A tribute to Moose

Published 1:10 pm Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Oftentimes, we read poignant, endearing, tales of the cherished animals in our lives only after they have departed and left us bereft of comfort and daily companionship. Because of this, I refused to read Marley and Me, John Grogans account of the boisterous relationship with his much adored Labrador, because I knew it would take me days to get over it. Even James Herriots collection of Cat and Dog Stories had heartbreaking moments within the humor and charm. The loss of our own pets is painful enough~ I simply cannot read about others, especially when the authors have done such an effective job of utterly captivating us in the first, few, chapters when the animal is young and full of life.
Last Sunday, I walked out as usual at 6 a.m. to feed our four horses and mini-mule. My heart went to my throat as I approached the paddock behind the barn and saw through the trees, the enormous, white, body of my oldest, a 29 year old Percheron-cross gelding, Moose, down on his side. Normally waiting bright-eyed by the gate, he is the first to whinny impatiently for his breakfast, a nano-second before his mule companion, Lionel, wakes the neighborhood with a series of shuddering brays. He now lay on the damp ground, coat clammy with dried sweat and wild-eyed.
I have owned Moose for 27 years. He was a slaughter-house rescue that was purchased for barely more than the price of his weight in meat. I had no money and he had little hope. Severely abused and malnourished, it wasnt long before his sunken flanks filled out and the summer sore on his hock disappeared.
However, regardless of a long, loving, and patient relationship, he has never completely lost his fear of humans. He deeply distrusts most men and, to this day, will fling his head in fear of a beating if one moves too quickly around him.
Training Moose was both a pleasure and an adventure: he took comfortably to the saddle and bridle and had a lovely work ethic. Genuinely trying to please, in all our years together, it never occured to him to offer a buck or a kick. On his fourth ride, ever, he suggested we try a canter in an enormous, open, field, which began as a great success. Anyone witnessing the event would have seen an ebullient pair cantering steadily along the track and disappear in one, sideways body-leap into the woods, only to resurface, five minutes later, scratched and covered with leaves and twigs, calmly resuming the task at hand.
Moose was like that: you could ride him past a bucket or a chair forty times and on the forty first time, he behaved as if he had seen it for the first time, insisting that it housed a tiger, and it one motion, would spin and bolt, which proved to be most unseating. It was never with malice and, if anything, taught me to be a better and more attuned rider.
The time came for our first competitions together. While considered a backyard horse, meaning, an animal meant more for trail or pleasure riding rather than being braided and shown against gleaming thoroughbreds, Moose presented me with an ability I have always been breathlessly grateful for: each time we rode before a judge, regardless if he had just been spooky or nervous in the warm up area, he would give me the ride of my life. Because of this, we won each horse trial entered in his fifth year. The corner hutch in my kitchen is littered with faded blue ribbons and photographs showing him galloping enthusiastically during his honor round.
When I moved to California from Georgia in 1985, Moose followed a year and a half later. Here he blossomed further: his three, correct, gaits earned him a hatful of awards in dressage shows and handed me the most exciting cross country round Ive ever ridden. He was boarded for a time in Malibu where his view of the Pacific was much better than my view of the brick wall of an alley behind my apartment in Hollywood. When seasonal wild fires broke out, he was one of the last horses evacuated from the ranch as there was a shortage of trailers. Our neighbor across the street, none other than the actor and horseman, Tom Selleck, offered a Quarter Horse-sized stock trailer that Moose, massively built and much taller than a Quarter Horse, refused to climb into.
Are you insane?! I barked, smacking him on the rump, This is Tom Sellecks trailer! Get in there! Sighing, he clambered aboard and lowered his head so as not to smack the ceiling.
When Id had enough of Los Angeles and returned to the south in 1999, Moose, long retired, traveled in an enormous van with my other two competition horses and began his autumn years in the oak-shaded fields of our farm in the Upstate of South Carolina. While I was worried about the stress on an older horse from such a trip, Moose unloaded without incident, still munching his hay and looking with interest over his new digs.
After calling the vet that early Sunday morning, I sat cross-legged in the paddock as it lightly rained and pulled his head onto my lap. As I stroked his face, he lipped my palm with his muzzle and his eyes asked me why he couldnt get up. Dr McDaniel arrived, pulled out of both his retirement and warm bed by my tearful plea, listened to Mooses stomach and declared him to have colic.
Whether that came on first, which brought him down trying to escape the pain, or was the result of being down and unable to rise, we dont know. In his life, Moose has never been sick, ever. What we did know was that his expression was full of fire and fight.
He wanted to get up and he didnt have that vague, tired, look of surrender. It took three attempts to get him to his feet. Enlisting Paul for extra help, Moose gave two, mighty, efforts, straining against the lead held fast by two strong men, and failed each time, crashing through the fence. Just as I was on the verge of saying, Enough… he heaved himself upon all fours and stood quaking, but secure.
Each passing minute brought recovery and strength. Dr. McDaniel, who has known Moose for years, commented his color was good and he while he couldnt guarantee it wouldnt happen again, proclaimed him one, strong, horse.
As I write this, I can see my horse through my studio window, contentedly finishing his dinner and taking an irritated bite out of Lionels mane as the mule tries to steal the last mouthful of grain in his feed tub. I dont know how many days or years I will be able to look upon this same scene, but I felt he deserved to have his story told while still here for me to read it to him.

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