∪♥Espresso for Espresso♥∪
I bought her on an impulse, an afterthought really. She wasn’t on the website or really even for sale, for that matter. Her name was ‘Hot Coco’. Timid and a little high strung, it wouldn’t be long before she became known as ‘Espresso’, a name that more aptly fit her personality and style, and at the same time resonated with my coffee addiction. She was a bay with two white socks and a cute little white snip on her nose. Her eyes were deep and kind. When I whispered to the wiry old Mexican wrangler, “Which one of these horses is your favorite to ride?” without hesitation he pointed to her. She was standing docilely in a dirt pen under a shade tree. He said, “I’d take her above all the rest”. Squinting into the sun, I frowned at the thought of owning another mare. She was half dozing while swishing flies with her long, black tail; and I noted that she was not nearly as pretty as the others. “Why?” I asked the hired hand. He replied simply, “Because she has heart.”
She was a leggy eight year old Tennessee Walker in the prime of her life. Her shiny coat was as dark and rich as her new name implied. Later I learned that, unlike the other horses, she wasn’t registered. Therefore, I was able to purchase her for a good deal less than Blaze, the Kentucky Mountain horse that I had travelled all the way to Santa Fe to pick up. “I’m sure it was just a fluke,” I thought as I recalled that she was the horse that had stumbled and fallen all the way to her knees the first day that I rode her. “With a bit of luck she will be a shining star rather than a star gazer,” I thought, amused. Even though, she had fallen into my hands quite accidentally from the heavens that day, it would not be the first or the last time I would see her fall.
Autumn announced itself suddenly that year as do most seasons in the high Rocky Mountains. Hot days coupled with unseasonably clear, cold nights that dipped near freezing, resulted in a much earlier fall than usual. It just so happened that it was also one of the most beautiful I could remember. The high desert landscape was accented with golden yarrow, silver tasseled sage and bouquets of delicate purple asters strewn among the pinion pines. The extreme temperature swings not only presented autumn in all its glory but also brought distress to the horses in the mountain valleys.
My new mare was a timid soul and even though she wasn’t perfect, she didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She may not have been beautiful at first sight but before long I absolutely fell in love with simply watching her move as she proudly pranced beside Blaze. Her gait was fast and she was high stepping, able to cover twice the ground that Blaze could without breaking her stride. While Blaze, on the other hand, was lazy and broke all the rules; he was definitely more attuned to rougher terrain then she. Oftentimes, as she pranced along beside us so magnificently I thought, surely in a former life, this horse belonged to a debutante living in the grandeur of one of the Southern plantations. Just about the time that thought crossed my mind, she would have a little misstep and stumble. Almost embarrassed for her, I’d smile and shake my head thinking that one of those southern debutants, riding side saddle in all her finery, just might have ended up in a mud puddle when she least expected it.
Blaze was Espresso’s only pasture mate. He was a ‘proud cut’ gelding, meaning he remained a stallion longer than is usual for stock that wouldn’t be bred. With some of the remaining temperament and independence of a stallion, therefore, he forever bullied her as the only member of his herd. Even though they became kindred spirits, being in a herd seemed more important to her then it was to him. Instinctually a creature of the wind, her wide set eyes allowed her extensive peripheral vision as is critical for most prey animals. Oftentimes while grazing in the stillness of the dawn or evening, I would catch her suddenly lifting her head to quickly scan the pasture until she located him before lowering her head to safely graze once more.
I was never afraid to put a beginner on Espresso’s back because she had proven that she would take good care of them. She was the smoothest horse I’ve ever ridden, which provided even a novice with confidence in their ability to ride. One day my roommate who knew nothing of the secret ways of horses decided to ride off in the opposite direction from Blaze and me. It’s always a good practice to ask horses to go in different directions even though it’s against their herd ‘fight or flight’ survival instinct. What my roommate didn’t know was that giving Espresso permission to run flat out to catch up with us once more wasn’t that great of an idea. When they came to a fork in the path, he assumed they would go right as she continued on the straight and narrow path that curved slightly to the left. Luckily he knew how to roll and looking much like desert tumbleweed, he finally sprawled to a stop, unhurt. Instead of continuing on her mission to catch up with Blaze, which I would have totally expected of any horse, Espresso stopped in her tracks and putting her head down, nuzzled him as if to say, “What happened? What are you doing down there?”
