Monday, October 31, 2011

In Memory of Ruckus

It's been three weeks since my buddy and lesson horse Ruckus died unexpectedly at the age of twenty. I'm no closer to believing it now that I was then: the mind cannot process what the heart refuses to accept.

I had known Ruckus for over six years, and had just recently begun giving lessons on him to one of the barn urchins. He was not, nor had he ever been, my horse in an ownership sense; in that regard, he belonged to my instructor Connie. But in my heart, I loved him as my own, got annoyed with him from time to time as my own, took him for granted as my own. It is that last which pains me the most.

It was a regular feature of Ruckus's personality that after one of the urchins dismounted, he tried very hard not to let anyone else get on! Even as I held his reins tight, he would side-step this way and that, trying to thwart the next rider's attempts to climb on. In his mind, once a person got off, that was it, he was done for the day! Try as I might, I never could convey to him the idea that he would be done when I said he was, and not a minute sooner! In spite of his best attempts, though, other riders always managed to get on and have a turn.

He was a safe horse for the young volunteers to ride. He tolerated their mistakes well enough, and never put anyone in danger. Sometimes, though, he just didn't feel like dealing with the kids, and at those times, he'd be a little stinky. He'd walk over to the gate where the rest of the children were gathered, and he'd stop there and make the kids figure out how to get him going again. It was always their biggest challenge, backing Ruckus out of the corner he'd put himself into, and getting him back on track. Horses can be like that: sometimes, they like to make you work for it!

He had replaced Old Crazy as the go-to horse for the children to ride. Crazy would play her own tricks on the kids, like turning right when she'd been told to turn left, completely vexing in the process the earnest youngsters who were trying their best to learn how to ride. After she died, the responsibility of conveying the volunteers around the arena fell to Ruckus. He performed his job well over the years, and everyone expected that there would be many more years of riding him to come. That's always the way, isn't it? How often, I wonder, do we make the mistake of assuming that our loved ones will be around indefinitely? It's an illusion that comforts - right up until it shatters.

It is to Connie's credit that, in the midst of her own grief over the loss of her first horse, she made the effort to seek me out and offer some words of comfort. On the evening of the day Ruckus died, as I sat down to lose myself in some mindless television, my phone began to vibrate. The texts came fast and furious, then, three at a time, all twelve of them from Connie, who wanted to reassure me that Ruckus hadn't suffered, that he'd gone to a better place to keep Crazy, Old Mikey, and Newt the mule company. It was clear that her own heart was breaking when she wrote, "I can't stop picturing his sweet loving makes me sad to know I will never kiss that face again." I was, and still am, grateful that she took time out from her own sorrow to reach out to me in mine.

Last week, searching for some way through this awfulness, I asked barn owner Wendy, "Now what do we do?" Her reply, "I don't want to think about it right now," was understandable. Even so, I was thinking about it. My brain came up with a never-ending stream of stupid questions: who will I trail ride now? Who will the children ride? Who will I take my lessons on? They were admittedly selfish questions for which I have no answers. More recently, Wendy announced that she'd be consulting with Connie about using one of the rescue horses as a successor to Ruckus. Whether that idea pans out remains to be seen.

In the meantime, each of us has dealt with our grief in our own way. Connie has a young son to focus on. The barn urchins all posted "R.I.P. Ruckus" on their facebook pages. My own project involved creating a new facebook album called, "In Memory of My Buddy Ruckus," and filling it full of pictures of Ruckus and I together, along with photos I'd taken of him over the years. So much time spent taking him for granted. So little time spent savoring each and every moment.

It is the agony of knowing that I'll never get another chance to savor him that grieves me the most. There will be other horses, other rides, other experiences, but there will only ever be one Ruckus. And while I told him frequently that he was my favorite Ruckus in the whole world, I also blew a million chances to stop and enjoy the moment, to kiss his face and breathe his scent. To stand with him just a little longer, and give him yet another snack. What a careless fool I've been!

