What My Terminally Ill Dog is Trying to Teach Me About Riding and Life

Photo © Heather N. Photography


It’s no secret that equestrians are driven individuals. Whether we’re bound to a strict show schedule or training at home for personal goals, we keep our eye focused on improvement. Insert all your Type A, goal-oriented, Capricorn-esque stereotypes here. We are a group that aspires to excellence. 

If you’re anything like me, the barn has become an intricate series of creative problem solving. My Thoroughbred has bad feet, you say? Let me research all the hoof supplements, ointments and ask my peers for advice. Not getting the hind engagement I want during my flat rides? Time to schedule in some groundwork, find a good hill, and practice transitions until everything feels more powerful. 

We do this because our goals are huge. We want to get around courses of giant jumps, turn almost feral baby horses into seasoned champions, and coax our bodies to do things that feel unnatural at times. The only way to accomplish our biggest dreams is to break them down into tiny bits and focus on improving one thing at a time. 

Photo © Heather N. Photography

I love this about us, this intense problem solving and goal setting, but it does have the potential to warp time. Those early years with a baby horse can evaporate when we’re laser focused on getting to the show ring. The golden hour of our senior horse’s life can turn into an extensive bout of micro-managing their ailments and injuries in an attempt to keep them happy and going. There’s nobody I’d rather have than a group of equestrians in a crisis. We get stuff done, but lingering in the present isn’t always our specialty. 

I am no different. When I make up my mind that I want something done, I want it done yesterday. My “now” is more pre-gaming for the next instead of living in the present. My brain has a hard time shutting off its “and then, and then” philosophy. When I was younger, I felt like this was a strength. Didn’t that mean I was always pushing towards the next big thing? Isn’t that how we’re encouraged to live? One big accomplishment after the next. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

In early February, my beloved, only seven-years-old dog was diagnosed with an aggressive, highly painful cancer. There’s not enough time to write out how much she means to me, but it’s best explained simply. After losing my husband, two dogs, and my heart horse in a period of four years, this dog is the glue that held my broken heart together. And now, she’s dying too. 

From the first vet appointment, the diagnosis was terrible. Even if I pursued radiation and chemotherapy, the vet thought she had six months at best. A cure was impossible. There was nothing my driven, problem-solving equestrian self could do. 

At first, I put my head deeply in the sand and went for complete and total denial. The diagnosis had to be wrong. More tests! After all, who should believe an MRI? Not this problem solver. You would think that when the tests all came back negative and I was again faced with the original diagnosis, I would have gracefully accepted my dog’s fate. But no, I then began a crusade to treat her cancer like any other problem.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Mauldin

I memorized every statistic on cancerous versus non-cancerous bone-cancer I could find. I can recite to you which breeds are most prone to skull bone tumors (Boxers), what age they usually occur (over ten years) and which bones are in the axial versus the appendicular skeleton. I’ve read every scientific paper on acupuncture, holistic medicine, bisphosphates, and palliative care that I can find. 

During all of this, my mood completely and totally relied on my dog’s health. If she was smiling and having a good day, so was I. But with the tiniest sign of pain, I spiraled. My anxiety started spinning about her health, my life, society in general… anything. It felt like I lived on a perpetual teeter-tooter, and I wasn’t the one driving any of the momentum. 

Exhausted and close to panic, I went to my therapist and explained everything to her. The huge spikes in anxiety, the fear of my dog’s death, frustration that I couldn’t do anything to help her. She listened quietly like good therapists do, and finally asked a simple question:

What if, instead of trying to solve my dog’s cancer, I experienced it with her? 

Photo courtesy of Lauren Mauldin

Equestrians or not, there are so many things in life we can’t solve. Even with perfect footing, good horses go lame. Despite our best efforts, many of us will eventually lose one to colic. Sometimes it seems that the owners that give the best care to their animals have the worst luck, while half-starving horses on the side of the highway trot around sound as a bell through their rocky pastures. But the truth is, we all have our time. Age, money, care, or even love can’t change that. All we have is right now. Not the “when I accomplish my goals” future. Now.

At the moment, my dog is medicated and stable, enjoying good days. When I look at her, I see a slightly impish grin and impossibly happy tail. She has no idea about the sadness in our future. To her, there is no sadness. She has a warm bed, delicious snacks, wide open spaces to run, and me. I will be with her for the rest of her life, doing everything in my power to shield her from pain. And when I can’t, she’ll fall asleep in my arms. There is nothing sad about that. Any of us should be so lucky.

Photo © Grey Boy Pet Photography

One of the ways I cope with senseless tragedy is to look for the meaning in it. Swim through my tears and find humanity within the grief. Through her illness, what I’ve come up with is this: a life that only strives for what’s coming tomorrow is less full than one that recognizes today.

Chase your goals. Work towards them with every breath that you have, but don’t forget to stop and experience where you are right now—in this exact second. With riding, sometimes our timelines can seem hurried. We’re in a rush to accomplish big things with a horse before their green years are up, or maybe a junior feels like they have to cram every single ribbon into those limited years. Trust me, I get the inclination to already start planning the next ride before you’ve taken your foot out of the stirrup from the current one. But we are not best served by living in the future.

I don’t know if it will take weeks or months, but my dog will become so painful that she can’t enjoy her daily life. I will make the difficult decision to euthanize her, and be left alone and heartbroken while she is free from the pain of this physical world. Thinking about that crushes me.

Instead of spending her limited time left researching new experimental drugs or imagining how empty the house is going to feel, we’re going hiking. Sharing pizza, taking naps on the couch together. She may be dying, but right now we are choosing to live.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

How does this all loop back to riding? It does and it doesn’t, I guess. I know that when I swing a leg up over my horse tomorrow, I’ll be thinking about prepping him for lead changes and when we can make our show ring debut together. It’d be silly to say that I’m giving up all my future plans in lieu of a zen state of perpetual “now’ness.”

Yet, while I make those big dreams and do the work to get there, I’m going to try to appreciate where we are right now—simple changes, stiff lateral work and all. No one is guaranteed a certain amount of time on this planet. Life doesn’t carry any warranties. I want to spend my days smiling as much as possible, and go to bed every night knowing that I did my best to appreciate the day.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Mauldin

In short, live a bit more like my dog. That might even be a better standard of excellence than anything else.

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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