If you asked me to tell you about my horse, my mind would go instantly to my favorite memories of him: the feeling of weightlessness as he jumped above the standards, warming up for a night class at Capital Challenge. Or a moment of glory and pride after we won the junior jumper classic at Pin Oak. Kissing his nose as I held his head in my arms.
But if I were to dwell on these memories, to let them take up space in my mind instead of pushing them out, I’d find that each of these sweet moments has a much darker, much sadder side.
Capital Challenge is where I first learned of his heart murmur (foretelling health issues to come). The Pin Oak classic was the last one we’d ever jump together, and the only reason he didn’t try to nip at me (like he usually playfully would) when I went to kiss his nose was because he was so sick he couldn’t stand up.
When I think of my horse, it’s hard not to harbor resentment and sadness for the fact that each of my most beautiful memories has a painful counterpart.
At only 13 years old, Chris died on December 14, 2020. The rotation of his coffin bones became too severe after four years of battling insulin dysregulation - a condition that began after a steroid injection in the summer of 2016. I am heartbroken and feel so incredibly lost without the horse whose soul was the perfect match for mine, yet I find comfort in knowing that he can finally and truly rest.
Chris wearing his Soft Ride boots.
For the last five years of his life, not a single day (genuinely, not one) went by that I didn’t worry it would be his last. To be free from that is, selfishly, I admit, my greatest relief, but I’ve carried a toxic mix of anger and sadness in my heart for that which initially set Chris’s suffering in motion. His first laminitic episode was, according to trusted veterinarians, medically induced following that steroid injection. This is where I would encourage you to remember back to your introductory statistics courses in high school or college: correlation does not necessarily imply causation, but then again, the inference to be drawn here is neither illogical nor far-fetched.
The injection was characteristic of a destructive program designed only to mask horses’ pain rather than truly address it. At the peak of my junior career (and the apex of my susceptibility to influence from adults I admired at the time), I was conditioned to treat horses as if they are dispensable, like a piece of equipment rather than an animal. Then and now, this idea is abhorrent to me, but it’s too often a way of thinking that young riders are influenced to subscribe to under the guise of advancing their riding careers. Those young riders grow up into adult riders, or even worse, trainers who continue the cycle, and the horses are the ones who pay the price.
The culture of mechanizing our equine athletes is often subtle but sometimes not, and as a whole is vicious, pervasive, and deeply ingrained in the psychology of the sport.
Once we learned of Chris’s laminitis, euthanasia was suddenly a card on the table; not because it was the humane thing to do, but because he no longer fit neatly into a training program. I’m so glad I didn’t listen. He still had lots of hacks, a good amount of jumps, and a handful of shows left, as he lived for five more years. And on that journey, I found some of the best, most wonderful aspects of the equine industry, like the dedicated veterinary professionals, farriers, trainers, and grooms that did all they could to help him recover.
My anger and sadness have not subsided, but rather taken on a new purpose. That is to share a message: horses are not machines. We must push back against any treatment, verbiage, or mindset that says otherwise. We must claim the responsibility we owe them - before, during, and after their ‘productive’, athletic years. Even if your junior jumper can no longer jump, you must do everything you can to keep him happy, healthy, and comfortable. He relies on you.
To my fellow young equestrians: Do you ride at a barn that values the life of your horse above his ability to win?
Are you working with a trainer who genuinely cares about the wellbeing (and not just the successful performance) of your equine partner?
Does your trainer speak about your horse respectfully? (That will directly impact the way you treat, view, and speak about your horse.)
Do the people who care for your equine partner conduct themselves as if they’re aware of this enormous responsibility?
If you answered no to any of these questions, I’m not judging, and I know these situations can be more complicated than they seem — in the summer of 2016, I was in your position. But I do have a follow-up question: Do you want your horse in a program that places more value on him as a piece of equipment rather than an inherently worthy animal? Do you want yourself in that program?
Young equestrians like myself (and possibly you, reader) are the future of the sport. It is our responsibility to consciously change the current framework for how we view our equine athletes into something more ethical and humane. Every ride, every jump, every trot step on these animals is a privilege, but we too often treat it as anything but. Showing respect and love for our incredible partners does not detract from the athleticism required to succeed in the sport; rather, it’s the rejection of a seriously flawed culture that runs rampant, particularly in the upper levels of the industry.
I consider myself unbelievably lucky to have had this time with such an incredible animal. Most of it was borrowed. This January, it was six years since I first brought Chris home to Texas. I’ll never forget the overwhelming sense of peace I felt when I first saw him and registered that he was my horse (thank you, Mom and Dad). I had no idea how my life would change over the next several years.
Every second I got with Chris saved my life (at times quite literally) and for that, I am forever grateful. Even when he couldn’t stand on his own four feet because he was in so much pain, he extended to me a profoundly healing kindness and pure love in the way only the most selfless of souls can. He didn’t have to do that. Thank you, Chris, for everything.
Feature photo by Madi Johnson. Inset photos courtesy of the author.