For the past three years, I’ve been watching my horse fade away. It’s slow, and some days are better than others, but I find myself constantly checking in with her, weighing her pain against the reprieve another day might bring. I watch her for signs that it’s all becoming too much, that it’s time for me to step up and do her the final kindness of letting her go. (Though I so, so dread that day.)

It’s part of loving a horse with chronic, incurable conditions, I suppose, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Whisper, my OTTB mare, has a slew of health issues that I can’t do a thing to fix. I can only work with my vet to manage them as best as possible, knowing that one day we will lose control and Whisper will likely need help exiting this world.

I can’t decide if it’s better to know that it’s coming, or whether it’s better that loss sneak up and catch you by surprise. I’ve had friends lose horses in both ways, and their heartbreak seems to have been different, but equal.

I can tell you that my awareness of what’s happening makes me better appreciate each and every day I’m lucky enough to spend with my horse. I tried to memorize each ride and to live in the moment while Whisper could be ridden. As her issues progressed and she had to be retired, I turned my attention to taking in the other ways I’m able to spend time with her, such as long grooming sessions and hand walking her out on the trails behind my house. I make sure to treasure these moments, and knowing that they’re limited often prompts me to spend some extra time with Whisper, just in case.

I’ve also become a little obsessed with photography. When the pony that I loved so desperately as a child died, it was before the time of digital cameras. I have maybe 20 decent photos of the pony that I’d ridden for seven years, and deeply regret that I don’t have more. So, I’ve taken thousands of photos of Whisper over the years. If nothing else, I’ll have those to remember her by. It’s part of my preparation process; I dread losing her so much that I’m doing what I can to minimize the regret that I’ll feel once she’s gone.

The problem is, I have to be careful not to let the sadness, the impending loss, overtake me. It is too easy to fall into mourning my horse before she’s even gone. It’s too easy to be sad, and to chide myself for every moment that I don’t spend with her, since I know those moments are limited. I would feel guilty constantly if I let myself get sucked into the fact that her time is limited. And so, I try to find a balance.

It’s not easy to watch her age. When I brought home Lyric, a five-year-old Thoroughbred mare, it provided a stark contrast that truly drew my attention to Whisper’s age. Lyric is young and agile, goofy, and full of energy. Looking at her and Whisper, you can’t help but see Whisper’s declining topline, her more gradual turns, the arthritis that causes her to get up more slowly after rolling. It drives home the fact that she is aging, and despite the best care I can provide, these ailments are getting worse.

But Lyric’s presence has also been a reassurance. Since Lyric arrived, Whisper’s started to act like a younger horse again. She plays. She gallops. And she’s most definitely let Lyric know that she may be older, but she is also in charge. She’s teaching Lyric how to behave, instilling her amazing manners on this young, playful horse who can definitely use a healthy dose of bossy herd mare dominance. And when Whisper’s gone, part of her – the lessons she’s taught, the time they’ve spent together – will continue on in Lyric.

I can’t change the fact that Whisper will likely only be here for another year or so, but I can make the most of the time I have with her. And so I’ll treasure every day that she is still in my life, and I’ll make her time here as enjoyable as possible. The horse has given me so much, it’s the least that I can do in return.

And when the day comes, I’ll give her one final gift: I’ll let her go.

Written by HJU Blogger Contestant Paige Cerulli.