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The Last of the First Ones

Michael Hillman

In their younger days, they would have been at each other’s throat. Now they snuggle close to each other, seeking to add the warmth escaping from the other to the heat of the wood burning stove, and the sunbeam that shines upon them. Age makes allies of us all.

It’s snowing out and Tony, the ‘old man’, a cream colored, blue-eyed Siamese mix, happily has forgotten the lure of the outdoors. PJ, my trusty fifteen year-old Jack Russell, wishes there was such a thing as an indoor dog. They’re the last of the first ones. Soon they will both be gone, and with their passing, a major chapter in the lives of my wife and I will close.

It’s been fourteen years since I first met my wife. While she was impressed with my ability to fix cars, she was less then enthralled with my attachment for PJ, an over-stimulated Jack Russell puppy and Charmer, a thoroughbred with one too many screws loose. Likewise, I found it hard to understand her attachment to Willie and Tony, her two cats.

In spite of the odds, or maybe because of them, we soon married. PJ didn’t take well to the new arrangement. Having only known the life of a bachelor’s dog, he found sleeping on the ground hard to take and being spanked for chasing my wife’s cats was downright rude. The sight of PJ gorging himself on her cat food every morning would send Willie into cardiac arrests. Tony, a reformed stray entering the best years of his fifth life, began to have serious doubts about his recent decision to adopt my wife.

The precarious peace established in the first few months of the marriage was thrown into turmoil with the addition of Emma, a German Shepard-Husky cross puppy, and our move to a farm just outside of Emmitsburg Maryland in 1989. With Emma, the first pet to be officially considered ‘ours’, the collection of ‘First Ones’ was complete.

The downside of owning pets is that we almost always outlive them. While we all instinctively know and accept this, few are ever prepared when death takes one away.

Charmer was to be the first.

The first time I laid eyes on Charmer, he was standing on cross-ties in a run down barn. I fell in love with him instantly and knew that one day he would be mine. Three years were to pass between that chance meeting and the day I was handed his ownership papers.

At 17 hands and with good bone, he was everything an Olympic caliber event horse was supposed to be. Everything worked like clockwork. With a job that took me back and forth to New York twice a month, Charmer was my constant traveling companion. Forever on the road he was never quite sure what to expect when the ramp opened. After a while he got to be such a good shipper, that it seemed like nothing could phase him.

One eventful winter, while shipping him to Connecticut, I lost control of the truck on an icy road. The truck and trailer spun around more times that I care to remember, but thankfully, never turned over. Sure that Charmer must surely have fallen down, I opened the trailer door expecting the worst, only to discover Charmer quietly munching away on his hay.

Charmer was my first ‘real’ horse, and because of him, many doors that I never expected to enter were opened for me. For three years, we were under the tutelage of former Olympic riders. Our high point came during our second summer together, when I was invited to become a working student for the then World Champion for three day eventing. During one memorable lesson, we broke the five foot height.  

As I cleared the jump, I let out a loud 'Ya!'. As I did so, I heard the coach tell the other students, "Remember Mike's reaction, for when its all said and done, eventing is about doing your best and having fun, not about winning or losing."  It would be the highest I would ever jump, but also, unbeknownst to me, the apex of our progress.

Charmer proved a difficult horse to master. Had I been a better rider, he surely would have been a better horse. Unsure of my abilities, he soon placed taking care of himself above doing what I asked. While he had excelled in lower level competitions, his uncertainty of me began to show at the upper level. Soon, more often then not, we were being eliminated.

In spite of the efforts of many, Charmer and I were soon caught in a downward spiral that seemed to have no end. By the time I married, I had abandoned all illusions of ever competing Charmer again.

Freed of the pressure of competing, his days were filled with hours of play, and pleasant hacks through the country with PJ, my new Jack Russell puppy. While Charmer had flamed out as a competition horse, he excelled as a pleasure horse. His eventing background more then prepared him for the occasional fence to be jumped. He loved to gallop, and having never really had a barn to call home, never saw any reason to hurry home from a hack.

With the move to the farm in Emmitsburg however, even the hacks came to a halt. Preoccupied with my new job and construction on the farm, months would pass between rides, which suited Charmer just fine.

While Charmer had many endearing qualities, he also had his quirks. To describe him as cantankerous would be the understatement of the century. He hated blankets and refused to walk in them. Instead, he would shuffle about, as if neurologically challenged But it was his ‘tick of the head’ that I recall most fondly of all. When released from human bondage and turned lose in a paddock, he would bend his neck sharply, as if to bite his right side, then swing it madly, clear to the other side. Every time he did, I chuckled to myself. I could easily imagine, that had he been human, he would swear at all things.

In spite of his idiosyncrasies and his unwillingness to jump, I had grown very fond of him. A severally broken leg woke me to the reality that I was wasting valuable time and once again turned my attention toward him. The two-year hiatus seemed to suit us well. While I was no longer dreaming of the Olympics, I did nevertheless miss competing. Charmer however, quickly reminded me that he would have nothing to do with a return to the ring. Instead, he relished our jaunts thought the country.

The air was cool and the sky was blue, a perfect day for a hack. I summoned a friend and off we went. We had been out for over an hour when we came to field we had trotted in countless times before. Knowing full well the drill, Charmer moved off swiftly, swinging his limbs forward as far as they could move. His ears were up, his mane floated like a kite, caught by a wind that would never cease.

My tranquility was broken by the sound of a snap, and Charmer limped to a halt.

He held his right front leg up. It was obvious something was dreadfully wrong. Switching horses, I galloped home, returning with a truck and trailer. Showing courage that had eluded him all his life, Charmer summoned all his strength, and climbed into the trailer.

Within half an hour of the break, two vets were at his side. It was obvious to us all that Charmer was not going to make it.

He held on as long as he could but in spite of massive doses of pain killers, the pain broke through. He would never make it to the hospital. With tears in my eyes, I positioned the trailer near his favorite tree. Charmer back out slowly, and, as if knowing his time was up, took one last look around, and quietly went to sleep.  

I held his head as he drew his last breath and sat in vigil by him as his grave was dug nearby. We laid him to rest underneath his tree. I positioned his head towards the rising sun and the new life it brings everyone. Around his head I gently wrapped a towel. A towel that for years had cleaned his face and added sparkles to his eyes.

Before the earth covered him up, I laid upon him his sheet. I smile at the thought of him shuffling in the after life and cursing me for doing it. And I cherish the thought of him swinging his head as he passes heaven’s pearly white gates, thanking God for finally being set forever free.  Charmer was 11, the prime of life for event horses.

There is an old saying, that when one door closes, one always opens.  Charmers death, while sad, was a good wake up call to me.  A few months later, I contacted an old friend who I had first meet while I was a working student with the world champion. Within a few weeks, she found me a wonderful horse, and less then three years after Charmer's death, I completed in my first three day event and was nationally ranked.  I'll never make the Olympics. I don't even dream of it. I don't care. 

I learned many things from Charmer, the most important of which is: its OK not to accomplish your dream as long as you gave it your best shot.  But then you need to go on with your life and accomplish something.  Charmer never carried me to the Olympics, but he did carry me through many hard times, and the memories of our pleasant hacks through the countryside will last a life time.

Years would pass before another of the first ones was lost and, like Charmer, it was unexpected and sudden.

"Farewell, Master, Yet not farewell
Where I go, ye too shall dwell
I am gone, before your face,
A moment's time, a little space.
When ye come where I have stepped
Ye will wonder why ye wept."

Part 2: Emma's Story
Part 3: Willie's Story
Part 4: Tony's Story
Part 5: PJ's Story
Read other stories by Michael Hillman