Losing One of the Herd

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All I knew as I entered my last two semesters of graduate school was that I wanted to work with animals. As my advisor and I sat down to look at the list of eligible placements, we found less than a handful of opportunities. She would call, I would call, we would get no answers. 

“I think we may have to give up and find something else,” she’d cautioned. 

I had already given up the last two semesters and settled for a placement at a sexual assault prevention agency. With two left, I refused to give up—to the extent of considering postponing my last semesters if the University of New England Master’s of Social Work program could not support my dreams. I’d gotten my undergraduate degree in Medical Biology on the track to become a veterinarian. During my last year, I obtained an internship at a veterinary practice and work-studied with the Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center (MARC) which has since closed. Those experiences made me realize two things:

  1. I want to work with animals the rest of my life
  2. I don’t want to work with sick animals all the time

Then I found out about equine rehabilitation, Healing through Horses, and in a last-ditch effort, the Institute for Equine Assisted Practices. 

“It’s a long shot,” my advisor cautioned again, “but it might be your only shot for what you want.”

The only catch?

I’ve been terrified of horses my entire life.

In the middle of the winter, I met Asa Woodman at a barn, trudging through snow in my rain boots with my feet freezing. “Come on through,” she called out. 

I paused to evaluate my circumstances. There were horses in every paddock leading toward her. I hadn’t quite told her that I’m terrified of horses, yet. “I’ll just go around,” I yelled back.

Finally, after walking all the way around, I found my way to where she and several horses were. I took a deep breath, slid between the planks of the fence and walked toward her. The horses were far enough away that I could convince myself that I was fine and keep the shaking in my hands to a minimum.

We discussed my experience with animals. We discussed my future. And lastly, I finally admitted, “I don’t have any experience with horses.” 

To which she responded, “We can work with that.” 

I took another breath. “I’m actually scared of them.”

She gave me a half smile and said, “We can work with that, too.” 

As if my words summoned him, a horse came to greet me and I stiffened like a railroad spike. She offered to stand beside me as I struggled to catch my breath.

Flash forward several months to late spring/early summer when the rains had mostly stopped and the sun came out, finally. With guidance, I was able to put a halter on a horse, a lead, learned how to groom the horses, and most importantly, how to interact with them and what to watch for. 

Beyond that, I was in my clinical year internship. I watch how clients interact with the horses, how therapy takes place with them, and how I might be able to integrate this into future practice. Though I was slowly learning skills, it was a running joke that I was terrified of the horses. But no amount of preparation or skill building can prepare anyone for saying goodbye.

Photo courtesy of Lynne Schmidt

When my internship started in May, there was a skinny brown horse, Daiwik. Of the five on the farm, he was the friendliest, many times meeting me at the gate to say hello or following me around while I tried to muck out the paddocks. Though I kept distance between me and the other four horses, Daiwik demanded to be in my space. Sometimes, he would go so far as to stand between me and the wheelbarrow I tried to shovel poop into so I had to pet him. Which, as the weeks passed, I obliged more. He wanted affection and butt scratches so much to the point if a human wasn’t around you could find him rubbing up against a tree.

I spent two months stumbling around learning about the horses – how to maintain my own space, how to move them as needed, how to not get knocked over, etc. But because Daiwik was so gentle, he became my “test” horse. 

Asa or another member of the clinical staff would teach me a new skill, and over the next week I would try it on Daiwik to see how it worked. If it did, I became more comfortable to try it on the other horses. He helped me build my confidence and gain the remote comfortability I have now. Of all the horses on the farm, Daiwick was the only one I wanted to be around. I would finish my lunch early to go out and spend time with him. Each time I left, he would wait by the fence for me to say goodbye.

Though the other horses were lovely, I found myself keeping them at a distance. Daiwik was the only one I would let into my personal space and on occasion, go so far as to lean on and hug him. He would nuzzle my chest and I would scratch under his chin, and though I am a dog person through and through, for the first time in my life, I wanted to become a horse person.

However, this serenity was not meant to last.

In June, as we struggled to understand why Daiwik was becoming more lame, or why he couldn’t put on weight, Asa and the rest of the farm got the devastating news that Daiwik had no chance of recovery and would be in pain the rest of his life. Worse still, his euthanasia date was set for July 10, which doubled as Daiwik’s 10th golden birthday.

The Sunday before the date, I said goodbye to this special being. 

Photo courtesy of Lynne Schmidt

It was my first time putting a halter on a horse unsupervised. My first time grooming, putting a lead rope on, and guiding a horse to the ring. And I did it, because I trusted Daiwik and he trusted me. Though there were many leaves to choose from, and some grass around the sides, instead of going for a snack, Daiwik followed me in the ring with no lead attached no matter how many laps we walked, or how often his knees popped. When I sat on the corner of the fence, he followed and pushed his head against me for more scratches.

Before I was truly ready, it was time to go. I led Daiwik back to his paddock while he stood still and allowed me to remove his halter. Though I came into my internship terrified of these creatures, tears stung my eyes as I pressed my lips against his muzzle.

“I’ll see you soon,” I told my friend. “Thank you for everything you taught me.”

And as tears rolled down my cheek, Daiwik nuzzled me one last time.

Lynne Schmidt is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, and mental health professional with a focus in trauma and healing. She is the author of the chapbooks, Gravity (Nightingale and Sparrow Press) which was listed as one of the 17 Best Breakup Books to Read in 2020, and On Becoming a Role Model (Thirty West), which was featured on The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed for PTSD Awareness Week. When given the choice, Lynne prefers the company of her three dogs and one cat to humans.