He Trots the Air
The end was coming for Roany, a strong and beautiful horse who’d been at the center of Pam Houston’s life for 25 years. What she wanted for him was simple: a peaceful exit, lifted by the touch of human hands.
Last summer, I put my old Roan horse in the ground.
But there’s way more to the story than that. Thirty-nine years on the planet, 25 of those with me. I bought Roany the same year I moved to a ranch in Creede, Colorado, because Deseo, my alarmist Paso Fino, who had lived outside Fresno, California, most of his young life, was deciding that Colorado was the scariest place he’d ever been. First off, there was snow—a whole damn lot of it. The predator-to-livestock ratio was not to his liking, and the pasture was surrounded by hundred-foot spruce trees that often sang in the wind.
The first thing I noticed about Roany was that he had a kind eye; the second was his size—just under 17 hands at the shoulder. The Santa Fe cowboy who sold him didn’t tell me much apart from his age, which likely had a year or two shaved off, and that he went better away from the barn if you wore spurs. Within days, I came to understand Roany’s intensely good nature. Each morning when I went out to feed him, he greeted me with a just-happy-to-be-here chortle.
He was as solid a trail horse as I’ve ever ridden, never flinching in big wind, or while crossing water, or when mule deer twins who’d been stashed by their mother in some willows leaped to their feet right in front of him. He was so bombproof that the county search and rescue team enlisted his help a few times a year to find and deliver a wayward hiker. Because I grew up in an unpredictably violent household, my temperament ran a little closer to Deseo’s. I counted on Roany to keep the whole barnyard calm, not just Deseo and the mini donkeys, but also the ewes and lambs, the recalcitrant rams, the aging chickens, and me.
I called Roany “the horse of a different color.” In the dead of winter, he was burgundy wine with tiny white flecks. In March, he would shed to a dappled gray with rust highlights. By midsummer he was red again, but not such a rich red as in wintertime, and when his heavy coat grew back in October, he was solid gray for most of a month.
For two and a half decades at the ranch, Roany’s coat marked the changing of the seasons. I stopped riding him when he turned 33, because I thought he deserved a lengthy retirement, though he stayed well muscled and strong until a few months before his death. He had a bout of lameness in April and a longer one in May, and by late June he was limping more often than not. When Doc Howard came for a ranch call he said, “There’s a number associated with this lameness, Pam, and it’s 39.”
I did the things there are to do: supplements, an ice boot, DMSO, Adequan shots, even phenylbutazone on the most painful days. We’d had very little snow and no spring rain, and for the first time in my tenure the pasture stayed dormant all summer, the ground extra-hard on sore hooves. Roany loved nothing more than the return of the spring grass, and it seemed radically unfair that, in what was looking to be his last year, there wouldn’t be any. I watered, daily, a thin strip of ground between the corral and the chicken coop and named it Roany’s golf course. He had some good days there, even some when he ambled over toward the house to eat the grass that grew over the septic tank, but mostly he hung around the corral.
The downside of Roany having the best head on his shoulders of any animal I’d ever owned was that he never got the bulk of my attention. But last summer, between me, my fiancé, Mike, and my ranch helpers, Kyle and Emma, he hardly had a moment’s peace. We iced his legs and groomed him twice daily, mixed canola oil into his grain to help keep weight on him, and hugged him constantly. We carried five-gallon buckets of water to him eight times a day, though on all but the very worst days he could have made it to the trough himself. He seemed bemused, maybe even touched, by all the attention. Every time we set the water in front of him, he took a giant drink, and I suspect it was more for our sake than his. One day, Kyle, not knowing I was out there, set a bucket down next to Roany not three minutes after he had drunk three-fourths of a fresh bucket for me. Roany looked at Kyle for a minute, glanced over at me, then lowered his head to drink again.
Roany blew bubbles in his water bucket because it made me laugh, and he would sometimes even give himself a bird bath by splashing his still mighty head. I also knew that just because he could handle the discomfort didn’t mean he should.
My biggest fear was that he would fall and break something during one of the weeks I was away from the ranch and would have to be put down immediately. This was accompanied by a lesser, but still palpable, fear that the same thing would happen on a day when I was there all alone. As his condition deteriorated, I worried that we would pass the point where we could ask him to walk far enough across the pasture to a burial site where his grave wouldn’t invite all kinds of trouble to the remaining animals who lived in and around the barn. I had made difficult decisions a dozen times in my life with beloved dogs, but the length of a horse’s life and the sheer size of its body made the timing even trickier. I knew I didn’t want Roany rendered with a chainsaw. I knew that if we had to drag his body across the pasture behind a piece of heavy equipment, it would tear him all to hell.
Roany was stoicism defined. As his condition worsened, he learned to pivot on his good front leg—and would, for an apple or a carrot or to sneak into the barn to get at the winter’s stash of alfalfa. He blew bubbles in his water bucket because it made me laugh, and he would sometimes even give himself a bird bath by splashing his still mighty head. I also knew that just because he could handle the discomfort didn’t mean he should. He had been so strong so recently, such a force of nature thundering back and forth across the pasture. There was no chance I was going to ask him to make another winter, but as long as he was hobbling to his golf course and chortling to me each morning, it seemed too early to end his life.
That summer, I was getting ready to marry Mike, a U.S. Forest Service lifer who was teaching me, in my 56th year, what it meant for a man to show up in a relationship. More than one of my friends suggested that Roany had held on so long to deliver me safely to Mike, and I had no reason to argue. Among Mike’s other gifts is a deep intuition about the suffering of people and animals, so I paid attention when he said, on a Monday night in mid-August, less than two weeks before the wedding, “This is entirely your decision, but if you want to put Roany down this week, I could take Wednesday afternoon off.”
