This week was one of those weeks where we take a moment to reflect on our involvement with horses and maybe do the oldest and darkest of mathematical calculations--is the joy we experience in owning them worth the pain we feel when they leave?
You see, here at the Phoenix Farm we unexpectedly said goodbye to our most special schoolmaster, the irreplaceable professor, Schultz.
Schultz was an enormous Hanoverian, standing 17.3 hands, and Heather first met him as a 4-year-old, fresh off the plane from Germany. She would come to learn he was actually half-Hessian, and later research would suggest that his exemplary temperament came from that side of the family tree. The first time Heather rode him, she remembers thinking, “THIS is what a top-class horse feels like.” She’d ridden a lot of nice horses in her life, but she’d never felt a canter like his. Or a jump. She wondered if she'd ever be able to afford a horse as nice as he was (as he was for sale for high five figures).
He eventually evented through preliminary level and did the 1.40 jumpers, both with his amateur owners and the pro that I worked for. Heather loved him unabashedly, and she always looked forward to riding him.
Time moved forward, and we moved across the country. Last she'd heard he was for sale again but had been injured in a fall on cross-country.
About six months after we moved to California, the owners contacted Heather out of the blue. They had decided to make a loss-of-use claim on their insurance because of his injury, and they wanted to know if she possibly wanted him. The loss-of-use claim meant that they couldn’t keep him, and they remembered how much she loved him.
They didn't know how sound he was ever going to be, but Heather thought that, with his temperament, even if he was never more than serviceably sound, he could still be serviceable.
He arrived on a commercial van in the middle of a late-November night in 2006, and I, who had only ever seen him from a distance once or twice, met the van in the dark of the night. Schultz was in the raised box stall at the front of the van, and as I looked up at him from the door, he looked like the biggest horse I’d ever seen. When I came beck into the house I had to ask Heather if she knew we’d just had a giant delivered to us. She assured me that she did.
He never came sound enough to be more than a school horse, and we could never jump him (although he did occasionally get to do courses of poles or a cavaletti or two, and he would just light up with joy).
But Schultz was the most wonderful schoolmaster who ever lived. Conservatively, he was the first horse well more than 30 people ever rode or rode after a frightening experience on another horse, from children 5 or 6 years old to a 6’6” man. He tolerated their lack of balance and their nervousness with gentility and kindness. Heather could give a longe-line lesson on him with no longe line. For a more experienced rider he could be as light as a feather on the aids.
But sometimes, when Heather was encouraging a new rider to try cantering and he'd refused to budge from the trot, he'd shoot her the most hilarious look that always said, "They aren't ready yet, so I'm not doing it." As soon as they were truly ready in their hearts as well as their minds, he'd lope off gently. He never lost that exquisite canter, and he even taught a few of our more experienced rider how to do flying changes.
We were wondering if it was nearly time to give this old warrior a long and happy rest.
It wasn't to be—and maybe Schultz wouldn’t have been happy as a pensioner, just standing around and watching everyone else work. Maybe he was too German to contemplate not doing his job and paying his way. Maybe I’m being too anthropomorphic, but he was so generous that maybe he wouldn’t have been happy with nothing to do.
Mercifully, the end came relatively quickly. When we returned home last Monday evening, from the year’s biggest competition, Schultz was severely lame on his right front leg. While all signs pointed to heel abscess, the intensity of his pain caused Heather to call our veterinarian out Tuesday morning. He also thought heel abscess, so we continued to poultice his foot, and our vet prescribed antibiotics and pain medication.
But he didn't improve over the next 36 hours. His leg began to swell, and he became non-weight bearing. Our vet returned twice more, and we checked him several times on Wednesday night. At last check, he seemed reasonably comfortable, and we were praying for the abscess to pop before he developed founder from not standing on the right hoof. But by mid-morning on Thursday his vital signs were failing, and he was clearly suffering. Our vet rushed out, and we let him go.
The best guess is septicemia, probably caused by a hoof abscess that took a bizarre path. Our vet said he'd only seen one other similar case in 35 years of practice.
We’re so sad. He was Heather’s friend and co-instructor. He was basically our business partner. Heather took him knowing we'd be his last owner. But she thought we'd have a lot more time with him.
We still can't believe he's gone. What's mollified Heather’s pain is the enormous number of people who reached out to her--students who rode him and remembered him with love. Knowing how many lives he touched has made this bearable.
The bare truth is this: We will always outlive the horses we love.
But it still hurts like hell when they go. Whether it’s after 30 years or 30 days, we’re never ready for them to go on without us, to that unknowable other side. But the only other option—never having them in our lives—is an even worse thing to imagine that the pain when they leave. So we grieve. And we cry. But we carry on, as we must. And we decide that we’d rather mourn them than never know them at all.
They’ve got a good one on the other side now. We just hope they appreciate him as much as we did.