Everyone who owns horses has that special pony, even if they won’t admit to a favorite.
Simon was mine, but he got saddled with a storyteller. The star of my string (I liked to call him that even when he was often the only one in my string), he was all over my blog, my Instagram feed, my life. Featured in Polo Players’ Edition last November, he even has an upcoming cameo in a charity calendar – he’ll be Mr. September.
So I just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t write his obituary.
When I bought Simon in 2013, I’d just come off six weeks of crutches, after foot surgery. A month before that it was cancer surgery. I’d had a small part of my nose removed, but it felt like the biggest thing in the world. That summer, all I wanted to do was play polo and have fun, so I was thrilled to find him just a few weeks before the season started. He had a scar on his nose, too.
Then the floods hit Calgary and I was evacuated. I was lucky, since my top-floor condo on Elbow River wasn’t damaged, but the bottom floor of the building was devastated. As I bounced from one guest room to another for seven weeks, Simon became my constant.
People in polo tend to worry about heart attacks in older horses, especially during a game. At 23, my first-ever pony was playing in what should be his retirement years.
But Simon’s heart was too big to break. He carried me through three years of polo, playing two chukkers a game, barely raising a sweat.
You know that first sunny, spring-like day, when the birds are singing and the sky is brilliant blue? There always seems to be one dramatic day where it hits me — how beautiful the world is, making me almost giddy with happiness.
This year that day was Saturday, March 5th, 2016. It was shaping up to be unusually warm. I had a tight schedule – a business meeting in the early afternoon, with plans to zip home to get gussied up for the Black and White gala ball. Many of my favorite people were going to be there, and I was really looking forward to it.
But weather like this in March, in Calgary? I couldn’t resist taking my ponies out for a set. Simon and Gabby were on winter vacation at the polo club, but they’d be up for some exercise. Squeezing it in to my hectic day would be worth it. I listened to a comedy show on the drive to the club and laughed the whole way.
In the valley behind the club, as usual, it was a little tricky to find them. The pasture is currently home to thirty horses. They all look a little wild, fuzzy and fat for the winter that is normally cold.
Soon, however, I noticed a pair of ponies looking at me expectantly. With the long hair on his muzzle, Simon’s trademark scar was even more noticeable than usual. He was doing that cute quivering thing with his lip, anticipating the treats that would be his, once we climbed the steep hill to the pasture gate. After calmly leaving behind the rest of their winter herd, the two buddies were well rewarded with carrots. Sweetly and quietly, they stood patiently as I tacked up.
I decided I’d ride Gabby and pony Simon. I’d ridden Simon a few weeks before, on another warm day, and something about his knees made me anxious. Near the end of our set, his front legs seemed to lock up for a second or two. At first I thought he was tripping, but it was something else. I had hopped off, walking him the rest of the way, knowing, but not wanting to know, that Simon could finally be showing his age: 27 years.
He hadn’t seemed to be in any pain, though, and today it was obvious he was delighted with the weather as we headed for the track.
After ten minutes of walking, Gabby and Simon naturally moved into a trot, and it felt mean to hold them back. Wearing just a t-shirt in the fifteen-degree temperature, I couldn’t believe we were the only ones at the polo club. The fields looked ready to be played.
On the final section, I directed my horses off the track, alongside the boards of the main fields. They wanted to canter, and I just couldn’t deny them. It was spring and they were feeling good! Beside me, Simon gave his traditional early season buck. He looked so strong, keeping pace with Gabby. I hoped whatever I had noticed last time was just temporary.
After a couple of minutes, I brought them back to a walk, and we took it slow back to the barn. With their shaggy coats, they’d probably be a little sweaty, but the day was so warm I wasn’t worried. They’d have plenty of time to dry.
I dragged a brush across their unruly coats and checked my watch — I was right on schedule. After I brought them back to the pasture, I’d have just enough time for a quick change of clothes and the short drive to my meeting. But first, more carrots were in order.
We moseyed back to the paddock that led to the valley. Before I opened the second gate, Simon dropped for an exuberant roll in the dirt. Yeah! Springtime!
As soon as the gate swung open, Gabby zipped out first, trotting down the hill to the rest of the herd. Since he’d paused to let me pet him one last time, Simon was a few paces behind.
Going down the hill, he sped up to catch Gabby, giving another buck for good measure. Then the next part happened in one awful second. He landed badly on his front right. He flipped, spiraling through a massive, horse-sized somersault. Then he was standing again, but his front right leg dangled unnaturally from the knee.
Even from a hundred feet away, I knew exactly what that meant.
I fought the urge to run to him, afraid my cell phone wouldn’t get a signal down that hill. Although my fingers barely worked, somehow I called Candice, my vet. She wasn’t close enough to help, but she assured me she knew another vet nearby. I managed another quick, strangled call to cancel my meeting. Then I sprinted down the hill.
Simon was standing on three legs, listing on the steep angle. The rest of the herd seemed to know that something was very, very wrong. Some stood quietly nearby, as if offering a calming presence, but a chestnut reared up, slicing his front hooves dangerously through the air. With his nostrils flaring, and his ears pinned back, he looked ready to destroy anyone who came near Simon, including me.
So there I was, alone in the pasture with Simon and 29 other horses, crying my eyes out. Sometimes I’d manage to stand beside Simon and pet him, but other times that chestnut chased me off. I tried to stop crying, so I too could be a calming presence, but I failed miserably.
The other horses became increasingly rattled. A dozen ran in tight circles, just twenty feet away. The chestnut pawed the ground, like a bull seeing red.
It seemed like it went on forever, but it was probably only ten or fifteen minutes.
The vet arrived. So did the woman with whom I had just cancelled my meeting. I’d never met her, but she was a horsewoman, and insisted I shouldn’t be alone. She immediately stepped in to help, becoming a human wall between the upset horses and Simon.
The vet kindly explained what she’d have to do and how it would take place. Simon was in shock, so hopefully he wasn’t in much pain. He kept bobbing his head, like he couldn’t figure out why one of his legs wouldn’t work. I had to say goodbye. The vet carefully positioned her syringe. Simon buckled almost instantly, falling over, and breathed out one final time.
On the ground, with my arms thrown around my favorite horse, I was a mess. I didn’t know I had that many tears in me. Hot and fast, they streamed onto Simon’s winter coat.
My boyfriend arrived. The vet, and the stranger who was now a friend, left.
The other horses edged closer. It was time to let them have their own goodbyes. Some of them have probably known Simon for much longer than I have.
Look, my boyfriend said. They’re crying too.
I didn’t think he meant it literally, but I lifted my head from Simon’s furry neck, blinking to focus. Several of the horses were crying. Big, fat tears, rolling down their muzzles.
And that chestnut? He was staring straight at me, two watery trails flowing down either side of his nose. Inconsolable. Like me.
It’s been a month now. I didn’t go to that gala ball. I could barely leave the house for a week. Social gatherings were out of the question. Soon, maybe, I’ll be able to say his name without my voice getting tight and tears welling up.
I want to thank everyone who sent the kindest, sweetest notes. The calls, even flowers. Everyone who has horses knows what it’s like. Most have been through something similar.
I keep seeing his uncontrollable orbit through the air in my mind’s eye, over and over, the maneuver that was finished in a flash on a permanent slow-mo loop. I’ll never forget the way his leg looked, dangling uselessly, streaming with blood. But the indelible brand on my brain is worth it, because it means what needed to be done happened quickly. I was right there.
Simon is gone, and my heart aches. But he went out in a happy buck blaze of glory, after a beautiful ride around the track, after a long life of playing amazing polo. Double chukker or nothing!