Sunday, April 6, 2008

Goodbye, Dancer

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This picture of Dancer was taken just two days before his death.

It has been a sad few days at Watermark Farm, and twice I've started to write about it, but twice I've closed the computer and walked away.

On Friday evening, as I was finishing the day's chores, our retired boarder "Dancer" galloped in from pasture. I watched him and the rest of "the boys" as I always do. They cantered around the big grassy pasture for a moment, then turned west and headed into the winter pasture, toward home. I turned away for a moment to pick up my wire cutters.

When I turned back, Dancer stood in the middle of the field, his right foot cocked. My intuition told me what my brain would later confirm: something was very wrong. I watched him for a moment, thinking that he'd stepped on a stone and would move on once the sting had subsided, but he stayed glued to the spot, unable to bear weight on his leg.

I've written about these moments before, the reach-for-your-cellphone-to-call-the-vet moments where everything seems suspended in time. I reached for my cell phone, only to find it missing. I screamed for the children. The girls ran out and brought me halters to catch the now alarmed herd, who ran circles around Dancer in a frantic effort to re-start their leader.

I cradled my cell phone in my hand for what seemed like an eternity, but in fact was only a moment, sadly aware that the calls I was about to make would change lives: Dancer's and his owner's.

Dancer stood calmly in his spot, his shoulder swelling rapidly. His pulse and respiration skyrocketed. I called for the girls to bring me a blanket. He was starting to sweat.

You know things are bad when you make the first call to the vet. It's not a "will you come and check this horse?" call, it's a "you need to get over here NOW --- we have a major emergency" kind of call. The vet arrived within 10 minutes.

The next calls were made with my heart in my throat. To Dancer's owner, a kind woman of ordinary means who has kept the 19-year-old Thoroughbred pensioned with us for four years. Dancer came into her life, abandoned at a boarding stable. He never really stayed sound, so after a couple of years of plunking away with him, she sweetly arranged for Dancer to spend the rest of his life boarded with us. For four years, she faithfully made, through rain and sun, sickness and family circumstance, the three-hour roundtrip to visit Dancer and make up his ziplock bags of grain. I grew to look forward to the sight of her little black car pulling into the barnyard on Sunday afternoon.

Dancer's owner left home and drove quickly, but time and circumstance were not on her side. The vet suspected that Dancer had fractured his scapula. Either way, the horse, now drenched with sweat, was in unspeakable pain. I delivered this news to her through tears, a kind of pleading. "Please let us put him down now. He is in so much pain. He cannot wait any longer." She was just 45 minutes away, driving quickly into the night to be with her Dancer.

The vet needed no instruction, he just sadly walked back to his truck when he saw he hold my cell phone to Dancer's ear. In this way, his beloved "mother" spoke her final words to him. He stood quietly and listened while she said her last goodbye.

Through the growing twilight, I saw the vet walk back toward me, two large, pink syringes in his hand. I got that familiar lump in my throat. A friend once described putting a horse down as "the loneliest feeling in the world." I think he is right.

Dancer left this world quickly, and with dignity. The last thing he heard was my voice as he fell to the ground. I quickly slid myself under his head and cradled him in my lap as he slipped away. I will miss him terribly.

People who say that these things do not affect animals are ignorant. That evening, I visited each horse in their paddock. They were restless, calling to one another. As I went to each one, I said "Dancer is gone and he is with the angels now." They sighed, taking a big, deep breath.

Early Saturday morning, a lovely man with a big backhoe arrived early. While he dug a grave on the outskirts of the property, I took each horse to see Dancer's body. Half Pint, his best friend, nuzzled his face and licked around his eyes. They all stared long and hard before investigating the body with a kind of grace and kindness. After a moment, they asked to be taken away.

Argus had watched everything from his paddock, from Dancer's last breaths to my "go see the body" procession. I questioned whether I should lead him out there, finally deciding that he deserved to go. I felt proud of him as he calmly walked out there, the backhoe grumbling nearby, and we stopped just short of Dancer. Argus very carefully approached the body, still wary of the dominant alpha horse. He slowly leaned down to sniff Dancer, exploring his face and neck. Then, like all the other horses had done, he seemed done looking, and wanted to go back to the barn.

Later that morning, once Dancer was laid to rest and his grave smoothed into a comforting mound, the girls decorated it with calla lillies and roses. We turned the horses back out into the pasture, watching them as they negotiated their way over to the freshly-turned earth.

A while later, I looked over to see a curious thing. Odie the mule and Argus had eaten all the roses, and Odie was curled up, sleeping, at the base of the grave. Argus and the other horses stood solemnly nearby, a little lost without their fearless friend.

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Dancer and Ridge enjoyed taking a mid-morning nap in pasture just last week


athena_arabians said...

