Beginning in May, Nello showed more and more signs of painful arthritis, evidenced mostly be his inability to rise to his legs after lying down. I spoke to the vet several times - a gentle, skilled man who understands the special needs and unique weaknesses of senior horses. I asked him about a horses' ability to mask pain. "Indeed, they can," he sighed over the telephone. "As a prey animal, they have inherited that ability from their forefathers - a visibly weaker animal doesn't last long in the wild. Horses are soldiers that way."
We hoped to make it to next October, so that Nello could enjoy the summer and one more beautiful fall. I tried to prepare myself for our goodbye - an unimaginable parting. I knew every inch of him - his large, bulbous knees, the faded scars from a long-ago accident that criss-crossed his lower legs, the dalmation spots above his hooves, and the splash on his forehead shaped like a baby duck. My rational mind said, he's a horse, he's old, and you've been so lucky. But my heart beat back the coming darkness, still praying for some sort of miracle that would keep this gentle, courageous animal by my side. God loves both of us, right? Maybe he will show us some mercy.
He did. Three weeks ago I went to see Nello at the barn, located five minutes away from my house. I saw him every day of his last three months, walking him, watching him, making sure his hay was sweet and his paddock clean and rock-free. I began talking to him about the future. "I think you're going first," I told him, rubbing his neck. "Wait for me, okay? When I get to where you are, wait for me where I can see you."
This particular day, a Wednesday, Nello ate the red apple I offered, the sweet juice running down the sides of his mouth, his eyes looking off into the distance contemplatively. No creature ever enjoyed a ripe apple the way Nello did. We started to walk around the ring, side by side, as was our habit. I wanted him to flex those achy joints, in the hope that it would lessen arthritis pain. He was, as usual, completely happy, glad to be with me.
Suddenly, he pulled me to the middle of the sand ring. "No," I said, once. He wanted to roll, to scratch his back. He looked at me, flicked his ears, and down he went.
Nello never rose again. He tried once to get up, with a great groan, but soon relaxed down into a resting position, neck stretched out, head lying in the sand. I turned away as I began to try to accept what I had so long feared. I took off the long-sleeve cotton shirt I wore over my tee shirt, and put it under his head. His almond eyes closed in appreciation. Soon, his feet were moving and he was breathing deeply. He was dreaming - of running. I called the vet. "It's time," I whispered, not wanting to wake Nello up.
The vet let me know that it would take him an hour to arrive, and we quickly disconnected. Amazingly, during the middle of the day at a small but busy boarding barn, we were blessedly alone. I used the hour to stroke every part of Nello I could reach, to brush his mane back with my hand and to rub his head gently as he dreamed, his hooves still moving. He awoke several times, at the sound of a truck or another horse snorting, but quickly abandoned the idea of getting to his feet after making a few weak efforts. Enough, his relaxed body lying in the sand ring seemed to say. Enough. I curled my body over his head, my tears dripping onto his velvety ears, and said the Lord's Prayer over him, in reverence, in awe, and in gratefulness for what I had known. I made the sign of the cross on his head.
The vet arrived. My heart began pounding; my tee shirt moved visibly with each beat. I was putting Nello down. He was going on, leaving me behind. The vet clasped my shoulder and said he was sorry in a strangled whisper. I got up and Nello raised his head after me - where are you going, his wide beautiful eyes questioned. The vet motioned me into position. I clasped Nello's large, heavy head between my two hands and nodded to the vet. As the syringe pricked Nello's neck I began talking - as I has many times before when he got a vaccine - about how good and fine and brave a boy he was. I told him how perfect he was, and reminded him to wait for me at the gate of paradise. Then, we would ride the far country together. We would run.
Nello died a few minutes later, painlessly and at peace. In death it was as if he had turned to stone - his beauty was motionless and empty. His spirit had indeed flown. I stumbled away from his body and out of the ring, his dirty lead rope, my shirt that smelled of him, and the carrots he never got to finish all in my hands.
Friends and family surrounded me immediately. I was showered with well wishes, gifts, cards; every common expression of sympathy. I was given a necklace with Nello's name engraved on it, which I treasure. The kindness of friends and family - particularly my husband - has truly gotten me through. By losing Nello, I have seen how good and caring people are. It has made the loss bearable.
Still, at night, I hug his bridle and beckon him into my dreams. He has yet to come. I shut my eyes as tears slide out and imagine us on one of our rides - running down a wooded trail, his neck reaching out as he flies, always wanting to beat the other horses - wanting to win. There wasn't a lot of winning in his life prior to me - he was an abused carriage horse who had never had his own person. With him I found adventure, freedom, and a once in a lifetime partner. I hope with me Nello found out just how good he was. That was important to him - being a good boy.
I miss you, Nello. Please, come into my dreams. I am waiting.
My "Nello necklace" from my friends.