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The way things go

I call my horse Dalley “my crescent moon girl” for the sliver of moon that graces her forehead. It’s funny, the things you remember …

I got Dalley four years ago when she was 19 years old. She is the horse who taught me how to ride again after an adult lifetime of other things. Dalley belonged to a 9-year-old girl who learned pole bending on her and, over the next 11 years, took her to state level competitions and won there.

When I met Dalley she’d been retired because her legs weren’t what they used to be. She had to watch her beloved girl go off on her new horses to win competitions while Dalley sat in a stall back home more or less forgotten.

That girl’s mom thought Dalley deserved something better, and I sure hope that something better was me. She was perfect; she took such great care of me, and she knew everything.

Gina Luciano used her at her summer horse camp for kids one year, and Dalley was the favorite. She wasn’t the fastest, but she executed everything perfectly. She made every little girl feel like a winner. And, she was in her element, because she was always, somehow, looking for her own girl.

Our last year together, I would lead her on walks with my old dog Marley and my lab Sophie, who has cerebral palsy. Dalley would lower her head to my level and walk along beside me with an easy smile on her face. She was careful not to step on the dogs. We  loved to stop and hang out while she grazed.

Dalley loved her barn in Sierra Estates near Graeagle. She had her own window, and I often would see her with her head out, just gazing off into the distance. Or, she’d stand at the crest of the hill and look at her meadow valley. It hurt to think about sending her away, but I wanted her to live.

Her arthritis was getting worse. I’d upped her medications and given her knee injections, which helped for awhile. But, I knew that she wouldn’t make it through another winter in the Sierras.

So, when my friend Kris Rickard announced she was moving back to Santa Ynez and

taking her horse Scotty with her, I asked if Dalley could come too. “Of course,” she said.

For awhile, Dalley thrived in Santa Ynez. The weather was warm and dry and she had loads of horse friends. And, best of all, it was a training barn where the arena, often full of little girls learning to ride, was right on the other side of her paddock.

I came to visit a few months later, and I could hardly contain her as she pulled me down the line of horses and toward a rich piece of grass. She was a gorgeous horse — her head was high, and there was a bit of wildness in her. It was also clear to me she was letting me know I was not to take her away from this place.

Over the wet winter, though, she started to slow down. My thoughts that she might be able to carry some of those little girls she loved so much come spring became an unlikely dream.

During the spring and summer, Dalley slowed down even more. In July, Kris and I discussed pain meds. We discussed quality of life. “She’s not ready to go,” Kris said.

But, just two weeks later, I got a text. “Crazy how things change quickly. Dalley is not doing well. I see the longing in her eyes to go home.” She asked if I could come quickly. “I’ve told her you’re coming for her,” Kris said. “She knows.”

I got out to the barn at dusk on Saturday, four days later. Kris was gone for the evening, and I knew Dalley had been moved. I went from one paddock to the next, talking to several sorrel horses that had fly masks on. “Dalley,” I said. “Is it you?”

When I finally found her, though, I almost gasped. Dalley was at the front of her paddock waiting for me. She offered a weak nicker and watched me through the saddest eyes I’d ever seen. She couldn’t really lift her head, but she stretched it to me. One front leg was bent at a sharp angle from arthritis. She was very thin. She moved her mouth rhythmically in a way I hadn’t seen before. It was a way to ride the pain.

I left as we were being engulfed by darkness. I told her how much I loved her. And, I told her I would get help.

At my hotel in Solvang, I called Kris and told her I wanted to move the euthanization up to tomorrow, Sunday. “That would be an emergency call,” she said. “I know,” I said.

She gave me the vet’s number and contact information for the “removals” man, John Charles. I no longer felt sorry for myself for the impending loss of my beautiful horse. My entire focus was on getting Dalley out of pain as soon as I could.

When I hadn’t heard from the removals man by the next morning, I called the vet on his emergency line. I explained the situation and asked if he could possibly ease her pain between now and Monday afternoon. “Dr. Troy” was calm, he was kind. He said he could help her, and he said he could be there in 15 minutes.

