November 27, 2017
The 3rd session of the Fall 2017 Equestrian Bereavement Group at Spirit’s Promise Horse Rescue Farm in conjunction with East End Hospice.
Once we gathered in the forward corner of the barn in comfy couches and chairs with Josie the dog milling about, I spoke of it being the Monday after Thanksgiving. This day is notorious in my life for being the day my father left for work, entered the LI Railroad car in Babylon for the commute to his job, realized he was in trouble and exited at the next stop, Lindenhurst. He was unable to be revived there on the platform among the morning rush of commuters. I was a sophomore in high school, 15 years old. The actual date in 1966 was November 28th, but it was that Monday for sure. The memory impacts me greatly this year as my brother Dan’s passing was just as abrupt and painful this past June.
After more sharing around our circle, we got a bit of the wonderful horse education we had come to expect each week. The conversation led us to consider where we are in our time of grief. Horses and being around them causes an awareness of the present; they are very present. I was in agreement with this. Each week as I left my car to walk to the barn, I began right away to feel present and excited to be there. As I gazed at the fields and configurations of animals, and took in the sights and smells of the farm I felt ‘all in’; propelled into the present. I had already identified that word with showing up each Monday. In group each week, I was able to allow my grief to be present whether it was for my cousin Claudia, who enabled my earliest memories of horses, or Dan, or today the memory of the grief of that Monday after Thanksgiving and losing my beloved father. When we were asked to formulate a word that represented where we were in our grief for our session that day the first and only word that came to my mind was: Present.
We were then charged with formulating another word representing what we saw our grief to be in the future and Resolving came to me. I know it will not remain as acute as I was feeling it that day. In general, this month my grief over my brother is not as acute as it was six months ago. It does not end but resolves so that moving on without it crowding the day becomes possible. Unless, like this day, when it becomes present for a piece of time because the group dynamic is to allow it to come present.
Once in the yard, we were shown two planks that were painted black and we were given white chalk to write our words for grief; grief now on one and grief in the future on the other. They were set up on short blocks to create two very low hurdles set a distance apart. Then we began the process of pairing with the horses. This is exciting, I love being in the field with them.
Major is a retired police horse who usually is in the thick of things, but he held back in a side corral, not showing any interest in being amongst the women gathered. Gates were opened at the other end and the large males were beginning to filter into the field. One stopped, and the question went out, what is he going to do? He was maneuvering and eventually got down in the sandy dirt and rolled onto his back and rolled around a little as the others filtered past him. Delightful! I was fascinated! He quickly got back to his feet and match-ups were being made between the women and the horses by Marisa, Cindy and Diane. Eventually, Cindy called my name, and I went forward and was handed a lead. This is Dude, she said.
Dude stubbornly took advantage of me and led me into a far corner of the yard and then a few circles as I stroked and spoke to him and found my ability to push back and take some control. As I pet him I brushed sand from his side and asked, Is this the one who was rolling? Yes, I was told and I laughed and brushed sand and warmed towards him. I noticed white on his face and asked if this was his markings or because he might be old? Oh, he was quite old, I was told. About forty and usually fairly obstinate. Old Dude, I dubbed him. Eventually he became more compliant to my lead and we, along with the other women and horses formed roughly a large circle around the perimeter of the field. Mary had Sinatra who was bonded to Dude as they were rescued from the same place and Sinatra liked to follow Dude’s lead. Mary called out she and Sinatra would be following wherever we went as Sinatra wanted Dude in his sight. I enjoyed hearing her updates but kept us face forward. There was a bit of chaos and changing leads. Some of the males could not tolerate being in proximity to certain other males. Dude probably insisted once again on turning me in another turnabout, but we did eventually form some semblance of a ring of horses being led by novice, for the most part, horsewomen towards the hurdles we had set up. We slowly processed guiding the big males with our colorful lead ropes with only a few glitches. Dude and I were towards the end of the circle with Sinatra and Mary following behind us.
The circling began and paused as each neared the hurdles and we watched and encouraged as the horses being led stepped over the first and then the second hurdle. They were not high, but the horse had to step to clear it and different horses had different issues with this. Planks got clipped and fell over and the women of the farm scrambled to set it up again as the next approached. One or two cleared one plank but not both. We were all cheering each other on like it was an Olympic trial! The current of horses and women kept on the move and then it was our turn.
