For Ilanka

Published 10:57 am Friday, September 8, 2023

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I can still hear you.

Each morning, before the dawn breaks and the world still belongs to the inhabitants of the woods and fields, I hear your soft nicker.

I still see you, gazing through the back window of your stall… large, expressive eyes following my every step from the mudroom door towards your stable. You’re wanting your breakfast and you shall have it long before I have mine. It’s a mutual agreement we have: your comfort—as well as the others—in exchange for the privilege of having you in my barn, riding you, training you, leaving me breathless with your talent and exquisite, chiseled beauty.

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As Paul noted, it’s one thing when one takes a cherished pet to the vet to be put down. We carry them home in a box or, perhaps later in an urn. But it’s quite another when one puts down a horse. An army of individuals stands by the ready to be both the gravediggers–as was our neighbor, Larry, who was dispatched from an otherwise relaxing Saturday afternoon—as well as the pallbearers and finally, the mourners.

As gentle and respectful as Larry was, I can only watch with intense distaste as this elegant mare, who fought with such courage through what would be a fatal bout of laminitis, be suspended by chains attached to her hooves, and hoisted slowly by a backhoe towards her grave. It is so degrading to her memory. She didn’t deserve this. She didn’t deserve any of this. I refuse to let her beautiful head, her liquid eyes now sightless, loll downwards toward the ground. I wrap a sheet around it and carry the weight as best I can, along with her owner walking opposite, in a sling.

We had taken the other horses out of the field and I left Elizabeth to stand alone in a silent, tearful goodbye as her dear mare was lowered into the ground. All our dreams and ambitions are buried with her as she was taken from us far too young.

Ilanka, it is often said by humans that special horses become our “heart horse.” I have felt that every horse I’ve ever had has been deserving of that mantle. I will say, however, no horse was braver, no horse tried harder. And no horse was more trusting, which made this battle all the more painful. When you turned to me in the stall with an expression that so plainly read, “Help me,” there was no question of releasing you as quickly as possible. We wouldn’t subject you to a single step on those excruciating feet. We would let you go in a bed of soft shavings and dismantle the stall around you. 

The blue and red ribbons you won in the show ring during your all-too-brief career are proudly displayed as are all the framed photographs. On my phone alone are countless images: cantering through the field with the morning sun filigreeing your mane and tail with a silvery, winter light…standing polished and braided looking every bit like a ‘Breyer’ horse at the show grounds…and back home, your lovely head looking keenly over the stall door, impatient for dinner.

I still see you. I will always see you.

Ilanka, ridden by columnist/trainer Pam Stone, on her way to winning her class at Tryon International Equestrian Center