What A Horse Taught Me

Learning to live with, love, and lose the difficult horse that helped me through my depression.

The author with her horse at the animal hospital. Photo by Matthew Michel.

A few weeks ago, I read a story in the New Yorker that reminded me of the horse I rescued this past year. The subtitle of the article caught my attention — why live with a difficult animal? To me, the answer is obvious: because they have something to teach you.

In the New Yorker story, the writer describes attempting to foster a dog with serious behavioral issues. He didn’t trust humans and he acted out aggressively toward them, injuring the writer in several instances. I laughed and cried and empathized with every line of the story, as it often mirrored my own experience rehabilitating and retraining my difficult horse.

Although the New Yorker piece — spoiler alert — does not have a happy ending, when I read it I honestly believed my own story would. I was making significant progress with my problematic pet during the short time she was in my care. The future seemed bright for us both.

Sadly, I was wrong. Although we succeeded in overcoming many of her dangerous behaviors, last week I lost my horse to a sudden and tragic injury. Her life, like the bad dog in the New Yorker story, ended in euthanasia.

The circumstances were devastating. She suffered an uncommon injury — a pelvis fracture — under unusual circumstances. Most horses who are injured that way are on the racetrack or working in an arena, but she was in her stall. Then there is the fact she was my first horse. I only had the privilege of being a horse owner, finally living my childhood dream, for eight months.

I’ve been a part of the horse world for over a decade, and I know that freak accidents happen. You just hope that they never happen to you. Losing her so soon and in such a strange way, after all the progress we made together, seems terribly unfair. She didn’t have the chance to experience kindness and good care for longer — she hadn’t seen it for most of her life.

A year ago this month, she was rescued mere hours before being shipped out of the country for slaughter by a young girl. She named the mare Dharma. Unfortunately abuse and neglect had left Dharma in too rough of shape for the kind of riding the girl hoped to do, and she looked for a home where Dharma could be rehabilitated.

That’s where I came into the picture — I was looking for a pandemic project. Dharma was perfect. From the moment I met her, I was in love.

Before and after pictures of Dharma.

At the first barn I boarded her, Dharma struggled with food aggression. It was like she didn’t believe she would ever be fed again. I would chase her away when she came at me, teaching her that she could not trample me for her meals. She fought with other horses if they came anywhere near her or her food, often wounding herself and others. It was a tough balance; I couldn’t let her close for fear of her injuring me, but I also needed her to learn to trust me.

In the arena during training, she reared and kicked out at me when I worked with or tried to ride her. It was scary for me and for the other boarders — after only a month, the barn owner told me Dharma needed to leave. I was advised to get rid of her, and to find a different horse. One I was more capable of handling.

I agonized over whether to keep her or rehome her. I worried she would end up bound for slaughter again. I cried over the idea of getting rid of her. But we were able to find a new barn and a trainer willing to help us.

There, Dharma slowly started to improve. She lost her hostility toward other horses. She began to bond with me, trusting that I would take care of her and treat her kindly. I stopped being afraid and discovered a newfound confidence in myself and my ability to handle her. And with every step forward, I began to leave behind the dark cloud of depression that had been hovering over me for so long.

Dharma tested my patience and perseverance at every chance. For a long time, riding was immensely difficult — she wouldn’t stand still to be saddled or accept the bridle. At one point tears fell from my eyes in frustration after thirty minutes of struggling to get the bit in her mouth as she evaded me. Then I stopped myself and asked what I was doing wrong. I began to wonder how roughly she must have been handled in the past, how deep her distrust ran.

Something clicked. I wanted her to feel safe, so I took her into her stall. I distracted her with a peppermint and quietly slipped the bit into her mouth and the bridle over her ears. For several weeks we practiced that routine, even when I didn’t ride her — putting the bridle on in the safety of her stall, with the reward of a peppermint. Soon we didn’t even need to go into her stall. She accepted the bit and bridle any time, even when I forgot her treat.

The word dharma has multiple meanings among Indian religions. In one, an ancient philosophy called Jain Dharma, the concept of dharma refers to a substance that allows all living beings to move. When I learned this, I decided it suited her and I would not change her name. Dharma was an energetic horse, a nervous Thoroughbred, always in movement. Her beauty and power expressed itself through every gorgeous stride as she danced in fields and arenas.

