It is completely dark. There is a new moon, and clouds are obscuring the starry night sky. Snow rains down. I am grateful for the warm, waterproof blanket under Judy. We are in the middle of the back pasture. It is sometime after midnight, though during sacred moments like this I lose all sense of time.
I called out the cavalry earlier this evening. Still, no amount of muscle, ingenuity, or effort can make a horse stand if she’s not trying.
Judy wasn’t trying.
We rolled her onto a horse blanket and covered her with another. She sat up to eat warm bran mash and apples, and drank some warm water. It seemed as if the danger had passed. Later, she even stood up, albeit briefly.
Judy has what you might call asthma and she had an attack. That’s why she was down to begin with, plus she’s old and frail. So she’s just worn out. If she would only stand up, I think I could get her better…
By now the calvary has gone back to their lives. Even the chickens have gone to sleep. Domino and Quicker, Judy’s adoring elderly companions are standing quietly nearby. Her head is in my lap.
Judy has been here at Indraloka Animal Sanctuary for a few years now. I suspect she was a lesson horse for much of her life. She is small, but more importantly, she is patient and kind. Very good with children.
Judy is a bit slower to open up than the others. When visitors come to the sanctuary, other horses eagerly come forward for scratches and treats, but Judy stays back. She loves a long grooming session from someone she knows and trusts. And she appreciates my silliness. I often see a glimmer in her eyes when I sing one of my made-up songs.
She’s not flashy, and doesn’t have the dishy head or athletic build that horse people generally deem beautiful. She is not a pure breed. She’s just a broken down horse enjoying her last days quietly. I think she is lovely.
In fact, I am wild about her.
I admit, this has been a good winter with few losses. At Indraloka, we purposefully take in old, injured, and sickly animals knowing they will end their earthly lives in our care. Having as many chronically ill and elderly animals as we do, we lose a lot. Especially in winter. We view caring for them through the end as a sacred act. How we face loss, how we face death, is critical to how we live and how we love. And if we truly want to help animals in need, we must be willing to be with them through the end.
For me, the first sensation is usually, “No, please. No.”
With focus and intention, I push away the fear and invite love in. As it does in the moment you accept you have a painful wound, the healing process begins.
I breathe slowly and deeply.
I have learned the hard way that if I remain mired in heaviness, trying to grasp at my loved ones to keep them with me, it always makes their death experience more difficult. Staying peaceful and light-filled is better for me and the animals.
I know I have to be clear and focused, not just for my own mental health, but because staying in the ordinary grasping mindset would cause Judy a more difficult death. It is important to provide a peaceful, gentle, loving environment to die in. So, repeatedly, I have to push back the accusing thought that I should have spared her and had her euthanized sooner. I remind myself that I am doing the best I can. I truly believed it was not time yet. I believed she had a chance, and I wanted to give it to her.
Light, loving humor tends to put the dying animal at ease. It helps to clarify that there is nothing to be afraid of. Judy is facing this impending loss bravely. She is calm, for the most part. Every few moments she cranes her neck to kiss me, looking straight into my eyes.
So here I am, spending the dark, winter night in the pasture, singing to my horse while she dies.
You are the horsey that I’ve always dreamed of,
I knew it from the start.
I saw your face and that’s the last I’ve seen of my heart…
At some point, Judy’s smell changes very slightly, and her eyes cloud over. She is beginning her transition. I tell her how much I love her, and how happy I am that she is at the threshold of a wonderful new beginning.
I exhale a cleansing breath of love.
A herd of deer has gathered at the edges of the pasture, compassionately joining our vigil.
Finally, it is four am. In a farming community like ours, people start their days before sunrise. I get back on the phone to find help: a vet to euthanize her, a back hoe to bury her, and a friend to keep me grounded as she lets her spirit fly free.
The kind young farm vet jumps in his car the instant he gets the call, nothing but compassion in his voice. My next call wakes my friend from a sound sleep, yet he too comes right away. We won’t need the back hoe until later.
Judy listens quietly as I make the calls. Fear and grief creep back in, and together we banish them with love.
My friend arrives. His deep, even breath and strong presence deepens our calm. He begins to gently massage Judy’s painful legs.
The vet comes next and after examining her says quietly, “For everything there is a time.” His words fall like icicles breaking in the silent moment before dawn.
The vet is kneeling in front of her now, with the shots drawn up and in his shirt pocket. Judy looks up at me as I cradle her head. My friend keeps his loving, healing hands on her. The other two horses walk over and kiss her good-bye while Wax On, the cat, dances one last pirouette on Judy’s ribs.
Her body begins to convulse; her spirit is taking wing.
As night dissolves into day, light slowly rises from Judy’s body. It remains just above us, and then melts into the morning sun.
The circle is complete.