Just keep moving, someone called out, so I said, C’mon Dude, and set a pace and he got with me and without hesitation sailed over the first and a few paces later sailed over the second! Totally unscathed were Present and Resolving as they asked me to call out my words. Around the field we went again hearing more clattering of planks and cheers of success. Dude was flawless again the second time. My brother was a surfer dude! I called out on the third or fourth pass, laughing as we went. There were snafus of horse management around the field, but for the most part the circle kept flowing.
Then Dude strategized that if I crossed the plank just right of center he could pull a little bit and circumvent the plank on the right side altogether. Clever Dude, I thought, but let him get away with it in case he was getting tired. The last pass I veered left, so he had to step cleanly over the board. Dude was a star of the day!
As we convened again in the barn later, I found out Dude never was chosen to participate with any group who comes to be with the horses as usually he was dubbed a curmudgeon. He had pushed forward that day, so Cindy took a gamble when she called me to lead him. Marisa was pleased he did so well and he was to have extra feed of whatever he wanted that night. He was well praised and petted. I asked what his history had been and was told he had won many awards for his owner as a Western Pleasure horse. I did not know enough about the world of horses to know what that meant. But it seemed he understood performing that day and I have since looked it up.
On Thursday that week I met with my personal early morning spiritual group, or Sangha, who have been meeting for many years. I regaled them with my horse farm adventures and how meaningful it was for me to participate in this bereavement group. Especially that week, as the day after I was with Dude was the 28th of November, the actual date of my father’s death and it was a dark and long day for me in memory of him and his son, my brother Dan, my most recent grief. I was grateful for both the Monday group at the horse farm and my Thursday Sangha that week.
Later that Thursday morning I saw a posting on Facebook. A picture of Dude from the farm who had passed away. So remarkable to me that that week I was so swept in grief and Dude now was a part of it. Once I had been told he was quite old and considered him Old Dude in my heart I knew I was in the company of an ancient treasure. He never balked once we began rounding the field towards the planks, he kept pace and in sync with me. Such a cherished memory. It did not say when this had happened, but I wrote back a comment on Spirit’s Promise Facebook page, so the ladies would know I had seen it.
The following Monday when we convened in the cozy corner of the barn, the kind ladies told more of Dude’s story. They shared he had passed that same evening I had been with him, that Monday night. Since I had spoken of it being the time of my father’s death, they had not wanted to post it that day. I was floored that one of their beloved horses had passed and they were thinking of me! Angela, the social worker from Hospice, had confirmed it was best to wait for my sake before posting when the ladies of the farm consulted her late that night. Such kindness towards me will not be soon forgotten.
This was when I heard more about that he never was brought out to participate as he was non-compliant. That he did so well and was ‘present’ for our activity that day had astounded them. Marisa had been monitoring his declining health for a while, considering calling the vet if he seemed to have more discomfort and pain than he could handle. Each day she would say, Dude is today the day? Each day she postponed.
When he pushed forward, took a roll in the sand stood up shook it off and looked ready, Cindy took a chance and called my name. He rallied to be a little bit of the show horse that had been his history back in his day. They felt he had had the best last day ever.
When it was discovered he was failing that night, Diane told Cindy and they found Marisa and called the vet. Dude rose up one last time and walked to the back pasture where the vet came to meet him. They were crying telling his story. They said they thought about me and his wonderful day while they cried that night. I cry writing this for them. They said I gave him the best day; I know these kind ladies gave him the best end of life.
Marisa presented me with the loveliest photo on canvas, life size, of Dude. It had been, like many other of the horses there, hung and gracing the walls of the barn. We look at them when we sit and talk and open to pour out our grief within and then maybe can fill some of the empty places with new information of horse conduct, horse lore, herd dynamic, horse love.
Dude’s photo was a focal point in my home for me through the Christmas season. With a small house and him gazing benevolently from the living room wall, towards my Christmas tree, how could he not be? Love floods my heart when I think of him. Thank You ! Marisa, Cindy, Diane, Angela–with love, Diane B.