The catch in my mother’s voice was audible. She didn’t have to tell me she was getting choked up.
It was Sunday afternoon when she called. She was on her way home from the state fairgrounds where she’d stopped to see some of the fall Saddlebred show.
I know why she was choked up. It’s happened to me when I’ve been there. I could never quite understand it yet it made perfect sense. A mixture of nostalgia and maybe, for me, even guilt.
We always think of Beau, our American Saddlebred, a beautiful chestnut gelding. My mother bought him for me to ride and show when I was a kid. She got him from a fast-talking trainer named Taft.
At the time, Beau was a three-gated horse. His tail had been broken when he was young so that it would shoot straight up in the air, his long tail hairs trailing like a streamer. Typical of Saddlebreds, he had a flashy, high-stepping gait. He’d been trained with heavy shoes to get him to lift his feet high.
But we never got into that. I think my mother felt it was a bit cruel. So Beau was a pleasure horse. He still picked his feet up a high, by now a habit. But I rode him in pleasure classes, where judges focused on him, and equitation classes, where judges focused on me.
Beau was always something of a star at home. We had, at one point, eight horses plus five llamas and a goat, among other pets, which is really what they all were.
The horses ranged from a persnickety and independent Welsh pony and her similarly independent daughter, Mahlie, to a retired hunter jumper named Boca, whom you could ride bareback with a halter and lead rope. There was also Cameo, a dependable, well-disciplined chestnut thoroughbred mare, and Tess, a powerful dark brown Dutch Warmblood, both of which my mother did dressage with. Tess was bigger than Beau and was the only horse Beau looked up to.
But in our minds, Beau was always the special one. He’d whinny in the pasture when you called him. He’d come looking for carrots or apples. Sometimes he was just curious, bounding over with his lanky, elegant gait, his tail high in the air.
Over the years, through early college, I showed him in four shows a year. All but one of the shows were held on the state fairgrounds.
I’d feel sick with nerves before my events. Beau was agitated too. He’d grown accustomed to a leisurely life at home. Here he was bunking with and sharing a riding ring with horses he didn’t know. There was always a thrill as we entered the coliseum, a vacuous space that echoed as the man on the microphone called the riders in. I always held the bridle firmly against Beau’s mouth, restraining him from what felt like a full charge into the ring, a thunder of hooves sounding as the riders all went in together.
There were never many spectators but those there would yell and whoop to get their favorite horse excited. Beau wasn’t used to this. We just had my mother, always standing in a corner on the outside of the ring, offering words to me or to Beau, whom she says always acknowledged her. I was busy focusing on the ride, his gait, making sure to keep space between Beau and the other horses. We were never the most serious of the competitors. We stuck to shows close to home, doing it more for fun.
We’d be told to walk, trot, then canter, go around the ring then change direction. I kept my toes forward, heels down, back straight and hands low while getting Beau to hold his neck arched and nose perpendicular to the ground. At the end, we’d line up in the center of the ring, Beau standing with his front legs close together, his back legs wider apart, with the front set slightly forward and the rear slightly back. The final task when the judge came to me was to back him up straight, which he usually did.
I quit showing Beau in college. I was living away from home and that last year we just did not put in the hours of practice that we needed. I always felt a bit ashamed about that last ride. Beau was not as disciplined, which was really my fault. We were a bit sloppy. We did not finish last but that was not the point. It was our last ride. It was not our best.
After that, Beau was a horse of leisure and had a good life, a great life. It came to an end several years ago after he suffered from a painful but common problem, laminitis, an inflammation inside the hooves that eventually makes standing too painful to tolerate. Horses cannot survive if they cannot stand up.
Thankfully, I’d been between jobs at the time. It was February. It was cold. But I would stand in the unheated barn with him for hours as he looked outside at the other two horses, by now just Tess and Mahlie, across a chain that kept him inside. It was painful to see how much he wanted out, as was his nature.
Soon after, Beau would lie down in his stall and not get up. He wanted to. He was even nibbling at hay. He may not have realized it but he gave up.
My mother called the vet. She looked on from the stall door as the vet told me to kneel on his head to keep him from jerking up as he injected something to sedate him before injecting something to stop his heart. I hated being asked to do this. I did it half-heartedly as I stroked Beau’s neck and nose and talked soothingly to him, which was really talking soothingly to myself, and took my chances that we’d be injured. He didn’t make too much of a fuss.
My mother choked up as she looked on and quietly said goodbye to Beau. I tried to be strong in front of the vet. But something ended when Beau passed on.
We had two horses, Tess and Mahlie, for several years after that. Now there is just Mahlie. And the barnyard and pastures have long since grown silent.
My mother does not get choked up often. Not, at least, that I see.