A week ago, today, I came face-to-face with one of the most difficult decisions any horse owner must make: the decision to let a beloved friend go.
But sometimes, you just know it’s the right thing to do. Such was the case with our 33-year-old mare, Kady, who became suddenly ill last weekend. If you’re not a horse person, then you may be unfamiliar with a condition known as colic (not exactly the same kind that some infants suffer from). For horses, colic is the leading cause of death, and although it can often be resolved, it’s never something to take lightly. So when Kady began showing signs of the condition late last Saturday evening, I called the vet out. She was treated and seemed better, but the next afternoon, it became apparent that something was still going on. Kady was lethargic and not eating, standing off by herself in the pasture. When I called all the horses to the barn for their afternoon feeding, she didn’t come.
She’d experienced colic before, but it had never lasted this long. Usually fear takes over at this point, but instead, I was filled with a strange combination of sorrow and peace. I resolved to stay present (as in, in-the-moment), and do what needed to be done. So I gave Kady medicine and took her for a walk, hoping that might help. She seemed to perk up while walking the trails on our land–the ones she’d traveled many a time before. But when we returned to the barn, she was no better. I took her temperature, discovering she had a high fever. I called the vet who relayed the fever was concerning–it meant something else was likely wrong. I told her I would watch Kady for the remainder of the afternoon, but I had a feeling it might be time to let her go. She was 33 after all–an age many horses aren’t fortunate enough to see. I didn’t want to see her suffer.
Kady remained the same throughout the afternoon. I let her back out with the other horses since she hates to be locked up in a stall (and has always been quite adept at escaping anyway!) She stayed near my other three in the pasture, but still refused to eat. It was apparent she was uncomfortable. I checked and rechecked her temperature, and it never went down.
I’ve had horses (as well as other animals) all my life, and this wasn’t the first time I’ve chosen to euthanize one. But with all my other horses, I had my dad or husband stay with the vet during those final moments. I thought I couldn’t handle it.
In the last year or two, however, I’ve had no choice but to be the one to stay with two cats and one of our dogs in their last moments. No one else was around to do it.
Even though Kady had never technically been my horse, I cared for her in her final years. And I knew I needed to be the one to be there with her. I won’t get graphic. Describing death is never pleasant. And the process is a little different with a large animal. But when the vet came that evening, I prayed for the courage to handle whatever was coming. I prayed that I could be there for Kady until the very end–just as she’d been there for my mom for so many years. Like she’d been there for all the children I’d given lessons to. And like she’d been there for my own children when they learned to ride.
And so I did.
It went as smoothly as it probably could have. I’ve found a wonderful, compassionate vet, and she did a great job. Three of us were present in Kady’s final moments–my mom, myself, and our vet. All three of us cried when it was over. My heart was heavy, but I was at peace knowing I’d cared for Kady as best I could.
Over the years, I’ve written about nearly each of my horse’s deaths because it helps me cope with the loss. But this time, I allowed my thoughts to ruminate for several days. I realized I’ve come a long way in accepting that which we all must face some day. I’ve become better at the art of letting go.
I also realized that writing has been quite instrumental in teaching me this art. I held onto my first manuscript for so long. It was so hard to put it away and start on another project. But I finally did, and that’s when things changed for me. I learned I was capable of so much more than I ever thought.
I know people who are still pitching the same book today that they were pitching several years ago–back when I was querying The Traveler. And I know what it’s like–not wanting to let go of something you love. I didn’t want to give up on that dream either. But I also know there’s a difference between giving up and letting go.
Of course, parting with a horse is much more difficult than moving on from a manuscript, but they’re both different variations of the same lesson. Lucky for us, life will give us many many chances to practice. Whether it be saying goodbye to a beloved person or animal, leaving a job you love, ending a relationship, or maybe just moving on from your first book, letting go is something we all must learn to do. But we can learn to view it as something beautiful instead of something tragic. As something which leads to growth instead of diminishment. Or as something which can bring peace instead of overwhelming sadness. This is what I’m choosing to do.
“Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.”