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Somehow the least awful moment of the whole brutal day was when he went to his knees and then laid himself down and died. It was so quiet, and so–not painful, not panicked, just body down and head stretched out, and it was such a damn relief and so fucking sad.

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When I was a little girl, I started riding at the stable round the corner, and almost as soon as I started I was warned off one of the horses as unreliable and untrustworthy. It wasn’t until I was a lot older that I worked out that it was less Bad Nature and more Poor Training (with a healthy dash of Sliiightly Inbred thrown in there for good measure), and started ponying him around in an idle manner, getting to know him. I was eight when we met, and he was already twice my age with ludicrous conformation and atrocious ground manners, a bug-eyed, long-maned, stargazing, absent-minded Arabianish chestnut gelding.

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My mother rode him on trail rides, and he was my barn-sister’s first 4-H project; for him we invented a whole new way to put a horse on a trailer–involving two long ropes knotted together, gloves, leverage, and some serious patience–that drew stares at every show we went to. We always told people he was a little bit gay; he adored my gelding and was crazy about Justin, the horse he was raised with, before Justin passed away a number of years ago. He didn’t see well, had a tendency to whip his head back and forth when moving any faster than a trot which we never worked out an explanation for, and was deeply uncomfortable to ride bareback due to distressingly high withers. He had cataracts and string halt and Cushings, all of which made him look a little funny but never got in his way. And he was old. He was born at the farm, a mistake and a surprise, and we called him all sorts of things, Beetle and Beasley and B, Brian Timothy’s Surprise! and Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Doofus and BT.

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This morning, as I sat down at my desk, my phone rang and rang and rang again, and when I looked down at who was calling–Meg, my barn sister, my best friend–I knew. 45 later minutes I was out of the office and on the train, up the stairs, getting changed, and in her car on my way home. One look at him in the paddock told me that this had to be the day. He didn’t look unhappy, but he looked old and sick and ready to go, and one of the things I was taught growing up as a young horse-mad girl was that we owe the horses we love an end that is dignified and free of pain.
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We spent the rest of the day following him around, telling stories, petting him and feeding him cookies and carrots and hay and his favorite mushy-pellet lunch, sitting outside his open stall and talking and trying not to cry, and crying, and smiling through it because he had always been a weird, weird horse who licked you with the back of his tongue and did not respect your personal space because he just loved being near you too much. He stood on Meg’s toe and smacked me in the face with his nose and we laughed and shooed the flies away from his legs for him so he didn’t have to move his hurting feet to kick them.

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While we waited for the vet we put on his new halter and walked him down to the Long Field, where a grave had been dug for him next to where his mother, Huda, and Justin and Jenny and April and Pal, and all the dogs, were already lying underneath the hill. He wasn’t worried or upset, and stood for us to trim his mane until we all had a braided lock to put in our pockets or cling to, and then wandered around lipping at grass as we followed him as if he were leading us. All the pictures of those last few minutes we are smiling, because this was something he always did, walked those circles around us and into us, and because he deserved his last moments to be in the sunshine, with the people who loved him showing him that everything was alright. And then the vet came, and we all said our goodbyes in whatever way we needed to, hands against his shoulder, his neck, the sides of his long thin face, and then stood back to watch and wait and witness.

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Meg and I held him while the vet did what she had to, soothing him with our hands beneath his chin and with our voices, and because above all we are good horse people our hands were steady and somehow we did not cry until it was time to step away and let him go. But after that we clung with our arms around each other and sobbed as if our hearts would break because sixteen years ago we were little girls together watching BT through the fence.
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When he lay down to die he did it without fear, and when we knelt to stroke his face we knew we had done right. I was the one to take the halter off, and without it he looked calm and half-asleep, the pain that we had seen every line of him gone. And then one by one we got up from our knees, and walked away, listening to our vet tell us stories of death and birth and love.
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Some horses are good at telling you it’s time.
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