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Blessed Are 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 our way throughout the years. I have a philosophy … well, actually a few … when it comes to the old guys, but specifically one that seems to prevail when it’s time for a particular horse to find its way to this program … they always seem to show up at just the right moment.  I like to watch patterns in life and patterns in nature, and as it would happen, when the time is right and these older horses are ready to sing their Swan Song, they inevitably find their way here. 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 typically is their last and most brilliant of performances as they teach the kids not only to ride but how to live and be.

These horses are far from done and their new job here – with kids doting on them day in and day out – 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. I read these horses when they arrive like someone reads a book. Their story begins to unfold with the lift of the head as you 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 you rub that spot where a saddle sore lies. This is the book I read as I evaluate these older, golden gems – as I come to learn their story by their body language and responses. 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 this new herd, you can hear their appreciative “Thank You.” Sometimes it comes in the way of a head that rests itself 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 low stare across the pasture with a head nod your way or the low rumble of 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 from time; a wisdom that eludes the young ones. They teach respect, without a lot of drama, when they stand rock still, refusing to move, while a young student tugs and tugs in an effort to get them to move forward. The sideways glance suggests, “Show some respect and ask me correctly and perhaps I will step on.” A much needed lesson for young kids to learn.

Tolerance abounds as kids learn to ride. Excessive kicking and too much pulling seem to be the norm in the beginning, but with the patience of a saint these horses accept this and dutifully continue on. And yet, this same tolerance can turn into a firm but gentle reminder that enough is enough, when the tail swishes with a bit more vigor, or the horse pulls his head forward as if to say, “Get out of my mouth!”

And too, there exists 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 you take a spill. Where a young horse might canter away, the older horse tends to stop when he realizes something has dramatically changed, as he looks down at his rider who is sitting in the sand. A nudge with his head says, “Come on, get back up here.” 

In return these horses are adored by the kids who come here. 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.

We keep them until it is their time to go, so they retire here as the next one arrives to take their place. The hardest part of my job is saying good-bye. Sometimes nature takes them peacefully away in the still of a moonlit night, other times I have to make the decision with the vet by my side. These are the tough moments, but moments I accept as part of what I do – the hardest part. No tears 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 then the leadline seemingly flutters to the ground while I walk away, as his spirit is whisked off to bigger pastures. Tears now flow for the 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