Zoe hugs her mother, her face red, eyes swollen with tears. My friend Andrea and I stand with them, our faces red, as the hot afternoon breeze shimmers the aspens around us.
“It’s time, honey. It’s the right thing to do.”
“I know,” Zoe sniffles. She’s barely a teenager. We had just come back from an hour-long ride. Lady, her horse, had largely been very well-behaved.
It’s hot, close to 100 degrees. Toby, the 21-year-old Thoroughbred, stands on three legs in the paddock. We can see him from where we stand.
This beautiful bay, who has been at Andrea’s stable for three years, has been fighting a leg problem. It won’t go away. His leg swells to his hips, the hoof separates from this leg. He is in constant pain.
Andrea has fought to save him. Invested tons of money. Because sweet Toby is such a great, well-mannered, angelic horse.
Zoe’s first horse and her first love. It’s hard for all of us, for we all love him.
Many of us rode him. Including me. He has beautiful movement.
When he can move.
I was just back in the paddock in the baking sun. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I watched Toby limp towards me expectantly, knowing I had biscuits. Knowing I would rub him in just the places he loved.
He placed his great head into my chest and waited. I scrubbed his ears and kissed his forelock. Tears dripped onto him.
As he walked forward a step, his head swung around and he nipped at his swollen back leg. Hurts. All the time.
Andrea told me what it was but I don’t remember. My brain works that way sometimes (or rather doesn’t work, but then, this part of horse care is not in my purview).
All the time.
We humans can’t fix it.
Time to die.
There is a point of diminishing returns where an owner, no matter how much s/he loves an animal, has to acknowledge that the fur baby has got something so serious, so untreatable, which is causing their pet so much pain, the only decent and responsible thing to do is put them down.
In two hours, that’s what’s going to happen to Toby. Andrea has asked multiple vets, vets who would make a mint out of additional heroic efforts.
I had just ridden Red, Andrea’s new Saddlebred, one hell of a handful, and hard to catch. That is, until he saw Toby walk up to me and ask for love. After that he let me halter him. He was a challenge. Toby is his best bud. Horses are a lot smarter than people think. Red knew that if Toby loved me like that, he was probably in good hands.
A fidgety and largely untrained horse, Red had immediately bonded with Toby. He was supposed to replace him, in fact, but has turned out to be a little more than most riders can handle. That’s my kind of horse, and that’s what I do for Andrea. Calm down difficult horses, love on them, soothe them. Give them reasons to trust human hands again.
The entire ride, Red was anxious, nervous, and demanded to go back. Insisted. However, he obeyed, but clearly he wanted to be back with Toby.
Look, you can make any argument you like, but Red knows his buddy is in trouble. The second I took off his halter he cantered to touch noses with Toby, then stand next to him in the baking sun.
He knows, too.
Andrea said, and she’s right, that Red is going to be forlorn for a long time after Toby goes down today.
I’ll be riding Red. I will do my level best to love him to pieces. He’s not used to that. Apparently Toby, who is as sweet as they come, gave him a safe place.
I’ll do that too. Toby gave a lot of beginners a safe place, and a lot of us equestrians a good solid ride.
But Andrea is doing the right thing. Loving this horse enough to give him safe passage, relief from constant pain, and the respect he deserves for his hard work for us.
Time to die. For us, time to cry.
Goodbye, beautiful boy.