Espresso wasn’t quite as gentle with my American bulldog, Tess, however. Of course, Bulldogs, bred for Bull-baiting and aggression, are physically resilient and stubbornly persistent most of the time. When I wasn’t watching, Tess loved to terrorize the horses any time that they ran by, taking up the chase. Espresso’s prey instinct was as highly attuned as was Tess’s predator instinct. I noticed that while Tess seemed to be in it for the fun, however, my mare was genuinely threatened by the dog. More than once when I called Tess back, Espresso would indignantly spin on her hind legs, rearing up, front legs slashing, mane unfurling in the wind. Then with a warning squeal, she’d strike out with her front legs at lightning speed or spinning around, nip at Tess with deadly accuracy. Luckily Tess was fast and generally escaped any consequence that is with the exception of the time she made the mistake of nipping at Espresso’s heels while I was in the saddle. I heard a loud thhhwwwaack! When I turned to see what had caused the sound, what I saw was my bulldog shaking her great block head slightly. Just like in the cartoons, I imagine she was seeing little birdies circling before her eyes. Nonetheless, it appeared that she had withstood the impact of the perfectly aimed hoof without consequence or even a whimper, for that matter.
One of the first things I did routinely each morning was peek out of the upstairs windows until I could spot the horses in the pasture below, making sure everything was kosher. On this particular September morning I spotted Espresso in the early light of dawn. She was lying down alone; and Blaze, her pasture mate, was nowhere to be seen. A horse lying down during the night or in the chill of early morning was totally out of character. My heart skipped a beat. I threw on my clothes from the night before, and half dressed, raced the short distance to the pasture. When she saw me coming down the bank of the irrigation ditch, she struggled to her feet and for a brief moment of relief I thought she might be alright. My relief was short lived, however. With a squeal she suddenly fell back to the ground rolling onto her back. I was terrified. Had she broken a leg? Unable to keep my eyes off her, I slipped on a thin layer of ice as I ran across a make shift bridge causing me to nearly plunge into the icy irrigation water. Upon reaching Espresso’s side, she stretched her long legs out in front of her; and with a groan, she made a valiant effort to once more clamber to her feet.
Oftentimes late at night from my open window, I would hear the big irrigation pump when it switched on above the irrigation vault. As the big rain bird sprinklers suddenly popped up there could be heard a hissing sound as they released trapped air and water. This was quickly followed by the rhythmic tick, tick, ticking of the spinning heads. Gaited horses seemed to be much spookier than the more reliable quarter horses that I had been accustomed to. Inevitably, at the first click when the pump switched on, I could expect to simultaneously hear the sudden sound of thundering hooves as the panicked horses raced across the pasture for the protection of the barn. As they neared safety from the perceived monsters chasing them, I could expect to hear one last big splash as they crossed the wide ditch. I could then go back to sleep knowing they would be in the paddock for the next several hours. It was this nightly ritual and my awareness of the distress these sprinklers caused the horses that made my heart freeze when I first spotted my mare that morning. As I neared her and saw water dripping from her long mane, I knew that she must have been rendered completely helpless and terrified, hostage to the huge sprinklers in the early morning light. When I reached her she was absolutely drenched and shaking uncontrollably. Clearly unable to escape her biggest terror told me what I didn’t want to know; this was very serious.
I ran back for a lead rope and slowly coaxed Espresso to the barn, drying her off and quickly blanketing her in the sun so that she could recover from any hypothermia that was most likely racking her body. The next two days were a blur of vet calls, sleepless nights, IV’s and tubing fluids into Espresso’s stomach. Espresso had colicked, which generally offers a fifty-fifty chance of survival at best. In fact, the vet told me that oddly, just that week, five horses had colicked in the valley with only two survivors. Horses really need to drink a lot of water to push the massive amount of grass and hay through their digestive systems. Perhaps it had something to do with becoming dehydrated during the hot days and not drinking enough water when the nights and the drinking water were extremely cold. Maybe it was just coincidence or bad luck.
