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SILVER - half-draft

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May 8, 1975 - October 4, 2008

Lessons Learned From a Horse

Silver was born May 8, 1975. He died October 4, 2008, at 33 years of age.

Early in 1975, we had purchased a team of Belgian draft horses Ė sisters named Barbara & Dorothy.

When we purchased the team, Dorothy had been bred to "the biggest palomino Quarter Horse (the former owner) could find" and in early May she delivered a beautiful palomino colt.

Mike named him "Silver Streak" after his favorite vintage car, and justified the unlikely name by pointing out the white blaze on the coltís head. We called him simply "Silver."


Silver lived a good life, though he never had the opportunity to "reach his potential" as a working or saddle horse. We got him some training, but not beyond the basic walk, trot and lope of a green horse. But this was enough for our daughter to have a wonderful friend to ride around the ranch as she was growing up. Silver grew to be a handsome 16.1 hand horse, shaped like a Quarter Horse, with the size and substance of a Belgian.

We joked sometimes that he was the typical "Norwegian Bachelor Farmer" of Garrison Keillor stories, because he wasn't cuddly, but was  independent, stoic, reserved though self-confident. He was a quiet kind of guy, secure in himself, and neither needy nor showy.

And he was tremendously kind and intelligent. Once a group of children were riding him - one or two on his back and the rest running along beside him, when a small child tripped and fell directly into his path. He stopped in mid-stride, holding his extended foot in the air until the child could be pulled to safety.

When Silver was about 2 or 3 years old, we knew it was time to get him trained, but we had never done this ourselves, and didn't have a clue how. A friend came over once and we hitched him up with a surcingle and she introduced us all to ground driving. But she didn't know what to do beyond that, either. The ground driving went very well - he learned quickly, but what to do next? Find a trainer.

Back in the 1970ís, very few women were farriers or horse trainers. A female farrier & horse trainer arrived in our community, and she immediately became a sensation. With her charismatic personality, people were drawn to her. We hired her to saddle train Silver when he was about 3 years old. She came and got him, and explained that we must stay away for at least the first 2 Ė 3 weeks. When asked where he would be staying, she replied that she doesnít divulge the location because we really must not come by. She would call when the time was right and give us directions. This seemed strange, but what did we know about horse training?

One night, at about the 2 week mark, Mike woke up suddenly. He had to see his horse! We got up early and drove to the general vicinity where the training facility was rumored to be located, and drove up and down the back country roads, looking for signs of our horse. Finally we found him out in a large field with some other horses. Strange, there was no barn or arena or round pen, just a pasture with a herd of horses. We had no trailer or we would have taken him right then. Mike began calling the trainer. The more his calls went unanswered, the more he wanted his horse back - Now. He did finally reach her and we did get Silver back, and just a few days later, we opened the newspaper to read headlines that this horse trainer/farrier had been arrested on charges of horse theft. She would take in horses for "training" and when she got enough, she would sell them to a meat buyer.

Lesson Learned: Trust your Gut. If it doesnít feel right, it probably isnít.

Mike taught Silver some basic harness driving, and he could pull a harrow over the pasture to break up manure piles. Silver liked to work and would have worked more, if we had actually had the interest to keep at it.
Most of his life Silver spent having free run over 15 or 20 acres with his band of pasture mates, living almost like wild horses. They grazed the rolling hills and drank out of the pond. We were busy raising kids and earning a living, and Silver and the other old boys just took care of themselves most of the time.

The band consisted of three old geldings: Cheyenne was the smallest, a sorrel AQHA gelding who had been a 4-H show horse in his day, and had been given to Vine Village, Inc., our non-profit program for people with special needs, when a foot injury ended his ability to compete. When insurance issues stopped our horse riding program, Cheyenne joined Silver on "the back 40." Dapples was a giant old gray/white Percheron, who had once helped pull boulders to build some of the most popular wineries in the Napa Valley. He came to us for retirement. And then there was Silver, a comparative youngster.

At age 28, Cheyenne had to be put down due to colic.

So that left Dapples and Silver. Dapples was never a family favorite. He was basically a bully around people (and fences Ė he would decide he didnít want a certain fence, and would systematically obliterate it with his giant feet). We didnít know anything about horse training back then, so we just accepted that this was who Dapples was. I called him the Poltergeist.

One day our sonís school class was coming to our ranch for a Halloween field trip. Our son stayed home from school that day, and spent most of it riding his bike up and down the lane, waiting for the bus to arrive. At one point as he was coming around the bend, he saw Dapples rear up and begin to shake uncontrollably and then fall over dead. Now, nobody likes to celebrate a horseís death, but in truth, nobody mourned him much. In fact, from a human vantage point there was a certain macabre Halloween humor in it. Mike worked fast, got the body covered with a tarp, and miraculously talked the Rendering Plant guy into making an emergency trip to pick up the body before the kids arrived.

But Silverís experience was another story. It was at this time that I learned of the profound depth of emotion that a horse is capable of feeling. Silver stood over the body, head hung low, visibly grieving. His deep mourning was undeniable, and his grief persisted over many days. I have never believed the Judeo-Christian line that animals are separate from humans, that animals only have instincts and do not actually feel what we do. I have never accepted this. (and DNA studies are finally proving me right Ė we are made of exactly the same stuff as animals in all but the finest of details) Seeing the depth of Silverís grief completely dissolved any residual doubt I might have harbored.

In October of 2000, we decided to finally act on our long-standing intention to "someday" adopt a mustang from the Bureau of Land Management. In part, this was to provide Silver an end to his loneliness. So we adopted Ruby, an 8-month-old, dark brown, rather non-descript filly who attracted us by continuing to stare at us as we walked around the pens at the adoption. (BTW, she grew up to be a spectacular, elegant dapple gray Andalusian-looking mare) We brought her home to the 20 x 20 ft. pipe panel pen that BLM requires for ungentled animals.


