Heather Smith Thomas reflects on her horse Chance’s senior years and the special bonds he formed with Heather’s granddaughter as well as with creatures great and small.
Chance didn’t start showing his age until he was about 25. As his leg joints became stiff, he was turned out to pasture for retirement. Toward the end of his second summer of full retirement, he suffered a severe wire cut on a front foot. “Mom had to treat and bandage the wound daily for weeks. He was really good about it. She never had to put a halter on him; she’d just go out with the supplies to clean the wound and change his bandage. He knew Mom was helping him and he’d stand there patiently even when it stung.” The wound healed and he was no longer lame, but it damaged the coronary band near his heel and after that, his foot required frequent trimming to keep it from growing unbalanced.
By that time Chance and Molly (Carolyn’s old mare) were fully retired and the two old horses were spending their remaining years at pasture. They had been best buddies since Chance arrived at the ranch many years earlier, and were so bonded that they were always together. Even when they were in a pasture with other horses they were generally off by themselves as a herd of two, not mingling with the others.
Chance was starting to lose some vision, and Molly kept track of him. He was perfectly happy as long as he was with her and knew where she was. n the winter of the first year Heather went to college Chance became a little thin. His teeth were wearing out and he was having trouble eating hay. Michael and Carolyn brought him to our place that spring. He needed some grain in order to regain lost weight and in his skinny condition he’d developed a skin problem, with hair loss, giving him a mottled look.
At our place we had grass in some of our pens, and I rotated him around to various pens with green grass, and also fed him a mixture of grain, senior pellets and alfalfa pellets. Within a few months he was looking better. His hair grew back and he was up to normal weight again, looking like a younger horse.
He spent the next winter with us and I kept feeding him his pellet and grain meals. During the winter one of the local magpies adopted Chance, eating grain out of the tub with him and cleaning up any that spilled on the ground. In the early mornings Chance would be waiting for his grain with his pet magpie; the sassy bird would be perched on the horse’s back as they waited for breakfast, and then they ate the grain together.
Heather came to visit her old horse when she was home for Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations, and Chance was always excited to see her.
During the later part of the second winter he lived in our back yard. Even though he was getting adequate nutrition with the senior pellets he still craved more roughage and started chewing the fences. He couldn’t eat hay because of his bad teeth, so I started “chewing” some hay for him. I selected the finest-stemmed grass hay we had, and snipped it into inch-long segments with scissors. It only took about 10 minutes morning and evening to snip enough to fill a 2-gallon bucket, and he could eat that without having to chew it very much. He managed to keep his weight up during the winter.
That winter, Molly (a year older than Chance) started to lose weight. So Lynn and I brought her down to our main corral and fed her separately. Chance was in the back yard, right across the creek from that corral, and when we brought Molly to the corral, he was so excited! He ran around and around, whinnying all afternoon and through that first night, then settled down and was just happy to see glimpses of her through the trees along the creek. He’d been content to live by himself, but probably missed his old friend.
The last couple of years, it was harder to keep weight on the old gelding. He had developed a firm lump behind his jaw on the left side of his neck, and it became larger. “We were pretty sure it was cancer, though we never had it checked,” says Heather. “It never seemed to affect his swallowing, but cancer may have been the reason he kept losing weight so dramatically at the end. He still had lots of enthusiasm, but he was slowly starving to death in spite of all the special feed we gave him.”
The family debated that fall about whether to put them down. “We’d gone out to evaluate those two old horses on a cold day. But they were both so frisky and feeling good, they changed our minds! Chance was so excited to see me, and so feisty and full of life. One of his favorite games with me was a tickle fight. I’d tickle his belly right by his flank and he’d swing his head around and pretend he was going to bite me (but he never did). He loved the attention and this is something he and I had always done—mock teasing like he might do with a pasture buddy. When I tickled him that day he went right back to playing our old game,” she says.
“We elected to baby them through one more winter, so they could have another good summer together. Mom took on the task of taking care of them through the winter. I helped when I was home for Christmas and spring break,” Heather says.
When green grass came, this past spring, the old horses were out on pasture again. “It took Chance a long time to eat,” says Heather.“I’d have to wait by him, to make sure Molly didn’t come finish it for him (because she ate faster). It was a little inconvenient and time consuming to sit there and wait for an hour, but we had a lot of quality time together. I would comb out their manes and tails, and groom them. Sure, I could have been doing other things, but it was time that I got to have with those old horses.”
For most of the summer, those two old horses were at our place, grazing green grass, but it was definitely time to let them go before cold weather. They were both thin, and Chance was losing his sight. Michael came home for a few days in early October from his job driving trucks, and the timing was right. He did the unpleasant task on a beautiful fall day, selecting a spot along one of the fields where the old horses had spent a lot of time.
“I’m sure it was hard for Heather to say good-by to Chance,” says Michael. “He was the first horse of her own, and the first one she’s had to put down. But she was very grown up about it. I asked her if she wanted to leave, in the final moments, but she didn’t. She just stepped back a little and allowed me to give him a swift and painless release from a life that had become a burden to his failing body.” The two horses are buried there, overlooking the meadow and creek bottom where they spent many happy hours together.