Monday Estrella was still on three legs. It was a difficult trip into the hospital. Monday afternoon came the verdict: Shattered pastern, Fractured coffin bone. Dr. B's prognosis less than 10% chance of healing satisfactorily; expectation: lifelong pain and discomfort if the bone knit.
Ann couldn't make the decision to put her mare down. They had been such good friends and Estrella was Ann's best teacher. Besides, Ann is an excellent human acupuncturist and has been doing TEAM for years. Surely there must be a way to increase the chances of healing.
Ann tried to get me on the phone. I'm living right across the street from her in Galisteo, but the night of the devastating news my house remained dark. Our answering machine gave no clue as to my whereabouts.
Tuesday, synchronicity took the reins. Mistakenly thinking I had an 11:00 a.m. acupuncture appointment, I showed up at Ann's office and heard the terrible news.
Dr. B. felt there was no choice. He had cast a similar break last summer on a junior roping horse, much loved. After two months and much suffering of humans and horse they had to give up. He recommended Estrella be put down. But suggested she seek another opinion.
I always go for the last word to Dr. Matthew Mackay-Smith, veterinary advisor to Equus Magazine. We called Equus. Matthew wasn't in today. Called his home. Left the details. He would consult with Dr. B by telephone.
We waited in suspense. The verdict came. With three bones broken the outcome was bleak. Ann was grief-stricken and didn't feel she had the right to end a life.
Denise Lynch, Richard Champion and I persuaded her to cancel her patients for the rest of the day. How could we help her make a decision? We suggested she address the situation through the use of a pendulum. Ann had never used one but we three had all used a pendulum in assisting with decisions.
We tied my fox ring on a piece of eight-inch thread. Hand relaxed, Ann held the end of the thread and asked the makeshift pendulum how it would swing to indicate yes or no. It rotated in a clockwise circle in response to yes, and counterclockwise for no. When it swung quietly forward and backward it seemed to be waiting for her to ask a question. The rotations were minimal in the beginning but as Ann gained confidence we began to sense the intensity of response by the size and decisiveness of the circles.
She did not begin by asking whether the mare should be put down but asked some general questions about her first. "Was she in much pain?" "Yes", was the response. "Did she want to be in a cast and try to heal?" "No". "Was she afraid to make the transition of death?" "No". "Did she want to be put down?" "Yes" "Did she want to be trailered home from the vets first?" "No".
The more questions Ann asked the stronger was the presence of Estrella in the room. At the end it was almost as though a miniature horse perched on the ring itself as it swung in answer to the heart-wrenching questions.
In 15 minutes the decision was clear. The sadness was just as intense, but the choice was obvious. We decided to spend a few last hours with Estrella, having a party to celebrate their friendship, and prepare Ann for the transition.
Denise and Ann headed for the vet hospital. Richard and I went to buy tea and cookies.
By the time we arrived at the hospital, Ann had Estrella out of the stall visiting with other horses and a pet pig. Apparently the mare had been depressed and in obvious pain over the weekend, but by the time we got there she was bright eyed and alert, paying little attention to her leg and seeming to enjoy the attention and work on her ears and body. I suggested we begin to prepare for her death as our American Indian ancestors might have, and hold the image of her galloping to heavenly pastures, meeting with old friends, and racing free in the wind. By practicing this image ahead of time we could all support Ann in her grief when the mare was put down.
Priscilla Hoback and another of Ann's riding instructors joined us and over the next two hours, like ocean waves breaking on the shore, went in and out of feeling strong and feeling grief.
I think it's important to consciously let our animals go - to let them know we love them - that we're sorry to lose them - but to bless them and wish them well on their journey.
It sure seemed to work. This mare, who should have been in pain, was alert, bright-eyed, interested in the TEAM work we were doing with her, and in what was going on in the vet hospital. Dr. B was wonderfully supportive, asking Ann to let him know when she was ready.
Ann took Estrella out to graze on the sparse blades of green grass pushing out of the scattered patches of snow. It was raw and windy but the last moments of quiet time together were worth bracing against the cold. Ann sat on a bale of hay, alone with the mare, and thought of the magical hours they had spent together.
The sun was disappearing in a typical brilliant New Mexican sunset when Ann gave Dr. B. the nod. We moved away from the entrance to the vet hospital behind some trees. Fed her a little grain and a few carrots, we all worked on her for a few minutes of last contact, and then the needle was injected. Within seconds she lay prone on the waiting earth.
For some time after the heartbeat was silent Ann stayed. Then cut a lock of wither hair to keep as a memory - hair which she had held tight many times as they galloped bareback across the desert or climbed in and out of arroyos on the 6000 acre ranch they had called home.
As we walked away from the bay body lying in the snow, we stopped in awe to look at the sky. In the peach sunset, in the clearest imaginable form, was a horse's head, nose stretched out in racing position, nostrils flaring, eyes flashing, ears and forelock flattened in the wind, followed by enormous peach clouds filling half the southern sky.
We had dinner together that night. Toasted Estrella with champagne drunk from silver-tipped sheep horns, still used by mounted sheep herders in the Mountains of Southern Russia. What could have been a dreadful day turned out to be a gift to all of us involved. The grief was balanced by the richness of the support we all felt and the opportunity of looking at loss and death in another way.
Article used with permission of Linda Tellington-Jones, © TTEAM News International, 1988, Vol 8-1, pp. 2-3