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.
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 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.
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.
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