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Always and Forever

by M.D.

I ran up to the barn at the end of the day to say my final goodbyes. No one warned me it would be this hard. No one told me in the beginning that there would be an end like this. I had no idea of the pain that was to come.

AJ with M.D.

September 3rd, 2008. That was the first day in large animals. The day we first met. I walked into the barn that morning and took a look around. Ms. Twombly told the class to clean the eight stalls with a partner. Sarah and I were last to get there and there was one stall left, stall number eight. The stall card read: AJ, 30 year old standard bred gelding. And from that day on, that was our stall, our horse. Every morning we would clean his stall, groom him, and give him treats. With each day that went by, I felt myself falling more and more in love with this horse.

By the time we started riding, about three weeks later, I was already so attached. I was afraid I was going to have to fight to get AJ as my mount, like everyone else was doing with their favorite horse. But to my surprise, no one wanted him. Yes, he was old. Sure, he wasn’t as good looking as the other horses in the barn but he was a sweetheart. No one seemed to care enough to look past his crooked, grey streaked tail, or the way his knees cracked when you cleaned his hooves in the morning. To them he was just an ugly old man. But to me, he was so much more.

I guess I should have seen this coming, as I knew AJ so well. He was old and I was being told time and time again that it was getting time for him to retire from our lesson program. I watched as other riders struggled to keep him going in their lessons and how every day it seemed to get harder and harder for him to go. But when I was on his back, all my worries disappeared. I could feel him putting all his effort into our ride and he felt okay. People told me he looked happy when I rode him. So I blocked out any thoughts that suggested him leaving me.

Ms. Twombly was working hard to find a retirement home for AJ. You have to take extra caution when selling an old horse if you don’t want them to end up in slaughter. I knew I could trust Ms. Twombly because she loved this horse as much as I did. I tried not to think about AJ leaving. I just focused on spending all the time I could with him. Every day I would clean his stall, groom him until he shined and feed him endless gum drops. I knew it was going to be hard third term, when we switched into small animal science. I was afraid I wouldn’t get enough time with him as I not only wanted but needed. This horse helped me through so much, he holds all of my secrets, dreams, everything. He was the only one I could talk to without worrying about being judged. About a week before the term ended, Ms. Twombly told us the news. She had found the perfect retirement home for AJ. He would be free in a green pasture all day with two other horses and a donkey for company. The lady knew how to care for older horses and was close by so she could keep in touch with Ms. Twombly. It took everything I had not to break down in tears.

January 23rd, 2009. Our last day in large animals before we switched into small animals for the term. The last time I saw AJ. I knew this day was coming. I just didn’t know it would hurt so badly. I cleaned stall number eight for the last time that morning. Sarah, Victoria, and I stayed with him the entire period, grooming him, feeding him. We took millions of pictures and videos with him. No one else in the class did anything other than look. No one else was sorry to see him go. They were all wondering if we were getting another horse, one that could “handle the work better.” No one did or will ever understand.

When Ms. Twombly came over to us, she told us how we were being so strong and she knew how hard it was to lose a horse you love. She said AJ has had it so good since we’ve taken care of him and he has been so loved. That itself almost sent me to tears. I knew that there was one person who loved this horse as much as I do and was sorry to see him go. She let me take his name card and told us to come back at the end of the day to say our final goodbyes.

Last period that day I left early and ran up the street to the barn. AJ was already in the trailer about to leave. This was the last time I saw AJ, through the rails of the trailers window. I stroked his nose and told him to be good and that I would love him always and forever. Then he was gone.

Being in small kept my mind of the fact that AJ no longer resided in stall number eight. I never had to go into the barn so I pretended like nothing had changed. But when term four started and we were back in large, the truth hit me hard. It’s not that I forgot he was gone, I just completely blocked that fact out of my mind and when I let it back in, it hurt. I didn’t want to clean stalls anymore and I didn’t want to groom or ride any other horse. I just wanted AJ back. The only thing that got me through was that I knew that he was safe and happy with his donkey friend.

The rest of the year went by quickly and summer did as well. A couple days before school started I got a text message. It said that AJ was dead. I couldn’t believe it. People joked about AJ being dead and told me I just had to accept it, but I didn’t believe he actually was. I messaged Ms. Twombly and got the truth. She told me AJ was being put down because he was too thin to last the winter. The cold would become unbearable and he would suffer. She explained to me that it was a heartbreaking decision that should only be made by someone who loves him. Her message brought me to tears and I cried for hours. I always had hope that I would one day get to see AJ again, in his new home, maybe buy him from her. Now that chance, however unrealistic it was, was crushed. My beloved AJ was gone forever.

My junior year started and I was still upset but hanging in there. Then one day, Ms Twombly asked all the large animal majors, juniors and seniors to meet her outside the building. Before she started I already knew what it was about. She had tears in her eyes as she told us that AJ was being put down and buried the next day. Before AJ had left, we all were asked to write letters to his new owner about him. Most people wrote about a half of a page, mine was 3 pages. Ms. Twombly told us his owner was burying the letters we wrote with AJ, so he would always have a piece of us with him. I was trying so hard not to cry, but when she said this I couldn’t hold it back. Ms. Twombly is one of the sweetest ladies I think I will ever meet and seeing the tears in her eyes just brought more to mine. Everyone was looking at us cry but I didn’t care. I walked back to the classroom and sobbed, glad to get it out of my system. At the time, I thought they were tears of despair. But as I look back now I like to think I was crying not only for that but for the happiness that it gave me knowing that AJ would always have a piece of me with him.

That night when I got home I picked up the picture I have of AJ and cried. Stuck to the back of the picture was a ring that used to be attacked to a necklace. It read forever. I still remember the last thing I said to AJ. “Be good, I’ll love you always and forever.” Every time I look at this ring I think of AJ. I wanted a piece of him to be with me always so I put the ring on a chain and I now wear it every day, in memory of him.

Today, it is much easier to think about AJ then back then. I see his picture every morning when I’m getting ready for school and I think everything he taught me. As I put on my necklace, I remember all of the good times we had and all of the bad times. I think of how valuable his soul was and how sorry I am for the people who didn’t get to treasure it as I did. Although my journey with AJ has brought me so much pain, I would never trade a second of it away. If I could say one more thing to AJ before he left the world, it would have been thank you. Thank you for all of the love you gave me. Thank you for all of the lessons you’ve taught me, not only about horses but about life in general. Thank you AJ, your memory will live on forever.