Four Hours in the Barn

My horse vet and I spent four hours in the barn yesterday. It was time for the annual shots, bloodwork and dentistry to be done. Jen and I have swapped a lot of stories over the years. She has horses that romp around on her property too. I hadn’t seen her in six months, so we had a lot to catch up to do.

While working on Chenoa, a 29 year old Pinto, she answered questions I had about how to keep him comfortable. He has arthritis and Cushings disease. His overall body condition is excellent for an old guy that’s missing a tooth.

Linda and I bought him when he was seven. He was Linda’s first horse. At that time I had a horse named Sparky, a strapping Appaloosa/Quarter Horse cross. Those two took us over a lot of miles of country. We’d trailered them to North Carolina, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Michigan. We rode in the mountains, along rivers, in forests and in  fields laden with wildflowers.

After we finished and Jen left for her next call, I was swept up in memories of Sparky and remembered a piece I’d written about him. I wrote it nearly twenty years after his death. When he crossed over the rainbow bridge, I cried of course, but I think I was also in a state of shock that my big red goof was not in my barn anymore. After writing the following, I was able to grieve and heal. Then I went out and gave the five in my barn each a big hug and wiped my tears on their necks. Somehow I think they understood.

September 28th, 1992. A day I’ll not soon forget. I stand in the house looking
out toward the fields. The gray drizzle only intensified the heavy heart I have
lodged in my throat. My gaze drags unwillingly to the hill at the end of the
property, to the backhoe digging the hole. I turn away. I check the time. 10am.

Yesterday had started early as per usual. I’d walked into the barn, went into the feed room to grab the grain buckets I’d prepared last night. Chenoa had seen the light come on in the barn and was slowly moseying his way up from the pasture. I opened Sparky’s stall door and looked out. He was standing under the big ash tree, still unaware of my presence in
the barn. I called to him. He raised and turned his head in my direction then started to trot up the hill, eager for my attention. Halfway there the unbearable pain in his feet forced him to slow to a walk. But he never stopped nickering to me.

Sparky was seven years old when I bought him from my sister. She’d bought him as a two-year old stallion. She gelded him and then used him on the track for a while to pony Thoroughbreds to the starting gate. When she and her husband were awaiting their first child, my sister had to stop riding. My brother-in-law took over the exercising of the horses. That’s when Sparky began to hate men. After Gary made the horse rear up and fall over backwards on him, breaking four ribs, he threatened to shoot him.

That’s when I bought him. What followed was an intense 9 year relationship. Some people will tell you that only once in a lifetime will you find that special horse that you will connect with so intimately nothing can come between the two of you. Sparky was that horse. Tall at 16 hands, he was red with a flaxen mane and tail. When he arrived at my barn in Pennsylvania, he was nervous, insecure and had absolutely no confidence in himself, or those around him. He trusted no one, not even himself.

A year later he and I were galloping over the mountain trails. He was a proud and confident animal, ready to defend me from anything. I would often laugh at his antics. If accompanied by another horse and rider, Sparky would amp it up, shake his head, grunt and strike out with his front foot. A friend told me once that I was riding a stick of dynamite. I was never afraid of that horse. He never gave me reason to be.

When Sparky was ten years old a vet diagnosed him as having navicular disease, a degenerative disease of a small bone in his foot. With proper care and treatment I was able to keep the pain at bay and any further deterioration from occurring. But like everything, all good things had to come to an end.

The morning he couldn’t run to me like he had for the past so many years, broke my heart. I couldn’t tolerate to see him in such pain. I couldn’t bear to put him down. But I had to. It’s a decision that still makes my heart ache.

2 pm. A truck enters the drive and stops in front of the barn. Another glance at the hill, the backhoe’s job completed, it now sits idle, waiting. Waiting. I walk out to the barn, and nod toNancy my horse’s veterinarian. We enter in silence. Sparky is standing in his stall, unaware of the series of events. He has no idea that he will soon be permanently relieved of his pain. I put a halter on him and we begin the slow progression up the hill, me in tears, him snatching bites of grass along the way. Every remaining second is a gift.

The first injection is a tranquilizer. We wait. My big red horse’s lip quickly begins to droop and he lowers his head. He doesn’t know. My heart is breaking. The next injection is the lethal one. I watch in odd fascination and horror as it’s pushed into his jugular vein. Sparky sways, and with our help drops carefully to the ground. I fall to my knees at his head, whispering words of endearment and encouragement as his glassy eyes search for me. I stroke his proud neck, trying to memorize the feel of his coat. I lower my head to his and breathe in his scent.

“He’s fighting it.” Nancy straightens up, having been listening to his heart.

Another injection. “Sparky, let go,” I tell him. “But wait for me at the gates. We’ll ride in together.”

“He’s gone.”

I stand up. I can’t look at him. My big red horse is no longer there. I begin walking back down the hill, memories racing through my mind. The smell of him is still on my hands and in my senses. The tears are a constant stream, my heart a constant ache, drowning in an endless well of loneliness.

As I walk away, the backhoe’s wait is ended.


About laurie salzler

novelist, outdoor enthusiast, animal lover, dog trainer
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3 Responses to Four Hours in the Barn

  1. jeanne says:

    Just like before, you broke my heart.

  2. Susie says:

    Oh Laurie – I never read this article before – but how beautifully you wrote it – the pain is so strong in your words, but also the love you had for Sparky is so previlent! I feel so blessed having you for a friend!

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