Oh, I'm so sorry to hear about Dancer. I do hope you and his owner can eventually take some consolation in the fact you gave him four extra years and had the courage and compassion to give him a dignified ending when it was necessary.

We will all meet our beloved horses one day on the other side of the rainbow bridge where there is no pain and the grass is sweet...

Rest in peace Dancer


Vee said...

I'm so sorry to hear about Dancer, but as always, so full of admiration for you and those around you who managed to act so quickly to give Dancer the quiet, dignified end he so deserved.

Thinking of you all this morning


Anonymous said...

That's so sad :(
Accidents are always the worst way to lose an animal :/
This made me cry.

Anonymous said...

My sympathies to you, Dancers loving owner and the horses that loved him so much as well.

I thank you and his owner for allowing Dancer to go peacefully. With respect. And allowing his herd mates to say their good byes as well.

Anonymous said...

Oh Katie------how sad for you, his owner and the other horses------I have had to "put down" more than one companion, and it does not get any easier. But at least he did not have to wait, in pain, and is now free, to lead another herd or be led. Adios, Dancer.

L said...

My deepest sympathies to all of you and his owner. Very, very sorry there was such a terrible accident.

barrelracingmom said...

I know it doesn't help, but I am very sorry for you and for Dancer's owner. Bless his heart.

Anonymous said...

So sorry Katie. I hope you are holding up ok. Call me if you need anything. Made me cry:(

Anonymous said...

Katie, family - horse and human, and Dancer's mom, my deepest sympathy.

I know the lump in the throat Katie, as I read this post it brought a heart sinking feeling, accompanying tears. For some reason when a horse passes, even when you hear it only through a computer, it's still like you lost something too.

I am sure Dancer laid to rest with the peace that his owner spoke in his ear. I'm sure they connected greatly over that 45minute gap.

My thoughts are with all of you.

Rest in peace Dancer.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry to hear about Dancer. My thoughts are with you and his owner. CG

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry to hear about Dancer. You and his owner must take comfort in the fact that you did the kindest and most responsible thing for him at the end. Knowing that doesn't make it any easier though. You all are in my thoughts and prayers.

Please give Dancer's family my sincere and deepest sympathy.

GreySomeday said...

I'm very sorry to hear about Dancer. What a wonderful owner he had to be so patient with him, and give him a loving and caring home for life. We all know the fate of so many "useless" horses.

I find his injury a bit puzzling. Has anyone heard of this sort of "spontaneous" scapula fracture before? Can it result from just putting a foot wrong? You saw him running just moments before, so I can't imagine what happened. It's very scary.

You certainly handled the situation with your usual strength and courage. I'm glad the vet was able to respond so quickly, and thank goodness you were standing right there when it happened so he didn't suffer needlessly.

My condolences to everyone (including Argus and the other horses) at Watermark.

a touch wild said...

My thoughts are with you all at Watermark.

May he rest in peace, loved and free and without any pain.

KD said...

Thank you for sharing Dancer's last moments with us although it was difficult for you. My sincere sympathies to you and Dancer's owner.

sellefrancais said...

I am sitting in the middle of the Portland airport and crying.
This hits close to home.
About 8 years ago, when I was 12, and my sister was 10, my mom, and us girls pulled into the top of our street and were met by my neighbor. My mom got out of the car and into his, and came out sobbing.
My mom told us that my sisters horse had broken his leg and had to be put down.
We pulled down the street and the vet was there with a couple of my neighbors. My horse was put away in his stall, but we could hear him calling to his friend.
Shabam, my sisters first horse, the greatest first horse anyone could have, was running around our front pasture with my gelding. He was galloping so fast and slid at one of the corners, slamming into a wooden fence post and shattered his leg. My neighbors had watched the whole thing and said he took a few steps, not putting any weight on it and finally stopped.
They weren't horse people and knew something was instantly wrong. So they called the vet and made the decision to have him put down. He was 22 at the time and the vet said he had never seen a break that bad other than on the racetrack.
It was really, really hard because he was such a great horse. At least his last few moments were doing what he loved, with my horse that he loved.
I can definitely sympathize, I'm so sorry for your loss and the owner's loss.
Death is never easy.

PaintedPromise said...

there just aren't words... i am so, so sorry! please if you get the chance, tell Dancer's owner that she is in my prayers. i can imagine how hard it must have been for her, to be hurrying there but not able to make it. my precious colt had been sick and despite multiple vet visits not doing well... we were on the way to the specialist and when we arrived they opened the trailer before i was out of the truck, i could see them shaking their heads, and my heart just sank... he had died on the way, and i never got to say goodbye... thank you so much Katie for letting her talk to him over the phone, so many people wouldn't even think of that. and God bless you and your family and the Watermark critters as you all deal with this loss.

