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The Shoeless Horse

The Shoeless Horse, Episode 29: The Long Goodbye

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Duchess’s breathing was shallow, mechanical. Tiny puffs. Her eyes were glazed.

When the black-and-tan dog was laid on the examination table at Bonnie’s waist level, she suddenly saw with fresh eyes how beautiful her dog was, how impressive in size.

Duchess. Her dog. The dog she had begged for, the dog she’d carried home in her arms when it was a tiny six- week- old puppy. The dog she’d taught so many tricks. The glossy-coated sixty-pound dog who was so athletic and had often made Bonnie burst with pride. The dog who had often caused serious trouble.

Now, Duchess was utterly still except for the rapid, small breaths that convulsively moved her ribs.

The young man was miserable. He was new, he said. An assistant. He’d called, said it was an emergency, but the vet was home with his family eating dinner.  He’d come as soon as he was finished.

Bonnie helped the sorrowful assistant slide a clear plastic tube down her dog’s throat. They waited and waited, praying the vet would finish dinner and come to make the dog alive again.

Time passed. The two young people stood miserably beside the surgical table, out of things to say. The dog was limp. Her small puffs counted off the minutes.

Bonnie seems to remember trying to fill the awful silence with stories. She told the young man about some of the bad things Duchess had done when they lived in Vancouver- knocked over a newspaper boy, bit the pant leg of a police officer, started horrible dogfights. The dog was smart and devoted to their family, but sometimes chased people on bikes.

‘People always called my mother at suppertime,’ said Bonnie, trying for humour,    ‘ with complaints about this dog.’

Always suppertime, she thought to herself, thinking of the absent vet, home at his own dinnertable. She felt sorry for the young assistant. He’d run out of ideas.

Bonnie remembered now how many times people had called about Duchess. She knew it was stress her mother hadn’t needed. The family built a huge expensive fence all around Grandma’s property to keep the dog contained, and rules were made about keeping Duchess on the leash- but still things had happened.

‘I thought about putting the dog down when you were about twelve,’ Bonnie’s mother once confessed. ‘But then it was Open House at the school. When I got to your classroom, there were drawings of yours everywhere, and they were all of Duchess.’ She’d laughed ruefully and said,

‘ I knew then if I put the dog down, I’d have to do you in too.’

Bonnie and the young man waited for what seemed like hours more, and the vet finally arrived. Bonnie doesn’t recall him being sympathetic. Maybe he’d seen too many cases like this one ; people were always letting dogs bolt into traffic.

‘The dog’s neck is broken,’ said the vet flatly. ‘There’s nothing I can do.’

Bonnie felt the world go dark.

She’d felt the presence of death the moment she’d seen the brake lights on the black road. She’d clung desperately to the possibility of a miracle during the rescue, and in the bright lights of the surgery room.

During the minutes that had turned into two hours, Bonnie and the vet’s assistant had been ministering to a dog that was mostly dead. She now confronted the magnitude of what she had done.

Again and again, and to this day, a voice inside told Bonnie it was her fault completely. Her stupid decision to have Duchess run beside the road in the dark had killed the dog she’d loved since she was ten years old. It was her fault, and Duchess was never coming back.

The Shoeless Horse, Episode 27: The Distractions of Christmas

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It was December, but Bonnie’s Dad had disappeared.

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The Shoeless Horse, Episode 26: The Idyllic Interval

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The whole time Hogan the horse was living it up as a pampered pet at the boarding stable, Bonnie did not ride him.

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The Shoeless Horse, Episode 24 : Going To The Ground Again

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After the high school graduation, there was no university as Bonnie had dreamed. The family bills seemed to be piling up, Bonnie’s father seemed to be getting into more trouble, and the newspapers ran frequent articles about university grads who couldn’t find their dream jobs. She didn’t mind settling in to working.

Even though her brother Steve was just sixteen, he was out in the workforce too. Their mother toiled at the busy restaurant in Vancouver, then found a very different job at an elegant Italian import shop that required an even longer commute. Now, four cars crowded the driveway of the house in Port Moody, one for each of the parents, and one for each of the two older kids.

