BY LAUREN MAULDIN
It took me a while to be able to go to the barn. I got home after my holiday travels a little less than a week after I lost Simon to colic. Usually that much time away meant I would sprint to the barn before my suitcase was unpacked, but even though I woke up in the comforts of my own bed, home didn’t seem like home.
Most of us who ride board our horses, so it’s natural to assume the loss won’t feel as “close” as it does when a dog or cat passes away. After all, we don’t share our homes with our horses. But my apartment, thirty minutes away from the barn, felt emptier without him. Every room has a picture of Simon on the shelf, a painting on the wall, or a ribbon tucked away in a corner. Nothing’s changed since he died, but everything feels different.
I think it’s because our connection with horses is more than physical proximity. We need to know our partner is waiting for us ready to tackle challenges as they come. It gives us confidence and happiness, no matter how far away they are. When that partner is gone, the whole world feels a little bit harder.
After Simon first died, I thought I’d never want to ride again. Never want to own another horse, but that wasn’t going to be the case. My love for this sport and these animals is deeper than my grief. After a few days assimilating back into life at home, I drove the familiar trip to the barn.
My barn family was respectful of his things. The stall was exactly how he left it the day they shipped him to the clinic. The expensive salt chew he hated had its layer of dust. Tattered, but still useable, fly mask hung up on the door. Blankets folded over the bar. Simon was the only thing missing.
Horse people, even grieving ones, are practical above all else. Of course I wanted to bend over his sheet, take in the smell of my horse and sob, but I knew that wasn’t what I needed to do. Instead, I sorted out his things.
Donated his blankets to the school horses. Took his bridles off their hooks, cleaned the leather and returned my trainer’s bit. I hugged her, and we both cried a little. Sometimes there’s comfort knowing that you’re not the only one who misses him, not the only one who hurts.
I fit everything neatly into his trunk and carried our medal finals cooler home with me. Winning that cooler was yet another lifelong dream that Simon made come true. I didn’t want another horse to wear it.
I slid his nameplate out of the stall door, and looked down the barn aisle before I left. Physically packing everything up gave me the smallest amount of closure. His stall was ready for another horse, but I wasn’t sure when I would be.
A few days later, I went back out to ride for the first time after he died. This time there were no tears. It only took me about three strides of cantering to remember, Yes. I love this. I will always love this even when it hurts. Cooling out the horse after our ride, I felt like I released a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding.
It still hurts. Of course it does. I’ll walk a horse up to the top ring to lunge, and remember how ridiculous Simon acted when he needed to play on the line. He’d toss his head, strike out with his front feet and fly around me with his tail flagged. Even though I watched a warmblood trot calmly in front of me, I pictured my crazed Thoroughbred feeling himself. And it hurt.
I’ll lead a horse into the crossties I used to always put him in, and be surprised when I see thick, winter hairs to curry instead of his body clipped coat. Simon hated getting muddy, and I remember this every time I scrub caked on mud off whatever horse it is I’m working with. And it hurts.
We also can’t forget how the best way to make yourself feel like a terrible rider is to hop on a strange horse. Each lesson I have, I realize how many mistakes my horse both forgave and hid. I hear a lot of, Simon let you get away with that, but now you have to do better, during my rides now. And it hurts. Not just emotionally, my legs are really sore these days.
But with all of this hurt, there is a deep rooted love. I love being around horses. Their dusty scent feels right in my nose. A long day at the barn leaves me physically exhausted in the best way. Even when I feel incompetent after a hard ride on a new horse, I feel just as grateful for everything that Simon gave me.
Every time I touch a horse right now, it hurts a little, but each hurt brings a new kind of healing. I don’t know when I’m really going to feel better about losing him, but I’m trying to give it time. Give it time, and enjoy the ride as much as possible along the way.