While I know that I'll learn from this experience and spend more time with the horses to come, I know, too, that complacency will creep in, as it always does, and I will eventually find myself back here, writing another blog about having taken another beloved critter for granted. It's human nature to blot out the inevitability of death. No one wants to spend time thinking about life after loved ones. It's too depressing.

So for now, the barn is a bit quieter for me. Animals always take a big presence with them when they go. I expect that the void will be filled someday, but not just yet. The urchins have been subdued as well. A shock like this one takes time to recover from. I really hope Ruckus knew how loved he was!

That's all for now, folks. Thanks for stopping by. Please leave a comment so I know you were here. Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

All Things Must Pass

George Harrison must have been in a philosophical mood when he named his first post-Beatles album "All Things Must Pass." He was right, of course, even if no one was prepared to agree. Change is a difficult thing in the best of circumstances. At the worst of times, the mind simply refuses to accept it.

When my riding instructor, Connie, posted a facebook comment yesterday informing everyone that her beloved horse had died, I felt a little philosophical myself: Nicky Naylor had had a good long life. He'd been losing weight recently, and the Alpha horse seemed quieter than usual to me. I had known that his time was coming, so it saddened but didn't surprise me when I read Connie's comment. The only thing she'd left out of the comment, though, was the horse's name. Given that there are 15+ horses at the barn, it was important to clarify which one had died. I posted my own "So sorry," comment, then waited for confirmation.

It never came. What came instead was the unfathomable one-word answer: "Ruckus." My buddy Ruckus. My lesson horse. The horse all the barn urchins rode. The same Ruckus I had loped around the arena just this past Saturday. The Ruckus who was younger - and in better shape - than his friend Nicky Naylor. How was this possible? What on earth had happened between Saturday and Monday?

It was a wonder that barn owner Wendy managed to decipher the voice mail I left her. "Sob, snuffle, sob, on earth happened? Sniff, blubber, sob, buried yet?" She called me back almost immediately, and told me what she knew: that Ruckus had been in inexplicable pain that refused to cease. They held out as long as they dared, then, forced to accept the unacceptable, agreed to euthanize. Wendy, wanting answers, had the vet perform a necropsy, which showed that Ruckus's colon was impacted, and indeed, had begun to die off. Euthanizing was the inevitable, and humane, course of action.

I can tell you very little about Ruckus's life before I knew him. Wendy's daughter, Connie, barrel-raced him, and they competed together for over five years. He never had any spectacular wins to his credit, but managed to accrue enough points to at least make Connie willing to keep riding him. He was a good boy with a mild personality. When I met him, he'd retired from competition and been pressed into service as a lesson horse at Wendy's barn.

The Ruckus I knew was an amiable fellow. I learned how to post on him. I learned a lot from him: I learned about patience, and trust, with him. I learned not to be so bossy, to give him time to respond in his own fashion, rather than getting worked up that he didn't do as I asked right away. I learned when to be firm, and when to chill out. I learned to let Ruckus be Ruckus: recently, when I used him in a video I made to promote my book, he pooped on camera. Instead of getting mad, I laughed, and used the footage rather than do the whole video over. Horses poop; what are you gonna do?!

We had a moment, several months ago, that told me that we had created a bond between us. The bond may, in fact, have been there all along, lying dormant until the right situation brought it to the fore. It's entirely possible that I hadn't been paying attention to the state of our relationship. It's a mistake we all make with the critters in our lives: we spend their lifetimes taking for granted that those animals will be with us forever. Or at least for an indeterminate number of years yet to come. And it never occurs to us that today might be the day that that beloved animal dies.

In any case, we'd been loping around the arena. After all the barn urchins had ridden him - pulling the reins too tightly, making the mistakes that inexperienced children make - I would climb on and let him run it out. Ruckus liked running, and he seemed to enjoy the opportunity to have at it. We'd lope a few circles in one direction, then turn around and lope the other way. We were right in the middle of this, and sharing the arena with a pony named Sequoia and his mistress, when one of them accidentally touched the electric fence. The zap it gives you isn't particularly painful, but strangely, you always remember it!

