The United States Pony Clubs are sort of the english-riding version of 4-H and teach horsemanship and riding to kids. My club was fantastic with excellent instruction and involved members and parents. We, our horses and our tack had to be perfectly clean and "groomed" before our Saturday morning lessons or we couldn't ride. We also had to do everything on our own. Parents weren't allowed to help. Kids passed through "grade levels" by showing increased riding skills as well as horse care, equine anatomy and verterinary knowledge. Occasionally clubs would get together to hold "rallies" or competitions to test riding and knowledge.
I must have been around 12 or 13 years old when I competed with my horse Jake in one such rally competition with my teammates from the Diamondback Pony Club.
"Mack" had been destined for the slaughterhouse when he was rescued by a family friend. My grandfather gave "Mack" to me when I was bout 7 or 8 and he was just a yearling. I promptly renamed him Jake. My family initially trained him as a rodeo horse but I eventually began riding him english and jumping him.
Part of the rally competition involved cross-country jumping in which the horse gallops over a course of 20 or so solid, natural jumps for about 2 miles. This particular course ran through beautiful woods in Northern Arizona. Jake and I were doing very well getting over the fences and making good time. About half way through right before a jump he slowed his gallop and felt like he might even stop. I knew he must be tired but I gave him a kick and a light tap with my crop and asked him to keep going. He picked up the pace and galloped over the remaining jumps to finish on time with no faults.
As soon as I got off I noticed he looked a little "off". He had an almost imperceptable limp. A veterinary exam is mandatory after jumping the course. When I told the veterinarian I thought he was limping, she instructed me to keep walking him because he was probably just fatiqued from the course. He passed the exam. As soon as I got back to the barn I took Jake to one of my instructors and told her I thought that something was wrong. She looked him over and immediately recognized a sprained suspensory ligament on his left front. The suspensory ligament supports the fetlock joint and keeps it from touching the ground when weight is placed on the leg. It is a serious injury that often puts an end to a horse's racing or jumping career. We immediatey began cold-hosing and treating the injured leg.
I felt so guilty when I realized he had sprained it at the exact moment about midway through the course when it felt as if he wanted to stop. He kept going because I asked him to.
Jake didn't have an elite pedigree or perfect conformation. He was rather short with a huge head and a long back. But he showed that day, and throughout the rest of his life, that had more heart than any horse I have ever ridden. He would have tried to jump the Grand Canyon if I had asked him to. It took him about a year to recover from that injury, and he was never able to continue jumping after that. We moved on to dressage where we competed successfully at the lower levels. We took long trail rides in solitude and with friends. We rounded up cattle in the spring at a family friend's ranch. We rode on the beach in California when my dad hauled Jake there for me as a high school graduation present. I could ride him down the road bareback with no bridle and only a string around his neck. My kids both rode Jake in his old age.
Jake was my partner throughout my childhood and into my adult life. He was a keeper. I have never so completely trusted a horse. When I had to move to Chicago for my education a good friend kept Jake for me. Her young daughter learned to ride on him. I visited whenever I was in town. When Jake was 29 I got a phone call telling me that he had become stuck under the fence during the night and that after he was helped out he wasn't doing well. The vet was called out and determined that he had twisted his intesting during the struggle to get free and that his prognosis was not favorable. Since I couldn't be there myself to see him, I gave my friend permission to do what she thought was right. I did not want to pursue heroic measures because of his old age and the likelihood that he woudn't recover from surgery. My family had given him the best life a horse could possibly hope for, and it was time to let him go. My friend was with him until the end.
I was only able to handle Jake's passing because I wasn't there to see it. I donated his body to the local University where students performed a necropsy. The necropsy confirmed his ischemic intestine and his larger than average heart.
On a side note, during the same call when my friend informed me about Jake's grave condition, she also informed me about a job opening in my hometown. I ultimately took that job. The very job that has opened up the world and opportunities I never imagined possible. The very job that has made me disrupt my family, move out of our house and ship Ebro all the way to Spain. My friend and I joke that this job was Jake's last gift to me.
My family and were not able to get our visas during our recent trip to the Spanish Consulate. We were told that I may not be able to get mine for up to 3 more months and that my husband and children may not be able to get theirs for up to 6 more months. This is certainly not the news we wanted to hear, and creates a myriad of significant complications and extreme difficulties for my entire family. Issues related to my husband's job, where and how the kids will attend school, and me being gone in Europe for long periods of time, among others. I have seriously contemplated giving up on the whole idea of moving to Spain. Things can almost always be undone. I'm not one to ever want to quit, but this experience has truly tested my resolve as we have been preparing for the move for an entire year.
Driving home from the airport after the visa appointments I told my husband and my kids that I would understand completely if it was getting to be too much, and if they wanted to stop pursuing the move to Spain. My kids stated with conviction that they want to continue with the move. My husband pointed out that we had decided that this would be an incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our family and that we should see it through.
And today, for some reason I thought about how Jake, severly injured half-way through the cross-country course, had the heart to finish the course.
I'm currently reading a book in which the characters contemplate what their angels look like. If I have one, I am certain that he is a short bay with a big head and a long back.