Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How Horses Mourn

Photo:  Fran Hendershaw
Bay Bey's stall is still untouched, with clean bedding and wisps of hay scattered here and there.  Nothing about it belies the dreadful fact that when he tiptoed out the door yesterday afternoon, it was for the last time.  Like so many fallen horses--both famous and nondescript--Bey lost his life to the ravages of laminitis:  his elderly but still proud presence had withered in its wake.

The only kind thing was to let him go, and that is what Gwen regretfully did, loving her friend of 29 years more than fearing the grief that would engulf her as his spirit left him.

Hayley watched behind locked doors as Bey was led away, but she protested and paced and called to him, without understanding the awful truth of what was to come.  She would never again be able to run her lips lovingly over his withers, or play-race him uphill for supper at the end of a late summer's day.  For more than five years now, they've been constant, faithful companions, rarely leaving each other's side and luxuriating in their peaceful friendship as one by one, the seasons passed.

By the time Hayley was released from her prison, Bey had been laid to rest in a deep grave in the corner of a grassy paddock, gently placed next to Gwen's old Arab mare, Gracie, who had died only a few months after Hayley's arrival at the tranquil Harvard farmstead.  All Hayley knew now was that Bey was missing, and she galloped wildly through every inch of the three fenced pastures, tossing her head and shrieking with fear and disbelief that she could not find him.

An observer saw Hayley persist in her desperate search for quite a while before she abruptly stopped at the spot where several feet of fresh dark dirt covered Bey's body.  Hayley smelled the air and she sniffed the ground, and she even stood right on top of the neatly smoothed-over patch, as if Bey were but hiding behind an earthen door and could reappear at her beckoning.  

I arrived as darkness encompassed the barn and sensed that Hayley seemed distracted, but not yet fully resigned to the finality of having been left behind, and alone.  She still seemed to have hope.

By today, something had shifted.  Hayley's thick winter coat was drenched with sweat even as dusk's coolness came, and though she seemed more composed, I knew that she must have spent the day running her heart out.  There was something about her tonight that brought all of the sadness of losing Bey back again, with full force.  Her whole self seemed deflated of the joy of anticipation, and for many long minutes she did nothing but yawn and yawn and yawn, as if a terrible tiredness had settled in.

I wanted so much to protect Hayley, but not by pretending that her search would be fulfilled.  With that thought in mind, I slowly opened the door to Bey's stall, and watched as Hayley strolled in, repeating a pattern I'd witnessed hundreds or thousands of times.  We had so often found them huddled together in a place meant for one, preferring crowded camaraderie to the relative spaciousness of an unshared stall.

This time, Hayley strode in carefully, and silently snorted through every inch of the now vacant stall, poking under leftover hay strands with perked ears.  But suddenly and in slow motion, she seemed to understand what I was trying to show her, and she ambled out of Bey's space with her head hanging down just as low as it would go. 

Alone now in her own stall, Hayley sighed deeply, then nickered for dinner.  She seems to know that her life will go on, but it will never be the same, for any of us. 

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