Venus died this evening, put to sleep at the end of a grueling day fighting a colic that she could not overcome. Ron and I were with her at the end. The vet had sedated her so that her pain was no longer bad and we led her about telling her how much we loved her and how grateful we were for her many gifts and kindnesses over the years. Two promises kept – she felt no pain at the end and she didn’t die alone. We were grateful for the professional and loving care provided Venus by Dr. Timmons and his staff at Rogue Valley Equine.
Losing Venus released a flood of tears, but also a flood of memories and putting them down on paper helps ease my grief. Someone once said that someone you love never really dies until the memories you hold of them die. These memories are bright in my soul, as is Venus. Let me share some of what Venus meant to us and others who knew her.
Venus was a 22 year old black Paso Fino mare, with two white hind socks and a white star on her forehead. While she might disappear in the dark, that white star would gleam in the moonlight and her eyes held a lifetime of kindness and wisdom. She was the lead mare of our herd of Paso Finos and, for that matter, became the lead mare of any group of horses that she encountered during her life.
Venus was universally adored by other horses. She ruled her herd kindly, but none of the horses would ever disobey her. Venus punished any disobedience with a prompt display of sharp teeth or hooves and once was usually all it took to convince another horse to mind its manners. I watched Venus teach our young stallion Mystic how to court her when she was in season. He was of the “slam, bam” mind set but receiving full force kicks from Venus the first time he took that approach made him pause, take stock and approach her with the adoration, whickers and love nips of appreciation that a mare deserves. Only after he courted Venus to her satisfaction, did she allow him to breed her. It was a lesson he never forgot. Since Venus was the accepted leader of the herd, she rarely needed to discipline the younger horses so you rarely saw this side of her personality. One by one, she would allow a privileged filly, colt, mare or gelding to approach her and gently scratch their itchy spots or lick them to show her affection. When she wanted a horse to move, all Venus needed to do was harden her eyes and slightly pin back one ear at the offender. That horse would instantly leap away, its head dropping in submission and with apology in its eyes.
With Venus in charge, there was peace in the paddock and pasture. If one of the horses was being chased by another, all it had to do was run and stand behind Venus. She wouldn’t allow fighting around her and the quarrel would end as soon as the horse reached her, or Venus would end the fight herself. Venus always took the youngest horse under her protection, making sure that the older horses didn’t pick on it or keep it from its hay. As lead mare, Venus always had the best pile of hay and she would always share it with the youngest horse of the herd.
With Venus on a trail ride, the other horses were never afraid of bridges, streams, logs or wild turkeys. One of the other horses might charge to the head of the group eager to be in front, but if something startled them, they would always fall back and let Venus lead the way over, past or through the frightening obstacle. If Venus said that it was safe, the rest of the herd knew it was true. I often wished that I could gain the trust, respect and love that Venus did so effortlessly from other horses. The only thing that ever frightened Venus was llamas. She wouldn’t spook or run from them if you had to ride by, but her eyes would go wide with fear and she would tremble as long as she was near them.
Venus earned the same respect from people as she did from her herd. Venus adapted herself to the level of skill and confidence of her rider. With a small child or a timid adult, Venus would be especially calm and move with such majestic sureness, that her rider had to trust her. With such riders, Venus seemed to move in slow motion and never took a wrong step. Fear turned into confidence when the uncertain or timid rode Venus and new riders always felt the most comfortable with her.
With a more confident child, Venus might play at being a wild bronco, bucking or rearing a few inches off the ground, never endangering the child’s balance, but joining in the fun of being young and feeling good. You could almost hear “Hi Ho Silver Away” in the distance, as Venus and her young rider would gallop over the hills together. Could this be the same horse who wouldn’t go above a walk with a timid child the day before?
Venus was a great riding teacher. She knew what the rider was supposed to do to ask her to move forward, sideways or backwards or change gaits and she wouldn’t respond until the rider came at least close to asking properly. She didn’t fret or get upset at incorrect cues, she just waited for the correct cue before she would respond. As the rider became more skilled, Venus would pin an ear back if a cue was too harsh, reminding her student not to “shout” when using hands or legs. She wanted a skilled rider with light consistent cues and she knew how to teach someone to give those cues.
Once a woman tried to lunge Venus in a circle before they went for a ride. She spun the rope near Venus’ head but didn’t let it touch her. Venus stood stock still and didn’t move. The lady became increasingly frustrated with Venus, came closer, spun the rope faster, all to no avail. As I arrived, the woman was near tears at Venus’s disobedience. I watched for a minute and noted that the woman was spinning her rope near Venus, but not providing Venus any direction with her other hand. I asked her to hold her left hand out in the direction she wanted Venus to move and to let the end of the end of the rope clip Venus’s neck if she didn’t move. As the rope started toward her neck, Venus quickly leapt forward into the desired circle.
Venus hadn’t disobeyed this woman, because her body language hadn’t told Venus to move. We teach horses to tolerate loud noises and plastic bags or ropes being spun next to them without having them spook in fear because we don’t want them to spook or run away if they encounter such things when you are riding them. This lady was doing exactly what I would do to test whether Venus would stand still under a lot of noise and spinning ropes or flags. Venus passed the “flagging out” test with flying colors. I had told the woman she needed to signal the direction she wanted Venus to take when lunging her, but Venus got the idea across once and for all by this episode. Who was the better riding teacher?
