We refer to memories as “washing over” us or of them coming “flooding back.” Both idioms suggest a potentially negative experience of being overwhelmed by the power of recollection, of remembered emotions, as though a torrenting stream threatens to knock one off balance. But streams can be traversed with help – with a bridge, stepping stones, even with a helping hand to hold as you jump across – and over time the current smooths stone, just as time dulls painful memories. What is left, just as in panning for gold, are tiny nuggets of pure joy: the treasure.

This describes my relationship with Maverick, many memories of both pain, but thankfully mostly of joy … he is a horse, by the way, but a much loved member of my family. (Note: sarcoids are a benign form of skin cancer in horses.)


I watch him now, my “old man.”  I call him this, telling him that he is “in charge” of his paddock-mates, a well-earned retirement after countless sarcoid surgeries, and treatments for a persistent lameness that eventually forced us to give up riding together.

I remember his first surgery and arriving to pick him up from the equine hospital.  The surgeon excitedly and proudly detailed the success of the surgery, like a child running to show his parents the gold star pasted to a spelling test.  He walked us quickly to Maverick’s stall.  I rushed to keep up, my down coat too warm, my body achy and tired from being up most of the night – worrying.  A hot wave of nausea rolled through my body as I looked at Maverick – his eyes were flat, his head bowed, catheter remained in place and was taped to his neck, and a large curved section of tissue had been removed from his now-shaved ear.  Stitches were exposed along the edge of the incisions and the tied ends stuck out like insects. He looked like Frankenstein. I immediately chided myself for not realizing that of course it was necessary to remove a piece of his ear– the sarcoids had been large, heavy and round, and invasive. After reviewing his very limited, post-surgical feeding instructions, and already anticipating a soon to be very hungry and difficult-to-manage horse, we loaded him onto the trailer to take him home. We were given the removed sarcoids in a jar as we left … !

I watch him now, my “old man,” as he lays down in the warmth of the sun, legs tucked beneath him, resting on a bed of old hay. He spies me approaching him across the paddock and heaves himself, I can imagine his groans and can feel his stiffness, to his feet. He waits for me patiently, in place, as I walk through puddles and mud with a carrot in hand. A kiss to his nose as he chews and I rest my face against his neck, and reach up to run my hands through his forelock, our breaths mingle.

I remember cross country schooling with him; we made a good team; I was never very brave, and neither was he. But with time and practice and eventual mutual trust, we made the jumps. We approached downhill jumps too quickly, gaining speed on the descent, but with the slightest ask in my shoulders he’d respond and slow himself to jump safely. We cantered through water, hopping over logs and landing with a splash. We popped up, and lumbered down, banks. We cantered across knolls and fields, deftly maneuvering around neon spray-painted rocks, avoiding those harsh steps.  He’s a draft horse, meant to pull a plow, but he had fun and did what I asked –  apart from one coop, of easily manageable height, but with a black line spray painted in front of it. I saw a black spray- painted line, probably meant to represent a ground line, but what did he see? A deep crevice into which he’d tumble into a hellish abyss? The open cave from which monsters would spring unexpectedly to devour innocent and much loved horses? Maverick was known for having a dramatic imagination and looking for danger where it didn’t exist … let’s just say we never made it over that coop.

I watch him now, my “old man,” as he eats. I love him, but he’s a slob. He eats with his mouth mostly open. Food covers his nose, rimming his nostril, and is smudged above his eye. His rubs his face against the front stall bars and leaves a pile of saliva-moistened mush between them. He’ll go back and lick that up later.

I remember coming home from vacation one spring, eager to get back into the saddle. I was excited to arrive at the barn, a little bouncy really, happy to see Maverick. He’d been ridden by a fellow student while I was away and I heard about the rides they had done. I wondered a bit at the amount of jumping in such a short period of time, but he was a tough bugger and was used to it from his former, school-horse days.  And he seemed fine.

But within a few weeks he didn’t’ seem fine anymore. I couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong, but I could tell you that he wasn’t right, wasn’t acting like himself. Previously he’d tank me around a jump course, getting quite forward and eager by the third or fourth jump, there were times I’d pully-rein him back under control jumping a course in the arena … and now he resisted cantering.

