If You Couldn’t Ride
By Betsy Kelleher
Something on Facebook inspired this column. Heaven’s Gate Farm posted a link to a blog, Juli Thorson’s Horse Talk on Horse and Rider online magazine, asking the question: If you couldn’t ride, would you still keep horses? Though the question was directed toward people who could no longer ride, it reminded me of horses that could no longer be ridden.
I immediately thought of two horses in the stable where I board. One is my own gelding, Traveller, now at least 26 years old, whose rear end has become so weak in the past year that I’m afraid to put anyone on his back. There’s also an older mare with arthritis and a bad knee that can no longer carry a rider. We are paying for board and feed for horses that will never again carry us down the trail, but whose eyes remind us that a special relationship exists on the ground as well as in the saddle.
Traveller wasn’t a competitive mount with a spirit to win like my first mare that I rode on distance rides. His gift to me was seven years of wonderful, safe trail riding before he was diagnosed with EPM, and many good rides after that. Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis is caused by ingestion of spores from an infected opossum. A tiny parasite gets into the central nervous system causing unknown damage that often shows up even after the parasite is killed.
Traveller began to tire easily in 2004 as we rode the hilly trails at Pere Marquette. I felt something was wrong, but it was several months before a vet made the diagnosis. Traveller responded quickly to medicine, but symptoms later returned. After more medicine, he seemed over it and I rode him in a horse show the following year. During one winter, he had strange seizures lasting about an hour, usually around 7 p.m., involving muscle tremors, soft manure, eyes rolled back and nose drawn up tight. After a vet suggested it might be an ulcer, I treated him with herbal products for ulcers, then kept him on a daily dose of herbal product for the central nervous system. He has had no more tremors, but his weakness has been a gradual downhill progression.
I enjoyed my last good ride on him in September of 2010. For several months after that, he was leased to a young girl and her mom who gave him extra attention as they learned about riding while working to strengthen his muscles. It was difficult for all of us to give up on him.
Traveller was my most sensible, most dependable trail horse. I never worried if he would do something to hurt me. I could relax and enjoy riding. On one outing, I ventured off the trail and Traveller got stuck in a ditch full of vines. Unable to move, he stood there quietly while a fellow rider came to cut the vines from around his legs!
Besides enjoyable rides in various parks, I took him on Hunter Pace events, often with Cindy Medina as my partner. I remember that it rained most of the way to The Riding Center one certain morning, and we debated about turning around and going home. But I kept driving, and the rain stopped by the time we arrived. Although the trail was wet, we had a good ride and we won the blue ribbons!
Cindy joined me on another Hunter Pace at Greensfelder Park. That day was blessed in a special way when we heard a wood thrush during much of our ride. To me, a wood thrush has the most beautiful song of any bird, and I had never heard one before in a natural setting. One part of the trail was especially steep and rocky. I remember Traveller’s run up that hill, a bounding canter that filled me with exhilarating joy as I stood in the stirrups of my English saddle, feeling his strong body under me. The memory of bounding up that hill has stayed with me all these years.
Traveller is no longer my riding partner, and I miss that. I honestly love the old guy. He cared for me more than any horse I’ve ever owned—and he showed it. One day when I was riding Lady near the barn, she caught a hoof in a rope on the ground and I yelled Whoa several times before the situation was resolved. Traveller came trotting around the side of the barn, whinnying at me from his paddock. Was he asking, are you OK? Scoff if you will, but Traveller is that kind of horse. When I told him, “I’m fine now,” he stood there a moment, then turned and walked back behind the corner of the barn, to rejoin his pasture buddy. I sat there on Lady for several minutes, deeply touched by Traveller’s show of concern.
I would love to spend more time with him, taking him for walks where the grass is high, even if we can’t enjoy the trails together anymore. The older I get, the less energy I have to do all I’d like to do, and I now have two other horses. But I can’t turn Traveller out in someone’s field for the rest of his life and expect a stranger to take care of him. Though our trail riding days are over, we still have a special bond.
God has helped me with his care in many ways. I believe God provided the means to heal Traveller’s EPM. There have been anxious times, but I Peter 5:7 tells us to “Cast all our anxiety on him (God) because he cares for you.” I have felt God’s care for both Traveller and for me. That spirit of caring surrounds us. And another word for care is love.
I know a time will come to say goodbye, but as long as Traveller is able to enjoy life, I will do what I can for him. Because I care. Luke 12:48 offers this thought, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Traveller gave me years of safe riding with many precious memories. I feel greatly blessed to have had such a kind, dependable horse for fourteen years, and I hope he knows I appreciate him. He has earned his retirement.
This Christmas, I pray each reader might feel blessed with the partnership of a special four-legged companion. God has provided and will continue to provide, because He truly cares. In our daily trials and through any unusual problems, God gives strength and wisdom to find peace. He works to fulfill His plan for our lives. God cared enough to provide His Son as our Savior and King, coming to earth as a newborn baby. Jesus cared enough to give His life. May we worship Him in spirit and in truth this Christmas season, with a willingness to give our lives to serve Him—because we care. May each one sense that spirit of love that surrounds us.
(Originally published in the December 2011 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)