One of the great tragedies of knowing and loving horses is that their minds, their spirits, their verve so often outlive their bodies. Therapy horses are frequently on their second or third career so many of them are seniors. The youthful days of bucking for the fun of it, acting like whirling dervishes on cold mornings, and sniffing the air for sassy mares or musky stallions are behind them. Sadly, the perfect mature mind for therapeutic riding can live inside a senior body in slow decline.
Making the decision to retire Aztec has been one of the most difficult decisions thrust upon me since opening Worthy Stables. This includes some pretty intense choices for which I have been responsible. I rarely miss out on a good night’s sleep. The combination of fresh air, manual labor, and rich experiences has been outstanding for my sleep life. However, this one has kept me awake. Picturing Aztec’s big, bucket head looking lazily out of stall #2, his shouts for dinner when he hears the sweet siren song of pouring Purina Senior into his dented navy blue bucket, remembering him dozing on the farrier’s back as he got his 6 week pedicure, and laughing at his habit of drowsily working his jaw around and around exactly as a cow chews its cud, make it impossible to be casual about his impending retirement.
I’m asked the same question, weekly at least. As guests and participants, new volunteers and parents walk the aisles of the well-lit, hay scented, red barn, with the long faces of our therapy team, boarding horses, and my own mare gracing their windows and stall doors, it never fails: “Which one is your favorite horse?”
As the mother of only one child, I can only try to imagine that this is how my mom always felt when we would ask, “Who is your favorite child?” In all honesty, they’re all my favorite for different reasons. Romeo is my favorite because his enormous Arabian brain and mighty will and cockiness have challenged my boldness, my leadership, and because there are a certain few riders to whom he reveals his humble underbelly. Jetta, because she is making me the horsewoman I want to be, because she was green as could be and a blank slate that I wrote the wrong habits and behaviors onto and ended up with titanium body parts because of it, and because she is graciously and with great grit relearning and becoming the horse partner I’ve always wanted. Smitty is my favorite for humor, his over developed Flehmen response causing him to make silly faces at good smelling ladies, and for his steadiness that tells of his days on cows and trails and among nonsense that doesn’t trouble him anymore. Bronco is my favorite for kids and for the brilliant, creative brains with autism and injury that build fantasy worlds around his petite unicorn frame. Ranger and Hero, who have endured pain and hard work, and still lower their heads into the arms of soldiers with tired spirits and kids who need to know something bigger than them can be gentle, are my favorites. And Dakota is because he’s the bravest of them all. I asked his previous owner if we could try mounted shooting off of Dakota and she replied that you could probably shoot AT Dakota and he’d shrug it off and continue on his way. He’s the most rational, least “horsey” horse I know.
Aztec is my favorite because of the dozens of first rides he’s carried people on. From nervous volunteers who have never touched an animal bigger than a golden retriever to kids with anxiety disorders and individuals with poor core strength or balance due to illness or brain injury, he has stood like a statue for mounting and moved with the gentle swing of something more like a boat on soft water than a horse on red clay. For the days I’ve needed to ride away but sore back and blistered feet cry out for a gentle ride, for the way he stands like a flamingo when he eats his beloved feed, for the times a fretful, frustrated non-verbal child laid across his back and dozed, finally, peaceful in the sun, Aztec is my favorite. For the way he can behave diplomatically with anyone, horse or barn cat, human or donkey, yipping dog or escaped neighborhood pig, and because he let us try mounted yoga on his back as he plodded steadily around the arena, once a powerful ranch horse now the base for downward facing dog and child’s pose.
I can see him now, from where I write this. The round curve of his flank narrower than ever, the comical obesity he had when we met long gone, Aztec must be nearing his 30’s, if not well into them. The vets and dentist and armchair experts have all looked into his graciously compliant mouth, sized up the grooves and angles and glassiness of his teeth and declared him, without exception, “Old.” I knew he was old when he came to us, lent to us by the family of a lifelong friend and veterinarian. I had just lost the horse I had planned programs and scores of activities around and I was raw and weary in that way that only sudden changes in big plans can make us. He was handed off to me, no questions asked, with the promise that he’d be good. And he was good, from day one. His trial period, according to our by-laws, was 30-90 days but in reality he won me over in a week.
Aztec’s friends here have included the broadest range of people of all my horses. In part because of his size, in part because he’s the same horse every single day, and in part because I love to share his peace with anxious, world-weary, frustrated, heartbroken, confused riders.
I can’t imagine Worthy Stables without Aztec right now. But what I can imagine is Aztec living out his days on more rolling green acres than we can provide him, sleeping in the sun, wandering among cows again, living the retirement they all deserve.
Aztec’s eyes are the most beautiful in the barn currently. Each one partially blue next to swirls of warm brown. I wonder how long I’ll picture him here and look for those soft, kind eyes.
I write this in honor of Aztec and of all the therapy animals that serve us with quiet dignity, loyalty, and graciousness. Enjoy your retirement, Moo. You’ve earned it with all the good grass and long naps you can stand. Thanks for everything.