He ignored my leg asking for canter. He ignored a “pony-club” kick, he ignored a tap with the crop. I pulled up beside the mounting block and told my coach, “he isn’t right, there’s something wrong.” She explained to me what was wrong: he was fine, it was me: I wasn’t confident and I was holding him back, he was taking advantage of my nerves and being lazy. “Hit him and he’ll go” – and he did.  I don’t normally regret things, choosing instead to try to learn from mistakes and not repeat them, but I still deeply regret that I waited three weeks before calling the vet. “He’s lame, right front, left front too actually” the vet said. I heard my coach explaining to him that I wasn’t confident and I was holding Maverick back with tight hands, and that’s why he was quitting jumps and not wanting to canter. She’d soon tell me that I shouldn’t jump anymore because I didn’t have the confidence for it – she was right, I didn’t anymore.

I also regret that I didn’t push for better diagnostics and a more comprehensive treatment plan. Instead we waited and waited until the vet finally told me one Saturday morning that Maverick could have an MRI, if we really wanted to know what was going on, but that they were expensive and he wasn’t worth it; we should consider letting him go. For a few days I tried to imagine doing just that, but couldn’t. I’m very thankful that I called, late one evening and holding back tears with a substantial lump in my throat, the surgeon who originally treated Maverick’s sarcoids. “Bring him in,” he told me.

It’s thanks to that surgeon at Milton Equine Hospital, that I still have Maverick with me today. He never let me give up on Maverick and certainly taught me to fight for him. We tried everything possible, new farrier, shoes, rehabilitation, time, but Maverick could never stay sound. The first time I was given permission to ride him, for five minutes of walking, after weeks of stall rest and months out of the saddle, I smile-cried until my face muscles hurt and my sleeve was wet from wiping the tears (and maybe a bit of snot) away.

I kept him under saddle, walking, allowing him a few steps of trot if he felt like it, for another few years, the rides eventually getting shorter and the time lapsing between then longer as he shifted in and out of lameness. We coined the term, “Maverick sound.” Eventually he began to weaken with age and the lack of exercise, to the point where he didn’t feel safe beneath me anymore; I knew he was struggling to keep me up on his back. After one beautiful summer ride at my sister’s farm, I told him he had done his job and he was done working. I thanked him for being such a wonderful riding partner, gave him a good groom and turned him back into the paddock with his horse friends.

I watch Maverick, my “old man,” as he plays in the field. He and his brother chase each other, snatching at halters and each other’s round bottoms. Up the hill and down the hill, feet kicking into the air, running “rocking horses” across the grass. I jokingly reprimand him and call out, “Mav, you’re an old man!”

I remember each moment with Maverick, holding them in my heart, seeing them reflected back to me each time I look into his eyes:

I remember his silly spooks, often at moving sunbeams, one resulting in my first broken bone.

 I remember the proud shift in his carriage at our first show, he was convinced he was a winner – and that day he was.

I remember the multiple surgeries, the injections, the hospital visits, the tranquilization needed to calm him for the hospital visits, and the time he bent the back door of the trailer, rushing to get out before we could actually open it, thereby jamming it shut with him inside.

I remember him falling asleep with his head resting on my shoulder one afternoon after a surgery, I remember the bruise on that shoulder.

I remember those first, wonderful steps when he floated in a frame, those steps were rare but felt magical and if I believed in unicorns, I believed in them then.

I remember him proudly telling me, via an animal communicator, that one time a bird landed on his back but he wasn’t scared.

I remember sitting outside with him in January, bundled up in horse blankets, keeping him company when he was on limited solo turnout, he’d roam around the tiny paddock, picking at the hay I had spread around, returning to nudge me with his nose every few minutes.

I remember riding him into a hard, driving snow: he put his head down against the wind and rode through the field until my hands were so cold we had to stop.

I remember our various moves from barn to barn, knowing he was scared, worried for him, but he’d watch me and stick to my side and quickly settle.

I remember the satisfying smell of warm horse snuggled against me.

I watch Maverick, my beloved “old man.” each night when I drive to the barn to say goodnight to him. He stands at his stall door, stepping back when I enter, and waits for me to run my hands along his body to ensure that all is well. White hairs now sprinkle across his cheekbones. His back is slowly hollowing. I ask how his day has been and he reaches his neck towards me, gently nudging my shoulder with his nose. I stand in stillness in front of him, bending slightly forward, hand smooth against the side of his face, our noses touch and as always, our breaths mingle as we say “goodnight.”