Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Girl and Her Horse: The Final Chapter

January 8th. A day I was dreading. A day I wished I could just skip over, so I didn't have to deal with all the emotions. A day that finally arrived and made me face my grief. 


I tried to keep busy all day. I tried to avoid thinking about what the day was and what it meant to me. But once the kids were tucked into bed and the house was completely silence, it was impossible to avoid. The pain hit me full force.

Today would have been the 24th anniversary of owning my horse. I would collect carrots, apples and sugar cubes, and put them into a bag. I would bundle up, while complaining about the extreme cold and how much I hate it, then make the trek over to the stable to see my best friend since childhood.

Cherokee would spot the kids and I walking into the pasture, whinny in welcome, and stroll toward us. The girls would greet him with hugs, then he would rest his head on my shoulder. His soft breath would ruffle my hair as he exhaled, and I would rub his nose and forehead in return. We would spend the afternoon grooming him and feeding him an abundance of his favorite treats, and I would tell him thank you for being such a loyal and loving friend for so many years.

It was an anniversary that was celebrated for 24 years. But it didn't happen today. There was no horse to see. We will never see him again.

It has been almost two months to the day since I had to say a sudden and somewhat unexpected farewell to my horse. I've only had a handful of extremely painful moments in my lifetime, and saying goodbye to him was one of them. It was like saying goodbye to a lifelong friend, and with that goodbye, I let go of the last shred of my childhood.

The thing about grief when you are a mother of four is this: there is no time to grieve.  Life is always busy and chaotic. The distractions are constant and before you know it, time has passed. 
A constant feeling of sadness doesn't exist. It comes in quick flashes when you least expect it.

The pain hits me as I reach into the vegetable drawer for dinner ingredients and spot the bag of carrots. It hits in the quiet moments, as I'm driving the car or just standing still.  The pain hits as I scoop hay into the rabbit cage and I catch a hint of the stable smell. It hits just before I close my eyes at night. The pain hits when I see a horse in a pasture, a horse on TV or hear somebody talking about horses. It hits me when I pass by the halter that is hanging on my bedroom wall...the halter that will never be on him again. It hits me when my foot brushes against a bag in the corner of my bedroom. A bag that I dropped on the floor that night, as tears streamed down my face, and never moved it again, because opening it and spotting all the items from that night would hurt too much...the blanket that covered him in the cold, dark pasture, the last few sugar cubes that he didn't have the energy to eat, and the tuft of forelock that I snipped off after he was gone.

Ignoring the pain isn't going to make it going away, but dealing with it makes it so final.  I honestly don't know if I'm ready to fully face it just yet. I prefer to get caught up in the busyness of life and deal with the loss in those brief moments when the pain hits. It gives me a chance to wallow in the sadness for a few minutes before another welcome distraction comes along.

There is no stable to visit anymore. I don't think I could ever go back there, because it would feel empty without him. Friday nights are no longer the same without our visiting Cherokee tradition. I will never groom him again or feed him treats. I will never again feel the wind rushing through my hair as we gallop through a field or the skipped beat in my heart as we fly over a jump. Never again will I feel the softness of his forehead and ears, be able to brush his forelock out of his eyes, or wrap my arms around his warm neck and bury my face in his mane. That distinct horse smell no longer fills my nostrils. His halter now hangs on my bedroom wall and a saddle pad is still draped over a stroller in my garage. Maybe one day I will get another horse. But it won't be the same. All I have now are memories. And the hurt.

I am no longer able to celebrate this day with my best friend, but I wanted to document it in some way, one last time. I decided the best way of doing that is by sharing our story again and letting my words best explain just how special an equine friendship can be.


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I was only 13 years old when my parents gave me the most amazing gift ever. My very own horse!

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I begged for a horse for many years with no luck. I had just given up hope when I received the surprise of a lifetime! Once they realized I was truly dedicated, my parents took the plunge and made a major investment. Even though they sacrificed to make it work, my parents still say buying that horse was the best decision they ever made for me.

My horse was my first love. I fell in love with Cherokee the moment I first met him, and over 20 years later, I still love him fiercely. We truly grew up together.

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Most of my childhood memories involve Cherokee. Countless hours were spent at the stable. When I wasn't riding, I was taking care of him, cleaning the barn, or training for our next show.  Homework was completed every afternoon on horse back. His soft neck absorbed the tears I shed over the many teen woes. I have memories of galloping across hilltops, peaceful trail rides, and playing tag on horseback with friends in the woods. We rode together in the rain, heat, sleet, snow and frigid cold. We made incredible memories together and formed a bond that time and distance can't break.

After 6 years of Cherokee being the most important thing in my world, I met a boy.  That boy stole my heart, and I began to spend less time with Cherokee. But he was always there. Just waiting. And then a baby came into our world and commanded all my attention. I had even less time for Cherokee. But I couldn't...wouldn't...give him up.

Cherokee welcomed that first tiny human into his life.

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And a second one.

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And a third.

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And finally, a fourth. A fourth who just "officially" met his horse and wasn't too impressed yet.

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Cherokee was always patient. Always accepting. Always waiting. And every time I walked away from him, I would glance back and see him watching me. The look on his face broke my heart every single time. It was almost as if he was begging me not to leave him again.

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After Liam joined our family, the time I had to spend with my first love was very minimal.  Months would go by without a visit. There were other horses and other people who spent time with him, but it wasn't the same.  The guilt consumed me on a daily basis, but my time and energy was already spread so thin. Every time I thought of him, I could only imagine how hurt and abandoned he must have felt.

