There are two kinds of people: the kind who see that kids summer camp is going on and get excited about it, and the ones who seriously consider canceling their lesson because the chaos of summer camp is too much to deal with. Me and my trainer? We’re the latter. We hide from kid days at the barn. Unsurprisingly, there are also two kinds of horses, too, and my lesson horse is also so not here for summer camp.
I haven’t been riding Chester, a 20-something Thoroughbred, for very long — just long enough to know when something’s off with him. So when, instead of rubbing his face on my shoulder like normal, he stood still while I put him in the cross ties and then buried his head against my chest. I stood there with him for as long as I could because I could tell he needed it. I assumed the chaos of kids running through the barn was making him anxious.That’s when stray kids waiting for their ride time started to swarm, asking if they could help brush, pick feet, bathe him after, and help with whatever else they could, which only made things worse.
Now when I was their age, I know I would’ve killed for a chance to go to horse summer camp. I would’ve been excited, eager to help out, desperate to pet as many pretty ponies as possible. So it was hard for me, especially as I saw Chester become more agitated, to tell them they needed to leave us alone. A chorus of “He’s cranky today!” and “He doesn’t like that!” started to repeat over and over until my trainer walked through the barn and told the kids they needed to leave him alone. Not to mention, the pre and post lesson time is my time to bond with “my” horse.
But he was grumpy that day, for a good reason. His pasture buddy, a 32-year-old, had been put down the day before. I hadn’t interacted with that horse much, but knew he was a staple and it’d be weird not seeing him around the farm. Chester, though, was a wreck about it. Normally an out-all-night kind of guy, he had to be brought back into his stall because he couldn’t calm himself down. It was my trainer’s hope, and mine, that getting him working through a lesson would help get his mind off of his devastating loss. What I didn’t expect was how much I, too, needed to work hard in a lesson to take my mind off of my horse’s loss.
Losing a horse is difficult, even when they were as old as Chester’s buddy was. For horses, though, it’s easy to overlook the fact that instinctively herd animals and they, too, feel loss. It made sense why I had a horse’s head against my chest, why he looked so down; he was heartbroken, and I felt his pain.
So we worked outside, away from the crowds of kids, in the sunshine. We pushed into extended trots, did small circles while I worked on re-learning how to sit the trot, and we butted heads on whether or not he was allowed to cut corners. The lesson was a good distraction, but the ache in my chest was still there. The sadness was still in the slow metronome of his steady trot.
We kept working until all of the kids broke for lunch, and I take him inside to untack him in silence of the barn. The chaos of before had subsided, leaving only me, Chester, and the emotional burden of his loss. The last hurdle we needed to jump was our post-lesson wash down, which was right in front of the picnic tables where the kids were eating lunch. Thankfully, whatever was for lunch was enough to keep them occupied. I was able to hose Chester off without interruptions.
I spent extra time in the wash rack, just because I could, and walked him over on grass away from where the kids were so he could graze and dry off. Again, with no task at hand beyond making sure he didn’t bolt or eat something he shouldn’t have, I felt that weight drop on me. The longer I stood there with him, the more I felt it: pain, longing, and even being annoyed when a stray kid wandered too close to our grass patch. I couldn’t tell if he was relieved when it was time to put him back in his stall, to have that barrier between him and small, sticky hands, or if he hated me for taking him away from the sun and the grass. Let’s be honest: it was probably a mix of both.
The thing is, we survived that day together and we’re a stronger team for it. It sucked, don’t get me wrong, and I’m still feeling the ache of loss weeks later. But I know I was able to help him that day, the way he’s helped me out of bad moods every time I ride him. We protected each other, him with his grumpiness, and me with pushing him through a lesson and asking kids to stand back from him once I got permission to. We survived week 2 of summer camp, and day 2 of grieving over the loss of a friend, together without any tears, freak outs, taking off, biting or kicking. Now we get to work, to heal, and hold onto the hope that next summer’s camp weeks won’t be as hard. But if we can make it through this, another week or two of kids and chaos is nothing.