Editor’s Note: Cathi Champion is a Best Horse Practices Summit steering committee member and a horse gal living near Seattle, Washington. She recently shared this post on her blog, which we think is just about the best essay ever on loss and grief and the process of life. We republish here with utmost appreciation and sympathy.
I have not written anything in a long time. It is a mystery to me why at times I cannot stop, and, at others, I cannot start. Today there is a pain so deep that I am not sure I can continue but feel I must express. Once again, I have lost my best friend and half of my life. Once again, I feel as if I must have failed them somehow. Maybe missed a sign, perhaps not seen what needed to be done. I just don’t know. What I do know is that there is no going back. There is no opportunity to choose a different path with a different outcome.
The death of my husband, on Veteran’s Day in 2010, and the death of my horse, on Mother’s Day 2021, are becoming inseparable. Their names are Jeff and Velvet. They did not know each other, but they wind through my soul like a DNA strand, around me and inside me as touchstones of my existence.
Their deaths, too. Both came unexpectedly and happened in a way that left and leaves me numb. Jeff feeling bad one morning, so I stayed home in case he needed the car. He felt so poorly that he even telephoned me from behind the closed door of the bedroom to remind me to take out the garbage, so I will know forever it was a Thursday. I poked my head in to laugh at his call and then took out the garbage. I have no idea how long it was before he emerged from that room, minutes, or hours. He was unsteady and quiet. He fell to the floor. I called 911. Six minutes later he was gone. Six and half and they were there. His fate was a pulmonary embolism – a blockage of an artery in the lungs. Velvet feeling bad one afternoon, so I called the vet. Through an experience too recent to describe, she became deathly ill. The vet was there. Her fate was colic – a blockage of the intestinal system. Both left this life and, yes, both left me.
Of course, those timings about Jeff are not exact and maybe not even close to real, but it is what is emblazoned in my brain. The rest comes in glimpses like a narrative that is punctuated with an occasional slide being projected in flashes. Velvet’s death is bringing it all back and is compounded and intertwined. I met Velvet because of Jeff’s death. Even my stoicism could not maintain me through the pain of wondering where I had gone wrong. Always thinking, why had this happened and why couldn’t I forget those moments? My brain seemed to bring it back whenever it wanted, and I seemed to be trying to find a different outcome. Sometime in there, I realized I needed help to thrive. I sought out a grief counselor.
Survive I could do – but thrive seemed out of my reach. Who was I without Jeff? In such a tight bond, you tend to have mostly memories in common. When you lose your soul mate, beyond the pain of losing the person, there is the loss of a half of yourself. I have learned much about memory in the intervening years, so I like to think of it in this way. Even if the memories we shared were flawed in some way, they were ours, and what we remembered of our life together was our shared existence. We filled in the gaps for each other, and we made them our stories.
Those sharing moments were gone. These days, I do well to remember before Jeff’s death and after. Sometime in late 2011 or early 2012…see, memory is hard…I found a grief counselor. I don’t know how I found her, but her name is Joan. Through Joan, I learned about perseveration and PTSD. Or at least not external war. Turns out that PTSD isn’t just for war. Watching the death throes of a beloved can trigger the reaction too. Death throes seemed a literary construct. It’s real, unfortunately. I think of the experience as my brain doing battle against me and preventing me from finding a way out. I needed it to stop. The talk therapy was helping, but even as that repetitive thinking faded, I was still left with the question of “What Next?” that needed to be answered.
Then Joan made an assignment. Find a new passion, or at least new interest. She instructed me to make a list of things I might do. The Internet can be quite the guide in this quest. I’d still have the list if it hadn’t been on the hard drive that crashed. I remember, though, that it had activities I never would have imagined and that I came up with 75 things. Kayaking was on the list. I can’t swim and would never kayak, but there had been a story about kayakers in Lake Union, close to where I worked. I’m sure the list included everything from gardening, which I had done in the past (I do, after all, have a degree in horticulture) to knitting to crazy ideas that came from too much research.
One day, though, I thought about horseback riding. It was not on the list, so I have no idea where that came from or why. I hadn’t seen a horse, read about a horse, or in any other way been directly influenced that I remember. I wasn’t even a horsey girl. I had a paint-by-number horse picture I’d kept somewhere (and have subsequently found and hung on the wall), a beloved book called The Sun Horse, and a plastic horse statue I had given away at one point. But there were no longings for a pony in my past and just a handful of rides. There was even an old wooden barn on the property when purchased, and it was knocked down to make space for other activities because I wasn’t interested in horses. So, where that idea came from and why is a mystery, or a miracle. And this is why it is forever linked to Jeff and my dealing with his death.
My thought was: There must be more to horseback riding than just sitting on a horse. Maybe I’ll learn more about that. No uneducated idea could have been more correct than that! I would come to describe horseback riding as doing 42 different things at the same time, with all the parts of your body and mind, while sitting on an animal with a mind of its own. Certainly not “just sitting there,” and while the horse may have the extra burden of staying balanced with this awkward human astride, it is certainly not “doing all the work.” Anyway, that was later.
