Hank let me know fifteen years ago, when we first met, that despite his physical flaws, he was a noble and exalted four legged who preferred admiration rather than pity.
I never knew Hank's age. He'd been donated to El Dustberry, the equine therapy ranch in Topanga, where I was manager for seven years. Hank came from a jumping school in San Louis Obisbo. When he arrived, he was horribly lame. Instead of putting him down, I convinced the owner of ED to invest in holistic type treatments to help Hank with his lameness. Fortunately she agreed and Hanks life extended another fourteen years.
In 2008, when ED left Topanga to relocate, I started my own horse healing business. I’d become attached to Hank and knew him to be an extremely sensitive and emotional horse. With his health still compromised I knew he was in no condition to be ridden despite the intention of ED to ‘put him to work’. This is when I decided to adopt Hank and he became part of my family and team of therapy horses.
Hank excelled at his new job. The type of therapy we do demands nothing from the horse. There's an open invitation for the horse to participate. The mere presence of the horse is enough and supports the therapy in ways that need to be experienced rather than explained.
In these therapy sessions, Hank exquisitely timed his entry and held space with an unparalleled level of empathy. He continued to work this way up until his passing.
I was continually astounded by Hank’s vitality and zest for life. When I guessed him to be in his thirties and his physicality appeared fragile, he would suddenly gallop freely around the coral as if to say, ‘Sara, see, I’m not done yet!’
This recent winter was tough on the horses as the continuous rain and snow made the ground slippery. Hank's whole left side of his body swelled up and despite being on pain medication his ability to move was severely compromised and I could tell he was struggling. I asked him if he'd like me to help him pass. In response, he dropped his head, let out a huge sigh and started to lick and chew. I took this for a yes. I also consulted the I Ching which responded with ‘Noble Calling …’ and told me to let go and release, without any thoughts of possession. However, it warned there would be limitations.
The limitations showed up when I started looking for a vet who would come out to perform Hank’s euthanization. Based on our remote location there were few choices. In the end I went with a vet because she used the word ‘empathy’ to describe the way in which she worked with horses. Yet on later reflection I felt this description was misleading.
Not only did I need to find a vet but also someone too haul Hanks body away. The choices for this task were limited to two and in the end I went with the hauler who could come the same day as opposed to my first choice who could only come the following day. The thought of Hank laying in the driveway for an extended amount of time didn’t feel good. Yet, when I asked the hauler, Mary, who I ended up hiring, where they took the body, she said he would go to the rendering factory. This didn’t feel good either! I really wanted Hank to be buried here but my boyfriend, Nicio, explained it wasn’t practical as we didn’t have a tractor and the necessary means to bury Hank deep enough. Finally, somehow I was able to make peace with the fact that Hank would be of use rendered and Nicio offered a compromise by suggesting we cut off some of Hank’s mane and tail and bury this in a ceremony to honor Hank in a good way.
Mary, the horse hauler, showed up before the vet even though I told her three times I didn’t want her here before the vet. None the less she appeared in a run down truck which made me wonder how in the heck she would get Hank in there. Mary must be in her 60’s and at about eighty pounds I had to say I was impressed to discover she’d been in business for twenty years.
The vet arrived late and was tired and cranky. Mary and the vet talked about the best placement for Hank when he went down. It felt way too clinical and definitely not empathic to the situation. I told them Hank was a family member and demanded respect. While Hank enjoyed his last bucket of senior feed, Nicio said prayers and smudged Hank with burning sage. Mary, who was beginning to feel like the grim reaper loomed over my shoulder and quipped ‘must be an Indian thing.’ I felt my blood starting to boil, it wasn’t how I wanted this sacred moment to go. It got worse when the vet loudly ordered me to let go of Hanks rope halter and stand back behind the bush while she administered the ‘blue’ needle. We got into an argument where I found myself defending my relationship to Hank, ‘but I KNOW him!’ I especially wanted to be close to Hank when his spirit left. Trying to explain this to a vet who I had nothing in common with was incredibly frustrating. I compromised by handing her his rope and stepped back a foot. When Hank’s wobbly body hit the ground his spirit pushed out and I knew in that moment he was free.
Assuming it wasn’t going to be pretty, Nicio suggested I go for a walk while Mary hauled Hank into her small truck. I agreed as I couldn’t bear the site and sounds of Hank being crushed and broken.
By this time I was hysterical. Climbing the steep mountain with my dogs helped me move my grief and anger. When I reached the top, I looked down and saw Nicio and Mary who looked like tiny ants. I sat on a rock, closed my eyes and tuned into Hank. I saw him galloping with my long departed red mare, Athena. I merged with their essence and felt an incredible sense of happiness. This is the visual I hold of Hank.
The morning after Hank passed he visited me in my dream. In the dream, Hank appeared as a foal crouched down on the ground, with long elegant legs outstretched before him. With his head down I noticed his sharp and pointy withers. Instinctively, I sat lightly on his back. He slowly and effortlessly rose up and continued to unfold with his head up and his two front legs reaching up into the sky. An ethereal feeling washed over my whole body. His message, ‘Sara I have risen like the phoenix.’