Note and Warning: This post contains a graphic description of a life ending and may be an uncomfortable read. I considered changing all the names here in case anyone might be hurt by this story, but instead decided to report it as truthfully as I am able and with an emphasis on my own experience, which nevertheless is only one person’s and told through the haze of nearly twenty years. For the photos in this post (don’t worry, the images are of other moments) I am indebted to Amber MacPherson, who was a camper at the Ranch before, during and after my sojourn there, and who, besides having turned out to be a photographer with a creative eye, had good horse-sense at the time and was a genuine asset on a roundup.
Maybe it was breakfast-time, I can no longer recall, but at some point early in the day, before the horses and ponies had been saddled up for their day of well-intended abuse at the hands of Ohio’s youth, “Uncle” Bill approached me as I crossed the ranch house lawn and drew me aside to talk out of the hearing of the young campers. I tried to stay as far away from Uncle Bill, who was not my uncle, as my volunteer work on his 4400-acre F– Ranch would allow. It was uncommon, however, for him to approach in hushed tones; usually his complaints and pronouncements, however manipulative they may have seemed to me, were uttered plainly and openly. It signified something unusual.
It was Emma, he told me. Sometime during the night or that morning she had tried to push her way through the closed gate between Lake and Ring pastures, among the bent metal bars and the mesh of wire. She had gotten one of her hind legs caught and it was broken. Perhaps she had fallen on it. “She’s still tangled,” he said, and when he said this I turned my head instantly to cast my vision over the lawn I was standing on, over the near paddock next to the greyed barn, over the deep and mostly treeless valley of Ring Pasture to its far ridge, where I could see a pony-sized speck of stillness standing at the gate to Lake Pasture.
We would have to put her down, Uncle Bill said. He didn’t want the young campers, who were attending a horsemanship clinic at the Ranch that weekend, to even know about this turn of events lest they be upset by it, so he wanted me to divert the morning’s trails, which usually would be led through Ring Pasture, through Thoroughbred and Lower Barn instead. For lack of an applicant over the age of 20 that year, Bill had appointed me stablemaster, so it was my job to make sure things went smoothly in the stables and on the trails.
It was one of the rare moments that Bill and I were able to find any level on which to connect and meet. We disagreed about almost everything, but his furrowed brow and look of disquiet told me he felt this loss deeply, and what’s more, he knew that as a sensitive (he might correctly have thought “mollycoddled and entitled”) West Coast yuppie who had only learned to ride a handful of months ago, I would be crushed by the loss of one of my charges.
“We’ll wait until the campers are at lunch downstairs,” he said, looking at the ground. “I”ve asked Don to bring one of his guns. You don’t have to be there if you don’t want to.”
I hadn’t taken my eyes off of the little brown speck half a mile away. I stood on the grass between the ranch house and the barn, with the red cowboy neckerchief that Bill required all the staff to wear fluttering under my chin, my misshapen straw hat bent low in front over my eyes, which were always bothered by the brightness of the Ohio sky. What would F– Ranch be like without Emma?
The Ranch was a chaotic place, and you were always rushing around trying to gather up all your horses and ponies and get them saddled, and when a trail came back into the stable you got the riders off and put new ones on and sent them out again. You needed every single critter. I didn’t want to find myself saying “where’s Emma?” and not being able to remember because she had simply disappeared, had ceased to show up at her little spot on the rail in the stable. I felt that watching Don shoot one of my ponies was almost more than I could bear, but it would be worse to have to forever imagine it, to not have that moment of closure and finality.
“I’ll be there,” I said.
The thing about Emma was I didn’t like her. She was the pony I liked least of all. I don’t know if anyone actually liked her, although I and a generation of young campers respected her. She was a cute little pony that didn’t care much about the agendas of humans. Most ponies were that way, I found. Their short legs and general compactness enabled them to dig in and resist. They were like furry boulders. Emma was the worst of them. On a trail, with a child on her back who either was terrified to have an animal underneath them or was reveling in the delusion of communion with the animal world, she would stop suddenly and lower her head, jerking the reins loose from her rider’s hands, and eat grass. All of the horses did this whenever they thought they could get away with it, or if the trail had to stop for some reason, such as the opening of a gate between pastures. But Emma excelled at bringing the sweetest kids to tears. Other ponies had other vexing habits. Joshua and Velvet would actually hide in the ravine when we rounded the horses up in the morning to bring them into the stable. Emma was just stubborn and ornery.
All morning as we worked our horses in the ring I could look across Ring Pasture to the gate atop the opposite hill and see Emma — a small immobile dot — standing and waiting, probably in a lot of pain I thought, but standing nonetheless. It seemed absurd.
At lunchtime I set out on foot down through the deep bowl of Ring Pasture and up the other side. I wanted the short journey alone in order to pray and prepare myself for watching death, and because I knew I needed to cry. I also wanted a few minutes with Emma before the posse showed up. For once I was grateful for the stupid, feckless company of the collie dogs, which formed the satellites of a busy little solar system of which my legs, heavier each step up the far hill, were the center. I saw the station wagon circling around Ring Pasture at the front of a little comet of dust, heard the crunch of gravel under the wheels. Old Arden, who as farm manager singlehandedly saw to the needs of maybe sixty head of cattle and as many sheep, followed a ways behind on a tractor, on whose front forks he had laid a large piece of plywood.
