WE got the call Tuesday morning: our grand old gelding Snaffles had been found dead in his pasture. I suppose we shouldn’t have been shocked: he was 26 or thereabouts, and he had melanoma, and he didn’t care much for summer heat. But we were surprised. He had coped with the summer far better than expected, and his “gerontologist,” veterinarian Mike Beyer, had checked in on him as recently as Sunday and found him standing in the cool breeze of his fan, in good spirits and as healthy as a horse his age could be. Dr. Beyer, too, was stunned by the news that Snaffles had died overnight between Monday turn-out time and Tuesday morning breakfast.
Snaffles was as tough as a mountain goat and as wise as an owl. He was bred just over the hill from where I boarded him, the son of a broodmare by Braxton Bragg–famous for siring good jumpers around here in the 1980s. Snaffles was a Thoroughbred but was never, as far as I could tell, intended to race, though he would have made an excellent steeplechaser. He had legs as thick and strong as timber, and he seemed nearly impervious to pain. This stood him in good stead and surely contributed to his stout heart and courage: years before I ever knew him, he had slipped on some ice in a paddock, slicing open his right foreleg and severing, his then owner told me, a tendon. The advice at Rood & Riddle equine hospital was to put him down. But she insisted on his having surgery in an attempt to save him, and she took him home to recuperate. He recovered, although the incident left him with an enormous lump near his right knee that was a conversation piece wherever he went. He went on to event again under the name Granted Wish–a show name she had given him when her parents bought him for her after she fell in love with him at a riding stable.
Snaffles’s passion was the long gallop-and-jump, gallop-and-jump, which made him a good eventer before I bought him in August of 1996. He was good at it, with a strong, rythmic stride and a jump so smooth you hardly knew you’d taken a fence. He loved foxhunting, too, though I hunted him far less than I would have liked. His favorite thing was watching hounds, and he adored all dogs. When he first came to me, he had been turned out for several years while his previous owner was busy with her children. She sold him to me in order to give him a job again, but he was not, by that point, overeager to be caught andbrought in for work. For the first few weeks I had him, I could only catch him in his field by bringing my beagles with me. He couldn’t resist them and would approach immediately, lower his nose to them and gently sniff along their heads and backs, even letting them stand up and put their front paws on his legs to sniff him back.
In the hunt field, Snaffles was a freight train of a puller and never did see the point of standing at a check. In all things, including checks, Snaffles was in no doubt that he knew best and that your role as rider or handler or veterinarian, or whatever, was to try very hard not to interfere. He had his own agenda, and you, basically, were probably going to get in the way. He was aloof, aristocratic, and even sometimes imperious, but, it must be said, I never knew him to be wrong about anything.
Among the things he was right about was how to take care of himself and what was best for him. He could not tolerate being separated from the herd, but when out in the pasture with them he generally kept to the fringes, most content to be able to watch them without actually taking part, unless there was some running to be done. He quickly sussed out bossy horses and steered clear. On hot summer days, he could always be found tucked low on a hill or under one of several favorite trees, usually far from the rest of the herd, and those spots were, in fact, noticeably cooler and breezier than anywhere else. He enjoyed “his” pond and would stand for hours cooling his feet and belly and occasionally rooting his nose in the water, too.
The pond was like his neighborhood diner, the place he would while away the days in the company of the locals. When I would go visit him there I often found him surrounded by the frogs who sat around the muddy shoreline, looking at Snaffles as he looked at them. He was almost his own ecosystem: in the spring, when ladybugs were about, I generally found them resting on his back or hanging perilously off his long, shaggy forelock.
Snaffles, late in life, reminded me of a gnarled old oak, and he was certainly as strong. The older he got, the more he seemed to be returning to Nature. He had loved, more than anything, to go on trail rides down by the Kentucky River, and once the river was in sight he would stop and insist on standing for a long while just looking out at it. He often would veer off a trail when it passed a pond or creek and wade right in. It broke my heart when, in the summer of 2003, he became enough of a wobbler that I had to stop riding him and could no longer even hand walk him down the steep, rocky paths to his favorite river view.
But in this, as in everything, he coped very stoically, turning himself contentedly to his pond and to enjoying the winters, when he would brighten up immensely in even bitterly cold weather.
For the last several summers of his life, he and I had developed a routine that seemed to please his sense of order. I would arrive once or twice a day to give him a cool shower with the hose. Spotting me, he would often even leave the pond, where the sun was on his back even if his underside was cool, and walk up the hill to the barn. I’d open the gate, and he’d take himself straight to the hose. Eventually, any time he wanted a shower, whether I was there or not, he would stand on the outdoor wash pad, confident that one of the human valets would come and assist. They almost always did, even if it required shutting down a mower or getting off the ring harrow.
This summer, our clover has been especially lush, and Snaffles did love good grass. For much of the last couple of months, he was up in his stall (with company, as he required) where he could stand in the breeze from his fan. But once or twice a day, greeted by his loud neigh that clearly seemed to say, “Where have you been!” I would come to give him his shower, as usual, and clean and refill his water bucket. He so loved his clover that he would stand for a while under the cold water, then head off to the clover patch nearby, allowing me the time to go “change his sheets” in the stall and restock his water. By the time I was done, he’d usually be walking back to the wash pad for a second shower.
Even on days when Dr. Beyer came to check on him, Snaffles would stand for examination for a few minutes only, then drag me by the lead shank to the wash pad or the clover patch. He was this way about his baths, too: generally he was too busy to allow you to wash both sides without a fuss. Always impatient after a few minutes of standing, he preferred you to wash one side on one day and the other the following day. He was spoiled, I know, but he deserved it, and I complied with his wishes in this, as did others.
He could be affectionate, and he sometimes was with me, especially in his dotage. He was, in fact, a little jealous, and Idiscovered a few years after he came to me that he would allow himself to be led in with another horse by anyone but me. If I brought him in, I could not lead another horse in at the same time, or he would pin his ears and snap at the interloper. I was his, and he was mine.
We do not know how Snaffles spent his last evening, but his death, Dr. Beyer tells me, appears to have been peaceful and probably quick, possibly a heart attack. He died overnight near his beloved pond, and they found him lying on his left side, with no sign of struggle or abrasions that would indicate a fall. He was simply gone, as if he had decided that this was the night, and had lain down to die. He died as he lived: completely on his own terms.
My only regret is that I was already gone to Saratoga to cover the big yearling sale for the Daily Racing Form and did not get to say a proper goodbye. The Saratoga sale is a fancy affair, with the bidspotters in tuxedos, ladies dripping with diamonds, and yearlings as shiny as satin circling in the ring as the glitterati of the Turf cast hundred-thousand-dollar bids for them.
It sounds, I know, like an awful lot of fun. But standing there among the swells and socialites, I can tell you it was nothing like as much fun as standing in the heat of a July afternoon, holding a cold-water hose in service to that old horse. He was a king among his kind, and among us, too, and I would not have traded him for all the blueblooded yearlings and all the ladies’ diamonds combined. He was my friend, and I miss him.
He was buried yesterday evening near his old stomping grounds, with a box of his favorite Nature Valley oat bars by his nose and within a close walk to a view of the river. I know he’d like that.