Love and Loss: The ties that bind the horse world


This horse thing is a big love, and tragedy its evil twin brother. In the worst of times, you can see the best of life, an unescapable paradox, and this week was a roller coaster doozy of proof. Love and loss are truly the ties that bind us in the horse world.

If you asked my grandfather what he was having for breakfast, he'd start off with something, like, "well, back in 1943..." and eventually wind up to the reason he was eating oatmeal. He taught me that to tell the story, you often have to tell the story behind the story, to show the road, the people and experiences that lead up to that moment. So, if this story weaves a bit, you've been forewarned :)

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The mare's teats were eyelid soft, and after the first few pulls, the milk sprayed down on its own like a faucet that had been left on. Catching the milk in a tupperware and transferring it into a baby bottle, I walked over to the downy paint foal laid flat out on her side in the shavings.

 Raising only her head, she let out a throaty nicker and gulped the bottle down quickly. Her long legs lain out like tentacles below her, the problem apparent as soon as she tried to stand. Her legs bowed out beneath her, one at a horrible right angle, the other a limp spaghetti strand. She was born with contracted tendons, a condition which left her unable to stand unassisted long enough to nurse.

Lil' Blessing

Her family and vet had concocted homemade leg braces (till the professional ones arrived, the great red ones shown below), and a bevy of friends were helping around the clock to change the braces and nurse the foal every 30 minutes.

Lil Blessing Arctic Horse

In the quiet hours of my nightshift, I could think of so many connections to this little foal, so many reasons I was kneeling in the shavings nursing her dam. 

Her dam, Sydney, was the daughter of Lady, a sweet mare my husband had leased for a few summers. Her grandsire, Pathfinder, was the gentlest stallion I'd ever met, and owned by Deb, a great friend that had mentored my training journey with the love and bane of my horse-life, my Appaloosa, Faly.

I'd bought Faly as a five year old, green, Appaloosa stallion. I know... you don't have to say it, what the $#%^ was I thinking? He was everything I said I didn't want when I started horse-hunting... green, mostly white, an Appaloosa, and a stallion. Here he is the day I bought him.

Faly Arctic Horse

He was my perfect storm, hitting me in all of my prejudice, and vulnerabilities. I'd been injured by our farm stallion as a kid- he'd cracked several of my ribs, and I'd harbored a deep fear of studs every since. Even though I gelded Faly right away, I still saw him as a stud.

'Appaloosa' was a dirty word in the barn I'd grown up in, they were thought of as low-brow, crappy horses, and I'd never examined that prejudice, or realized I'd still carried it, until I found myself writing, "No Appaloosas" on my horse wish list. Besides the entire-breed assumption being inherently ridiculous, who was I to be so high-falutin', we didn't even have running water growing up.

I'd never been into white/gray horses, and every year, that horse turns more white. His favorite place to lay is in manure (it's warmer, he says), so in addition to his normal spots, he carries ever changing brown spots along with him. Look at him, he's smiling, he's so dang happy to be laying in poop.

Faly Arctic Horse

Lastly, after growing up on a training farm and spending most of my time riding green horses, starting young horses, putting miles on sales horses, I was ready to just buy a nice quiet finished trail horse to enjoy the Alaska countryside. That was exactly NOT Faly. He was super green, unsocialized, and generally a nightmare.

He was the universe's "I'll show you to never say never," thumb in my face when I fell in love with him. Because he was my perfect storm, he had my number early on, and Deb was instrumental in providing advice, hands-on help, and invitations to join her rides that helped us get those crucial wet saddle blanket hours.

Faly Arctic Horse

She'd been a true horse friend too many times to count- she was a large reason Faly was now the horse I set out to buy five years ago (she's laughing behind me in the picture above). Faly is now a seasoned trail horse, with only well-time occasional antics, just to keep his girl on her toes.

Faly Jen Arctic Horse

So, when Deb said she needed help with the filly, I was going to be there.The filly was owned by Karol, a friend I'd met through Deb. This past summer, she'd come through for us in a pinch, when we didn't have enough riders to pack my husband's sheep out of the backcountry of Alaska, Karol spent the whole day riding in and helping us pack out. 

caribou hunting arctic horse

Karol, Deb, and I packed in seven horses, no easy feat over the rugged Alaska mountains.

Karol Lil Blessing Sydney ARctic Horse

I remember looking at those two competent horse women then, all there out of friendship and kindness, my heart proud and humbled to be in their company.

Deb EZ walking Stables Arctic Horse 

Never mind that the hunters almost wept for joy to give over their big packs and sheep, and to get a ride out after having already hiked over several mountains to get to the pick-up spot. Karol had come through for us (and Deb always did, too), and I felt blessed to be able to help her with her little miracle foal, Lil Blessin'. 

BTW: Her GoFundMe site is here: https://www.gofundme.com/a-chance-to-live-for-lil-blessing if you'd like to donate some to her vet bills <3

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In the same week Lil Blessin' was born, two neighbors had animals colic, Daisy the donkey survived, and poor Joe, the mule, had to be put down. To tell you how I know Daisy and Joe, I've first got to tell you about little Macee.

