How is it that someone can dance into your life wearing aluminum shoes?
The back story is pretty common for our place; he raced successfully for four years – a somewhat long career for today’s Thoroughbred. He broke both ankles and rested for a year after surgery. His first race back was dismal. The jockey jumped off his back after the race and explained to the owner that the horse had simply lost interest in racing; that he would never be the same racehorse again. The trainer agreed that the horse deserved a new home that would love and care for him. He’d been a fine runner and deserved a good retirement.
The next day, we got a phone message stating simply “I brought you something, it’s in the third stall in your barn.” Click. The last time I got a call like this, there were two pygmy goats tied to the tack room door. Naturally, we were suspicious.
What I found in that third stall that afternoon took my breath away.
We all gathered around him, myself, my husband and the gaggle of teen-aged girls that make up any lesson or training program. We were dumbfounded as we watched this graceful creature prance nervously about his new home. We started to giggle when he lifted is lovely face and hay dribbled clumsily from his mouth. He twitched his dainty ears when he noticed us laughing as if to say “howdy.”
I entered his stall and reached up to stroke his dark chocolate coat. He flexed his iron muscles, pinned his ears and nipped in my direction.
“Is he mean?” the girls wanted to know.
I told them: “Not at all. He’s just come from the track and his body is full of pain meds and steroids. He just needs some time to adjust. He’s going to be very friendly, just wait and see.”
His registration papers were tacked to the wall and my husband was studying them closely. “First thing” my husband announced “is that he needs a new name.”
“What’s his racing name?” we wanted to know.
My husband cleared his throat “Wegottohaveharte”
“Wow, he does need a barn name.” We agreed.
“Let’s let him loose in the round pen to play and maybe we’ll come up with something.” I suggested.
And play he did. Anyone who has watched a mighty thoroughbred in a race knows about the raw power and speed of the animal. But it’s not until you see them play, unfettered by rider or tack that you can appreciate the grace, the joy and the stupendous fragility of 1100 pounds of muscle and sinew.
This particular horse was so well balanced. An almost perfect flow of beauty started at his chiseled face, up to small alert ears then over the arched neck which flowed into rippled shoulders, trickled toward shapely legs and then the flow stopped at his ruined ankles. Behind all this was a tight short back, powerful haunches, an upright tail that swished and swirled with a life of its own.
But this horse wasn’t thinking about ugly ankles. He was focused on being free to roll and jump and play.
The teen-aged girls recognized the mischievous gleam in his eye and squealed every time he galloped past, kicking and bucking.
My husband, ever the engineer, was still looking at the papers. He nodded his head over and over, visibly impressed. It seemed that this horse, not only exuded class in his body and movements and attitude, this horse was also a grandson of the famous sire Seattle Slew and had himself won over $250,000.
The girls suggested names like Hot Rod and Indy due to his speed and ever running engine, but nothing seemed right.
Over dinner and wine that night, my husband pointed out that this horse was smooth rhythm and grace. Jazzy even. He was Just. Plain. Cool. We paused, looked over the rims of our wineglasses at each other and tuned into the music coming from the speakers. It was crystal clear to both of us, his name was Coltrane.
In what seemed like no time at all, Coltrane became the darling of the program.
“I wanna ride Coltrane”
“Will I ever get to ride the beautiful brown horse?”
“Me wride Cultwain.”
became the things we heard everyday.
Coltrane was trusty on the trail, soft over jumps and a hoot to play polo on. The horse that pranced his way into our barn, snuggled his way into our hearts.
The kids taught him to bow for treats and to shake his beautiful brown head up and down to answer questions. Coltrane only knew how to say “yes.”
He carried little children, anxious teens and worried women his his brief career with us.
Then the call came.
“Um, Coltrane fell over in his pen early this morning. The guys were doctoring some cattle and I think one scared him. He’s up now, but I think you had better come out right away.”
I rushed to the barn and there was our lovely boy, dazed but eating next to his best pal, the gorgeous but always aloof white mare Gigi. I checked his vitals and aside from a slightly elevated heart rate, he seemed fine.
I started my work and checked on him throughout the day. He was quiet, he was eating. But Gigi never left his side.
At feeding time that evening, I put his halter on. It was the blue one that the kids had painted with his name and with musical symbols on it, and took him out for a walk. The horse who always bounced out of his stall like Liberace entering a stage was quiet and obedient. I found myself in tears.
Jenny, age 17 and tender as peaches in season found me crying and joined in immediately.
As luck would not have it, our regular vet was out . The vet on call arrived on the scene to find two crying females snuggling what looked like a tired horse. The vet was late for a BBQ and brusquely administered a mild tranquilizer and some pain meds.
“Go home girls” he said as he slammed the lid to his truck “let this poor horse get some rest without you blubbering around him and bothering him. He’s going to be fine.”
The cranky vet didn’t know Coltrane. In fact, nobody knew Coltrane as well as that snooty mare Gig and she was very concerned.
