It was February 20, 1987. A bright spring morning greeted us. New grass was pushing its tender green edges up through the damp ground. Birds were diving around the trees looking for places to nest. The promise of new life seemed as fresh as the morning breeze.
As my husband, Den, and I drove to the barn, I tried to distract myself. How many flakes were in that last bale of hay I’d opened? How many telephone poles from the bottom of the hill to the barn? When had I last seen the buck deer in the park? But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. Today we weren’t going to the barn for a ride – but to put SAM down.
Our veterinarian was to meet us at the barn at 9:30. A livestock hauler was to be here, also.
SAM was waiting for us with two pasture mates in the field across from the barn. I had retired him there a little over a year before.
His bones now showed through his skin. for the last few weeks, jumping the 2-foot-wide stream to come to the fence for his daily oats had become increasingly difficult for him. He could hardly chew them with only a few back teeth. I could also tell that his joints were getting stiffer; after a nap in the sun, he had great trouble rising.
SAM was approximately 24 years old. Three years earlier, he’d had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. The vet had given SAM three to five years to live. In the last few months, my horse had dropped in weight from 1,000 to roughly 900 pounds. I could count his ribs. Some of the boarders at the barn often described him as “that poor old skinny horse in the pasture”. They didn’t seem to understand my love and affection for my horse.
Den got SAM’s halter and offered to get him. As he walked down the driveway, my mind flooded with thoughts of my 15 years with SAM. Our rides. All the pictures we’d posed for. The time he was bitten by a snake and I’d hot-packed his head for days. And how he’d stood so calmly. When we’d slid off the trail into a stream, and SAM had lain there until I told him to get up. The time he’d eaten my apples and tuna fish sandwich on the trailer fender. Once, when he’d stepped on my foot and I threatened to break his neck if he didn’t get off. The first time I saw him. The first time I rode him. All the memories came flooding back. I couldn’t stop them or the tears welling up in my eyes.
The veterinarian arrived. He filled a syringe and then stood by his truck. Waiting. Neither of us spoke.
The livestock hauler arrived approximately 10 minutes later. He turned his truck around, lowered the ramp and pulled the winch out onto the ground.
Den brought SAM to the barn. Although SAM was stiff and thin, he held his head high with his long mane blowing in the morning breeze. As my husband led SAM by me, I reached out and touched my horse’s neck. All the tears I’d been holding back started to flow.
The luster in SAM’s coat, mane and tail were gone. His deep red sorrel color had been washed to a light red from all the white hair in his coat. The areas over his eyes were sunken holes and, even though his eyes were bright, they looked, well, tired.
The vet took the lead rope from Den’s hand and handed it to the hauler.
“You’ve done all you can for him,” the vet told me. “For an old guy like SAM, it’s best to do this way so he won’t have to suffer anymore. In time, you’ll realize this was the best possible decision you could make.”
For a brief moment, anger flared in me. No! It was not the best thing I could do. The best thing I could do would be to find some way to stop the hideous cancer slowly eating SAM’s life away.
Afterwards, we’d be miles away from here on a mountain, riding along a clear meadow lake; or in the park looking for that buck deer. Not here in a barnyard waiting for an injection to end his life!
But as quickly as it had flared, the anger died. I knew we had done all we could for SAM – the vets, my husband, my friends and myself. There is only so long you can cling to someone or something you love before you suddenly realize it’s not for that someone or something you’re doing it – but for yourself.
Putting SAM down and out of his misery was a decision that I alone had to make. And three days earlier, after trying to feed SAM his oats, I had made that decision.
The hauler moved SAM to the back of the truck. he stood at SAM’s head and, for a moment, I caught SAM’s tired eyes. In that fleeting glance, my horse seemed to understand.
The vet moved closer by SAM’s neck. He gave him a long stroke with his hand and then felt for the jugular vein.
At the instant the needle went in, my husband said “Go into the barn.” But I couldn’t. Not yet. I had watched SAM being delivered to this place. I would watch until he was taken away.
SAM flinched as the needle went in; the fluid was injected and the needle removed. SAM stood there.
Look! It won’t work! He’s not going to die, I thought.
But at that very moment, SAM fell over. Much like a cut tree, SAM just fell over.
The hauler pulled SAM’s halter off his head. My horse’s eyes were closed. The vet felt for a pulse, then looked at me. “He’s gone,” he said softly.
The hauler handed me SAM’s halter, and it was then I did what my husband had suggested. I went into the barn.
As the truck’s winch whined under the strain, I stood in the barn and sobbed as I had never cried in my life. My husband came in, put his arms around me and, when I looked up, I saw the tears in his eyes too. For a few minutes we stood together holding each other. SAM had been a friend, a companion, a member of the family.
As we walked out of the barn to return home, I watched the truck disappear down the driveway and thought, Goodbye, SAM, I’ll miss you.