Ritzy (registered name Bitaritz) was an Egyptian Arabian gelding, and
exceptionally kind and willing horse. I am a student of natural
horsemanship as well as equine facilitated therapy, and I sponsor groups of
children from the schools and our Boys and girls Club to come to our farm to
learn more about compassionate animal care. Ritzy was so patient and
friendly to all of the children and will be sorely missed. But how
rich it will be when the children arrive this spring and are able to visit
his grave and learn more about the cycle of life and death.
Ritzy’s death has been an impetus for me to feel such deep emotion, that I
wrote a book about healing and growing with animals that will be published
soon. I have enclosed the chapter that tells the remarkable story of
his death. Below is the chapter that tells the remarkable story of his
death. My intention is to write curriculum for the Boys and Girls
Clubs about compassionate animal care and all of the life lessons and
learning that come with spending time with them.
Chapter 17 Letting Go
Horses are wonderful teachers for learning when to hang on (sometimes for
dear life) and when to let go. They have incredible memories, but are
great examples of living in the present moment. If they get into an
altercation with another horse, shortly thereafter, they may be seen grazing
together side by side. ‘Live and Let Live’ and ‘For the Good of the
Herd’ may well be their mottoes.
Humans have a consciousness about living for the greater good and universal
abundance with love for all, too. Often it is just buried in our
society’s models for competition, creating divisiveness and fear.
It is easy to ride a horse with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on
the brake, in fear, not trusting them to stop or go. Once again,
smooth acceleration and deceleration depends on trusting the process and our
part in it. It is truly difficult to see the bigger picture when we
are stuck thinking it is all about us. Keeping a perspective on where
we fit into the grand scheme can be tricky, to be sure, but Nature gives us
a beautiful model for understanding my son’s favorite passage in
Ecclesiastes: There is a time and purpose for everything under Heaven.
A time to die. Our beloved Arabian horse, Ritzy, had been ailing on
and off for some time. He always seemed to keep going, like the
Energizer Bunny, but during the cold days of winter, he seemed to be in his
I came to find him one morning, relaxed and ready to eat breakfast, the
bottom of his blanket iced over. Puzzled, I checked his inner wool
blanket. Bone dry. That is when Gary rushed over to see if we
were all right. From the upstairs window, he had seen a hole in our
frozen pond. Sure enough, we could see where Ritzy had broken through
and thankfully made a U-turn up to the bank. Had he fallen asleep and become
disoriented? Though seeming to come through it unscathed, within a few
weeks, he lost interest in eating, completely out of character for him.
In spite of the very best care offered in holistic and traditional methods,
he grew weaker. Chasta reversed the roles and became his guardian,
mindful of his dignity. The emotions that surface when faced with
making decisions about the quality of life for someone we love can challenge
us to our core. Most horses spend multiple hours and times during the
day and night resting and sleeping on the ground. The legendary
racehorse, Seabiscuit, loved nothing more than long naps flat out. He
must have known that it would give him the power and energy to run flat out,
Sadly, over the years, Ritzy did not allow himself to rest on the ground—he
spent far too much time being vigilant. That extended hyper vigilance
led to his early demise. What a life lesson that has been for me to
observe. He was a senior horse, a true elder, but oh!—that we might
have his gentle countenance and throaty nickers a little longer. But I
heard a clear message: It’s time. Though he tried to stay on his feet
it was not long before he would fold down again, exhausted. I called
Gary, Evan, our vet, and my good friend Joanne, Ritzy’s former owner.
Joanne arrived earlier than we had agreed upon. She had a knowing, and
when I reached for my phone to call her and ask that she come now, she
pulled up our driveway. She took one look and said, “Oh, Ritzy” and
then to me, “It’s time.” It was the same words that I had heard
distinctly that morning. We made a bed with fresh shavings under one
of the remaining cedar trees behind the stable. We were lying wit him,
Chasta standing nearby, when Evan pulled up the driveway in his truck.
“Mom?” he hollered, not seeing us behind the stable. I had told the school
secretary to tell him his mother and Ritzy needed him—he knew. Ritzy,
calm, but lying with his head on the ground, pricked his ears to the sound
of Evan’s voice, and staggered to his feet for the last time. “Oh,
Ritz”, was Evan’s greeting, too, as he buried his face in the neck of his
devoted friend. Rolling waves of sadness surrounded us as we shared
our feelings of love for this incredibly sweet animal.
Evan helped Ritzy back to his final resting spot on the ground. Dr.
Ingman arrived, and though Chasta has great affection for him, she hid
herself from sight. She knew. Dr. Ingman agreed that this end
was very near and that in spite of his peaceful appearance, he was suffering
greatly. We all said our final goodbyes, and thanked him for all he
had so generously given us. He seemed to soak up all the love with
great dignity and peace. After everyone left, I asked Evan if he would
help me make a cross for his grave. “I can’t now, Mama”, he said.
“I have to run”. He and Ritzy used to run on the ground to the river
down the farm fields, in perfect harmony, connected by an invisible thread,
with the lead rope folded across his withers. The invisible rope is
the strongest kind.
Gary called our wonderful neighbor, Doyle, who agreed to bring his backhoe
and bury Ritzy. As I laid there by myself with his body, I saw Chasta
peeking out at us from the always open door of her stall. “It’s OK,
girl, everything is all right”, I offered. And in that instant I
recognized the complete incongruence of that utterance. It was not OK!
