I said good bye to Levi last night. Only, it wasn’t the soft caress of his cheek as the euthanasia was administered that I had envisioned as a child. He was in Upstate New York, and I was in Lexington, KY, when I got the call.
“He’s not doing well. The vet said he’s so volatile that he can barely give him any meds.” Jill said to me as I laid alone on my bed, refusing to acknowledge that this might be the end to anyone. Options rushed through my head. What would I do if I was there? If this was one of the multi-million dollar horses that have been in my care? If the worlds best vets were just a drive away? Banamine, check. Xylazine, check. Head to the clinic, check. But this wasn’t a million dollar horse, this was my 25+ year old retiree, and he was in the care of one of the best horsemen I had ever met. The rational farm manager in me kicked in, and I calmly told Jill that I trusted her to make the decision. Jill had also worked on elite thoroughbred farms, she also had higher education, and she also had a scientific mind. I called my mom in tears and told her that it wasn’t looking good, and knowing that she would be as affected as I would be if he passed, I wanted to warn her. An hour later, I got the text message that he was gone.
For those around me that never met Levi, it is so hard to explain why my bond with him was so intense, especially when they hear that I gave him away almost 7 years ago. Our journey together was one filled with the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. You hear the cliche quote that its not the dates on the tombstone that matter, but the little dash in between, and our life together was no different.
Levi was not the perfect horse. In fact, he contradicts every word I have breathed out in the last 5 years — find the right horse for you, sell the horse that isn’t right for you, and grow together with that perfect horse. I bought Levi at the age of 12 with high hopes of eventing to the highest levels, achieving my A in Pony Club, and “jump all of the jumps”…but the only thing that ever became true in that was jumping all of the jumps….as long as they didn’t involve water. We soon realized that the very idealogy that encompasses eventing failed Levi: bravery. He was neither brave nor fierce, and when it came time to head onto XC, he quivered in fear. By a young age, it became rather apparent that he was quite a phenomenal show jumper and dressage horse, competing at high levels, and qualifying for National’s in both, but the minute that he left the ring, his knees grew weak.
And yet instead of abandoning hope and finding my next XC warrior, I battled him. From the age of 13 to 17, my weekends were filled with bipolar emotions. We would warm up in the dressage, drawing looks of jealousy and anger from our fellow competitors – practicing 3rd level movements as we readied ourselves for a novice dressage test. With every toe flicking extension, more people stared. I would go into dressage and easily throw down a sub-30 score, he was just beautiful to watch. We would head into stadium and make it look like a hunter round. He had a gorgeous bascule, and tight knees. And then we would head to XC. If he had taken his bipolar meds and decided that his demons were non-existent on that particular day, I would head home with a big ribbon and a bright smile, convinced that our copious amounts of schooling had finally paid off. But if he didn’t, it was the same story. A double clear round until the water. And then a stop. And then another stop. And then a full blown spinning/bucking/rearing meltdown. And a walk off of the course with tears streaming down my face.
We finally got him confident enough to go through simple water and I moved him up to training level, but his water demons reared their ugly head again when the idea of dropping into water came into play, and yet again, many an “E” was placed on my record. The anxiety that was placed in exchange for where there should have been excitement and happiness soon filled my life…and I began to resent competing. I grew angrier at those around us, blaming my mother, my trainers, my fellow boarders, even myself. I became a person that even I didn’t like. But I refused to sell Levi. He was “MY HORSE.” So instead of selling him, I gave up on eventing. And competing. I spent the next 5 years hacking. We switched out my Crosby for my Billy Cook, my tall boots for chinks, and we roamed. And with each step of road hacks and trail rides, I was reminded of why I loved this horse. He was a trier. He loved me and took care of me. He accepted my disabilities and inadequacies, just as I did his.
Our journey together ended in an attempt to save a relationship with my father. I loaded him up and drove the 6 hours to Canton, NY and placed him in the care of my favorite professor, Jill Pflugheber, and her daughter Sara. Her daughter was 16 and a fantastic little rider, but didn’t have her own horse and had been schooling other peoples horses in exchange for lessons at the barn where I boarded. I had asked her to hack Levi for me during the summers where I was in Wyoming, and she had fallen head over heels in love with him. During my last summer with Levi post-graduation, we had been texting back and forward, with her love for him was as apparent as ever. I finally realized that this was where Levi’s and my story ended, and her’s began. For seven years, he has been an integral part of hers and her mothers life. I have watched as he escorted her through the same heart breaks as he did me; her first heart break, the loss of her father, her entry into the real world. Each time that I heard from her or read a facebook status full of loss and ache, I knew that she had Levi, and that she would be fine.
Last summer I decided at the last minute to attend my college reunion, and a large part of this was that I somehow subliminally knew that I needed to see Levi, and say good bye. Our last farewell was with him as a sound and spunky 19 year old – one with some good miles still left in him. But now he was 25. His back was swayed, and his ankles dropped. I stopped in my rental car at a nearby gas station and picked up a carton of Fruit Loops, his favorite, and headed to his pasture. Spotting him immediately, I called out and he lifted his head and slowly began rambling towards me, as if seven years of separation had never happened. He happily munched on his Fruit Loops as tears streamed down my face and I rubbed on his neck. The neck that had held so many championship ribbons, caught so many tears, and posed for so many pictures. I sat in his field and just watched him graze for an hour, as the spring sun poured over us. I knew deep down that this would be the last time I would see Levi, but was relieved that at least I got this day, this embrace, and this hour. I walked away, knowing that I couldn’t look back or I would be overtaken with grief.
Now almost exactly a year later, I have lost him. Levi was everything to my young life. We started together, both a bit wet behind our ears, me at 12, him at 7, and we continued on together. He got me through bullies in middle school, my first heart break in high school, late nights cramming for finals in college, and the 11 month battle that I witnessed my father lose to cancer. I may not be an elite level eventer because of him, but I am a HORSEWOMAN because of him. He taught me so much, but most importantly, he taught me how to love unabashedly. He taught me that the ribbons mean nothing, the pictures and prizes are irrelevant, but the journey means everything. He made me love the thoroughbred, leading me to Lexington, KY and the life I now have, and adore.
The next day, Jill told me that he was laid to rest in an apple orchard on her families farm, and that he remained a trier until the end. That is all you can possibly ask for a horse that you spent your life trying for. He touched so many lives along his journey, most of all mine. So thank you Levi, for everything, every last part of this fabulous ride.