When I started volunteering and getting involved in horse rescue, I always thought the hard cases I would deal with would come from strangers. Those cases are hard and heartbreaking, there is no question about that, but I was wrong when I assumed that the heartbreak would always come from the ugly side of human behavior. I believe strongly that life deals us lessons with our experiences. I was taught a valuable one by a horse that was not a stranger to me. His name was Sake.
Sake was a beautiful, coal black, Friesian stallion. For a stallion, he was miraculously mild mannered and so polite, no matter what the circumstances. Beautiful flowing locks and tail and a gift for always posing for the camera, he was a gorgeous horse – the spitting image of what I had always pictured the horse from Black Beauty to be. He belonged to a dear friend of mine. I never thought in a million years, I would be approaching him as an intake for Pony Up Rescue for Equines.
My friend cared for her horses with all the love in the world. She had told me a year or so before about a choking incident Sake had suddenly had one day. She was certain it was a small apple or something that one of the kids had thrown into the pasture. He recovered quickly and life went on. Until it happened again. And then three more times. Working six days a week, raising kids, with an ill husband, and other horses, she was exhausted and had run out of funds after sending Sake to stay at nearby equine vet in hospital care, having him scoped, and having emergency visits to her farm when his choking would occur again.
She had imported him from Holland when he was a colt along with her other Friesian, Sytze (a gelding). He was 10 years old. I remember getting the phone call from her asking me to help her. She didn’t know what else to do. She had stopped feeding him hay, he couldn’t take grain, but seemed to be ok with pasture grass. She had pasture, but it was January and soon it wouldn’t be enough anymore. I called Rosemary and we had a discussion about what to do. We decided we would take him in. We had a potential home lined up, ready to take him, give him the medical care needed, everything seemed like it was going to be ok. It wasn’t.
My friend struggled with letting him go, and I couldn’t blame her. None of us could, but it was the right thing to do. She signed the release document, handed his papers over to me, and we arranged transport. She would be at work when it took place. Her husband told me she spent the morning brushing him, grooming him, gathering as many moments as she could before she would leave for work and return to him no longer being there. My heart ached for her.
I and another volunteer transported Sake to Pony Up and settled him in to a paddock within sight of the other horses, but not close by. He could see them and he called to them. He had loaded up without a fuss, minded his manners in the trailer, and been a perfect gentleman settling into his paddock. Within 24 hours, Rosemary was contacting me saying he was too close to choking and we needed to get him to Pilchuck immediately. Arrangements were made and we transported him that day to Pilchuck. It was a Sunday and he would be seen first thing in the morning. On the way there, we brainstormed fundraising ideas, setup a GoFundMe, posted on Facebook about Sake. It was going to be expensive, but we were going to make it happen.
Again, he was a perfect gentleman in the trailer and when we got there. He stood on the scale patiently while his weight was taken. We were disheartened to see his weight was about 200lbs under what it should have been by the tech’s estimation. He was so hungry too, immediately inspecting the buckets in the stall they had prepared for him. Rosemary jumped in immediately with the tech, giving tips on what his gruel had to look like for it to be safe for him to swallow and asking for answers on what they would be doing for his care until he could be seen the following morning, making suggestions on the answers as necessary. With heavy hearts, we all bid Sake farewell for the night, and headed back home.
The vet had told Rosemary when she’d called that the signs pointed to a condition common in Friesians called Megaesophagus (ME). It was a genetic condition for which there was no cure or treatment. We hoped against hope that it wasn’t ME. Let it be something cureable, something surgery would fix, something that could be managed or treated. Despite limited funds for the rescue, we were determined to see this through. We would give him the chance.
The next day, Rosemary, Katherine, and I kept in constant contact via text message. “Any news?” “Have they contacted you yet?” “I hope it’s not ME” “This waiting is killing me…”
And then there was the message we didn’t want to receive. Rosemary called me to deliver the news. I knew it wasn’t good from the tone of her voice. When scoped, Sake’s esophagus was completely flacid and didn’t contract at all. It was ME, very advanced. The apple blamed for his first choke incident was not an apple at all…it was the first sign of the condition. The vet said he was days away from a ruptured esophagus, an extremely painful and miserable way to die. He couldn’t eat, he was slowly starving, he was going to suffer, and we knew we had no choice but to do the kind thing for him. “I have to get myself together and then go back to work,” Rosemary said to me. We were both upset. It wasn’t fair. “We have to let him go,” I said. Rosemary asked me to notify my friend. She had signed Sake over to Pony Up, but as a courtesy, she should know.
Rosemary posted on our Facebook page the results for our followers to see. We wanted those who had donated to the cause to know the outcome. We were all heartbroken. You would think those who work rescue would get used to it, but we never do. Everyone we lose hurts. Every decision made has weight, and every horse we care for is our responsibility. We stand by that, no matter how much it hurts and how hard it gets.
Sake was humanely euthanized at Pilchuck Hospital the same day as his diagnosis. I did inform my friend and we cried together on the phone. I found myself apologizing, I had wanted so badly to save him. All of us had wanted that. I told her what the diagnosis was and assured her that there was nothing that could have been done differently that would have changed the outcome over the past several years. My friend thanked me through tears, told me she loved me, and asked me to send her gratitude to everyone at Pony Up for seeing her boy to a peaceful end she could not afford to give him herself. He was at peace now and no longer in pain. What more could we really ask for given the circumstances? My heart broke for her and I wished more than anything I had the ability to conjure up words that would make it all ok. Grief doesn’t work like that though. Time is the only healer.
About two weeks ago, Rosemary met me at the barn during my volunteer shift and handed me an envelope. It held a tail memory made by Pilchuck Hospital. She had received it the day before. A piece of Sake’s tail hair had been artistically braided and decorated. It came with a sympathy card. “She should have this..please give it to her,” Rosemary said. I said I would and we said no more about it, both of us shouldering our grief over our Black Beauty in silence.
Sake taught me that I was wrong. Yes, we see a lot of horrible things as a rescue. We see starvation, neglect, abuse – all things we can easily despise and label as human indecency and ugliness. Those cases boil my blood and break my heart each time. Not all cases are like that though. Sake was well loved, cared for, had a beautiful ten years before a genetic condition claimed him. My friend had spent all of her savings trying to care for him, bring him back to health, and give him the best she could, but emergency vet bills are expensive and her life circumstances made it impossible to maintain. She was presented with no choice but to give him over to us in hopes that we could get him what he needed to be healthy or to find peace. It was the complete opposite of those other cases where horses are sold to kill pens after being starved half to death, or abused, or discarded like a pair of old sneakers. It was no less heartbreaking though. Sake taught me that the call to aid is not always accompanied by a glaring view of humanity’s underbelly. Sometimes it comes as a desperate cry for help conjured from love.
Run free, Sake. We love you.
Pony Up is starting “Sake’s Fund” in the memory of this beautiful boy. The fund will go towards vet expenses for the horses currently at Pony Up Rescue for Equines and will also serve as a community fund so that we can assist those, like my friend, who are saddled with unmanageable emergency bills for the horses they love. If you would like to donate to support this cause, please contribute to Sake’s Fund on our Donation page.