For much of my life there has been a “there but for the grace” person in my world, someone whose goodness and determination in the face of adversity could inspire me and provide some healthy perspective in my own tough times, great and small. And this influential person was never just a generic “starving people” in some third-world country, but a real, live person whose example jolted me a bit when I was feeling sorry for myself or whining about my life or just generally not doing my best.
For the past few months, this role has been played by a horse, an Appaloosa gelding named Chester. At 24, he was retired from a long and happy career as a trail horse, crippled by founder so bad that one of his front hooves looked like it had been twisted a quarter turn. Every time I interacted with this horse I marveled at his spirit, his calm acceptance of his lot in life and his unwavering good humor. Was he in pain every day? Absolutely. Did that stop him from enjoying his life. No way.
He was always bright-eyed and inquisitive, interested in everything going on in the barn and, most of all, he was very, very sweet. I got into the habit of dropping by for a visit most days I was at the barn and I always got a happy, eager greeting. If he was lying down, which he did quite often to take the weight off those feet, he would roll to sternal position and reach out his nose to greet me. If he was standing, he wouldn’t usually walk to me, but he always made some gesture – a shift of weight or turn of the head to face me right on – to draw me to him.
For a horse who could barely move, he engaged his world quite fully and he certainly didn’t spend a single moment feeling sorry for himself. He’d stand in the corner of his run and play games through the fence with his neighbor, sometimes nuzzling or just touching noses and then a few minutes later engaging in mock battle, with ears back and snaky neck and all manner of threats. He loved his food and waited just as eagerly as all the others for his lunchtime pellets and supplements. He would stretch out flat on his side in the sun, soaking up the warmth while giving his feet a rest and enjoying the extra-fluffy shavings his owner bought to keep him from rubbing sores on his bony prominences.
And even though he could no longer do the job he had loved, carrying his human on miles and miles of trails, he still had plenty to contribute. The afternoon I met Chester and his owner, she had him outside the barn grazing and as I passed back and forth it became obvious she was upset about something. I made some banal comment about the horse enjoying the luxury of grass in the desert, introduced myself and talked with her long enough to find out that she was grieving the loss of a beloved pet dog and dealing with the stress of a husband deployed overseas. So where did she go for comfort? To her horse, of course.
I was also party to a small miracle, initiated and brilliantly executed by Chester, that drew out a young girl who had been traumatized by some awful, insensitive treatment by a teacher. She had withdrawn from the activities she once loved and refused to engage with any new people. But Chester, while standing innocently getting a massage, pulled her right out of that shell and got her involved in the massage process. She turned out to be a model bodywork student – bright, curious and with a talent for “feel.”
Anyone who knew Chester realized he wasn’t going to get better; in fact, he was steadily failing physically in spite of his bright spirit. His vet had recommended he be put down before the stress of summer heat took its toll, and his owner was slowly resigning herself to that plan. But suddenly last week the tendons in the worst of his forelegs started to shorten, causing him to knuckle over pretty severely in the fetlock. Nothing was going to fix that, and the risk of a traumatic injury was just too great. (Here’s where all us horse people cringe a little, imagining the painful mess that leg could become pretty easily.) So, Chester’s friend and caretaker of 22 years made the decision to end his pain, and he died very peacefully after a day of treats and loving attention and tearful good-byes from his many friends.
Rest well Chester, and thank you for cheering me up on many sad days. I’ll miss your bright eyes and sweet presence.