What Do Old Horses Dream?

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Winter has been early and cold in Colorado, and my Grandfather Horse is moving especially slow. I have a habit with my older animals: I like to regale them with stories of how they became who they are now. I remind them of youthful indiscretions, horrible rides that are hindsight-funny, and the way the sun shone on our most excellent days.

Old horses, and the women who love them: We are unapologetic ninnies, I’ve written about it before. (read here.)

It’s not quite twenty years ago since Shirley passed. She was my friend, an artist and a lover of life. I remember the deep rust color of her hair and her squawk of a laugh. Shirley fought with grace and courage, and when she finally entered the hospital, I spent bittersweet days there helping her ease away from her young life.

One afternoon I was alone with her for a couple of hours. Her husband had gone on a necessary errand and the sun was low in the sky, more friends would be there soon. She had a morphine drip to keep her comfortable as she dozed in and out of consciousness. She mumbled about bunnies and squirrels in her cup of ice chips, they alternately amused or worried her. I couldn’t quite  understand what she was saying, but I hoped they looked like the ones in Disney cartoons.

Then her eyes opened in a surprise and her voice was clear, “Spirit’s here!”

It was the last thing I expected to hear. My Grandfather Horse, Spirit, was 8 then, and although Shirley had scratched his nose once or twice, she was unfamiliar with horses and intimidated by their size. She would never climb on Spirit’s back but now he was in her hospital room?

“What does he want?” I asked her, and after a pause to listen, Shirley responded, “He wants to take me for a ride.” I was a bit incredulous, but I said, “You should go!”

Her eyes fluttered closed, and I think she slept. Her body relaxed and her breathing settled to a softer rhythm. Her eyes were active under her eyelids, and dreaming peacefully, an hour passed. It was longer than she’d been able to rest recently. She woke, again with clear words, “We flew, he’s so wonderful, we flew.” I asked about it, but a nurse came in to check her vitals, and adjusted the morphine. Then her good husband returned and she drifted in and out. The moment was gone.

When I said good night, she said something I didn’t hear clearly, except for the word sister. I hoped she meant me but maybe she meant Spirit. Shirley passed a few hours later.

We should all have a horse called Spirit once. It names that ability horses have travel between dreams and reality. But why here? Did some essence of him actually come? If it was all Shirley’s drug-induced dream, why an animal she was afraid of? Did he come to let me know something about me? There’s no telling but it cheers me up to think maybe, somehow, he carried her over some rough ground.

We humans make up things to cheer ourselves, like the poem about the Rainbow Bridge. It suggests that all our animals wait for us wistfully in front of the door to heaven. It’s a wonderful thought, and if it works for you, embrace it.

The first time I heard about the rainbow bridge was when a friend sent me the poem after losing a particularly cantankerous old cattle dog. I cried as I read it and felt better. But when I imagined my dear dog-aggressive Heeler there waiting at the bridge, I had to wonder how many fights she’d start before I got there. I smiled knowing she’d be pissed at me for dawdling. She was sweet that way.

And now, I work with enough rescue animals to know that they wouldn’t necessarily look forward to more humans on the other side. As for me, I am not so arrogant as to think even my own animals dream of me. After all, the universe is a big place and once they leave here, I want to think animals don’t spend a lot of time looking back. It’s not their nature.

This winter my Grandfather Horse is a little more transparent. He has no more trot left in him and he leaves his lunch unfinished to spend the warm hours napping on his nose. He finds a soft piece of dirt and grunts as he lies down.  I wonder if he dreams like Shirley, as he gets closer to the edge.

Can I send him a dream? I’d send him that gallop we shared on the airstrip, does he remember? But this isn’t about me. What do you dream, Grandfather Horse? After a life of sharing my dreams, will you share yours with me now? When you rest those old legs, where does your heart return? Who comes to take you for a run?

Do you know your horse’s dreams? It’s what women who love old horses do; we think too much. Unapologetically.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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