Today, the bravest soul I’ve ever known passed away. With all the difficulties of his life and his blindness, it took a broken leg to take down our Brave. A summer thunderstorm may have caused it, but in the end, all of his intelligence and heart and spirit could not overcome it.
At the time of his death, Brave would have been approximately 23-25 years old. He was saved from the Fallon Feed lot with a bunch of other horses. I got an email about Brave and the others, and when I looked at the terrible picture of him, I thought right away, No one will want this poor guy! His head looked bigger than his body; he was mud colored, head hanging and thin. An Appaloosa with the characteristic no-forelock and crazy mane, bumps on his nose and torn ears. I contacted his rescuers and said sure, if you can get that guy here, I’ll take him. It took a while, but finally he arrived. As the transporter handed me his leadrope, she said, o, by the way, he’s blind!
Now, I’ve never voluntarily taken a blind horse, and I will never. I’m not set up for it here. I don’t have perfectly flat paddocks - the horses here spend all day in open areas that include varied terrain, brushy areas, sand wallows, and rocks. But I will never regret the day I said ok to Brave. I stood in awe of his courage and resourcefulness and will forever hold him in my heart as the most intelligent horse I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Like a lot of Appaloosas, Brave was prone to eye problems, including the dreaded uveitis. He was so responsive and so well trained that I suspect his previous owners simply didn’t realize he was going blind - it’s often mistaken for allergies or response to dust. Sadly, when they realized it, they made the worst possible choice from my point of view - they sent him to auction. How confused Brave must have been, trying to deal with the confusion and new situation and compete for food and water at the auction lot. He was a strong personality, but smart enough to know that he could not fight for his food. How grateful he must have been to get into a trailer again, probably hoping he was heading home. The rescuers took him to their ranch and put him in a pen with some babies, and it was then that they discovered his blindness. He did run into the fences a few times, but they reported to me how he quickly figured out the area, and how he would kick dirt ahead of himself to get warning of walls, waterers, and such.
In my facility, Brave showed the same resourcefulness. Dr. Z told me that it seemed Brave did have a little light/shadow vision in his right eye, the left was blind. And Brave learned the stall line, and would trot up and down, up and down, not nervously, but just for exercise, while I cleaned stalls. He learned where his own stall was; he ventured much farther out toward the main paddock that I ever would have believed, and learned how to canter back.
For a short while after he came in, I had a volunteer who took him and Hershey to the round pen - he was always brilliant on a lead, responsive and trusting - and he followed Hershey around the pen for exercise as well. That, I believe, is where their wonderful friendship began.
With his courage and strong personality, Brave would have been in complete charge of my herd if it were not for his blindness. And little Hershey was sweet and timid and small, but had eyes. They were a perfect pair. Brave made Hershey feel secure - and would circle around him at the slightest sense that someone threatened. And Hershey was Brave’s eyes, and took him out into the herd. They made each other complete, with their disabilities and personalities a perfect complement for each other. For many years, they were inseparable.
Sadly, a few months ago Hershey got cast in his stall, and was so body sore and hurt, that having Brave in close proximity was more than he could bear. No one had to tell Brave either - he was always attuned to Hershey, and realized that his friend needed a break - some alone time - to heal. So he lingered each day in the stall line, as he had when he first came in. When Spencer, who had followed Brave and Hershey around after losing Shine, decided to linger with Brave, I thought it was a good thing. Spencer had been declining since the loss of Shine (who had begun his own dramatic decline on the loss of Sunny), and I thought Spencer and Brave could help each other.
The two developed a similar relationship to Brave and Hershey’s. That is, Brave was still the protector, and Spencer was (sort of, sometimes) Brave’s eyes. But Spencer was declining still, having a hard time keeping weight on, showing more Wobbler’s symptoms, and thus always anxious and terrified if separated from Brave for even a second. And this put a burden on Brave that he was having a hard time holding. After healing, Hershey tried to come back to hook up with Brave again, but could not compete with Spencer’s demands.
So Brave and Hershey greeted each other every night over the fence between their stalls, while Spence whipped back and forth wildly in his stall, stressed that Brave wasn’t within reach.
During his time here, Brave was always well behaved, except for one thing. He did get a cut on his cornea once, and putting ointment in his eye was truly a labor of Hercules. He didn’t rear, he would simply move his head, just enough. He held no grudges, he just would not allow it! I’m persistent though and we were able to heal that injury, and he was very happy with salty hot water poultices on his eyes. I’d realized that he was losing more of his limited bits of vision. He was starting to have trouble holding his hind legs up for the farrier, but he did try. He was retaining hair and I was about to ask the doctor if he might have Cushings. He was never the "beautiful" horse - but his summer storm coat, and his proud carriage, and well put together body made him beautiful in my eyes.
In the end, Brave was hurt, his leg broken, when fencing that normally blocked him from an unfamiliar area was broken down. Possibly by Spencer (in response to approaches of more dominant horses or perhaps he was frightened by the thunder yesterday afternoon); possibly the other horses opened that fence up and he was driven thru it or followed Spence - the mess I found back there showed there was a lot of activity by at least 12 horses in a small area. It’s just like Brave that I found him and Spencer in Queenie’s stall - barely big enough for her, these two were crowded into the roofed part, with Brave protecting the entryway and Spencer cowering behind him.
I smiled, thinking how clever Brave was to find a corner he could protect. But when I asked him to come out to his own stall, I realized immediately that disaster had struck. My boy did as I asked. He limped and hopped out of that stall, up to the main stall line and his stall, three legged, with Spencer glued to his side and totally in the way. Got a big drink of water immediately. And went slowly into his stall for dinner. As with my Lew, I knew. I gave him a huge bowl of food, with tons of carrots, his favorite, and some bute for his pain. I groomed him and told him how much I loved him, and how he would be free again soon. And today, I made good on that promise. Four years could never be enough. I wish it had been more.
Blindness is a great fear of mine. And I watched our dear Lola and Allie react to total blindness the way I would - a complete collapse of self into fear. To watch Brave, day after day, make the best of his situation, learn this new environment, make friends, and still be the protector, still be giving of himself to others, was an inspiration, and made me humble in the face of his strength and courage. He was one in a million, and my hero.