Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A bittersweet change

This past weekend was the emotional, somewhat traumatic and bittersweet end of a 12-year long journey for me. Charming and I traveled back down to Austin where we lived for 2 years to move my horse Windsor to his new retirement home.

In December 2000, I was a know-it-all 16 year old, going to school, working part-time for minimum wage at a music store, and riding every spare minute I could get. I leased a couple different horses for brief periods, and constantly begged for a horse, just as every horse-crazy girl should, but essentially knew that with recently-divorced parents, it wasn’t likely to happen.

One day, my riding instructor received a call from a friend about a horse at a boarding school riding stable who was lame, underweight, and desperately needed to be gotten out of that situation.

My instructor asked me to go look at the horse with her, as a potential lesson horse prospect. I spoke to my instructor’s friend, and found out the horse was a gray Hanoverian. So I grabbed my huge coffee table book of horse breeds, cranked up the dial-up, and poured over information on the breed. By the time we made it out to the farm, I’d built up this vision in my head of a huge, powerful dappled gray steed; in my mind’s eye I saw him standing silhouetted against the sunset (at 11am), noble and proud, with sleek muscles and cascading mane and tail.

The reality was a little different.

He was tall, certainly, at 17hh, but he looked perpetually ready to tip over onto his nose, from the weight of his head, which was far too big for his skinny body. His mane was scraggly, with the occasional dreadlock, and he had a knob on his chest the size of a door handle. He flicked an ear at us as we approached, but never lifted his head above shoulder height – as if it were too heavy to carry it that far off the ground.

My instructor sighed and spun her wheelchair back around toward her friend; “I think he’s a little big for my students.” She was ready to dismiss him out of hand, but something in those wide-set brown eyes stopped me. I asked if I could still try him out.

They saddled him for me and put him on a lunge line, so I could watch him trot and canter. My instructor watched dubiously, arms folded, before finally finding something she could compliment. “At least he has pretty good balance.”

He was off on both front feet, but I got on and trotted a few circles, then cantered half a circle at my instructor’s friend’s insistence. The ride was underwhelming at best, with his short, off-kilter stride and the heaviness with which he leaned all his weight into my hands. I dismounted, disappointed.

They asked me to walk him down the aisle to cool him out; as they handed me the lead rope, he very quietly leaned in and with large, velveteen lips, took the rope from my hand. He stood watching me with sad, kind eyes, his rope dangling from his mouth as if he knew no one could ever possibly want him. And my heart broke in that instant.

Before I knew it, I was at home, carefully broaching the subject with my mom: “So I got an A on my English test today and I bought a horse and I think I’m going to be an editor for the school paper next year!” Fortunately she came around, and that dollar I paid to make it a legal transaction turned out to be the best investment I’ve ever made. It bought me my best friend, my partner, my confidant, and the absolute love of my life.

From the moment he saved my life in early 2001, Windsor and I have had an indescribable bond; a connection unlike anything I’ve ever had with any other creature, animal or human. He would spot my car coming down the driveway and meet me at the fence, ears forward as if he couldn’t believe it had taken me that long to get there. He follows me around the field, his broad face bobbing along at my back, stopping on my heels when I stop, and thrusting his nose over my shoulder to make sure I haven’t forgotten about his presence. In quiet moments, he’ll press his face against the length of my torso, dozing quietly while I lean on his forehead and stroke the velvet and whiskers beneath his chin.

We competed together for years, winning first place in all but three hunter classes we ever competed in, and taking reserve champion at the 2001 USDF Region 1 Junior/Young Rider Team Championships. I spent one summer rising every morning before the sun to make it to a job at a summer camp so I could save enough money to trailer him down to Nashville with me. Then 4 years later, I stuck him on another trailer and moved him down to Austin. I’ve suffered through depression and an eating disorder – something I’ve kept hidden from most of my friends and family to this point – but every time, his unconditional love and quiet acceptance pulled me through.

So I vowed to care for him for the rest of his life. It’s the very least he deserves. When Charming and I moved to DC in 2010, I made the heartbreaking decision to leave Windsor in Austin, because at his age, the trip might have killed him. As a side note, I don’t know Windsor’s exact age – they told me when I bought him that he was around 12-15 years old (which would make him 24-27 or so now) – but the last vet to float his teeth about 2 years ago estimated him to be closer to 30 at that time. So really he could be anywhere from 25-33 at this point.

Though it was a financial hardship, I was content to continue spending about $450 a month for full board because he was at a great stable where I knew he was well cared for. Unfortunately, everything changed last October when we learned that the stable owners were selling the property and moving out of state. The barn became a co-op, meaning costs when up, and services went down. There was no longer anyone monitoring the horses full-time. So I began making other arrangements, and through my farrier found a lovely couple about 45 minutes away with a 30-acre farm and two donkeys who would be happy to take him and let him live out the rest of his life in quiet country peace.

We waited through the holidays (and in the ensuing months, he has had some amazing people at the old barn who loved and cared for him as their own), but this past Sunday, we finally made the move.

He has never trailered well – he stands with his feet planted together and tips whenever you go around a corner or brake – but after a rough start that sent my heart right up into my throat, he made the 40-mile journey like a champ, and we went back Monday to check up on him again. The two mini donkeys are rather nervous of him, and their relationship seems to be rather Pepe Le Pew right now – when we arrived Monday, he was following them around the field determinedly “Come to me, my little objects of art! I am going to collect you!” But I think they’ll eventually come around.

Odessa (left) keeps watch on the Great White Monster, while Pearl grazes. 

I feel a sense of relief now on one level, knowing that he has two humans devoted full-time to his care and well-being, but also a gnawing sense of uncertainty, because I can’t predict how the stress of this move will ultimately impact him. And I feel like in selling him to these [absolutely wonderful] people (which was a decision we made because of the inevitable circumstance when end-of-life decisions will have to be made for him), I’ve broken my promise to him and shirked my responsibility to care for him in his old age.

More than anything in the world, I want him to be happy and well cared for, but it’s so hard to know if I’ve made the right decision for him. I took him away from his horsey friend Brew, from Brew’s owner who doted on him, from a little 10-year-old girl who was grooming him and (lightly) riding him and who was devastated to see him go, and from the comfortable home he’s known for the past 4 ½ years. At 30-some years of age, I put him through the pain and stress of a trailer ride and dumped him off at a strange property, with new people and two donkeys who won’t get within 15 feet of him. And then I left him again. What if he gets depressed and dies? I will have killed my soul mate. 

Officially, I'm no longer a horse owner, something that has been a huge part of me for the past 12+ years. Though nothing has really changed in that I can still visit anytime I'm in Texas, the difference is a visceral ache in my chest, and a small tear in my soul that will never quite heal. I love you, Windsor, from now until forever. 


  1. What a lovely and caring story about a true friend. Wonderful tribute to your time together.

    And don't you see? You haven't broken your promise. You promised to care for him until he dies, and that is exactly what you are doing. By arranging for him a new home with fields and full time care, you are caring for him in the best way you are able. Nobody could ask for more. Especially not Windsor. So give yourself some credit. You did good, girl.

    1. Thanks Misty- those were exactly the right words... Now I just have to make myself accept them.