My neighbors were amazing. Even though the vets have changed their theory about not letting colicky horses lie down, I stubbornly tried to maintain the procedures that had always worked in the past. For the first day and night we took turns walking and watching Espresso in shifts, diligently trying to keep her on her feet as much as possible in an effort to dissolve or dislodge the obstruction somewhere in her delicate GI tract. It was believed that with the extreme discomfort of a big gas bubble, a horse would roll in an effort to relieve the excruciating pain. In doing so, there was always a risk that they could twist their gut, closing off a portion of their delicate digestive system. Nonetheless, I remained hopeful based on my experience with my old lifelong best Quarter horse, a red dun named Salty Punk. Salt had survived colic at least seven times that I was aware of, and most likely others that I had not been home to witness. We coaxed Espresso to drink and offered her anything that might awaken her nonfunctioning system. She was not interested. The fact that she was able to eventually eliminate some of the grass that had remained inside her system, made my spirits soar. When I placed my ear to her belly listening for the ordinary gurgles indicative of a healthy gut; however, the only sounds I heard were those of her labored breathing.
Over the long two days, as she continued to fight, there were some good signs and bad signs. As time marched on, the bad began to outweigh the good. Nonetheless, there was no doubt for any of us who vigilantly cared for her that she was putting up a valiant fight to stay here. She was uncharacteristically tolerant of all of the intrusive procedures being routinely performed and of our urgent demands that she walk when she was in so much discomfort. Usually walking beside Espresso as she pranced along was intimidating as her thudding hooves, like huge bowling balls, pounded the soil within inches of my cowboy boots. For this reason I always felt far more secure on her back. Now, in obedience, however, it was everything she had to simply follow us. On reluctant hooves, she lagged behind at the very end of the lead rope. Sometimes she would stop and lay down on the soft sandy trail within mere yards of my gate. She gave her best to comply with our demands and wishes. I wanted to believe that instinctively she knew we were trying to help her. She was an honest horse and I felt privileged to be by her side as she went through her many transitions even though it was a roller coaster of hope and heartbreak.
Quietly stroking her coat, already growing softer with the colder nights, I stood by her most of the day and checked on her a couple of times the second night, giving her a pain killer every few hours. It was with words of encouragement that I feel certain were more for me than for her, that I would assure her that she was going to be alright. I hoped that if I stayed positive and calm, she would sense my energy as she always did. Yet, there were times that tears slipped from my eyes and I’m sure echoes of despair vibrated through my energy. I praised her for how beautiful, honest and kind she was. I even told her the entire story of why I changed her name from Hot Cocoa to Espresso. After all, I was a storyteller and there was no one there during the darkness of the night to hear except her.
“It was a beautiful summer morning when you first arrived at the ranch”, I began. “It was such a long ride in the trailer for you. But I think you guys thought it was worth it because you were no longer stuck in dirt pens eating hay. You were fat and happy eating high sucrose rich mountain grass. You could race around the pasture, feeling the warm sun on your backs and the wind in your manes. One day you needed new shoes. The Ferrier arrived early and I slept in late. I had to quickly whistle you guys up. But I didn’t have time to make my morning cappuccino. Argh! Not good! Without coffee, I would have had no patience standing at the end of a lead rope for an hour. Jesse got all of his equipment set up. Just then Mike came out of the house and I begged him to make me a cup of coffee. With a cappuccino in hand, I was happy and talking to Jesse. Of course Tess and Maggie showed up on the scene, sniffing around for your hoof trimmings. When I yelled at them to go back to the house, they just circled around and slunk back in to grab another piece and hightail it out of there. You know how they loved your stinky feet”, I told her with a smile. “Without fail, I knew that they would puke hooves on my carpet the next morning. But they weren’t the only sneaky ones, Missy! While I was distracted by the dogs, you were checking out my coffee. You didn’t even jiggle my sleeve or the cup in my hand. You probably smelled the sweet sugar sprinkled on the top of the cream. I was just about to take a sip when I saw your long tongue all the way to the bottom of my coffee cup. Yuk! I couldn’t believe my eyes. I laughed but was somewhat horrified. Your tongue was green, you know, from eating grass. I guess you liked the taste of the coffee. I knew then that Espresso was the perfect name for you. I also knew I was SOL because you killed my coffee buzz!” In my exhaustion, I almost expected her to smile at my story and then realized I needed sleep more than I knew.
