It is strange to think this will be my first fall without him in twelve years. I purchased Wasabi in the fall of 2008, not long after passing my professional licensing boards and beginning the career that had been my main focus and scholastic pursuit for seven long years. I had wanted a horse for as long as I could remember, and I was finally financially capable of making that dream a reality. It is hard to decide which dreams to pursue and which need to be shelved until a later date, but with my education taking up almost all of my time, horses (and any other outdoor pursuit) had been pushed to the side for books, papers, and dark circles under drooping eyes. But after graduating in May, passing my boards, and having my first adult occupation (and paycheck) I finally could fulfil this one dream: a horse of my very own.
Riding in the fall has always been a little special for me. Something about the cool air, the lack of biting insects, and the scent of earth and decay floating about. It sounds more morbid than it ought, the trees having merely shed their summer finery and snuggled their stash of carbohydrates in their deep root systems to sleep through the coming cold and winter winds. All of those beautiful green leaves that danced in dappled sunlight and drooped in the sweltering humidity of late summer, flared brilliant reds and golds and musky browns so fleetingly, only to float to the ground and crunch under foot and hoof. I doubt any horse really appreciates the colors but I have known a few who would use the swirl of leaf litter to snort and prance and act younger than their teeth would suggest. It was during this special time that I went looking for my perfect first horse.
I did not find what I was looking for during that search. I thought I wanted a large black or chestnut horse that would only respond to me, like in the movies. We would gallop fields and dance amongst the trees during trail rides and impress everyone who was lucky enough to see us with our vivacity and harmony. Instead I found Wasabi. He was only 4” taller than what would be deemed a pony, somewhere in his late teens/early 20’s. Wasabi did have the gorgeous chestnut coat I was hoping for, and while the rest of his attitude had not been what I had wanted it was what I needed. Wasabi would plod along on those fall walks on the trails and along the roadside, almost as if in a stupor. Only two things would get his attention while on a ride: turning for home and apples.
One of the better parts of living in Maine is the abundance of fresh apples come fall. Our climate is one in which apples thrive, even in the far reaches of Maine there can be old apple trees dotting the landscape (oftentimes marking old farmstead locations, long lost relics to the time before). During the fall Wasabi would walk gingerly up to any apple tree we encountered on our path, knowing I would be able to reach up higher than he and pluck some treats for us both. However, there was an old apple tree on the side of a nearby field that we often rode the edges of, and he would do his best to knock me off using this apple tree every ride we took past it in the spring and summer months.
I learned to be careful riding Wasabi around that field, and more than once had to quickly lie flat on his back as he tried his darndest to brush me off. (It so happened that the apple tree was also on the side of the field where he knew turned for home, hence the increase in energy and speed.) When we lived in East Blue Hill, he had three apple trees in his pasture all to himself. I remember seeing one apple drop in a mild wind, him slowly dragging himself over, barely waking from his midday nap to snuffle up the windfall and then dozing off with his nose pressed on the spot where it had fallen. He certainly had his fill that year, even with me carting off buckets of them so that he wouldn’t eat himself sick.
Wasabi was also the horse in the barn chosen for the children who came to visit, other riders who had been thrown from their own mounts and were scared, and for friends who had either never ridden before or had not done so in a very long time. He allowed himself to be led about by his forelock by small children, eyes closed and smacking his lips (probably imagining all the treats he was earning). I had a few friends who were in their silver years come and ride Wasabi; in one instance, he was the first horse a friend had been on in over 40 years.
He would stand still for mounting, even from the back of a truck when the stairs were too low, and would happily walk the paths and around the ring with nervous riders atop. He especially liked the day that he and a friend were able to stand in the shade and watch as I schooled my more recalcitrant mount, seeming to enjoy the younger horse having to do work while he relaxed in the shade of an apple tree in midsummer foliage.
But age and time catch up to us all in the end. Thirteen years seems so long and also so very short, and that is all the time we had together in the end. It was a horrible decision to have to make, but also the right one. My animals mean everything to me, but it is my responsibility to care enough about them to end their lives when appropriate for them, not me.
I had Wasabi buried under the apple tree in the front yard, and the tree which did not have much fruit last year has dropped a bushel on his grave site already, greeting him with his favorite treat. The week after his passing, I kept smelling apples, decaying leaves, and pumpkins which is highly unusual for June, but I think it was just right for this year.
photo credit: Allison Burden