Life has been playing the cruelest mental trick on me the past month; a lesson in humility in the face of death.
Since the beginning of June my morning routine has been going down to the kitchen and take the big syringe of dexamethasone in my hand to draw a daily dose of "the breath of life" for my 36-year old New Forest Pony Didi. Each day I counted the stripes on the syringe and calculated how many days were left for my pony to live and how much time I had to postpone making the dreaded decision of euthanizing her. I fled reality and took door number two: I drove to my veterinarian, literally as a drug addict, and begged for another syringe so that I could procrastinate being the executioner.
Call Me By My Name
Didi has been the greatest gift I received in my life.
As a young child I was drawn to all kinds of animals but horses had a magnetic power on me. I started riding in 1988 and after two years of whining, my father found me a 3-year old, barely saddle-broken pony in The Netherlands in the summer of 1990. I was just about to turn 10. It was an arranged marriage. I had a keen interest in New Forest ponies but zero riding skills so the first year was touch-and-go. I fell off regularly and was quite scared of her. However our love grew as I grew taller and more secure.
We fell in love, she became my everything in my early teens, and has been the originator to my passion for dressage. We competed successfully at regional level and rather unsuccessfully at national FEI pony level (against very expensive, fancy ponies). She moved three times with me: twice barns (from a local barn yard to a dressage stable, De Steppe in Mol) and after her retirement from sport, to my farm in 2007, her forever home. She roamed the pasture ever since and was the lighthouse in the storm, always there by my side, loyally pricking her ears and nickering, when I called her by her name.
Didi's physical weak point were her lungs. She had occasional flare-ups of heaves, but they were always treatable with herbs. In June 2022, at age 35, she suddenly had severe respiratory difficulty and with cortisone medication pulled her through the summer so she could have a decent autumn, winter and spring. She turned 36 on 27 April 2023 but by that time every next day was a blessing.
Since the start of June Didi's condition worsened. I became the drug dealer and drug addict in one. In order to keep her alive I was forced to crank up the medication, dazing myself into confusion that she wasn't so bad after all. Day by day I realised the end of the road was drawing near. I began voicing to my family and friends the thought of putting her to sleep and confessed the mental blockage I was experiencing in saying the final goodbye to my friend of 33 years. Six weeks in a row they had to tolerate this litany of lamentation and indecision.
The weekend before CDIO Aachen it was over 30° C. Didi could hardly breathe and ran a 39.5 ° fever. I drove to the vet for medication, bawled my eyes out and had no handkerchief to dry my face. I used my T-shirt like a little child as I stuttered telling her the full story of how meaningful this pony was in my life and how not ready I was to let her go. It was the first time I cried over the inevitable after having rationalised all emotions in the weeks leading up to this point.
We made an appointment to put her to sleep on Tuesday 28 June, the day before Aachen. I drove home, stocked up on enough drugs to give ME two weeks respite. Didi got a triple dose of dexa and some NSAID for the fever - there was nothing to lose - and three hours later she's walking around again, breathing better and fever gone. Such a tough cookie. It launched me back on the rollercoaster for another round. Didi began Aachen week considerably better and I canceled her day of death.
It's Been Enough
But the dark thoughts that I was sabotaging my pony's chance for a dignified passing never left my mind. My sleep was broken as each night, tossing and turning while I was mentally writing the script for doomsday. It woke me up every night at 4 am, worried and troubled.
Last week was a good week though, but I watched the weather forecast on the news chewing my nails in agony as I saw another weekend of 30 ° + temperature approaching. My practical-thinking mind screamed, "oh no not on the weekend," because that's when the animal disposal company doesn't do pick ups. You don't want a cadaver lying on your doorstep for two days in searing hot temperatures. Of course Didi had a bad day on Friday, and Saturday was not too great either. I doubled the dose to pull her through, yet agan, but in the back of my mind a mantra started humming: "It's been enough, it's been enough, it's been enough."
Last weekend prompted me to take another step closer to the executioner's block: On Sunday I walked to my neighbour Jos, who has a dairy farm and helped me six years ago putting down my mare Grace. I kindly asked him if he could rescue me from the dreaded moment and hold Didi for me when she will be put the sleep. I finally realised I can't be there. I don't want to see her die in front of my eyes. Call me a milksop, but it's too painful for me.
I thought I was ready and silently check-marked Tuesday as THE day, and "this time I mean it," I convinced myself. I began drawing my emotional survival plan for the day, picturing that I would drive to my mom and brothers and it would happen while I'm with them.
Two More Shots
However Monday came around the corner, the weather was cooler, and my resolution wavered...again. I repeated to myself "be honest, it's been enough." Although Didi still ate well and had no problems with her legs and flexibility, she panted all the time and was out of breath as soon as she had to walk 30 meters.
I felt totally blocked. I couldn't muster the courage to whatsapp my veterinarian for the appointment. All my friends were telling me "trust your instinct" but that was the part I no longer had faith in as I kept stretching the point of no return by setting new parameters. I only had dexa left until Tuesday, which meant Wednesday was D-Day: either I put Didi down or I jump back into the car to got more drugs to lengthen the process of mental torment and indecision for another fortnight.
I must have emanated some kind of resolve on the weekend because when I arrived at my mother's place on Tuesday evening for our weekly family dinner, she hesitatingly peeped round the corner of the door, scanning my face and composition upon first sight. When I notice her scared look I said straight away, "she's still alive mum," to which she replied "I was so sure it was going to happen today and all day long was ready to cry with you."
We had another lengthy conversation at the table as Didi's life-and-death situation had become the standard topic of discussion for almost two months. My sister in law, whom I got acquainted with at the same riding stable two decades ago, insisted: the moment has come.
I drove home and the pieces of the puzzle finally come together. Yes, it's truly been enough. I cut the Gordian knot. I had no more dexa to artificially keep her breathing, so I went to bed at midnight and decided that Wednesday 12 July 2023 was going to be the day I said goodbye to a friend of a lifetime, a beacon of light, happiness, and love.
First thing I did in the morning, before I switched on ClipMyHorse to watch and cover the 2023 European Young Riders/Under 25 Championships, was feed my pony and touch her coat, her body, her legs and cutest nose for one last time. I texted the vet and my neighbour and set the wheels in motion. She finished her breakfast and walked back into the big field to join her buddies, Fazzino and Arrow. I looked at her one last time from up close. After I finished writing the young riders' report, I got up from the computer, looked out of the kitchen window and softly whispered "farewell" and "thank you" to my dearest friend... my little pony... I -drove away, heart broken but mind at ease that this was the best choice I could have made.
Rest in peace Didi.
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