Anonymous said...

Bless you all ... And thank you for your eloquent description of the horses' grieving. You helped many beings that day, horses and humans alike. May the healing begin.

Callie said...

So sorry for the loss of Dancer and to you and his owner. How very sad. It's good that his death was dignified and you cradled him in his final minutes. It's an aweful thing to have to go through, been ther myself......

Argus' foster mom... said...

Thank you for your words of comfort. I know Dancer's owner will appreciate reading them.

To the woman in the Portland airport, your story made ME cry...How fortunate you were to have such fast-acting non-horsey neighbors. Sometimes the best consolation when a horse suffers a violent accident is that they did not suffer for hours before being found...

Someone asked about how an accident such as Dancer's can happen. The vet was puzzled by it, too. He could not confirm 100% his suspicion of a fractured scapula as that would require more powerful radiograph equipment than we could do in the field. Dancer could not be transported to a hospital. The vet said that a fractured scapula is usually the result of a fall, which Dancer did not have. The other possibility is that he suffered a fairly catastrophic muscle injury which might never heal, even with months of stall rest (Dancer was not a good candidate for such a long layup). My sense after being with Dancer is that he likely had a fracture. Dancer was a very "old" 19 years old, having led a very hard life racing and being used for team penning before his last owner took him in. He may have had pre-existing weaknesses that contributed to the freak accident. He went into shock very quickly, and he was absolutely miserable. Putting him down was by far the only real humane option.

We lost another horse several years ago to a fractured femur, and it was a similar kind of accident, except that she fell while cantering in pasture. In her case, the vet could hear the broken bones grinding around when he manipulated her leg.

I spoke with a friend who worked for a big three-day-eventing barn about this accident. He said they had lost a horse in an identical way. The horse was cantering in turnout and hit a dip in the ground in just such a way that his scapula fractured.

These things happen with horses, but they sure are tough. It always reminds me to hug my horses every day and tell them how much I love them (people too). You never know when the universe will decide to call you home...

Thank you again. Katie

Katie said...

What a sad story. One of my good friend's experienced the same injury with her beloved childhood horse. It was so sad but he still lives with us everyday.

GotGeldings said...

Well, as strange as it may seem, thank you.

I just put my big, sweet, bay gelding down on Thursday, and am currently crying from reading your post. I feel somehow comforted at how eloquently you muster the words to describe how I feel.

I empathize with you, and again, thank you.

StableBabe said...

I can't imagine how hard this must have been to type, but thank you for sharing. Tomorrow is my first horse's birthday. Babe, an OTTB, turns 23. It's supposed to be warm; I'll spoil her with an herbal bath for those old muscles, a hundred kisses, and a mash that would make even a child's mouth water. My other OTTB mare (named Dancer) will also get some extra loving.

Please give my condolences to Dancer's owners. They go out to you as well. Although I've told Babe she can't leave me for many, many years, I hope that when she finally does it will be of her own decision. I want you to know that I'm sharing your tears.

Anonymous said...

Thoughts and prayers to all, Dancer will forever live in your hearts, and I am certain he will alway's be there to watch over all of his pals. God Bless you Katie.

Lisa said...

For Dancer and his people:

Lisa said...

Let's try this again, with a space in it so we get the whole address:

Anonymous said...

You have my sympathies. Sounds to me that Dancer lived out his last years happily, and that's all that matters. Kudos for making the quick, yet necesarry decision.

eighthoundz said...

First, let me tell you how very sorry I am to hear about Dancer. It is never easy, but remember, he is not really gone, he has just gone on ahead of you.

Second, I have just spent some time reading the entire story of Argus. I am absolutely aghast that someone could treat this gentle horse so cruelly. Thank God you came along.

kyryah said...

I am very sorry for your loss, and my condolences to you, Dancer's mom, and the horses. I lost my aged gelding in September of 07, on birthday of all days. I feel his loss as keenly as I did on that day.

May Dancer run forever in the unfenced green pastures in the sky.

Syn said...

This choked me up. I'm so sorry for everybody.

Anonymous said...

I too, am so sorry for your loss of Dancer. I can only imagine how much he will be missed by you and his "herd" and his other mother too.
Thank you for taking the time to write through your tears, and share his final day. It's always hard to decide what's better for them...and you did that for Dancer.
Big hugs to you and Dancer's other Mom.

Stephanie said...

I'm so sorry about Dancer. I was doing fine reading the post, until you started talking about putting the cell up to his ear for his owner to say her final goodbyes.

I hope I never have to do that with any of my own horses, but, I'm sure Dancer's owner was thankful that she could at least say goodbye to him that way.