The Heart of our Herd
Orion the Hunter stood bright and bold, holding court over the entire sky. His presence was comforting, and yet his belt and sword served as stark reminders that spiritual armor would be necessary on this most unexpected of nights. The timing seemed terrible, and yet perfectly planned, for what we were about to encounter. We were crying out to God for mercy and divine intervention, and though it seemed, at times, as if we were all alone out there in the openness of the pasture, He was paying close attention to the details.
We had just returned from a family birthday party, where love and laughter had given us strength. Our son was with us, and it actually crossed my mind that there was a reason. He studies so much that going with us to feed the horses is a luxury he can’t often afford.
Arriving at the barn, with less than a half hour of daylight left, I was happy to see every horse but Judah.
She hadn’t been herself for a few days, but each weird symptom seemed somewhat explainable. After all, it was Judah and she was the most needy, yet resilient, horse in the herd.
She was our problem child…allergic to flies…overweight…and prone to founder spring and winter. There was no stall door she couldn’t tear down, nor a grazing muzzle she couldn’t get off. If one presented her with even the slightest resistance, Judah would convince another horse to help her get it off. I’m still not sure how much we spent on lost grazing muzzles. And, somewhere out there is a beautiful brown leather halter with “Judah Marie” engraved on a gold nameplate. She only wore it about a half day and we never found it.
Her noticeable absence at feeding time most likely meant she was still out foraging for late October grass, but would soon come running to the sound of my whistle. Dad taught me that as a child, and it has served me well. When she didn’t show up, our son volunteered to go get her.
The next thing we heard was, “Judah is down!” I felt completely calm, as I quickly walked across the little rickety bridge and out to the place where we would spend the next six hours. I had to be. A horse can’t stay down for long, and every decision would matter. My husband and son were both wise in the way they would help guide me.
As we approached Judah, the loud wails of a coyote pack pierced the silent sanctity of our situation. I checked the area around her, and there were no signs she had been down for long, but clearly the coyotes already knew. We decided we needed my truck for light and to keep them at bay, but more importantly we needed doses of Bannamine and Bute, the two staples in every equine first aid kit. One is an anti-inflammatory, the other for pain. Again, I felt oddly calm as I went for everything we needed, reminding myself if there were ever a time to start praising the Lord, it would be now. The thought went through my head, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the Name of the Lord.” But, as the words surfaced, the tears fell. I took a deep breath and pressed on up the hill past the barn.
When I got back with everything we thought we would need, we called five vets and an emergency animal hospital. We only reached one. But it was the one!
The veterinarian on call at Tennessee’s largest equine hospital was Judah’s first vet. He was the vet who had taken care of her ten years earlier, when she first came to live with us. He’s the vet who tended to her when she worked with me at a kid’s camp and had to stay in tiptop shape. He’s the vet I had requested last summer for annual checkups, but was told he’s a breeding specialist now, and his time is much too limited.
But on this night, of all nights, he was the one on call, and we believe he is the one God sent. Pleading prayers and shouts of praise were intermingled, even though he warned us that another equine emergency was ahead of ours. He assured us he would get there as quickly as he could.
While we waited, Judah took the medicine, drank water from a bottle, allowed us to hold her, and endured our tears. There was a lot of time to think as we waited. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for King David, when he was a boy. He couldn’t call a vet. But he still wasn’t out there alone.
We covered her with my dad’s old saddle blanket and kept her warm. Once I knew she wasn’t suffering from colic, I fed her handfuls of whole oats and sweet feed, a treat she was never allowed until this night.
The other horses came by to encourage her and groom her. I’d like to say Judah fought hard to get up, but there were times of trying, times when she just wanted to rest, and times she wanted to eat. We will always laugh, a little, remembering that she was actually grazing as she lay on the ground, determined not to miss a meal. That was our Judah.
When the vet arrived in the wee hours of the morning, he told us she had been sick far longer than we knew. Although he couldn’t be certain, he suspected a disease called EPM. We had never heard of it. I immerse myself in the study and care of our horses, but here I was, helpless, ridden with guilt, and making ridiculous excuses in defense of myself.
I was the one who waited. I was the one who, earlier in the week, thought she would shake it off I was the one treating each symptom, and not seeing them as a conglomeration of a bigger, more serious condition. I now know it’s a difficult disease to diagnose, as the symptoms do mimic other health problems. But, here was Judah, fighting for her life… because of me. Yeah, I know, guilt wants to take root in my heart, while everyone says don’t blame yourself; but I did, and I do, and I’m working on it.
