BY PAULINE AGUILERA
The horse/human connection isn’t a foreign notion, but it magnifies tenfold at the time of loss. One’s heart is literally torn apart at the feeling of wanting to communicate with them—wanting desperately to hear a neigh. When it came time to say goodbye to our horse recently, he looked me in the eye and nodded. I’d like to believe he was telling me that it’s all ok, he was ready.
We lost our beloved BIG, my daughter’s first horse, love of her life, and everything, on February 23, 2022 at 10:30 am. He was huge, in size and spirit, just 18 years old and truly spectacular. BIG wanted to be the best show horse he could be, yet was challenged by malaise, or assumed illnesses, which prevented him from achieving his dreams. That being said, he was a champion. There wasn’t need for a ribbon to prove it.
BIG was a dark bay, Oldenburg with a huge stride. We brought him home at 13, which meant we had no control over his first years as a jumper. BIG was an equitation horse, imported from Germany, but his years in jumpers may have done some unseen damage. Sometimes treating horses repeatedly with meds cause chronic issues.
BIG moved with us to the east coast. Prancing and showing, touching hearts wherever he went, like an angel. One day, we noticed he didn’t seem quite right. Tests showed that he’d been exposed to EPM, the directive was to treat him immediately, and of course, without hesitation, we did.
BIG improved, and continued to once again shine. To me, he looked like a stallion might, and I believe he thought he was one. BIG won a few blues after his treatment, but would still go into periods of being unwell. In human terms, I’d venture to use the word “malaise.” Additionally, he was arthritic, and ulcers constantly plagued him. He became a bit lackluster, fatigued, seemingly just blah. Once again, we retested, the EPM had seemingly returned. So, we continued to treat him. Upon further testing , it was confirmed that BIG did not actually have EPM, the virus hadn’t crossed the brain barrier. There wasn’t a clear diagnosis. Retiring BIG was the answer. He was telling us that he wasn’t up for showing. 15 felt so young to retire such an exquisite creature.
BIG continued treatment for ulcers—the goal was comfort. His bloods were all within normal range. Shortly thereafter, we decided that due to his arthritis but relatively stable health, Florida would be best for him. BIG thrived in the Florida sunshine and pastures so green. For the past two years, he was happy, healthy, and carefree. BIG was the horse he was born to be.
23 days ago, I received a call from his wonderful caretaker. Her concern was that he refused grain—BIG never refused grain. We proceeded with testing for anything GI related, and ran a CBC panel. BIG passed the GI tests. Subsequent to that, he ate mush at bedtime easily, staying stalled, hydrated and observed. The next morning, the remainder of his tests returned, showing elevated kidney values. We rushed him to UF for IV hydration and ultrasounds. Within 24 hours, we learned both of his kidneys were failing rapidly. We were told there was no hope. The only option was to avoid pain. We lost our dear BIG.
24 hours later, barely functioning and falling to pieces, I find myself in shock. How did this happen? How could we not have known? BIG was great for the past two years, glitch-free, 24 hours later his body crashed. How does this happen?
Hindsight is useless, because it won’t bring him back, but understanding what happened might help other horses. I share his story for BIG’s legacy. I’m angry and have bouts of sheer fury about the whole thing, the god awful unfairness of cutting his life short without answers. It goes without saying that most show horses are on stellar maintenance programs and treated like royalty, as they should be.
But I wonder—what health tests besides the basics should be run, and how often? What symptoms prompt a CBC panel? I can’t help but wonder, what are the side effects of the medications and supplements my horse is getting? Is he getting them too frequently, too casually? Should we ask more questions? Are ulcers the result of something bigger? Do we quickly fix it to make him feel okay, or do we dig deeper? Are there options with less side effects? How do we really know what the protocol is for the first years of a horse’s life that might put him/her in danger later?
I guess the biggest question is, what can we do better?
I’m not a stranger to the economics behind this—costs are steep. Some of us have even hocked a thing or two to cover a bill. But things often feel superfluous in comparison to our horse’s welfare. We do whatever it takes to care for our cherished family. It’s our job as animal advocates, to speak for them, listen to them and give them the very best life we can. I’d like to learn from this tragedy.
BIG will forever be a shining star, sparkling as he looks down on us. Asking us to think for a minute, maybe look into things we normally wouldn’t. I think BIG was brought to us from somewhere heavenly to teach us. He is an angel.
Pauline E. Aguilera is a Cuban American writer and content development editor at literary imprint Thane & Prose. She was born and raised in Manhattan and currently is based in New Canaan Connecticut. Her novel “For Those in Flight” is currently being published and subsequently being prepped for proposal for screen treatment. She is a mother of two and an avid animal advocate.