Dash’s Horse Chestnut Tree:
There is a new tree in our yard this fall, right next to the corral fence. It is a horse chestnut tree – Dash’s horse chestnut tree. Part of Dash’s tail and mane are comingled among the tree roots, along with those of our old mare, Hannah, who passed on last spring.
Dash came to his end in July, the day after my birthday. He was in a hurry, as always, to accomplish the task at hand and move on to the next endeavor.
I realize I am not the first person to lose a treasured equine friend. And I make no claims that my loss is greater, or that my horse was better, than anyone else's. But because I am a writer by vocation and avocation, I type out my anguish. It is a form of release for me. This essay is both catharsis for me and homage to my Bud.
His real name was Tazmania Cash, AQHA registered and a grandson of the great Dash for Cash. I know he was born in Oklahoma and raced in Arizona, where he established a lackluster record of a couple of wins and showings over two years of track competition. But running remained in his temperament until the very end. Two weeks before he died, completing a two-hour trail ride, we found a straight stretch of dirt road we both knew well, with a mild uphill grade, and I let him go. I made my 6'4" frame and 235 pounds do as good an imitation of a jockey as possible and we ran with abandon for a little more than a quarter mile.
I acquired Bud when he was seven years old. My daughter, then in high school, declared that I could not call him Taz based on his registered name, but Dash would be all right. That became the name use when talking with others about him. But when I talked to him, it was always Bud.
His track career was long since over when I bought him, but the woman who owned him previous to me had used him as a barrel racer. At 16.3 hands, with long thoroughbred legs, that seemed to me an unlikely undertaking for him. But I learned over the years how quick he was with his feet and those long legs, even in awkward circumstances.
I was in my late 40s then, fulfilling an aspiration I'd had since I was a youngster -- to riding jumping horses. But the Quarter Horse I had at the time was too small and to tentative to be a good jumper and, especially, an eventer. I traveled from Colorado to Arizona with my trainer to look for young prospects within my price range and, after riding a half-dozen different horses, decided to take a chance on Dash. The trainer who was selling him on consignment had lounged him over some fences in a round pen, and said he seemed willing. But he had not been jumped under saddle.
Even so, he took to jumping with a passion after a few weeks devoted exclusively to ground work. He was bold and athletic, even with a large, barely experienced rider on his back. His only fault was that he had learned well the lesson of his two previous occupations: Speed was the answer to every problem.
Although I'd written bucking horses in rodeos as a young man, and had my share of horses who tried to take the bit in their mouths and run, I was intimidated by Dash at first. He was so large and so strong. But I soon realized that while he wanted to go fast, he wasn't going to run away with me. He listened and responded, as long as I didn't hang on the reins or make stupid requests.
The closest I came to being seriously injured riding Dash came one day when we were schooling in the jumping arena. He was, as usual, charging each fence. I decided to teach him a lesson. When he rushed the next fence instead of staying steady and collected, I pulled him up hard. Then I hauled back several times, demanding that he back up.
Many horses have reared up on me over the years. I even had one gelding I tried to teach the trick -- like Roy Roger's Trigger -- until my mother caught me at this back-pasture training one day. But every horse that had reared on me did so at a reasonable pace. When I thought about it afterward, these scenes would run through my mind in slow motion. I could see the horses stand and recall my own reaction to them, whether I responded with fear, anger or pleasure.
That wasn't the case with Dash. I don't remember him rearing up. I only knew that one second we were stopped in front of the jump, with me jerking on the reins; the next second I was falling backward onto the sand and Dash was coming down on top of me. My riding companion would tell me later that he just seemed to launch himself up and backward, faster than any horse she had ever seen rear.
The deep sand of the arena saved me, along with the fact that Dash didn't land squarely on top of me, but rolled slightly to the side as he fell. Even so, I feared for a while I had cracked my pelvis. I was seriously shaken.
This was, of course, a case of pilot error. I mention it, not to show how terrifying Dash could be, but to show how inexperienced I was with truly athletic horses. I learned a lot from that incident about how to work with Dash -- it didn't involve spurs and big bits. Most of our jumping career together was a struggle for me to remain balanced and relaxed while Dash did his job. If I rode that way, he relaxed and took the jumps at a steady collected pace. If I didn't, we rushed.