With a good rider, Venus showed yet another side. She was so responsive to her rider’s cues that it felt as though horse and rider were one. What you thought, her feet would do. Look in the direction you wanted to go and she turned in that direction. Tilt forward a touch and she would accelerate, sit back a little and she would slow or stop. You felt light as a feather riding Venus and as free as a bird. And while we enjoyed trail riding over show rings, Venus never forgot her years as a show horse. If you entered an arena riding her, she instantly assumed the collected majesty of a gaiting show horse that had won her so many ribbons in her youth. And Venus didn’t need a harsh bit to give you that collection. She was so responsive, we generally rode her in a hand tied halter and lead line.
Venus loved exploring back country trails and it was a joy to go out on the trails with her. She was sure footed as a mountain goat and seemed to share your enjoyment at looking out over the vistas when you got to the top of the next hill. Together we explored trails in Monterey, Yosemite, Marin, Napa and Sonoma valleys, along the Pacific Ocean and through southern Oregon. I have a vivid memory of watching Ron share his red flame grapes with Venus as we stopped for lunch along the Merced River in Yosemite one autumn. One grape for Ron, one for Venus, with an occasional nudge from Venus to suggest that given her size, maybe the ratio should be one for Ron, two for Venus.
Now, don’t think that Venus was some kind of boring angel. She had her moments. Don’t we all? When going up a steep hill, Venus had a habit of grumbling deep in her throat at you with her head down in effort and her ears slightly pinned back. I can’t repeat the sounds, but I’d swear it meant something like….”If you think its all that easy carrying you up this hill, why don’t you get down and try carrying me for a while!” Then she would reach the top of the hill, her neck would arch, her ears prick forward and those majestic eyes would gaze out at the beautiful world below her and you knew that she shared your love of being in back country. She took her last 4 hour trail ride three weeks ago, leading most of the way and so clearly delighted to be out in the wilderness.
Venus sometimes decided that she didn’t want to or couldn’t do what you asked of her. Being Venus, she never was defiant or rebellious. That would be rude and not at all in keeping with her dignity. No, if Venus didn’t want to do something, she generally went to some effort to show you that your request was impossible.
One day, I was riding Venus and using her to teach a balky horse to lead and to move over to pressure. The leading part was easy enough but when I asked Venus to step over toward the horse to cause him to step away she stopped. Usually, if you would touch one side of Venus, she would move away from pressure, but this time there was a horse on that side and in her mind, there was no place for her to move to! When I kicked her side lightly to insist that she move, she pinned an ear back, turned her head to look at me and then proceeded to hop up and down. It was as though she was saying, “Look, I can’t go left because you leg is pushing on me and I can’t go right because that horse is blocking me, so the only thing I can do is go up and down!” I had to laugh, but kept on lightly kicking her side and after a moment; she gave her head an angry shake and reached over to nip the other horse on the nose. He moved – quickly – and we then proceeded to have him yield around in a circle as Venus moved her body toward him. It only took one nip and he learned to yield to her body language. When Venus said “I’m coming through,” he believed her.
Watching Venus lead her herd has taught me so much about horses and horsemanship. She taught me that you need to be kind to horses, consistent in how you treat them, that you ask politely before you insist, that you say what you mean and that you mean what you say. Discipline, to be effective, has to come immediately after the bad behavior. Once bad behavior stops, don’t hold a grudge. Reward the horse for the slightest try. No doubt, if I can ever communicate as clearly, or gain the love, trust and respect of horses that Venus had, I will know that I’m a real horseman. I’ll keep trying, Venus.
I like to think that we gave Venus a wonderful life, in return for all the pleasure that she gave us and others. She had been a show horse in her prior life and Ron rescued her from a life in a box stall, with access to the outside world only when she was being ridden. She never forgot that rescue and for all the days of her remaining life, she remained Ron’s horse first and foremost even though he couldn’t ride her for many years. During the years we were in California, she lived in a 300 acre pasture with 45 other mares on property owned by Stanford University. She loved that open and natural life, happily trading the winter mud and rain amongst her herd for a sterile life in a box stall. When we moved to southern Oregon in 2002, she loved Mystic Ranch as well. In the winter time, she and her herd lived together in a large paddock, with covered feed areas where they could get in out of the rain or the occasional snow. The paddock was never slippery or muddy despite the Oregon winter rains because its footing was made up of sand, pea gravel, wood chips and bark. It was so much better than living knee deep in mud like so many horses do in the winter and she was with her herd, not alone in a stall.
She loved her pasture too, though her access to it had to be limited because she foundered a couple of years ago and couldn’t tolerate much green grass afterwards. The pasture was large enough for the horses to roam freely as they grazed. We loved to watch them run and play when the mood struck them. There was a large grove of oak trees in one corner of the pasture for shade in the summer and one leaning tree perfect for scratching backs and necks when they were itchy. The pasture also had four ponds where the horses enjoyed drinking, splashing their bellies and each other. On really hot days, Venus would lie down in the pond to cool off. She truly loved her time in the pasture.
Ron had gastric bypass surgery last year and with his weight loss since then was finally able to start riding Venus again in September of this year. She was thrilled to have her Dad back on her back and what a blessing that he has that memory to hold onto. Two days ago I rode her ponying our 7 month old stud colt, Prince, his manners impeccable because he never, ever tried to take advantage of Venus. She led him through our obstacle course, up the stairs, over the bridge and through the car wash, once more taking scary things and convincing the next generation that they weren’t really scary at all.
Venus will be sorely missed by us and by all those who knew and loved her.