It was awful, sad, painful—anything but OK—I was being as clear as mud to
the mare that meant so much to me. It can be a mother’s natural
instinct to help others feel better and that is beautiful. But as
women, we have also been conditioned to help others at their peril if we
immediately pretend not to feel what is really going on, and not allow the
full range of emotional response. When I tell Chasta, or anyone else,
that it’s OK, I want her to know that is what it means. If the horses
are teaching me anything—or if I am learning, it is to know and speak my
truth in that moment. So I apologized to her and said, “Actually
Chasta, I feel just awful. Ritzy is dead and my heart hurts so badly
that I can hardly bear it, but we are here when you are ready.” She
looked at mean a long time with soft eyes, recognizing my return to my core.
She walked over slowly, ears forward and went to his head. Evan had
covered it with a small wool saddle blanket after he passed over because it
made him so sad. I was stretched out over his body, sobbing, in
reaction to the reverence she had for her dearest friend. She sniffed it,
then carefully took it in her teeth and pulled it away. When she saw
his stilled face, she cocked her head and looked confused. Like humans
facing the finality of death, it seemed as hard for her to accept his life
was over. She leaned over to his nostril to exchange breath, as horses
greet each other, and when there was no response, she yelped, shrilly, like
a dog, and jumped back, startled. I have never heard a sound anything
like that from a horse. Then she did it again, this time more
strongly. Then she started to nibble at his nostrils and blew, slowly
and deliberately, then more frantically. She sniffed down the area to his
neck where it was shaved to the lesion where a plum-sized abscess had been
drained a week before. It was deflated and leathery and she licked it
furiously, going between the lesion and his nose as if she were attempting
to resuscitate a slow to thrive or stillborn foal. She worked
diligently for most of an hour, while I watched in awe and wonder. It
was one of the saddest and most beautiful experiences that I had ever had.
To be a sacred witness to love is one of the greatest privileges we can have
in life. Finally, she hung her head in resignation, all the way to the
ground. Then she looked slowly and painfully at me. “We both did all
we could from him, Girl—we have to trust that”, I told her. Then she
raised her head slowly to the sky and blasted the loudest trumpet sound I
have ever heard from a horse. It was as if she was proclaiming his
passage to all life.
A few minutes later, Gary and Evan appeared to say goodbye. Evan was
attending a science lecture at the college that he needed for credit in his
high school chemistry class. Gary did not want him to drive alone in
the state he was in so decided to go with him. Gary chose to remember Ritzy
as he had that morning when he said goodbye. We stood together a short
distance from where Chasta hung her head over Ritzy’s body and hugged,
releasing our grief in a wet, collective embrace. In that moment, in
Evan’s words, “the largest, lowest, most perfect V-formation of Trumpeter
Swans” flew directly over us all, and then made a sharp ascent. “They
are taking Ritzy’s spirit to Heaven, Mama”, Evan smiled through his tears.
“V for Victory”, I smiled back. Trumpeter Swans. It was as if
they heard and responded to Chasta’s own blast.
As Gary and Evan left, my dear friend, Kathy, drove up our driveway toward
the stable. I introduced her earlier as my horsewoman mentor.
She has taught me so much and I was intending to call her in that moment to
see if she wanted to say a final goodbye. I didn’t have to. She
pulled up and opened her car door. “It’s over, isn’t it?” She
had been at her daughters when she jumped up, attending to her inner
knowing. She had a meaningful time with Chasta and Ritzy where he lay and
her timing was perfect as Doyle arrived with his back hoe and it allowed me
to be with Chasta while she opened gates for him. It was getting dark
and very cold and started to rain. She needed to leave to tend to her
own horses, so I said a prayer of gratitude again for the rich friendships
these magnificent animals encourage.
Chasta and I watched Doyle, an artist with heavy equipment, maneuver his
huge machine by the headlight. He dug the enormous hole and lowered
the body. He turned off the motor and stood down next to Ritzy, who
looked like a sweet, sleeping colt. Then he said tenderly to Chasta, “This
is where we will all be one day, Girl. Now I will step back so you can
say goodbye to your best friend.” She looked softly at him for a
while, then she lowered her head and stepped back. He covered Ritzy’s body
with a wool blanket I gave him, then started to fill in the hole. I
wanted Chasta to know where his body was to help her cope with her loss.
She and Ritzy shared and unusually close pair bond. Doyle had
unearthed a huge rock in the digging process and I asked him to please put
it on top as a grave marker. He told me that he knew I would want it,
so that is why he had set it aside. Yet another knowing without spoken
words. I had told him I would get my checkbook and he shook his
head—“That is what neighbors are for”. I tried to insist, but he just smiled
and got into his big rig. More tears of gratitude.
After he left, Chasta and I walked to the gravesite and I sat upon the rock
and cried anew. Chasta sniffed the ground, then ran to the place close
by where his body had laid and trumpeted a shrill cry. Then to the
grave and back again, head up with another plaintive cry. She called out
into the night many times.
The next morning Robert Eagle Bear and Mary Snowdown called to say they had
been prayerfully gathering white fathers on the beach the day before and had
thought strongly of us and asked if we were all right. I told them
about Ritzy and Chasta and the swans. They said in their traditions,
the swan meant help in sorrow, and that the ascending birds were symbolic of
Ritzy’s ‘Swan Song’—his loving goodbye.
In the days immediately following his death, I felt cloaked in the presence
of our mutual love. I had a deep sense that his final gift for me was
for his death to be a gateway to feel and truly embody my long held sorrow.
To really grieve my pain and loss—not just for him but for all the motions
frozen in my soul. He had crashed through the ice, freeing me to
plunge into the icy waters of deep forgiveness that lead to the warmth of
To let go.