Every night since he died I’ve dreamed of Gully. I have a thousand memories, all of them good.
Some of them were only good in retrospect. The day he and his best friend, Syd, got loose at a horse trial, dive-bombed the adult beginner novice warm-up area, then cavorted on the cross-country course for half an hour before being caught? I was fairly ticked off at the time. Now, though, I remember the glee on Gully’s face. I remember my daughter collapsing across a hay bale with silent laughter. It was a dozen years ago. I remember it like yesterday.
Before I got Gully, I had never evented, but I wanted to. My children were 5 and 2 when I had to retire my honest horse, Trapper; we already had my son’s cheerful pony Hot Wheels. We had just started building our house and barn, and, really, I had no business getting another horse. This was still in the early days of the internet—when people sent you actual videotapes of sale horses instead of putting them online. I started looking at Connemaras just, of course, for information’s sake. For education.
Did I mention I had no business buying a horse? Did I mention I knew very little about eventing?
I’d look at horse tapes and think, nope, not that one. Until I saw Gully.
On the tape he was in an indoor, under western tack. He’d had exactly six weeks of work under saddle, and then his owners, who lived in Alberta, had thrown him back into the field. He was 3 years old. He’d not been started over fences. He’d not been ridden English.
I loved him instantly. Couldn’t tell you why. Which was when I had to fess up to my husband—oh, by the way, I’ve been looking at sale horses, and I found one I want, and he’s so far away that going to try him doesn’t seem feasible; also, I’m not sure how much sense it would make since he knows very little, and I want him. He’s my event horse. He’s perfect for me.
You can see how much my husband loves me.
When I told my soon-to-be-neighbor and already good friend that I planned to buy a horse I’d have to board a least a year while we finished the house, she said, “Think about this. Light fixtures—or horse?”
“Horse,” I said.
She frowned. “LIBRARY BOOKSHELVES—or horse?”
I flinched, but said, “Horse.”
“Wow,” she said, “I clearly don’t understand this horse shit at all.”
Years later, when I was training with some of the top women in eventing, they’d ask how I came to find my wonderful horse. Their response when I told them was always the same: a look of total incredulity, a shake of the head, and a “Wow were you lucky.”
I was so lucky.
I loved him so.
He loved cross-country. He loved to jump. He was honest and brave, crackingly smart, oh so good.
Seven years ago I retired him due to a mysterious, persistent lameness. We thought it was navicular, but it wasn’t, because after 2 ½ years of turnout he became once again entirely sound. (There’s a bit more to the story, but not much, and no clear answers.) I was competing my new mare Sarah then and didn’t have time to keep two horses going. My daughter had her fabulous Mick. Gully wanted a job, and my young friend Caroline needed a horse to ride. I thought they might be a match. They were.
The very first time Caroline rode Gully, out in our seven-acre field, he tripped on something, fell to his knees, and tossed her. (I don’t think it could have been the only time she came off him, but I can’t recall another.) Later, in the barn, Caroline said, “Afterward he wouldn’t stop apologizing. He kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry!’ and I kept saying, “Buddy, it’s all right!’ He’d say, ‘I didn’t mean it!” and I’d be like, ‘Accidents happen, I understand!’
My daughter stared at her. “He TALKS to you?”
Caroline looked embarrassed but held her ground. “I mean, um, yeah—he was totally talking to me. I mean, I could understand everything he had to say.”
My daughter said, “Because that horse only ever talks to my mother.”
Which up until then had been true. Gully only ever loved me, until he met Caroline. Then he loved us both. He carried her for three years without ever a cross-country fault. They were fifth in our region in the year-end standings a year ago when age caught up with him, and we retired him once again.
For two months he’d been ill, and lame, and then better, and then not, and then the problem looked fixable, and then even though it should have been getting better it wasn’t. Gully was cheerful in his stall, eating, happy to see me, but putting less and less weight on one leg. My veterinarian needed to take an X-ray, but her machine was broken. On Monday, as soon as it was fixed, she came out to the farm.
I was two states away. I could hear the dread in her voice when I picked up the phone. No way to save him. No choice.
My husband offered to drive us back immediately, but it would have taken at least eight hours. I called Caroline. “I’ll be there,” she said. “I’m going there right now. I am on my way.”
Any gift I ever gave her, letting her ride my lovely boy, was more than repaid at that moment. Caroline showed up with a whole bag of his favorite cookies. She Facetimed me and my daughter at college to let us say goodbye. Gully was surrounded by love through the end.
Every night I dream of Gully. All the dreams are good.
Kimberly Bradley Brubaker kindly let the Chronicle reprint this tribute to her horse Gully. It was originally published on her blog: One Blog Now. Brubaker is a New York Times bestselling author and a Newbery Honor award winner. She’s published 17 books including children’s historical novels “The War That Saved My Life” and “The War I Finally Won.” She lives in Bristol, Tennessee, “on a 52-acre farm with an assortment of horses, a dog, and way too many cats.” Brubaker has also been a longtime contributor to the Chronicle forums under the moniker “gully’s pilot.”