It was summer riding camp, hot and dusty, as always, and half a dozen horses carefully walked the rail of the indoor arena. Five were led by volunteers and accompanied by side walkers for safety. One large, bay paint draft walked unattended, with a small girl perched atop his saddle. Falstaff didn’t need a leader or side walker – he did the entire routine himself, from waiting in line with the other ponies, to walking to the mounting ramp, to staying on the rail while carrying a small child who had no idea how to ride. He’d then safely deliver her back to the ramp, stand still as a post while she dismounted, and not move a muscle until the next child was safely on. And then he did it all over again, perfectly. Nobody trained Falstaff to do any of this; he just started doing it on his own one day. Or maybe he read my mind, or I read his, or both . . . because we always knew what the other was thinking . . . I never had to say a word, I thought it and he did it. And vice versa. Because he loved me and I loved him. That’s the way it works with family, you see.
This particular day, Falstaff was feeling sluggish and I was going to pull him from the lesson when he finished his current lap, but he came to a stop at the far corner of the arena.
“Mama, help,” I heard him say.
I took off running across the arena.
“Hurry, Mama,” I heard. “I’m falling.”
I ran faster, reached Falstaff, grabbed the little girl from the saddle and handed her to a side walker from a nearby horse, then grabbed Fally’s halter just as his legs began to tremble and crumble beneath him. He fell to the ground, but a few moments later I was able to get him to his feet and lead him outside. I yanked off his saddle and handed him to one of the barn girls to hold so I could run grab my medical box. I listened for gut sounds, but the stethoscope was quiet – colic. A shot of Banamine, a bucket of molasses water, slow walks up and down the driveway . . . all the tricks I’ve learned over the years . . . by that evening Falstaff was much better, and two days later he was antsy to get back to work. As always, when I stopped in for night check, I wrapped my arms around his neck and whispered, “Falstaff, you’re my hero.”
Every single day I hugged my Falstaff and told him he was my hero. I have known and loved more horses than I could ever count, but Falstaff stood out from all the rest. Before I continue with his story, however, it’s only fair to give you a Hankie Alert; on a scale of 1 to 10, Fally’s story is about a 25.5. But to know and understand who he was is worth a whole case of Puffs. Trust me.
How did Falstaff and I understand each other so well? For the same reason we connect with any animal, or any person. We are all creatures with a soul, and that soul is made up of God, or the Great Spirit or whatever you call it . . . if you look at the Great Spirit as being all of the space between every particle of matter, holding it together as one unit, you will understand that we are actually ALL ONE. If we are all ONE and open to each other, we can always communicate as it’s no more difficult than talking to ourselves . Our connectedness is not just a sappy Kumbaya camp song, it’s actually REAL and, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me” not only counts for how humans treat each other, but for how humans treat animals. Cruelty to any living being totally trashes your karma, and in the end, you’re kicking yourself in the ass.
Tangent done . . . back to Falstaff . . .
I believe we travel in packs, we United Souls of the Great Spirit, and Falstaff and I have traveled together for many lifetimes. This lifetime he was introduced to me by what turned out to be a rather unscrupulous employee of ours, who was secretly cruel to him once he came home to Locket’s Meadow. Fally, in return, despised her and bucked her off every chance he got, often while on a trail ride miles from home. And then he would turn around and leave her there, racing back to our farm and putting himself back into his stall. At the time I was working long hours as a journalist and trusting her to care for my “babies” and I had no idea what was happening in my barn.
Bad move. Don’t ever do that.
Eventually, Falstaff went lame. We had him checked and rechecked by vets, put on stall rest and supplements, x-rayed . . . you name it, we did it. Smart boy, because once he was useless to his abuser, she completely ignored him aside from bullying him with mean names, like “Fall Flat.” The day after we finally got her off the farm was the day Falstaff miraculously healed and was never lame again.
If I was so connected to Falstaff, why didn’t I realize he was being abused? First, I didn’t want to believe it. Finding barn help is a nightmare, and extricating barn help from a farm is a freakin’ living hell. Ask any barn owner . . . the stories you hear will curl your toenails. Second, I believe he felt he was protecting me by hiding what was happening. Falstaff’s nature was to always protect, especially the ones he loved.
Falstaff was the best therapeutic riding horse I have ever worked with. His specialty was working with autistic kids and adults. I would stand in the center of the arena and barely think what I’d want him to do next, and he’d do it. Riders who were non-verbal, low functioning, even occasionally unable to restrain themselves from hitting or kicking . . . Falstaff was always perfectly patient, and made every single one of them feel like they were cowboys, independent riders and just like everyone else. Truly, he was a hero, and I was honored that he was my work partner seven days a week.