The vet tried hard to save her. The first time he got her up on her feet, we were once again shouting praises to the Lord. But you could tell by looking into her eyes that she was disoriented. We tried to steady her, but she went down.
He didn’t give up.
A perfectly timed, coordinated effort had her up on her feet a second time, and walking in circles. But as soon as she stopped, to try and get her bearings, there was no way the four of us could steady a nine-hundred-pound horse in the middle of an open field.
She went down again. As we saw her sweet little face hit the ground, and saw the look in her eyes, we knew in reality she was already gone, but we still had to make oneof the most agonizing decisions of our lives.
Gratefully, a clock ticking toward daylight did not control the vet’s compassion. He walked away and waited patiently while the three of us held her, kissed her, and cried out in absolute agony at the very thought of losing her.
Judah wasn’t an expensive purebred horse with papers; in fact we got her for free. But there was no amount of money that any of us would have ever taken for her.
She’s been described as almost “human like” in her love and willingness to give of herself. She was ferociously protective and yet extremely gentle. You could ride her bareback, bridle-less, and backwards. Anyone could ride her. We trusted her completely and she never once let us down. She was the heart and soul of our little horse herd and her spirit is completely irreplaceable. It’s still so hard to comprehend.
We didn’t want to sleep; it would have been too much like letting go. So we stayed up the rest of the morning, three cords of a strand not easily broken. We laughed and cried and laughed again. Judah would practically take your hand off to get a treat, but then put her head gently on your shoulder and fall asleep. Counting how many lives she impacted is impossible. We’ve tried to estimate how many times she just took someone for a ride but there were so many. We have release forms and photos of people we don’t even remember; but also wonderful memories of all those we do.
She gave a six-year-old autistic boy his first ride, taught a military war veteran, who was terrified of horses, that he had nothing to fear.
She provided a warm, soft coat for a blind child’s first touch.
And brought a few moments of happiness to a mother who had lost her daughter.
She was mischievous the day our son brought his girlfriend to ride for the first time. But once Judah realized the challenge was met, and accepted, she submitted in the sweet and obedient way we had all seen many times.
On our son’s last ride, Judah reminded him she was still fast enough to get his attention. And though my husband and I were temporarily lost on our last trail ride, she was fully prepared to go the distance.
I will always remember the last time I rode her…just a few days earlier… I had spontaneously hopped on for one quick trip around the pasture. Even though she must have already been hurting, she was still ready and willing.
Judah is buried in the upper corner of the pasture. A dear friend, who knew how difficult it would be, took several hours off work to help me choose the perfect place for her to rest. There’s plenty of sun and just enough shade. But, as I walked away, I wasn’t sure if I would ever, could ever, ride again. My aunt, who was responsible for us getting Judah in the first place, cried with me, but reminded me that I didn’t know what God had up ahead.
She was right.
When I returned to the grave a couple days later, with a teenage girl who usually rides Judah’s mom, all the other horses were standing there. Twenty-five acres and they were all in a semi-circle, right there with Judah. It was such an incredible sight.
Just as we were about to leave…the neighbor’s cows got out. We tried to gather them up on foot, but when all efforts failed, despite even saying there would be absolutely no riding on this day, we jumped on bareback and herded cattle. The next hour was absolutely epic and exactly what we needed.
I hope the neighbor doesn’t mind that God let his cows out.
Saying goodbye is never easy, whether it’s a family member, a friend, a beloved animal, or even an enemy. There is absolutely no satisfaction in the death of an enemy. The more people who die, the more animals we lose, the more we look forward to the return of our Savior riding a very alive, and quite spirited, white horse.
Every morning before my feet hit the floor, I try to read the day’s devotional from Sarah Young’s book, Jesus Calling. The day Judah died, the reading was titled, “Lie Down in Green Pastures.” The next day it was, “I am God with you.” And, the day after that, “Come to Me.”
I did come to Him…desperately looking for answers…wanting another chance to get it right…just hiding under the shelter of His wings. He led me to the book, “Suffering is Never for Nothing,” by Elizabeth Elliot. Her story will quickly put things in perspective, and one of her writings has stayed with me. I’ve already been able to share it with several other people who are experiencing their own losses.
“The deepest things I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering.
And, out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things
I know about God.” ~EE
Although helpless as it may feel, it is comforting to know the final decision in life and death belongs to God. And because it is his decision, it is the right one.
I will learn to lay down the guilt, the regret, and the second-guessing. I know He is with us now and he was there that peaceful cool and breezy evening…when Judah closed her eyes for the last time… under the night watch of Orion.
“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:13-17 NIV
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