Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ketah's Story

When I was 11 I met a 3 year old mare who would shape my world and the person I would become.  Ketah was smart, tough and scared.  In her short life she had already seen some of the worst in people.  She’d been bullied and beaten, but she would keep fighting and they never broke her spirit.  When we met I was still green, so I just didn’t know enough to recognize what she needed or how dangerous she really was.  Our first ride thrilled me, she’d bucked but I’d stayed on!  For an 11 year old with a horse obsession and more than a dash of crazy she seemed perfect.

Over the next several years I learned a great deal about horsemanship, but little that an instructor would’ve taught me in a ring.  I learned to never take my horse for granted, she may be standing quietly but she can still spin out from under me in a heartbeat.  I learned the thrill of racing through a field, but to always be prepared for a 90 degree turn towards home while running.  I learned that, while it’s not the best idea, if the only way your horse will stop in a dangerous run for the home barn that includes a dash across a busy street involves jumping off…then jump.

I also learned what it meant to have a goal.  I saved every penny of my allowance, babysitting money and anything else I could scrounge to buy her.  At 14, and for almost nothing, I did.  I know now that if I hadn’t this girl would’ve ended at the auction, probably destined for more abuse before ending up at the killers.  I saved her.  But she saved me too.  At the age where many kids discover sex, alcohol and drugs I had a horse I needed to work to keep, exercise and care for.  I spent most afternoons after school at the barn.  Sometimes having fun racing across the trails, sometimes chasing my clever mare around the field in a game she loved, but I hated.  And because my mother also loved horses and often rode with me, I had the chance to develop a good relationship with her during those difficult teen years.  

Ketah became my best friend.  I told her all my hopes, dreams and fears as I grew up.  With her I could escape into a world where I could go anywhere I could imagine.  The trails leading into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains were the perfect place to dream that we were truly free to travel as we liked.  Together Ketah and I were the perfect team.  Under the shadow of the Rockies and the big skies of the Plains I could imagine that it was just us. 

Of course eventually I had to discover boys.  But even then, Ketah took part.  I know now that her early abuse probably led her to develop a keen sense of which people were a danger to her.  Back then, I just knew that she liked and trusted few people and I learned quickly to trust that if she didn’t like them there was a reason.  But even when I didn’t introduce them to her I found she was a good filter.  She was the biggest part of my life, my other half, and no mere boy would change that.  But many tried, a few were as jealous as if I had another lover.  None of those lasted long if they ever got started. 

When I went to college we were parted more than we ever had been.  I was only an hour away, but between classes and a job I was lucky to get home and ride on weekends.  I tried to bring her with me, but maturity hadn’t changed her in some essential ways.  She had to be the boss in any herd, so after fighting with another mare, tearing down a fence (resulting in stitches) and being banished to a lonely pen I sent her back home to live with my mother’s horses.  I drove down for weekend visits and she seemed happy with the arrangement.  When I finished my degree and came back she was more than happy to return to ranging the foothill trails with me.

Then I got a job in a part of the country that was never meant to have horses.  I took her with me, and we explored new trails under tall trees, deep undergrowth and often grey skies.   Our speed slowed down as the trails were too narrow, winding and slippery for our usual runs.  But we were able to disappear again for many hours at a time.  We found some beautiful vistas, hidden waterfalls and even dark, scary trails with horse bones on the hillside.  Age was creeping up on her, but not slowing her down much.  We still covered more ground and explored more trails than most.  But these days, we did it with more care and less speed.

Despite the crazy things we did together, neither of us had ever gotten seriously injured.  I always wore a helmet and somehow I avoided broken bones.  It was moderately ironic that the first time I would had nothing to do with horses. I climbed in a small plane, and crashed.  I broke my back in multiple places, one severely enough to warrant concern about paralysis or at least nerve impairment.  The doctors told me I would ride again…eventually.  That was all I needed to know.  With Ketah waiting for me I worked hard in physical therapy to get myself well enough to climb on.  Nine months later I did, and I’m pretty sure it made her as happy as it made me.  Within days we were back on the trail and working up from 10 minutes just walking to a couple hours trotting and cantering up and down the hills.  Again, Ketah had given me a goal and all the encouragement I needed. 

While I hadn’t had any injuries from our riding she made up for it, including a leg wound that barely missed slicing tendons in her hind leg, taking the skin off her stifle (in a fall where she could have crushed me but didn’t), and all the usual little things horses do to themselves.   And, while she never collicked, she managed to get sick enough from infections to scare me.  Early on Ketah got “bastard” strangles, the vet was surprised she lived.  A few years later she became ill again, miscarrying a 9 month foal from another infection.  Many years after that a mysterious illness came and went.  Through the years I had nightmares of losing her, waking up in a panic and tears for no reason.  I knew eventually she would go, but I kept believing it would be years into the future.

Those years passed as they always do.  At almost 26 years old Ketah developed a neurological condition that left her unsteady and unsure where her feet were.  I am convinced now that she had been declining from this for many years, but coped with her usual stoicism.  I am also convinced that her “mysterious illness” a few years ago presaged the beginning of this one.  I will never know for sure.  Even with a definite cause, osteoarthritis in her neck, a tumor near her skull, or a disk pressing on her spine, there was nothing the vet could do.  She would continue to decline and become more and more depressed and fearful as she found herself unable to balance.  This would be difficult and scary enough in a person who knew what was happening.  For her it would be terrifying.

I made the hardest decision of my life to allow my best friend, my other half, to go in peace before that happened.  We got lucky.  After a couple of bad weeks where she was depressed and uncomfortable, she had a couple of days where she was feeling just good enough to kick up her heels a bit.  I could see in her the vinegar and spice that had made us what we were.  Her last day was sunny and beautiful, a last day of fall before the grey, dreary winter that she had always hated closed in.  She was her pushy, bossy self that day.  I’m glad she could go before it got worse.  I know I did my best for her, I know it was right.  But I miss her very much.

Someone once told me that everyone you love takes a piece of you with them when they go.  Ketah took the better part of me, but she left me with a wealth of experiences and memories.  She had a huge role in the person I have become.  I will always love her.  She was my first horse, my first love and my best friend. 

Goodbye Ketah, the ride was a great one.

January 21, 1985 - October 17, 2011