Ah! The anguish of heart. I still feel the terror of the moment, although now I’m much older. That helpless feeling you feel when you can’t stop a tragedy, and goodbye is forever still pounds in my chest.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was not yet nine years old. It had snowed a couple days before, leaving drifts on the ground. When it snowed, my granddad plowed the road with his tractor. He hadn’t plowed down the road to the West that went into the horse pasture, and no one had driven that way since the snow. Perhaps it’s untouched purity is what drew me in that direction. Being so young, making tracks in the snow was always fun.
Most of what happened that day was a blur. I’m sick to my stomach even remembering. My mom and I had homeschooled all morning and by evening time I was needing to get outside. Kids get cabin fever in a shorter time than adults do, so my mom sent me to call in the horses. She knew they would all be up at the corral-or close to it-already by that time of day, but it was the adventure I was hoping for so I pulled on my snow boots and trekked outside.
I remember sliding on some ice on my way up to the corral. I saw the horses were waiting in the corral for their hay, except for my horse, ‘Pop’. I called him, but he didn’t appear. Laddie, Dan, Lena and the others were all standing there looking at me. But I remember Dan kept jerking his head up, ears in the alert position, listening. At my age I was too young to worry. I just headed out to the west because that road led to the horse pasture, just to see if I could lay eyes on him somewhere out there.
I played my way through the untouched snow and finally looked up. There he was. Pop stood by the cattle guard in kind of a strange position. I could see his breath pumping out into the cold air even at that distance. I called him, but he didn’t move. He just put his head down low.
I ran to him, picking up that something was wrong. As I got closer I saw blood all over the snow and how he was barely upright on two legs. My horse was in bad shape. He was covered in sweat, foaming around the shoulders and up high on his neck, and steam rose up from him a cloud. It was like witnessing his spirit slowly leave him.
I didn’t slow down then. I fell on my horses’ neck and the cry that finally came from my throat was barely audible. My sobs and tears just would not stop. I looked into his soft, round eye and I heard him tell me goodbye. I went from weeping to shock to panicked action. There was wire around him up under his foreleg from the old wire gate that we sometimes strung up across the road. His other shoulder hung dangling, the hoof jammed in between the pipes of the cattle guard. His hind legs were planted in the cattle guard too, but only one could hold weight. The other was broken.
I worked my tiny self so hard trying to free him from the wire and finally removed some of it. But I couldn’t do any more and I needed help. I sat down on the snow in front of my horse. My beautiful buckskin horse-of-my-dreams, the one that had given me wings. He nuzzled me, he put his nose into my lap and let me hug his head…my forehead on his. I was too young to have any words. What passed between us then was only in our spirits. He was a gift from God and I knew it. If I went for help my mom and my granddad weren’t going to let me come back. This was goodbye. The only words I managed to utter were, “I can’t save you Poppie. I love you.” I sat with him until my heart broke, because it was cruel to let him live like that another minute.
Many know this kind of pain. It’s not unique to me. But it’s hard to lose a horse. They give us so much of themselves and when their time is up, we are shocked by mortality and how terrifyingly final death is. The thought of never riding them again is a loss I can’t explain. But I know it. I know it well.
The horses had run in that evening and because the snow had drifted over that cattle guard, Pop never saw it and fell right into a death trap. Dan was Pop’s full brother; they were both buckskin colored and both good ranch horses. He had tried to tell me something was wrong that day. In the years since, I have learned to watch my horses more carefully.
A cattle-guard is placed in a road where a gate once was, and it allows you to drive through the pastures without having to stop and open a gate. Cattle rarely get hung up in one, but I’ve known three horses that have died in them, all because of snow. We put up cross-ropes with orange tape or flags tied on them in the winter now.
Growing up on a ranch comes with some hard lessons. The day Pop died, I learned that life is precious. It’s not time that we should value so much as life, and we should never take our gifts from God for granted. Already I had learned about death, but that day, I learned about loss. Some goodbyes are forever. I think learning this when so young has shaped me a great deal in life since.
I also learned something important about mercy. It’s very hard to explain, but the moment I knew he couldn’t be saved, I was struck with the thought that if I loved him, it would be selfish to make him suffer more.
If that had not happened when it did, I would not have loved my horses as deeply throughout my life as I have. I might have treated them all with casual indifference, and considered their years of service to be of little consequence, valuing them only by what pleasure they gave me. Saying goodbye to my horse was a hard lesson, but God used Pop to teach me some wisdom about life. He does work in mysterious ways.