We meet the owner by the barn. She’s talking with her mother, both women ignoring the skeletal mare standing behind them. It’s a grey autumn afternoon, and a cold breeze pours down the canyon through the tops of the pines, scattering strands of forelock across the bay horse’s face. “Over by the house.” The owner nods across the creek to a clearing past an aspen grove, where a solitary backhoe works. My boss, the veterinarian, sighs and we drift along with our gear a respectful distance behind the women and the horse. She’s a professional, my boss, but she’s also a friend of these women. “This will be hard,” she’d said as we drove up to the ranch. This is the worst and the best part of her job: eliminating pain, putting a soul to rest, easing a human’s troubled heart. But it’s still hard. This is the last of the owner’s father’s great show horses – horses she danced with as a girl at the Kansas City Royale over twenty years ago before a crowd of thousands; this is the last thread that connects her late father to their living world.
When we reach the trees, the women look around at anything but the backhoe and the growing hole in the ground, and I know what’s going through their minds. Their hands stroke the soft, warm fur of the mare’s proud neck. The hole is deep, cold, rude. Suddenly, the mare notices the two of us coming through the aspens. As if reading our intent in our approach, she tosses her head and snorts, her dark eyes wild. For a moment, I imagine twenty-some years of show ring glamour: the noise, strange smells, horses calling. Back at the barn – maybe in the office – there must be a showcase of ribbons, photos of her offspring. Now her muscles sag and disease has stopped her once-gleaming coat from shedding. A curly wool shows where the owner had to shave her in this past summer’s heat. As we join them in the clearing, the old bay dances and blows, refusing efforts to calm her. It must be our twin green overalls – our uniform for ranch calls - the owner jokes. The backhoe moves away from the hole and shuts down. Finally. The silence is wonderful, the grove of aspens so peaceful.
Now it’s our turn, and my boss and I approach the group by the hole. The owner’s husband has arrived. He takes the lead rope from his wife as her mother turns quietly and heads back across the pasture, studying the creek, the windy pines, the skudding clouds. My boss is kind and quiet as she explains what’s coming. I’ve heard it a hundred times and still I’m touched by her sincerity. The horse either fights it or drops like a stone. You just never know. The owner is crying, so is my boss. The mare is suspicious.
This one isn’t pretty. We’re too close to the hole. The bay mare staggers, slides sideways and into the earth where she rests on her rump, her breath rasping and stopping, rasping and stopping. We hesitate. We could give her another injection, but in this case, it would be dangerous. My boss would have to climb down into the hole with the mare, whose mind may be gone but instincts die hard and her hooves could be deadly. So we stand and wait, and at last, there’s only the sound of aspen leaves chittering in the wind. We all breathe again. The mare’s position in the hole is awkward and I want to turn her head, to straighten her neck. My boss just smiles, sadly. “She’s not there anymore, you know.”
A few weeks later, I’m at the grocery, talking with the owner’s sister about that day and the lingering sadness. Then she brightens. The night before our ranch call, she says, she’d been to the ranch to say her goodbyes to the mare. She’d asked the old bay to give her love to her father, and the mare had gazed back at her with big, calm eyes. For each of the four days after we’d put the mare down, there were rainbows; she’d called her mom and sister. I’d seen one from our clinic across the valley: brilliant sun bursting through threatening clouds, an electric arc of color emerging from the canyon, new snow dusting the pines above the ranch. It had been breathtaking. Somewhere, she smiled, her father was riding a dancing bay mare.