I also learned how different he was from other horses I'd ridden since my childhood days -- ponies, cowhorses, long-legged runners -- none of them had the speed or reflexes that he did.
As I said, Dash had a mediocre racing career, but he was the fastest horse I've ever ridden. It's hard to imagine what it be like to ride a spectacular race horse.
If Dash's athletic ability came close to causing serious injury in the backward-launch incident, it came far more often to my assistance, especially when jumping or going cross-country.
More than once, he bailed us both out when poor positioning or ineffective riding got us in a jam. Once, in a tight stadium course, I was much too far forwarded when we landed after a jump. All that weight above his neck and shoulders pushed Dash almost to his knees as we hit the ground. We were set up for fall or, at the very least, to crash through the next fence a stride away.
But it didn't happen. Somehow, Dash collected his hindquarters under him as he pushed his front legs to keep from going to his knees. More amazing still, he cleared the next fence with me flopping around like a very huge rag doll. There was enough room to the next fence that I was able to bring myself back into some semblance of balance, and we had a clear round.
It wasn't just Dash's athletic ability that made him special, however. Lots of horses, especially in the eventing world, are amazing athletes, even if that kind of equine ability was new to me. What I really grew to appreciate was Dash's temperament and focus.
Once, at a small jumping show near Aspen, I was third in line for my round. We had warmed up well and Dash had a slight sweat on that warm summer morning. But as we stood at the rail awaiting our turn, Dash dozed off. The gate keeper asked me whether I thought my horse would be able to jump. I said, "Just watch." When she opened the gate to let us in the arena, it was like a switch was turned on. Dash went from dozing nag to adrenalin-spiked athlete in a split second. We jumped a clear round, sending us into a jump off with several other horses and riders. We exited the arena and walked a bit to cool down, then took a spot at the rail, where Dash again dozed off.
It was on the trail, however, that I came to appreciate this aspect of Dash's character most.
I'm not sure if Dash had ever worked outside an arena or race track before I acquired him. He seemed surprised by the world outside the arena, and a little tentative. But not spooky or balky. Taking him schooling on several cross-country courses would rid him of being tentative, and he soon came to enjoy being on the trail -- even overnight trips in the wilderness and on some pretty hairy trails.
Several years ago, while riding in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area of north-central Colorado, my buddy and I were caught in a heavy thunderstorm. The trail we had to ride out to get back to the horse trailer curved for a mile or more along the bottom of a steep draw, with the skeletons of burned pine and spruce trees on either side. Because of the rain, the trail was now a creek bed -- only about a foot deep but rushing with muddy water, sticks and other debris. And because the steep sides were bare of most live vegetation due to a recent forest fire, riding along the sides above the trail was not an option.
My friend was in the lead on his horse, a half-mustang, half-Morgan mare with plenty of trail experience. But she balked at stepping into the rushing water on the slick downhill grade of the trail, while the rain poured and the thunder crashed. I said, "Let me try," and Dash and I moved to the front. I clucked once, squeezed my legs slightly, threw the reins at him and said, "Take us home, Bud."
He stepped into the water carefully but with determination, and kept his eyes focused on where the trail had been, stepping cautiously over rocks and deadfalls. My friend's mare followed and we made it out, soaked to our skins, but without other problems because Dash ignored the thunder, lightning and other distractions until we got onto more solid footing.
Rarely were our rides together so eventful. Mostly, we enjoyed a walk in the mountains, and exhilarating gallop and perhaps some collected trot work, then returned home pleasantly tired. Even if we were with a group, and some horse and rider were having difficulties, Dash remained unruffled and dignified.
And, like many a horse, life with Dash wasn't just about riding him.
I rarely claimed I owned Dash, only that I had acquired him. I think he viewed our relationship as something more like a partnership, and he frequently objected to the way I was holding up my part of the bargain.
Did I think I could sleep in on a weekend morning? Dash began whinnying loudly at feeding time, and perhaps banging a foot against the water tank to let me know that was not appropriate.
Did I think the two small pastures where the horses grazed had another week or so to green up in the spring before the horses could be turned out? Dash clearly disagreed. While the other three horses would peacefully eat their hay, Dash would stand by the pasture gate with that same demanding whinny, letting me know the gate needed to be opened. Now! He would only trudge petulantly back to his hay when it was clear I was heading to the house and the gate would not be opened.