Nature itself, glorious and miraculous in blossom and birth, can be equally as cruel and heartless. For the better part of two days, I kept Blaze in the barn next to Espresso’s stall. They could touch as they leaned over the stall doors to nuzzle and nip at each other. While he was much more independent in nature, she was fairly herd sour and became tense when he wasn’t nearby. He was the salve that kept her calm and she desperately needed to stay calm. Normally, the two of them shared a large stall that was twelve feet deep and twenty four feet wide. On the same day that Espresso had colicked, I had allowed Blaze to come and go from the big stall where she was tied as we worked on her. I noticed that in one instant, for no particular reason, he was acting uncustomarily aggressive towards her. In disbelief, I watched him back right up to her and start kicking her unmercifully when she couldn’t get away. This act caused me to reflect once again on survival of the fittest and how cruel the nature of survival in the wild could be at times. Or in its own way, was it the kindest path in the end? I’d watched horses for years push other horses off their feed. Blaze had become pretty decent with Espresso over time, only pushing her nose out of the hay rack initially until he had a little hay in his belly. Before I understood how instinct worked, I would always try to control the situation and sometimes felt anger towards the survivors of the herd, always highest on the ‘pecking order’. I had to wonder if perhaps since my gelding was proud cut, it was an act of instinct to run her from the rest of the herd, or even further wounding her, leave her incapable of following the herd? Any wounded or sick animal would inevitably jeopardize the health of the rest, leaving them more vulnerable by attracting predators.
On the second afternoon, the vet had just stopped by and pumped more fluids into the Espresso’s stomach and added IV treatment to hydrate her further. She seemed calmer, which we couldn’t determine as either a good or bad sign at this point. What we did know is that something needed to happen soon, very soon. I took the opportunity to turn Blaze out for a while to graze on the pasture while my son and I, running behind on our fall projects, began painting a fence nearby. Espresso, usually nervous, to say the least, whenever she and Blaze were separated, whinnied faintly and trotted the short distance from the barn to a small hillside where she could overlook the pasture. After circling once, with a groan, she lay down clearly exhausted now after two full days of fighting for her life. A wide white bandage to keep the IV site clean was wrapped around her neck. In the sun, the white bandage lay stark against her black coat as she lay atop the hillside, watching her beloved mate grazing ravenously below. Eventually, Espresso began to even doze sleepily as her recently injected pain killer began to take effect. She dropped her nose to the ground and only occasionally would I see her lift her head to check for Blaze’s whereabouts.
I had not slept much in two nights and not at all during the last two days; or was it three now? I was not only irritable from lack of sleep but I knew that this was it; time was slipping away. If Espresso couldn’t make some real come back and soon, any tissues that had not been able to be nourished were surely already starting to die. The vet had reassured me that she would know when ‘that’ time had come and I trusted her. Ironically, just as I had about run out of hope, Espresso had shown an interest in eating for the first time since she became sick. Even though, that wasn’t a good idea, the gesture gave me a little much needed hope and I held on for life.
The next time I looked up on the hillside to see how Espresso was doing, I noticed that my bulldog, Tess, normally rambunctious, pushing boundaries and running around causing trouble, inexplicably had chosen to lie next to Espresso. I found that behavior as odd as Blaze trying to kick Espresso the day before. Not understanding, and in a thick mind fog, all I could think about was that Tess was lying in the dirt, causing me to become irritated at the prospect of having to give her a bath. It would be the one more thing I had to do that night when I barely had the energy to give myself one. I called Tess; and she came towards me until I looked away. The moment I took my attention from her, she circled back around and this time lay even closer to Espresso’s head. I turned a few moments later just in time to see her outstretched face reaching to lick the horse’s velvety nose. I was amazed at this unlikely instantaneous friendship. In hindsight my animals had known instinctually what I refused to accept; my beloved mare was slipping away and there was nothing any of us could do to stop it.