Bonnie’s mother tried to use public transit. For awhile there was public transit for workers in Port Moody – the Barnet Fast-bus.  It was a help for anyone commuting directly into downtown Vancouver, but Ava had to cross a bridge onto the North Shore and make multiple transfers, so she abandoned the buses in favour of a skinny little Toyota wagon.

‘Everyone in the family uses and abuses my station wagon,’ Ava often fumed. It was true – anytime anything awkward had to be moved, including bales of hay and muddy dogs, Ava’s Toyota was borrowed.

Bonnie and her brother ranged around the hills of Port Moody and into other communities to see friends, and they both enjoyed driving. Having a car was a ticket to freedom. For girls, especially cautious girls like Bonnie, a car also provided the ability to get away from a party that had gone sour, even scary.

Bonnie got her license immediately after turning sixteen. Sometimes she had to drive her Dad around, as he’d mysteriously lost his. After some driving experience, she had a new understanding of the craziness of driving up to a horse at high speed and smacking him from behind.  She shuddered every time she thought of the day it had happened. She knew she’d been bloody lucky.

For Hogan the horse, life was peaceful since Bonnie had stopped putting rude and inexperienced riders on his back. Only Bonnie and her friend Leah rode the horse now. Hogan loved young Dawn and her gentle ways, and seemed fond of the cats, who were still hanging out by the trough when he had his sweet mash. He was tough in all seasons, refusing to use his shelter no matter what the weather did.

The rides grew less frequent as the next hoof-tending session drew nearer.  The horse’s hooves were ragged. Bonnie’s heart was pierced with guilt whenever she looked carefully at those hooves.

It took a few months to save up some money. Her earnings at Roy Rogers Restaurant were barely over minimum wage, and she paid her mother some rent along with a couple of other household bills.  Bonnie had been angry at first about the rent, but later she understood.  Her good-looking Dad had a new job, but spent lots of money everywhere he went, and he was getting around. It wasn’t long before Steve was helping with the bills too.

When Bonnie had enough cash put aside, she called Pete Barker.  Grudgingly he agreed again to help. The vet was summoned.

Few sights are more terrible to witness than a creature of flight that is drugged, trapped and pulled to the earth. The second take-down event in the pasture was just as horrifying as the first. Hogan’s grunts and his desperate struggling again seared into Bonnie’s soul. The pale horse fought fiercely to stay on his feet, to stay up and be ready to run.

This time, though, something was different.

“I had to give him so much,” the vet said of the medication that took Hogan to the ground. “Next time it may kill him. I gave him the amount that I normally use for a much bigger animal, because he wouldn’t go down.”

The vet and Pete looked tired and sad. Bonnie was in a state of numb horror. As the men worked over her crazy-brave, lifeless-looking little horse, the vet’s new recommendation banged in her ears.

“He can’t go on with this. You need to think about putting him down.”

The Shoeless Horse, Episode 23: Graduation From The Two Schools

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The dress Ava made for her daughter’s high school Grad was beautiful.

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The Shoeless Horse, Episode 22: Coping With Educational Experiences

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Bonnie was graduating.  Formally, she was about to graduate from high school, and informally, she had just passed another course in the School of Hard Knocks.

After bringing down the horse, not only was she struggling to force herself  to concentrate on her end-of-the- line schoolwork, but she had to work several days a week, argue with her brothers, care for the horse and her dog, and try to catch glimpses of her busy mother and sister. And then, there were the many ups and downs of life with her Dad.

Since her father had become an executive of a brand new company, the happy ‘ups’ were fewer and the exciting stuff was happening more often.

She went to the store before Father’s Day one afternoon, and was struck by the lack of cards that had appropriate greetings for a Dad like hers. Bonnie’s Dad was prone to a wide range of behaviours and comments that didn’t fit the dreamy and warm messages she saw on cards in the store.

The Father’s Day cards in the stores all spoke gratefully of fathers who were always therefor their children, always supportive and inspiring.

There were no verses that offered an ode to a father who was not always there, who yelled and screamed at his kids every second Saturday, and who sometimes tormented their mother with a flood of awful put-downs.

Dad wasn’t always mean and temperamental. He could be really funny, and sometimes very kind and generous. He enjoyed the pets- the whole menagerie – even though he liked to lead his sons in some serious taunting about the horse.