Jenny, Gigi, Coltrane and I settled in for a long night. Eventually, Jenny collapsed in sadness and exhaustion with her arms around Coltrane’s old injured leg. Coltrane hung his lovely head low, brushing his lips on Jenny’s hair. Normally, I’m a stickler for safe body position around horses, this time, I was too tired, too sad and too touched by their closeness.
Gigi hovered her massive grey body between Coltrane and the gate, preventing anyone from getting close to him without her knowing. Her long grey ears twitched at every sound. As for me; I paced.
Sometime in the middle of the night, my husband brought blankets, a flashlight and hot cocoa. He and I lit the flashlight and went to take Coltrane’s vital signs. Both Gigi and Jenny were asleep.
At the sound of the click of Coltrane’s halter going on, Gigi snapped suddenly awake and rushed at me violently. It was at that moment that I knew Coltrane was not going to be fine; Gigi made it clear, Coltrane was dying.
My husband and I gently nudged Jenny into the car to take her back to our house and tuck her in on the couch. I lied to get her into the car. I told her that Coltrane was going to be fine. And she believed me.
Once out of earshot of the girl asleep on the couch, I started paging our vet. He works at the local racetrack and so I could safely assume he was up and working by 5 am.
At 6 o’clock, he called back.
“Well” he drawled in is Oklahoman accent “I heard that Gary treated your brown horse for colic.”
“Problem is” I replied “it’s not colic.”
“What in the hell is the story then?”
“I wish I knew, but his heart rate is up to 55 beats per minute and he’s listless as hell.”
“Poor bastard. It’s probably a busted diaphragm. Didn’t you say he fell?”
“How can you diagnose something like that over the phone? If that’s true, he’s a goner.”
“I know, little missy, because I’ve known you for 10 years and you ain’t never up at 5am unless it’s real bad.”
It was true. “So what can we do.” I asked.
“Head back to the barn and check his heart rate again, if it’s over 50, call me. Okay, gotta go. Bye.” He rang off the line.
I sat at the kitchen table, head in my hands when my husband walked in. Rubbing my shoulders he asked “You okay?”
“Nope.” was the best I could do.
I snuck out of the house as quietly as I could leaving my husband to deal with the sleeping girl on the couch. When I got to the barn, Gigi was no longer protecting Coltrane. She looked resigned and tired. I took this as a very bad sign.
Coltrane’s head was even lower than before and his ears drooped from his skull. His dark chocolate coat had turned mangy brown literally overnight. How he managed the strength to give me the signature Coltrane “muzzle snuggle” I’ll never know. But when I went to move him for a little walk he defiantly refused and instead started manically pawing the ground and sweating.
Our gentle, beautiful, jazzy Coltrane was in mortal pain.
I took a deep breath, fished my phone out of my pocket and dialed.
“Dr. Ash’s exchange – can I help you?”
“A message to Dr. Ash from Square Peg ranch, need euthanasia services ASAP.”
“And how do you know that you need euthanasia m’am?”
I hung up the phone.
Within 10 minutes, my phone rang.
“No Bueno I guess?” said the good doctor.
“When can you be here?” My voice was flat.
“About noon by the time I finish up here at the track.”
For the second time in 10 minutes, I simply hung up the phone.
I staggered back to see the animal whom I had just condemned. Again, he nuzzled me just before he collapsed and started thrashing.
The thought of waiting hours for the vet to come became unbearable. Morbid thoughts ran through my mind. Could I come up with a knife to slash Coltrane’s throat and end the misery? What about closing off his nostrils with my hands in the hope that suffocation would work? Would a neighbor bring me a deer rifle or a revolver? In the meantime, Coltrane’s eyes rolled in his beautiful head as sweat streamed off his body.
I ran to my office, to the locked cabinet and found a half used bottle of tranquilizer. I readied a syringe and dropped to his side, placing my knee on his jaw and my free hand on his shoulder to keep him still enough to deliver the shot that I hoped could help. After finding the vein and pressing the medicine inside his body, I took my knee off his lively face. He soon quieted. I had been successful in delivering some kind of mercy. I sobbed and stroked his neck and shoulder and I felt like I could feel the chemicals coursing through his ropey veins that would take the fight out of both of us.
I was tired. Tired of playing God, tired of making the right and practical choices. Tired of keeping my head in a crisis, of calming the kids and their mothers. I was tired of making little girls’ horsey dreams come true and tired of allaying the fears of middle aged women. I lay back on Coltrane’s sweaty and doomed body and couldn’t believe that even at this hour, he was holding me up.
I realized that his entire life, he has submitted to bit and bridle, to the jockey’s whip and to the inadvertent kicks of little kids. He ate what we gave him and would go without if we forgot. He carried me over fences and over hill and dale and still every day, he was happy to see you if only you would bring a slice of apple or a scoop of oats. He asked for so little and gave everything he had.
At some point, the vet arrived and pushed in the drugs that stopped Coltrane’s valiant heart.
I keep his forelock braided with dry flowers in a secret place.