On August 22, 2022, one of my horses died. High Country Dancer, aka Jerry, was a registered American Paint Horse. He was thirty years old.
I met Jerry in 2003 when I moved to Arkansas. When I saw him, he was standing in a stall, skeletal, with a horrific injury to his right hock. He’d been turned out with other horses in a back pasture on the property where I was boarding my horses. He’d gotten tangled in a barbed wire fence and wasn’t found for several days. By then, he’d dropped a bunch of weight, and the injury to his leg was severe and infected. Virtually no soft tissue was left around the hock. The veterinarian who cared for him didn’t expect a good outcome. He assumed the infection would kill the horse. The horse had other plans.
Jerry rallied, I bought him for the cost of the vet bill and took him home. He’d been a show horse, so I figured I’d purchased either the cheapest show horse ever or a pretty pasture ornament. I rode him some, and although he was sound, a miracle in itself, he couldn’t tolerate arena work. So, Jerry became a pasture ornament.
At one point, a family with a young daughter happened by our property. The dad and daughter fell in love with Jerry. The next thing I knew, Jerry was in their trailer on the way to a new home. We had a signed agreement that if they ever decided to sell him, I’d have first right of refusal.
The family took good care of him, and the girl rode him lightly and showed him some. They called a couple of years later and asked if I’d buy him back. Jerry came home.
Although Jerry was not born deaf, according to his first owners, he was deaf when I bought him. Deaf horses tend to buddy up with other horses and Jerry did exactly that. He settled into my herd as though he’d never left, bonding with a mare named Teddie. I called Teddie Jerry’s “hearing ear horse.” They had a special relationship. When they were fed outside, they insisted on eating out of the same bucket even though they each had their own. They’d eat out of one bucket together, taking turns grabbing bites of food. Then they’d turn to the other bucket and do the same. That’s unusual behavior for horses. I loved watching them go about their day together. Their bond was obvious and special.
A year ago, Jerry was diagnosed with EPM, Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, which causes neurological problems and can be life-threatening. Jerry was twenty-nine when he was diagnosed in the fall of 2021. He’d lost some weight, and I didn’t expect him to make it through the winter. We upped his feed, a special senior feed appropriate for an old horse. He gained weight and looked healthy. His haircoat was fluffy in the winter and he shed out beautifully in the spring; besides some weakness in his hind end, he was a happy pasture horse. He loved mealtimes and greeted us each morning with his silly, high-pitched whinny. And oh, how he loved his friend, Teddie.
My new husband and I were beginning to think Jerry would live forever. Alas, a few days ago, Jerry stopped eating his grain. He looked lethargic, and his eyes were dull. He showed no signs of G.I. distress or other illness. His temperature was normal. However, he’d become increasingly disoriented and nervous. He ate alfalfa and continued to drink, which was good. By the end of day two, however, he was walking in circles to the left and seemed afraid of being touched. I couldn’t get a halter on him. I think he was blind or nearly so. How scary that must have been to be deaf and unable to see.
My veterinarian, Dr. Alexander, and his assistant, Lauren, came to my property to assess Jerry. (If you’ve read my blog about losing a pet, these are the same people who gave Topper an easy and peaceful passage to the rainbow bridge.) Dr. Alexander observed Jerry in the pasture. It was clear that the EPM had progressed, and Jerry was in neurological distress.
Someone once told me that, as the guardians of animals, our most important responsibility is to do what animals cannot do for themselves. That means making the final call when necessary without letting our sadness about losing them cloud our judgment. In my experience, animals tell us when it is time to let them go. We need only pay attention and act accordingly. It was time.
Dr. Alexander, Lauren, my friend Dewayne, and I talked and watched Jerry, who was standing in the middle of the pasture, hind leg cocked, peacefully gazing into space. I don’t think he could see much. Shadows, perhaps.
As we talked, I was struck by Jerry’s courage at such a hard moment in his life. Unable to hear or see, he’d positioned himself in a wide-open space. There were no walls or barriers nearby to help him discern where he was. He just…was. His beloved companion, Teddie, kept her eye on him, but from a respectful distance.
Jerry had never looked more beautiful to me than he did at that moment. He appeared fully present, surrendered perhaps, to what he was experiencing, feeling, and sensing at the most vulnerable moment of his remarkably long life. I had no idea that brave could be so beautiful.
High Country Dancer, aka Jerry, remained in that pose as he left us to cross the rainbow bridge. He was not afraid.
In such moments, I invite my imagination to embrace the romance of the rainbow bridge narrative. This time was no different. I pictured sweet Jerry, sight and hearing restored, loping across the rainbow bridge, ears perked forward, looking for familiar faces. I like to think they all were there to welcome him Home—Andy (2022), Tiffany Two Spots (2019), Special Trouble (2000), and so many others, so dearly beloved. Losing our pets is the price of animal guardianship. It is a price I willingly pay, for it pales in comparison to the pleasure of sharing my life with animals.
Rest easy, sweet Jerry. To be graced with the guardianship of such a lovely animal was an honor. I love you.