The thing was, Bonnie’s dad was unpredictable. He’d slump into long periods of silence, walled off from his family though all five of them were just steps away. When he was in the miserable periods he wouldn’t speak to anyone, and was downright dangerous to disturb.

Sometimes these moods lasted for weeks. While her dad was in this state, she and her brothers and sister could not risk bringing friends home – not after school, not even on the weekend.  It was a pain, but they lived with it.

For Bonnie’s mum, Ava, the pain was literal.  She’d suffered with migraine headaches since she was twelve years old. She got them so bad, they knocked her right off her feet. Sometimes, Ava lay in the dark for days, the door closed and her voice behind it frighteningly weak.

The pets made everyone laugh. The two young cats the Pinda Brothers had sent home with Bonnie and Dawn raced around the house as they grew, wreaking havoc with the décor and skittering around so comically that sometimes the whole family laughed themselves silly. The dog was difficult when she faced the world outside the house, but affectionate and endearing with her favourite people. The horse was…  well.  You’re listening to this story.

Bonnie’s final year of school brought some distraction from the challenges that had come along with the horse of her dreams. She understood now that even without the hoof issue, she had not accepted how difficult it could be to properly care for a horse.  Sometimes she felt guilty. There was plenty to graze on in the generous-sized pasture, but was that any excuse not to pay attention to Hogan some days?

When the time since the last trimming went by and Hogan’s hooves grew again, the girl understood two things. First, it would soon be time to stop riding him, to protect his hooves from her weight. Second, it was time to get prepared for another ‘humane treatment’ at the hands of the veterinarian and the farrier.

Though her mother had toiled to produce a stunning dress for Bonnie’s graduation, the girl was haunted by those other plans.

She shuddered whenever she thought of it:  her horse, shocked and dazed, struggling bravely against unseen forces to stay on his legs. Her handsome, defiant little Hogan, horribly drunk and pulled down to the ground in a defenseless heap.

She was worried sick now about two unavoidable obligations  – attending Grad with a boy she didn’t even like anymore, and participating in the next awful bringing down of Hogan.

The Shoeless Horse, Episode 21: Coming To Grips With The Reality Of “Humane”

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The pale horse staggered along the path in the sunlit field, his head heavy on the girl’s shoulder.  Never in a million years could Bonnie have imagined a day like this.

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The Shoeless Horse, Episode 20: The afternoon she wished she could Un-see

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The three of them, concentrating grimly, moved as close to the horse as they could. Each was ready at any moment to leap, either away from a flying hoof or out from the path of a tumble.

The vet had slipped the tube into Hogan’s neck, and the anesthetic was trickling into the horse’s bloodstream.

Hogan was now angry and frightened, realizing that the three people around him were working to hurt him somehow. It took long, terrible minutes for the anesthetic to affect him. He began to stumble, and made a herculean effort to keep his balance. Bonnie’s heart felt as though it was being pulled apart in her chest.

Hogan worked to stay up off the ground, to stand and face his enemies. He stood, swaying, his head hanging, and watched the two men with increasingly unfocused eyes.

‘Okay, watch it, watch it –’ Pete’s voice gritted, ‘get ready- he’s going to go down soon.’

Pete had one line, Bonnie the other, each ready to turn the horse’s head in the direction of his impending fall once they could see which way it would go.

The horse collapsed to the right, sinking part way to the ground, then made another desperate effort to pull himself back up.

In the kitchen of one of the houses on Portview Place that overlooked the field, a woman was standing in front of the window, her eyes riveted to the scene below. Tears were streaming down her cheeks when her daughter came home from school.

‘Mum!’ said Bonnie’s friend Marion, ‘ What’s wrong?’

Her mother was shattered by what she was seeing in the field below. The little horse had meandered through Sylvia’s back garden during one of his escapes. He’d munched on their roses.  Today she watched as the horse was being tortured in what looked like a deadly tug- of- war.

Down in the pasture, Bonnie was dizzy with horror.

Hogan fell to the other side, rolling almost to the earth, then lunged over his forelegs and thrashed in a semi-circle, his back legs useless. Pete pulled Hogan’s head toward himself, trying to roll the horse down to the safety of the grass.

At last, the fight drained out of him, the pale horse lay motionless on the damp earth.

