From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

Tough Decisions

It’s difficult to say goodbye but the memory of being together will always remain and there is always the chance that our paths will cross again.

Donna Yee

The phone is cold and smooth in my hand, as the line disconnects. The appointment is scheduled. Our veterinarian will come in a few days to end the suffering of a dear old friend.

“These old ponies,” our vet, Dr. Lisa, says sympathetically, “They hang on and on. So often we hope that they’ll just drift away in their sleep, but it hardly ever goes that way. They leave the tough decisions to their people.”

This tough decision has been hovering for months now. With several animals over the years, I’ve never found it easy to know: Is this life still enjoyable, worth living? Or have we let an animal suffer silently and trustingly, too long in pain? Late last winter, we saw that Cricket, our ancient pony, was declining. In our wet Northwest climate, the chill of winter just seeps into those elderly bones, stiffening joints beyond use. Our thirteen-year-old daughter, Caroline, found Cricket out in the field one day, lying down on her side in a cold drizzling rain. With much coaxing and encouragement, she convinced Cricket to heave herself up on swollen arthritic legs and led her slowly to the shed to dry, draped with a warm blanket.

Caroline returned to the house in tears. We had mentioned the possibility before, but now we talked in earnest about calling Dr. Lisa to come with the final injection to end the pain and struggle. We both cried. Cricket had been Caroline’s very first pony, the first foray our family took into the horse world that now occupies so much of our time. Cricket guided Caroline through her first 4-H shows and county fairs and brought home the first ribbons to adorn her now-covered walls.

Her age was never certain. The hand-lettered sign on a country road near our house said, “16-year-old pony for sale.”We visited the barn and found a sweet-faced brownishgray pony with a white blaze. “Half POA and half Welsh,” the sellers told us. With a minimal investment and even less knowledge, we signed the check and walked our ecstatic daughter home on her very own pony.

We called the vet for an initial checkup and whatever shots were needed. She laughed out loud when we told her the pony was sixteen. “All old ponies are ’sixteen’ when they’re for sale!” she said, wryly. She rubbed her hands over a slightly knobby knee, peered into the mouth. “Nope,” she declared. “Hard to tell for sure, but this girl’s at least twenty. She’s in good shape, though, a nice little mare.” She patted her approvingly. “She’s a fine beginner’s mount for a lightweight like your daughter.”

I’m still not sure if she was just breaking it to us gently, or if she was genuinely unsure of Cricket’s age, but each time Dr. Lisa came back for the spring or fall checkup, she’d add another five years. Shaking her head, she’d say, “She’s at least twenty-five.” Then, six months later, “No, she’s got to be over thirty!” Finally, examining teeth that were worn almost to the gum line, she wouldn’t even hazard any more guesses. When asked what she thought was Cricket’s age, “She’s ancient!” was all she’d say.

As our equine experience grew, we appreciated more how purely lucky we were to adopt Cricket. She had almost none of the bad habits or grumpiness that old ponies are notorious for and the smaller or more timid a rider we put on her back, the calmer and steadier she became. But with Caroline’s increasing riding skills, Cricket would perk up and show off with the jauntiest little jog in the arena. That pony could high-step merrily over fallen and crossed logs on the trail course that all the “real” horses knocked and stumbled over.

At the first horse show of our lives, Caroline saddled up and Cricket calmly walked to the pole, stepped two dainty front hooves over and side-passed its length, elegant as any ballerina. Our 4-H leader, uncharacteristically wordless, just stared openmouthed as Caroline successfully navigated a difficult course and rode home with a blue ribbon.

When Caroline’s adolescent legs sprouted so that she was suddenly able to cross her ankles under Cricket’s belly (well, almost), she graduated to a Quarter Horse, but Cricket stayed on, part of the family. Young friends visited for pony rides and simple lessons. Caroline theoretically gave the lessons, but Cricket did the teaching. And she served well as an amateur therapy pony, offering rides and confidence to countless toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities who were my students. But eventually, she grew too slow and stiff for even their small bodies and gentle demands. More finicky as she aged, she turned her nose up at the highcalorie grain-mashes and supplements with which we tried to build up her weight; getting medicine into her in any form was virtually impossible.

That dreary, early spring day when Caroline found Cricket unmoving in the cold, we knew the time was coming. We gave ourselves a day or two to make the decision, postponing the inevitable. But then, the weather turned and spring arrived.Warm sunny days soothed Cricket’s aches and pains and we didn’t find her lying down again. She even trotted and galloped a few times, keeping up with the bigger horses in her pasture as they raced about full of spring fever, and she gained a few pounds on the lush spring grass.

Now, the summer reprieve is over. Wet leaves clutter the roadsides, fog covers the river each morning and a chill sweeps down from the mountains to the east. Cricket moves more slowly each day, not venturing far in the open pasture. Knees big as baseballs, she can barely bend a leg. The weight she added in the early summer has slipped away, leaving bony ribs under thickening fur.

It really is time to say good-bye. I schedule the farm call with the receptionist. “But please have Lisa give me a call,” I add. I’ve barely hung up before uncertainty creeps back. Should we really do this? Cricket was standing, contentedly basking in her sunny pasture when I checked on her. Is it right to end her life, am I just doing it for my own convenience? But I remember the gaunt feel of her sharp haunches. I don’t want to wait until she is once more lying in a cold rain, unable to move.

Lisa calls, with her gentle manner. I tell her my qualms; she empathizes and assures me I can change my mind before the appointment. “It has to feel right to you,” she says. I remember that with at least two previous pets, elderly dogs, I harbored these same doubts, only to worry about the flip side after each was finally buried: Did I wait too long? Did he suffer too much before the end? It is often a case of guesswork. Life or death guesswork.

We give Caroline the option of being present at the euthanizing or not. She is adamant—she will be there to say good-bye.

Trustingly, Cricket follows her girl, hardly needing a lead rope. A last kiss on a velvety muzzle, then the swift injection. Cricket’s head drops, her knees bend as if she is beginning to lie herself down, then the old body folds heavily to the ground. She is gone, mercifully, before the collapse is complete.

We have been through this with dogs and cats before, but

still are not prepared for the rush of grief. Caroline and I

cling together as sobs and tears gush up; we thought we

were ready, but . . . oh! Cricket! My pony!

    But, as the old hymn says, “It is well with my soul.” It was

time. Inwardly, I thank this old friend for bringing joy to our

lives and trusting us to care for her until the very end.

Barbara S. Greenstreet

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