us. Beyond each river was a whole new world to explore. Sometimes we had to turn around and find another way, but there was always the possibility that it led to a more beautiful place in the end. If not, I could always trust my horse to find the way home.

Ideally, here’s how it would go. She’d be lying beside me, the moonlight casting a warm glow over both of us, an oasis of soft light in the deep summer night. We’d be under a willow tree, beside a stream. We’d spend the evening reminiscing about all of our horsing around together. We’d laugh about all of the times she nearly bucked me off, and how silly I’d been for asking her to gallop around in the snow while I clenched fistfuls of mane, hanging precariously to her bare back. I did a good job with you, she’d say with her eyes. You turned out all right. And I’d look at her glossy coat and kiss her gently on the muzzle, and tell her that I did the best I could, and thank her for teaching me how to be me. Her last breath would be a sigh of contentment, and the angels would float down from heaven and give her wings.

But enough of this happy horse shit. Here’s how it probably will go. She’ll die, I’ll cry, and no one will know who, where, or how to move her. I thought of asking around, though in truth, I consider most of my friends to be authorities on horse care, not horse disposal. I tried anyway, and found the topic to be pretty taboo. “Hey Hilary,” I paused typing and looked up at my roommate. “What are you gonna do when Midas kicks off?”

In response I got a flustered, “Oh gosh, I dunno. I don’t want to think about it!” And, shaking her head in disgust, “Why are you asking me this?”

I let it go at that, and decided if I was going to piss anyone off with this question, it ought not to be someone I have to live with. (I also abandoned the idea of doing a phone survey of everyone in my “equestrians” address book.)

We were having this discussion the other day in class, about a culture in Kenya that reveres their farm animals. By eating the animal, they show it respect and gratefulness and make it a part of their being by ingesting it. So my neurotic mind comes to the conclusion that, if I love and respect her, should my horse not also be honored with such a ceremony? Would it not be wasteful to commit her to the ground when I could nourish myself with her flesh?

But on the other hand, I don’t eat red meat. If worse came to worst and my survival depended on horsemeat as the very last source of nutrition to sustain life, I could probably choke down a few bites (with the same uneasiness I imagine the Donner party felt when they tasted the first tender bites of human flesh). But a horse? Now that’s a whole lot of red meat. In fact, I am so averse to the idea that when I went to Europe for a semester, the first thing I looked up in every language was “horse” and it was not so I could tell people I liked horses. It was so in a restaurant, I would never, ever, find horsemeat on my plate.

I‘ve pretty much decided that if it comes down to it, and my horse is in pain, I‘d have the vet come to “put her to sleep.” I don’t really understand why this is such a controversy in the human medical field, so in one respect this part is less complicated. Sounds nice and peaceful, doesn’t it? The real problem is that, dogs, cats, birds, ferrets, and most other pets fit conveniently into the backyard-style pet cemetery. Even though technically I suppose my backyard is big enough to accommodate a suitable horse-sized grave, what if the ground is still too frozen for digging? It is, of course, winter six months out of the year here in the Northeast. My snow shovel is simply not going to suffice. I’m left in search of some pretty heavy machinery and another pretty bleak picture. How would they pick the horse up? Either some strong people would have to lift by the legs, or the backhoe would have to somehow get underneath her. What sort of noise would the crumpled body make as they dropped it into the grave, as bones broke and skin ruptured and my valiant steed returned to the ground in a pile of fur and flesh?

Since I’m on my way to graduate school who-knows-where, what if we’re too far away to transport her home? Can I really expect people I barely know to let me bury her on their property, just so I won’t have to deal with the picture of her slopped into a furnace with rabid highway road kill or being chopped up, thrown in a blender, and pureed for cheap dog food? I guess maybe, since I’m so keen on being prepared, I should be asking these sorts of questions beforehand. I can see how that conversation will go: “Hi, yes. My name is Erika, and I would like to bring my older thoroughbred mare to school with me. I had a few questions regarding your boarding facilities. How much does it cost per month? Do you have trails? Will I have access to an indoor arena? If my horse dies, can I dig a gargantuan hole behind your barn and deposit her lifeless body into it? Oh yeah, and would you mind giving me a hand?”

Well, I’m done beating a dead horse The truth of the matter is, like any other loss in your life, the best thing to do with a dead horse is to lock your memories away in your heart. Me? I intend to plant a willow tree next to the stream in my yard and sit underneath it in the moonlight, dreaming of eternal spirits prancing through the clouds. The tree will watch me grow old, watch my blue eyes fade and my freckled, rosy cheeks harden and wrinkle, and I will watch its arms stretch towards the sun and tiny buds bloom into sweeping, leafy bows. The rest is just details.

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