Last of the First Ones
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
other stories by Michael Hillman