What made my boy Falstaff so special? Yes, he was born amazing, but I believe it was also love. He was loved and he loved in return. We shouldn’t be surprised by that; way back when humans first began to purposely breed wild horses for certain characteristics, they chose traits that are connected to love, such as loyalty, bravery, and the ability to self-sacrifice for their family members. ALL ANIMALS UNDERSTAND LOVE, BUT DOMESTICATED ANIMALS UNDERSTAND LOVE AS HUMANS DO, BECAUSE WE BRED THEM TO BE THAT WAY! They are our creations, the result of us playing God with genetics. From horses, dogs and guinea pigs to pigs, cows and goats, they are reflections of the best qualities of ourselves. Which is why they are so baffled and devastated when we turn on them. The horses who stand in line at the slaughterhouses, fully aware of what’s coming, are more than terrified; they are devastated by the complete betrayal of those who once cared for them. Humans loved them, yet send them off to auction (which has become a nice little euphemism for “slaughter” since horse meat is such big business – killer buyers purchase them in huge lots, and the best of the riding horses get packed in side-by-side with the aged, broken, wild and untrained.)
Humans place great value on their horses, as long as they can be ridden. Once they are no longer working animals, well, we get a lot of requests from owners to take their broken ponies off their hands because they can’t afford to maintain an old one once they buy a new one to ride. Oddly enough, or maybe not, with human ego being what it is, there are people who put a price on love, and are only capable of giving when they are getting something in return. But here’s what I know about horses, and every other domesticated animal; to the bitter end, they never stop loving their humans. Because animals are, by far, the most constant and devoted beings and once they decide you are their person, they never, ever forget you or give up on you. Even long after you’ve given up on them.
As I’ve said before, as far as animals are concerned (and generally other humans, as well) we truly suck.
In the early 2010s there was a virus affecting area barns. No one knew what it was, but it caused horses to spike a high fever and have severe diarrhea. They also completely stopped eating and drinking. Within days they became dangerously dehydrated, and a few would even die. It was also highly contagious. The veterinarians knew about it and discussed it among themselves, but it remained a puzzle. It passed through all the horses on a farm at light speed if the first few infected weren’t instantly quarantined. If word got out that a barn had a contagious disease, it would affect business, and with money at stake, it was best to cover it up. And so it spread . . .
We later traced it to a visitor who also visited a barn in the Southbury area where this particular illness had been rampant. Our first two horses who spiked fevers were Patch and Leo, the ones who greeted visitors as they entered the driveway. We separated them from the others right away, but had not yet started bleaching our shoes, which, it turns out, is how this particular disease is spread; traces of manure on shoes and boots are transferred to hay lying on the ground and then eaten. It’s like wildfire if extreme quarantine protocol measures aren’t put in place. Poor Leo’s diarrhea was so severe he developed a prolapsed rectum and we brought him up to Tufts Large Animal Clinic for treatment, which would take nearly a week. They took blood and sent it out for analysis, for all the common diseases as well as a few that had never been seen in our area, and that, finally, is how we learned what it was that had been wreaking havoc in all those area barns – corona virus.
Within a matter of days a dozen of our horses were infected, Falstaff being one of the first. By the second morning, I knew he was in desperate trouble; I could smell it on his breath. My equine veterinarian, Stacey Golub, was out of town that day, driving one of her own horses up to Tufts, so I began to call around as offices opened for the day. I knew, with absolute certainty, that if I didn’t get fluids into him within hours I would lose him. One vet said she could be at our barn by mid-afternoon, and I took what I could get, but with every hour Falstaff was further deteriorating. I could see the pain in his eyes, although he stood stoically in his stall, behaving as a perfect gentleman when no one would blame him for acting out. I tried another local vet who had once said I could call on her in an emergency even though horses were not her area of practice, but was told they would not help. I stayed in the barn and watched my horse suffer, every second an eternity while I waited for assistance. The vet finally arrived around 3pm and put a pic line in his neck so I could hook Falstaff up to fluids, and we began to dump it in by the gallon. He seemed slightly better after a few hours, but that smell on his breath . . . I stayed in the barn until late that night, just to be near him.
By the following morning, more horses had spiked fevers. We had started quarantine, but there was nothing we could do for those who had already been exposed; all would catch the virus. Dr. Stacey came to the farm early in the day and put pic lines into the most dehydrated ponies and we hung IV bags on nails up and down the aisle, trying to turn the tide. She smelled Falstaff’s breath and looked at me . . . I saw she felt the same as I did . . .
Hours later, Falstaff’s pain was so great he began to kick the walls in his stall and rear up. I called Tufts and said we were sending up another horse who was sick with the same thing as Leo and was in pain. My husband, David, had to drive him without me as I was the one who needed to monitor all of the other horses, replace their IV bags and take temperatures. Fally was in so much pain he was panicking, but he held perfectly still when I slipped into his stall and wrapped my arms around his neck.
“I love you, Falstaff,” I said. “You are my hero. You will always be my hero.”
He held still a moment more, then his eyes rolled back into his head. I had to use a chain on his nose to lead him to the trailer, he was so wild with the pain. The horse who I never had to say a word to, let alone raise my voice . . . a chain on his nose . . . my broken heart . . .
David drove away and I heard Falstaff’s hind hooves slamming against the trailer door . . .
With tear-streaked cheeks I returned to the barn to take care of my other babies. In the horse world, there is no rest for the broken; someone has to tend to the rest of the herd.