I was not surprised, on Tuesday morning, to see a slight downturn in Roany’s condition. He ate his food, drank his water, stood for his treatments, but there was something a little lost in that kind eye, in the way he held his body up over his aching feet. I called Doc and made the appointment for Wednesday afternoon, with the caveat that I could cancel if Roany’s condition improved or I lost my nerve.
By Tuesday night, Roany was swaying just slightly over his feet. He ate his gruel of Equine Senior, bute powder, and oil, but with a little less enthusiasm than usual. I went out to check on him at 8 P.M. and then at ten. The moon was bright and the coyotes were singing; there was a tinge in the air that suggested a light morning frost. Even by moonlight I could see that Roany was holding his body like he didn’t feel right inside of it.
I woke at 4:30 with the kind of start that always means something has happened. The moon had set by then, so I grabbed a flashlight and rushed to the corral, but Roany wasn’t there, nor on his golf course, nor in the yard. I called his name and heard hoofbeats coming hard across the pasture, and I allowed myself to indulge the fantasy, just for a moment, that after all these weeks of suffering he was miraculously cured. Then I heard Deseo’s high whinny. My hot-blooded alarmist, my early-warning system, my tsunami siren. Deseo skidded to a stop in front of me and butted his head against my chest, seeming to say: About time you got here.
The flashlight batteries were already dying, but my eyes were adjusting to the dark. I started out across the pasture with Deseo beside me, heading for one of Roany’s favorite spots—the wetland (though dry this year) at the back of the property. When I turned at the quarter pole, Deseo whinnied again: Not that way, human. By this time, Mike was dressed and crossing the pasture to meet me. Deseo whinnied again, and we followed him to another favorite spot—a shady stand of blue spruce at the base of the hill where the ranch’s original homesteaders are buried. It was the first time since last summer Roany had been out that far.
He was still standing when I got there. But the minute he saw me he went to the ground with relief. He curled up like a fawn, and I could hear that his breathing wasn’t right. Mike and I sat beside him and petted his handsome neck. Above us, stragglers from the Perseid meteor shower, which had peaked over the weekend, streaked the blackness. Directly overhead, Pegasus, the biggest horse of all, galloped across the sky, carrying Princess Andromeda away from her mother, Queen Cassiopeia, whose bragging about Andromeda’s beauty invoked the wrath of the sea monster, and her father, King Cepheus, who promised that whoever rescued his daughter from the monster could have his daughter’s hand. Andromeda married Perseus, Pegasus’s creator, and they rode off into the forever of the night sky.
Eventually, a lighter blue tinted the eastern horizon. Deseo stood nearby, head lowered. We listened to Roany’s breathing and the coming of dawn. In the distance, the hoot of a great horned owl, the sheep stirring in their pen clear across the pasture; even farther away, tires crossing a cattle guard. In the gathering light, Roany stretched out his long legs and put his head in my lap. I thanked him for taking good care of the ranch animals, including the humans, including me. I told him I’d be OK, that we’d all be OK, and he could go whenever he needed to, but he went on taking one slow breath after another.
On one of Roany’s first bad days, back in May, a bank teller in town, a compassionate horse woman named Debbie Lagan, had quite innocently asked me how I was. My answer was no doubt more than she bargained for, but on that day she became my adviser and advocate in horse eldercare and pain relief. She also promised that, when the time came, she would send her husband out on his track hoe to dig the hole, never mind that they lived off the grid more than 20 miles away.
It was finally daylight, but the sun hadn’t risen, and Mike and I were shivering hard, so he slid into my place to hold Roany’s head and I ran back to the house to get sleeping bags. I called Debbie to say I thought we were close and Doc to say I thought we might not need him. When I got back across the pasture, Roany’s head was still in Mike’s lap, but now he was struggling for breath.
“Touch him,” Mike said. I knelt and put my hand on his big red neck, and he took one breath and then another and then the last breath he would take forever.
“I was helping him go,” Mike said. “I was with him in that place, you know?” I nodded. I did know. I had been in that place with several dogs and more than one human. Mike said, “I think he was waiting until you got back.”
A moment later, the first rays of sun came over the hill, turning the sky electric. I crossed the pasture one more time to get Roany’s brushes to groom him up for burial. I grabbed a flake of hay for Deseo so that if he wanted an excuse to stay near his old friend for a while, he would have one.
Debbie’s husband, Billy Joe Dilley, had a dozen things to do that morning, but he arrived at the ranch before the first vulture (or even fly) made its appearance. I don’t know Debbie very well, and Billy Joe hardly at all, but as much as anything else this is a story about them and about the way people in my town care for each other. When I tried to pay Billy Joe for his time, or even for gas, he shook his head and said, “An old cowboy doesn’t take money to bury an old horse.” He buried Roany respectfully and efficiently, the cowboy way, with his tail to the wind.
If there is such a thing in the world as a good death, Roany had one. It was almost as if he had heard Mike’s offer, looked at his watch, and said, Alright then, Wednesday, and how about in that stand of spruce on the other side of the hill? What I’ve always said about Roany is that he was a horse who never wanted to cause anybody trouble, and he remained that horse till the last second of his life and beyond.
Late that night, I watched the Perseids burn past my bedroom window, and imagined my old Roany up there, muscles restored to their prime and shining, burgundy coat alongside the white of Pegasus, both of them with their heads held high, and galloping.
Pam Houston’s new collection of essays, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, was published in January by W.W. Norton.