On May 22, 2014, my lovable old gelding broke his femur in his left leg. He was fine at breakfast, then an hour later, his leg was broken. We will never be quite sure exactly what happened. We know he was not cast in his stall, and there were no tell-tale signs he had kicked the walls.
There were no cuts; he never cried out in panic. Most likely, according to our vet, he just had old brittle bones, which I believe was made worse by the severe starvation he was subjected to by his previous owners that also caused him permanent heart damage. Maybe he laid down and it broke getting up, or maybe he just turned on it the wrong way. It does not matter how it happened, only that it did.
One moment he was fine; two hours later he was gone. Life is like that, sometimes, and it sucks.
His Name Is Charlie
I say is, because, although I cannot see him or touch him with my hands, he remains in my heart and I still can imagine his whinnies in my ear. I close my eyes and I see his forelock blowing gently in the wind like a red flame. I can conjure his image and his scent and his presence. But I ache because I cannot hold him and stroke him and tell him how very much I love him and what a good boy he is.
In obvious pain, Charlie stood trembling, but let the vet check his leg to confirm what the portable x-rays suggested just to be completely sure. He stopped when we all heard the confirmation — bone grinding on bone. Charlie was in his mid to late twenties, because of a heart murmur he could not even be sedated safely, and was not a candidate to risk surgery to place a steal rod in the femur, a surgery, the vet said very often fails anyhow.
On three legs, Charlie made his best effort to exit his stall for the last time and walked a few steps — just far enough so we could lay him to rest.
It was a peaceful ending. Fast –mercilessly fast, and he was surrounded by people he loved, and people who loved him. His two horse brothers called out to him letting him know they were there, too. I held his head and kissed him long after his last breath. I never wanted to stop planting kisses on his beautiful face and nose. I did not want to leave. I did not want to stay. I did not want to be saying goodbye to another horse so soon.
Charlie Gets Rescued
Charlie and I found each other only two days after I had to let my first horse, Merlin, go. I swore I was done; it is too painful letting go of a horse, but there was Charlie by chance and he needed me as much as I needed him and he seemed to decide I needed a horse.
Charlie was a casualty of a summer rental barn. He was bought cheap at auction at the beginning of the summer, used for lessons, abused and neglected all summer long, then returned along with eleven barn mates to auction on September 1, 2012. Ten of his mates went to slaughter, Charlie was one of two pitiful souls that broke the hearts of rescue workers who spent all day raising funds to buy him, finding someone willing to transport him to the equine hospital, and finding someone to take him in after he received emergency medical care.
Within a few hours, a very determined rescue worker found donors to pay the $125 to spring him from kill buyers, a trainer to pick him up in her trailer, a vet willing to take him in and “pay later” and an emergency foster home for him to go to, which just happened to be our barn. It was there that our kind barn manager handed me a lead rope two days after my horse died and said “you need a project horse to help you heal” and took me to the new rescue horse’s stall.
His body score was 1. He was more skin and bones than any creature I had ever seen and I half expected him to fall down at any minute. But he did not. Despite all he had endured, he had a strong will to live, and to find someone to love.
His back and withers were covered in fresh bloody saddle sores. One hoof was cracked clear up to the coronet. He had scars and a gaping wound from a halter digging into his nose, and long, deep scars from spurs marks. His neck had a severe crush injury from being beaten with a bat. His hip had two brands — one was carved into his flesh with a knife.
The more I studied him, the harder it was to look at him, but something inside me began to whisper to my heart, “you could not save Merlin, but you can save this horse.”
He was also covered in bite marks, kick marks, and he retreated to the back of his stall cowering, whites of his eyes showing. There was no aggression, only fearful submission. Having exited only a few years prior from a 20-year-long violent marriage, I knew the signs of abuse and I understood what this scared little horse had endured and what he was feeling. And it was then that I knew I could help this horse.
More About Charlie
Charlie Chooses Me
I did not go in to greet him right away, he was too terrified and I was too shocked by the sight of him and so I sat on a tack trunk outside his stall peering across the alley staring at the empty stall my horse used to sleep in. I started to cry.
