Go rest high on that mountain
Son your work on earth is done
Billy’s Big Story has ended.
HoofPrints longtime newsletter subscribers may remember the very big souvenir that I brought back from a trip to South Dakota back in 2008. Bay Quarter Horse Billy was my beat-up, tired mount on a guided trail ride in the mountains outside of Deadwood. I was charmed by his willing, pleasant nature; he cheerfully and carefully carried me on those challenging trails so I could enjoy the scenery on my vacation. How much easier it would have been for him to grudgingly plod along, not doing any more than I was able to make him.
His wise and accepting demeanor made such an impression on me, that I wrangled an exceptionally complicated and expensive plan to purchase him and have him trailered 1,000 miles to Indiana a few months later. For all the hardship, pain and confusion this horse had suffered in his life (full story here) he continued to take things in stride even as he was uprooted from one home and inserted into another (mine) where it seemed every other horse in proximity wanted to take a turn at beating him up.
I’ll never forget the very first time I offered him a treat. He didn’t know what to do. Finally he figured out he was supposed to eat it. After a few more times, his face seemed to light up; “You mean this is for ME?” “You’re going to offer up random, tasty goodies for ME TO EAT?” From that day forth he’d give a low, sweet nicker whenever I approached him.
After I’d ride, I’d untack, give him another treat, scratch his sweaty back, and then turn him back out in the pasture. Even though his halter was off and he was free to go, he’d always hang out with me for a bit longer, politely asking for, and then savoring, a few more treats that I kept in my special pouch worn just for this purpose.
In reflecting back – on all the things I have learned – I’m amazed that I have been so influenced this past decade by the happenings surrounding a battered old trail horse that I rode on vacation. I learned:
1. Expect the best from people – and you will usually get it. The seller and the transporter were both strangers, and each could have easily taken my money and not fulfilled their obligations. Instead, they went above and beyond; because of their efforts Billy arrived safely in Indiana – just days before South Dakota was hit with a record-breaking winter storm. After I talked about Billy in HoofPrints newsletter, the outpouring of kindness and well-wishes was astonishing. Folks took the time to email words of encouragement. With all the bad news we are flooded with each day – it’s easy to forget the good things that are happening. This helped me to know that there is much good in the world.
2. I do not know nearly as much about feeding horses as I thought. Even though I am a lifelong horse owner – getting Billy to gain weight and look healthy again was not as simple as I thought it would be. I was pouring pound$ of senior feed into this horse; the weeks turned into months and he really wasn’t looking much better.
Which brings me to #3. I don’t know as much about parasite control as I thought, either. I de-wormed him as soon as he arrived. Then again about 30 days later. That should have been enough to do it, I thought. It’s a good thing I use Horsemen’s Lab – or I would have stopped there. And as he continued to look thin and scruffy – I would have assumed that he had something else, possibly something serious, wrong with him. His fecal counts continued to come back positive, and it took seven times of de-worming before it came back clean and his appearance started to improve.
4. Sometimes, in solving horse behavior problems, the best thing to do is NOTHING. When I began riding Billy in the spring, he tried numerous “spoiled horse” tricks. He poked along when leaving the barn and then wanted to dash for home whenever he got an opportunity. He tossed his head and fussed whenever I asked him to stop and stand still. He acted like he didn’t know any cues. In my earlier days, I would have addressed each of these indiscretions aggressively – as I knew that he knew better than to act like that. But these days I don’t ride with as much confidence as I used to – and I didn’t want to start a rodeo I couldn’t finish. So I did nothing. I continued to ride him – and for the most part we did what I was asking. Conventional wisdom would predict that his resistance would likely escalate – as he was “getting away” with misbehaving. But the exact opposite happened. Each time I rode he got better. It was really quite amazing. Now I am thankful that I didn’t resort to punishing him, it was much easier just to ask nicely and wait for him to comply. Really.
5. You never know where a search will lead you. In my efforts to locate Billy’s papers, I met a variety of interesting people. One of which was John Hauer – the gentleman who formerly owned (and had branded) the distinctive purple halter that Billy was wearing (see photo above). John is the author of the popular book The Natural Superiority of Mules. Another is Holly Clanahan, editor of America’s Horse who was helpful and supportive along the way. The original story about another retired ranch horse named Billy – that inspired me to take this leap of faith – was of her making, and she was delighted to learn that it influenced a plush (but well-earned) retirement of another Billy. She totally understood why it was important to me to learn about Billy’s past and his AQHA heritage. The owners before me, however, thought I was nuts. As soon as these western ranchers got a sniff of the idea that I might be one of those wacky “animal rescuers”… the information dried up. Their paranoia that I might have ill intentions saddened me – likely a product of over-zealous animal welfare advocates having caused trouble before.
6. The Big Stories hunt for the right people to tell them. I didn’t go on vacation intending to buy a horse; the idea just popped into my head as I rode along. This is not typical for me – I usually do not do impulse things. Author Robert Moss says it best:
“Sometimes a Big Story seizes us through a riff of coincidence we simply cannot dismiss. When we are seized by a Big Story, our lives are different. We have the power to cope with everyday dramas with greater courage and grace, because we are aware of a deeper drama. We now travel with a sense of mission, we draw different events and people and opportunities toward us.”
Billy was represented to be 18 years old when I bought him in 2008. My vet couldn’t guess his age; his incisors were broken. He was so thin, beat up and scarred that I expected he was much older. Looking back, I suspect that really was his age. He was with us for another 12 years; until Summer of 2020. He was partially blind in one eye when I got him, then in winter of 2019 a bout of uveitis took most of the sight from the other. The other horses took advantage of the fact that he couldn’t see them approach, and picked on him ruthlessly. If I separated them so he was safe, he worried and pined so badly that I thought he’d surely hurt himself running into something while pacing.
He’d lost a significant muscle mass, in spite of continuing to eat well. It was such a struggle to get up, that he’d stopped laying down. I never thought I’d wish to see him mud encrusted from rolling, but I did. As the season wore on, he grew more and more tired-looking, and then exhausted.
The flies were deviling him; he was miserable, weak and wobbly. I’ve learned from author Anna Blake that being able to keep a horse alive and upright is not necessarily a heroic act. The appointment I had cancelled twice in the preceding months was kept. I sat with him while we waited for the vet; stroked his neck, fed him apples and told him he was a good boy.
Billy was the second (after dear Bailey) that I’d made the hard, hard decision to let go before they were obviously on their way out. It was un-nerving to me to see how happy he was on what was such a sad day for Rob and I. It seems crazy to think that he knew what was coming, but I don’t know what else to make of it. The haggard, exhausted face looked eager again. Like twelve years previous, when he’d boldly stepped off the transporter’s trailer in the middle of the night, willingly followed me into a strange barn, past strange horses and into a new stall, he marched smartly out with us to the chosen spot, and I swear he was looking toward his next adventure. His physical body getting a well-earned rest, and now his soul is flying free.
Wanna read more?
- Is this all I do? Post pictures and stories about life here on the farm? Nope! HoofPrints.com is my “real” job.
- You can read more posts about horses here
- For more fun on the farm, go here
- Adventures in remodeling are here
- Is the house haunted? There are some stories about that here
- Laughable housekeeping advice is here