I have an old horse, a Thoroughbred who came off the track in a different century, and who, having celebrated his Jockey Club 30th birthday over the weekend, now qualifies as a super-senior.
Of course, he wasn’t always old. When I first got “Hal”—a fairy-tale freebie who came to live in my back yard (really 60 acres of pasture that my then-housemate “Moose” owned)—he was a sun-bleached, dun-looking 4-year-old giraffe straight outta tendon rehab, and I was a recent college grad wearing high-waisted jeans in a whole different cycle of their coolness.
Over the years, our adventures took us back and forth across the country, eventing from coast to coast and border to border. I was stunningly mediocre at the sport, but thanks to Hal I made lots of enduring friends, lived some great stories and saw all parts of the country. He somehow carried me—an amateur with a full-time newspaper job and commensurate bank account—to advanced in our heyday.
But more rare and impressive than running and jumping, as equine skill sets go, was his uncanny ability to evade death over and over (and over). There was the hitching-rail incident where he galloped around dragging what essentially was a telephone pole behind him, narrowly avoiding the pickup sticks-like skeleton of a teepee; the time he ran loose across four lanes and an exit ramp on I-20 outside of Canton, Texas; the hours-long disappearance into forest surrounding the Coconino Horse Trials (Arizona) one unfortunate cross-country day; and the career-ending almost-broken leg that came from getting a foot jammed in a jump filler while schooling; to name just a few of his splashier brushes with the Grim Reaper. Despite facing these unfortunate, human-created situations over the years, he somehow, against all odds, reached the sage old age of 30.
And that’s how we ended up having a birthday party—the first I’ve ever held and certainly the first time I’ve sang “Happy Birthday” or baked a cake for a horse, much less purchased party hats and garland to decorate him and his stall.
Anyone who has a horse this long is lucky; I consider myself extra-lucky because, at exactly 20 years older than him, the arcs of our lives have matched up so well: We were young and brave together, then fitter and smarter as we moved up the levels. His retirement at age 15 (see above-mentioned injury, which turned out to be a fractured splint bone coupled with a dislocated fetlock joint) happened as I was contemplating starting a family, while his dotage has coincided perfectly with the time I most wanted an occasional trail- and pony-riding partner.
Along the way, non-riding friends have innocently asked me how long a horse lives. Initially I’d say “mid-late 20s, usually;” once he passed 25 I changed that to “late 20s.” Now, I’ve stopped giving an answer out loud and just shrug, but in my head the reply is, “In journalism, -30- means ‘the end.’ ”
Through all our years and all our moves, I’ve always had this vague idea that somehow we’d find our way back to the Nirvana of our first home together for his retirement. In those early years, Hal lived out on that massive pasture and learned from a wise, old Quarter Horse to drink from the pond and wallow in it when the flies got bad. He developed an affinity for playing in water that stayed with him for life. I’d get him back to a pond of his own one day, I told myself.
The occasion of his 30th was a chance to reflect on what has and has not happened in his retirement. In 2016, my husband’s job moved us to Great Britain for 3.5 years. Hal stayed home, first with one friend and then with another, moving after a sinus infection required surgery and more rehab attention than his first retirement home was set up to provide.
While I was in London, there were some scary episodes as he transitioned from the low-key, shoes-off stage of early retirement to the phase that more closely resembles assisted living, both in complexity and cost: Cushings managed with Prascend. The only colic of his life (so far), a long, slow-brewing thing that barn maven Jenny managed day-to-day while I tried to keep tabs from several time zones away. A weird rotation of just one front coffin bone that required the most expensive orthopedic shoes he’s ever worn. Various sinus infections, bouts of cellulitis and skin funk, and multiple hoof abscesses that required patience and lots of soaking. (Thanks, Jenny.) At one point, I flew home because I needed to look him in the eye myself to understand how he was doing and whether he wanted to keep going. (He did, I thought, and he’s had some fat, shiny years since.)
Now, we’re back from living abroad, but instead of returning to Pennsylvania—Hal’s home since 2005—work took us to Houston. Even though I always expected we’d reunite, bringing him to Texas wouldn’t be fair or healthy. Caring for him now takes a village—a farrier and vet who know his needs, a barn manager who knows his personality and can read the situations—and his village is in Pennsylvania, with Jenny as its mayor, whether I’m there or not.
Since 2016, I’ve seen him for a few days or weeks at a time, during school holidays and vacations to visit family who, thankfully, live nearby. But aging is inexorable, and the reality of our living situations means the time I have left to scratch his neck, see the world through his little brown ears or inhale the delicious scent of the soft hollow above his nostril can now be counted in days or weeks, not months or years.
He won’t get that pond I’d promised him in my head—even if I had the property, I can’t afford him losing those expensive glue-ons standing in water—and he won’t live out his last days on the little farm I imagined I’d own by now.
I’m not even sure what his last days will look like. Our lives continue to follow the same arc, and age is catching both of us—our bodies are changing; we’re slower and creakier and seem to need doctors more often—and I’ve started to wonder, after all these years: Do I wait until he shows signs of suffering to put him down, or do I pick a beautiful day when he’s feeling himself and, after so many deft escapes, finally ask Death to win? Certainly, the decision could be made for me at any point, but as long as I have the illusion of being in control of it, I feel lost that I still haven’t settled on a plan I’ve had three decades to devise.
This trip home, after the birthday party (which it did feel like, with all the horses sticking their heads out in the aisle for a piece of the cake Hal eschewed, and my little nieces and nephew running around wearing party hats and feeding peppermints indiscriminately), I spent our last day together letting him graze in the winter sun, blanket off, on a patch of good grass, talking to Jenny about just this topic. Still no answer, but as we all soaked in the sun, I watched him calmly graze like I have so many times and in so many places before, and tried to soak him in. I wish I could bottle that smell from the hollow above his nostril.
Chronicle web editor Melissa Wright lives in downtown Houston, with two daughters, a husband, an old basset hound and a rotating cast of foster rabbits. A former resident of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, she misses hacking out every day and instead gets her horsey fix by taking her girls for weekly riding lessons at Kismet Farm in nearby Porter, Texas, where they are learning the dark arts of the hunter ring. She’s eternally grateful to former housemate Moose Barrows and Hal’s racing owners Bud and Marge Walker for bringing Hal into her life, to his racing trainers Dallas and Donna Keen, who now run the non-profit Remember Me Rescue, for training and rehabbing him to set him up for a lifetime of success, and to Jenny Moyer at Breakthrough Equestrian in Kennett Square, who does all the hard work for a remote owner to keep him happy these days.