Son your work on earth is done

Go rest high on that mountain
Son your work on earth is done
~Vince Gill

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.

HOW IT ALL STARTED: Our South Dakota Trail Ride – Left to right: Gina Keesling on Billy, Ron Stauffer on Trigger, Shirley Stauffer on Sage, Jordan Keesling on Dr Pepper

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 TRAIN HORSES TO EAT CARROTS T-shirt is hereTreat Pouch is here. Billy is wearing the a distinctive purple halter that was on him when he was delivered. It has author John Hauer‘s Turkey Track brand burned into the crown piece. Frustratingly, the word “Clue” is embroidered on the noseband. But Billy never belonged to John, and he had no clue who “Clue” was. Hard as I tried, I could never track down his papers so he was a Good Bay Horse in my barn.

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.

Once Billy’s parasite problem was solved he blossomed into a healthy and stout fellow.

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.

Billy and I had many lovely hours together just plunking around our pond and neighboring farm fields. Quote by Anna Blake, photo by Lauren Duncan

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.”

The headline reads: “All horses deserve, at least once in their lives, to be loved by a little girl” (even if that ‘little girl’ is 50 years old). Shown above are scrapbook pages of owner Gina Keeslings’ mementos of a very big souvenir brought home from a South Dakota vacation. Old, worn-out trail horse Billy earned himself a cushy retirement by doing his job well, carrying Keesling on a fun trail ride through the Black Hills. And silly stuff that you’d ordinarily toss has the potential to incite the fondest memories years down the road. Billy’s sales receipt (an official document needed by the hauler for transport from South Dakota to Indiana) was scribbled on a restaurant receipt. A picture of Billy at his old job was found on former owner’s trail ride business website. A photo of the picturesque highway leading into the vacation destination town was found via a Google search.

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.

For over a decade, HandsOn® Grooming Gloves have helped me clean up messes like this. Even sensitive and hard to manage areas like faces and legs are a snap with these intuitively designed, perfectly fitting grooming gloves. I never thought I’d wish to see this boy covered with mud, but when spring of 2020 rolled around, I sure did.

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.

Even though there was a grove of shade trees not fifty feet away, I would instead find him standing in the hot sun, exhausted and sweaty from fighting flies.

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! 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


  1. Got to the end of your sad (for us) Billy story. It took me back to the day I had Chico put down . He went downhill suddenly thenight before & it was obvious wasnt getting better. The next morning my vet came – found he had a huge heart murmur when she checked him. His reaction was like Billys – we walked out the trail to where our “cemetery” was – he walked right out – stopped once to look back at vet, my son & Mary barn owner, as if to say well whats taking you so long? I think youre right – somehow they know! Of course I’m sitting here with tears pouring down but I know & you know we both did absolutely the right and only thing. I’m with you about the horse rescues. I only donate to 2 now – Chilly Pepper-Miracle Mustangs (who helped rescue those 800 horses in SD that winter) and Horse Plus Humane in Tennessee. Chilly Pepper really could use some more donations & physical help at this point. Laurie is working her butt off saving horses from shippers (slaughter).
    Lovely story, Gina

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, and for sharing about Chico. I debated for a long time, and almost didn’t include the part about him being happy/eager on his last day. It just seem too far-out to be real. Appreciate you validating my experience.
      And thank you for supporting rescues; they are doing great work and need all the help they can get.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am sad to hear of Billy’s passing. You did such a wonderful act of love making his final days so blessed. God Bless you Gina ❤️

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 2 people

  3. What a wonderful story, I had to go back to the original story and read it. You are a great person with a lot of love to share. I am sure he knew this from the first time you rode him. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gina,

    So sorry to know that Bailey and Billy are both gone from our earth. I am glad that you felt okay enough to share what appeared to be far out to you. In my experience, it is not far out. Chris and I have had to release two horses from pain since we came to our farm 20 years ago. Both of these deaths had a magical experience attached to them. After Feila died, a spirit woman came to me to tell me that Feila was her horse now and the spirit woman was taking care of her. Just this year in a journey I found out that the spirit was the ancient Celtic witch spirit. Feila died in 2013. We had to let Primadonna go last year on Super Bowl Sunday. She was the horse who broke her leg in 2002 when she was 6 months pregnant. Her filly only lived 9 months. When the vet administered the blue juice, Prima did not want to go. Prima weighed 800 pounds. The vet ended up giving her a dose for a 1200 pound horse. While Primadonna was not willing to let go, I just was breathing with her telling her it was okay. I journeyed with her and we went to see her dead daughter Pretta and other horse ancestors. I just had my head against her head, and she finally let go. We had Pretta’s cremated remains because that was the only way to get her body back after the necropsy was done at UK in Lexington,KY. We had Pretta’s remains for 17 years waiting to put her in the ground with Primadonna. It was sad, but a truly beautiful ending to a horse life well lived.

    We are very blessed to live with these wonderful companion animals. I have learned that we may not see them, but they are not far from us. I know we keep them in our hearts, but their soul/spirit is also right beside us every day.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. He was so loved. I’m so sorry for your loss. We are blessed to be with them as long as they let us and they trust us to do the right thing when they are tired and worn. May your memories of him all be sweet and give you comfort

    Liked by 1 person

  6. He was so loved and knew it every day you were his person. Giving him a good last day is a gift. Having recently had to make that decision for my beloved dog of 13 plus years, I know it’s a hard decision. I cancelled once myself, but called again the next week. You gave him a gift of relief from the ravages of old age and all the aches and pains he was suffering. He was a kind horse ans got kindness in return. Bless you and all your family and he will always be in your heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I too have made that hard decision. In 2003 my Walter Mitty was put to rest in a green field with afternoon shade. My beloved husband now resides a few feet from him, and some day I will be between my two best guys.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Your story brings back memories of four horses I have had to put down over the years. As loving and responsible horse owners, it “goes with the territory”; but no less tough. This time, I have a little different good-bye story. After having to leave my farm, move to the city, and then take up boarding my horse for the past several years, I finally came to the realization that neither of us were satisfied with our situation. I wasn’t finding the right match for him in boarding facilities and he wasn’t happy. I wasn’t riding as much; and he needed ridden to be his best. He had difficulties adjusting to herd dynamics at the various places we tried. I felt I wasn’t giving him what he needed. He is 20 years old and I wanted him to have a good quality, stress-free life in his senior years. So, I made the tough decision to try and find him a new home. I hoped to find someone who had their own place in the country, where he would have a small herd environment, be loved, and get regular riding. God is Good! I was very blessed to find a place very similar to what he had on our farm. He will be loved, ridden, and well-cared for. I am keeping my saddle; but for the time being, after 40 years, I am horseless. But I am happy and at peace, knowing that I did what was best for my horse. I think he’s happy, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Beautiful story. It made me cry, thinking of my old horses and dogs I’ve had to let go. Bless you for giving Billy a wonderful home and so much love. For making his senior years a happy time. The part about ” a treat? For ME? broke my heart. I’ve known horses like that. So sad. But he was blessed after so many hard years. God sent him to you. It was meant to be. Thank you for saving him.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve read and re-read your story about Billy many times. I, too, had to make the difficult decision to let my first horse go. I agree, it’s part of “the deal” we make with our companion animals when we chose to bring them into our lives.

    Liked by 1 person

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