Once in a Lifetime Horse - A True Love Story

Most people only dream of true love…. 

I lived it. 

When I was fourteen, my Mother let me adopt a wild Mustang from the Bureau of Land Management. We drove three and a half hours inland to the holding corrals in Susanville, California. Each corral held dozens of nervous Mustangs milling about like a school of fish avoiding prey. Immediately I spotted a beautiful black stallion in the bunch. Mom said no. 

“Come look at this little bay over here,” she said. “ I've been watching her. Not too aggressive, not too fearful….and look at those legs.” She was pretty! A signature on the dotted line and a fifteen dollar fee later, she was mine. 

20 months old and very underweight, I could hide my fingers between her ribs under that dried out matted coat. Skinny chest, narrow hips and legs that seemed too long she was like a big awkward puppy. She grew. By the time she was three I was riding her all over the neighborhood and into town. Mostly bareback, sometimes with a saddle. She continued to grow. She had a case of the long tall skinnys, like you see with teenage boys in High School. 

By the time she was six years old she was a twelve hundred forty five pound, sixteen hand tall powerhouse. That’s five foot, three inches too the top of her shoulder. Her chest and hip had filled out. Not the big bulky Quarter Horse kind of muscles, but the long lean Thoroughbred kind. Deep chest and legs a mile long, I was riding her everywhere. We had to ride over the Highway 101 overpass to get into town. It was the only way to the candy store. After all, a girl has got to get her chocolate fix! 

Diesel trucks, motorcycles, traffic, dogs, chainsaws…she feared nothing. We used to joke that she would make a great prospect for the New York Mounted Police. But she didn't belong in New York City. She belonged with me; riding the trails, beaches and backwoods of Northern California. We spent countless hours riding, exploring every nook and cranny; trespassing private properties I never told my Mother about….barrel racing, parades, trail rides, pack trips…. we did it all. 

I went to her when I was happy. I went to her when I was bored. I went to her crying my eyes out with teenage injustices. She was a good listener. She was my best friend. She was perfect. She was more than perfect. As far as I’m concerned, she was the most beautiful creature on four legs to ever walk the Earth. 


I was lying flat on my back, in the hospital on strict bed rest. I was six plus months pregnant with twins and diagnosed with Preeclampsia. It’s a temporary disease that pregnant women can get. It is life threatening. The only cure is to not be pregnant any more. The trick was to stay pregnant long enough for the babies lungs to mature. The nursing staff was monitoring my blood pressure round the clock. My blood pressure was hovering on the edge of an emergency cesarean to save my life. 

“If your blood pressure gets any higher we will take the babies,” I was told. “They may not be able to breathe on their own. We may have to fly them to San Francisco by helicopter to a more advanced neonatal unit. Try and stay relaxed.” 

Stay relaxed! The nurses were checking my blood pressure every two hours. I was scared. The nurse approached with the arm cuff. “Please,” I asked her. “Will you give me five minutes? I need a few minutes to get my pressure down before you take the reading.” 

I closed my eyes. We were standing at the hitching post. I could smell that sweet earthy smell, with just a hint of horse sweat. I took a long deep breath just to take it all in. With brush in hand I started just behind her right ear. Short swift brush strokes chased the dust from her coat. I lifted her thick black mane that hid the BLM freeze brand on her neck and brushed underneath. I moved to her shoulder. The wind would catch the dust that came from her coat and blow it back on to me. Horse dirt. The best kind of dirt in the world. Copper highlights in her coat glistened in the sun. I brushed her back and belly and ran my hand into her silky tawny colored armpit. I brushed the caked dirt off her long black legs and admired the elegant black points of hair that grew just behind her beautiful hooves. She had good feet. The vet told me she had the best looking feet he’d ever seen on a horse. She was just like that. Perfect all over. I didn't bother with her long black tail. It was just messy enough to suit us both. I just getting ‘round to the other side when I was rudely interrupted. 

“It’s time to take your blood pressure.” The nurse had returned to do the dirty deed. She jotted down the results on her chart and then looked at me curiously. “How do you do it? How are you keeping your blood pressure down?” she asked. 

“It’s quite simple really. I've been brushing my horse.” 

The News

My mare had developed an annoying little cough that just refused to go away. Then came the dreaded news. “She is in the early stages of emphysema,” explained the vet. ”It’s very common here in Humboldt County. This moist air is a Mecca for mold and allergens. There’s nothing that can be done for it. When the disease progresses farther, you can bring her in for steroid shots. It will help her breathe easier for about six weeks. Just bring her in at the beginning of the riding season. The shots will buy you time; but I have to tell you, eventually they will not help her.” My heart fell on the floor. 

The first steroid shot lasted all season. Next year it took two. It took three shots the year we rode the Marble Mountains. Every ride was precious. The months rolled by and I watched her disease progress. But it wasn't going to get that bad. I wasn't going to let it happen. Not to her. She was too good for that. “Help me keep an eye on her Mom. When she begins to show the first signs of distress, I am going to put her down,” I said firmly. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let her suffer a moment.” 

The day came when I knew what had to be done. We had two hours before the vet would arrive. I took her down to the lower pasture were the green grass was over a foot high. I talked and she grazed and listened. We reminisced twenty years of adventures together. 

“Do you remember being in the wild before you came to me? When you ran with the herd in Washoe County, Nevada? And you played with the other yearlings on those long skinny legs of yours? I would have loved to have seen that! You were free before you came to me. You are my first love. You are my best friend. You gave me freedom. You gave me pride. You gave me more pleasure than a person could ever dream. You gave me your heart. I can not ask for more than that.

It is time for me to give you your freedom back. The Vet is going to come and he’s going to help me open the gate. When he does, I want you to run out as fast you can… wild and free because you’re a Mustang; it’s in your blood! No more fences. It is time for you to go play. I don’t want you to worry about leaving me. When I’m finished here, we’ll go on a ride together, I promise. You know how exciting it is when we’re on a new trail!” 

The Vet came. I did not shed a tear. I could not then and I can not now. Love is bigger than death. She is not gone. She is not lost to me. Love can not be divided by time or dimensions or a whole universe. I will see her again and no one will ever convince me otherwise. 

It's You!

She came to me in a dream. Have you ever seen the ghosts in the Great Hall in the Harry Potter movies? It was just like that. She came running right through the walls, barreling down, straight at me. She was followed by a ghostly dust cloud as she slid to a wild stop. She was alive with joy and energy. Her eyes were bright and playful. She tossed her big head and let out a great big blow. 

“Hello Beautiful,” I smiled with recognition. My heart swelled with so much love it nearly burst from my chest. With that she spun around on her heels and thundered out, right through the wall. Wild and free as the inter-dimensional wind she blew in on. It was a great big beautiful hello from a great big beautiful Mustang. She always leaves my smiling! 

And I will see her again. 

Written by Cathy Cleveland © 2011

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