Nearly everything Barbara knows about horsemanship she learned from Foxy. Foxy was a skilled teacher. She gave a stern response to any wrong answers, and a beautiful reward for correct ones. She taught Barbara the value of patience and persistence, and helped her overcome fear. We lost Foxy a year ago when she succumbed to lymphoma.
The back story
Foxy started out with an idyllic life. A registered Quarter Horse with a good pedigree, she belonged to a young girl who loved and pampered her, enjoying trail rides around their Cape Cod home. Eventually, the family was forced her to let Foxy go, and she landed at a small barn in central Massachusetts where she was employed as a school horse. Our daughter took lessons and rode her there, which is how we met.
Foxy was a likable horse, though somewhat distant. Having lost her cherished family, she’d given in to providing the same riding lesson day after day. She was stoic by nature, and now, uninterested in making connections. But behind her façade, a perceptive look revealed a horse with a personality and intelligence that went much deeper.
For whatever reason, they lost interest in using Foxy in lessons. It was time for her to go. Foxy’s fate now hung in the proverbial balance. She would go to the first taker… that doesn’t always end well. Lucky for Foxy (and us) we had grown very fond of her and decided to take her on as our own. Once again she was loved and pampered, and treated as a valued family member. Her transformation began to unfold.
With time, the consistency and respect we gave Foxy started to win her over. She became Barbara’s horse. She began to make eye contact. She started to approach rather than evade when Barbara went to get her in her paddock. She became much more willing in all respects, even with the things that she preferred not to do. And there was a long list of things that Foxy preferred not to do.
The biggest change came in 2010 when we moved to a farm and brought the horses home. Now it was just Foxy and Maeve, Barbara and me, and of course, Joe our dog. Foxy had constant love and attention. She flourished. She started to let us in. Underneath her veil was an amazingly sweet, lovely horse. She’d look at the piles of hay; the clean stall in the beautiful barn, as if to ask “is this all for me?” She’d seen enough in her life to appreciate it, and it showed.
Trust didn’t come easy for Foxy. Barbara earned it the hard way, through time and constant effort. It was amazing to watch their bond grow. They truly became partners; on the trail, in the barn, in life. It was complete mutual respect and love. I often heard Barbara singing to Foxy as she groomed her. She sang to her as they rode. Foxy seemed to like Barbara’s singing. Go figure.
I earned Foxy’s trust in an intense three weeks. One fourth of July, Foxy took a kick that resulted in a broken splint bone in her leg that required surgery, and a three week stall-bound recovery. It also required a complex, seven layer wrap to protect the wound and prevent infection. That was my job.
On the first day she needed a sedative. Days two and three were tense, and I felt lucky to survive without taking a kick for my efforts. On day four, she began to tolerate it. In week two, now every other day, she didn’t mind so much. By week three, she was completely accepting and stood quietly and patiently as I wrestled with the bandages. Apparently, this proved my trustworthiness to her and forever after, there was little that Foxy wouldn’t let me do.
Foxy’s teaching style and lessons learned
As I said, Foxy was a skilled teacher. Barbara was a good student. Foxy needed a gentle touch. Trying to force her to do anything was an exercise in futility. Barbara learned how to ask permission and, just as importantly, how to get it. This was true whether putting on a halter, climbing into the saddle, or negotiating a rocky hill climb on an unfamiliar trail.
One powerful lesson happened near the end of a ride. We were heading back to the barn and decided to extend the ride just a bit. When we turned off the trail, Foxy was put out. The barn was almost in sight and she had already decided the ride was over. A short way down the trail was a water crossing. Really, it was just a rocky creek bed with a little flowing water. Maeve and I crossed first. Foxy dug in. She was indignant, refusing to cross. She was looking for a fight. Nobody wins a fight with Foxy, and Barbara couldn’t force her to cross.
But then Barbara stopped fighting. Any time Foxy tried to move in any direction but forward, Barbara merely blocked her with legs and reins. If Foxy didn’t move, neither did Barbara. It was a stand-off. Foxy kept testing. Barbara kept blocking. Maeve and I were just biding our time on the other side of the stream, circling trees and eating foliage (Maeve, not me). Barbara’s tenacity was amazing… so was Foxy’s. A full forty minutes into this, Foxy took a deep breath, let out a sigh and calmly walked across. Lesson learned. Barbara passed the test.
When we moved to where we now live, we had the opportunity to build our own barn. We kept it small and simple. We took everything we learned along the way to make a place that’s comfortable for the horses and low maintenance for us. The stalls are large, with rubber matted floors and exterior doors leading out to a small field. The horses can come and go as they please. A wide center aisle and good lighting makes it nice for grooming, farrier, vet, or just hanging with the horses.
The day we moved the horses in, Foxy walked into her stall, looked out into the field, looked at us and nodded, as if to say “you did well.” She then put her head down and ate hay. Now, you may say that I’m anthropomorphizing. Maybe I am, but just a little. Foxy made that easy to do.
Equine lymphoma is rare. According to Equine Disease Quarterly, the majority of horses diagnosed with lymphosarcoma die within months of developing clinical signs. Foxy was lucky. When she was diagnosed three years prior, we didn’t expect her to live long. We treated her with a combination of eastern and western medicine; low dose steroids to fight the inflammation and an herbal cocktail to boost her immune system. She rebounded to the point that we were able to discontinue both.
Her last three years were comfortable and happy. It was obvious that she loved her life and loved her family. When the lymphoma resurfaced, it was fast and hard. One day she had trouble eating her hay. Within a week we couldn’t control the pain. There was nothing more we could do.
Foxy’s passing has left a huge hole in our hearts and lives. But as bad as it hurts, the wonderful memories left behind are far greater. There was never a day that she was not a pleasure to be with. She lived and died with grace and serenity. She even tied up loose ends. But that is a story better told by Barbara… when she’s ready to tell it.
I think about Foxy every day with a bittersweet combination of joy and heartache. I miss her company. I miss the way she’d nicker when I’d walk into the barn. I miss her squeal of excitement when I’d bring her a grain mash. Maybe most of all, I miss her impossibly soft muzzle and the way she’d put her nose through her stall window in anticipation of a kiss.