For the girl there was more fear and guilt. There was no tarp. No bedding. Hogan’s white form was a stark contrast to the dangerously cool ground. The two men quickly worked over the downed animal. The vet examined his teeth.

‘You were told this horse was eight years old?’ the veterinarian asked. ‘Looks to me like he’s closer to twelve.’

Barker clipped and filed the hooves.

‘He’s going to be dopey when he gets up,’ the vet told Bonnie.

‘He’ll have a hard time with his balance. He might fall. You’ll have to help him, and stay with him for a while. Walk with him so he can work out the anesthetic.’

Mercifully, it wasn’t long before Hogan began to stir.

‘Okay,’ Pete Barker said, ‘Bonnie, get ready to help him get up.’

Hogan rolled over and propped himself up as the three humans watched carefully.  Lying on the ground but with his head up now, the horse tried to gather his wits. He struggled to rise, and couldn’t get over his legs. He rested, then suddenly rose, staggering straight for Bonnie.

Was he going to attack her? Fall on her? She was frightened for Hogan and for herself, but she found herself beside his head, holding his halter, talking to him.

When Hogan laid his heavy, heavy head over her shoulder, leaning on her, she was overwhelmed. He trusted, needed her.

Stumbling under the weight of her horse’s head and her new burdens, she walked with the wobbling horse along the path through the soft grass, warmed by the sun.

The Shoeless Horse, Episode 19 : Searching For Salvation

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The girl was riding her horse less and less.  Filled with both love and regret, Bonnie for a time avoided dealing with Hogan’s problem.

She fed him, visited with him at the fence, and cherished him from a distance. Out in the pasture, his hooves were mercifully invisible. Though she was petite, Bonnie now felt that riding put too much pressure on his messy hooves. Slowly but steadily, the joy of owning her dream pet was eroded by guilt and worry.

Her parents were busy with their own challenges and conflicts. Despite their many differences, Ada and Blaineboth loved animals. They not only tolerated several sets of cats, Bonnie’s troublesome dog and the little rabbit who was brought home from a hilltop just in time to give birth to more rabbits,  but they also enjoyed the horse. However, they were socially reserved at the best of times. Neither of them had friends in Port Moody yet – and absolutely no connections with anyone who knew horses.

A few times, when the night sky was clear and the moon was full, Ada stood at the bedroom window on the upper floor of their new suburban home, and watched as the small white horse raced around the pasture, glowing in the moonlight and full of high spirits.

Bonnie didn’t have many friends at her swanky new high school. She didn’t know anyone from the hip crowd or the horsey gang.  She did have a friend named Linda, a kind and intelligent girl with a delightfully squeaky laugh, who at least provided sympathy.  Marion, a witty and quirky girl who lived down the street, also provided – if a bit reluctantly – a sounding board at times.

After the disastrous ‘sacking out’ procedure with Pete Barker, Bonnie’s options had been explained to her.  She’d since been trying to forget them. Her heart felt unbearably heavy whenever she let herself think of it.

“If you’re not going to have him thrown again,”  Pete had told her, ” You will have to get the vet in and put this horse under anesthetic to knock him out and lay him down. Then while he’s out I will come and trim his hooves and float his teeth. It won’t be cheap.”

Oh, God ! How would she ever pay for all this?  Tormented by guilt and worry, Bonnie rarely rode the horse. She worked to raise the funds.

Time has erased some of the details, but I for one would like to believe the girl raised all the money herself, and borrowed nothing from her family.  Somehow, she managed to accumulate money to pay both the veterinarian and Pete Barker.

At last, she made the next fateful phone call.

“I’m ready,” she said to Barker, her heart like a brick in her chest. “What do I need to do to prepare?”

On the appointed day, the vet and Barker arrived within minutes of each other. Bonnie was terrified but kept quiet and rigidly attentive.  She had treats ready for the horse. She’d picked out a spot in the pasture where the ground was soft and the grass was short.

Pete had told her that they would need to have two lines on either side of Hogan’s halter, to make sure they could pull his head to one side or the other as he fell to the ground. It made her sick to think of it, but she would haveto do her best, because the things they were planning were dangerous for her horse .

The horrifying facts had come at her one after the other.

