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Blessed Be The Older Horses

 In my line of work with horses and kids the best horse is the older horse. And this month I want to sing their praises and talk about the attributes of the older horses that have come my way throughout the years. I have a philosophy … well, actually a few … when it comes to the old guys. And specifically one that seems to prevail when it’s time for a particular horse to find its way to this program – they always show up. That’s right. When the time is right and these older horses are ready to sing their Swan Song, they inevitably find their way to my ranch. The poetic definition of the Swan Song is, “the beautiful legendary song sung only once by a swan in its lifetime, as it is dying.” The working definition, which is what occurs at the ranch, refers to a farewell or final performance. For the older horse who finds his way here, it is typically their last and most brilliant of performances as they teach the kids, not only how to ride, but how to grow and be better people.

These horses are far from done. With kids doting on them day in and day out, their new job keeps them young and lively. While they may not be able to do the intense physical work of years past, they do offer something deep in terms of heart and soul. One look in their eyes tells a tale of a long life lived. And that is where the story begins as relationships develop between horse and human. When these horses arrive I read them like I’m reading a book. Their story begins to unfold with the lift of the head as I go to touch an ear; or the apprehension that grips them when the girth is tightened ever so slightly; or a heavy sigh that escapes a lowered head as I rub a spot where saddle sores lie.

When I take them into the arena more is told. The older Dutch Warmblood who still moves so fluidly, with the inherent grace and beauty of a dancer, speaks to years of dressage training. The solidly built quarter horse who jigs a bit when waiting to work a barrel tells me of a past in the rodeo. Or the tried and true trail horse who spooks at absolutely nothing says a whole lot of ground work happened here. It is a bit like opening a present with each new discovery made. Their gifts – of which there are many –  become evident, and it’s exciting that these sage souls will be sharing them with the kids. Yes, this is the book I read as I evaluate these older, golden, gems. I come to learn more of their story by way of their body language and their responses when I put them through the paces. And it is with the greatest respect that I honor who they are, while striving to create a place of peace for them in this, their Swan Song years.

As they settle in and find their place in the new herd, you can hear their appreciative “Thank You.” Sometimes it comes in the way of a head resting on your shoulder for no apparent reason; or a neck that wraps itself around you as you contentedly run your fingers through their mane; or even the long stare from across the pasture followed by a head nod and a whinny. The eyes soften, the tension slips away, and a new beginning has become a new home.  

These horses bring a seasoned wisdom that can only come with age, a wisdom that eludes the young ones. They teach respect when they stand rock still, refusing to move, while a young student tugs and yanks and kicks in an effort to get them to go forward. The slow, sideways glance suggests, “Show some respect, ask me correctly, and maybe I will step on.” A much needed lesson for young kids to learn.

Tolerance abounds as kids learn to ride. These horses have the patience of a saint and dutifully accept this new role as students make one mistake after the other in the learning process.  But patience can run thin, and rightfully so, where a firm rebuke is necessary to further the teachings. The tail swishing with a bit more vigor is a clear indication that enough is enough. The horse who pulls his head forward, yanking the reins out of the students hands saying, “Get out of my mouth!” Necessary lessons taught best by veteran horses.

And too, there’s a knowingness in these old souls who seem to be able to differentiate the experienced rider from the beginner rider. If a horse can show concern it happens at the moment of a tumble when a student takes a spill. Where a young horse might canter away, kicking and snorting at this ‘dramatic’ event, the older horse tends to stop, un-phased by the fact that there is no longer a rider on his back. He looks down at the kid sitting wide eyed and bewildered in the sand and gives him a little nudge that says, “Come on, get back up here.”

In return these horses are adored by the kids. Extra carrots, lots of apples, and the child who stands beside their horse at the end of the day, lovingly saying good-bye, just one more time. And then out in the pasture they go, to roll, to run, to stand and graze, and to just be a horse. The routine is the same and they can count on it. It is a win-win for everyone but mostly for these older horses who are far from done and who have so much more to give.

They retire on the ranch until it’s their time to go. And like clock work, another horse shows up to take the open spot. The mysterious line-up of horses who seem to know just when it’s their turn, their time. This mystical world of horse and human.

And now the ending to the song. The hardest part of my job. The one I know from the outset when I take these guys on. The good-bye. Although well versed in this part of the story, it never gets easier, I just seem to get better at it. Sometimes nature takes them peacefully away in the still of a moonlit night. Other times it’s by design when I have to make the decision that it’s time for them to go and put the call into the vet. These are the tough moments, but moments I accept as part of what I do – the hardest part. No tears are allowed as I stand beside my friend, offering him dignity and grace in these last moments. A scratch on the neck, a whisper in his ear to say thank-you for all he has done, and arms wrapped around his soft neck in a hug goodbye. The lead-line seemingly flutters to the ground while I walk away as his spirit is whisked off to bigger pastures. Tears now flow for the old friend who came to be.

The older horse that gives his heart and soul, and touches so many lives in so many remarkable ways … this is his Swan Song.  

Kim Chappell © 2021 All Rights Reserved