What Comes After Grief

It was just about 7 a.m. and I was still in bed when my phone vibrated across the nightstand. It was the kind of call you never want to get. I saw my barn owner’s name light up on the screen. My stomach churned with dread.

I was only half-awake, lying on a stiff and cold mattress in a co-worker’s guest room. My job as a newspaper reporter took me to the state capital for a few weeks, where I would be chasing politicians around and filing stories.

Back at home was my fiancé, my dogs, and my horse – basically my whole life.

I had coordinated with my barn owner to care for Belinda, my Hanoverian mare, during my extended time away. But that early call sent me packing in seconds, and I embarked on a miserable five-hour drive to get home.

Belinda was too sick to stand. The vet gave her pain killers and an IV drip, and pumped an acid-like orange fluid from her stomach. He relayed to me what was happening over the phone as I drove south like a maniac, through Florida’s spiderweb of highways.

I had to pull over a few times when my hands were shaking too much. I mentally coached myself through a panic attack on the grassy shoulder of the road. There was a real chance that the vet would have to put her down before I could get home. I bawled my eyes out for hours, alone, in the driver’s seat of my car thinking about it.

I made it back in record time, but Belinda’s prognosis wasn’t great. I cried as I wrapped my arms around her neck which would be one of the last times. She would ultimately never recover from a severe bout of anterior enteritis, and I’d have to make the difficult decision to let her finally rest.

Grief manifests itself in different ways. Be it anger or anguish, or a feeling one can’t quite describe, there is no “normal” way to grieve the loss of a horse. Nor is there an easy path ahead to begin the healing process.

Heels Down Mag is exploring personal stories of grief after the loss of an equine partner. What makes our sport truly unique is the bond we develop with our animal, no matter the discipline in which we train. While one written story may not bring back what’s been lost, we hope these memories help soothe the pain. This is the final story in an ongoing series.

***

Weeks later, the pain was still there, thumping at the back of my head and keeping me up in the middle of the night. But it wasn’t quite so raw anymore. I thought of her always, even when I tried not to. I hid the pictures I had of her and banned myself from re-watching our old horse show videos. I just couldn’t look at her and be grateful yet.

I opened my mailbox one Saturday to find a photo of my mare sitting there alone, her face on glossy paper staring back at me. It brought on a terrible sinking feeling. The image was merely a postcard from my vet reminding me that if she was still alive, Belinda would be due for her Coggins and spring shots this week.

That same week, a notification popped up in my inbox to remind me that there were photos waiting for me to review from the last show Belinda and I competed in together.

I had looked at the photos the week or so after the show and passed on them. The fees were expensive and there weren’t any stellar shots of us. Early spring was the worst season for Belinda — it’s when she shed her usually bleached-out winter coat, which was no longer jet black but a dull, grey color. She had patches of dark fur in weird places where her spring coat was starting to come through.

I didn’t know what to do with all the free time I had now that I didn’t have a horse to care for. Somehow I still ended up at the barn.

For a few days after she died, I kept thinking I shouldn’t have brought her to this show. That maybe the fact that she got sick just a couple of weeks later was my fault. She was 19, for Christ’s sake, I shouldn’t have pushed her. But despite her shaggy coat, she looked healthy and fit. She performed better than ever at that show. She was her usual bright and stoic self that day. We had a fun time, and I have a few ribbons and a trophy at home to remember it by.

I clicked the link to review the photos again. I bought them. I still miss her so much.

***

So when my barn owner brought in a couple of new horses to sell around the week of my wedding, I tried not to linger around one of them, a giant chestnut gelding. It’s too soon, I kept telling myself. I had been back to the barn a handful of times since she passed. I cried with my people there. I’d sat on a few borrowed horses. Nothing, it seemed, was making the grief easier to handle.

So I got married. I went on my honeymoon. I was happy for the distraction of family and friends and new beginnings. Then the excitement died down and I struggled to find the pace in life I was used to. There was a gaping hole where my mare had been. I didn’t know what to do with all the free time I had now that I didn’t have a horse to care for.

Somehow I still ended up at the barn.

And I kept drifting back to that chestnut gelding. He was big and tall and had a goofy personality. But he had no manners and he cribbed. He hadn’t been worked since he was started – and failed – as a racehorse. He looked like a mangy fool with too-long toes and a long, knotted mane. My barn owner told me this was Mikey, a Thoroughbred gelding she’d plucked out of a field of a racing barn.

I bought him to be my next partner.

Sometimes I felt guilty for enjoying the ride on him and just his company in general. But I liked that he gave me something productive and exciting to think about.

It’s easier to look at the photos and watch the videos I have of my mare and I and remember the wonderful memories we shared together. I am thankful for the good years and memories I have of her. She’s helped shape my life in so many ways. She brought me so much joy. I took pride in taking care of her and when I wasn’t at the barn with her, I was always dreaming and scheming about what we would do the next time I was with her.

It’s hard to describe the bond and the partnership between a horse and its rider or owner to someone who isn’t a horse person. What’s tough is knowing there will never be another Belinda. I’ll never forget Belinda and the light she shined into my life. She made everything better. And I’m grateful to have experienced the bond I had with her at all, even if it felt like it was cut too short.

Buying a horse to fill the void of the old one isn’t the answer. I know that. But Mikey is helping me move on. He’s reminding me why I love these animals as much as I do. And he’s encouraging me dream again.

Photography by: Photos By Furey and Florida Sporthorse Photography

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