BY BLOG EDITOR LAUREN MAULDIN
It took me almost twenty years of riding to learn what a heart horse actually is.
I mean, in some way I’ve loved all the horses I’ve been around. Doodles, the stout Palomino who taught me to ride, was my first love. Elvis, a crotchety Quarter Horse that was completely maxed out at 2’6″, was more important than any boy during high school. I’ve owned half a dozen horses, leased several more and am fortunate enough to have ridden countless amazing creatures during my equestrian tenure. But I never had a heart horse until Simon.
To try and describe him seems impossible. His personality was bigger than a blog post, untranslatable through words or pictures. Simon wasn’t all that athletically gifted. He was never going to hack around the Dixon Oval, but he was the kind of partner we all hope for.
The best way I can try to explain what he meant to me is this: after my husband died, I didn’t want anyone to hug me. I hated being pitied, and every time a well meaning friend reached out, I fought the urge to recoil. Because really, the only hug I wanted was from my husband’s broad shoulders — except for Simon.
When the barn was empty in the still afternoon, I spent forever with him in the crossties. Currying his thin, red coat that seemed impossibly stretched over his muscles. Digging my fingertips into the roots of his mane near his withers, because it was his favorite itchy spot. I couldn’t get enough of the heat of his breath, slow swish of his tail. He was so present. So alive. I leaned on his shoulder when no one was around. I placed my cheek on his neck, and let him lick the salt off my forearm while I felt the steady beat of his heart.
Ten days ago, I got the call. It was really a series of calls, answered with measured breaths and gulps of liquor in the late night hours while I worried — 2,000 miles away visiting family. There was only one call that mattered though. It came at 2am, and it told me my horse’s stomach had ruptured. That he was still on the operating table, but there was nothing the vet could do.
I tried not to scream after I hung up the phone. I didn’t want to wake anyone. Simon. Simon. Simon. I couldn’t stop repeating his name. Who was I going to lean on now?
It’s hard to explain horses to people that don’t have them. They’re not the same relationship as a dog or cat. When my dog died a few months earlier, I was extremely sad. He had cancer, and watching him slowly decline was heartbreaking. When it was time, I made the decision. Held him until he faded from the earth. Sobbed over his soft, brown curls. I miss my dog deeply, but I also know that the dogs we welcome into our homes love us unconditionally. We love them back, call them our babies and cuddle their fuzzy cheeks. That love is all but guaranteed.
I have no doubt I’ll go on to ride and even own great horses in the future. Maybe even ones with a better jump or honest to goodness clean lead changes. But I’ll never have another Simon, and I’ll be lucky if any horse loves me half as much as he did.
So where do you go when the horse you promised to care for until he died has died? How do you handle it when that happens at least ten years before you thought it would?
I’ve done a lot of the steps. Emotionally collapsed into my community of horse lovers, both at home and online. The outpouring of support from horse people is incredible with a loss like this. We are a persnickety bunch. We’re usually half jealous of each other and gossip like crazy, but when a good horse dies the entire group feels it. Because every equestrian out there has a Simon, and a dull hurt in their heart when they remember that loss.
I picked up his tail, shoes and halter. Sobbed over them in the parking lot of the clinic, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I stroked a snippet of his mane my entire drive home. As I drove, I digested what the vet told me. Displaced colon. Stomach impaction. The bad design of horses. A groom could have been hand-feeding him 24/7, and this still could of happened. He said if we had to blame someone, we should blame Simon for rolling. I didn’t tell the vet that I hadn’t blamed Simon for anything in our almost seven years together, even when he trolloped around the ring cross-cantering and blissfully ignoring all of my aids. I wasn’t going to start now.
I stare at his photos. Print out my favorites. I want his face everywhere, in the absence of him. Jen Brandon Studio holds a contest looking for painting models, and I enter him. When she paints us in our prime, leaping over an oxer with his “thinking ears,” I drop tears onto my iPhone as I stare at the brush strokes in the screen. The next day when I find out someone anonymously purchased the painting for me, I cry harder and wonder how I had that great horse and these amazing people in my life. I’m not sure I deserve any of it.
And finally today, they deliver him. The price the receptionist gave me for cremation was astronomical, but the only other option was rendering. I didn’t need to google that process to know that I couldn’t fathom it for Simon.
The box is huge, and the UPS driver warns me it’s heavy. I have to drag it inside, and grunt when I finally wrestle the oak cube out. Rested on my lap, the box presses a crease on the top of my legs. I wrap my arms around it, and hear the sand move inside. When I shift my weight, it sounds like a hussssssh.
I rarely dream about horses. My teeth falling out or missing a final at school? Absolutely, but never horses. Three nights ago, I dream I’m riding Simon cross country (something we would both be too chicken to do in real life). We’re in a relay race with another team, and we feel like we’re flying. He leaps over ditches, tosses his head to show off like he always did when he was proud of his stellar athletic achievement. I’m sure we’re going to place in the top three, but my friend comes and laps us from behind. Turns out the world’s slowest racehorse and weeniest adult amateur did the same thing they did the time we got 14 time faults in our 1st jumper round — think we’re flying when we were actually calmly cantering.
The dream makes me smile, even when I remember that he’s not waiting for me at the barn. I decide that I never dreamed of horses or Simon when he was alive, because I got to ride him all the time myself. I didn’t need to dream. My reality with him was more than enough.
A week after this loss, I am past the worst of the acute pain. Past the days where it’s a little scary, because everything seems so hopeless. Now I can see how lucky I am. To have my friends and the horse community. To have lived the privilege that was being Simon’s person.
I still don’t know exactly where I go from here. I’ll ponder all the possibilities with my horse friends, and remind myself there’s no way to replace him. When I need to lean on someone, I’m lucky to have my people. On days when that’s not quite enough, I’ll do my best to pull from the memories of my heart horse and those quiet afternoons in the barn.
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
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