It reached the point where the guilt hit on a daily basis, and I had trouble sleeping at night.

Cherokee is nearly 30. He's an old man in horse years. He's no longer as lean and muscular as he once was. (To be fair, neither am I.) The incredible spirit that once made him a handful is now tamed. He moves much more slowly. His spots have faded. Lately, he seems depressed and I just want that spark to return to his eyes.

A lot can change during the course of two decades. The two of us are nothing like how we used to be, and it breaks my heart at times. I often feel regret. I SHOULD have been there more. But the past is the past, and I can only work on the now. We're still together, and that's what matters.

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I know I'm in denial. Deep in my heart, I know that our time together is limited.  I know I have to make an effort to visit him more often. My kids adore him. It will never be the same for them as it was for me, but I want my kids to make memories with our horse, too!

So that's what we're doing! And truth be told, it's pretty amazing to stand back and watch my girls form a bond with Cherokee. I can only imagine that's how my parents felt when they watched me building a bond with him all those years ago.

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I see my girls look at him the same way I once looked at him.

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I see the joy on their faces when they ride.  

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And as I watch them, I suddenly find myself reliving my past.

That past is just a fond, distant memory. Now we're working on building new memories!

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Countless times over the past 20 years, I desperately wished Cherokee could live at home with me. Leaving him was always the worst. Unfortunately, that never worked out in our favor.  Now my kids say the same thing.  We hate leaving him behind, because he belongs with us. Parting is always so difficult. But now, we make the promise to come back soon. So soon.

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Cherokee is mine forever, and I'll always be his girl. We're both just older versions of what we once were. I have no plans to let him go before his time, but when that impossible time comes when we do have to part, I'm going to hold him as tightly as I possibly can and blanket him with tears full of love and memories of our life together.

It's a good life and we're still writing those pages in our story.

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Our story came to an end on November 15, 2016, on a cold night, in a starry pasture.

The call came in from the stable owner just as I was getting ready to cook dinner. I could tell by the tone that this was it; the moment I had been dreading. I called my husband and parents in tears, hurriedly dropped the girls and Liam off at my parent's house, and rushed to the barn with my dad and Dylan. 

When I spotted Cherokee on the ground in that pasture, I knew. I wanted to fight it and cling to hope, but I just knew it was time to say goodbye. The only thing I could do was get down on the ground with my best friend and hold him until it was his time to leave this world. 

I vaguely remember shivering on the cold, hard ground, with Dylan next to me. I held Cherokee's head on my lap and told Dylan all the fond memories of our adventures together, while the full moon rose in the starry sky. For once, I was grateful for the vet's tardiness. I was given the gift of two final hours with my best friend and I held him until after he took his last breath. I was given the chance to say goodbye, which was exactly how I hoped it would be.


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I was struck by these words in my original post on May 25th, "When that impossible time comes when we do have to part, I'm going to hold him as tightly as I possibly can and blanket him with tears full of love and memories of our life together." Although it hurts so much, it was exactly what happened, and I am incredibly grateful for that. 

As I learned from past experience, time heals, but the pain never truly leaves you. And that's okay. Because that pain is only a reminder of the person or thing that you once loved so much. 

I was a girl who loved a horse very, very much and he loved me back so fiercely. Though he's physically gone, Cherokee's love and loyalty will stay with me forever. I felt compelled to share our story one last time on the anniversary of the most memorable day of my childhood. The gift of a horse turned out to be an incredible one and filled an unbelievable amount of days in my life story!

Let's Be Friends!

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9 comments:

  1. Oh friend! I have no words really, I just wish I could give you a hug. I can't imagine how hard it must have been to loose such a dear friend and the void that you still feel now that he is gone.

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  2. This post has me tearing up - what a sweet, sweet story of Cherokee. No matter what, he loved you and knew you loved him. Hugs!!

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  3. I'm so sorry for your loss. I know he had a great life with you as his friend.

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  4. I am so, so sorry I can't even imagine the loss and sadness you must be going through. I also grew up with a wonderful Welsh pony who was just like your Cherokee. My best friend and confident but I out grew him in my teenage years so I didn't get the privilege to have him as long as you had your sweet horse. How great you were able to share him with your growing family and the memories they now have. Not many people get that opportunity. I've been there when we have had our aging dogs pass and I know of the heartbreak - but a girl and her horse is an amazing bond and I am truly sorry for you. I'm glad you got to be with him in the end, he was a lucky horse and I know he knew it.
    Your post made me cry.

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  5. Oh Stefanie. There aren't really adequate words to comfort you right now, I know. Just know that I'm thinking of you.

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  6. OH goodness, this brings tears to my eyes, my heart is aching for you. Many prayers friend.

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  7. Oh Stefanie, I am so sorry for your loss. Cherokee sounds amazing, like you! I can't believe he was your best friend since you were 13--what an amazing gift! Hugs to you my friend. This is an amazing tribute to him.

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  8. Such a beautiful creature. So sorry for your loss. May God grant you peace and comfort.

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  9. Oh my gosh my heart just aches so bad reading this and knowing how tremendously hard it must have been to let him go. It's hard to even type this as the screen is blurry with tears streaming down my face. I've been here with special animals and of course McKenzie so I know how difficult it was for you. All that said... I know that one day you are going to be able to gift your children with something just as special (maybe a horse as well) that they will carry through their life time. It's wonderful that they do have precious memories that they can hold in their hearts of Cherokee the beautiful Appy! :*)

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Thank you for reading! XOXO