Filling the memory basket

Her stall may be empty but my heart is full.  When someone loses a beloved horse it is common to take a lock of mane or tail as a keepsake and I was no different. But I wanted something more than an envelope in a drawer that a relative would  toss away after I myself was gone.  I met a wonderful artist on etsy ( where I sell my pen and ink artwork who makes beautiful things, large and small, from a horse’s tail hair.  I commissioned her to make something for me using Lady’s tail hair and the result is this exquisite basket.  I must admit my heart skipped a beat when I first saw it.

Lady's memory basket

Since Lady’s passing, I have tried to jot down a few memories I hold dear to myself and will recall whenever I look at this in its prominent place of honor in my home.

She loved her fresh carrots and treats from the co-0p, but surprisingly she despised sugar cubes.  The only person she ever deigned to take sugar from was my friend Lynne, and I think she ate them only out of politeness because she loved her.  Even with me, Lady would spit them out, sending them rolling away down the aisle with a look of disgust as if to tell me I should know better.  She always took her treats with the greatest of care, lipping them gently from my hand, like royalty accepting her due so there was no need for haste.  She was sorely disappointed if I ever failed to bring something but then graciously forgot about it as we went to work.

I like to think I gave the freedom to have opinions back to her.  When I first got her, she willingly did all that was asked.  She was a hard worker but with a certain reserve that few besides myself were aware of.  What was visible was an ordinary, steady, chestnut quarter horse mare, doing the best she could at whatever might be asked for.  The first hint that there could be more behind it all came with the whip.  A dressage whip is properly used only as a gentle aid, never as punishment.  When I would tap, tap, tap on her side to help in a movement, I could tell she was insulted.  She knew she had done nothing wrong and so she let me know – very politely of course – that the whip was uncalled for.  It took a while, but gradually she grew to understand that between us the whip would be an aid and nothing more; that it was alright for her to question me about what we were doing and have a few ideas for herself about how things could go.  After a brief period of opinions in spades we settled down to enjoying the path of dressage, quarter horse style, and it added immeasurably to the pleasure we found in each other.  When she got the space to be herself, she proved to be a generous, funny companion who liked to make me laugh.

She was a giving, intelligent partner in any task at hand.  I could tell she loved movements that played to her quarter horse heritage, especially haunches in, renvers, and sudden changes in direction; anything that might swing her haunches and mimic working the cattle.  The short legs and long back of the show type quarter horse limited us somewhat but she was always game to try anything and as she aged I had to be the one to stay sensible.  Along the way we learned to do flying changes, extended trots, pirouettes, and some piaffe and passage together, all in the spirit of pleasure and accomplishment.  Our inadvertant airs above the ground came about when, released from the collected effort of a piaffe, we launched skyward in a surprising version of the capriole.  She was usually unflappable, but never dull – a great quality in a first horse for anyone. Her inner delicacy, hidden in a chunky quarter horse body, taught me true lightness.

We sometimes saw deer on our outside jaunts but she never spooked at them, just stared intently to let me know they were there.  A few times a rabbit ran between her legs and all she did was hop about 1″ straight up in the air before watching it scurry on its way.  I always startled way more than she did.  If she ever started to have a case of the heebie-jeebies I knew it was temporary and most likely due to a desire to get her blood going, like a child who enjoys the sudden scare but is not really worried overall.

Before I would start grooming and massaging her, especially in her later years, she would quiver just a little in anticipation at the pleasures to come.  She loved belly scratches in the summer when the small flies would cause intense itching around her naval.  At times I was afraid she would fall over from the sheer ecstasy of it all.  I learned to give her massages in her old age and how to tell what muscles were giving her particular trouble.  I could help loosen those areas not used much anymore and ones stressed by her three bad legs.  Who knew that gentle pulling of her tail to each side would end up being one of her favorite things.  I had to be careful not to let go too quickly because sometimes she was stretching so hard against me that she could fall over unless I let her rebalance herself first.

Thinking back over it all, I believe we took each other to places we never would have gone separately in a special partnership that is often only dreamed about.  I am quite sure that although there may be others, there will never be one quite like Lady for me.  That’s okay because no one should live in the shadow of some other’s past.  The day before she died, Lady passaged lightly on the lead rope as we walked from the pasture to the barn – as she hadn’t done in years, reminding me of past glories that I didn’t know were ending soon.  It was a little gift of laughter passed between the two of us which I appreciated at the time, if not its finality.  A last gesture of generosity from a gentle soul that goes into the memory basket.

My sweet Lady

Us, in better days. She's peeved because I won't let her graze

Her official quarter horse name was Reb’s Flashy Cat, but we just called her Lady – because she was.  She was the kindest, sweetest, most generous horse anyone could imagine and I didn’t know that when I when to the barn where I boarded her last Wednesday, it would be the last time I’d see her in good health. It was a beautiful fall day -warm, dry, and clear.  The weather was supposed to turn to cool fall rains on Thursday and since I really hate to be cold I wanted to take advantage of it.  We had a lovely time together.  I have not been able to ride her in a couple of years because she didn’t have a good leg left, but we enjoyed our time together with grooming, baths in warm weather, and gentle massages.  It was horse heaven on earth.

I had just settled down at my drafting table to finally spend some time on the latest painting after a rather hectic 10 days when the phone rang.  It was the barn manager, who is a friend,  calling to say Lady had shown evidence of a disturbed night and wouldn’t settle down to graze in the pasture.  Because colic is always a danger in an older horse, the vet was called.  Over the course of the day we determined that Lady had most likely had a stroke and become blind and irreparably  anxious.  I decided to let her go. As tough as these things can sometimes be, it turned out to quiet and simple.

My memories are all good ones.  She taught me so much that I never would have known otherwise.   First of all, she had a wonderful sense of humor.  I remember when we kept her for a few years in a timber frame barn that my husband built on our property.  We had a barn cat to keep her company and reduce the rodent population.  She loved to sneak up on him (and I do mean sneak for a 1000 lb horse) and touch him on his upright tail.  Merlin would jump straight up into the air as only a cat can do and run off at top speed.  Lady would laugh and laugh watching him race away.

In myriad ways, when I handled and rode her, she would make me laugh, asking “is this what you want, how about this, or surely you mean this”.  She was a kind and gentle companion but capable of great passion in her work.  I learned piaffe and passage along with her, the use of my outside leg, and once even an inadvertent airs above the ground.  She was capable of great delicacy of movement not normally associated with a short legged, long backed quarter horse if  asked with the proper light touch.  Once we went to that other place where we were truly as one. It was an indescribable a moment I will treasure as no other.

Lady was part of our lives for 17 of her 28 years.  She enriched it in ways unimaginable before we got her.  I am going to have a small basket made from some of her tail as a cherished memento of a cherished soul.  I miss her.