A Long Goodbye



I have been working in the horse industry for a long time – well over 20 years.  I have worn different hats as I have taken on new projects or developed new programs, all underneath the umbrella of horses. And yet, I am always amazed at the crystal clear AHA moments that present themselves when they do. It is a perfect timing of true clarity. It is in those moments of keen, sharp awareness, sometimes brought on by sorrow or pain, that I truly see who stands before me.

I experienced just such a moment last week when it was time to say good-bye to one of our older horses. As I said, I have been doing this for quite some time now, and while I never get used to saying the necessary good-byes, I have learned to be present in the moment for the sake of the horse in an effort to offer them a dignified passing. Although I am able to wrap myself up in the tapestry of my life experiences, which in turn has prepared me for these heartfelt moments, it is far more difficult for my young students to get their heads and hearts around the passing of a beloved horse.  And yet, it is something that they must learn to do and do well. For it is all a part of good horsemanship, and knowing when it is time to let them go.

Every now and again, a horse will pick a student, and a heart to heart bond is created. Such was the case with Bo and Marissa. For reasons undefined, Marissa fell head over heels for Bo, a big quarter horse who found his way to the ranch, and found his way into a young girl’s heart. And while Bo was a great horse by all accounts, he was not the smoothest of rides – and yet Marissa chose to ride him time and time again for her lessons. The two of them would fly around the arena in perfect form – and I am not referring to equitation – but rather in the perfection of true harmony.  Oh, I could say, “do this and do that” and Marissa would, but beyond rider form, she rode with her heart on that big ‘ol horse named Bo. It was not uncommon to see her lean forward, while in the saddle, and lay her lithe body down on Bo and wrap her lanky arms around his neck; or see her quietly talking to him while she was tacking up; or check-in with Bo when she had to ride a different horse. Long after the lesson you might find her still hanging with Bo before he headed out to pasture for dinner; or as she haphazardly threw her riding gear into the back of her mom’s car before hopping in, you’d hear her yell through the open window, “Good-bye Bo!”

So, it was with trepidation that Marissa came down to the ranch one late afternoon in September to say her final good-bye to Bo. With tears in her eyes, we sat together in her mom’s car and talked about the life Bo had on the ranch and with her. How she found an unexpected friend in Bo when he came to us with his big spirit and big heart. We talked about how important it was that she allows him to go with peace and dignity, and that while it was OK to cry, it was also important to honor him and just be with him. As I shared this moment with Marissa, I could see her internal struggle as she tried to get her young mind around all of this, while her heart was breaking. But she did, and for the next couple of hours I left her alone with Bo while she groomed him, fed him apples, and hung out with him. Peace. Harmony. Love.

 As I looked out my big kitchen window at the two of them in the arena, I had a flash of inspiration and hurried down the stairs, out the door, and into the tack room to get a bridle. “Here you go Marissa, put this on him, hop on, and take him for one last ride.” No saddle, no boots, no problem. Just Marissa and Bo. Freedom. They walked around the arena for a while ever present in the moment; she lay on his neck, the way she does, to give him a big hug; and then it was time to say good-bye.

As they hung out for a bit longer, there was a moment where Bo bent his big head down to Marissa, soft brown eyes peering deep into her being, as if to say, “I am OK and you will be too.” It was the mentor to the student; the wizened soul to the untamed youth; it was the older friend to this young innocent.

I don’t know if she called out the window this time. But I do know she said one more good-bye, in her own way, as the car headed down the driveway.  And Bo too, probably pricked an ear in her direction as he heard the crunching of the tires travel down the long driveway … one last time.

In these hard moments of the heart, it is so important to remember that as stewards of these noble horses, we learn how to let them go and to release them from the aches and pains of old age when it is their time. I have had to learn this over the years, but the learning has been slow and bumpy, because it just isn’t easy. As I watched the long good-bye unfold between Marissa and Bo, it became very clear to me, in that razor sharp way of awareness, that as a steward of the horses, and a teacher to the kids, the letting go can be as sweet and as peaceful as that which I witnessed before me. That in actuality, to release these older horses and allow them to move on, is a gift not a tragedy. To know that in their swan song years at the ranch, they have touched so many kids in ways I may never fully know is extraordinary, at the very least. To see the unadulterated love this child has for Bo, and to know that Bo gave the most precious of gifts to her, is priceless.

As the steward, as the teacher, I am humbled and honored to be privy to so many matters of the heart in ways that continue to teach me and allow me to open that greater part of my being. In these moments I get a glimpse of that greater love, that which is far bigger than me. In the letting go lies the invaluable gift of unconditional love. And that, in the long good-bye to our beloved horses, is yet their greatest gift to us.