Only One Sails

We buried a horse today.

Not a random knot head. But a favorite horse. A part of the family. So, my world changed today with his passing.

My folks bought Sails five years ago, thinking he would make a good heeling prospect for my older boys. Sylvis didn’t really get along with Sails, because Sylvis was too impatient. Sails bucked him off during their first ride.

Cyris did some heeling with the horse, and really liked him. But he seemed tentative to get into the steer on the turn. We came to the conclusion that at some point in his life, he had had a bad wreck. So, Cy switched ends and started heading. That worked out much better. He tried to start him on calf roping, but he just didn’t like the rope in his face. Again, I think he had been in a roping wreck.

Sails was a big, deep gelding, with plenty of power to turn a steer. At first glance, there really wasn’t anything special about this horse. He was a red roan, with tri color mane and an expressive face. He was a gorgeous specimen. But physicality doesn’t determine more than beauty to me. It doesn’t factor into my criteria for becoming a favorite horse.

Those go beyond what is visible. And he had plenty of those traits.

He was a gentle creature, never at the top of the pecking order. Usually at the bottom. He didn’t stand up for himself. But in the last year, he started defending his favorite pen-mate, Whiskey. He and she were buddies. Inseparable. In fact, he was a hit with all the ladies. I think it was because he was so mellow. But he did get protective of his little harem and didn’t want the other geldings around the girls.

Sails had heart. Before my folks bought him, he had several owners, most only for a few months. I never could figure out why so many people gave up on him so quickly. When he got to our family, he was underweight by about a hundred pounds. And he had a defeated look to his eyes, almost as if he expected to be shuttled somewhere else in a few weeks. Within a few months, he had gained what he needed, and then some, thanks to my dad. And he was perkier. The whole time we had him, he gave his all any time we asked him to do something. About three years ago, he ended up with an abscessed tooth, which had to be removed surgically. It took about a year for him to recover.

Sails was a big chicken. That may seem odd to count that as a reason to make a horse a favorite, but for such a big guy, he was scared of everything. And then, after he spooked, he seemed to laugh at himself for being so silly.

I loved riding this horse. I felt safe on top of him. And was he smooth. His trot barely moved you in the saddle. And his lope was like a rocking horse. He was the one I took to my breakaway clinic in March. You could run reining patterns on him, chase cattle, or rope. Garris was getting him ready for reined cow horse events for this fall. Their last lesson was awesome, and Garris is now questioning if he wants to pursue that event without Sails.

You might be wondering what caused his death. A belly ache. That’s a simplistic answer, but it’s true. Saturday afternoon, I noticed him lying down, getting up, and kicking at his belly. I watched him for a little while, then gave him some Prevail (banamine). I waited an hour, and he went back to eating. So, I figured it was just some gas and didn’t worry about it. I put him in his stall that night, because it was supposed to rain. Then next morning, his stall was devoid of any fresh manure. And he had pawed a trench in front of the door.

Sunday morning, eight a.m., I called the vet clinic, knowing I would get the machine. I left my message, set my time for half an hour, and waited. And watched my horse.

If my vet didn’t call within thirty minutes, I’d call his cell phone. Having that number is something I appreciate, so I don’t abuse it. I have only called him on his cell once before, for a cut-foot emergency. Just as I was dialing, he called. I explained the situation, and he said he’d be right out.

He did a rectal exam and found him severely impacted. His turds were terribly dry. But he had gut sounds. So, he tubed the horse with water then oil then more water, all he could tolerate. But there was an obstruction somewhere. He did what he could, offered medicine with strict instructions, and basically told me if he didn’t get unbound by the morning the only option was surgery. To the tune of about $12,000.

Now, I loved this horse. But I can’t justify spending $12, 000 on a surgery that MIGHT relieve the problem. There is only about a 60 percent chance of it working, and whether your horse survives the surgery or not, you still pay the fee. And there is no guarantee that the surgery will return a horse to its previous level of performance.

So, I followed the instructions. I medicated him as directed. I offered him water every time I went the barn – every two hours all night. And I prayed for a bowel movement. I never thought I’d ever want to smell or see fresh horse turds. But in those hours, I would have wept to see him lift his tail and push out some poo.

It didn’t happen. At five a.m., he was standing up, his head alert and he drank. I was so sure he was turning the corner. When we went out an hour later, he was stretched out and groaning. I gave him the last dose of xylzine and ace, then I texted the vet. I wanted to chat with him before he got to the clinic. In my heart, I knew what needed to be done, but I wasn’t ready to actual say it.

He came out within the hour.

The harder phone call was to my parents. I hadn’t mentioned the belly ache, because I was sure he was going to survive it. They didn’t make it over in time to say goodbye to Sails. It took them about two hours to get to my house, about a half hour after the vet had already left.

We won’t know what actually caused Sails’ death. It could have been a twisted gut from something as simple as rolling in the dirt to get flies off his back. It could have been a fatty tumor on his intestines that caused a bowl to form, making it hard, then impossible, to move grass and hay through. It could have been something else, like a cancer. Or he could have swallowed a piece of twine from the pasture.

No, I don’t throw my twine on the ground. But previous owners did. Not just the big orange kind, but the tiny little strings from round bales. We are forever picking them up, but they are embedded in the ground. It would be easy for a horse to eat some strands of that and have it bind everything up.

All we know is that he couldn’t move his bowel. Ultimately bacteria built up and started leaking into his gut. He wasn’t bloated yet, but it was a matter of time. The craziest part of this whole thing was that he had gurgling gut sounds even this morning. Nothing about this presented as it should have.

