I would like to write up something today that I believe each of us, whether equestrians or non-horse oriented, can empathize with, and that would be the pain of enduring a loss. Saying "goodbye" is never a straightforward task regardless if the adieu was planned or unexpected. From a developmental age, my mother always reminded me that the right thing to do is often the hardest thing to do. I find this particularly relevant in recent events within my own household. If you can set aside your pride and ego to gain enough mental clarity in order to make necessary judgement calls that put our horse's quality of life above anything else - that is what builds a true horseman, or horsewoman.
It's June. Texas gave us a taste of oppressive, borderline dangerous August heat far earlier than welcomed with high temperatures reaching 105 and a "feels like" comparative to 117 Fahrenheit. Come early spring, my family, Barrett and myself already carried major hesitations about how Tecate would fare come summer given his preexisting conditions of congestive heart failure combined with navicular disease. Keeping our beloved gelding comfortable during the winter was easier, less taxing on his cardiovascular health. After thorough brainstorming, we created a diligent plan of how we intended on guiding T into the heat that slowly began to sink over the ranch. The universe often has an uncanny way of throwing wrenches into your well-thought intentions, however.
Sometimes, it'll catch you by surprise.
Tecate's overall condition took an alarming turn towards the worst. The heat exasperated his navicular pain and only inflamed arthritis along his withers, spine and hips. Quickly, it became abundantly clear that asking him to withstand another June through September wouldn't ever be in his best interest as a thirty-year-old senior. We as a family are eternally thankful for our longtime and highly trusted veterinarian who graciously dedicated that Friday to offer support on many different levels. With his supreme guidance and reassurance that we made the beneficial decision in Tecate's favor, we laid our little sorrel to rest underneath the shaded canopy of a massive Live Oak Tree adjacent to the paddocks.
For twenty plus years, Tecate became a centerfold member of our world. My step-dad purchased him in the early 1990's from a hunter/jumper lesson barn in San Antonio where he served as a school horse to children of all ages. Want to know something slightly comical? His name at the time was "Butch" - quite brash for such a sensitive, sugar sweet soul. Butch morphed into Tecate and along with the name change came life as a working ranch partner. I first met Tecate when I was six. We'd shake sweet feed in an old Folger's can to call him - and his pasture buddy, Alazan - up to the house for treats and kisses. Upon the sale of said property, we moved Tecate (and Alazan) to a few local boarding facilities in order for them to be closer to home. Here, we dabbled in the introductory walk/trot levels of dressage mostly just for fun... and solely for the fact that he couldn't canter to save his life. That didn't stop us from attending a local schooling show where we mastered Introductory Level Test A and B with two second places and scores in the 50%'s. Can you sense my heavy sarcasm? Ha. His original school-horse sass crept through in a multitude of facets, like when he would try to randomly buck me off or the time he laid down with my mom while in the middle of a trot circle. Tecate always kept us laughing; his personality was larger than life for his small stature. Even well into his senior chapters he occasionally behaved like a stallion, chomping his teeth with pure excitement as he passaged next to me on the walk out to his paddock. Or, squealing and striking out at Leah the first time they met nose to nose after her arrival onto the ranch. Silly guy.
Over the course of the last month or thereabouts, I noticed a shift in Tecate's general expression. Zest for his everyday life that he once wore with dignity began to gradually fizzle, even though he continually called in my direction each morning and evening for meals. The spark inside his eye dimmed. I felt in my heart that his presence was becoming a matter of living versus existing.
An aspect of horsemanship that no one particularly enjoys; making the choice to humanely bid farewell when all you yearn to do is keep them very much alive for your own personal, sometimes selfish reasons. We are human, and that is a normal response to any circumstance that means heartache or change. But, the option that presents itself in the most saddening way can also be the most kind, considerate approach to ensure no further discomfort persists. That doesn't make the loss any lighter. It's burdensome to remove the emotion and think realistically - trust me, I know.
In the same breath, blessed are those who are able to make such a gut wrenching accord on their own time with opportunities to pay necessary respects. I spent the latter part of the week grooming Tecate, vocally expressing my gratitude for all the ways he enriched our lives even though he couldn't reply in what I imagine would be a raspy, aged tone. I am fully aware that this isn't always the scenario for many horse owners, including me and my family at times in our past. On the morning of his passing, I handed the thick, blue lead rope to Barrett, squeezing Tecate's nose against my lips for the final time. I remember softly muttering "no more pain, my friend" into his ear as I pulled away while my eyes welled with tears.