I took the idea back to my next counseling session and Joan listened as I shared my thoughts. Of course, reporting back my findings was next. In the 21st century, finding a way into horseback riding in an urban area is not easy. Horse barns are not Internet focused. I found a few training places listed online and found that most trained only children or specific disciplines. I was 58. I needed something different. I still had a phone book at that time, but calls had the same results. Then I tried the grapevine. The request was simple: I asked if anyone knew of a person who taught horseback riding. I love the way it happened: A friend had a friend whose sister kept her horses at her mother’s house. They asked their farrier, who gave them two names. Back down the grapevine came those two names. Theresa and Rachel. For no reason, I called Rachel first
The people who have become my friends, or in one case, my husband, have typically become known to me as that almost instantly. There is a click like the sound of a lock opening. In two cases, one being Jeff, this happened sight unseen. He became dear to me in a series of phone calls long before I met him. The connection to Rachel was equally immediate. Within 10 minutes I knew she was going to teach me how to ride. Perhaps a story later is in order – one about how to be the best damn trainer of horses and people. Spoiler alert: it takes the same skill set for both. Anyway, the path was identified and an appointment set. This was reported to Joan as we continued to talk about dealing with Jeff’s death.
Those beginnings were carried by Quincy and Mr. Peterman, two training horses available to Rachel for novice riders. I took to it right away. It was fun and hard work and, to be safe and learn properly, you had to put your entire mind into it. I had heard all the touchy-feely things about girls and horses, but this full-mind, full-body experience was unexpected. And horses. Well, they are indeed special creatures. A side note here that I am an inveterate researcher, but did none before or during these early days. And, despite the thought that brought me to the experience, I would never have gotten into the whole concept of horses as therapy animals. After all, it was mostly a grief counseling assignment at that point. Until. Until I spent almost my whole session with Joan talking about the experience with the horses and maybe no mention of the grief for a husband who was gone. One of life’s little quirks is coincidence, or maybe serendipity is a better word for it. My counselor noted that she had lost me to the horse. Essentially, she explained that I was finding a new counselor. Turns out, before she got into counseling, she had trained horses. See, serendipity. That is why she was so encouraging about giving it a try. I was at the start of learning what horses can be for people. What one horse could be for me. She knew.
I did stop counseling quite soon after that. It was not that the grief was gone; it’s never gone. But it was on a back shelf and I had, indeed, found a new passion. The fateful event was when Rachel suggested I think about getting my own horse. She had one that she thought would be a match. I would lease this horse first to be sure we clicked. It’s a thing. Horses have personalities and it is important to get along. In early 2013, enter Satin Poco Chexolena aka Velvet. Registered horses have names derived from the name of their sire and dam, along with an identifier of their own. Then, they have a barn name. Sometimes a piece or reference to the registered name, but often totally unrelated. Because Rachel and others at the barn knew Velvet, that is the name she lived out her life with. It was a fateful day when this series of events kicked off because my fate was sealed. A couple of months of leasing was enough. Again, with absolutely no research about what was ahead – totally uncharacteristic and quite impulsive – I bought the horse.
Truth be told, I bought a partner. The hardest thing about horse ownership are the contradictions of science and heart. Horses are livestock. They don’t cuddle or sit on your lap. They should not be kept in the back yard as pets. Any affection for you may really be a desire to convince you to give them food. But horses have a spirit, a mind, some of the largest mammalian eyes to let you look into their soul and, as I mentioned, personalities. They are not actually our friends as we might define human friends, but they certainly can be partners. And that is what happened to me. We bonded.
Velvet. My partner. My sounding board. My counselor. My trainer. My reason. Reason for what? For everything. What I did not research in advance, I have done to the max over the past eight years. Books, conferences, seminars, websites, people, and especially Rachel, have taught me more than I could ever explain. Velvet, though, taught me all that and more. Working with her pulled me up to new heights, literally and figuratively. I am stronger through riding with her, and the Pilates I began not too long after to maintain a strong core. I am wiser through riding with her, because it is only through wisdom that you can really communicate with a horse. And that then becomes a guide for dealing with people and the world. I am healthier through riding with her. For all the internal discombobulations I have experienced, getting back on Velvet was the goal that brought me beyond what could have been had I given in to bodily destruction. When I broke a bone in my arm, the orthopedist said it would likely limit my full range of motion. Lifting a saddle, riding, and excellent Pilates training (I found a Pilates trainer on the same heavenly plane as my riding trainer) proved otherwise.