That night, I gave Espresso a shot and hugging her, I sobbed against her neck. I felt like we were being stalked by time and tomorrow would be the day we could no longer put off the inevitable decision. She would have a few hours of pain relief and should be alright until morning. I fell into bed and into a deep sleep immediately. I had only been asleep for two and a half hours when for no reason, oddly, I woke up. I looked at the clock and with a groan, rolled over knowing that she shouldn’t be in pain for a couple more hours. I wrestled against my will power and then with a sigh got up, knowing I couldn’t go back to sleep without at least taking a quick peek in the barn. Unfortunately, when I opened the door I could see that she was definitely in pain and pacing back and forth along the length of the stall. I caught her and she seemed to quiet down as I gave her some Butte paste to hold her over until the next shot.
Espresso edged to the stall door that adjoined the next stall and nickered at Blaze. I stood there for a few moments petting her soft neck and talking in a quiet voice, resigned that this would be her last night. Suddenly her eyes widened bigger than I’ve ever seen a horses eyes before. When she flared her nostrils that shown crimson, I prepared to jump back, fully expecting her to bolt, spin around or in some manner take flight. I had never seen that look before on a horse and assumed it was fear. What could have so suddenly frightened her in the quiet of the night? Oddly, she didn’t bolt. She just stood there quietly in place staring as if she had seen God himself walk into the barn.
Maybe it was fear or confusion or even pain. But something strange happened in that moment and I would never understand for sure what it was. I ran to the house to get my phone and call the vet. I told her that something weird was going on and described the pacing, and the way she reacted as if she had seen something. Sylvia said, “Do you want me to come tonight?” I said “yes, please. I think it’s time, Sylvia. You decide but I don’t think I can bear to watch her go through this anymore.”
I ran back to the barn and found her in the middle of the stall with her head down as fluids poured from her nose and mouth. Knowing that horses aren’t capable of regurgitation, my heart shattered into a million pieces on the spot. I put a lead rope on her and tried to urge her out of the stall. It had to be instinct because I was unable to think clearly. I just know that in that moment I felt small and helpless. I was simply a girl with her horse and I had no idea or experience that could tell me what to do. Sylvia was there within minutes. She quickly peeked in the stall and I told her about the fluid. She looked at me and I searched her eyes. I knew before she said it. “I’ll get the injection. She added, I think her stomach may have ruptured”. She went the few feet to her truck and returned within seconds but we were already too late.
She grabbed the lead rope and said, “Open the back door. Let’s get her outside”. I tried desperately to get the damned door open, cursing at whoever had so efficiently tied it shut to make certain Blaze didn’t gain entry. My fingers were useless against the tightened knot and in my state of frozen panic, I became totally powerless. In the meantime, Sylvia was trying to coax my dying horse through the inner door of the stall into the indoor walkway. I heard a crash and turned just in time to see Espresso’s head hit the wall nearly pinning Sylvia there. Espresso legs were akimbo as she desperately tried to regain control. With a horrifying scream that would curdle your blood, it was over. She was gone by the time she hit the floor.
Death came brutally as it so often does to all life on this planet. It is the lucky few that simply die in their sleep. While I had suffered much loss, I had not witnessed death and in shock I wandered back to the house. As I lay in bed, the terrible last moments played over and over in my mind like a scratched disc. I was thankful that death had come swiftly in her last moments. I couldn’t help wondering what it was that woke me up that night at that exact time; and why against all odds, I actually crawled out of bed to check on her since I had just checked her less than three hours before. I felt blessed that Sylvia immediately answered her phone and that I had asked her to come even though I felt guilty for dragging her out here at 3 AM. The timing for her arrival was nothing short of miraculous in itself. Without Sylvia’s quick assessment of the situation, I would never have expected what was coming and how fast it could happen. I could very easily have been pinned beneath the dead weight of Espresso’s one thousand pound body with no one at home to find me. I was grateful that I had not witnessed it alone. Although finding her in the morning would have been shocking, it would have been easier if I had not heard that scream or seen her fall to the ground for the last time. Even so, I was so very glad that I had been there with her in her final moments to offer whatever comfort I could by my presence so she didn’t have to die all alone as my son had. No one should have to die alone. Maybe it really wouldn’t have mattered to Espresso, but maybe it did.
