A Year of Farming, A Year of Death

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Nyberg
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It started out hopefully enough, the slow days of January leading into a busy February lambing. Although I’m sure there must have been fair, beautiful days, in my memory now, it is mostly raining. The lambs, born into the tail end of winter storms, were protected by our sturdy shelter, but by the first of March, the lion-winds had ripped out every last grommet of the tarp and the ground beyond their pen was saturated into mire. Still, Rupert Dane didn’t mind standing in it to stare in unabashed amazement at the new woolly lives, bouncing in the deep, clean straw, little tails waggling madly as they sought nourishment underneath their mothers.

The day-old chicks arrived the weekend of the first lambs, peeping in bright springtime voices through their temporary cardboard home. With the goats near kidding, it seemed the farm was a bastion of life and newness — but it was the last I’d see of life for a while. The death of the young black lamb was the first hit, I wrote about her earlier in the year.

Days later, it was Rupert. Magnificent Rupert, Prince of Dogs, it was he who brought the farming life right inside the house, his enormous paws tracking our improved soil all around the living room, his coat spraying the coastal rain over the walls and chairs and door as he shook off after evening chores. His death ripped a hole in our lives; his omnipresence, his cheerful goofiness, his stoicism in his last hours on this earth; I cannot forget his watchfulness that last night, his look that seemed to say, “It’s OK, my friends, you’ll be all right, you’ll be all right without me.”

But the farm was to see more death yet.

A new fight began on the first day of May, when I found my thoroughbred Cirrus with an appallingly swollen leg. In decades of experience with horses, I’d seen my fair share of lameness, but this level of inflammation was new, frightening. His near hind leg appeared several times its normal size — I wondered if he’d broken it in a struggle to get up somehow. He stood, swaying, sweating, shaking with pain. Yellow lymphatic fluid oozed from every pore. Our horse vet, arriving at her earliest availability, diagnosed his condition as acute lymphangitis and set to work with a series of antibiotics, analgesics and diuretics. She was optimistic about his prognosis, as many horses recover well and go on to return to riding condition. And for the first few days, Cirrus did show improvement. He began to walk about a little. To eat and drink a little. To show his old brightness when the feed buckets rattled in the morning, swirling the grain around with his nose in his old ham-it-up style. He became pragmatic about the cold hosing and leg wrapping that were to define the days of his illness. When the hose appeared, he’d walk away for a few laps of his paddock to show his general disapproval, but later stand resolutely still as I proceeded to run the icy water over his ruined leg.

Cirrus was a fighter, there was no denying that.  He’d been given to me as a starving rescue by a friend who’d found him abandoned in a field. Apparently he’d spent years there, eking out a living on the sparse grass, summer and winter, forgotten and alone. He was tattooed, through which I learned that he was born in California but was sired by a British stallion. His beauty was evident even as I first saw him, listless, emaciated and dull. He was tough to keep, right from the beginning. The weight was slow to come on, his immunity poor as skin conditions surfaced and resurfaced.  But finally, a year after he had come home with me, he was the horse he’d been born to be, vivacious, strong-willed and powerful. Riding him was a revelation, especially since I soon discovered he knew far more about equitation than I did. He was undoubtedly the most sensitive, highly schooled horse I have ever ridden, and his demands from me as his partner improved me in ways I can only begin to guess. I could only be puzzled at how this well trained horse had simply been dumped in a field. I could only gratefully breathe in his intoxicating horse scent each time I brushed out the tangles in his mane.

Three weeks into the lameness it became pretty clear that Cirrus was running out of fight at last. He had become progressively thinner, with bouts of fever, and edema beginning in his three other legs. On the good days when things seemed hopeful, we’d head up the road for a walk, he and I. He was bright on those walks, forward and keen, and his snatching the fresh roadside grasses without stopping as we passed was as representative of his nature as anything: “There’s good stuff here, but let’s keep moving and see what’s ahead.” However, back home, he’d lie down for unusually long periods, deep in sleep, his legs twitching as he ran through dreamland pastures. When he began to dribble urine, when his fever began to rage every time his medication wore off,  when the shine of his eye began to fail, when my mother, in the first minute of visiting him, spontaneously and sadly blurted out, “Oh, he’s dying!” I put down my hope.

The morning of his euthansia was a strange blur. There was no sleeping the night before, so the eleven o’clock appointment seemed a torturous wait. Cirrus had spent the night in a far-off shelter, head down, away from the morning chores, away from his best friend Jimmy. I stood with him a long while in silence, just standing. Watching. Later, I was lucky in my own companions, my veterinarian — a wonderful sensitive practitioner — and Steve, our local deadstock hauler. His gentleness and empathy with animals, in life and after it, was a tremendous comfort. Finally, finally, on that quiet weekday morning, Cirrus leapt into death. No quiet downward crumple for him-he fell right over sideways, legs strong and straight, with a grunt and a colossal pounding upon the earth, a thunder that has left me shaken since. 

I’ve read that once in your life, you, a horseman, will love one horse with everything you have, and never again, no matter how many others may come and go through your life. For me, Cirrus was that horse.

My husband has for years jokingly referred to our place as “Old Man Farm,” populated with racetrack retirees and greying muzzles of many kinds. I’ve just come in from the death of yet another of our old men, our ram, Ramien. He’d been ill, getting slower, always trailing his girls at a quick walk, the fastest gait he had left. After a brief illness and no response to treatment, he, too, was to take the journey. He was a gentle, gentle old fellow that came to us late, as a gift that became a treasure. Always ready for a friendly scratch and the piece of toast that had accidentally fallen on the floor, his solid enormity was what I watched for when trying to find the lambs grazing out back. He guarded them with the steady majesty that defined him and never lost his dignity, even when the goat kids discovered that, when recumbant, his head was a perfect launching platform for aerobatic leaping. He simply chewed his cud, one eye half closing when a sharp little goatie hoof happened to land inside his ear.

I shot him myself, the first time I’ve done this. It is quite a thing to look down the barrel of a gun at yet another friend. We buried him on a rise in the back pasture, where he can watch over his new children, coming soon. 

A year has passed in a flash, a year defined by grief and loss, a year of questioning motives for the farm, of the purpose for which we keep these animals to begin with, when we know, we know, that we will suffer their loss.

Horse Drawn Farms, entering now into the winter rain, seems a bleaker, darker place. May the lambs of spring, the blossoms, the first bleat of a new goat kid, remind us that joy will return.