The things that inspire the most also often hurt the most. The greatest loss comes from having received the greatest gift, from having loved so deeply that it is hard to determine where the heart and soul of one ends and the other begins. It is impossible to experience the depth of love without risking the pain of deep loss. Such is the cost of true love.
In 1980, I had been taking horseback riding lessons at a little barn in Medford, NY (on Long Island), when a mare and her foal came into the barn. The mare was beautiful, but the foal was stunning. Both were a gleaming sorrel – the color of a copper penny – and the foal was strong-willed, somewhat foul-tempered and I was smitten from the minute I saw her.
Wenways Brat and I were destined to be together from the moment we laid eyes on one another. I had no idea she liked to kick people who came into her stall, and she had no desire to harm me. Thus was the beginning of our nearly 32-year love story.
On Long Island, Brat’s incredible conformation made her a champion in the show ring at halter, and her willingness to please (and show off, I believe) earned her accolades in Showmanship in her first year.
When my family moved to Georgia in 1981, Brat came with me. As an unbroken filly, large already for a Quarter Horse, she was a handful, but our bond was unbreakable.
Stubborn as she was, when I broke her to saddle, we backed around the riding arena for several weeks before she submitted to moving forward. When she did, the motion was fluid, the sensation like flying. Everyone who ever rode her said it was unlike any other horse they had ridden.
In 1985, Brat gave birth to a filly, Southern Cross, who lived for a mere 24 hours before her under-developed lungs took her from us. Another attempt at breeding was unsuccessful, and I opted not to put Brat – or me – through it again.
When I had my own children, my time with her was more limited. There was a time when someone wanted to buy her, but Brat fractured her ankle and the buyers changed their minds. To this day I believe it was Brat’s way of coming home to me and staying there.
She had an affinity for children, and we could perch little ones on her back with an adult or by themselves without fear. My daughter was just two months old when she trotted up and down the long dirt driveway in the saddle with me. Brat served as an instruction horse at two different YMCA camps, and at 16.1 hands, was among the largest riding horses at both.
The second camp was located on very rocky terrain, and her constant stone bruises prompted me to find a new place for her to stay. A friend I had met through work had a farm a few miles from my home and I asked her if she knew of a boarding facility. As it happened, she was looking for a pasture boarder, and we moved Brat there in the summer of 1997.
The farm had a run-in shelter and one stall, but Brat lived in the pasture, making friends with Donna’s Thoroughbred gelding named Fizzer. Over the 15 years that followed, Brat and Fizzer were the mainstays, and had a close bond.
I would ride on occasion, but Brat was more my companion than a riding horse. She had done well in the show ring, and probably could have done a lot more. Sometimes I thought I should have allowed her that career, but maybe we wouldn’t have had such an easy relationship. She enjoyed retirement, as her main “job” was keeping me happy.
Brat would stand, dozing contentedly in the pasture as I groomed her. I could pick up her feet, comb her tail, even duck under her belly, and she would stand still until I finished. The only thing she didn’t enjoy was a bath, but she tolerated those on occasion – then would find the nearest patch of dirt and roll, grunting in ecstasy as she looked at me and shook – the horse equivalent of thumbing her nose at my idea of cleanliness.
She never bucked while I was riding her. Despite riding often over the years – daily before I had children – she was always a pleasure and I never fell off. To my knowledge, no one ever fell from her back. If the reins fell to the ground, she would stop in her tracks. But I didn’t need reins to ride her. She responded to the slightest touch of my leg on her flank, and at times all I did was turn my head and she would follow that lead.
In the early 1990s, I kept her at a farm in Woodstock where I was responsible for her daily care. I would take her out to the pasture in the morning on my way to work, then spend time cleaning her stall and riding before feeding her dinner in the evenings. Bringing her in meant leading her from the paddock to stand next to the fence while I climbed up – bareback with only a halter – and gallop to the barn.
When Brat turned 30, we celebrated together with a ride. Both of us were a little arthritic, so we kept it short, but I believe she enjoyed it as much as I did.
In the last two years, she struggled to keep her weight on during the winter. I changed her feed, added a supplement and was thrilled when she rallied each spring. Silly as it sounds, she had the wide back-end of a Quarter Horse, and maintaining the bus-back tush was a sign robust health.
Last October, on a whim, I rode her around the yard. She was healthy and sound and when I lifted the reins she lowered her head as if she was competing in a show. I touched my heel to her flank and we cantered around the lawn like we used to when we were young. She had a gleam in her eye when I took her in and groomed her, like she enjoyed the ride as much as I did.
I thought the weather this year would be a blessing, that the warmer temperatures would keep her healthy. But in mid-January she began to drop weight and I felt her unease with the daily routine. She surprised me one afternoon when I went out to feed her and she followed me at a trot up the hill toward the barn. I thought that perhaps her body would fill out again once spring came and the grass began to grow in.
But it wasn’t meant to be. She was tired, and she needed permission from me to go. The weather was beautiful over the weekend, and the other horses all stretched out on the grass, bathing in the warmth of the sun, but Brat just watched them as if she was afraid to lay down and be unable to get back up.
I called the vet. It was time.
The vet warned me what it was like to put a horse down – that it was done while they were standing, that horses fall, sometimes kick, sometimes lose control of their bodies…
But Brat wasn’t just a horse.
Brat’s life was so beautiful, and she maintained her dignity and beauty and perfection right until the end. The vet administered a mild sedative and Brat glanced around then lay down. I went to her and held her head against my chest as the vet administered the dose that would take her from me, and Brat went peacefully, breathing her final breath as I held her close.
For nearly 32 years, Wenways Brat has shared her beauty and perfection with me, and I am so grateful for that gift. It was my responsibility to give her the rest she deserved, and she was beautiful and perfect and peaceful until her very last breath.
My heart broke into a million tiny pieces Sunday afternoon, and have fit themselves back together awkwardly, with a giant piece missing that was once filled by Brat. True love is like that. And I accept this pain as the price for the decades of love and memories.
Bless you, Brat. I love you now and for always. And I am grateful to have had you in my life.