One artist's journey: Trying to live a creative life with grace, grit, gratitude...and a border collie.
(or perhaps I should say: greys, grit and gratitude)

29 September 2015

And Then There Were Six

As I was driving home from a great Fall Arts Festival in Jackson Hole and a few extraordinary days in Parkadise, I received a call that broke my heart:  one of the most beloved horses here at the ranch, Woodchip, would need to be put down.  

Before heading home, I stopped at the vet’s barn to see him.  In a week there, the horse that had been greeting me every day with a happy nicker looked like a completely different animal.  He looked lonely and lost and heartbroken.  I cried into his neck and started making arrangements to get him home.

Woodchip had been diagnosed with laminitis over a month ago but, despite the best efforts of all, the condition was getting the better of him.  The owner of the ranch was out of the country, but it was his daughter Cassidy’s horse and she hopped the first plane here.  

The vet wanted to put him down right away…but I couldn’t fathom the thought of him dying in a dark stall away from his herd and the wide open spaces of his ranch home.  It would ultimately be up to Cassidy and the vet, but I would fight to bring him “home”.  In my heart, I felt the long trailer ride would be worth it to him if he could see his herd and stand in the sunshine at home before we sent him off on his next journey.

There was no need to worry, Cassidy was right there with me…Woodchip would come home.  Her flight arrived at 11 pm and we discussed it on the way home…logistics and worries, some tears, the questions: could we have done more, should we? After dropping her off at the main house, a thought hit and I texted her that we should stop on the way to get him and buy LOTS of carrots and apples to give him a farewell feast.  Cassidy agreed wholeheartedly and said that we needed flowers.  That brought a smile…I’d thought about adding flowers to my text, but wondered if she’d think it was too much…should have known better.

On Friday morning we started the long drive to bring Woodchip home.  On the way down, we bought carrots.  I knew we were doing the right thing when we led him out of the dark barn and he paused to soak up the sunshine…his expression immediately brightened.  It was painful for him to get in the trailer, and the trip home would take twice as long as usual because I drove slowly to ease his ride as much as possible.  A different vet would be arriving in the afternoon to euthanize him.  
Armed with a bag of apples and 14 pounds of carrots, Cassidy and I planned to spoil him to death…literally.  We opened the trailer door, took off his halter and he limped out into the beautiful sunshine…and home.  Woodchip immediately dropped his head to chomp the normally forbidden, lush lawn grass.  The rest of the herd lined up to welcome him back and he nickered to them before meandering over to the fence where his buddies could say “Hi” and nuzzle across the fence.  

We showered him with love…and stuffed him with carrots.  I’d wanted to take some tail hair, but as he wasn’t “my” horse, hesitated to ask…then Cassidy said “do you think it would be okay if we cut some of his mane and tail?”  We ended up bobbing his tail…he looked cute and we had several shanks of shiny black horsehair that would become art later on.

We were trying to figure out where to bury him and how to get him there, since it had been suggested that we put him down near the grave to minimize the grim job of moving him.  The ranch foreman, Ben, informed us that he had no sensitivity about such things and told us to drop him wherever we wanted and he’d take care of the rest.  For a guy who claims no sensitivity…he was being pretty damned sensitive.

We’d decided to not let the other horses watch because the vet said it could be upsetting.  I looked over to see Langley and Woodchip nuzzling one another over the fence…Woodchip was getting his feet tangled in some rubber feed pans and I went over to help.  It was Karma who changed my mind…not typically one to love on the geldings, she was reaching out over the fence toward Woodchip and softly “whispering” to him in strange little grunts when he was focused on a treat and oblivious to her.  It hit me hard that they KNEW and they WANTED to be with him.  Cassidy did not hesitate to agree.  
We shooed the herd into the small pen next to the corral and then led Woodchip into the middle of the corral.  Langley, as a great herd boss should, stood next to Ben and calmly watched the entire thing.

