Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Old Possum, My First Horse, Part Four: Farewell to My Friend

To read this story from the beginning, click here.

After we got the ranch, I was riding nearly every day
and finally had a saddle when I rode Old Possum.

Possum was well past middle age when he became part of our family in 1953, but the 6-1/2 years we owned him were wonderful years. As my first horse he gave me confidence and a lot of experience — lessons that would stay with me through the rest of my career with horses. By the time he died, we had several other horses and a ranch, and I was living my dream — riding horses nearly every day and helping take care of cattle — and raising my first foal.

After our family had spent two summers at the cabin on our little place up Withington Creek, my father bought the neighboring ranch when it came up for sale in 1955. He also bought a small herd of Hereford cattle, and we had several more horses. Possum was one of our “work string” whenever we needed to ride out on the range to check on the cattle or move them. He wasn’t the fastest horse when we had to chase a cow, but he did his job very well. My dad also took Possum on hunting trips every fall, using the faithful old horse to ride or to pack out a deer or elk for our winter’s meat.

My brother (on Scrappy), Dad (on old Possum), and me (on Ginger),
heading out through the orchard to ride range and check on our cows

Old Possum was still healthy and strong through his final summer. We used him as a spare horse when we needed more riders to gather and move cattle or when friends and relatives came to visit and wanted to ride. My mom, who had no horse experience and no desire to ride horses, overcame her timidity enough to ride Possum a few times during the years we had him; he was the only horse she felt was completely trustworthy.

After my baby sister was born (12 years younger than I), Mom let me take her with me on Possum for short rides when she was just a toddler. We sometimes let her sit in the saddle by herself as the old horse grazed in the orchard; we knew he would take good care of her. He’d walk out around the low-hanging branches of the apple trees — and never tried to brush her off under the trees. He was always very dependable whenever small children or inexperienced riders were involved.

One of my friends riding Possum, helping me (riding
Ginger) bring home a young cow and her calf

By contrast, he didn’t have as much patience with riders who made him work hard. He did his job when he had to chase cattle or travel all day in the mountains, but he preferred to be ridden by children.

On occasion when we’d start out in the morning and Possum suspected that it was going to be a long range ride or cattle roundup, he’d start limping. This must have been a trick he’d learned in years past. The first few times he did this, his rider would think the old horse had a problem and would be inclined to take him back home. But miraculously, when heading back home, the limp disappeared! We realized this must have been an old trick he’d discovered, to get out of a hard day’s work. But when we didn’t head back home, he’d give up the lame act and do his job.

His age caught up with him during the fall of 1959. His old joints became stiff and sore during cold weather. He had trouble getting up and down and didn’t want to walk around very much. We put him in the corral, where he could be fed hay and not have to travel to feed and water or compete with the younger horses for food. My dad broke ice for him at the creek.

Getting Possum ready for one of my cousins to ride

Because he was standing around, with very little exercise, his hind legs began to swell. Our vet thought he was suffering from kidney failure and prescribed medication to put in his grain. One morning (November 12, 1959) when Dad checked on him — while I was in school — he found the old horse lying down, unable to get up. The kindest thing to do was let him go.

I felt really sad that I didn’t have a chance to say good-bye, but I also knew it would have been cruel to let the old horse suffer any longer on the cold, frozen ground. I knew in my heart that my dad did the only humane thing. So as a young horse owner, I learned that love is a two-way street. We love the creatures put into our care, but we also have a great responsibility to do what’s best for them in life — and also when it comes time to end that life. I no longer had Possum, but I had all the good memories he left with me.

In my 4-H scrapbook I drew sketches of my special old horse and bade farewell to Possum, who started me along the road to good horsemanship. I found a poem that expressed many of my own emotions and copied it into my scrapbook:
A Parting
I love the earth your hoofs have pressed, the far skyline your eyes caressed;
The sunny days, the hills, the glades, the wind-stirred trees, the rugged trails
Are all more beautiful to me because you lived life joyfully.
And as you go, as all must do, I’ll keep the truths I learned from you.
(author unknown)

My baby sister loved to sit in a saddle,
whether it was on a horse or on the fence

My dad later wrote a poem about the hard task of love, releasing an old beloved horse from the bonds of pain. This poem was among a group of poems he later printed in a small pamphlet (Ranchland Poems, by Don Ian Smith).
Old Horse
Old faithful horse, I find you by the creek.
You try to stand but you are much too weak.
I know the end has come for you at last;
Too many times has winter come, and passed.
Too many times we’ve heard the blackbirds call
In spring; watched summer turn to fall.
And I have tried before with pills and grain
To get you on those ancient feet again.
But I can tell this time it cannot be.
It’s in the way you moan and look at me.
You’ve been a great old horse, all I could ask.
You’ve never backed away from any task.
So many years have come to take their toll
Since first you came, a bright-eyed little foal.
When you were young and strong you knew no fears
But now it’s been so many, many years.
O God, I wonder why it has to be
This hard and lonely act is left to me?
Love leaves no choice as far as I can see
But quick and kindly death to set you free.
I’ll get my gun down from the rifle rack.
Old friend, how many times you’ve had to pack
Some big old buck down off the steepest hill
When this same rifle made its smashing kill.
I’ll blink away the salty, futile tears,
Forget a moment, all the pleasant years.
I could not stand the sense of foolish shame
I’d feel if blurring vision spoiled my aim.
It’s hard for me to do this final task
And yet somehow I know it’s all you ask.
I cannot leave you lying here to die
By inches, while impatient magpies fly
Around your drooping head. They will not wait
The dignity of death to seal your fate.
There’s only one thing left for me to do,
And that’s to send this bullet straight and true
To smash your aching, aged, weary brain
And cut the snubbing rope of age and pain
That keeps your poor old body firmly bound
To this one little spot of frozen ground.
O God, it’s done . . . it’s all that I could do!
I think I feel, God, how it must hurt you
When your love takes a mortal life away
To set a spirit free, to let it play
Once more out in the pasture of the sky
Where grass is always green and bluebirds fly.

As the old horse faded out of this life, he left behind
many wonderful memories and kept his special place in my heart.

To read previous entries in the Notes from Sky Range Ranch series, click here.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

1 comment:

Diana said...

What a sad, sweet story. Thank you. And the poem was heartbreaking, but well-said.