Our family has always been made up of more four-leggers than two. I have three children, all adult and living on their own now, who helped accumulate our herd of three cats, two dogs (at one time three) and three horses. Our daughters pony is showing signs slowing down, and we have to begin the hard part of life: Deciding when to let him go.
Saying Goodbye To Our Four Legged Family Members
The animals we brought into our family when they were young are now old. We're facing end of life challenges. The biggest question - When Is It Time?
Let's Be The Crazy Parents
My husband and I were the crazy parents. We bought our daughter a pony when she was six.
At five she started taking lessons at a local Hunter Jumper barn, close to where we lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles. This was after riding the minis at the petting zoo when she was three and gradually moving up to the trotters. When she asked if she could learn to ride "without a seatbelt" we took her down to the local stable.
The barn housed over 200 privately owned horses and the Professional barn where people took lessons or leased horses. Located under the power lines along the cement river bed (at one time the L.A. River, now it's more of a storm drain canal, hence the cement) and was less than three "city blocks" from our house, nestled between the tangled highways of southern California.
We leased a horse for her to ride, Beach Boy, a sweet old boy, raised and owned by the kids trainer. It was love at first sight and my tiny little girl rode this 16 hand horse everywhere.
When the trainers started filling our heads with visions of equine greatness in our child, they pointed us in the direction of ponies saying it would be a good fit for a growing girl. She was all of six at the time and wasn't able to groom or saddle a full sized horse. At six, she wasn't really able to do this at all, it didn't matter if the horse was big or small. It didn't stop us. She wanted to ride.
We tried out a couple of ponies during our search. They all had candy names like Snickers or Oreo.
Then we met Skittles.
Tasting the Skittles Rainbow
My daughter was in the afternoon kindergarten class, leaving our mornings open to do lots of fun stuff. Some mornings it was a quick trip to Disneyland. (Mind you, this was back when annual passes were under $100 and you could park for $5.) Many mornings were spent at the barn so my daughter could take her lesson before school.
One morning we piled into the car and headed to San Juan Capistrano to see a pony the trainer was all excited about. "This little guy is the perfect show pony," I was told.
Talk about cute, cute, cute. He's a Pony of the America's (POA) and his papered name is Red Rocks and Cinnamon Rolls. His barn name though, is Skittles.
His white body is covered in copper patches and dots on his rear. His spiked rust colored mane stands at attention, giving him a kind of biker's look.
And he was saddled up and ready to go.
My daughter jumped on him and rides him around the small arena, like they've been doing this for decades together. I'd never seen her so confident and comfortable in the saddle. Of course at six years old, she hadn't been in the saddle all that many times. And while I knew someone had probably already ridden the spunk out of the little guy, I also knew we'd found what we were looking for.
As we're standing there in the beautiful late spring weather of southern California, it started to rain. Big diamond drops fall around us, glinting sparks of mini rainbows around my daughter and Skittles.
And then she jumped him. I'm not really sure if she steered him to the jump or if he did. But it was perfect. The way he pushed them up into the air was not jarring. It did not scare my daughter who'd never jumped before. In fact, it made her so happy they did it again and again, until the trainer had to stop them.
I think I wrote the check before the saddle was off the horse.
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He Was Perfect Until He Wasn't
Skittles and my daughter were like peas and carrots. She wanted him to live in our tiny backyard and wanted to ride him to school for show and tell.
They won ribbons at the shows and would pose proudly for every picture. The pony was definitely a show horse.
He 'showed' my daughter how to really ride. He made her pay attention and knew how to get her focus back when she wasn't. He made her a really good horse back rider.
And I swear there were times when they'd be in the show ring and having to follow a pattern, when I'm pretty sure he was the one doing the steering. I'd watch him study the pattern as closely as she did while the trainer when over it with her. "This jump, then this one," she'd point. Skittles would look at the map and then out to the arena. Then he'd snort and look back to the board, as if paying attention to the trainers instructions.
They did very well for a few years. We spent a lot of time and money at that barn and on that horse. And when my husband and I bought our own horses, well, time and money at the barn increased. We bought our own trailer and truck and started taking them out for trail rides. Skittles wasn't always able to go with us due to his training schedule as well as his show horse status. You just didn't take expensive show horses trail riding.
