We’ve said goodbye to too many of our beloved animals over the past couple of years, but this one hit the hardest. We have lost Valentine, our very first horse.
Sixteen years ago today, Bill gave me the best Valentine’s Day gift a girl could ever ask for (in my opinion, anyway): an all-black, 16.2H Tennessee Walking Horse named Clever Power. He came from champion bloodlines and you could tell just by looking at him. Oh, he was stunning! And so very sweet. We gave him the barn name “Valentine” because it just fit so well. Many of you followed our adventures over the years as we kinda-sorta became horse people, starting with that first wonderful horse.
Our herd grew, shrunk and morphed over time as we added and lost equines: Moonshine came to us to be Bill’s horse, we learned that she was absolutely NOT the horse for us, and we found Romeo and Cash; Moonshine went to be a bucking horse at a rodeo (told you she wasn’t the horse for us, lol); my dad found a little mule he couldn’t live without, so Jazzy came to live with us; then we unexpectedly and tragically lost Cash a little over three years ago. Wow, that was hard, but more was coming.
We haven’t kept up with this blog over last few years, and I apologize for that. Our lives have changed so much, and the focus really shifted away from the horses. We of course still had them, loved them, our lives still revolved around them (I never thought I’d care so much about the price of hay), but we hardly ever rode anymore. A few months ago, my best friend asked if Romeo could come live at her place because she needed another “easy” horse for her mom to ride. I readily agreed, since he was just a pasture ornament at my place. He was also a bit of a bully over food, and Valentine was suffering because of it. He always had trouble keeping weight on, and if Romeo chased him away from the food, well, by golly, he didn’t want any trouble. He just gave up and got skinny.
About this time, we started noticing other troubling symptoms with Valentine. He always had kind of an ungainly walk – his gait, when you found it while riding, was absolutely amazing. He was the Cadillac of horses. His normal walk on the other hand, was a sight to behold, and not in a good way. That’s why we didn’t really notice at first when he stumbled now and then, but he got progressively more clumsy. Then one rainy day, he slipped walking down the hill to our barn and couldn’t get up on his own. He was thankfully unharmed but it took the tractor to get him up. We thought it was a fluke but it happened again a couple of months later; we started to leave him in the barn when the weather was bad, so he wouldn’t run the risk of slipping in the mud. Shari (not just a horse person but a 20+ year vet tech) had some theories, but we were still hoping maybe he was just getting older (he was 21 at this point). Then he went down on flat ground on a dry day and couldn’t get up without our help. Then we got serious trying to find out what was wrong with him.
The leading theory was EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis), a neurologic disease that you can read about here. I don’t want to get into that too much because it’s still incredibly painful to think about, but I’ll just tell you that he went through a lot of testing and therapies trying to pin down what was wrong and try to make him better. The long and short of it is, we never really knew what it was for sure, and he didn’t get any better.
Things really got bad the week of Christmas. I prayed that, for at least that week, we wouldn’t find him laid out in the barn when we came up there on one of our many visits to care for him, and that we wouldn’t have to make the hard decision to let him go any time that week. Thankfully, he made it through but we knew all that week that the day was coming soon.
As you horse owners know, it’s no small thing to put a horse down. Truthfully, if Valentine were just a dog or cat, we would have taken him to the vet much sooner, and just buried him in the back of the pasture, Christmas or no. But given that he was a 1200-pound animal who was having trouble walking, it wasn’t so easy. We had to find someone with a backhoe who was available during a holiday week, and find a place that would be easy to get my big boy to, before and after the event. We also had to protect our only other remaining equine, Jazzy, from falling into the hole once it was dug (which she undoubtedly would, being as curious as a cat).
The first task was easier than I expected. Our first choice, the man who took care of Cash for us, was out of town on vacation, but Shari’s mom had someone doing work at her house who agreed to come out the same day, dig our hole, and come back the next day to move Valentine and fill the hole. He just left his backhoe in our pasture. He was so kind.
The next decision was harder. We wanted to put him next to Cash, but that site was at the top of the hill, and quite a distance away. Even at his best, after a huge dose of anti-inflammatories and steroids, Valentine couldn’t safely make that hike, and I couldn’t bear the thought of him having to be dragged there, even if it wouldn’t matter to him at that point. So we found a nice spot downhill, a spot where we often saw him grazing when we looked out our kitchen window.
Tuesday, December 28. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day. We had our absolutely wonderful vet, Kristina, come out at about 11:00 am, and Shari came too. At this point, we didn’t know if we were really going to make the hard choice, or if we’d give him a bit longer. We had decided that if we wanted to give him more time, we’d just barricade the hole to keep Jazzy away.
We didn’t give him any of his meds, so Kristina could see what he was like at his worst. She examined him, evaluated him, then gave him a LOT of steroids and a good dose of pain meds. He perked up a lot, but it was clear that he was nowhere near good. Another factor in our decision was that a snowstorm was coming in the next couple of days, and at this point the poor guy had to live in the barn aisle; he couldn’t even go into his stall because of the risk that he’d go down in a small space. If we let him struggle on, he’d have to brave the cold weather in a relatively unsheltered space.
This was an indescribably hard choice to make. One thing that helped so very much was that our vet is Christian; the four of us prayed over our decision. After a couple of hours of prayers and tears for us and treats for Valentine, we knew what the choice had to be, and felt mostly peaceful about it. I made Bill leave (he has issues with needles) and the three of us carefully led my boy out to a soft spot not too close to the hole. Kristina gave him his first shot, of sedative, and I gave him one more apple. Then she gave him the beuthanasia injection. He had one moment of what I’d call surprise, then went down directly on the soft wood chips. It was almost gentle, and as went as well as it possibly could have. I was with him every second, touching him and talking to him. Bill came back a few minutes after, and we all cried over him, reminisced, and said our goodbyes. Then Bill and I left and my dear, sweet, wonderful, irreplaceable best friend Shari stayed to call the backhoe guy and take care of the final steps.
The days after were even harder than I expected. Poor, poor Jazzy…Valentine was her very best friend, and since Romeo had gone to Shari’s, she was all alone. She grieved too. She also ended up escaping a couple of weeks after, and we still don’t know how. We haven’t found any place she could have gotten out. We ended up giving her to someone we know well who has two young sons to spoil her, cows for her to guard, goats for her to avoid – mules apparently don’t like goats, who knew? – and a potbellied pig who is in love with her. She’s settling in well over there, after a few bumpy days getting acclimated, but I don’t have high hopes for the pig-mule romance.
It has been six weeks now since we said goodbye, and some days are still hard. The barn is eerily empty – there was a horse in there the day we moved in more than 16 years ago (owned by a friend of the previous owners; we agreed to let him stay for a while), and until Jazzy left, there was never a day that we didn’t have equines to care for. Today, of course, is an especially hard day, and May 18 will be bad, too – Valentine would have been 22 years old this year. But I treasure the days I did have with him. He was the best boy, and I loved him, and I thank God I was allowed to have him for the time I did.
Will we have horses again? I honestly can’t say. Today, my answer would be no. Maybe Valentine was our first horse, and our last horse. But you never know.