Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Final Battle; Jasmine's Passing...

Loss is a strange thing. It lays in wait under the surface, ready to bubble up in tears at the odd thought or memory swirling in your mind. Birth and death are integral parts of farming, we hope to grow the former at a sustainable rate and we fight against the latter with all our might. Some deaths hit harder than others. Even when you know time is short, that you have done all you can do, and death is inevitable, there are feelings of guilt and failure and the cruel accusations you torment yourself with~ "What if I had been better, stronger, more knowledgeable, faster..." and on and on.

Katlin, Kristen, and Caitlin riding Jasmine.
Jasmine came into our lives when Caitlin was a young girl through her best friend, Katlin. Caitlin and Katlin were inseparable. We used to joke with our friends that the "Caitlins" lived together; sometimes at our house, sometimes at theirs. More often at theirs. They had horses. Katlin's family bought a trio of horses~ Rebel, Lady, and Jasmine when our girls were about 9 years old. It was love at first sight. Those girls were fearless with their equine companions. They rode western, side saddle, and bare back. They rode solo and tandem. They stood on their horses' backs and learned "tricks" as they grew more used to one another. They swam with their horses in the summer months at Levenseller Pond. They were pulled on small sleds in the winter months. Our girls were fearless and they learned their horses well.

Meg bare-back.
When "the Caitlins" turned 14, it came to pass that the horses must be sold. Both girls were heartbroken, but life happens and hard decisions have to be made. Our Caitlin cried for days. It broke my heart to see her pain. I asked my ex-husband what we should do. His response was true, "Life is full of heart-ache. It is a hard lesson to learn."

Barn Beginnings
I called Sean (then, my fiance) to talk about the situation. Sean listened quietly. He said, "Sonja, if Caitlin will get a job to pay for Jasmine, I will help her build a barn for her here. It will be hard work, but if she wants Jasmine and is willing to work to get her, I think we should help her do that." And, that is exactly what happened. Caitlin got her first job and bought herself her horse. Jasmine was boarded in Stockton Springs for a while. Just before our wedding, Sean, our friend Chris, Caitlin, and I built our first stable at Sean's house and Jasmine came to live with Caitlin, Kristen, Meaghan and I. (Sean vacated his home and stayed with his grandmother for the months between when my rental lease expired and our wedding day so that we girls could move in and get settled.) Jasmine helped build a bond between Caitlin and her new step-father as they worked together on stable and fencing. She made the move easier for our younger girls, too- something new to look forward to.

Spa treatment. She rolled immediately after this.
Jasmine was around 18 years old when Caitlin met her. Over the next 14 years, Jasmine changed all of our lives. We were spoiled having Jasmine as our first horse. Jasmine was an "easy keeper". She was healthy and strong up until her final couple of years of life. But, then with age, she declined rapidly. First, she developed cataracts, which made her vision poor. She lost her teeth, so she had to be fed special "Hydration Hay". We switched her to "Senior grain". We tried beet pulp when she began having difficulty keeping weight on. She developed arthritis in her knees, which required Phenylbutazone for pain management and ice on her knee joints and hocks several times each day. She was diagnosed with Cushing's Disease and started treatment for that with Pergolide powder mixed into her morning grain. These treatments helped control her symptoms and manage any pain, but they were not a cure. We knew our time was growing shorter.

Jasmine loved the first snow of the season.
At the beginning of the spring, our veterinarian came out to see Jasmine because winter had been especially hard and Jasmine had lost a lot of weight. With summer coming, I wanted to see if we could give our girl more time, at least one more summer and fall. With constant attention, Jasmine regained about 100 pounds over the summer. Some days she only needed one pain pill to control her arthritis. But, with the cooling temperatures, Jasmine began limping more and more. Her pain medicines were increased accordingly. Though they made it so she could walk without struggling while on the medicines, in the mornings before they were given to her, she was declining.

About two weeks ago, Jasmine started dropping weight again quickly. It seemed almost overnight that her hips began to hollow and ribs show. I increased her feed, but Jasmine refused to eat the hydration hay, preferring greens from the back pasture or grain. In typical horse-fashion, once her grain bucket was empty, she went searching for goat grain or chicken corn, breaking into feeders if left anywhere in her reach! So naughty! In response to her weight loss, I increased her grain a bit, hoping to give her enough to get some weight back on her, but not so much to cause colic or other upset.

