The dreams horses are made of

Pye 14I started dreaming when I was about 5. Over the years, as that dream began to take form, it had big gentle brown eyes and a soft velvety muzzle that would nudge me for carrots and hugs. It had the spirit and courage to jump any wall, the talent to win blue ribbons, the gentleness to take care of its rider, and the patience to listen to a girl’s confidences. It would be my best friend through thick and thin, in a world where other kids were fickle and cruel and books didn’t respond to me or lean into my brushes and embraces. It would be my partner in adventures, the best of Starlight, Black Beauty, Misty, Artax, and every other fictional horse rolled up in one. It was a dream for which I begged and pleaded, worked and saved, and nurtured for 11 years before it became reality and I held it in my hands.

Last Tuesday, that dream started its usual trek up from the pasture for his dinner. But this time, he never made it. Somewhere along the corridor between the pasture gate and the stall, he laid down and his soul left his body.

The next morning, I woke up to learn that for the first time in 14 years, I no longer owned a horse. The dream I’d nourished for 25 years had died.

I was your stereotypical horse-crazy girl. It started one Christmas, with a stuffed version of Rainbow Brite’s Starlight – a gorgeous smart-alecky talking best friend of a horse that became my sleeping companion and confidante. Subsequent Christmases brought My Little Ponies, Breyers and a Playmobil stable with horses, ponies, tiny curry combs and little jump rails and standards. The horses shared shelf space with books such as Misty of Chincoteague, The Black Stallion, A Horse Called Wonder, For Love of a Horse, The White Pony, and The Saddle ClubAll of these books were about kids my age getting that magical first horse of their own, and I wondered when my turn would come.

I begged and pleaded for riding lessons until my parents took me to the local therapeutic riding school. I met my first mount, Poners, when I was 8. He was a stolid, shaggy, old  pony who stood patiently when, halfway through a lesson, the girth I’d forgotten to tighten gave way, the saddle slipped, and I ended up clinging to his belly, staring up at his chin. Eventually, after I’d ridden all of the school’s horses,  the director broke the news: I’d have to move on. Their school was for hippotherapy, not instruction, and deafness was not a disability that required specialized horseback therapy. And the old school horses couldn’t take being kicked around the arena at breakneck speed, and they most certainly did not jump three feet.

I moved on to a barn near our house and became the stereotypical riding school student – a young girl who went stall to stall distributing carrots, plastered posters of horses around her bedroom, and hung out in the tack store above the office running her hands over shiny bits and soft pads and breathing in the new-leather smell of saddles and bridles. I enlarged my herd of Breyers to ridiculous proportions, pored over my horse encyclopedia, and made a short list of what breeds would make best first horses and a much longer list of all the (very expensive) equipment I’d need.

At that point, I would have done anything for a horse. One summer, I went too far. At a fundraiser, I tried to fix a raffle in which the grand prize was a free lease for a year. All I won was a sound scolding for myself and my best friend, who I’d roped into my little scheme, and a lengthy grounding that taught me a valuable lesson. Anything worth having is worth working for … not cheating.

However, things would get worse before they got better. Growing up deaf in public schools was not easy. In the lower grades, I had a lot of friends. I was in with the cool girls. But the older we got, the more obvious it became that I was different, and the meaner and more exclusionary the other kids became. Saturdays at the barn became my sanctuary. During the long weeks in between, I found and escaped into Anne McCaffrey’s world of Pern, in which riders are mentally and emotionally bonded to telepathic dragons. When creating Pern, McCaffrey, who owned and ran a hunter/jumper stable, deliberately modeled the dragons after horses and their relationships with their owners. Experiencing those bonds through the Pern books intensified my craving for the real thing, and horses were the closest thing Earth offered to Pernese dragons.

When I started high school, professionals thought exposure to other deaf kids would fulfill my unmet social needs, and the idea sounded like a lifeline to me. I started playing after-school sports at the nearby state school for the deaf, but after a year I was dissatisfied. I could ride a horse better than I could set and pass or dribble and shoot. The school’s demographics were also worlds away from my own school’s, and I had zero street smarts or savvy to cope with the bad influences. My parents were worried, and our relationship hit rock bottom with the constant arguing and tension. I resumed pleading for a horse, but my parents knew team sports and horse ownership both required daily involvement – it’d be impossible to do both. So they gave me a choice: The only way they would buy me a horse was if I quit these after-school sports and proved my commitment to riding.