The year I acquired Dash, we had a foal born on our small farm. Turk arrived just a few weeks before Dash, and I was somewhat nervous about how the new arrivals would get along. My neighbor had an older gelding, quiet in all respects, which nearly killed a young foal the first time he was allowed into the same pasture. I kept Dash separated from Turk and his mother for a few weeks, but they became acquainted through the fence rails. When I finally opened the gate to allow them together, they took to each other like Pancho and the Cisco Kid. Dash never tried to harm Turk as a baby, although as Turk grew older, they both would frequently display nicks from their rough-housing. As a baby though, Turk quickly learned that Mama was the place to go for food, but Dash was the source of equine fun. Turk grew up with Dash babysitting him. He learned to lead while ponying beside Dash, learned about the trail by following Dash. After Dash died, Turk cried pitifully at the main gate for several days.
Dash had colicked once before, about a year after I got him. As is too often the case, there was no clear indication why. His diet hadn't changed, nor had his daily routine. Perhaps a change in the weather was responsible. In any event, a rubber hose through his nostril and some oil resolved the problem in a few hours, and he was back to normal in a few days.
So, when he displayed signs of colic this July, I was anxious, but not particularly worried. I called the veterinarian, but since it was 5:30 a.m., I got only the answering service. But a young veterinarian who had been awake most of the night dealing with another colic, called me back quickly. She suggested I haul him to their clinic, about 30 miles away, saying that a trailer ride will frequently relax a colicky horse and allow the problem to pass naturally. We did so, and arrived at the clinic about 45 minutes later. After sedating Dash, palpating him and running the inevitable hose through his nostril the vet quickly determined the problems were more serious this time. She decided to monitor him and give him fluids, while I headed off to work.
Not long afterward, the clinic's main colic surgeon showed up. He examined Dash and agreed with younger vet that his situation wasn't improving. In fact, when he palpated the horse, he found the small intestine in worse condition than it had been a few hours earlier.
I arrived at lunchtime and we began discussing options. Non surgical medical care was failing to produce any results, and all indications pointed to surgery. Because the Fourth of July weekend was coming up, much of the clinic's staff was gone, and the surgeon feared he didn't have enough people to provide adequate post-operative care. There was a clinic 100 miles away that could perform the surgery, and others in Fort Collins and Salt Lake City -- each requiring trips over the mountains of more than 250 miles. And all of those options would be considerably more expensive. Finally, the surgeon said, unless I wanted to put him down, the best option was to perform surgery there. He was going to be around most of the weekend, so he and the techs on duty could provide the required post-op care. I said, "Let's do it." Putting him down was not an option for me then.
It was not a routine colic surgery. There was an impacted large intestine that had to be cleaned, the doctor said, and a portion of the colon that had become entangled in other tissue. But the surgery appeared to go well, and by 6:30 p.m. Dash was in the recovery room and the surgeon was upbeat about his chances. So was I. Dash always had a lot of heart, and I was sure he would use that will to get better, regardless of any potential complications.
The anesthesia began to wear off shortly thereafter. Dash tried to lift his head, his eyes attempting to focus. Then, before anyone expected it, he made an abortive attempt to stand up, banging into the door, cutting his lip and falling awkwardly against the padded wall. The surgeon rushed in, grabbed Dash's tail to steady him and tried to calm him. But Dash was impatient as ever. He wanted to stand. And so he tried once again, despite the dizzying effects of the anesthesia.
This time things went terribly wrong. His left hind leg was twisted under him and he stumbled, the bulk of his weight falling against that leg. It snapped, just below the hock, and there was no longer any chance of saving Dash. Amid tears and curses, the surgeon and his team euthanized Dash as quickly as they could.
I have lost other pets, not to mention human friends. Some had lived long lives and their time had come. Others seemed far too young to die. All were heart-breaking experiences, the kind we must all deal with as part of living.
Dash’s death was devastating because of the way it went down. After a long day of agonizing about what to do, then waiting for the surgery to be completed, it was as if a life rope of hope had been thrown in my direction, only to be whisked away at the last minute.
Dash wasn't the greatest horse who ever lived, but he was the best of the 25 or so horses I've had during my lifetime. I picture him at times, galloping across the sky, jumping over clouds.
When you’ve worn yourself out, Bud,come and stand in the shade of your horse chestnut tree.