Riding Together Through the Night

White Socks, a 13-year-old American Paint, was Green Gate Farms’ first and only horse. That fact alone made her special. Pigs, sheep, goats and other barnyard livestock come and go without much fanfare or remorse, if only because they are legion and get lost in the maw of farming: you raise them, sell or eat them, and try not to get too attached.

Horses are delegated a higher purpose, a more celebrated history; from battlefield to hayfield, from cattle drives to carriage rides, they give all they’ve got without demanding much in return beyond a caring master and a good field of grass.

I grew up with horses. My father started a fox hunting club. My mother taught dressage to beginning riders, her most remarkable student being Mike Matz, a fellow Pony Clubber who went on to become an olympic equestrian. My first — and only horse — was Popcorn, a fast and slightly crazed Appaloosa whose marbled eyes kept searching for low-hanging branches to knock me off.  I still remember the day my mother opened the gate and let me ride cross country on my own. Just me and my horse and the wide open fields. We flew over freshly cut alfalfa, sailed over jumps in the pine-scented woods, galloped through a walnut orchard that today is a subdivision. I stayed on and came home a few inches taller.

Horse life ended abruptly at age 13 after my parents split up and sold our farm. My father had moved to another state so it was left to our mother to decide which horses were sold and which were boarded at a rundown stable near the ranch house we had moved to. Our backyard had diminished from a hundred acres to a hundred feet, from hayfields and barbed wire to turf and chainlink fence. I didn’t feel much like riding in a tight crowded ring with strangers.

Eventually, the horses were sold, including Popcorn. Our well-worn riding tack — saddles, bridles, boots and caps — collected mildew in the basement, never touched again until we sold the house after my mother died at age 65.

Buying White Sox for our daughter Avery was a second chance, a long-awaited opportunity to rewrite the script. She would learn to ride and I would be her teacher. Heck, I might even get back on a horse myself. The big difference this time was I didn’t have my mother’s knowledge and patience. And White Socks was not the calm, older gelding my mother had relied on to teach young children. White Socks had been trained as a draft horse, pulling carts and wagons for special events. She loved to trot down an asphalt road, but put a saddle on her and she became a trickster with a twitching tail and pinned back ears. I lost count of the ambitious, confident riders who took up our offer to exercise her for free, only to quit after too many times biting the Texas dust.

In recent years, our sassy mare became more of a barnyard attraction, the centerpiece of city folk’s fantasies about farm life. And that, in and of itself, was enough to earn her keep. She nipped if you weren’t careful but she never kicked. She was coy and sneaky but never mean. Her most alarming stunt was leaning over the paddock fence, clamping down on a the scruff of a two-year-old’s dress and lifting her a foot off the ground. She dangled there, calmly unawares, before her distracted father turned around just in time.

With no other horses to bond with, White Socks eventually convinced herself she was a goat and mother to various kids who shared the barn. Let them out of her sight and she would prance and whinny as if her brood had been kidnapped.

That whinny is what I miss most. Each morning I opened the farmhouse door I was greeted with that persistent yet gentle call for food and attention. Annoyed as I often was to be reminded of my farmer duties so early in the morning, I was welcomed in the evening with her soft pleading, that one constant recognition for the caretaking that is a farmer’s burden and blessing. 

Our caretaking slipped several notches when we were forced to shut down our city farm last month and moved to the country. Amid the shuffle of pigs, goats, ducks, rabbits and cats, she must have felt as disoriented as the rest of us as we adjusted to our new home. Nevertheless, we were delighted that she finally had acres of pasture and looked forward to trail rides and cart rides around the farm.

On Sunday, as night was falling, Erin noticed that White Socks was not herself and was rolling more than usual. Nothing fills a horse owner with more dread than a horse that wont won’t stop rolling or won’t get up.

“No, not this. Not now,” I said to myself.

David Hebel is a cowboy’s vet and a cowboy, too. He knows horses inside and out, from the ER suite to the high-stakes rodeo arenas of Las Vegas. We leaned on every word as he turned on his flashlight and examined our fallen horse. After checking her gums and heartbeat, Hebel recommended we load her up and drive her to the Elgin animal hospital, but first he would try to dislodge the obstruction she had been trying to roll away.

Treating colic includes pumping mineral oil up the nose and down the esophagus, injecting pain medication, and, most importantly, forced walking. That last task fell to Avery. She walked her horse alone, in the dark, late into the early morning hour. Reluctantly, she went to bed, knowing we had done our best and could only wait and pray that the blockage would pass and White Socks would be up and eating with the morning sun.

Hebel returned to the farm in the morning to a field still shrouded in fog and a horse that had not improved. I’ve made many decisions in my farming life over the fate of sick or injured animals. None prepared me for the difficulty of this one. It was still possible we could load White Socks and take her to the hospital for IV fluids or possible surgery, but the odds of recovery were not in her favor. And there was the no small matter of money. Sensing we were never going to get off the fence, Hebel reluctantly shared what he would do if this were his horse.

This was not his horse, of course. This was White Socks — Avery’s horse, the lifeblood of our farm for the past decade. I looked at my heartbroken daughter, my tired wife, our patient vet. I looked over at White Socks who was trying to stand but couldn’t. Expecting the worst, Hebel had brought what he needed to make this ending as painless as possible. 

We gave him that terrible nod, finally, unable to look at each other, numb and dumb, staring at our feet. And wouldn’t you know, just then, White Socks got back on hers.

“Oh, gal, you would have to do that,” Hebel whispered, hoping Avery wouldn’t hear. Opening his medicine chest, our overworked vet glanced at White Socks once more, adding: “Days like this I’m glad I don’t have children.”

Avery lay beside White Socks once she lay down again, stroking, whispering and hugging her there in the mud. The fog gave way to sun as if it, too, wanted to offer one last moment of comfort. Once more, White Socks struggled up on wobbly legs. I stood beside Hebel as he drew the deadly potion into two god-awful syringes — so big they stuck out of his jacket pocket as he approached my daughter and her horse. Like a handgun, I thought, only silent and more deadly.

Hebel knew, though I did not, that euthanizing a standing horse is something you won’t get out of your head for a long time.  So unnatural, so unhorse like, all four legs instantly cut out from under, a thousand pounds of muscle and bone and beauty toppling down like a tower of blocks. 

“She’s not suffering anymore,” he assured us. “Her heart has stopped.”

Dr. Hebel gathered his things and drove away. Avery reclined against White Sock’s warm belly, silently texting her boyfriend. Now we were left on our own with one last yet immense task. What most owners do with a deceased horse is call someone else to remove it. 

“Where?”Avery asked.

“Where what?”

“Where will they take her?”

Truth was, I wasn’t sure. The Alpo factory? The landfill?

“No!” Avery said firmly. “No!”

Her plea tore through my stupor, reminding me of who we were. We were farmers. We bury our own. And so we did.

White Socks was our farm’s first and last horse. She will be remembered by the countless visitors who stroked her mane, by the devoted campers who brushed her coat, by the busloads of thrilled students who stretched their heads out and waved to a living, breathing emblem of the freedom and spirit of the agrarian dream. 

White Socks was more than a horse.