After I recently posted a video snippet of my 37-year-old Appaloosa nickering for treats on Facebook, Beth Rasin, friend, former coworker and now executive editor of the Chronicle, asked me to revisit a commentary I’d written about him more than 20 years ago.
In 2000, I was an editorial staff member, recently promoted from the rank of intern, and on the brink of a pre-nuptial relocation from Northern Virginia to the Garden State. By this point, I’d dragged “Lester” around to numerous barns as he followed along with me on the trajectory of my childhood. From D-level, occasional runaway Pony Club mount at Pleasant Hollow Farms (Pennsylvania) to college companion and steadfast A-level partner while at Penn State University, my incognito liver chestnut Appy was a fixture in my life.
My first and only horse, Wap’s Spotless joined my family when he was 3 and I was 10, and despite some harrowing moments born of this potentially hazardous combination of inexperience, we both survived and learned with and from each other under the day-to-day guidance of some great horse people, like Jane Cory at PHF.
In early 2000, he was 16, I was 23, and I was looking at some major life changes. Instead of my decisions being just about me, I was going to be married, and then they would be about us. I’d attempted to look at the situation dispassionately and reasoned that it made financial and logistical sense at that transitional moment to disoblige this young marriage from the commitments inherent in horse ownership.
Lester was sound, an easy keeper, a Steady Eddie on the ground (other than his evasive tactics when it came to capture from turnout), and a super honest jumper. He’d make a stellar mount for my former Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association team at Penn State!
I wasn’t doing much that was “productive” with him at that point. He’d only ever begrudgingly abided my preference for dressage, and I figured he would love the chance to tool around as a low-level hunter/equitation horse and be fawned over by college students. My former coaches were excited to welcome him into the program, and the transport company was booked.
“As D(onation)-day approached, I spiraled into the depths of my quandary—whether to choose the logical, generous option, or to go for the emotional, self-serving one,” I wrote. “I chose the latter.”
I think I was somewhat disingenuous 20 years ago, as I convinced myself that my rehoming motivation was largely generosity. I was primarily attempting to be pragmatic, realizing that he was still young enough that he could have a successful second career as a school horse, and I was using the cover of the “generosity” of a donation versus a sale to assuage my feelings of guilt over unloading him.
Obviously, horses are bought, sold and donated every day, and I don’t mean to cast any self-righteous shade on anyone who doesn’t keep their horses from foaling stall to flatbed. But for me, this charismatic character was not just my ride, or even my partner. He was 100 percent my pet and my best friend. I could bring him forward into the next stage of my life with some small sacrifices. Not only did I have an obligation to him, but, more importantly, I loved him.
I’m sure he would have been a great asset to the team and would have received excellent care, and I had included a clause in the agreement regarding taking him back if it was ever necessary, but whenever you hand over complete care of your animal to someone else, regardless of how wonderful they are, you’re forfeiting your control over his future and wellbeing.
I’d framed it as being selfish for keeping him, but in retrospect, my conscience was telling me it was selfish, in terms of guarantees of his long-term welfare, to donate him. We all owe a debt to the patient school horses in our past, who tolerated our miscues and crude, uneducated aids as we learned, and also to those who cared for them, but in my heart, as his nearly lifelong caretaker and advocate, I knew this decision wasn’t the best one for us.
Back then, this dilemma helped me realize the extent to which horses, in particular, this horse, were necessary to my overall sanity and mental health. In the two decades since, even though horses are no longer my primary focus, Lester and the barn have continued to serve as a safe port in both the stormy and tranquil seas of life.
His warm, fuzzy neck and wiggling, treat-beseeching upper lip were there for me through four pregnancy losses, and he was there with a gentle nuzzle the first time I brought our baby to the barn. Casey spent time strolling the empty barn aisles in his walker, cordoned off into a perimeter of safety with the water hose, while I cleaned stalls as a new mom. As a preschooler, he joined me in picking out Lester’s pasture with oversized farm implements, before we embarked on quests to discover hidden Pokémon in the woods.
This year, it was a revelation to look out across the field behind the barn and see our 10-year-old son hand grazing the spotted old man, as I realized he was now the same age I was when this goofy gelding entered my life 34 years ago.
My understanding fiancé, who had thought I should keep him all along, despite full disclosure of the bills that accompanied him, has long-since proven himself an unflaggingly supportive husband, never once flinching or questioning (though sometimes joking about) the never-ending vet bills or board payments associated with a somewhat astoundingly geriatric equine family member.
I was blessed to find a small family-run boarding barn for him close to home, and the Curtins of Fox Hunt Farm have truly cared for him like one of their own since I moved to New Jersey. His special needs for creaky stifles and occasionally wonky balance, which developed after a pasture accident about nine years ago, have likewise been catered to by the patient and talented farrier Gina Edwards, and in recent years, Dr. Ruth Lindburg of Pinewood Equine.
As in any situation, there’s often not just one right answer. Lester most likely would have done great if I’d donated him, and my life would have been great too. But I have never once regretted my decision to keep him, even when faced with decisions about possible euthanasia after his accident, or when writing four-digit checks for joint injections on a horse I haven’t ridden in a decade, and most definitely not when I go out to his paddock to say hello, and he nickers and wiggles his lips for treats just like he did when I was 10.
Don’t miss the Oct. 19 & 26 Intercollegiate issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. We take an in-depth look at donating horses to colleges and discuss how to do your homework to find a good fit.
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