Lionheart had a good summer. He had a new companion, a feisty 20 year old mare I adopted from a rescue. His coat shined and he spooked as usual whenever his water bucket was filled. He made ugly-faces at the chickens if they dared to come into his stall, pawed when his meals were nano-seconds late, and re-arranged his hay so that he could eat some of it on the other side of his stall guard. I referred to this as “Lionheart eating on the veranda.” Even at age 33, he could muster a quick canter to chase an errant Australian Shepherd out of his paddock. The first thing he would do when he was turned out at night was to have a good roll in the grass.
Changes in a senior horse:
In late August I started noticing some changes. He wasn’t eating as much hay and he took longer to eat his feed. Despite all my efforts, his topline wasn’t improving and his haunches were losing muscle. He was dappled, yes, but everything seemed to be slowing down, almost deteriorating. He stopped rolling during turn out and his companion mare totally ignored him.
There was a fragility to Lionheart that was new.
During the warm days of fall he became more reactive to touch, spooking at my hand reaching out for him, or setting the ground feeder down. Then there were days, good days, when he ate well, soft eyes, his body even looked okay, and I thought to myself, “well, maybe I’m overreacting.”
Winter is coming:
However, in my heart I knew that these glorious fall days would turn cold, frozen, and challenging for him. I didn’t want him to suffer. I didn’t want to get a phone call this winter when I am in Florida telling me he coliced, or went down and could not get up.
I want to be with him when he passes.
One afternoon as he ate his soaked feed, I told him.
When he finished eating, I took the bucket away and held out my hand for him to smell. He licked it, which was an unusual gesture on his part. I knew what he meant: we have an agreement. He is ready to go.
Am I doing the right thing?
There is a wrestling match we go through in our minds of not wanting to see our animals suffer or go into fatal health crises. On the other hand, we do not want to rush to end our four-legged friend’s life.
I made that mistake with my dog, Ravenwolf. I waited too long. In my mind, I thought I was doing the right thing by waiting until all hope was extinguished. I will not do that again.
Emotions and memories:
Now that I have made the decision, I find myself tearing up at unexpected moments; driving my car to work and passing the farm where I used to board Lion during some of his competition years, walking past a photo of him in the living room, or brushing by his ribbon collection. His saddle and bridle sit in the conference room at BioStar, and when I look over at them I blink the tears behind my eyes.
The appointment with my vet is made. I chose a day that is predicted to be warm and sunny before the cold front moves in.
Like water behind a dam, it feels like my grief is waiting for the moment he has passed so that the sorrow can flow unashamed and uncontrolled.
In the feed room:
He waits patiently for me to bring his food three times a day. I call his name, he whinnies in response. If I am thirty-minutes late he paws and gives me “the look.”
My Australian Shepherd, Buckaroo, waits out of range of a striking foreleg to steal a morsel that may have dropped to the ground. Lion has little tolerance for dogs, particularly in his personal space.
I sit on an overturned bucket and watch him eat, grateful that I have this time with him. During these precious moments I thank him and remember the 29 years we have spent together; longer than my marriage, and definitely more empowering.
There would not be BioStar without Lionheart. I would not be the person I am today if it were not for him. He taught me to listen with more than my ears, to observe without judgement, to be patient, calm, and to pay attention.
Not only is he fed three times a day, but he also gets a smorgasbord at each meal. A bucket with soaked alfalfa pellets, Renew Gold, Cool Stance, chia, hemp seed oil and his supplements. He has one ground feeder with Chaffhaye and another ground feeder with soaked Speedi Beet and hay.
Lion has gone his entire life free of metabolic disease: no IR or Cushings.
There is not one ingredient or BioStar supplement that Lion hasn’t tested. I remember the day I pulled some kale out of the garden and gave him one long kale leaf. He smelled it, held it in his mouth, shook it like a green flag, and dropped it on the ground as if to say “I might eat this in a different form.” I went into the house and ground up a kale leaf in my food processor, and then added it to his feed. He gobbled it up.
My old friend, Michael Raven Horse, used to say, “preparing a meal is preparing medicine.” It can heal or it can harm. “Put good thoughts into your food,” Michael used to tell me.
I mix the components in the feed bucket, thanking Lion with every stir of the spoon. I say “I love you” three times as if it is a spell, a touch of magic for immortality.
Lion eats methodically, albeit slowly. First the feed bucket, then the beet pulp, walks over and drinks water, than goes to the Chaffhaye. I watch him, talk to him, and sometimes run my hands down his neck and back; the feel of him, the wonder of him.
Up the hill:
The day comes and we take our last walk together up the hill. My vet follows quietly behind us. The sky is cloudless, a November blue. I press my head to his head as he stands, waiting. It is a moment of oneness, soul to soul. I thank him.
I don’t know how long I sit up on that hill beside him. I weep a river.
Buckaroo, my Aussie, waits nearby like a guardian of my horse and my grief.
Sit with your pain:
In spiritual circles it is often said to “sit with your pain.” That night all I want to do is kill the pain by any self-destructive means possible; chocolate, ice cream, cookies or pie. However, there isn’t any in the house. I chastise myself for my poor planning. Didn’t I know that after 29 years with Lion I would fall apart?
There are bottles of Guinness beer in the back of the fridge. Lion’s favorite. He loved having a cold beer added to his feed on hot summer days. I don’t drink beer.
Seeing those bottles makes me want to drink one.
My little voice whispers: “you did the right thing, his spirit is free.” Why oh why doesn’t that make me feel better…
It’s a process, grief and sorrow. Reality is re-shaped with the passing of a loved one. A light went out of my life. I have to remind myself that Lion’s light is shining somewhere else.
Each day gets a little better. Friends phone me, I take calls from a few clients and try to get back to the new normal: the place without Lionheart in it.
I keep reminding myself how lucky I am. I had all these years with him. I was able to retire him at my farm and give him 15 years of retirement. I was able to take care of him and learn from him.
I think about funny Lion stories like the day we spread sawdust in front of the shed-row barn, and how he spooked at it, and then leapt over it to get into his stall. That was just two years ago. Or how he played with his friend-enemy, King Henry the cat who loved to walk along the top rail of the three-board fence line, and whom Lion would try to nudge off the fence. The cat would give Lion a few whacks on his nose, and Lion would squeal and run away…only to return to try and knock the cat off again.
My friend, Lionheart. You are with me, always.