By Betsy Kelleher
I had a dream. It was powerfully vivid and emotionally wrenching, a product of deep feelings pushed aside and not faced for much too long. I dreamed about a horse named Little War Dude, who was born April 15, 1977. Dude would be 30 years old this month and I haven’t seen him for many years. Dude’s mother was my special Fanny, the subject of my first book. And Dude is in the book, too. He was the only horse I ever raised from birth and I did much of his training myself.
Dude was a bit lazy and I liked a horse with more “go.” I had one bad experience the first time I took him away from home and it stayed with me. Riding past a pig pen, on a narrow trail between a fence and a corn field, Dude spooked and when both reins snapped, I ended up on the ground.
In the 1900’s, I took him on a Competitive Trail Ride. My favorite photo of Dude was taken that weekend, as he was tied to the trailer with a number on his rump in orange crayon. He surprised me on that ride. The first section was wooded, narrow downhill trails and Dude was determined to keep up with the other horses. At one point, I suddenly saw a tree smack dab in front of us, and I had a sudden thought of being flattened. But I felt Dude brace for a split second, turn with agile grace, and we simply went on. As narrow as that trail was, not once did Dude rub me against a tree.
It might have been a great ride, except for one problem. We came to a place where the trail suddenly went downward, very steep, to a creek bed below. Many hooves had worn a path, like the lip of a pitcher. I tried to get Dude to follow the trail, but I think he read the hesitation in my mind louder than my legs kicking him to go on. For half an hour, he avoided my efforts in spite of 30 other horses going past us down that scary slope. He would jump sideways, and move to right or left every time. When all the horses had made a loop down there somewhere beyond view, and had come back up that slope, we turned to go with them. I had not been able to complete the official trail, so I decided to go back to camp. It was my first time riding Dude that far alone, and it turned out to be a special experience. I enjoyed the ride, going down small slopes and jumping a few logs, until we came to a cabin with lots of cute stuff in the yard, like statues, and pinwheels, and flags. Dude did not want to go past until some other horses finally came along and we were able to join them for the rest of the way back to camp.
When Dude was young, he and Fanny were kept inside a single hot wire fence. I remember watching Dude jump that fence several times. Fortunately it was on a return trip back into the pasture when he happened to hit the wire with his back feet, and I never saw him do it again. When he was about two, he would get out of the pasture and I couldn’t see how. We had built an entrance to the pasture of posts that made an “S” turn that we could walk through. One day, I noticed horse hairs on the inside of the posts. I realized that Dude was wriggling like a snake through the “S” turns. A chain between the posts prevented further escape.
I happened to read somewhere that low thyroid caused lethargy. Fanny had needed thyroid treatment, and it was probably hereditary. My vet confirmed that Dude did have a problem. After a week on thyroid treatment, I had a horse with as much energy as I could handle!
One great memory is on a hunter pace with Kelly Arnold and Paco. They were ahead of us as always, and suddenly there was this huge log across the trail. We were moving pretty fast, and I saw no alternative! I literally shut my eyes and prayed. I can still feel Dude going up and over that log, his rump lifting me up with a powerful thrust, and I opened my eyes as we landed. Then suddenly there was a sharp left turn in the trail. Dude was agile, and I didn’t have a problem steering him.
I was riding him more, jumping logs and conditioning for another competitive ride, when one day he stepped in a hole at a trot. One hind foot was swollen for a long time, and he was never the same after that.
What can you do with an old horse that’s permanently lame? If I’d had my own property, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But I was paying board and I was in the process of going through bankruptcy. I “loaned” him out to a friend with pasture, thinking he was better off able to move around outside rather than in a stall most of the day. Her pasture was too lush, and he foundered. I loaned him to a therapeutic riding facility, but he came back very thin with one leg badly injured from a kick. I gave him to another woman, who rode him some, then got a divorce and abandoned him. One place after another just didn’t work for long. I would get him back in worse shape than he was before, and I would work with him awhile, get him better, then find another place. Then there was the operation on my shoulder.
I loaned him to a friend with children, thinking he could be fun for them until my arm was healed up and I could take him back. They said they enjoyed having him and would keep him a little longer. I was hoping they meant what they said and that he was getting good care and they really were enjoying him. Whenever I called, the kids answered and said he was fine. They seemed to be happy to have him. I wanted to go check on him, but something held me back. There were no stalls available now at our barn, and I didn’t have any extra money yet. What would I do if they no longer wanted him? What would I do if I found out he wasn’t getting the right care?
I finally called one day when my friend was home, and I learned that Dude was not as welcome as I’d thought. I discovered they had given him away without even asking me and they wouldn’t tell me who had him. I still wonder if he had died or maybe they just put him down.
It was an emotional disaster for me. I made efforts to find Dude, without ever getting a lead, and the people I trusted to care for him didn’t help me. I’m sure they believe I abandoned him. In the movie, Seabiscuit, one phrase touched me: you don’t throw a life away just because it’s damaged.” That’s what I had done, and I will never do it again.
God sometimes has a way of bringing closure. I’ve seen Him work things out on several occasions to bring peace to hurting souls. God never discards us and I need that reassurance. I know He understands, and He forgives, and he helps us go on in spite of any problems we face. Perhaps He has healing for my soul in this experience. I believe I gave Dude a good home while I had him. He was a good horse and he gave me many good rides and never bucked me off.
Maybe the recent dream was my closure. While driving, I saw a man leading Dude along beside the road, letting him eat grass as he walked. I couldn’t stop then, but later came back and actually found Dude. I went running to him and he came running to me. He put his nose out to me and actually made a horsey noise like he was crying. It was so pitiful and so precious. How could any horse person not feel what I felt in that dream? I cry again, just remembering.
For a man, I’m sure this is sentimental slush. But for me, it is a partial healing and most women can understand. If Dude is still alive at 30 years old, which I doubt, I just want to know he is being cared for. He was a blue roan Appaloosa with a white blanket, was 15’2” at one time, and last I saw him his hair coat was longer than usual, much of it brown. If anyone can tell me if Dude is alive or dead, I would be grateful. You might know him by the way he could “talk” to you. He used to shake his head up and down vigorously and flap his lip making a funny sound when he wanted a carrot. So I taught him to do it on command.
Dude, this column is for you. Thanks for all you gave me.
(Originally published in the April 2007 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)