That was a no brainer. I walked away three weeks into my sophomore basketball season. Shortly afterward, my parents leased a school horse as a trial run.

Ernie was a lovable hot mess of an off-track Thoroughbred. I’d been working with him in  lessons for about a year, which consisted of him careening around the arena as if it were a racetrack and bucking me off after almost every jump. I was lucky if I hit the dirt instead of the wall or a gate, and I quickly learned the correct way to fall. Being a school horse was not for Ernie – cooped up in his stall, his mind was slowly disintegrating – and I was not skilled enough to rehabilitate him, no matter how much I stubbornly tried. After I crashed into a gate a little too hard, we parted ways with finality. My next lease, Fred, was a bumbling clunker of a quarter horse that tripped over jumps and his own feet. It didn’t last long.

In the meantime, I scoured the newspaper ads and barn bulletin boards for horses for sale. Mom obligingly shuttled me to barn after barn to try out this sleek third-level dressage Thoroughbred or that handsome bay warmblood hunter/jumper. I even tried a peach-colored half-Thoroughbred, half-Percheron that could set off a seismograph and had a barrel so stout I could barely wrap my legs around it. None of them suited. Too sensitive, too marish, too advanced, too hot, too green, too big, too expensive.

The months rolled by and school let out and I still had not found my horse.

Finally, one June Sunday, I saw an ad for a 15.3-hand chestnut Appendix Quarter horse that could jump and do dressage and had show mileage. Appendix Quarter wasn’t on my list of desirable breeds, and 15.3 sounded awfully short, but at that point I’d try anything.

When we walked into the barn, the first thing I saw was a white stripe running down a coppery face, ending in a pink snip on a velvety gray muzzle that poked curiously through the bars of the stall. Pye’s owner brought him out, cross-tied him, and groomed and tacked and talked as her young son ran under his belly and tail and around his legs. I extended my hand for him to smell, and he licked it and looked at me with his big, gentle brown eyes. My heart lurched. I hadn’t even gotten on him, and I was sold.

The ride was a formality. We fit. Sure, there were rough patches we’d have to work on and train at. He wasn’t easy to ride, but we just clicked. Mom and I went home “to think about it,” and I couldn’t get Pye out of my brain. Finally, one phone call, a trial period and a sale contract later, he was mine. After more than a decade of begging and pleading and scheming and waiting, I had my own horse, and he was perfect.

Pye 1Pye quickly became my best friend, confidante, and anchor in what would be two very difficult final years of high school. I was carrying a heavy academic load that meant days among people I could not hear and with whom I struggled to communicate – I often didn’t even try – and hours of studying in the evenings. The oasis in between: the barn and Pye.

As I groomed and tacked up Pye, I would talk to him in my head, much like the dragonriders of Pern did with their dragons. And he talked back. He became the personification of my inner voice, calming my frustrations, talking things through, offering suggestions, encouraging me to think twice before acting. Growing up, patience was not a concept I knew or understood, and my default mode when frustrated was to fly off the handle. But with Pye’s gentle soul guiding me and our rides teaching me that tensing up to the point I blew a gasket would get me nothing but a shut-down horse, I learned patience, control and give and take.

Pye 5We also played games like peek-a-boo and tag, chasing each other around the paddock, to blow off steam built up by the hard work we were putting into our dressage training. We were becoming strong competitors on the local junior circuit, notching high points, division championships and a bronze medal.

College interfered, though, and I left Pye behind when I went East to Gallaudet University, hoping for a place where I would no longer be different and communication struggles would not exist. My last visit with Pye, I clung to his neck and held back the tears and told him I would miss him, even as I looked forward to the freedom of college. Three weeks later, a plane smashed into the Pentagon just miles away from my dormitory and shattered my world, and I didn’t have my anchor. On top of the post-traumatic stress, I was also developing an undiagnosed illness. I became sicker and sicker, and several hospitalizations later, I was back in Kansas, where I knew the center of my health would be, in a pair of deep brown eyes and a soft muzzle that searched for my hand, either for carrots or the salt on it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe trained but didn’t go back to showing. As I gritted my teeth and struggled through college at KU, Pye was my escape, but I didn’t see him often enough. I was too sick. One day, I nearly died. After three days in the ICU, I finally received a diagnosis: a lifelong chronic condition that would require full commitment to treatment. No slacking. The first thing I did when I got out was to visit Pye and bury my face in his neck. The skills and discipline he taught me would be central to my recovery. I began to lean on Pye even more as a stabilizing force in a life I struggled to understand and control. As I worked on getting better, Pye and I started going on trail rides through the woods outside Lawrence. I ditched the saddle that separated us, and we became closer on a whole other level – a level where we stopped worrying about proper head position and bending and smooth transitions. We could amble through the greenery, spooking deer, and gallop bareback across meadows.

