Sunday, May 06, 2007

Forever Young

Other than the very last moment when we loaded up Canyonero for our move down to Celebration, I've never questioned whether we made the right choice. Sometimes I miss Chicago in a vague, nostalgic way, but I can't imagine ever leaving Florida and returning permanently to a state of short summers and wicked, wind-whipped winters where gray skies and snowstorms make cabin fever a way of life for almost half the year.

But there is one thing that I sorely miss: My 30-year-old Appaloosa, Cochise. In the past, I've blogged quite a bit about Figment, my younger Appy who I moved to Florida last June. But since 'Chise was in his late 20s when we moved (and has since turned 30), I didn't think that a jouncy, bouncy 1200 mile trailer ride would be good for his old bones.

To give you an idea of how he has changed over the years, here he is in his young, spry days on the left, and three decades old on the right:

As you can see, he's regressed into some sort of wooly mammoth/missing link. He's had trouble shedding his winter coat for a few years now; the vet tested him for thyroid disease, but it came up clean. I guess he's just like one of those shivering senior citizens who always wear a sweater, even in the sweltering heat of July.
Cochise has been my pride and joy since I was 16. My mother wasn't a supportive type (mostly, she just wasn't present at all), so around the age of 12 or 13 I figured out how to get to a riding stable via a string of three buses and a 1.5 mile walk. I babysat and did housecleaning for the neighbors in order to fund a weekly trail riding "fix."
By the time I was 16, I got in a school work program and managed to save enough to buy my very own horse and to swing the board, shoe, and vet bills each month. Since my father had passed away years before, and my mother was in her own chemically enhanced universe that didn't include the bother of child-rearing, 'Chise gave me something positive to focus on. I couldn't have asked for a better horse; he did everything I ever asked of him. Where it was jumping in the showring or cross country.....

Or hopping fences in the corral for fun, or gearing up for a trail ride.....

Or showing off at a parade.....

