I received a phone call early in the dawn hours from my neighbor. It was a rainy day and I hadn’t yet been out to feed. He told me that I had a horse down in my pasture and that it looked like something was really wrong. I didn’t even have to look outside…I felt the immediate heartbreak of knowing that it was my good horse.
Sonny Rickashay, nicknamed Ricky, was a gorgeous bay horse that I had bought as a 6 year old from the Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale in Red Bluff, CA. I spent way more on him than I had ever spent on a horse before, but when I saw him walk into that sale ring, I knew I had to have him. He was everything that I wanted in a horse…beauty, brains, and athleticism. I didn’t rope on him much the first year that I owned him. I was in the process of buying a home, and weather and time kept me out of the arena. But once I got settled in my new house and we got the arena up, I began roping on him every day. I used him mostly as a practice horse, turning steers every day for a friend who had several young heel horses in training. He was strong and reliable and he was making one heck of a head horse.
I loved my Ricky, and he was pretty spoiled. I made sure he got bathed almost every day. I kept his super thick, long mane and tail in braids…something I had never really cared about before. He was in a pen away from the colts to ensure that he wouldn’t get kicked or beat up on. I babied him any way that I could.
So, when I got that call, my heart sank. In shorts, a t-shirt and muck boots, I ran out the front door into the pouring rain towards the pasture. As I rounded the corner at the barn, I saw him out in his pen. He was on his feet and I felt a sudden rush of relief wash over me…until I got a little closer. He was covered in mud from head to toe. His once bright eyes were dull and full of pain. He stood there shivering in the rain. As I approached him, his legs buckled and he went down. He lay there on his side, looking at me out of the corner of his eye. His breathing was labored. My once gorgeous, strong horse was broken and weak and unable to even pick himself up out of the mud. Through tears, I put a halter on him and urged him to stand. Never wanting to disappoint me, he lifted his head and tried to get to his feet. It took him a minute, but he got up. I led him from his pen and every few steps, he would try to go down.
By the time the vet got to the house, he was unable to stand and I was sitting on the ground holding his head out of the water that was quickly pooling around us. He had a large impaction in his small intestine. I had two choices: put him down on the spot or haul him to UC Davis for surgery. I decided to try to save him. We drove an hour and a half to Davis and on the ride there I could hear him going down in the trailer and then trying to stand back up. My heart was breaking.
Once at the university, the prognosis wasn’t much better. They opened him up and found a large tumor with several smaller tumors forming on his small intestine. I couldn’t afford to save him if I tried, and even if I did, the odds of him surviving were slim. I said goodbye to my good horse that day.
I took me a long time to be happy after that. I didn’t want to ride horses and I darn sure didn’t want to rope. So how do you overcome the loss of a good horse? Afterall, they are not just horses to us. They are our teammates…our friends. We can’t be any good at roping without them and we rely on them to give us a safe trip every time. The loss of a good one can be devastating, but here are some tips to help you overcome the loss.
Take Time To Grieve
It probably sounds so silly to some, grieving over a horse. But only an equestrian can understand the bond between horse and rider that is formed over years of blood, sweat and tears. They are not just animals to us. They are our partners and our friends. We put a level of trust in them that is almost unfathomable. We rely on them to provide us with a safe trip down the pen every time. And in return, they put their trust in us.
We don’t form excellent bonds with every horse that we swing a leg over. But every once in a while, a good one comes along that you just click with on every level. When you lose a good one, you need to take a little time to grieve. Take some time to get your wits about you. Understand that it may be a little while before you feel 100% comfortable on another one.
Finding A Replacement
Finding a replacement after losing a good horse can be tough. We have this idea in our heads that our replacement horse needs to look and feel and act just like the horse we lost. When it comes time to find a replacement, you need to remember what you had, hold it near and dear to your heart, but keep an open mind to the new horses you are trying.
Make a mental list of the things that made your good horse good. Was it his personality? Was it the way he performed? Maybe he was really fast and you liked that. Or maybe he stood in the box like a wooden indian and that made you feel very comfortable. Maybe he stopped really hard and that is important to you. Maybe he just handled cattle really well and you liked that. Or perhaps he just put you in a good position every time you roped and you found that to be his best quality.
For me, my good horses have all been really gentle and quiet. They don’t get bothered by much and that keeps me calm. When I don’t have to worry about what my horse is doing, I can put forth a lot more effort to my own ability as a roper. I don’t like them amped up and breathing fire.
Figure out the traits that are important to you in a rope horse and do not compromise on those things.
When it comes time to replace your good horse, make sure that you don’t settle. A lot of times we are really overwhelmed when we lose a good one. We want to get back out there in the arena and forget about it. We want to keep our momentum going. But just like with relationships gone wrong, you don’t want to rebound. We all know that rarely works out!
Try a lot of different horses in your search for a new one. Buy from people you trust or people that you know have a good reputation. Make sure to get a presale vet check. Horses are a big investment and you don’t want to settle for something that will bring you more frustration than joy…or even worse, something that isn’t sound or may hurt you.
Don’t let someone talk you into something that doesn’t feel right. My godmother was looking for a replacement for her good horse that she had been roping on for 15 years. She is a lower numbered roper and was really looking for something quiet and gentle that would really take care of her. A guy she knew who was a pretty high numbered roper brought over a supposedly really nice horse for her to try. My godfather, being a smart man, made the guy rope the first five steers on the horse to see how he acted. The horse seemed fine when he rode him…but again, he was a high numbered roper. My godmother got on him and rode him around a little. She didn’t really like the way he felt, thought he felt like a lot of horse for her, and had a bad feeling about him. But not wanting to seem like a wuss, she decided to head a few on him. Keep in mind, my godmother is in her 60’s, so she really doesn’t need to be on a horse that she isn’t 100% comfortable on. Well, she called for her steer and when she leaned forward to rope, she kind of goosed that horse at the hind cinch and he bucked her off…hard. Moral of the story: if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t!
I’ve lost quite a few good horses over the years. Every time it happens, I think to myself, “He was irreplaceable.” And every time, I find a new one that I love differently, yet just as much. I have little pieces of mane and tail hair braided onto every saddle I own…all from different horses that I have lost over the years. These little braids serve as a reminder not just of the horses themselves, but of the love that I felt for them, the accomplishments we made together, the lessons I learned from them, and the joy that they brought into my life. The devastation of saying goodbye to a good horse never goes away. It never gets any easier. But know and have faith that there is another good one out there who will carry you to victory both in and out of the arena.