“We have to give him just the right amount of anesthetic, or we could kill him,’ said one. ‘And if he’s out too long on the ground, he could get seriously chilled.”

“We have to make sure the horse doesn’t flip when he goes down,” said the other,  “or he could break his neck.”

Numbly, she poured some of Hogan’s favourite mash into a bowl, and the horse plunged his head nose into the treat.  The vet pulled a brown bottle, some plastic tubing and a scalpel out of his kit. The ferrier tied the lines to her horse’s halter and braced himself to pull.

The sun shone and mercifully warmed the ground, the scalpel cut into Hogan’s pale neck, and a thin stream of brilliant red coursed down to his chest.

The Shoeless Horse, Episode 18: The Magical Trip to the Lake. Flashback.

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After the boys in the car scared her out of her wits when they drove by and slapped her horse, Bonnie wondered if she should continue the ride to the lake.  She was still shaking like a leaf, and it was a long way.

The horse, though, had quieted. His hooves made a pleasing thud in the fine gravel on the shoulder of the road and the sun was still shining. She decided to press on.

As she rode slowly along, Bonnie gazed at the homes set into the trees that grew on the downhill side of Ioco Road.  Back in 1970, these were medium in size, but many faced the water and had expensive landscaping with long driveways.

As Hogan’s hooves thudded softly on the gravel, she thought as she so often did of her mother. Ada never tired of looking at lovely houses.  Though they were all still school kids, she’d instilled a love of beautiful things in her children.

When Ada saw appealing but expensive clothes, she sometimes bought a pattern resembling the outfit she’d spotted, and recreated it on her sewing machine. She was always strapped for cash, but she was determined, so some lovely things came off her sewing table.

Bonnie was amazed at what her mother could do, but she knew it didn’t come easy. Ada had almost no spare time, so she did most of her sewing at night when she was exhausted. There were special occasions when she sewed for her daughters, too.

In a way, Bonnie realized, the love of beauty was one of the traits that made her fall madly in love with the horse she was at this very moment riding. The day she first saw him, dancing sideways, tossing his long mane and gleaming like moonlight, she was utterly captivated by both his looks and his spirit.

Just as a messy family, too many work hours and a difficult husband soiled Ada’s dream of a magazine-worthy home, the reality of a horse who rolled in the mud,  sometimes had a bulging grass belly and occasionally escaped his pasture messed up Bonnie’s perspective on owning a real horse. When she wasn’t worrying about getting her homework done, she fretted about the hours she was losing at work and the cost of Hogan’s feed.

Today, however, she hoped she was about to do something wonderful.

Bonnie had seen riders and horses swimming together on TV. She’d been thrilled when the man she’d bought Hogan from had said this horse didn’t mind the water. It was about seven miles to beautiful Belcarra Regional Park and the lake. Seven miles back to Port Moody.  Would it be worth the hours?  Would it go the way she hoped ?

She doesn’t remember how long it took, but at last she rode off the road, onto a forest trail, and out onto the beach. The lake glittered in the sun and she could see into the clean, clear water of the shallows to the gravel at the bottom. Hogan was thirsty now, and dipped his muzzle to the water. There were just a few people in the park. Several of them stared, and Bonnie was both proud and embarrassed.

She was scared, too. What if the horse rolled over on her in the water? What if he got upset and dumped her on the beach? There were lots of possibilities.

“Ho, boy,” she said softly to the little horse. “Let’s go.”  She nudged his sides with her heels and clicked her tongue quietly, hoping no one would see how nervous she was. Could anyone tell she’d never done this before ?

Hogan was ready to wade into the lake. His rider, amazed she was living a fantasy she’d imagined for years, was delighted. She clung to his mane, leaned over and whispered praises into his pricked ears. Shaking with both fear and happiness, she urged him deeper into the water. He seemed to enjoy himself. Did his hooves lift off the bottom? Was he really swimming?

Bonnie didn’t want to press her luck. If the horse got panicky, it could go badly for both of them. She let her legs float a little, then turned Hogan back toward the shore. Her brothers would call her a chicken. Truthfully, she was scared to really, really swim her horse.  But it was enough. Hogan had again proved himself to be versatile and brave.  Again he was her hero –  and her jeans dried nicely on the jubilant ride home.


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