Skittles started acting up, but only in the show ring. We knew there was a problem when he threw my daughter off during a warm up round. It was scary, but she was okay. What didn't go over okay with me was when the trainer said, "maybe it's time for a new pony."
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Bring In the Horse Whisperer
My daughter was now nine and yes, she was getting bigger. But she wasn't (and never did get) too big to ride him.
It wasn't her. It was the pony. He just wasn't happy.
A flyer was posted in the stables about an animal communicator offering a very unique service. She'd talk to your horse and record the conversation. For a fee, of course.
We brought her in and had her talk to all three of our horses. Yes, we were crazy. None of us wanted to sell Skittles. He was a part of our family. We wanted to figure out what the problem was and go back to having fun, instead of worrying if he'd throw his rider again.
She told us everything we needed to hear. He wasn't happy living in the training barn, in his little stall being handled by people who "were not his family," (meaning us) and, get this, he didn't like being left behind when my other two horses got to go out for rides.
He also didn't want to jump or go to those crazy places as he called them, anymore. He was done being a show pony. He wanted to be a horse with the other horses and go trail riding.
Within a week we pulled Skittles and our daughter out of the show barn and stopped the lessons and extra stable help. It meant us being down there more often (read: Me, the MOM) and doing more of the chores associated with horses, plus the tacking and untacking. It made us step up to the plate and be real horse owners.
But the transformation of Skittles was worth it. I watched him switch back to the awesome little POA I knew him to be, almost over night. As soon as I said to the Whisperer "he's done up there. I'll move him today if I can," it was like he was okay again. He was okay again.
Bigger Changes Made Us Closer
Not long after moving Skittles, we ourselves moved.
We moved from our tight, if not over crowded neighborhood to the open space of the Sonoran desert, north of Scottsdale, Arizona. We bought a house on a little over an acre just outside the Scottsdale Preserve, north of the McDowell Mountain Preserve and west of the Tonto National Forest. Lots of space to ride all around us.
The first few years, while our daughter lived with us, were great. She rode him on trail rides, joining my husband and I on our gaited horses. Skittles figured out a perfect trot to keep up and kept time with the others. We had a lot of fun out there.
But as she grew up, her interests turned elsewhere and she didn't ride as much. My husband started ponying the pony along side his horse when we went out for rides. Skittles did great, knowing when to move away from cactus and was especially great at picking his way through wild land when we'd get out into the Tonto.
After my daughter moved away to college, I started taking him out on hikes with me. I couldn't take my dogs, there were too many cactus stickers on the trail and the threat of a coyote attack made me nervous. (Yes, that kind of thing was still happening back then out here. Not so much now, as there are many more houses around.) So I'd take Skittles out and subject ourselves to the "hey that's a funny looking dog you've got there" jokes.
He did great and loved the attention. And it was nice to have a hiking buddy.
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He's Older Now
My little friend, who helped turn my daughter in a pretty tough woman, who's taught me so much about myself too, is getting old.
At 30, he's doing very well. After much research, it seems ponies can live to be much older, it just depends on them and their care. Just like humans.
Up until about a month ago, he'd been doing tremendously well. Both the farrier and vet said so. We were taking great care of him.
But then he started limping, acting like his feet hurt to walk on. He didn't want to leave the soft grindings of his stall. And when he did walk, his gait was strained. I recognized that walk because I'd been suffering from Achilles tendon injuries in both feet and I hurt with every step I watched him take. But how do you rehab an old horse and teach them how to walk again? You don't. You just wait it out, and keep them as comfortable as you can.
I talked to the vet today and we're going to make a few adjustments and take it from there. I know I'm entering what is an uncomfortable time, for both him and me. He's older, he's having a health issue, and I'm his caregiver. We'll work through it, together.
If anything, I know I am ultimately responsible for his care and how the decisions I make will effect him. I know that I do not want him to suffer until there is absolutely nothing else we can do. There will be a point during this journey into the inevitable that I will have no choice but to end his life. I will not prolong his pain, just to avoid my own.
And, I believe, he will leave this existence, just as I will, just as every living thing will and move on to what ever is next, a place where all living things go - next. Having sent other pets and seeing other people off to this next place, I know we'll all be together again, when I get there too.
So while I go down this path, I will do my best to not be sad that his end may be close. I will do my best to remember all the good times of our life together and maybe he'll pick up on those memories too, and be happy knowing what a special part he's been in our lives.
And when he's at the end, I'll let him go in peace.