The Grandfather Horse. Not Dead Yet.

WMOldManI haven’t written about the Grandfather Horse in over a year. Most of that time, I was scared half-to-death and the rest of the time, I was laughing too hard.

I know I’m supposed to credit whatever equine skills I might have to my trainers (I worked with the best,) and the famous clinicians I rode with (they were famous for all the right reasons,) but when the scabs all healed, my greatest mentor was Spirit, a $600 spotted colt. He has done it all. Twice. And with me on his back. That last part was really hard.

No one taught me more about wet t-shirt contests and unplanned vaulting. About reining and dressage. About how to be a horse. He quite simply taught me everything worth knowing. I don’t believe in soul-mates, but if I did, the Grandfather Horse is mine. I doubt the Dude Rancher would disagree.

I’d like to say Spirit, retired to the respected place of Grandfather Horse in our herd, was such a good teacher because he was easy to understand. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He was a challenge to ride: quirky, emotional, not particularly athletic, and with a little too much try. (As I a trainer, when clients tell me who their horse is, in my mind I switch the pronouns–what she says about her horse is true about herself. Probably true in my case, too.)

These last 12 years of forced retirement have been sheer hell for both of us. Watching him slowly deconstruct with old age has taken more courage than anything I ever tried in the saddle.

We had a decrepit routine. He shuffled along, baby-stepping with his eyes perpetually teary and sunken. I learned to schedule his Annual Emergency Sheath Cleaning. The first time, I thought he was dying. His sheath doubled in size in one day; his eyes showed the pain. Now I mark Old Man Smegma on the calendar. The vet probably has a less descriptive name for it.

There was chronic diarrhea and the tendons in his front legs gave way to bent knees a decade ago. His arthritis was audible. As much as he loved a roll in the sand, he did it rarely. Neither of us thought he would make it back up. I tried being stoic like him. He was holding his own, the best he could, but he lacked his usual humor. Maybe he didn’t recognize himself. I notice at this age, I don’t.

It changed last spring. He held a good weight all winter and come February, his weight plummeted. He didn’t eat differently, but he developed a decidedly bovine appearance. He had thigh gap, significantly less cool in horses. His back dropped even more; he barely had a memory of muscle. It happened so abruptly that I thought I was losing him. It was obvious enough that people mentioned it to me, with a euthanizing look in their eyes. Like I didn’t know all of his contemporaries were gone already.

The Grandfather Horse was already getting twice as much beet pulp by the time the dentist mentioned his missing teeth. I reminded him of the one pulled a few years earlier, but he corrected me. Most of the rest on that side were gone–since his last check-up! Shouldn’t I have seen that many on the ground?

I started trying different feeding strategies, I broke a couple of my own rules and slowly, the weight came back. I scrutinized everything every day.

WMOldRoll Sometimes he trotted a few strides to his dinner when he came in at night. Then the first real sign of change: when our farrier was here and he flicked his tail in her face and actually pulled his hoof out of her hand. Both of us cackled like hens–he felt good enough to behave badly for the first time in years.

He’s laying down more again. It sounds like 2000 books falling off a table and I flinch to see it, but he’s rolling and sunbathing again.

All horses, no matter how good they are, have a tragic flaw–that rude love of a bad habit. When he was younger, Spirit liked to bolt when the halter came off for turnout. A split-second lapse of focus and you could simultaneously get your toes crushed and an arm dislocated. Zero to sixty in a joyous rocket launch. It’s happening again! On especially fine days, he even spooks.

My Christmas present? I heard hooves pounding and when I got to the pasture, the Grandfather Horse was running the younger ones ragged. He was flashing his tail and galloping along like a box of rocks.

He just seems to feel happier. My friend–with the oldest horse I know–says at a point her mare’s joints fused a bit and the arthritis hurt less. I think my Grandfather Horse may have lived long enough for this special senior discount. Either way, he’s got a second wind and he thinks aging gracefully is the worst kind of lame.

The Grandfather Horse is happy again and I’m like the teacher’s pet who raises her hand, “Oh, oh, oh!” and tries too hard. He’s had decades to get used to my awkward ways, he knows I catch up eventually. So, he’s sterling in the moonlight. He shows me how to feel the afternoon sun in a whole new way. He’s born-again beautiful; it’s irresistibly bittersweet.

This week we lost a beloved barn member and when the dead animal transport people came, they gave me a senior discount. Perhaps an ironic call to arms?

We’re still not the most graceful pair, but world, beware. It’s 16 days till Daylight Savings time and less than a month till calendar Spring. New grass is on the way. There’s a good chance we’ll plan a Spring breakout–me and the Grandfather Horse.  We’ve got nothing to lose and we’re not dead yet.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

(Wishing my cootacious Dude Rancher a defiant birthday.)