.....Cochise was my loyal companion. We muddled together through my teenage years, through the big leap when I escaped the bedlam of my mother's house to strike out on my own, and through my young adulthood and eventual marriage (I warned my husband up front that horses in general, and Cochise in particular, were part of an unnegotiable package deal). Through all of that, 'Chise was my best friend, loyal riding partner, and therapist/stress management specialist. We spent countless hours traversing miles of woodland and open fields. Stress slipped away from my psyche as we galloped top speed down endless straightaways. I rarely rode him with a saddle, so we shared one mind and almost one body as his muscles pulsed beneath me, hooves churning the dirt and his mane rippling and waving like a flag in the wind.
He was four years old when I bought him; somehow the years slipped by like the pages of a novel that you can't put down because you're so immersed in enjoyment...then, all too suddenly, you realize that you've almost reached the end. How can 'Chise be 30 already? Wasn't it just yesterday that I braided his mane for a show or hopped aboard bareback for a day on the trails? Where did that carefree teenager go who was so unconcerned with mortality that she and her steed leaped over picnic tables like a sturdy bay Pegasus with a wraith perched over its wither? I look back at the old photographs, then look at Cochise now and glance into the mirror...who is this shaggy old equine and this chubby woman, both of whom have way too many gray hairs and too few years ahead?
Actually, with any luck, I'm only halfway through my life, but 'Chise is living on borrowed time. It's pretty rare for a horse to make it into its 30s, so he's currently the equivalent of an equine centarian. It breaks my heart that he lives 1200 miles away, but I also know how guilty I would feel if I tried to ship him down to Florida and he didn't survive the trip, or if I brought him down and he died shortly thereafter.
At the moment, he lives at the barn where I've boarded him for over two decades. Over the years, the barn owners have had a parade of their own equines, but he's always been the only boarder (other than Figment). Sadly, the last of their horses died last December, so now 'Chise is flying solo.
Generally, while I'm in Florida, I try to put him out of my mind. I know that he is fed well, has a warm, clean stall, and is turned out regularly in a half acre corral. He gets a semi-regular hoof "pedicure" and a vetting every spring. The only thing lacking is equine companionship (which, oddly enough, he doesn't seem to miss) and lavish human attention (vs. just the basics). I try to justify it to myself by saying, "Well, after all, he's retired. He's probably quite happy plodding through the same old routine that he's known most of his life. Sure, he'd like some coddling, but it wouldn't be worth two days bouncing in a horse trailer, only to arrive in an environmental oven of 90 degree-plus days."
Since I hadn't visited Chicago in nearly a year, it wasn't too hard to keep my guilt on the back burner. But now that I returned for a visit, all the old emotions came flooding back. When I arrived, the barn owners were out so 'Chise was confined to his stall, munching contentedly on a pile of hay. It hit me hard to see the others stalls all converted into storage space; over the years, I came to love the barn owners' horses as much as my own, so to see them gone so permanently was a blow. Granted, I know that they all lived happy lives and died at relatively ripe old ages, but I still felt a deep pang of pain. It was like seeing the ghosts of an era gone husband and I spent so many happy Saturdays riding 'Chise and Serenity (a big, high-spirited Saddlebred who was dumb as a box of rocks but who had a puppydog personality). Serenity thought he belonged to my hubby and would cuddle up for a carrot and a "massage" with the soft brush. We'd head out into the forest preserve and to the straightaway by the lakes, our eager mounts tensed for the signal to run. We'd trot down the trails, enjoying the ever-changling tableau of the seasons...the explosion of green in the springtime, the rainbow burst of flowers in the summer, and the earth-toned hue of Nature's fall paintrush...until finally, winter rendered the landscape barren until it surrendered to spring once again.
But now Serenity, that silly, sweet Saddlebred, was gone. It was quite ironic, since he was a few years younger than Cochise. I patted my old man, thankful that he was still alive and healthy.
'Chise was more interested in carrots than sentiment, so I dropped a two pound bag into his feedbox. It took him a while to consume them, due to a dwindling number of teeth, but he made sure not to leave a crumb.
As he ate, I worked on his neglected coat, which seemed thick enough to survive a Siberian winter. He had already started to shed, so I removed as much of the loose hair as possible. In some areas, I could see a semblence of the Appaloosa that I knew lay buried beneath the hair. But his belly, legs, and neck were hopeless, so I finally threw in the towel, satisfied he look at least 20% more civilized than when I had started. I also brushed and trimmed his mane as best as I could, removing the worst of the knots.
Then I took him outside for some photos. I figured I could turn him loose to graze on the lawn and get some candid shots. I had removed his halter because it had rubbed a raw patch on his nose, but I didn't think it would matter. After all, I do that with Figment all the time. He's a very good boy...I cut him loose in a grassy patch while I put away my tack or take care of other chores, and when I'm ready, he stands like a rock while I retrieve him. Besides, at the age of 30, just how far or fast could 'Chise go if he decided to run?
I sure found out!
'Chise has always been the sort who takes full advantage of liberty. I usually brag that he's a better horse than Figment, but he reminded me that it's not true when it comes to handling without a halter and lead rope. He started off grazing peacefully till he realized that he was halterless and outside the fence. With more fire than I could ever have imagined, he galloped down to the other end of the property. I managed to retrieve him with the help of some treats, but as soon as I let him loose again, he was up to the same trick.
I knew he wouldn't go far, so I managed to get my photos and then lured him with more food and looped a leadrope around his neck. He grudgingly surrendered to my control and I returned him to his stall.
After being separated for nearly a year, it was good to see that he seemed relatively happy. But it pained my heart, too; even though he was well-fed and healthy, it was apparent that no one was giving him that extra love and attention on a regular basis. It made me think of the horses where I board Figment. You can easily spot the ones whose "Mamas" visit them frequently. Like Figgie, they have shiny, well-groomed coats and a contented look in their eyes. The ones whose owners rarely appear stand forlornly at the fence, watching the others get babied. Their coats have an unkempt air and they exude an aura of loneliness.
'Chise seems happy enough, but that little spark seems to be missing (or at least my paranoid mind tells me so). I don't know if bringing him to Florida is the best option, but perhaps it would help to visit him more often. Just a good grooming once a month or so, coupled with half an hour of grazing on the green lawn at the end of a leadrope might enhance his twilight years.

In the meantime, you can see that he's not suffering too badly. He may be a hairy mess, but he's still got a smile for his Mom.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the photos of Cochise and the story it brought a tear to my eye.
He's beautiful.

Denise in PA