Immediately after the shock, Sequoia panicked in that way that horses do, tossing the 20-something girl off his back before racing around and around the arena. The minute I saw what happened, I pulled Ruckus to a halt. The safest thing for us to do was stand still and let Sequoia run it out of his system. Which is exactly what he spent the next seven minutes doing.

At one point, Sequoia ran into the corner behind Ruckus and I, standing there as though he was hiding from the girl who stood quietly, waiting for her horse to settle down. Sometimes, that sense of panic can have a domino effect: other horses see the one freaking out and figure they'd better do the same. It was to Ruckus's credit that instead of joining Sequoia in his meltdown, he looked to me for direction instead. An interesting conversation took place then, between Ruckus and I. Not one word escaped my mouth, but we talked nonetheless:

Ruckus: there a plan, here?

Kelly: Yep. We're just gonna stand here for a while.

Ruckus: That's it? We're just standing?

Kelly: That's the plan. We'll just stand here quietly for a while.

Ruckus: O.k.

It was the first time that Ruckus not only looked to me for direction in a tight situation, but trusted that I knew what I was doing in the bargain. He finally had enough faith in me to let me take the lead. Ruckus was never a horse to stand still for long, but I'm proud to report that he remained completely still for the duration of Sequoia's meltdown, pointing one ear forward to keep up with the action, while pointing the other back at me, waiting to hear my next command. I was so proud of both of us that day. Proud that I'd learned enough to know that in some situations, your best action is inaction, and proud as hell of Ruckus, who had willingly let me take the lead because he trusted that I could.

That wasn't the only time I was proud of him. In spite of his retired status, a young girl came to the barn this summer, looking to lease him for the county fair. I watched her a few times as she worked with him at the barn. Between you and me, I was a little skeptical about it all. In the first place, the weather during the fair was brutally hot, and those horses have to stand in tiny stalls all week. In the second, the girl didn't look like she knew much about horsemanship. But you know what? She took fourth place with him! Boy, was I surprised!

I never let him forget it. Every time the barn urchins and I would groom him, I'd remind him that he was a "Fourth-Place Champion Horse!" From somewhere near his hind quarters, I'd hear the kids snickering, and I'd admonish them, "There will be no mockage! No mocking the Fourth-Place Champion Horse!" Never sure whether I was kidding or not, the kids would quickly swallow their giggles.

He was, of course, more than just a Fourth-Place Champion Horse. He was my pal. My buddy. My "handsome bubby." The best Ruckus in the whole barn. The kids would laugh at that one, too. They'd roll their eyes and say, "He's the ONLY Ruckus in the barn!" "That doesn't make him any less special!" I'd retort.

I'd give him endless snacks. He had a way of thrusting his head out from the cross-ties, eyes wide as saucers. He'd have the most comical expression on his face, as though he'd been starving all this time and just needed ONE MORE snack to revive him. I always told him, "Work first, then snacks," but I broke my own rule almost every time. Life's too short to be stingy with the snacks.

Stupid questions keep popping into my head. Who will I ride now? Why didn't I arrange a trail ride sooner, when I was thinking about it? In truth, they're not the questions I really want answers to. These are:

Who else will I love as much as I loved Ruckus?

Who else can I trust as much as I trusted Ruckus?

Did he know how much I loved him?

Why haven't I learned by now not to take the animals I love for granted?

Why didn't I give him some extra treats on Saturday?

Why? Why? Why?

Grieving is a process, and not one to be rushed. Grief has its own time-table, and its own stages, too, five of them: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Acceptance may well be the hardest, because the mind has to come to some agreement with the notion that all things must, indeed, pass. That's a bitter pill to swallow. And I'm definitely not there yet.

I'm going to miss you, buddy. More than you could possibly know.

That's all for now, folks. Until next time, please spend some special quality time with the animals you love.