Pye 10After I graduated from KU and moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to work for the town’s newspaper, I decided to bring Pye with me. We were blessed in the form of a local rancher who offered to board Pye in lieu of my working with her horses. After the snows melted that first winter, he arrived and we had a blissful few months of trail riding through the foothills of the Rockies, splashing in the Yampa River that ran alongside the Delaney Ranch, and jumping logs and ever-higher fences. But then a series of accidents began that would force Pye into retirement. He had trouble integrating into the ranch’s herd and an ill-placed kick fractured his femur. Because he was 22 years old, I decided against surgery to pin the bone; instead, I put him on stall rest for six months to heal naturally. It was a devastating accident, but I was grateful it wasn’t worse and I didn’t have to put him down.

After the X-rays showed near-perfect healing – he’d never jump again, though – I had left Steamboat for a summer break in Kansas en route to D.C. for graduate school. I arranged to ship Pye back to Kansas, hopeful for a few months of riding and possibly bringing him with me to D.C. I would find a way to pay for the insanely expensive board, somehow.

It was not to be, as Pye again had trouble integrating into a new herd. The evening after he arrived, I received a text. He had ripped open an artery in his leg, and the veterinarian was on his way, and would I please come too. I shoved my sushi dinner at my friends, threw money onto the table and ran out the restaurant door.

Fortunately, someone had been there when the accident happened and rushed to apply pressure in the form of six polo wraps that quickly became soaked with blood. When the veterinarian arrived, he slowly unwrapped each layer, and as he peeled back the final wrap, blood spurted across the aisle with each heartbeat. As Pye danced in pain, the veterinarian looked at me. He could not clamp or stitch a constantly moving leg. I would have to decide whether to take the risk of putting Pye under anesthesia right there and then. I made the call. We moved outside onto grass, the veterinarian gave the shot, and Pye dropped to the ground. The sun had set and as the veterinarian worked under several sets of car headlights, my heart was in my throat and tears in my eyes. The vet stitched Pye’s leg back together, and we waited for him to wake up and stagger back to his feet.

His recovery took the entire summer. He had lost so much blood, we had to pour bottle after bottle of blood builders into him and scrub his leg with iodine almost daily and go through roll after roll of bandaging and vetrap. I was only able to ride him twice before I left for D.C., and I knew he could not follow.

Pye 15In graduate school, without my anchor, I struggled again. I leased a horse and took riding lessons, but it wasn’t the same. Visits home kept me glued enough to make it through to graduation, and I moved back to Kansas, only to face more problems with Pye. Whether it was old age or soreness from all his injuries, Pye no longer wanted to work. When he saw me enter the pasture, halter in hand, he flew in the opposite direction. When I put the halter down, he returned, nuzzling for treats. But the moment I picked it up, he was off again. If I caught him, he turned in beautifully balanced rides, but it was obvious he didn’t enjoy it anymore. I did some soul-searching and agonized, but I knew the decision I had to make. It was time to fully retire Pye. He was asking me for that, and I needed to listen.

The decision became easier when we received another blessing in the form of Nan Funkhouser and her spirited, sensitive, capricious Trakehner, Pala. I needed a new partner, and Pala needed someone to love and understand him. We didn’t click as quickly as I did with Pye, but we eventually meshed, developed a great rapport, and achieved things I hadn’t been able to do on Pye. Not a week didn’t go by, though, that I didn’t feel torn in half by the thought that, with the horses at different barns, a day with Pala was a day away from Pye. I also struggled with a suppressed longing to have my 14-year-old Pye back to start over and apply all the skills I was learning with Pala. I beat myself up for all the teenage mistakes I’d made and my inexperience that had held back Pye and I from achieving what Pala and I were now doing.