The splayed hind legs and the loss of weight
were hard to see.
It was time for our family to talk about Jasmine and her deteriorating condition. Man! I did not want to have this talk! Caitlin saw the same things I saw. Though it hurt, she agreed that it was time to have Dr. Tanja out to look her over again. Sean was more optimistic than we. He knew that she was starting to struggle, but based on (1) her healthy appetite, (2) her bright eyed greeting of us, (3) her interest in things happening around her, Sean hoped something could be done to get her through another winter. I understood his desire. I shared it with all my heart. If there was a treatment or a change we could make that would give her more time, I was all for that. The thing is, Sean left for work in the morning before Jasmine stirred and by the time he returned home, Jasmine was medicated so that she didn't seem to be struggling. He missed the morning routine of her limping to her grain bucket and the hours I spent icing her knees and spraying them with icy water. Some days I had to treat her every 90 minutes. Some days she needed 3-4 pills to get her through.

None of us was ready to say goodbye, but Jasmine was tired. We had to think of her first. Last September I was home alone when Jasmine had a seizure. Jasmine laid down, her eyes rolled back in her head. She snorted hard breaths through her nose. Her neck arched and her feet dug unto the ground. I thought she was dying. Kneeling beside her, I called Caitlin at work. "Jasmine is down, Cait. If you want to say goodbye, you need to come now. It's OK. Don't speed. I am here. She isn't alone and she isn't acting like she is in pain. I won't leave her." I assured her through my tears. Then, I called Sean and asked him to come home, too. I sat next to Jasmine petting her head, speaking softly to her for about 5 minutes. All of a sudden, she lifted her head and sat up. She gave herself a mighty shake and rose on her feet again. Jasmine sniffed the air and dipped her head into her grain bucket and resumed eating. What the what?!?!?!? When Sean and Caitlin arrived, Jasmine behaved completely normally. We never figured out what happened, but it was this vision that remained in my mind.

Our veterinarian, Dr. Tanja Ebel, is fantastic. I have never met one better. She comes when we need her, but she is not exclusively ours. Sometimes she is 2 hours away on another case. Sometimes she is in surgery. With Jasmine declining so rapidly, my biggest fear was what would happen if Jasmine went down again in the winter. Even coming as soon as Dr. Tanja could, Jasmine would be waiting 45 minutes to an hour for relief at a minimum. With winter coming, she could founder in the cold, unable to get warm or keep warm in the snow or icy rain, struggling and in pain. I had seen a glimpse of that last fall. I couldn't let her go through that.

Though warmer and sheltered, it would be just as bad for Jasmine to pass away inside her stall. Though roomy, we couldn't bury her there and moving her after was not an option. These are real thoughts. Real problems. If she passed in the winter, how would we care for her burial? Some folks hire people to take away and dispose of their horse's body. Others hire people to use machinery and drag their horse's body to a prepared grave. I am not judging anyone else's choices, but I was physically ill at the thought of either option. So, too, was repugnant the thoughts of digging a place next to wherever she fell and tipping her into her grave. Or, walking her into her grave and putting her to sleep there. No. Not for our girl. The most important things for me was that her passing be quick, painless, and without fear. The next important thing for me was that her body be cared for with respect and dignity.

I talked with Sean about the options and my fears. I thought that maybe, instead of digging a grave, our friend and spiritual brother, Keith, could dig a large incline, deeper on one side, but shallow enough that Jasmine would not be scared of it. And, large enough across that we could stand with her. I selected a place where she often left droppings, so it was an area of her field that she was used to, but not near the road so we would have privacy. The space was next to the area we roped off and planted our apple saplings last spring. As morbid as this seems, Caitlin and I practiced walking Jasmine down the incline over the next few days. We didn't want her to be afraid of it. We fed her special treats and brushed her there, so she would associate it with good things. We didn't make her stand there, she could leave as she wanted. On Wednesday, Keith prepared her place.

Sean suggested that we build a cairn over her grave as a way to honor her. I thought this was a good idea for a couple reasons. First, with a more shallow grave, I didn't want the chance of an animal disturbing her. Second, it was a way to remember her. Once the base is made, you bring a rock to add to it each time you visit as a remembrance. Third, as exhausted emotionally as we all are, physical work helps one to sleep. Lastly, building a cairn was a way that we could all mourn together. Sean contacted a neighbor, Earle Anderson, to bring us the stone we needed.

The girls spent Thursday with Jasmine. They took turns brushing her, medicating her, snapping pictures, crying, laughing, and feeding her treats. They confided final thoughts and secrets. They thanked her for sharing her life with us.