Soon after we'd moved into our new little farm, we met neighbors Kelee, and her 12 year old horse-crazy daughter, Macee. Kelee, a non-horse person, had gotten Macee a little chestnut quarter horse name Charlie. Daisy, their sweet donkey, was their only previous equine. As horse people always do, I'd stop and say hi every time I saw little Macee riding Charlie on our dead-end dirt road.

Macee Arctic Horse Backcountry Trail skirt

We didn't know them very well, when two summers ago, Charlie showed up at our farm, saddled, riderless, and with bloody reins. No Macee in sight. After a frantic search, Macee was finally found a half mile or so away.

Her horse had been attacked by a pack of loose dogs, she'd severed her thumb in the fall, had deep face lacerations, and internal injuries. She spent quite a while in the hospital, and though Macee has recovered well, both physically and mentally, her mother, Kelee, took much longer to heal. 

Poor Kelee, or Kell, as I call her now. What a horrific accident to endure as a mother, but then to have a daughter who'd lost no enthusiasm for horses begging to ride again... Well, I had a lot of compassion and common ground with the both of them.

Macee lives and breathes to ride- all of us horsewomen know that deep drive and love, and if it started early on, well, the hooks just sink deeper over time.

As a step-mom to two step-daughters (whom I'd taught to ride), I also feel that fierce protective mom-drive, the one that makes you feel like a 10 foot-tall grizzly bear when you think they're going to be hurt. I can appreciate that must get deeper if you birthed them yourself, but since I already feel at Level 10 homicidal-maniac when danger comes up, I can't truly imagine it from here.  

So, Kelee and Macee stood on opposite sides of the horse fence for that long winter after her accident. Macee begging to continue riding, and Kelee torn between protecting her little girl from this unknown horse world that had harmed her, and honoring the deep passion she saw in her daughter. I stood on the bridge between, understanding the mother and horse love that had them each entrenched in their positions.

Eventually, we worked out a horsemanship program for Macee that Kelee agreed to- Macee took lessons and rode with either Deb or I for the next few years. No more solo rides and lots more horse education for Macee. In the first months of lessons, Kelee watched anxiously, in tears, arms crossed, praying continuously; as time passed, her face relaxed and she could genuinely smile as we left her little farm on horseback, headed for the trails.

Our neighbor, Bernie, graciously gave us private access through his farm to hundreds of miles of trails behind his place. He had two aging pack mules, Joe and Gun, living out their days in happy fat retirement. I met Bern through Kelee- they'd been friends for years- he'd often bring his tractor over to help her at her farm, and everything about the man embodied kindness. 

In the same week Lil Blessin' was born, both Daisy and Joe coliced, one day after each other. Kelee and I had become like sisters over the years since Macee's accident, and I knew how much she and the kids loved Miss Daisy.

Daisy Donkey Arctic Horse Heartland

We spent hours walking Daisy, worried and wondering if she would survive. It was Kelee and the kids first experience with colic, and when she pulled through, we all felt sweet relief.

When Bern called the next day to say Joe was colicing, the sick anxiousness returned. Despite intensive veterinary intervention (Bern loves his mules), Joe had to be put down. While Bern prepared the burial snow bank (we're still in an Alaskan winter here), Gun stood over his dead friend, his sole buddy of many years.

Without a buddy, Gun has a tendency to go through any fence, on a walkabout around the neighborhood looking for friends. So, until Bern had time to find Gun another friend, and acclimate the two of them, Gun came to our house. We have a separate little pasture just across the driveway from our horses, who Gun already knew. Along with Gun, came the 6 goldfish that live in his water trough, his round bale, and Joe's old blanket, hung on the fence, to comfort him in his new place. A mule-care sleepover kit.

Gun mule Arctic Horse

 The emergencies of this week had us all heart deep in tragedy and shoulder to shoulder in loving kindness. These moments: nursing that filly in the small hours of the morning, walking Miss Daisy, and watching Gun now in our pasture, all woven by our common love of equines (and those that love them), and the deep friendships they inspire. What a beautiful life <3.


5 comments


  • Kelee

    I love you Jen! This is beautifully put together; just like your heart.


  • SArah

    Jen,
    Such a lovely tribute! Your story is beautiful. We are blessed to have such a talented and generous community of trail riders. I am thankful every day for the welcoming arms of our Alaskan horse community.


  • Michelle

    Such a beautiful reflection on all the things that tie all of us together-as women, and horse lovers.
    I’m all up in my feelings, and can’t even….
    ?


  • Jessica DeVeaux

    Beautifully written. Lady was my favorite of our breeding mares. I loved her and Sydney reminds me so much of her. Thank you for being there for us and sharing your heart. I’m in tears of course….because I’m one of those crazy horsewomen.


  • Kath Topping

    What a beautiful piece. One of the best things about horses is the special and wonderful people they bring together.


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