The old horse moved slowly, cautiously, from the back corner of his stall and poked his head out shyly. He licked my head and let out a soft nicker. He was scared, but curious, or, maybe he was offering a “hey it’s okay human, I feel your pain…” I don’t know. But in that moment I felt like Charlie chose me.
In the beginning, Charlie would not come near a person, not even me, unless he had to. He trembled and pooped himself when I groomed him. The sound of a moving chain or the mere site of a crop or whip terrified him. He could only be hand-walked 5 minutes at a time before his legs wobbled, then it became 5 minutes twice a day, then ten, and eventually, he became strong enough to tack walk for 5 minutes, then ten, and eventually 20 minutes.
In the first year of his rehab, he put on more than four hundred pounds, his open bloody sores from saddles and horse attacks healed. The farrier worked miracles repairing his broken hoof, cleaning out an abscess, and Charlie was sound enough to try a little riding. In time, his spirit also healed, and he whinnied loudly as soon as he heard my voice or saw me coming in the distance. He would learn to recognize the sound of my car and race to his gate and wait for me.
Despite his age, we found him to be a very green horse. He was willing, but when he did not understand what you wanted he became terrified and froze. After a month or so of walking, we began to trot a little, and then a little canter. And then, he went dead lame.
The vet found an old shoulder wound had become inflamed, his heart murmur had gotten worse, and it was clear his neck and back were also bothering him. We got him massages, chiropractic care, supplements, and gave him all the time in the world to heal. And heal he did. But I chose to retire Charlie completely, he had paid his dues in life and I felt no need to ride him. We were besties and enjoyed just being together. I wanted him to live a long, long time and never had the desire to ride him again because I knew it caused him pain.
As his body became stronger so did his confidence. He went from being a shy and terrified beaten down horse to curious and outgoing horse vibrant with life. He called out and talked to people, horses, and even dogs. I started calling him Charlie, “Mr. Sassy Pants” because he seemed to have something to say to anyone who would listen. I think he was just expressing the joy of being in a forever loving home and being treated with kindness and respect he deserved. And he gave that love back ten-fold.
Rejoice For Charlie, And For Those You Can Help
And now, without any warning, today would be our last day together.
He nibbled a few carrots, nickered to me softly, and then turned to say good bye to my daughter. He placed his head on her chest, licking her with kisses, and then he turned his head to touch me with his soft muzzle and did not want to break physical contact. He just kept his soft nose on my hand or arm and nickered softly. He was pleading; he did not want to say good bye and neither did I.
When Charlie was rescued, he was given a second chance in life. That is certainly a reason to rejoice and it comforts me to know that he only experienced love and kindness in his last year and a half with us. I am crying, a lot, and, I admit to feeling a profound sense of sadness and loss, but I also find a reason to rejoice in that he was spared a terrifying and violent death at a slaughter house because he was rescued at the last hour. I thought about that when it came time to let him go. He was scared but he trusted us. He was not alone and he accepted our comfort and love. He died painlessly, knowing that he mattered, surrounded by love and compassion, and he will be remembered and missed for the remainder of my own life.
Charlie was given this gift because of the kindness of people who never knew me or Charlie — strangers who answered a call for funds to help him and who donated $5 here, $10 there until the funds were enough to pay for his release from the kill buyers.
Even small donations, when combined, add up to big things — all donations make a difference — the sum of multiple small donations made a difference to Charlie because they bought him his freedom and a new life. His last days on earth were spent grazing, and rolling in dusty turn out pens, and taking lovely walks. He was adored, pampered, and I want you to rejoice with me that although Charlie’s time came to soon, it came filled with love.
There are more horses out there that we can still help when we work together. I want Charlie’s story to move you to tears and then to action. Not for the tragic loss of my best friend, but joyful tears over the good things that Charlie had before he left us because he was one of the lucky horses that got rescued. And, because being able to make difference in the life of any animal who is suffering is a cause for joy and celebration.
The day after Charlie left us, I posted this update on Facebook, summarizing how I feel:
Yesterday I was in shock. Today, I woke with the feeling “this is real” and the heavy weight of loss bears down as is to be expected … He is home now, in horsie heaven and I imagine Charlie in his glorious state now running free and wild; his soul released from an aging body that gave out on him. I miss him but he is good now. He is good. In time, I will be good again, too.