It’s been two years since I had to euthanize my horse Victoria’s Angel following a month-long stay at the vet clinic. It left me heartbroken. Even as I write this, tears stream down my cheeks. There is still a void in my life. I cannot fill that hole; believe me, I’ve tried. Angel was taken from me too soon.
Over my years of caring for horses, I’ve seen so many people hold on to their horses long after it’s time to let them go. Because I’m only the caretaker of the animal, I’m helpless in these situations; I have no control or say. Sometimes it can take hours before the owner finally makes the decision to euthanize. I always promised myself that I would not be THAT person, ever. I would do right by the horses; I would listen to them.
And then, Angel put me directly into that messy situation. I’ve never had to make the definitive final decision, and suddenly I felt conflicted. When it’s your animal, I do think it’s exceptionally hard to separate your emotions from making rational and logical decisions. How can you be expected to, honestly? You’ve put so much time, effort, money and energy into them. You love them; they are a part of your life, a member of your family. You become blindsided by the emotions; they blur your vision and clog your thoughts. How are you supposed to think clearly enough to make such a serious life decision?
But in front of that vet clinic, I was the one who had to decide if it was time to let her go. I listened to Angel when she told me it was time. I knew she was suffering. Her breathing was very labored, and she was making this terrible noise as she struggled to fill her lungs with air. The vets promised me I could take all the time I needed for myself, but I didn’t want that for her. It would have been selfish of me to hold on to Angel any longer. So I knelt down, put her head in my lap, and stroked her cheek while they euthanized her, promising her she would never feel pain again. I couldn’t stop the tears that fell from my face onto hers. Her sweet brown eyes locked on mine until they went lifelessly still. She knew I loved her. She knew.
I cried harder than I’ve ever cried before in front of those vets. I felt embarrassed by my behavior, but I couldn’t stop myself. They assured me there was nothing I could have done better for Angel over the course of her time at the clinic. They told me I did more than many other owners, and they could tell she meant so much to me. I had given Angel the best chance to fight all the way to the end. I never gave up on her. But none of those kind words could fix it and bring her back.
Everyone grieves differently. I shut down following Angel’s death. I felt numb to everything. Nothing anyone said or did made it better. It felt like a hole had been torn in my heart, and it was healing slowly from the inside out. Puncture wounds always take the longest. There were days that I could feel it starting to heal over, knitting itself loosely back together, but then out of nowhere, the scar would tear back open, beginning the long healing process all over again.
For weeks after euthanizing Angel, I wondered if the whole thing was a terrible nightmare I had dreamt one night. But then I would walk into the barn in the morning, and she wasn’t there. There’s nothing about that day that I don’t wish I could do over again, even though it would not have changed the outcome.
I had a necropsy done on Angel to determine her cause of death, and it was unavoidable and unpredictable. She went septic after an adhesion on the outside of her stomach met an ulcer on the inside and exploded. The vet who performed the necropsy told me this is incredibly rare, and it happens without warning. The horse does not display symptoms of colic; it continues to eat like nothing is wrong until the adhesion and the ulcer finally rip through the stomach wall. It is incredibly frustrating to me, as someone who fixes problems all day, to know that I couldn’t have fixed this before it happened.
I believed I had so many years left with her. Angel was only 13. I wanted to get back to showing her. I had stopped because I had taken a different job that didn’t allow me to bring her. I wanted to get back to riding her on a daily basis so she would be fit again. I wanted to break in the new saddle I had custom-made for her. I had even thought about breeding her at some point; I loved her brain, her scope and her bravery. She was a spitfire sometimes, but she was brave. I had plans of retiring her on my eventual farm and letting her rule the roost. After all, she believed she was the queen. I was going to give her a big field of her own.
But we always think we have more time with them than we actually do.
There are so many horsemanship and horse care lessons that I have learned since her death that I would have loved to use for Angel. Maybe it would have made her lead changes easier if I had asked her to work more from her hind end after the jumps instead of allowing her to drag me through the turns. Maybe I could have done more gymnastic work with her to help her straightness. Maybe I could have paid more attention to her stomach and her ulcer points. Maybe getting a chiropractor to work on her would have helped her neck, back and hind end.
All of these things may have made a difference for Angel, but I will never know those answers. I can drown myself in guilt for the rest of my life, or I can accept the fact that I did all that I could for her. I gave her the best I could offer. She came first, always. Just like she did that Thanksgiving. I never left her side.
But you know what answers I do have about Angel? That she filled my years with great memories that I wouldn’t have had without her.
How else would I have learned to deal with a horse who tries to climb over the chest bar on every trailer ride, no matter the circumstance or friend that’s next to her? My mornings in Ocala, Florida, wouldn’t have been filled with demanding whinnies or nickers when I walked out the front door to bring her in from night turnout. After a tough day at work, nothing made me feel better than going out for a hack with her in the field, whether we were in New Jersey or Ocala. I still remember the course and the entire ride from our last jumper class at the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show; we won. She taught me how to deal with siblings on the same farm; she had four or five and always made sure she kept them in line (especially her half-brother, Doc). Angel let me braid her mane in training braids hundreds of times, clip her ears (that was always something I had to wait for her to decide to do; it was never up to me), bathe her a zillion times (she HATED bath time, HATED IT), and practice all kinds of grooming skills that made me a better horse person. And she never cared about riding after she ate dinner or finishing up in the dark some nights. She forgave all of my mistakes, always. The toughest homebred in the barn turned out to be the horse that helped teach me the most.
My old client took one of Angel’s pictures and had her friend create a beautiful, life-like portrait. It was so gorgeous I couldn’t look at it without bursting into tears. My mom hid it from me, telling me it would take some time before I could actually enjoy it. It took 1 ½ years before my mom gave it back to me. I hung it in my camper with the last blue ribbon Angel won. I can look at it now without crying. It makes me think of all the positive memories I had of her. I began to get to the point that it helped me to look at her pictures instead of hurting me. I dug more out and hung them in my camper. That’s the “time heals all wounds” part.
Angel is no longer physically here to cheer me up at the end of a long day or to nicker at me in the morning for breakfast. She isn’t there to let me cry into her black mane when I just need to let my emotions out. She can’t make me smile as I jump around a course with her. But I know her memories will not die; they’re wound too tightly into my life. No one can take those away from me.
Nicole Mandracchia grew up riding in New Jersey and was a working student while in school. She graduated from Centenary University (New Jersey) and has groomed and barn managed for top show barns Top Brass Farm (New Jersey), North Run (Vermont), Findlay’s Ridge (New York) and Ashmeadow (New Jersey). Read more about her in “Groom Spotlight: Nicole Mandricchia Proves The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get.” After more than a decade working back in the barn, she eventually hopes to establish herself as a trainer. Read all of Nicole’s COTH blogs.