On Friday, Caitlin and I lined Jasmine's grave with a thick padding of hay and brought the first wagon of stone to it. We spent more time with Jasmine. Each of us had something we wanted to do once more that was important to us. The girls wanted to take lots of pictures in beautiful dresses and street clothes. Some to share with you. Some for just our family. Caitlin, Sean and I split part of a package of Oreos with Jasmine, a favorite treat that was not often allowed. Sean and I shared a few private moments in the barn with Jasmine. I wanted her to know how much I appreciated her help in teaching our girls and building their characters. And, how much I would miss her.

Over the summer, Jasmine had begun to trust me. She would let me massage her forelock and temples until she drifted to sleep under my hand. A few minutes would pass and she would wake up, shake herself out of her relaxed state and walk off to graze. In the past week, that changed. Jasmine relaxed under my hand massaging her head, but when she feel asleep, she'd lose her balance and start to slowly lean towards the ground before catching herself. Horses lay down and they roll from time to time. Jasmine liked to do both, especially after a good bath and brushing. She hadn't done either in about a week. Dr. Tanja saw her do this off-balance, near falling during her examination. "Has she been rolling or laying down at all?" She asked. When I replied no, she explained, "She's too tired. She knows if she lays down, she won't be able to get back up." Dr. Tanja examined the front hoof that started to soften this week, and confirmed my fear, "She's beginning to founder. If it were Spring, I might be tempted to try to treat her for it, but with the cold weather coming... and the arthritis... and the Cushing's..." We agreed, it was time. Jasmine nearly went down in her stall twice more while we gathered halter and lead and a bucket of grain for her.

We want to keep her last minutes private. But, what I can share is that Jasmine was not afraid. She felt the needle, but immediately returned to eating her grain. And, then, she swayed and went down and was gone within a minute or two. It was fast and peaceful.

Dr. Tanja gathered her things quickly and tearfully walked back to her truck, both to allow us privacy in our grief and because this is the worst part of her job, too. Our family cannot express how much we appreciate her helping us through this. She listened to our needs and concerns and helped make this worst day, as bearable as she possibly could. Sean dealt with the paperwork before returning to grieve with us. When we were ready, our family covered Jasmine with a blanket and more hay and the girls placed roses in with her. Then, together, with shovels and with the tractor, we interred Jasmine to the ground.

Jasmine's care was so much a part of our schedule, little, random thoughts set me off again. It's 10 o'clock, I need to see if Jasmine needs ice on her knees and more medicine. Doing dishes, I catch myself looking for her familiar presence in the back yard. Working at my studio desk, I look up to see if she is at the gate wanting to go back to her pasture. As Caitlin drives down the hill, her eyes search for Jasmine in the field. Buying grain at Tractor Supply this weekend, I lost it when I realized I didn't need horse grain or hydration hay. Well-intentioned ones ask how we are and the tears begin again. There is a giant, gaping hole in all of our hearts.

When I think of Jasmine, I stop what I am doing and bring more rocks.
The physical labor helps... a little.
I don't know how to end this post, but I have run out of things to write. As I mentioned in Jasmine's tribute post, this entry is not to sadden you or make you cry. Before I had to figure out how to lay a large animal to rest, I hadn't truly thought through how we would do that. I am sharing our choice as one way that it can be handled. It has been almost two weeks since we lost Jasmine. Not a day passes that she is not on my mind still. I am getting better about working and doing the things that are necessary to help Sean with running this homestead. But, I still get physically ill every time I eat anything. That is how my body handles stress and loss. I can't keep food in myself and I don't sleep well. With time, that will get better. Meanwhile, I try to eat on a schedule despite not having an appetite. And, I go to bed at the normal time, even if all I do is lay there with my eye closed and pray. And, I write. For myself to work these feelings out and for you. For those of you who follow this journey with us.

Thank you for sharing it with us tonight.
~Sean & Sonja and our daughters, Caitlin, Kristen, and Meaghan


  1. What a wonderful tribute to Jasmine, who was truly a member of your family. It is hard to lose a beloved animal. They are our friends and companions. i pray that you will all find peace and comfort in the coming days.

  2. Oh Sonja,

    This is a beautiful tribute - not only to your beloved horse - but also to the love in your heart, to the loving bonds in your family, to the wise leadership of your husband and the ongoing blessings of God.

    I am sorry for the sadness you feel, though this sadness is also a gift; like the rocks you will add to her resting place, it serves as a measure of the longstanding contribution Jasmine made to your lives.

    Hugs to all!