I stepped into Leah's paddock as I knew she would need my support. Leah and Tecate maintained a special relationship, one of security and reassurance. He was her first buddy here on the ranch. They stood side-by-side from across the fence during the afternoon hours as the breeze twirled through their manes. Each would play the annoying sibling card - Leah, squealing and Tecate pinning his ears flat against his poll. Harmless rivalry, of course. He gave her a sense of confidence in companionship. I worried she wouldn't comprehend his immediate absence... I soaked in solace that perhaps all of our herd knew Tecate was ready before we had any ounce of inkling. After all, horses are highly intuitive creatures. I trust they lament loss similarly to humans. Later that afternoon, the happenings of the day had settled and I caught Leah looking aimlessly into the empty paddock next door for a couple of hours. My heart stung... she was grappling with her own version of anguish. Leah needed, and needs, time to heal. However, in order to calm her anxieties, Smoke now calls Tecate's former paddock home. The two are in the early stages of establishing their own friendship - something I am relieved to witness.
I'm a God-fearing woman, and I believe in Heaven. From my perspective, our physical bodies serve as a shell that surround our soul. You may or may not agree, and that is perfectly alright. I speak from my own faith. The horse that laid peacefully underneath the oak tree no longer resembled Tecate, but a mere frame. I allowed my mind to wonder - envisioning his now freed soul popping onto all fours after a vigorous roll, neck tossing both directions before dashing off into a blissful gallop like he had done repeatedly throughout his years. To me, this fragment of imagination delivers a slight sense of relief, per say. Although Tecate's physical being made its departure from the earth plain, I know his spirit remains very much viable. He lives in our hearts, in our horse's hearts, everyday.
Loss can churn various levels of grief. For some, it can mean a square halt that represents an end to an era; a reflection of ones inner self into a pool that subtly reminds you of where you are in this stage of life. For others, loss uncovers the harsh awakening that nothing in this world is for certain. I've learned one common concept over the last month - time is an enigma that will rapidly pass you by if you aren't careful. We as the equestrian community seek comfort in focusing on the "what is next" factor. What horse to buy, what competition to enter, what goal to achieve. We tend to forget that even the most well-arranged blueprint can unravel in the blink of an eye. We tend to take for granted the smallest and often the most pleasurable moments, like hand-grazing on a summer's evening. The things that bring us the greatest joy will most certainly bring us the greatest sorrow. This is an undisputed fact, and a price we pay for opening our hearts to our horses.
Seven years ago, Leah and I formed an unshakeable partnership based upon mutual respect and trust. It seems like just yesterday I was braiding her mane through nervous hands as we prepared for our FEI Prix St. Georges debut. Fast forward four years later to 2019 regional championships where we stamped our final hoof prints down centerline. Now, if only we had nailed that one diagonal of three-tempi changes in our GAIG PSG championship! My joking aside, Leah's semi-retirement hit me like a ton of bricks because it signified the true meaning of age and the accompanying limitations. I struggle with acknowledgement and realization that my heart-horse won't live forever. Losing Tecate led these emotions to light. The day will arrive when Leah will tell me she is ready, much like Tecate and similarly to when we stepped away from competition.
As her human, her advocate, her power of attorney - I'll set my selfishness aside to always put her wellbeing above my own desires.
I have gained clarity over the last three weeks. What is here today can easily vanish tomorrow - guarantees are a fallacy. I can't yet bring myself to remove Tecate's halter from the entrance into the end paddock nor can I erase his boldly written name from the feed board. The energy around the ranch will take a bit to "normalize," albeit a new normal. As Leah continues to gracefully grow older, moments spent in her presence without technology become more valuable. I have wholeheartedly clutched just how insignificant competing is when playing a role in the overall connection between horse and rider. I understand the importance of studying the tiniest of characteristics; the way Leah rips chunks of grass from the soil while Smoke delicately tugs each blade out of the ground, for example. Horses are members of our family, and they deserve our undivided attention before it is too late.
Until we encounter more tough decisions, we will continue to express our thankfulness for all the many areas where our horses have blessed our daily routine. Noses kissed a bit tighter, back scratches administered more frequently, and ample heartfelt pats that communicate praise after a ride. Horses are one of the few parts of life that give us the gift of "the now," the opportunity to be all-consumed by another individual soul. I know I'll be cherishing this sentiment a little closer these days.
I hope you will follow suit.