Photo in post (header): Misty so content in retirement, 2013. Author’s note: A version of this story was originally published in Pet Connection Magazine’s holiday 2013 edition. This is part of Animal Hospice Group’s National Pet Wellness series.
Celebrating pet wellness month: Animal hospice and my senior horse
By Tracy Brad
Director of Marketing & Communications, Animal Hospice Group
It’s the phone call that no one who shares their life with a horse wants to make or receive: “Misty is down and she can’t get up. We think it’s time.”
It was an early morning in late September. I was still recovering from an accident where I’d broken my sacrum and both sides of my pelvis. I struggled out of bed, trying to down a cup of coffee and some Tylenol. Instead, I got sick and then cried hysterically.
Oh, Misty. Would I arrive in time?
I rescued Misty in 2006. She was a senior horse at the time, and my mother helped me move her from her current barn to ours. My mother had known this sweet horse before me, but when she saw her again, she was shocked.
The Arabian was bony and covered in “rain rot,” a skin infection that was likely painful and itchy. Her eyes looked defeated. Her pretty little head hung low, her nose almost touching the muddy ground. Her front hooves were too long, causing her to stand at an uncomfortable angle, and her hind feet were trimmed painfully too short. She struggled in the ankle-deep mud, her once-graceful strides awkward and choppy.
I had taken care of senior animals before, including senior horses. I knew that many of them had unique and specific health needs, like arthritis, vision or hearing loss, cognitive decline, and special nutritional needs. I wasn’t prepared for this, though.
“Come on, Misty,” I said to her quietly. She put her head into the halter, following me willingly into the trailer. I discovered within those first few moments that she had a habit of touching me with her muzzle for reassurance. I called them her “nose touches.” She touched me lightly as I tied her in the trailer. I gently touched her back. “You’re safe, Misty,” I said quietly. I thought I was taking her to a loving home to die in comfort. She was a sweet old girl. She’d taught so many children how to ride, and with patience and kindness. I wanted her to have a good, dignified death. She deserved that much. But before that happened, she would help us both live vibrant, grateful lives – because we deserved that much.
When we brought her home, she was cautious. She didn’t know the routine. She didn’t know what to expect. We consulted a veterinarian and focused on rest, TLC, and nutrition. After months of receiving twice daily warm, soaked grain buckets topped with chopped carrots, meticulous grooming and massage sessions with tea tree oil, and long sessions of daily hand walking where I told her all about my day, she began to recover.
Once I thought that I was bringing her home to die, but I was actually bringing her home to live. And when we realized that she still had so much living to do – that she would still enjoy having a job and enjoy being ridden, I was excited to put a saddle on her. She was motionless as I got on for the first time. Her ears were pricked forward. It felt like she was holding her breath. The first few months of rides were gentle walks and trots; then we realized that she was likely ready for the next step.
The first time that I cantered her, I burst into laughter at her smooth, rocking horse gait. She gave a little squeal and sprang forward, all joy.
We traveled for miles on the trails. As the months and years went by, her happy gait had hints of arthritis, but she didn’t slow down. She’d always come running when I got out the saddle. She’d give her nose touches and I knew to reassure her, as she reassured me. One day several years ago, she just looked at me sadly as I placed the saddle on the fence. I knew then that her arthritis was now too advanced for riding. She looked longingly from me to the trail and back again. That day, I began taking for senior horse for long walks along the trails. Anyone who has ever seen the joy of a senior dog as their guardian gets out their leash would know the joy of this sweet old horse. She pranced on each walk, nose touching me with shining eyes.
We surprised many a hiker and bicyclist on the trail, me walking my joyful oversized “dog,” her greeting every person that she saw. When Misty turned 31 in 2012, her condition began deteriorating even more. Her arthritis was more noticeable. She had hearing loss. She was experiencing cognitive decline. I discussed a plan with Michelle Nichols, co-founder of the Animal Hospice Group.
Time and again, Misty rallied. She just wasn’t ready to go. So I continued to accompany her on her animal hospice journey, watching her closely to ensure that she still had a good quality of life.
We fear death – and especially the loss of our nonhuman animal friends, hoping they won’t know pain or fear in their final moments. But death can be beautiful, if you only look. A dying star is among the most stunning celestial objects. Leaves are brilliant as they reach their terminal burnished reds and golds. There’s also grace, beauty, and dignity in a senior animal’s final weeks, days, or hours.
On Friday, September 27, 2013, I left my house within minutes of the phone call. My Bluetooth toggled calls back and forth between Michelle and Jennifer, my friend who boarded my horses – and the person who had to make that call. Her husband, Jerry, never left Misty’s side. Jennifer and Jerry had provided hospice care for so many of their own animals. They definitely “got it.” I will forever be grateful for their presence that day.
Michelle had agreed to drop everything if I needed her. I told her she’d already prepared me. I was ready. I had a plan.
As I drove, I reflected upon the life of my beloved friend. How I loved her. How I already felt the pain of her loss. (This is called “anticipatory grief"). I vacillated between crying and perfect stoicism. When I arrived at the barn, she was lying quietly in her stall, a blanket draped across her body and gently placed beneath her beautiful little head. I could see she was ready to go. I’d worried that she would be distraught, but Jerry had stayed by her side from the moment he found her, massaging her for more than an hour as I drove. I cried. I was so grateful.
Jerry said softly: “Now don’t let her see you crying. Don’t let her last moments be like that.” He was right. I stopped crying and gazed upon my sweet friend.
Her eyes looked so happy and relieved to see me. Nose touch. I crouched down, pain shooting through my body. I was still struggling with mobility after the pelvic fractures. She saw me struggling silently. Even as she laid there, prone, sweating, her respiration up, she wanted to reassure me. Nose touch. I stroked her face and cried silently. Nose touch. I was still so sore – crouching was the hardest movement – but if I got up or stopped petting her, she struggled. My hands remained on her. I remained crouched by her side. “I’m here,” I said softly, even though she was now deaf. But she “heard” me. Nose touch.
The veterinarian arrived and assured me that Misty was in the “exhaustion stage.” She had nothing left. She was ready. Was I? Nose touch. The vet’s kind eyes searched mine, but I averted my gaze, only watching Misty. As the vet quietly injected her, I stroked her face. She kept nose touching as long as she could. I closed her eyes and said goodbye to my good friend. Her passage was as beautiful as a star or a leaf – but loving and peaceful, as well.
Many years later, the loss is still profound. I cry as I write this. But thanks to Michelle’s guidance with animal hospice, I had a plan – and that makes the pain bearable. I was able to walk the path of least regret with Misty – all the way to the end.
May we all have our lives touched by such a profound relationship with a nonhuman being. When their time comes, they will look for you. They will give you their version of a “nose touch.” Misty was looking for me. I was there. And if you receive the type of guidance that I received, you can be there, too.
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