I had come to the ranch having no experience with horses or with the hard decisions and actions that a life on the land necessitates. Actually, I did have one childhood memory of being on a large horse in a covered ring. My older sister Jeni was on a horse in front of me, and we were in a line of horses, all with children of varying ages and varying abilities on their backs. I was young, inexperienced and terrified. We were all supposed to keep our horses standing still in the line and, one by one, when the instructor told us to, we were to induce our mount to walk forward around the perimeter of the ring and stop and join the line again along the opposite wall. Each rider complied. When it was my sister’s turn she moved off around the wall so that I was now at the head of the initial line. While the instructor followed beside Jeni and her horse, giving praise, criticism and encouragement, my own horse decided there was no reason to wait behind. It knew where it would be asked to go, and so it went. I froze in terror on its back as the gentle creature plodded around the edge of the ring, the huge muscles rippling beneath my legs. When Jeni had joined the back of the other line and the instructor turned around and found me already more than halfway around, she yelled at me, asking the kind of rhetorical questions that are pointless to ask frightened children, such as what I thought I was doing, and whether or not I had heard the instructions, and had she asked me to go yet. At that point I cried and the memory goes dark. I’m sure I embarrassed my sister.
It was perhaps that memory of being humiliated and (as I experienced it) terrorized at the hooves of a creature I had been led to believe would be my friend that made my gorge rise one day when Emma was pulling similar stunts underneath a little boy who had come to F– Ranch for the weekend with his school or church group or scout troup. We were in one of the lesson rings that give Ring Pasture its name, an oval in the grass with a fence around it. I had earned several certificates that supposedly qualified me to teach the first levels of Western saddle. I had my charges all lined up and was moving them through the basics of starting and stopping at a walk, but Emma wouldn’t go. The little boy could not make Emma go. I told him to use his heels to kick her sides if she would not respond to the clucking sound. Children do not like to kick ponies, or any animals, but this fellow gave Emma a gentle nudge with his heels, insufficient in Emma’s case to rouse her from her daydream. I told him “harder!”, and he was unable, and Emma stood still until the boy began to cry.
I am about to paint for you — in the very next paragraph — what I consider to be my worst moment as a human being. If you know me and believe that you can reference an instance when I behaved badlier, please let me know in private.
My head was boiling. I’d had enough of crying kids and stubborn ponies. Instead of sympathising and giving the kid a break, which would have been, in effect, forgiving myself for my own failure to control my horse all those years before, I repeated history. I ran over and shouted at the kid to get off of Emma. He dismounted directly (Emma was only two and a half or three feet high at her shoulder). I sat down on her and raised my feet off the ground and started kicking the heels of my boots into her sides. She started off smartly at a quick trot, no doubt alarmed at this strange behavior, but I pushed at her and yelled until she broke into a choppy little canter. Because I was the stablemaster all the horses knew me, my voice, my smell, my walk, and because of this familiarity they were able to trust me, but this behavior on my part was a breach of the contract. Some of the kids sat in quiet horror in their saddles, rightly perceiving that a terrible anger was at work in this place. Others nervously laughed. I can only imagine how ridiculous I looked, like an angry man beating on a tricycle. Emma tried to break the canter and slow down to a trot several times but I forced her on, kicking her thick sides until she had circled the ring at a run.
I got off and handed the reins back to the boy, who looked doubtful that this exposition would be of much help to him. If I had hoped to prove to him that Emma would go if you made her go, what I actually achieved was to shame him. Emma stood sweating and breathing hard. It was not worth her time to be angry at me, or even to figure out what my problem was.
She stood now enveloped in a calm. She could not walk or lie down, her cannon snapped and twisted and held on only by skin. She stood without a sign of pain. I petted her neck and looked into her eyes, brown and unfathomable, for the last time. Maybe even the first time. She was an old pony and had had as good a life as a pony can have. She was my least favorite, but I was struck by how any death, the loss of any life at all, must be such a grief to God as I envision God. In that moment the ten inches between our faces might as well have been the entire universe of space because each of us dies alone, apart from all other created beings.
I find death unacceptable. At these moments, some deep part of me resists belief in a resurrection and fears that this is all there is, this fragile life — mine and this pony’s — and that the only immortality we can hope for is to be remembered, whether ill or well. This is my most disbelieving and wayward self. But it is as real a part of me as the me that rises each day with a prayer on my lips. In fact, more real in a way. Because I pray for my own benefit, most often. If I know or am known by God it is not through any right doing or thinking or believing. If entry to heaven were guaranteed by the keeping of ten simple commandments, I would break them still. Or one commandment, I could not keep it. If my soul’s salvation were dependent on any action or restraint or effort of my own will, then were I surely hellbound. No, I never loved God or man or beast because I was told I had to. I cannot obey. I cannot do as I am told. I have only loved, and loved late at that, because the world is lovable. And it is only grace that has made me able to see this.
I could not help Bill and Arden and Lew, an old cowboy who had come for the weekend to teach advanced riding classes, and Don drag Emma quickly — roughly, it seemed to me — away from the corner she stood in to the board, on which she fell and lay still. They were not bad men, but they were not sentimental about ponies. Having grown up hunting game and dealing with instances of irreparable harm to livestock they regarded Emma as just an animal, which is what she was. And it was not they who had sworn at her and kicked her with all their might. It was I who had done those things. They were here to do her the service of freeing her from the mortal coil, because that was the job at hand.
Still, I could not watch Don pull the trigger. I looked over my right shoulder, back over Ring Pasture toward the west. The shot pushed in on my eardrums, loud but with no echo — the report just rode the breeze away into the sky.
I looked then. I needed to see that she was dead. I acknowledge that my presence there was mostly for selfish reasons, some of which I may never be aware of. Emma did not need me for anything. She quivered after a moment or two, and then convulsed, her hooves clattering for a second on the board, and then lay still, and blood poured out dark and thick from the hole in her forehead. I could see in her glassy eyes that she was instantly gone, returned to nature, ungathered, turned loose into the flow, into the greater.
I walked back thanking God for the gift of life, vowing not for the first time and not for the last that I would never again waste any moment of my own.