It’s been more than 10 years since I have gotten off my horse to open a gate. As an older person, one with the agility and reflexes of a filing cabinet, I avoid stepping on and off a horse any more than necessary.
Instead, Scout, the Quarter Horse I have ridden for 22 years, will sidle into position and wait while I lean over and jiggle chains or wrestle wire loops off posts. If it’s a steel gate, Scout will bump it open with her nose and walk through; at wire gates, she waits for me to pick up the post and then walks a careful half circle to where I can lean the gate against the fence. We rarely drop one, and when we do, it’s usually my fault.
Opening gates from horseback is not an essential skill for daily life—it’s not like hanging sheetrock or making two-sided copies—but it is handy in my job of leading trail rides at summer camp. And, I would argue, these maneuvers, by now almost automatic, provide a certain physical elegance in my often awkward life.
I have never been graceful. No one has ever mistaken me for a dancer, and despite an enthusiasm for wearing uniforms and kicking things, I was never a good athlete. For much of my life, I was the kid who was content to stay indoors, reading and drawing.
But having a horse changes you. I got Scout when she was three and I was 30, before I knew enough to know that I did not know how to ride a 3-year-old. I made every mistake possible, but Scout was grudgingly forgiving, and we learned together.
Although she sticks her tongue out and yawns during my riding demonstrations—and quite possibly rolls her eyes whenever I talk about my weight loss—she has allowed me to move swiftly and gracefully through life, finally closing a book long enough to go outside and wander for hours, with people or alone, all the while keeping up a yammering, largely one-sided conversation about my feelings. Good, bad, or shameful, there is nothing I haven’t told Scout.
Often, we sing. As a Lutheran, Scout favors classic hymns, which I tweak to amuse her: “A mighty fortress is our horse!” I bellow, adding, “A red horse never failing!” and snickering whenever Scout contributes a trombone riff on the uphills. Weaving through dappled woods or down dirt roads shiny with mica, we breathe together.
I have so far intentionally used the present tense in this story. And now I will tell you that Scout died two weeks ago, after a short but painful illness called colic, which is when a horse’s gut becomes blocked or twisted.
At the vet, Dr. McNeil worked on Scout while I stood at her head, one hand on her neck, whispering, “Hey, good horse. Good old horse. Hey, Scout.” We did not sing. My T-shirt was dark with her sweat, my arms brown with her dust. Scout stared fixedly ahead, braced against the pain, and when, after over two hours, Dr. McNeil finally said the word “euthanize,” I nodded.
You’re wondering, again, why I’m telling you this story, because it isn’t funny or nice, but, as often happens in our most broken moments, there is grace.
There I was with a horse on the ground in the back yard of the clinic, trying to comprehend how I could ever get along without this funny old friend. But I wasn’t alone.
As I sat in the gravel next to Scout, Dr. McNeil, who had worked so hard, sat next to me and gently re-explained everything that had happened. My camp director, also named Mary, came to sit with me. Meanwhile, our neighbor, David, borrowed a flatbed trailer—- and then stopped to introduce himself to a guy on the highway who had a front-end loader. David ordered me to drive my pickup and empty horse trailer back to camp, and then Scout was loaded and covered and driven up into our east pasture.
And there I sat with her again. Leaning against her broad back, well supervised by Mary, David, and two other friends, I practiced breathing separately. When the backhoe finally came to bury my good horse, I stood up, and Liz walked me down the valley.
Friends Old and New
In the coming days, I would be stunned by the tenderness of friends and colleagues, not to mention the sincerity of a big horse named Buddy, who absolutely quivers in his efforts to stand still at gates. People worked so hard to help us, and again I wondered at such a display of compassion for a good old horse. I know, of course, that this grace is really intended for me, and it is a blessing so wonderful and terrible that I can hardly bear to look at it straight on.
I rode Buddy, largely in silence, for the first several days, just trying to get through each working day. Yesterday, I was finally able to ask him, “Do you like to sing?”
Mary Kettl is an English teacher in Rochester and a summer camp wrangler in South Dakota. She is well-supervised by a Corgi mix named Ben.