Senior horse

Senior horse

These late October days are golden–sweet and rich, and as temporary as a long, crisp leaf. The sun is slow to rise and dawdles while setting over Pikes Peak. The clouds hold onto its colorful tail, long after the sun is gone. The horses and I want to languish on the tight wire between Indian Summer and what comes next for as long as we can.

We know this is the lull before the storm.

My Grandfather Horse got through last winter stronger than I thought he would but it wasn’t pretty. The cold makes him stiff and he doesn’t want to move. If he doesn’t move, his arthritis gets worse and hurts more, so he moves less. It’s a vicious cycle.

He didn’t complain, he’s a stoic guy, but I never got over the feeling of a vice-grip crushing my chest. Relief came with Spring, but as soon as he started shedding his winter coat, his weight dropped as well. I didn’t worry at first, he was eating well. The weight loss was gradual, until it wasn’t.

One day he was nearly skeletal. Like a neglected, abandoned horse. How did this happen on my watch! I confess – it hurt me to just look at him. I had a huge fit of Hindsight Guilt. Do you get it?

Hindsight Guilt is when you think you are doing your best but you get a diagnosis, or learn something new, or come up with a better technique, for the care or riding or understanding of your horse, and then impale yourself on a pike for the suffering you have caused by your own stupid ignorance. Even if the thing you learn is new technology, even if you are doing better than any human possibly could, Hindsight Guilt hits and in that moment, you call yourself the ultimate curse: Abuser.

Of course, I had him checked out. His list of chronic ailments is long. The diagnosis? He’s old. Gradual degeneration is expected. My vet said I was doing everything right.

But still, he was eating and losing weight. His chronic diarrhea lessened to intermittent diarrhea, a huge improvement. I’m not one for any sort of fecal-phobia. I read manure like tarot cards. It’s my go-to standard health predictor. I poked my way through and it seemed, somehow, that the hay was not breaking down as well as the other horse’s manure. It was a tiny, almost invisible difference. Too much information? Not if it’s your horse.

So I tweaked his feed again. It’s constant with an old horse. I resist the sticky senior feeds with molasses so thick that the grain freezes solid. Grain isn’t that good for most horses in the first place. Having said that, I was feeding some healthy senior feed without molasses, alfalfa pellets, beet pulp, and free choice hay. Along with any thing else I could think of. He continued to lose weight. I continued to tweak.

My Hindsight Guilt would like to have a word: “She’s an idiot. She thought because he was eating hay that he was getting some nutrient value. He wasn’t. I repeat – she’s an idiot.”

I saw weight gain finally, by feeding more senior pellets than I thought any horse should eat, and very little else. It’s science. Pellets have tiny particles that are easier for an old horse to utilize. He gets one flake of hay to play with but he doesn’t eat it.

And he’s pudgy. I can’t feel his ribs, and even old and sway backed with more arthritis than bone, he has gotten bright-eyed. It’s been years, but he is mischievous again. He gives the farrier lip and we both grin like school girls. Sometimes the Grandfather Horse even trots. We all stop and applaud him.

This fall, the equine dentist told me the Grandfather Horse had lost teeth. I reminded him my horse had one tooth pulled three years back. “Nope, more than that one,” the dentist said. “Not many teeth left on that side at all.” It was hindsight news to me.

Wouldn’t I have seen the teeth on the ground? If they were hidden in his manure, I would’ve found them with my CSI manure skills. I scrutinize this horse, how did they get by me? More Hindsight Guilt but it like usual, the self-name-calling doesn’t help.

This is the strongest my Grandfather Horse has been in the fall for years. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still dead lame. But he has gotten a second wind. He has his sense of humor back. I am beyond grateful, but not at all happy because of another attack of Hindsight Guilt. It’s chronic with me and this horse. I’ve had it since I started riding him decades ago.

For now, we have Indian Summer. It isn’t just the time of year–it’s his time of life. These are his golden days, precious for their fragility. Precious because we do know the future.

His eye sight has degenerated. He’s frightened of his own shadow. Deeply, profoundly, with sincere honesty, he is afraid. I can respect that. It’s a good opportunity to go slower and reward more. He taught me that.

The challenge with the elders is to separate the old age issues that you can’t help–from the ones you can. And then when you do help something–survive the Hindsight Guilt about not doing better, faster, more perfectly.

Because these Grandfather Horses deserve more than our best, every single day. They taught us, they lifted us up, and they gave us to ourselves in a way no one else could have. We owe them.

If I live another hundred years, I will always have Hindsight Guilt that I could not do for him even a fraction of what he did for me. And it’s just where he wants me.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.