Pala and Pye

Pala and Pye

Finally, I shared a little of my struggle with Nan, and after a terrible, timely accident in which Pye’s buddy was killed by a rattlesnake, leaving him the loner in his herd, I moved him to Nan’s and into the stall next to Pala. I was able to visit and hug and talk with Pye every time I came to train with Pala, and once in a while take him out and ride him bareback around the arena. I think he knew he no longer had to work, because he resumed running up to the door whenever I called. And every time I laid my hands on his forehead or nose or neck, I found equilibrium deep in the core of my being.

As I got married and moved to Denver to join my husband, Pye began deteriorating. He had lost some teeth and could no longer chew hay. Keeping weight on was a struggle. I worried and fretted – I was terrified about the prospect of being forced to euthanize him, and I began to emotionally distance myself, bracing for the inevitable. On my visits home, I talked with Nan about his feed and medical care. Nan had discovered that his feed was soy-based, which meant heavily GMO, and we suspected it was contributing to his weight loss. Nan ordered different feed, and during my last visit, we agreed to begin transitioning him onto it to bulk him up for the winter.

Pye lastTwo days before I left, my parents and I made a family trip out of my last visit to the barn. We brought a new winter blanket for Pye, and plenty of carrots. He came plodding up when I called, and I took him into the arena, let him loose, and we played a slow, hitching game of tag. If the thought ever entered my mind that this might be the last time I saw him, I firmly pushed it aside. He would be fine. I would come back in the spring and see him again. One last carrot, several squeezes, a stroke of his gray muzzle, and I left.

Less than a week later, I woke up to a text from my mother. Pye had held out just long enough to see me one last time and then died. He ate his afternoon meal with gusto and rested in the pasture all evening, and on his way back for dinner, he dropped in his tracks. It was sudden and painless and natural.

I had half-known all along it was coming, but that didn’t lessen the blow. It was a multi-layered loss. I’d lost that magical first horse I dreamed of and waited for, my best friend and confidante, my athletic partner, my anchor through the hardest decade of my life, that rail of stability I reached out to grasp when I stumbled, the being I trusted the most – through the 14 years of riding him, he had never thrown me. I’d fallen or been bucked off countless horses, but never Pye, and that, to me, was the perfect symbol of our bond. But now he was gone.

I sobbed into my husband’s arms and struggled through a fog for several days. I woke up and went to work and went through the motions of functioning, but the boxes we’d just moved into our new home went unpacked and, when Seth and I talked, there were moments where I would drift away, my chest and throat tightened, and I reeled as if I’d lost an axis.

At every other difficult moment in my life, when I wasn’t able to go to the barn and talk to Pye, I would pull a Pern book off my shelf and sink into the comfort of a world where riders and their dragons were only a thought apart. But, this time, the Pern books did not help. I left them taped up in their boxes, shoved away in a closet under other boxes. I did not want to read about the special bond between a dragonman and his dragon that I’d played out with Pye. In these books, McCaffrey writes, a man who has lost his dragon is half a man, his soul torn in half, empty. I felt I understood that, on a more superficial level.

It gets better day by day, but at random, the tightness still comes, and the spurts of fear about facing a future without my go-to stabilizer that helped hold me together since I was 16. I allow myself to flow through the grief process. I miss him, and I struggle with guilt that I didn’t spend enough time with him over the years, and with irrational, grief-driven anger towards manufacturers of GMO-laden horse feed. But I pull myself up before it goes too far.

There will be other horses, but none will ever replace Pye and what he did and was for me. I posted on my Facebook, “There are periods of laughter and forgetting, and there are moments where I have to remind myself to breathe, and how. In between, it’s putting one foot in front of the other.”

Pye taught me that, and I will honor his memory by walking on.



6 thoughts on “The dreams horses are made of

  1. Thank you for sharing. I posted about my first horse, Star a couple weeks ago and the grief is still so very raw. I wasn’t as eloquent as you, but I think horses give riders and owners a sense of equality that can’t be found elsewhere.

  2. Well said, the unique love that a young person has for an animal that steered her on a steady course during growing up. There will never be another Pye, nor another horse that can fulfill a similar role again for you because you have grown. There will be other Muses, other bulwarks, other leaders in your life, though, all different.

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