I’m crushed today, the living embodiment of a grief so deep — and a surviving joy so strong — that nothing else, right now, can take the edge off.
Influence and I had a major love affair. My husband, Eric, once said to me, “I hope you never have to choose between me and that horse, because Influence will surely win.”
Influence passed a few days ago at age 32. Because he was ten years beyond the “expiration date” for his breed (Dutch Warmblood), I began to think he would live forever. And he will. He became part of me, and I of him.
I don’t know if you’ve ever loved a horse up close and personal. If you have, you’re with me right now. If you haven’t, here’s what it’s like.
I was a late bloomer to horses, in fact, embarrassed to admit, on the shady side of 40. When I moved to yet another ranch, I could see people on horseback nearby. Intrigued, I ran right over, introduced myself, and pleaded, “Can I get on?”
The neighbor’s place was a cutting ranch. The horse I mounted that morning was trained to separate (“cut”) cattle and other livestock from herds so ranchers could deal with them individually.
That same day, I quickly learned just how far it was from the horse to the ground. My steed cut quickly back and forth, and I didn’t have a clue. Riding a cutting horse is like riding a tilt-a-whirl without a seatbelt. Yikes!
Undaunted, I sought out a dressage trainer, having witnessed the beautiful ballet-like marriage of horse and rider in that discipline. The next day I met Laura, the perfect trainer, and away we went, searching for the perfect horse.
It took an entire year to find Influence. We looked literally every weekend from dawn to dusk, up and down the length and breadth of California, until my vedic astrologer finally announced, “Eureka, Influence is the one.”
Even though Influence was green (four years old instead of the customary five) and thus technically a bit young for dressage training, and even though I was even greener (a true babe in the woods, having barely ridden), Influence’s breeder released him a year early because (frankly) I drove them crazy. I simply wasn’t able to leave him behind, once we had chosen each other, which was obvious from the moment we met. As young as he was, Influence was so sane, so quiet (even unridden and unbroken), that the breeder finally relented and let me take him home.
Of course, everything was ready when I got him home: the “bassinet,” the blankets, the toys — you name it. I spared no expense for this blessed event.
Influence upended my life in the best possible ways. I took all my meals outside with him, and even slept in his stall for a week the time he had an adverse reaction to a vaccine. Doing so, however, toppled our relationship. Forever after my sleeping on the floor, beneath his feet, he considered himself in charge —a condition from which he never recovered, much to Laura’s consternation. But, given his affable personality, he was very kind and compassionate (if sometimes sassy), it never became a problem. But I must have lost a hat a week to his sense of humor and penchant for hats made of straw.
Influence simply couldn’t fathom why he wasn’t allowed to sit on the couch when my dog (of whom he was insanely jealous) could, so I invited him inside. (Yes, all 1500 pounds.) That seemed to satisfy him; fortunately, he sought the same proximity, not necessarily the same seating arrangement As soon as weather permitted every Spring, we moved outside and slept in a tent near him.
Influence was a stunner, looks-wise. Coal black with a white blaze and four white socks. In fact, he was so remarkable that the breeder talked me into entering him in the annual Keuring where experts came from the Netherlands, searching for the perfect horse. Influence won for North America and came in second worldwide that year. At which time I advised him not to get a big head, telling him “pretty is as pretty does!”
Because Influence spoke perfect English and I spoke decent Horse, we had no trouble communicating. When my friends would pull out their baby pictures, I would pull out his photos. And I’m sure it was no coincidence that I adopted him the year after that my doctor told me pregnancy was definitely not in the cards.
I took Influence everywhere I went: the dentist, the gas station, the grocery store. He would stand patiently in his trailer, nibbling on hay, and wait for me.
We were inseparable.
In an effort to always keep Influence between myself and the ground, the cardinal rule of horsemanship, I decided to expose him to as many experiences as possible to render him spook-proof. (when a 1500 pound dressage horse “spooks,” he moves sideways at lightening speed as you go flying through the air).
We already had a dozen llamas, and Influence had a great time gaily chasing them around the field, never getting within nipping distance of Mama Llama, who wouldn’t have taken kindly to any interference with her herd. He was, however, afraid of the cattle we saw on our forays into the wilderness around Lake Tahoe, so I got him a 1-day old calf I named Bessie, and bottle-fed her in his stall, to get him used to cows. Bessie turned into a stunning black and white dairy cow of the same weight as Influence and they were fast friends, but he continued to spook at cattle in the mountains, telling me “they aren’t Bessies.”
That same year, I collected peacocks, ostriches, chickens, ducks, a goat named Mr. Goat, and a pig, a big favorite in the family. Always subscribing to the belief that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess, I even got a pond of trout to round out the ranching experience.
Influence and I talked about doing the annual cattle drive over the mountains in Nevada, but, fortunately, we backed out on that idea. One of us probably would have been killed — or died trying!
Influence never seemed to age beyond the age of eight (in human years). So, I always had this charming companion who woke up every morning, wanting to know what fun was planned for the day.
OUR TWO TIFFS
My equine friend only got mad at me twice. One time I was putting sunscreen on his white nose when he lost his balance and fell down right in front of me. He said, “You pushed me!” I said, “I did not. You lost your balance!” Two minutes later, all was forgiven.
The other time was the first time he caught me riding another horse. Oh boy, was he ticked off! To communicate his extreme displeasure, he turned his big butt to me and refused to talk to me for the rest of the day.
Fortunately, after I explained to him that I needed more training than he did, my “indiscretions” were permitted so long as I didn’t get too cozy with any of these older schoolmaster horses.
HORSE SHOWS WERE A BLAST
Influence and I attended scores of horse shows and what fun that was! We’d get all dressed up and blow an entire weekend having a ball with other horse-crazy people. It doesn’t get much better than that, except for the countless moments in his stall, or pasture, or in the mountains, or inside the house, when we’d commune with each other, content just to spend precious, peaceful moments together.
END OF THE TRAIL
Sadly, I had to quit riding before Influence was ready to quit due to a mountain climbing accident, but I made sure he had a warm bed, a roof over his head at night, fields of green grass, plenty of horse friends (including a girlfriend ☺︎), and all the treats he could safely handle.
He was bucking and running until one morning earlier this past week, when he suddenly went off his feed. Nothing could be done, and he was dead by nightfall. I was there at his passing and I felt his enormous spirit go through me as he headed for greener pastures in the sky.
It is impossible, still, to imagine his pasture or paddock without him standing there, with that impish gleam in his eye, waiting for me. I know he’s up there, in horse heaven, and that, one day, he’ll be there waiting for me, to usher me through the pearly gates. Rest in peace, Influence, until we meet again.