Dalley had managed to walk across her paddock and was standing in the shade of a tree. She turned to me and managed a weak nicker again. I went in and gave her apples; she loved apples.

Kris and her boyfriend Tim arrived before the vet. Their eyes were red and puffy from crying. Kris offered to call the removals man, and he picked up immediately. He was just about to head to Morro Bay for the day. He said that he’d come right away. Suddenly, the day was tipped on its end, like someone had abruptly turned over an hour glass. I wasn’t ready; I had to be ready.

I went back to get Dalley. She greeted me with a nicker again. Her steps were extremely slow. She almost fell a couple of times. She stopped at each of her horse friends and said goodbye. She stopped one last time; she didn’t seem to want to leave. Most everything at this time of year in Santa Ynez was heat and dust, but we found a small patch of grass in the shade for her to graze one last time.

I have a photograph that Tim took. Kris is feeding Dalley her favorite grain. I’m feeding her apples. We all look happy. It was a moment where none of us was thinking about pain or sadness or loss.

Dr. Troy explained the euthanization process. The first shot would make her sleepy. “After that,” he said, “you might want to go away …”

“I know about this. I know about the drop,” I said. I told him about my 3-year-old horse, Rowan, who’d had cancer. Gina Luciano had, thankfully, guided me through that death, and she knew to take me away before the last shot.

Still, nothing had prepared me for the sound of the earth shuddering when a 1,000 pound horse hits the ground. Kris said she would stay with Dalley. I was already looking for a place to get away.

Somewhere in this process, John Charles showed up. Dalley roused and looked at his truck. I ran over to him and said, “We’re not done yet.”

A lot of this was like a dream, because I can’t remember what I said that made Dr. Troy tell me about another couple of shots. He explained what they could do to help. I said yes to both of them, “Yes.”

And, I decided to stay. At some point, John Charles had left his truck and come over. He’d taken Dalley’s lead rope from Kris. Now, he handed it to me.

After the second shot, I watched as the two men cradled Dalley in their arms. She had one moment where she tried to get her balance. Then, she just relaxed into their arms. They were able to lay her gently down on the ground. She didn’t fall, the earth didn’t shatter. She was still holding her head up, and Dr. Troy put his hand softly on her neck and guided it to the ground.

“She’s asleep,” he said. “She’s completely free of pain. But, she can hear you.”

So, I knelt at her side and told her again how much I loved her. “No more pain,” I said. Some individuals make the world better for everyone because they are there, just by being who they are. Dalley was one of those.

“Ride high,” I said into her ear and kissed her, and always,” as we’d say every night, “dream with the angels.”

Kris was standing back with Tim, and I stayed leaning over Dalley, stroking her neck while the doctor gave her the final shot. He listened for her heart, the way they always do, and nodded. She was gone.

This last act was an act of great kindness on the part of everyone there. When it was done, we all hugged. Dr. Troy, John Charles, Kris, Tim and me. We knew we had been a part of something that was, in the end, unique and beautiful.

I learned a lot from Dalley, and this last lesson was the culmination of them all. I’ve always been afraid of death — specifically, with the overwhelming sense of loss and grief that comes with it. This time, things began to make sense. This time was different.

When I look back, and I have replayed this last goodbye many times, it felt like Dalley orchestrated the whole thing.

Later, Kris, Tim and I talked, because we had to go through what had happened, the way you need to tell the steps of a miracle to each other, make it into a story, so that it becomes something shared and believed.

I maintain what I call a “healthy skepticism” about things beyond this world. But, I’m also open to the possibilities. So, when they said it, I chose to believe it quite possibly happened just this way: Kris said it first. After the vet gave Dalley that last shot, she said, “I felt Dalley standing beside me.”

Tim looked at her. “I was just about to tell you the same thing.” But, he maintained he could see Dalley — standing right next to Kris, looking down at her own body on the ground. Tim said, “She told me, ‘I’m going to go now. I’m going to be okay. And, so will you.’”

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