But it was mostly Velvet who gets the credit. My desire to be with her. Many days, I would get up and get going just because of Velvet. In retirement, that is an important factor. I won’t digress, but I do worry about what happens now. Sometimes when we would walk side-by-side, our strides were in sync. Sometimes. Our hearts seemed to beat together. Sometimes we were at odds. Sometimes it was hard. Sometimes it was pure joy. Always, it was who I was. I rode a horse called Velvet and she let me, even when I wasn’t as good as I should have been for her.
And then, history repeated. I rode Velvet, put up the tack, and we went to sit in the field. After grazing a bit, she went into the run-in shed. When I realized she had not come out, I went to see what was up. She was standing facing the wall. Not a good sign. I walked away, waiting to see what would happen. Someone brought hay to the cow in the adjoining field, and she got excited, racing out of the shed. Tail and head up, prancing. Ah, nothing to worry about I thought. But that was short-lived. Just as with Jeff, she needed to lay down. Then, it became clear it was colic. Up, down, pawing, looking at her belly. Quickly made the call to the vet. Madly, my mind flashes back to not having called for help early on with Jeff, but the signs were not as clear. For Velvet, measures were taken. The colic seemed not too severe. Horses can come out of it under the right circumstances. The watch was on. Then, just like Jeff, it changed. Then, just like Jeff, the rest of it is seared into my brain. A quick change to life-threatening circumstances with the big difference in having to make a decision about what next – surgery or say goodbye. Way harder than calling 911. Decision made; the fog of shock started to set in. Well, not so much fog as creating a tunnel where everything outside of it is blurry but inside it is laser-focused. To see her so sick, her hair changing color as her body was fighting, and her warmth leaving. How could this be happening, again?
No death throes, though. Just a snap moment that her soul and spirit went elsewhere, and the body became the livestock again. I thought I owed it to her to watch to the end. I was wrong, but I cannot take it back and I cannot unsee what I saw. I have been in the hospital with pain that was a 15 on a scale of 1-10. I have lost my human soul mate and, recently, my mother. But this pain was and is, so beyond those experiences as to be indescribable. And again, even my stoicism is not much help through this pain of wondering where I had gone wrong. Always thinking, why had this happened and why can’t I forget those moments? My brain seems to bring it back whenever it wants, and I seem to be trying to find a different outcome. Thankfully, it has only been a couple of days, and thankfully I retain some of the skills imparted by Joan’s grief counseling. And, at that moment, Velvet was elsewhere, no longer in that body that had failed her. She was free.
I am at that crossroads again. I have lost half my life again. Not free but tied to what was. Velvet and I shared memories, too. The things we learned together about how to interact; those are memories. We connected physically and mentally in a way that non-horse people will never understand. I did not either, before. The partnership is created by the muscle memory, the things we retain in our brain, and the patterns that become our lives.
Thus, the crossroads. Am I a horse person or a Velvet person? Is eight years of the miracle of Velvet going to be a segment, just as my marriage has become? Velvet filled the hole in my life and nearly became my whole life. What can fill the chasm created by her death?
It is too soon. My heart is broken. My coat still smells of her and I think I may never wash it, but I will. She fills my house in photographs and paintings of her and I think I may have to hide them, but I won’t. She fills a part of my garage in the makeshift tack room that I will keep until I am sure what is beyond. But it will get better. Just as I finally deleted the message received from Jeff about the garbage and, just as my life moved to something he would not recognize, we do well to accept and embrace change. His voice a memory. Her smell a memory. My life, real.
Satin Poco Chexolena was one of the good ones. We may never know how a horse really thinks or feels about us. Some say they don’t. I’ve learned enough about the brains of live beings, of horses specifically, to believe they have thoughts. Whatever the science, you know a partnership when you are in it. A bond with a horse takes a lifetime. For some reason, I selfishly thought that was going to coincide with my lifetime. Turns out it was limited to Velvet’s shortened life, just like Jeff’s. The circumstances are so similar that I feel a bit raw with the feelings of why. There is no why. There only is this. An end.
Although I would have called her Satin because I love Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll,” she was Velvet. She was my girl. She was Rachel’s girl. She was our Velvet for all who knew her. Mine, but a horse for the world. All who saw her noticed her. She was, as all horses, majestic, mysterious, mischievous, and marvelous. I bet you didn’t know horses were so alliterative. They aren’t; just their silly owners. She owned my heart, and I will get over the feeling of letting her down, just as I will not get over missing her nicker, watching her move, and of absorbing her warmth. But she is in the me that I am today and onward. And somehow, just as Jeff’s death guided me to Velvet, Velvet’s death will be my guide to the new me. There is, now, a little more sadness to hold, but a glorious eight years that has molded me into a better version of myself. As did the 25 years with Jeff. I recently noted, in writing about this, that, despite losses that drain us, thankfully the bucket refills. If I were a better artist, I would paint the picture in my mind. That bucket holds my heart, and it has vines wrapped around it from the experiences of my life. People, places, pets… they are all there. Velvet joins those with her soft, warm, and loving impact on my life. She will be missed, forever.