Love Lives On

Love Lives On

From Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul

Love Lives On

Whatever happens inside of you that makes you fall in love with horses happened to me. I devoured every horse book I could get my hands on, checking them out of our library again and again. Man O’ War, the true story about the greatest thoroughbred racehorse of all time, was my favorite. I must have read that book ten times. I pictured myself owning the huge red horse, loving him with all my heart, but knowing I could never ride him because he was a champion racehorse, not a pet.

I asked my parents if I could take riding lessons and they agreed. I learned to ride well, made many friends at the stable, and my love of horses and the sport of riding grew.

After a year of lessons, I decided that what I wanted more than anything on Earth was a horse of my own. I asked my parents, and they agreed—if I earned half of the money to buy the horse. I worked all summer and saved one hundred dollars, a fortune in those days. At last, my dad said, “Find your horse, girl!”

Two hundred dollars wasn’t much to buy a horse, and the one I had my eye on was going for five hundred dollars. “A deal is a deal,” said my dad, so I could only watch as the beautiful black mare was sold to someone else. Disappointed, but still determined, I was introduced to a woman who told me that she had a horse she would sell me for two hundred dollars, but she doubted that I would want him, explaining that she had rescued him from an abusive owner and that he hadn’t been ridden in years.

As we walked to the back of the stables, I was so excited that my heart was pounding. The woman explained that she thought I was a good horsewoman and that when she heard that I was looking for a horse—on a limited budget, no less—she had thought that perhaps it was time for this horse to come back to the world.

We walked up to the stall and she opened the door, cautioning me “not to expect too much.” I was trembling with excitement as the sunlight spilled into the stall. There he was, an old giant of a thoroughbred, with gray sprinkled through his shiny, flame-colored coat. He turned and looked cautiously at us, and as I stepped into the stall he flattened his ears and bared his teeth. The woman explained that he had been beaten and had a mistrust of strangers, but that he wasn’t mean, just afraid.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“We call him Rusty,” she said.

“Rusty,” I called gently, and his ears came up at the sound of his name. The woman handed me a carrot, and I held it out to him. He stepped forward slowly, but before he took the treat, he turned his head slightly and looked into my eyes. We held the gaze for just a moment, and then he took it from my hand.

When he was done munching his carrot, we led him out into the sunlight. What I saw was the most beautiful horse I had ever laid my eyes on. What most others saw was a twenty-year-old, swaybacked horse, sporting a potbelly.

“I’ll take him!” I cried, startling him so that he jerked his head back and snorted all over me. I laughed and reached up to pet the long, white blaze that ran down the front of his nose, and he lowered his head and begged for more.

That summer we were inseparable, and I spent all my free time riding him. He grew strong and energetic for his age. I often saw the woman who had sold him to me, and she would tell me how good he looked.

That fall, we moved Rusty to a small stable near our home, so I could ride him as often as possible during the school year. I began getting involved in the world of competitive horse showing. Rusty thrived on all the attention and competition, and even though he usually was twice the age of the other horses, the judges loved him, and we took home many blue ribbons during the next two years.

But one morning, as I arrived at the stables to go riding, something was different. Instead of standing, ears pricked forward and bellowing a hello, Rusty was still laying down in his stall when I walked up. He rose when he saw me, nickering softly, and I figured maybe it was just his age getting to him. After all, he was twenty-two years old. We rode quietly that day, stopping for lunch to share the same sandwich and chips. How he loved potato chips! But he was not hungry, and when I told my dad about it, he decided to call the vet.

The vet came to see him, and what he said was a shock to us. He believed that Rusty had cancer, and he referred us to a specialist for further tests. My parents and I had talked about the situation, and we decided that due to his advanced age, if the specialist told us that he was suffering, that we would elect to have him humanely put to sleep. I understood this on one level; on my heart level I was crushed.

That morning we loaded Rusty into the trailer and I waved good-bye to him, pretty sure it was for the last time. My parents had thought it would be best if I didn’t go with Rusty to the vet. I had spent the entire night before with him, crying and laughing, remembering all the things we’d done together and the lessons we’d learned. I’d thanked him for being there for me during a tough time in my life when I didn’t think anybody cared, but I knew he did. Unconditional love, that’s what he had given me.

Later that day, I was lying on my bed at home, all cried out, when my dad came in. He told me, “There is a guy out front who wants to see you.” I was fifteen years old, and I figured it was just one of my school friends coming by to talk. I asked my dad to explain that I couldn’t come out now, but he said, “Honey, you’ll want to see this boy.”

I rose up from my bed and looked out the window. There, backed up into our driveway, was the horse trailer, and inside was Rusty! I tore outside and jumped up next to him, hugging his neck and crying with happiness. He stood quietly and took in my love, and when I stepped back, he turned his head and looked into my eyes, as he had done years before, and winked.

Rusty stayed with me for another happy year before the cancer took him. By then, we were a little more prepared.

All these years later, I still miss him. But, even though he isn’t here physically, I realize that love lives on, and that Rusty will live in my heart forever.

Laurie Hartman

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