I asked the vet if I should have called him Saturday night. He told me, based on what I explained, that he wouldn’t have come out. It sound like a generic case of colic that resolved itself.

I stayed hopeful until this morning, when I looked into Sails’ eyes. He was fading away. He was grinding his teeth, a sign of pain, and his back legs were twitching. His body was breaking down. He was giving up. It was time for me to let him go with as much dignity as we could allow him. Any faithful companion deserves that much.

So, Garris and I hugged each other as we nodded for the vet to give Sails some pain medication. We needed to get him out of the barn and to the big pasture, if possible. It was asking a tremendous task of this horse. But he did it. Did I mention this horse had heart? He walked himself to his final resting place. He chose where to stop once we got to the pasture, because he wanted a few bites of grass. Even in his last moments, he gave us a laugh. And the vet allowed Sails a few minutes to munch. He explained what would happen, and he asked if we were ready.

I nodded, of course, but I wasn’t ready. I had said my goodbyes to Sails before the vet arrived, because I knew. But it wasn’t enough. I kissed his forehead, told him he was a good boy and that I loved him. And I told him it was okay. Garris hugged him, said goodbye, then we stepped back and hung onto each other.


Putting down a horse is not an easy task. You have a thousand pound animal who is in pain and dying. You have to get that animal from standing to lying. It isn’t gentle. It isn’t graceful. Frankly, it’s a shocking and awful thing to have to witness. In fact, it’s heart wrenching. I’ve watched it before, and I really didn’t want to this time. But Garris needed to. It was part of his process of saying goodbye. So, I watched the vet give the first shot, which dropped Sails to the ground with a thud. I watched as he gave the second shot, to ultimately end the life of this beautiful animal that I loved so deeply.

I had hoped he would just lie down in the grass so that it wouldn’t be scary or traumatic for him. Sails was already dying. His gums were turning black. He hadn’t drank in hours. And he hadn’t passed any bowel for over a day. Something was fatally wrong. Short of an ungodly expensive surgery, he was out of options. But I think he knew we were trying to help him. He seemed resigned to his fate and didn’t fight anything. I only hope he didn’t have any fear when the shot hit his system.

I held Garris and let him cry. I told him that it was okay. That Sails was okay. We heard the sucking sound that horses make when they are releasing the last air in their lungs. An awful sound that you never want to hear. I told Garris it was okay. It was normal. I told him when the sound stopped that Sails wasn’t in pain any longer. And he had been in pain for two days.

When I looked at my Sails, he was dead. His eyes were still open, staring vacant into the sun. His big body was still, only his mane moving with the wind. I told him again that I was sorry and I would miss him. And then my stomach lurched, and I threw up. Wretched. I couldn’t believe he had to die.

Then I called Joe, who has a back hoe, and asked if he could bury my horse. Luckily, on this day, he was able to come right over. Within an hour and a half, Sails was beneath the ground. He was at peace.

Garris piled some big rocks on top of his grave and is planning on etching a stone for him. I’m so thankful Sails was able to walk far enough that we could bury him in the pasture, within sight of the house and the arena. It feels like he’s still with us this way. Some might think that morbid, but this way he’s close enough for me to walk out and sit and talk to him when I’m feeling lonely for him.

I couldn’t watch the actual burial. Garris needed to. But I just couldn’t. So, my dad and I sat on the front step and just talked until it was done.

I’ve cried all day. I can’t stop. This is the part that sucks about loving your animals. When you have to let them go, it tears out a part of your heart. In time, it will get easier. The numbing pain in my chest will get better. The hole in the corrals will start to feel normal. And I’ll start riding someone else.

But for now, I’m allowing myself, and Garris, to wallow a bit in our grief.

He didn’t want to do anything today. But I gentle forced him to ride the two young ones. Remy is two and bucked me off last week. Hard. So, she needed another ride. And Cougar is four.

Garris fought me a bit, but once he was horseback on Remy, I watched his mood lighten. He had a good ride on her, and on Cougar. And it was good for both of us to get out of the house. It was a gloomy day, to suit our moods. And it’s finally raining.

I didn’t force too many tasks or chores today. Frankly, I didn’t feel like doing anything either. Tomorrow, life will have to return to some form of normal.

Even the horses know something isn’t right. Earlier, when Sails was lying down, two of the mares refused to come into the barn. And Whiskey is looking for him. She actually looks sad. Some people say that animals don’t feel but I disagree. She is looking for her friend. Tonight, when I went out to check everybody, Peppy sniffed my coat. Then she kept sniffing it, licking it gently, then rubbed her lips on it. I realized that I was wearing that coat earlier in the day with Sails. I’m sure she could smell him on the jacket. And then the tears started all over again.

As I turn out the lights in the house tonight, a type of peace settles over my thoughts. Although I hate the outcome of the day, I know Sails couldn’t have lasted on his own for more than a few hours. Those hours would have been brutally painful for him as his body shut down and he struggled to breathe. As it was, with pain meds, his stomach muscles twitched. His legs moved. It was agony watching him.

I will always wonder if I made the right decision to forego surgery. I will always wonder if I should have called on Saturday. I will always wonder exactly what caused this in a vital and healthy horse.

But Sails knew we loved him. The last five years, he had a home, not just a temporary living arrangement. I made sure to brush him and comb out that gorgeous tail and mane before the vet arrived. And we kept part of his tail, to put with a picture of him. I took pictures of him. We told him how handsome he was. And how much we were going to miss him. I hope he took some comfort in our actions.

The corrals are little less colorful tonight. They are a little less quirky. And a lot less Sails. After all, there’s only one of him, and the world is a little less without him in it.


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