My horse, Saiga, turned thirty in May. Thirty is respectably old for a horse, very respectable. Like Bilbo-old respectable. He had begun to show his age. His hearing went first. He stopped responding to the whistling we used to call him. To get his attention, I’d have to walk all the way up to him. He’d lost some weight this summer. Enough to make me worry about him and switch his grain to something better suited to older horses. He stopped wandering into a far corner of the yard to “do his business.” Like a senile old man, he started just going wherever he was. It worried me. When animals (humans included) don’t separate their eating space from their bathroom space, it’s a bad sign.
I knew his time was winding down.
Ian and I went to town this morning. JL helped a neighbor, and then went to church. Saiga was here alone—with no humans to see he was unwell.
When JL returned from church three hours later, Saiga was covered with sweat and stumbling. He would walk a bit stumble, fall, roll, get up and do it all over again. Ian and I were already on our way home when JL called. And I knew it wasn’t good.
I pulled into the driveway, took one look at Saiga and yelled into the house, “Call the vet.” I sat on the ground and talked to him softly, brushing the hair out of his dimming eyes, and wiping the sweat off his neck. It was clear he was dying. “It’s ok, go on. It’s ok, don’t fight.”
But he’s cantankerous and refused. He struggled to his feet over and over; Ian, his friend C., and I watching, following, standing, cooing comfort. Saiga has lived on this land twenty-one years, three years longer than Ian has been alive. It was an anxious picture: JL calling the vet, Ian, C. and I moving from one side of the fence to the other. Saiga on the ground, rolling. Up, stumbling, struggling. I called Jamie and she called Chris. Saiga was part of the family, they’d need to say goodbye. They both dropped what they are doing and came.
We waited for the vet.
I came in, to be out of the sun for a moment, and Saiga stumbled to the property line. There’s a drop-off there. Although JL was beside me, I yelled—go, go help the boys get him away from the edge! But it was too late, he leaned into the wire fence, broke through it, and he slid into the gully. There would be no saving him now. He couldn’t move in the thick underbrush and had managed to get caught up at the foot of a tree. I was afraid that his suffering would be worse, that he would be in more pain, if we moved him. We would have to tie ropes around his chest and pull him, over the broken underbrush, through the dirt and rocks. He looked at me, listened to the sound of my voice, and remained still; staring into a space I was unable to see. He was moving beyond my reach. I didn’t want to call him back, remind him of his age, his pain.
And so we waited.
The vet suggested that we pull him from the gully. But he was so weak. I just wanted his suffering to end. We could have pulled him out, spent thousands to “fix” him. But at thirty, it wouldn’t have been for him. It would have been a selfish act. Age can’t be fixed. I knew it and so did Saiga. I could have had his days extended, but not his life. I climbed down into the gully and sat on the ground beside him.
The vet was good, taking too much time to prepare the shots, giving us the opportunity to say goodbye.
Ian, who didn’t cry at the end of Marley and Me, sobbed into C’s shoulder. Chris and Ryan paced. JL stayed in the house. Jamie and I sat in the shallow gully with Saiga stroking him until his breathing stopped. This is the first family member Ian has lost; the first one he is old enough to remember losing. I don’t think it ever crossed his mind that Saiga wouldn’t just always be munching grass out back. But C. knew, he lost his dad to cancer three years ago. Ian was one of three of C’s friends to attend the funeral. I was glad C. was here—their bond is special. Losing a pet cannot be compared to losing a parent—but to someone who hasn’t ever lost anyone, it was good to have a friend who understood on a larger scale. A friend, who stood stoically, absorbing Ian’s tears into his shoulder. Without judgement.
I found Saiga in a wooded lot. He wasn’t exactly abandoned. He lived on a horse farm. He didn’t like his owner, who in turn thought he was an unmanageable, cantankerous, nag. The first time I saw him, he was standing on his back legs, with his front hooves pressed against a tree, reaching for leaves to eat. Because there was nothing else for him to eat. I parked my car beside the fence. He stepped down and cantered to the farthest part of the enclosure.
I was keeping another horse on the property and I’d come to feed her. Saiga was so skittish he caught my eye, and the next day, I brought him an apple.
He responded by running to the other side of his paddock, again. His beautiful silvery-white coat catching the sunlight, he looked like someone from a fairy tale. He nickered and neighed, throwing his head defiantly in the air. It was a beautiful, almost choreographed, fuck-you. His name, on his registration papers, was Nadeem Saiga, it means sweet thunderbolt. It was an apt name.
When I left, some hours later, the apple still lay where I set it. And he was still as far from my car, the fruit, and me as he could possibly be. I brought another the next day anyway. For almost a month, every day, when I went to the stable I would leave him fruit or alfalfa cubes.
Everyday he ignored it until I was gone. I decided to buy him. He was full of spirit. I didn’t want to tame him, I wanted to befriend him. At first he wasn’t for sale, but I persisted. His owner had nothing but disparaging things to say about him, and then charged me too much for him. She insisted I would never make a good pet of him: he was ornery.
Finally, he began watching for me. He eagerly awaited my arrival and the fruit. Mostly, I think it was the fruit. It was longer, still, before he would eat with me there. It took me three months to get him to eat from my hand. And another month to get a saddle on him.
Eventually, we fenced the property and brought both horses here. For a long time, he’s been mostly a lawn mower, and good company. The herniated disks in my back make it impossible for me to ride, and at thirty his joints ached a bit. We'd periodically hobble around together, keeping each other company, thinking about younger days, jumping fences. He outlived my other horse, and two goats. He was a regal old man. And we both knew his time had come.
The day was long and tear-filled. The human family that adored him – and that he adored – surrounded Saiga. As the vet injected him and the final light faded from his eyes, the last he saw and heard was me. There were no nursing homes, no maintaining life after he finished living. The tension fled his muscles and he closed his eyes and exhaled serenely, passing into a place I can’t see, probably filled with apples and alfalfa cubes.
If only we could extend that same sort of dignity to humans…
Rest in peace, Saiga. I will miss you, but you’ve earned it.