Two hours later, David called to tell me the doctors recommended Falstaff be immediately euthanized. His vital signs were failing and he needed to be put out of his misery; not even the highest-level pain meds were helping him. He was partly sedated and lying in the shavings in a stall, with Leo just across the way. I asked David to hold the phone to his ear and I told my pony how much I loved him and that I appreciated every minute he was my boy. I told him it was OK if he had to go, we would find each other again. And one last time, I told him he was my hero and would be forever. Then David said it was time, and he had to hang up.
I collapsed on the floor, sobbing and wrecked. I couldn’t believe I was not with my man while he crossed from this life into the next. I knew I would feel it the second he died, and only a few minutes passed when one of my friends on the “other side,” Chief White Dove, appeared (yes, I’m just that kind of whack-a-doo who has friends on “both sides.”) His creased, brown face held concern for me, but he was a chief on a mission. “May I have Falstaff as my own?” he asked. “He is a horse of high rank and is held in great esteem by my people.”
Of course he was . . . he was PERFECT! I wanted to scream, “No, he’s my baby, he’s my hero!” But what was the point? If I couldn’t have him, Chief White Dove might as well. “Of course,” I mumbled, but with little grace.
Moments later I felt Falstaff arrive and acknowledge me, and he and the chief only lingered a moment before the two of them rode off . . . gone . . . Falstaff was already back to work . . . while I couldn’t lift my head from the floor.
My husband called. It was over. Tufts wanted to do an autopsy to try to learn why the virus had affected my horse so dramatically, but once they opened him up, we couldn’t bring his body home to bury him because he had an infectious disease. We decided for the sake of the other horses an autopsy was appropriate, but we didn’t have the money for a separate cremation; Falstaff would not be coming home. They cut off his heavy black mane and tail and sent it to me in a bag. I didn’t think to ask for one of his shoes, which I would deeply regret.
For weeks I was consumed with keeping the rest of our horses alive. All survived but Falstaff, and I’m convinced he’d taken the hit and carried the bulk of the pain for the rest of his herd so they would all survive. Because, well, he was Falstaff. And they all lived, even the ancient ones who were at highest risk of death.
Leo came home, feisty as ever. Captain, Falstaff’s paddock mate, was depressed and needed a friend. I knew that Fally wanted Captain to take over his job as a mentor to the younger horses, so we put unruly Sammy in with him. I took a picture as they greeted each other, and when I looked at it later that day, I clearly saw Falstaff’s face in front of them, in rainbow colors, but clearly my boy’s face.
When it was time for me to reopen the farm and get back to work, I was lost. How would I teach without my partner? I had lost my right arm. I thought about the other horses who could do the job – Ernie, Beatrice, Sonora, Tessie – all good horses whom I loved, but none of them my soul mate in the way Falstaff was. And then there was this business of the shoe . . . why hadn’t I asked for them to remove one of his shoes for me? I had thought of it, but I’d already asked for his mane and tail and I didn’t want to be a bother. Stupid, stupid me.
One day I was walking up the hill, checking water levels in the troughs, when I noticed the same damn block of wood in Falstaff’s paddock that had been sitting there for weeks.
“Why the hell am I the only one who can pick up anything around here?” I mumbled as I climbed through the fence and removed the offending lumber. And I froze, staring at the ground, then reached down with a trembling hand and picked up the oversized horse shoe. I knew who it belonged to. It was bent the way Falstaff’s shoes were always bent when he’d catch the back of his front shoe with the toe of his back hoof as he galloped around a corner. The row of nails was still intact along one side; he’d ripped out a chunk of hoof with it the way he always did when he threw a shoe. Every single time. I used to admonish him for costing me so much money with the farrier (. . . I totally suck and wish I could have taken that back.) I dropped into the dirt and burst into tears. Again. My Falstaff had sent me yet one more gift, as if he hadn’t done enough for me in his lifetime.
“There you go, Mama,” I heard. “You are my hero.”
As if. As if I could ever be as good or true or perfect as that horse was. Hell, as any horse who is well-loved is capable of being . . . when we domesticated animals, we created living beings who surpass us in goodness of spirit. An animal’s capacity for unconditional love leaves all of humanity’s in the dust.
And yet when we are finished with them and they lose their value, we walk away. Sure, there are plenty of people who ensure their horses have loving homes when they can no longer keep them. But there are even more who send them off to “auction” and imagine they’ll be bought by someone who will take over where they left off . . . it’s self-deception on steroids. Rescues and sanctuaries can’t pull more than a few from the kill pens, and the rest endure a horrifying death.
Too many horses. Too many backyard breeders having foals that are “excess.” Too many high-end breeders looking for that “perfect” specimen who will make them a fortune at the track or in the show ring. And too many humans who are not willing to sacrifice for those animals who sacrifice so much for them.
For my hero Falstaff, and all the rest of the horses, I will continue to tell their stories.
Kathleen Schurman, and her husband David, own Locket’s Meadow Rescue Sanctuary in Bethany, CT. Kathleen works as a psychic and animal communicator to help support the animals, and also writes children’s books about them. Falstaff is a constant character in her books, and even though he is no longer with his Mama in body, his spirit is always at her side, and he will always live in her books.