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Six Months Later - Moving Through Grief

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

On December 3rd, 2020 at 8:32 am I received a call from the staff where I was boarding at the time that Apollo had been found dead at feeding time that morning. At some point during the night, he had got his two hind feet stuck in the squares of the cattle panels, got stuck, and died. His bowels had prolapsed, and, since I opted not to do a necropsy, we will never know whether that happened before or after he died. Some days, I wish I had done a necropsy, and wonder if knowing definitively what happened would make me feel more "closure" and other days, I am not sure what good closure would do me since ultimately Apollo would still be gone.

The exact events preceding Apollo's death are speculation, and the events immediately following his death are neither here nor there. I was already contemplating leaving that boarding facility for many reasons, this was just another reason to make a fresh start. Given that I had been planning on taking some time off around the holidays to spend time with family and friends, and the idea of ramping back up to then ramp back down (when I was already feeling zero holiday cheer) I decided not to teach for the month of December. I was fortunate to be in a position to do that, and I recognize that isn't something every professional would have had the ability to do.

Apollo and I, Summer 2017

I preface this by saying that none of my horses are "just a horse" to me, and I would have been devastated by losing any of them. However, I cannot deny that losing Apollo hit me somewhere that losing the others probably wouldn't. He was my first horse, and had been my partner in crime, my ride or die, for almost twelve years. He had been with me through high school graduation, he came with me to college and was with me there until I graduated. He saw me through internet dating, some devastating breakups... and some not so devastating breakups. He was stuck with me while I figured out what it was to be a single, young female professional at my first job and then my first "real" promotion- which involved a move cross-country to Colorado. Apollo and I started a business together and he was featured in my engagement and post-wedding photos. He was factored into every decision I made, personal and professional, for twelve years. I decided to attend community college and not go to a four-year university for the first two years so that we could stay in our current training program. When I did transfer to Michigan State University, the budget and location of my college apartments were based in large part on where he would be boarded. After college, I turned down some jobs because there wasn't a suitable boarding facility nearby. I made the move to Colorado on a leap of faith that this would be a better place for me, and help me get back to him after a year in a demanding career forced me away from horses. For twelve years, I probably spent more time with Apollo than I spent with any friend or family member. I have a precious few friendships that have been around longer than him, and I am married to someone I have known a fraction as long as I knew Apollo. I still remember the first time I set eyes on him- my trainer at the time had brought him in on trial, and as we pulled into the barn parking lot, I saw a chestnut with a blaze in the first stall on the right side of the barn aisle. It was winter, and he was wearing one of those blue checkered Rambo blankets that everyone had in those days. I remember going into his stall, and him sniffing my hand, both of us thinking "Who are you?" and not knowing it would take twelve years to answer that question.

I remember telling a friend the day he died that I felt like I was at the base of a very large mountain, and I would never reach the top. She, having suffered some losses as well, smiled sadly and told me that it would feel that way for a while, and then, one day, I would realize I was a little further up the mountain than the day before. And she was right. I am not sure exactly when the weight of grief started to feel more bearable, but eventually, it did. One day, I realized I just felt a little less sad. I had not moved on, I am not sure we do move on from loss, but I had moved forward, lugging my grief with me, it just didn't feel quite as heavy and unmanageable as before.

This loss made me realize a lot of things. Firstly, that in my 29 years I had been very fortunate to suffer relatively few sudden tragedies or tragedies in general, which is probably why I was so genuinely shocked by the magnitude of this one. Secondly, that while I consider myself an adaptable person who generally copes pretty well in difficult situations, I was woefully unprepared for this emotionally. I am a go-getter, doer kind of person, and in this situation, there was nothing I could do to change my situation.

Apollo and I, Summer 2020

There are a lot of things no one explains to you about grief. It's a lot more than a lot of sadness and it's a lot more complicated than you think. I remember in the first few days thinking that I would give almost anything to feel less sad. Recently I have found myself missing the sharp pain of fresh grief, because the further away Apollo's death is, the further away his life feels as well. I have felt some pretty genuine anxiety about the health and safety of my other horses, and there have been many nights where I have laid awake, wondering if they're okay. I've been worried about my dogs and cat too and gone from normal pet owner to crazy control freak pet owner with little or no warning. Some days, I have had to work really hard to make my brain realize the difference between a real threat and an unlikely one.

The most difficult thing I started to realize as I healed was how not having Apollo in my life freed up enough emotional bandwidth, time, and (let's face it, horses are expensive) money changed things for me... in a positive way. Admitting that one of the worst things I have experienced actually had a positive effect on how I lived my life was impossibly difficult, and I still resist it sometimes. I previously felt guilty because on days where I was short on time, I would ride Apollo rather than Vinny (who was the horse I was trying to develop as my partner) and now, Vinny can have my undivided attention more hours every week. I had been contemplating taking on a young thoroughbred, Arc, as my own "next horse" but had been concerned about the finances of having a horse that wouldn't be generating an income. Now, that money was suddenly available. Love is not finite, and there will always be space in my heart for more horses, but time and money, unfortunately, do run out. I knew how much the success of my business rested on Apollo and having to find new solutions helped me learn how to more effectively spot and develop lesson horses. It required me to pivot my business in a little different direction. I remembered in moments of crippling self-doubt asking myself secretly if I could run this business and be a successful professional without Apollo- and the short answer has turned out to be yes. This is empowering.

Vinny and I, Summer 2021

So what am I doing six months later? Most days, I do the same things. Teach. Learn. Ride. There is not a single day I don't think about Apollo. I still feel sad about him... a lot. There are songs that still make me tear up on a good day, and bawl on a bad one. But I am enjoying telling stories about him, and sharing the lessons I learned from him, in a way I couldn't months ago. My partnership with Vinny gets stronger every week, and young Arc and I get quality time together that I wouldn't have if Apollo was still the horse to which I dedicated most of the time and space in my life. I was worried that they would fall short of Apollo and that I would compare them to him too much. Ironically, the opposite is true- Vinny's quirks don't seem so bad when he's not standing next to a horse that was his opposite in most ways. Arc's personality is so different from Apollo it's almost impossible to compare them in most areas. The horse that reminds me the most of Apollo is my newest addition, Callie. Maybe because it's now far enough in the past, but today the familiarity is comforting rather than depressing. And she is still different enough that I don't feel like I need her to turn into Apollo, but just have her remind me of him sometimes. Since my business pivoted more towards kid lessons, I took on an assistant which freed me up to go spend more time being mentored and learning with other professionals. I feel like I am becoming a better rider, trainer, and instructor faster than ever before. And that feels amazing. That's what I wanted more than anything when I started doing horses professionally- to learn how to be better for my horses, students, and myself. Losing Apollo took me down, but I was never out, which I think is a lesson that will continue to serve me moving forward.

Here's to the best horses, the ones who make us, break us, and put us back together again.

Apollo and I, Summer 2018

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