In my book, “The Infinite Bond”, I wrote about my first Arabian horse, Tysheyn, and his willingness to always give his best despite the harsh training he had been exposed to before I acquired him. This lovely chestnut-colored gelding had an unbelievable work ethic, never tiring or refusing to do the job asked of him.
Ty was first of all an English Pleasure show horse, competing and winning in Arabian shows. He had a bold, ground-covering trot, and a solid, flat-footed walk. His canter was bold as well, and he had a tendency to be too energetic at times. He had a natural “look at me” presence that transformed him from an ordinary-looking horse to a brilliant competitor in the show ring. However, the old “demons” surrounding his former training occasionally surfaced at inopportune times.
During one very competitive English Pleasure class, Ty was spectacular. I’d never had such a good ride on him. He was full of energy, with his ears perked way forward and his eyes wide open and expressive. I never carried a whip with me, as a lot of exhibitors did. The whip was never used to inflict harm or pain onto a show horse (at least not in the ring!) but was carried for looks or to “bump” the horse into paying attention. I didn’t care about being fashionable and I certainly didn’t need to jazz up my horse. Ty was deathly afraid of whips and there was no way I would subject him to that kind of fear.
I noticed the judge looking at us a lot. I was the only amateur-status rider in a ring full of big-name, professional trainers. I tried not to focus on the judge as I was already nervous and excited to be having such a great ride on Ty. When the ringmaster signaled the announcer to call for a “reverse”, meaning all the horses were to change directions, Ty and I were next to a high-strung black Arabian. I trotted Ty a few steps ahead to put adequate space between us. Just as the black horse turned the opposite direction, the rider cracked his whip against the wooden railing of the arena. I heard the loud rap a split-second before Ty reared up and tried to run off. Not prepared for his violent reaction, I was unseated, sliding gracefully off the saddle, landing on my feet, still holding onto the reins. The announcer quickly commanded, “ride at ease” until the ringmaster could help me back into the saddle. The judge walked over and asked me if I was okay. I told him what had happened, then he shocked me by telling me he had us placed first in the class until the little incident happened. I was even more shocked when he awarded us a nice third place ribbon, as I assumed we’d be disqualified.
As Ty got older and was less competitive in the larger shows, I started taking classical dressage lessons, participating in clinics, and eventually in dressage competitions. In dressage, the horse and rider are completing a specified pattern with different movements (such as a half-pass or a ten-meter circle) at various points in the arena. Judges give each movement a number rating, based on its clarity and precision, similar to how a gymnast might be judged. The points are then averaged at the end. To me, it was the most objective way to judge, as there was only one horse in the arena at a time, and it was plainly visible to the spectators if the horse didn’t execute a movement correctly. Ty did very well in open dressage shows, which was surprising because Arabians weren’t usually “accepted” as a typical breed in the dressage horse world.
When Ty was twenty-two years of age, I took him to his last dressage clinic. He was incredibly fit for his years, and someone at that clinic asked me how old he was. I replied, “how old do you think he is?”, and she said, “Eight?” That made my day, especially when she said I had to be lying. Ty loved the attention everyone at the clinics gave him; he was sometimes the only Arabian in the barn amongst Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods. After arriving back at the stable, it took him a while to limber up enough to step off of the trailer, so I contemplated retiring him altogether.
Gary and I got married a few months after Ty’s last clinic. Since I was busy with the love of my life, settling into a new home, and finding other priorities for our money, I officially retired him. Though I still saddled Ty up and rode around the farm, it wasn’t the same for him. The rides were sporadic and short enough he didn’t get a true workout. I noticed his back started to sag a little and he developed little white hairs on his muzzle. The muscle definition he had in his hindquarters also faded. What I noticed more than anything was his demeanor. He sometimes appeared withdrawn from us, although he still interacted as usual with Ibn and Stormy. I just assumed it was his age.
Over the winter, Ty aged more than I revealed in the book. He almost looked sad at times, unless I got the saddle out, because he knew we’d go for a ride. Darn, the horse still wanted to be ridden, even though he was considered elderly in human years! We had some pretty challenging hills on the farm, so I took it very easy with him, though he wanted to tackle just about any kind of terrain. I cherished those rides on my old guy just as much as he did. Eventually I quit riding him altogether, mainly due to time constraints. Also, I focused more on Stormy, since he needed more experience getting used to “scary” things in the timber.
So did Ty start aging faster because he “lost” his purpose in life? Did he feel he didn’t have as much “worth” because I decided to retire him? How could I have made him feel more needed? Those questions still haunt me today, as I realize part of who he was related directly to his “job,” which was serving his rider(s).
I know of a woman who has a Search & Rescue dog, “Joey,” who is going through a period of depression and lethargy because his arthritis is too advanced for him to go on extended searches. The woman is creating new things for Joey to concentrate on, like having him retrieve objects for her, to keep him engaged.
We had a barn cat, Blackie, who was extremely wild when we moved onto the acreage. Blackie was a fantastic mother, raising litters of kittens every year. Some of our best house cats were kittens born to her. I told Gary when Blackie gets old and can’t have kittens anymore, she’s going to lose her purpose. She really loves having babies. That summer, she miscarried a litter and ended up with an internal infection. I couldn’t treat her, because she was not tame enough to couldn’t handle her, but she recovered from her illness regardless. However, she never got pregnant again. I noticed little white hairs showing up all over her face and body. We had no idea how old she really was. A few months later, she disappeared, never to be found. In my mind, she gave up on life because she couldn’t have babies. As strange as it may seem, I truly believe Blackie lost her purpose.
Think of your animals and what their purpose is: protector, companion, teacher, confidante? I’ll bet you can determine what it is.