I trudged into the corral. My boots and stomach were heavy. The morning light was violet against the dirty snow; making me feel the kind of sadness that comes when winter is too long. Last night’s hay lay on the ground, an undisturbed grassy island surrounded by untracked snow.
It had been almost a year since we said goodbye to my old mare, Baby Horse. Since then, Joker stood alone on the property for the first time since he came to live with us. Horses don’t like to be alone, and neither do half-horses. Joker was a hinny—the equine hybrid that is the result of crossing a stallion horse and a jenny donkey. I’ve heard hinnys sometimes called “backward mules,” but you can be sure there was nothing backward about Joker.
Joker was a small and solid character—four times half the horse (you do the math) as any other I have had known. Smart and sure-footed, he inherently knew the safest routes through timber, and was always my first pick to ride in the backcountry. He faithfully served as watch for the property, blowing loudly to signal potential danger from nearby bear or moose.
The other animals knew he was different, and sometimes treated him as such. He never quite fit into larger groups, and was often picked on or chased off feed by other horses. The relational dynamic improved when he had just one pasture companion. In this way, Joker and I were much the same.
Joker was always first line for love, and could stand hours for a good brushing. He had a mighty spirit, and an energy that radiated from the center of his sturdy, white body. I don’t pretend to know the capacity of animals to feel human emotion, but Joker sure seemed to feel true joy each spring, as he would race around the pasture in the sunshine kicking his short, compact kicks.
This morning, however, was not met with joy. He stood motionless and alone, a desperate mess of dirt dug up through the snow at this feet. I saw where he rolled on the ground and paced throughout the night. I called to him and he came, circled around me several times and pushed his forehead into my side, as if asking for help.
His eyes were asking for help. Asking for comfort.
I put my ear to the side of his misshapen belly, and his gut was quiet. I knew it would be. I offered him lavender to calm his anxiety, and massaged his body, which he allowed. He seemed weary from pain as he hung his head. I rubbed the insides of his fuzzy ears. It was the only comfort I could give him while we waited for the vet to make the trip from town.
After a time he decided to move, and I with him. He walked down a path cut into the steep side hill from years of use by horses and wildlife. Suddenly he stopped, and carefully bent his arthritic knees and lay down in the path.
With his head on the ground, next to me.
I sat with him there with my hand on the crest of his neck, feeling his breath become shallow, and watched his eyes sink deep behind his long, pale lashes. He seemed to leave his body as the pain blanketed him. I started to wonder if he might die right where he lay, but I had been here before, and knew that it was not likely.
Joker met the vet with suspicion; ears pinned back, hind leg cocked, as the stranger ran the stethoscope down his flank, then stopped and listened. I remember questions like, “How old is he?” And, “Has he always been so oddly shaped?” And finally, “How long did it take you to cut so much firewood?” Though not all entirely diagnostic, they were questions that gave my dad a lot to talk about while the vet finished his exam.
I listened quietly, as I always do. Finally the conversation came back around to the impossible—given his condition and that he was nearly 40 years old, we were not going to extend his life by extraordinary means. Somewhere in my periphery, and what felt like 100 miles away, I heard my dad say, “Well, he’s had a good life…”
This is always the moment when time crashes in on itself, accelerates, and the end is suddenly… Now. And, to be honest, I have never felt entirely comfortable with determining the moment when another soul will take their last breath.
My grip on Joker’s lead tightened and tears spilled out of my eyes. There was an unbearable pressure against my windpipe, and I couldn’t talk even if I had wanted. I was vaguely aware of the vet going to his truck to prepare for the euthanasia, and the tech asking me if I wanted her to lead him out to an area where his body would be easier to load. Her voice was pleasant.
“No.” I choked, as I silently vowed to help my old friend through his passing, hoping my presence would be some kind of comfort.
I led him down to flat ground, and soon after the vet asked if we were ready. I lied, nodded my head, stood beside him, and placed my hands on his withers and loins. “Goodbye,” I said, and poured as much love into him as I could, not wanting to let him go.
In slow motion, he fell. And then, he was gone.
I jumped back, and looked down at his lifeless body. And, like a scene from a movie where the handsome prince changes back into his true self by some kind of enchanted magic, I now saw an animal I could barely recognize. Old and frail, a humble body weakened from age. Teeth badly worn with bits of oat stuck to the broken whiskers on his sagging, velvety lips. Disorganized, course hair worn thin on his hip.
I was unprepared for the realization that for the past handful of years, I had only recognized Joker’s spirit—a dignified spirit that outshone his aging physical form.
Thank you, Joker. I am grateful for the years and affection we shared, and for your gentle soul that will remain forever dear to me.
Rest well, old friend.