I started riding horses when I was in second grade because my big sister wanted to learn how, and I wanted to do everything she wanted to do. It turns out I loved it, and it turns out I was pretty good at it. For the next ten years, I rode any horse I could. I might have dreamed of expensive horses and the Olympics, but I knew my Army family could never afford one of those beautiful warmbloods that leapt over the highest fences with ease and grace. I listened to my teacher/nun as she told me not to covet what couldn’t be mine. And, mostly, I did.
But I dreamed about and doodled my own horse. It’d be a big gray horse, with a gorgeous, long forelock and a tail that fell like a waterfall. He’d have a sweet face and a big heart and rocking canter. And he’d be mine all mine.
I did 4-H and Pony Club and competed in any show I could during middle school and my first two years in high school. But when we moved to Washington, D.C., for my final two years in high school, there weren’t any affordable barns around. I stopped riding, went to college, lived abroad for some years. Then I came back to the U.S., went to graduate school, met my future husband, and got married.
I got pregnant the same month we started trying and when it came time for the gender-revealing ultrasound, I held my breath. “It’s a girl!” my doctor said. My first thought? I’m going to ride again!
Lorelei was in second grade when she had her first horseback riding lesson, and I waited a full year until I started riding again. I took lessons on the barn’s horses while my kids were in school. When I got on a horse, my adult self stayed on the ground. In some swirl of magic, I became the little girl version of myself, enthralled with cantering and jumping on the back of a horse and full of dreams of having her own horse.
After four years of riding and countless promises to my husband that we’d never own a horse, a big gray horse came into our barn. Baltaine. He was big and beautiful and dappled gray and for sale. My rational adult self was nowhere to be found. Giddy with want, I asked the head trainer if I could ride him. She obliged, crossing her fingers that my husband would bless the deal she knew I wanted. I floated around the ring on Baltaine, feeling like the child whose notebook margins were full of horses. I cried to my husband, “This is the horse I always dreamed about!” My daughter rode him a few weeks later and was equally in love.
And then, he surprised me. My husband said yes! Yes! I had a horse! Baltaine was mine! Oh, happy day! Oh, happy me!
I pretended he was Lorelei’s horse, but a 12 year old does not own a warmblood–he was mine on the papers and mine when the announcer called his name out in the shows. We shared him with another rider at the barn to help pay the bills for the first year we owned him, and I bided my time. I rode him on Tuesdays, and the other girls got him the other days. But the girl to whom we leased him would be going to college in two years, and then I’d have him half the time. And I secretly thought Lorelei would stop riding in high school and then (enter devious cackle here) he’d be mine, all mine.
I started sharing him with just Lorelei after about a year. I became more serious about riding and showed him on the first day of the show, because Lorelei didn’t like to miss school. I became that little girl, joy-filled and thrilled to be in the ring and under the watchful eye of a judge. I loved it all. I took my time on all the jumping courses, trying to squeeze out a few more seconds on the back of my sweet Baltaine. Some rounds were prettier than others, but they were all fantastic to the little girl inside my 40-ish year old body.
Partway through the summer, I decided that I was going to gift myself the joy of showing him without sharing him. I was going to put myself first and prioritize my sporting activities over Lorelei’s and my two soccer- and baseball-playing boys. For three days, it would be me and Baltaine.
But on Thursday, while making lunch at home, I got a phone call. It was the head trainer who had played match maker 18 months prior, calling me instead of sending her usual text.
“Kate? It’s Heidi,” she said. “I’m calling because…Baltaine stepped wrong. It doesn’t look good.”
“Oh. Do I need to come out?” I asked.
“Yes. Right now. Can you?” she asked.
“I’m on my way,” I said.
On the way out to the barn, the gravity of the situation fell on me, one layer at a time. I was not going to show my horse this weekend. I was going to say good-bye to my horse right now. I was not going to smile for the camera or memorize courses. I was going to see my horse drugged up so that he didn’t feel the pain from his leg. I wasn’t going to be hanging up blue ribbons. I was going to sit home and cry.
When I got there, my big, beautiful gray dream horse was standing, leaning up against a barn post. His front left leg was bandaged up–his hoof was covered and wrapped all the way up to his knee. They told me what had happened: The barn manager had been lunging him, and Baltaine was feeling frisky. He bucked big, and landed wrong. Just this once. Just all wrong. All the small bones between his foot and his ankle broke and he couldn’t support his own weight. I stood, holding his lead rope and rubbing his neck, playing with his long, white forelock, unsure what to do or what to think or how to react to this tragic change of plans. The vet showed me the x-ray and told me I had no choice: euthanizing Baltaine was the only option. Our trainer and the barn manager said how sorry they were. My husband stood on the side, unsure of what to do or say.
And so, I said good-bye to Baltaine. I thanked him for his patience, especially with Lorelei as she had made mistakes and he had covered them up. I thanked him for the lessons he taught us. I thanked him for being my very first horse, one that I thought I’d ride for the next ten years and one that I wished I’d ridden more.
And then I walked away.
At first, it seemed like I walked away empty-handed. With nothing but a broken, heavy heart. On the way to my car I had to stop and put my hands on my knees, gasping for breath through the sobs as Grief took over.
My rational adult self already realizes how lucky I was to own a horse for any amount of time–I get that I’m in the fortunate minority. I owned a big, gorgeous warmblood; for almost two years he was mine all mine. That rational adult self is proud of my daughter for not missing a week’s worth of riding–Lorelei jumped back into lessons on two different horses that are a good fit for her size and level.
But the little girl inside me is so very sad. If she stopped avoiding the barn, she’d just go to Baltaine’s empty stall and slide down into a heap of tears and cry her broken heart out. She just misses knowing he’d be there for her, a big gray horse with a long white forelock looking for her when she walked into the barn.
I just miss my sweet Baltaine.