Cassidy and I stood at Woodchip’s head, ready to get out of the way if necessary.  The vet had warned that they go down hard and there would be a risk of kicking.  Wood chip stood there calmly…it was as if he knew…and was ready.  Cassidy held his halter, kissed his face and I offered him one last carrot…he took a bite and the needle went in.  As predicted, he went down hard and fast.  He hit the ground on his left side then rolled onto his back with all four legs pointed straight up in the air for a long moment before falling over to rest on his right side.  Cassidy and I looked at one another with, no doubt, matching wide-eyed, gape-mouthed expressions of surprise as we knelt beside his head to love him away from this life.  

When Dad died, and then my beloved dog a few months later, I was with them both at the final moment.  In both cases, i noticed something startling…and thought-provoking.  I felt them “leave” moments before the last “breaths”.  The same with Woodchip…he was down, the vet had said the first injection would prevent pain, and I imagine his mind was gone…but, a few moments before those last shuddering breaths, he “left”.  Cassidy felt the same thing…and it was hauntingly poetic.

When he was gone, we opened the gate and let the herd in.  Langley was there first.  He nuzzled Woodchip, was distracted briefly when he noticed a piece of carrot beside him, then went back to quietly nuzzling his friend.  The rest followed and each took a turn saying “goodbye”.  After they spent time with Woodchip, both of my grey horses came straight to me and pressed their faces against my chest.  When they’d all had time with Woodchip, we opened the gate and let them out into the pasture.  Neither of us wanted to see the loading of the “hearse” (aka backhoe)…so, while Ben took care of the burial, Cassidy and I headed to town, where we made dreamcatchers out of Woodchip’s tail hair. 

One of the most poignant moments came the next morning.  There was nothing left but a pile of Woodchip manure.  Woodchip was Jesse’s best bud, and his first friend on the ranch.  Oz and Will like to pick on Jesse and, as I put Jesse’s fly mask over his head, they bit him hard…one on each side.  Jesse bolted, ran over to the spot Woodchip died and dropped his nose to smell his late friend’s final pile of manure.  It was if he were thinking “why aren’t you here to protect me?”.  Some feel the loss a little harder…

Two vets and two farriers tried to save him…I tended to him two to three times a day for a month and a half.  Still, Cassidy and I wondered if we’d done enough and if we were doing the right thing.  The last vet, the kind man who came to give that final injection, confirmed that we could have not done more and gave us a hug before he left.  It eased our worry significantly …but that wasn’t quite enough.

Peace came from spending those last hours with Woodchip and giving him the opportunity to “tell” us himself it was okay.  He happily chomped his carrots, said goodbye to his friends, allowed us to fawn over him, basked in the sunshine of a perfect Montana day and silently let us know that he hurt.  When it was time, he calmly stepped up and stood quietly for it to be over.  There was no fear, no horror…just a moment, forward from which there would be no more pain.  He seemed almost grateful…and we are, too.

I was grateful that Cassidy could be here, that we were of similar mind, humor and philosophy about it all…and that, if we had to do this, we could do it together.  
For all the dread preceding this day and the current of deep sadness that ran through it, the two of us were amazed by how wonderful it all was…and how powerful.  In part, we chose to make it that way…to be of remarkably similar minds willing to take the time and have the soul to fill his last hours with love.

It wasn’t just our doing, though…Woodchip, the rest of the herd and Montana herself gathered together to allow us to grieve with joy.  Our worries about whether we were doing the “right” thing were gone…and we felt like we’d given him a perfect last day.  In return he gave us the “gift”.  His obvious happiness in those last hours and his incredible calm in the last seconds left our hearts filled with love and peace.  The rest of the herd gave us one more gift when they let us witness the horse funeral.  

Tears fall as I type this because death is always sad for those left behind…but a peaceful death is also beautiful beyond measure.  We want so badly to hold on to those we love that we have a tendency to love them to death…when maybe we should just love them through death.

When my time comes, I hope to face it the same way:  giving comfort to my loved ones, soaking up some sunshine, then stepping into the unknown with quiet courage...and I intend to do my best to leave them laughing.

So long, Woodchip...see you on the other side, buddy