PS. If you like this blog, you’ll love my book, making its way to publication at AnnaBlake.com

44 thoughts on “The Grandfather Horse. Not Dead Yet.

  1. Cynthia

    Anna, I also have an “elder” here that is losing weight like Spirit…and I am very judicious about what I feed my horses (as clean as I can make it), and Brio is also missing some teeth…would you mind sharing what you feed now? I am willing to break some rules too…in gratitude! X

    1. I hate sweet junk-food feeds, but these days there are better choices available. I added Triple Crown Senior two or three times a day and alfalfa. He blossomed, I’ve had to cut back. Yay!

      1. Great stuff that Triple Crown. I used it to get back to health two skinny horses. Do you use as much as they direct? It seems like an awful lot and it is not cheap.

  2. Maggie Frazier

    Anna -how lucky (well, actually NOT luck) you are to be able to keep your old boy happy – and that’s what its all about, really, isn’t it? Hope HIS golden years continue for a long time. Too many older horses don’t have that kind of care & love!

  3. Barbara Cohen

    A feel good story. Love that he is doing well. I have a 28 year old that make me smile every day.

  4. Serena Hill

    HOLY SMOKES!!! Spirit is still going??!!! I remember when you retired him WAY back when. Awesome news to hear he is alive and Kicking!

  5. lsterling56

    This morning as I went to check on my elder mare after a cold night, I was thinking that I hadn’t heard much lately about Grandfather Horse. Funny how questions are answered…and Triple Crown Senior is what I feed my girl also. I don’t know what it is about that stuff, but my 30+ year old is plump. God bless you and the Grandfather, and looking forward to hearing about the Spring break-out!

  6. Maggie Frazier

    Sadly, just got a call from a friend of mine – her 30 plus Trottingbred (standardbred x pony) gelding
    died this am- she still has another 30 year old mare & 2 younger ponies. Its been many years since I used to go to the pony races (Monrovia NY) They were fun! No breeders/trainers – just people who really enjoyed these great ponies. Some were fast, some were not – but no one cared – it just was a way to enjoy the ponies. Don’t know if that’s even done anymore.

  7. I have 5 horses over 25. Getting thru winter is always a project. Your Grandfather reminded me of old Buck who I had until he was 36. Kept him alive thru blindness by keeping him alone. He followed my voice out of the barn every morning to his little pasture and back at night. The end came when my friends started to point out his thinness. I think because I saw him every day and it was summer, I didn’t notice how rapidly he lost weight. Then the arthritis in his spine caused him the “crab walk” badly. One day I decided it was time and made an appointment with the vet for the next day after work.. but that morning he went down and couldn’t get up and told me it was over. I still miss the old fart.

  8. Åsa Batsila

    Oh- I really Love your writing! I Hope to keep my boy to the “Grand father state” going in retierment together !

  9. “He’s born-again beautiful; it’s irresistibly bittersweet.” Oh how I know precisely what you mean! Thank you for sharing some of him with your readers.

  10. Diane Lacy

    This blog could not have come at a better time. I just returned from the hospital where I now spend my days with my 89 year old mother, whom I am confident, I will bring home again some day very soon. She is my Grandfather Horse. Need I say more? Thank you, Anna, for your beautiful writings. DL

    Sent from my iPad

  11. Sounds like the old tinker put your relationship through every possible test and is still giving you rewards for sticking with him. My oldie came back from the brink so many times – didn’t think my heart could take more wringing until his heart suddenly gave out (his compadre still with us and only slightly stiff at 29!) which makes it especially poignant that a great friend has lost her 8 y.o. mare, Rosie – just 2 years into a happy partnership – this last week whilst she was over here on holiday. Thank you, Anna, all us owners of oldies need to keep hearing tales of those who defy the fates to keep our “Spirits” up – long may he rule the roost!

    1. Chris, that is the exact bittersweet part: being dragged to the brink and back. It has been so long since I’ve seen that spark in his eye that it is an unexpected gift. It won’t last forever, but one more time, horses teach me to stay in the moment and let the rest sort itself out. Condolences to Rosie’s owner. I’ve lost young ones, it hurts all it can hurt at any age.

  12. Sandra Murray

    For all of us with lost muscle mass, sagging bellies, and complaining joints, we’re one in spirit with you Grandfather Horse. We ain’t dead yet, and we’ll come squealing across the finish line laughing, “What a helluva ride!”.

    1. With an elder, it’s always a good news–bad news story. He is loving the warm sun and on steriods for a ‘undefined’ swelling. Day by day, he is my blessing.

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