The rambunctious bunch I rode as a kid and as a teenager made me appreciate a school horse like Cassie even more. She was not a beautiful horse. She was polka-dotted with red freckles and criss-crossed with splashes of white and roan as if she couldn't decide which Appaloosa coat pattern to adopt as her own. Her mane was strawberry blond and her tail (a thick one by Appy standards) was perpetually kinked. When she was frisky, she'd hold it straight out behind her, like a broom.
But she had the purest of hearts. As a school horse, she taught countless kids to ride over the years. In her heyday, she packed little kids around the short stirrup courses at A-rated shows like Indio. She was a show division champion more than once, an odd fit for a bespeckled Appy, although once you saw her jump in fine form and nail every flying lead change, you understood why she raked in the blue ribbons.
That's when I first got to know Cassie. She had been given to Sue by a former client, so when my sister and I began riding with Sue at horse shows, hiring her to serve as our coach in the warm-up rings, we'd see Cassie there. She was usually packing some novice kid or timid adult amateur around the low hunter courses, doing honorable duty for anyone in Sue's barn lacking their own show horse.
Then, by the time I started giving lessons part-time at Sue's, Cassie had semi-retired and taken on the role of School Horse Extraordinaire. When I conducted my summertime horse camps, Cassie was the one horse I could entrust with every little girl who was utterly horse crazy yet utterly clueless about horses. Though she stood a hefty 15.3-hands, Cassie wouldn't hurt anyone. While she'd jump virtually any fence with gusto, she'd then stand in the crossties and allow kindergartners to decorate her with poster paint, feathers and glitter in a "Dress Up the Horse" contest.
It's hard to watch such a horse grow old.
In the last year, Cassie began to show her age. Her arthritis made her too stiff to jump anymore. Eventually she began to have trouble lying down and getting up. One night she injured herself scrambling to her feet, and in a testament to Sue's devotion to the mare, lengthy veterinary care brought her back to soundness. Yet when Cassie went down again last weekend, I knew it was time for Cassie to go to that place where great horses go. And so, at the age of 25 (perhaps a year or two more), Cassie was put down.
I know that my lesson girls will shed a few tears. Before, when Cassie was being rehabilitated, they'd ask me, "Is Cassie going to get better?"
"We'll wait and see," I'd say. And then I'd prepare them for the inevitable, "But Cassie is an old lady..."
This next weekend, when they arrive for their lessons and see that her stall is empty, they will know the answer to Cassie's fate.
Sometimes my friends and I will make off-handed comments that this horse or that, recently deceased, "Went to the Emerald Field." But you know what? I'm not so sure that such an emerald field-- a meadow rich with grass, rimmed by shade trees-- doesn't exist, somewhere, for the horses that have blessed our lives. They deserve as much. Cassie certainly does.
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