I fell in love the moment I saw his bony butt. I have no idea why, except I knew he was to be mine, though a friend had arranged this meeting and first choice was hers. He was big and moved with an easy, if unsophisticated, grace that made him a joy to ride. Only four years old, he had not filled out yet. His registered name was Nikka Doone Sugar Bars. I called him, Dune, after a book by one of my favorite authors. He was a bay—brown with black stockings, a little white chip on one heel, a sweet face with a sickle-shaped splash of white on his forehead and bright, kind eyes.
For reasons I would never understand, but never regretted, my friend passed him by, and Dune was mine. Over the twenty-six years we were together, he saved my life twice and just about got me killed an equal number of times. I fell off him more than once and pay for it now with various aches and pains, but I don’t regret that either.
Like some men, Dune pretended he was not interested in affection and had to play hard to catch for at least a few minutes. In the early days, before we moved to the country, I would get up before dawn and drive out to the farm where I boarded him, ride, get home, shower and go to work. One day I walked into the barn and saw him down in his stall. He lay still and didn’t get to his feet when I approached, as instinct would have normally urged him to do. My heart sank. Only a sick horse would stay down like that. Then I noticed a tiny furry head looking over his back. Just after that, the straw near his hooves stirred, and I realized barn kittens had come in to snuggle during the cool of night, and my big horse was afraid to move lest he hurt them! I knew then he was a special boy.
He was a gentle giant with children as well as kittens, though he never cared much for dogs. I taught several kids how to ride over the years, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Dune taught them. When a child led him, he walked slowly and carefully, his head lowered to the top of the little human’s head, and each foot placed as if on an eggshell. If a child was on his back, I had to chase him with a stick to get him to move faster than a walk, and that would only be successful for a few feet, then he was back to a steady walk. On the other hand, the moment I got in the saddle—Katie, bar the door! He loved to run and to jump, though apparently only with a rider, as I never saw him do either in the pasture. All I had to do was lean forward and grab his mane, his signal to let ‘er rip, and we were off. I usually aimed him at a long uphill grade to be sure I could rein him back in. The blood of race horses pulsed in him, and it was a thrilling, humbling experience to sit atop that explosion of power.
We had many adventures. Somewhat idiotically, I rode him most of the time alone. We tried a show once, but he was so excited, he neighed at every horse he saw, his whole body vibrating so hard I had to grab the saddle. Most of the time, it was just him and me—jumping over a barrel, exploring a path in the woods, or making our own path.
Once, a loop of vine caught me and swept me off backwards. The reins caught behind the back of the saddle, pulling Dune’s head up and back. Trying to get away from this pressure on his mouth, he backed, slipping in a pile of dry leaves. I had landed painfully and couldn’t move, and I felt his hooves all around me and brushing my back. But even in the awkward, frightening position he was in, Dune knew I was there and danced to keep from stepping on me. Then he stood, trembling, waiting until I could come fix the problem. On another occasion, he got tangled in barbwire. Although many horses would have panicked, he stood patiently through the night, waiting for me to come get him out of the mess.
Another time, I made a poor decision, taking a path in the woods that turned out far steeper than it looked. Halfway up, it got worse, and then for a short distance, it was an almost vertical cliff. We were in trouble. We couldn’t turn around; if we stopped or slowed, we would have fallen over backward. I didn’t think we could make it, but I did the only thing I could—I leaned low and grabbed his mane and told him it was up to him to save our bacon. He never hesitated, taking that impossible incline with a bold heart and, somehow, scrambled us over the top.
I didn’t think I could write about him. It has only been a few weeks ago that I had to put him down, and it wasn’t the way I would have had my old friend go. He was in a lot of pain and didn’t want to move, but when I asked him to—just as he had crossed scary bridges and rushing creeks and too-steep inclines—he did . . . because I asked him. I just hope I was able to spare him some pain. I am not sure I believe in heaven, but I hope somewhere he is waiting for me, and when it is my time, we will gallop up a long hill together again.
T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.
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Loved this post and so sorry to hear of your loss. I knew that you had horses but was not aware that you were a dedicated rider. I rode a tiny bit as a teenager and managed to learn the rhythm of riding english but always needed a horse that knew how the handle a clueless rider.
My life took me down the house full of kids trail until my daughter brought a skinny chocolate brown rescue dog with golden eyes to my door one day and introduced me to my grand-doggie, Mocha ‘something or other’. My daughter and her future husband were madly in love at the time and named her after a Starbucks coffee that was apparently profoundly meaningful to them. It only took one look into her beautiful eyes and I knew I had met an extraordinary being. She has become ‘our sweet Mo’. At the time my daughter’s job had her working crazy hours and out of town on a regular basis, so Mo spent a lot of time at my house. My daughter asked me one day “What is it with you and Mo? It’s like you two are soul mates or something.” All I could say was ” love knows no boundaries, it does not follow prescribed dictates and does not feel obliged to play by the rules. You love who you love and the dog and I love each other.” I have become totally convinced that our soul mates of the animal kingdom not only understand the english language (Mo and I had quiet talks about not chasing rabbits and jumping after crows) but can read our minds, feel our feelings and act in accordance with our highest good. And if we pay attention they can tell us everything we need to know and we can act for their highest good.
My Mo has since become a world traveler and loyal guardian of my precious grandson Warren, who is my heart. I cannot tell you what joy it gives me when I visit to have Warren sneak into my room in the early morning followed by Mo. In the stillness of that time just before daylight we tell our secrets and talk of who we love. And I am surrounded by the sweet voice of my heart and cold nose of my soul.
Mo and I are both old and gray and full of lumps now and I cannot imagine her not being in our world. And I have put my daughter on notice that if anything happens they are not to have her put to sleep until I get there. I don’t think i could bear to have her leave the planet without thanking her and telling her good by.
I hope your heart heals from your Dune leaving the planet and you hold good memories of him.
Thank you for sharing your beautiful note about your dear Mo and about love. I can tell you right now that you need to start writing in your retirement, even if it just takes the form of blogging. You need to share your insight and the beauty and wisdom you have accumulated, my friend.
I’m so sorry. I enjoyed the tribute.
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Teresa, thank you for sharing this love story, which touches me deeply. I have known some great animal loves in my life — human ones, too! — but the animals! Oh so special. Dune is waiting for you, I”m sure of it. xo
Thank you Irene. They give us their everything. I hope he is there because I miss him and all my other buddies too.