So Silver didnít have immediate access to her, but he "babysat" her by standing as close as he could to her pen, and when he had to walk away to get a drink, she would whinny and demand that he return. She gentled quickly, so we began to take them on walks together, both haltered and on a lead rope. Then the day came when we could release her into a large fenced field with Silver. Silver was ecstatic, as was Ruby, and they frolicked for quite awhile. We were amazed to find that somehow Silver already knew everything about being the lead stallion, despite being a gelding and having not grown up in a wild herd. When Ruby began to bug him, he lifted his head, puffed himself up and exhaled sharply, making a roaring sound. Ruby paid attention and shaped up! Then when I went to halter Ruby at the end of the afternoon, to take her back to her pen for the night, Silver played the Stallion. He snaked his neck around and drove Ruby away from me, and positioned himself so that I could not get to her.

Silver helped to raise and civilize all of our young Mustangs, PMU Foals, donkeys and a mule. Stud colt Sparky (we were unable to get a vet to geld him until he was almost 2 years old) would settle right down and become submissive and easy to handle after spending the day with Silver. But if separated from Silver, his adolescent stud colt stuff kicked in and he would become challenging to handle. Silver raised Ruby, Sparky, Benny, Root Beer, Eleanor, Penny and Pine Nut, as well as Bert & Dawn Burro, and Max the Mammoth Donkey (well, Max was already grown up when we got him, but they became good friends).

Silver wasting away in 2006 (above) and fat and healthy again in 2007, after going on pelleted feed & arthritis meds


In the last few years of his life, Silver's back became swayed, and he began to develop arthritis, so he couldn't go up on the hill with the other horses.

Worse, he developed chronic scours, and began wasting away from poor nutrient absorption.

He colicked twice, and recovered twice. Our vet told us his "hay days" were over - and suggested we put him on pelleted feed. It was a miracle. He became fat and energetic again and his digestive tract functioned normally.

His arthritis became a problem especially in winter and twice he went down and was unable to get up due to the pain in his joints. Modern medicine came to the rescue, and with daily arthritis meds, he resumed a mobile, pain free life.

But time was not on his side. We knew the end was coming, just didnít know how or when.

I am a pragmatic person, and not into organized religion. I donít buy into maudlin concepts of Angels and "the Rainbow Bridge." I am not interested in "Beliefs" but prefer "Knowing" and I know only what I have experienced directly. So thoughts of an afterlife impress me as a waste of time, since there is no way to prove them one way or the other. Direct experience indicates that dead is dead.

That said, a few days before an animal of mine leaves this life, I always have The Dream. It is the same dream, in format, every time, and I have had it when the occasion arose all of my adult life.  It goes like this: An animal similar to (but never exactly Ė so I never know for sure which one The Dream applies to) the one who will soon be leaving, appears in The Dream. The animal (dog, cat, horse, goat, whatever) appears vibrant, glowing, radiant, proud and happy. He or she is strong, healthy, better than ever, and gloriously peaceful. He or she runs in a beautiful field of rolling hills. At first s/he runs alongside me, then speeds up and goes ahead. I call to him/her, and s/he looks back to acknowledge me, but continues on into the distance. The feeling of the dream is one of profound joy and peace.

I had this dream on Thursday. This time, the horse galloped away and jumped over several fences in a stunning display of athleticism and power. He met a few other horses out in the distance, who were coming back in, and for a moment they postured as though thinking about fighting, but then he went on and they continued toward me.

On Friday, October 3, our daughter was bringing us her dog to babysit while she was at work, and she found Silver standing in his pen, covered in blood from a nosebleed, resting his head on the top rung of the fence, trying to keep from choking to death on his own blood. He was trembling uncontrollably. The latch that separated his pen from the main barn area had broken and a few other horses were in the pen with him. Had he tussled with the other horses and banged his nose? Or did he have a deeper problem inside his head Ė a cancer or a blood clot in an artery - that for whatever reason chose this time to burst open? Had he colicked and banged his nose while rolling? Had the horses broken in randomly or to see if he had any food left, or did the latch break because Silver was struggling? We will never know.

We cleaned him up, called the vet and he was treated for possible colic as well as pain. All day he seemed a bit more comfortable but would not eat or drink. The vet came back at night and gave him an IV of fluids and electrolytes. In the morning he had not passed any manure, still wasnít eating, and was visibly weaker. We called the vet back, and she said sheíd be there about 10:30.

At 10, we checked on him and he seemed unexpectedly alert and energetic. He seemed to want to get out, so we opened the gate. He became a Man on a Mission. He walked briskly, purposefully, down the lane, showing no signs of pain or arthritis. Mike ran ahead and shut the gate so he couldnít go out on the road. When Silver reached the closed gate, he stopped, looked around, and turned to a large oak tree, where he laid down, groaned and half-rolled several times, and then died. He had mustered all of the life force he had left, in order to find the right place to die.

When I saw him go down, I ran up to the house to call the vet to urge her to come more quickly. Mike stayed with Silver. He said that a most amazing thing happened. Just before he died, he stopped groaning, shut his eyes, and began "running in place" Ė like he was loping along freely, in a dream.

Silver comforting a very frightened Sparky

Lewis and Clark would have nothing to do with any of our horses except Silver. Silver was accepted fully, and often hung out toether with them.

Saanen and Silver toward the end of his riding career. Silver was so light you could lead him anywhere with just a piece of baling twine over his neck. You could ride him in a halter and lead rope.

In his last days, Silver enjoyed hanging out near the herd but seldom interacted with them any more. He was old, slowing down.