Saturday, May 18, 2013

Farewell Nick

Last fall I started working for my neighbor, Roberta, by helping out with her two Appaloosa horses, Nick and Tacoda. Roberta has an idyllic home for a horse, with acres of open green pasture, a ring and paddock areas and a three-stall barn nestled in the woods. Even though the horses aren’t ridden, they are babied.

Roberta’s concerns have centered around Nick, a vintage horse of 33 years. Horses live an average of 24 years so Nick’s advanced age is the equivalent of a 93-year-old man. Nick has multiple health issues, but even with his bum leg, could manage a canter and buck off 12-year-old Takoda’s efforts to herd him if necessary.

Lately, however, it had become apparent that Nick’s body was giving out on him. He became sick again and Roberta decided it was time to let him go rather than wait for an emergency. A backhoe operator was hired to dig a grave in the pasture where Nick would rest and the vet was called in. With an animal as large as a horse, euthanasia requires logistical planning. As morbid as it sounds, it is much easier to walk a horse to his grave to put him down than to have to drag his body later.

I decided my job on Nick’s final night was to keep his barn buddy, Takoda, busy. I groomed and walked him, trying to keep his attention diverted from Nick being led away. Once the deed was done, Takoda seemed okay as long as he was eating, whinnying from time to time to call Nick. Roberta spoke to the vet about how to deal with Takoda’s need for companionship. Horses are herd animals and consequently, need to have some sort of herd companion. The vet said in extreme cases where two horses had bonded very closely, she’d had to sedate the healthy horse so the sick one could be lead away to be put down. She said Takoda would need someone, a goat, even a chicken if Roberta didn’t want to add another horse. Fortunately Takoda’s love for Nick wasn’t a life-long friendship. Ironically, Takoda had been brought in four years ago as a companion for Nick when his other buddy, Mirage, had to be euthanized. Roberta knew she’d have to put out feelers in the horse community for a new friend for Takoda.

Takoda and Nick

The next morning when Roberta turned Takoda out of his stall, he whinnied frantically and raced to Nick’s gravesite where he remained for quite a while. When I came for my normal visit in the afternoon, Takoda was in another part of the pasture , but he called to me. It was if he was saying, “You’re here as usual, so where is Nick as usual?” The next couple of days, we witnessed Takoda’s grief and anxiety. He continued to call out for Nick, visiting his grave or just looking depressed. It was heartbreaking to watch.

Nick passed away on a Wednesday night. By Friday, Roberta had found a horse in need. Her name was Shamrock “Shammy”, so named because she was born around St. Patrick’s day. Shammy was in a situation where the owner’s family had been trying to convince her to give up her neglected horses. Homes had been found for the other horses, but Shammy needed major TLC. Shammy also happens to be Takoda’s half sister as they share the same sire. I tried to convey the happy news with Takoda on Friday night; that his sister was coming and everything would be better, but he didn’t understand. Poor Takoda, a horse I normally describe as being like a big, goofy Dalmation, hung his head and looked away.

Shammy arrived Saturday morning and an entourage of horse women led her up the hill to her new home. Even though they couldn’t see each other yet, the two horses started calling in anticipation. The woods echoed with loud whinnies.

Shammy and Takoda were put in adjoining paddocks so they can touch without him trying to play too roughly until his sister builds up her strength. Shammy is a predominantly white paint mare with one blue eye, very underweight, her hooves badly needed trimming, her legs covered in swamp mud; she had reportedly been living in a small space covered in rock piles and wetlands. Within the first week of her arrival, Shammy had seen the ferrier, had her teeth done and received her physical from the vet. She eats constantly, as if she’s not sure when she’ll be fed again.

We miss old Nick, but having Shammy there has breathed new life into the barn. The mare probably feels like she’s the one who has gone to heaven. Her brother from another mother, Takoda, is just happy to have someone to horse around with again.

Takoda meets Shammy