Jainism teaches us that the path to enlightenment is through treating all creatures with nonviolence. Only through kindness toward all living beings can one achieve purity of the soul. If Dharma had been cared for throughout her life by people who practiced this religion, who knows how different her life would have been?

We think that the reason Dharma’s pelvis shattered so easily — from merely kicking out at the wall of her stall — was because years of malnutrition could have weakened her bones, making them susceptible to a catastrophic fracture. Had she not been neglected, she might have suffered only a clean break with a much higher chance of healing. I would have accepted never riding her again as long as I had the guarantee she would not have lasting pain and discomfort in her back and hips. Instead, shattered fragments of bone tore muscles and threatened further damage with every movement.

A horse like Dharma could never keep still for the months needed to heal such a devastating injury. With her difficult disposition and other underlying health problems, there was no chance of her making enough of a recovery to justify trying. After a night of deliberation, I asked the veterinary hospital if I could see her to say goodbye.

When I drive to the farm where I kept Dharma (and where I still work as the assistant manager), there is a stretch of road just as you leave town where deer often cross. In the early mornings and late evenings when I am going to and from the farm, I frequently see deer on the side of the road. The speed limit is slow to help prevent this, but people needlessly speed and don’t see them in time to avoid a collision.

The week Dharma went lame from her fracture, I was coming home from one of my many trips to the barn to tend to her when I saw a deer sitting partly upright, her leg broken and bleeding. My heart sank into my gut. I couldn’t believe whoever hit her had left her there, so I pulled over, thinking I would call someone to help. But animal control showed up just then and I didn’t want to get in their way, so I left.

The next morning, I saw the deer lying there dead. I hope the officer put her out of her misery quickly. When I saw the body, I choked up with frustration and anger. Why couldn’t people just drive a little more slowly, be a little more careful, so that we could prevent these deer from suffering so much? Isn’t it all just preventable?

Deer remind me of horses — especially Dharma, with her soft doe eyes. I saw her in that doe lying on the side of the road. If only people were willing to be more careful and kind to animals, we could prevent so much pain. Had Dharma been well-fed and cared for, perhaps her pelvis bone would not have shattered so easily. Perhaps she would not have been written off as difficult and dangerous, abandoned to be slaughtered.

Perhaps she would even still be there at the barn, her head over the stall door with her ears pricked forward as I drive up, nickering as she watches me approach. But now when I show up to feed the horses and haul hay with the tractor, her stall is empty. I don’t feel her doe eyes on me as she watches me do my work. I don’t hear her call when I crunch into my morning snack, the apple I always shared with her and she eagerly expects.

Instead I watch the daffodils adorning her stall wave softly in the breeze, their yellow petals dancing for me. And as I watch them, it occurs to me that despite the grief I feel for her loss, I don’t feel depressed. How long has it been since I felt free from its icy grip? Has Dharma released me from it? Am I finally free?

When the pandemic began, I was at my lowest point in ages. I was on antidepressants, in therapy, struggling with everyday life as I considered leaving university. Dharma brought me purpose, progress, a healthy routine. She made me more confident, more hopeful, more patient. She gave me strength and taught me to find joy in every moment, because she thought about nothing beyond or before the present. She was the embodiment of mindfulness. She was movement. Dharma.

And my god, how I loved that difficult animal.

A selfie with Dharma taken last summer.

When I put Dharma down, I faced the decision of what to do with her remains. It’s a reality every horse owner must address at some point, and for me, it came far too soon. I wanted to give Dharma something dignified, the respect she deserved in death. I arranged for a horse undertaker to collect and bury her at their nearby farm where she could rest in peace.

The moment I received an email confirming her transportation and burial— hey, we just laid her to rest under a grove of trees — I finally felt relief wash over me. I knew it was over. I had done everything I ever could for her, right until the very end. Knowing that was enough.

Losing Dharma was the hardest thing. I was so wrapped up with her care at the end that I turned down a contract for a children’s book with a major publishing house. In the span of a week I lost the two dreams I’ve been chasing since I was a little girl: to own a horse and be a published author. The only two things I’ve ever wanted.

Despite the pain I am feeling, I know there will be other horses, other book contracts. Right now, I am treasuring the brief time I had with Dharma and the difference I made in her life. For the past eight months, she was everything to me and I loved every moment I got with her. She helped me when I needed it the most.

When we choose to live with difficult animals, we get something extraordinary in return — however brief our time together may be.

Science writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest. | she/they

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