I like to think that perhaps when her eyes became so wild, she was finally and suddenly released from a tremendous pain. I’ve never seen a horse’s eyes look like that before. I’ve seen fear. I’ve seen pure panic. I’ve seen frustration; but I have never seen this look before. She didn’t seem afraid and Espresso was so often afraid. I never asked Sylvia what she thought. Either way, I don’t believe there is irrefutable evidence so there was no point asking science for an answer. I like to think that maybe some presence does come for us before the death of our body to take our spirit home. I had met so many people in the past few years that had near death experiences (NDE’s) and they all told of the great connection between all of us and everything within this creation, even plants. Sylvia asked if I’d like to keep a piece of Espresso’s mane and I nodded through my tears. With adept and experienced fingers, she quickly braided it and tied it with a purple ribbon that looks beautiful against the shiny hair that was black as night. Today her braided mane marks the page of her story in my journal.
The next morning when I got up, Tess was nowhere to be found. I made my way to the barn even though it was the last place I wanted to go. I was shocked to find Tess there, peering under the stall door just inches from Espresso’s lifeless body. Her face said it all. I have heard about dogs that are able to actually detect cancer. And, of course I knew that my dogs could read my moods, as could my horses. I had even watched the behavior of the stray cat that my mother had rescued from starvation, change markedly in the last year. The kitty now rarely left mom’s side as the confusion and loneliness of dementia darkened her life. How could I have missed the empathic bond; the connection that all my animals had with each other and to me? I have been reading about how all of us and all things are connected for the past few years. I noticed how odd it was when Tess lay next to Espresso on the hill, yet I just didn’t get it. Now I do.
I was overwhelmed by the gracious help offered by a small gathering of neighbors and friends who came to help day and night; offering food and comfort as they took turns helping with Espresso. As an act of friendship to someone going through a rough time, a neighbor down the road whom I had never before met, came to recover Espresso’s body and place it in its final resting place high on the hillside overlooking the pasture. It is rare that we hear about these people; good neighbors, and friends when we turn on the news at night. Perhaps that is why we have lost our way; our faith in mankind. This became my “aha” moment; my gift in the tragedy, and I deeply realized the empathic resonance of divine connection on a purely experiential level that will forever change everything about the way I view things.
Not having any idea what to do with myself the next day, I took Blaze for a ride and together we commiserated in our loss. He knew, instinctually. He plodded unenthusiastically along the dirt trail where he had energetically traveled by Espresso’s side so many times before. A high ridge ran parallel to our riding path. The red, tan and gray soils provided a rich blanket beneath clumps of sparse grass and the dark twisted trunks of the Juniper trees. Blaze suddenly stopped in his tracks and looked up at the ridge; his eyes widening with excitement and nostrils flaring. As he whinnied, calling out to her, his belly quivered beneath the saddle. My gaze followed his and I swear, I saw her too, standing on the high ridge proudly looking down at us.
As I squinted into the brilliant light of the autumn sun, my sleep deprived brain took a snapshot of the hillside covered with wheat colored reeds waving ever so slightly in the warm breeze. It was such a beautiful vision of sage, its tassels reflecting luminescent silver against the glittering gold yarrow; the bluest of blue Colorado skies its backdrop. In my mind’s eye, I could see her galloping along the ridge, her black coat shimmering, mane and tail streaming behind her in the wind. Spirit had painted me a picture, her parting gift. She was in deed a magnificent creature of the wind. The lovely vision comforted me and I whispered, “you’re free now, girl; free to run with the wind. You are a kind and gentle spirit.”
Grieving another loss had given me yet another opportunity to cleanse layers of pain and guilt that I had been stuffing the past few years. Not that long ago, I equated being tough as a strength. For the first time in a long time, I felt the flicker of a very tender flame reigniting deep within my broken heart. It’s as if precious life was welcoming me back from the walking dead.
Our inherent partner at birth, death will always be our most profound teacher, and life the intimate dance with each other in-between. A reader might say “it was just horse”; but to those of you who have felt the unconditional love and connection of an animal, you will understand. Perhaps she was just a horse but she brought gifts to my life, even in her passing and I’ll forever miss her!