This column is the second in a three-part series. The first part can be found at CalhounTimes.com.
After Reece’s death, I was lost in grief. I would pull over on the way to work because I was crying too hard to drive. Her departure was so hard to accept that there were times it felt like she was actually still here. A bay horse in a roadside paddock or even the sunlight on my back as I worked with one of my trainer’s horses would lull me into thinking I’d see her just around the next bend. But then, I’d jolt back into my unwelcome new reality.
I became obsessed with identifying my role in her death. The night before I found her colicing was a hot one. Sometimes horses roll when they’re hot. Sometimes rolling can cause nephrosplenic entrapment. Should I have hosed her down one more time before bedtime?
In reality, this wasn’t Reece’s first bout with health issues. She had coliced the previous year not long after I’d bought her, and her former owner had mentioned that she’d had some problems with her ovaries that were never clearly defined. When it came down to it, there may not have been much I could have changed to prevent Reece’s death, but the doubt lingered.
The summer drew to a close, and I began to feel fall in the air. I had the sudden realization one day that the rest of the world was moving forward, but I was still stuck in that moment when I made the decision to put Reece down.
“The seasons will change,” I remember saying to myself. “Everyone will move on.”
Family and horse friends expressed their condolences, but they stopped talking about Reece after a while. In my mind, though, losing her was the only thing that mattered, and I couldn’t figure out how I would be able to continue owning horses or to get back to life’s normal routines.
And then it hit me one morning as I was driving: Reece’s mother, Cheyenne, was still alive and of reproductive age. It became my sole mission to track her down — I felt if I could find her, I had a chance of moving on.
I didn’t know if I would be able to purchase her, but I had to try. I got in touch with the woman I had purchased Reece from, and she told me Chey belonged to a man who was using her in his breeding program. The man graciously allowed my mother and me to visit his Florida farm, and I almost could not breathe as he called his broodmares up. I had never laid eyes on Chey, and I didn’t know what to expect.
The mares came chuffing up to us from between huge oaks where they had been grazing. Chey’s owner pointed her out to us, and she shoved her way through the small herd, bossy and eager to socialize. She was bay like Reece, but a lighter shade, and she had a lot more chrome. Her wide blaze wrapped around her face in a mask, and white frothed up her legs like spilled milk. She whuffed into my hand with her pink muzzle and regarded us with shining brown eyes. She had none of Reece’s delicate fairy horse build. Her sturdy, 14-year-old body had already born several babies, and she was pregnant now with another.
Haltingly, I told her owner that I would like to buy her after she had this baby. It had been two months since Reece’s death, and I was still raw. I did not know what his answer would be. He had known Reece and had seen her potential. I held my breath waiting for his response. Incredibly, it was a “yes.”
We decided we would breed Chey on her foal heat — a standard practice for breeders as mares cycle a couple of weeks after giving birth. I spent the next few months caught up in the choice between two stallions. It would be either Reece’s sire, a fine stallion who was double registered, or another sire who was known to produce incredible paint horse hunters. In the end, I chose the second sire. Chey checked pregnant in Florida, and after her foal was weaned, I shipped her up to my home in North Georgia. She was only just bred, so I was able to ride her at first.
Reece’s trot had been her most distinctive gait. She would be suspended for a split second as the diagonal pairs of feet switched, and it gave her a breathtaking, almost surreal appearance. More than once, people had stopped to stare in busy show warmup rings. The suspension brought a distinctive lurch for her rider, and I had ridden many horses since her death searching obsessively and futilly for that feeling. I guess I was looking for a sign that she was still here in some way.
When I asked Chey for the trot, she sprang forward, and finally, finally, I felt that distinctive hesitation in the middle of the stride. I closed my eyes, and I was back on Reece.
Chase was born on a windy April morning almost two years after Reece’s death. He was white with two blue eyes and a chestnut war bonnet, which he shed once his foal hair was gone. Because of his underlying pink skin, his coat had a glistening sheen in the sun. He was stunning to look at, and his movement was what I had hoped for — huge trot, flat knee. Again, I had high hopes.
While I waited for Chase to mature and be started under saddle, I started showing Chey in dressage. Despite being in her teens, her previous show career and babies, she was willing to embark on this new journey. Tears spilled down my cheeks, and I threw my arms around her neck as we exited the arena after presenting a beautiful training level test at a recognized dressage show. It was apparent in Chey’s focus and responsiveness every time we showed that she was there not just to do a job but to perform to the fullest of her capabilities. I knew Reece would have been the same way.
Meanwhile, Chase was finally old enough to start under saddle, but the more I worked with him, the more apparent it became that he was not Reece. He did not seem to want the job I was asking him to do. He began balking under saddle, and the balking turned to aggressive bucking. I worked with him and got help from some area cowboys. He got pretty consistent under saddle with a firm hand, but I never really knew when he might go off script and do something unpredictable. In the back of my mind, I knew I had failed to replace Reece, but I was not ready to admit that fact even to myself.