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: So....is 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.


Heidi said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. My thoughts are with you.

Charisse said...

Kelly, thank you for sharing this story of love and loss. As much as the loss hurts, the love you and Ruckus shared will eventually overpower the sadness. Thinking of you. Charisse