Saying goodbye is hard. Saying goodbye to your best friend and partner of 14 years is close to impossible. I've always wondered if is is better to have a young horse with an old soul or an older horse with a young soul. When I first got Sundin, he was 11 years old, and had had quite the steeplechase career. He was still very fiery, a tough ride, but ultimately very safe. He was a good teacher for someone like me that was ready to push their riding to a new level. We showed jumpers, foxhunted, and did a bit of trail riding.
Okay fine, I did some trail riding. Sundin, on the other hand, jigged and snatched, rooted and dragged me around the woods while I attempted to enjoy myself and maintain some level of control over our pace and destination. He was perfect for me.
You see, while I thought I was 'retraining' an old steeplechaser, he was actually molding me into a better rider and a more patient person. There were so many lessons he taught me in my riding that ended up carrying over into the rest of my life. Sit back and wait. Make a decision and commit to it. Trust your instincts. Be patient. Don't force it. Remember to take a moment to look around. Breathe.
And what did I teach him? Not one single thing. Not even when I took a job as staff down in Florida with Live Oak Hounds, a position neither one of us had ever held. He learned the job after roughly five hunts and then had to continuously drill into my head that 1. He knew what he was doing and 2. I should probably just listen to him.
So how do you know when it's time to make that final decision? Sundin is now 25 years old. That means he has been in fairly consistent work for roughly 23 years. I always said that I would let him tell me when he had had enough. This past fall, I realized that was something he would never tell me. He always wants to go. He wants to work, and hunt, and keep on, even when his body is breaking down, even when he can hardly breathe. He just doesn't know any other way to be, and he never will.
This morning I saddled up my partner of 14 years and took him for one last ride. We went into the woods and crossed the stream, wound our way through the trails and into the fields. We stopped for a moment to look around, and just drink in the day. Then we ambled home, with the occasional jig and snatch, just to prove we could still do it. Nothing like the trail rides of 14 years ago, but still just as educational for me. Sundin had one last lesson to teach me, after all. How to say goodbye to your friend.
Back at the barn I stripped his tack and groomed him one last time. I made sure I did all the things he's always loved - I curried his belly and brushed his face, let him turn around and put his nose on me while I picked his hooves.
I think the trick is to say goodbye before the fire goes all the way out of them. That way you can remember them with the light in their eyes, while their dignity is still intact. He was a grand old horse, a trustworthy partner and a loyal friend, right up until his final hour.
Tonight my heart feels like it's breaking over the loss of my first horse, the only horse I've ever owned. But tonight, Sundin can breathe freely again. He can run as fast as he wants to, clear all those big fences again and keep up with hounds without a single misstep. He can recover within a few minutes after a run that has lasted a couple hours. He can do tight rollbacks and sail over skinny fences and oxers. He can probably even go school a few hurdles. He can do one other thing, something he never did in his lifetime. Tonight, Sundin can rest.
Writer Michelle St. Onge is the Stable Manager at Piedmont Fox Hounds (VA) and wrote this essay about saying good-bye to Sundin last year.