She had a stunning colt, who grew up to be MJ Royal Smartypants (aka Ziggy), who is the sire of three of my mares. I bred Holly the season Ziggy was born, she didn't take; and the following year, she did. During one of those excruciating nights of barnyard drama and tragedy, she lost the foal during a bout of hydropsy. I nearly lost Holly, too, but after a week in the equine hospital and plenty of follow-up care at home, she survived.
Holly was, as I often have told people, the most gracious horse I've ever known. Honest to the bone, kind, and exquisitely mannerly, she still had a prankster self hidden beneath that glorious, refined palomino exterior. She did everything willingly: walked pleasantly into the trailer; tied without ever thinking of pawing or pulling back; stood unmoving and unflinching when I'd give her shots, never requiring a halter; did her best at all she attempted. Her lope was truly a rocking-horse lope, the kind you could drink coffee while riding. I rode her in the early Cave Creek Wild West Days, where we'd all saddle up and ride to town and do a poker ride at businesses on Cave Creek Road, then tie our horses behind the Buffalo Chip for barbecue lunch. I ponied Ziggy off her until he was too headstrong and studly to be pleasant, and here was one of the times Holly's April Fool's birthday tendencies would come out. I ponied him to a friend's arena so he could romp while the friend and I went off on a trail ride, and as I got to the arena gate my friend asked, "Do you want a hand opening it?" "Nah," I replied, "She'll ground tie." I hopped off to take Ziggy through the gate and just then caught the look in Holly's eye. Mischief gears were turning. I couldn't react fast enough before she whirled and took off at a trot the half mile home.
I was in my boots and took off on foot behind her (you all know how much fun it is running in cowboy boots). I felt like a kid whose pony had dumped her at a show, worrying about the neighbors who might see my very recognizable palomino movie-star horse loping, saddled and riderless. How utterly embarrassing. I lost sight of her on the curve but kept running - and as I rounded the curve at the top of the hill, there before me was the garbage truck driver, holding her reins, looking around for whomever she might have dropped along the way. Naturally, being polite Holly, she stopped as soon as he hopped out of his truck and said, "Whoa!" Holly. Prankster.
But most of our rides were uneventful. I rode her bareback much of the time, because I could trust her. We could cross the flowing creek, ride solo, ride through traffic, ride in groups. Holly was always good for it. And then, we discovered team sorting. My sweet, gentle Holly had yet another personality ... the aggressive, ears-pinned cow horse. I couldn't believe it. From the moment she laid eyes on her first cow, she was addicted - and so was I. The first time we competed we won a cash prize. My Holly was always a crowd-pleaser: when we'd wait for our turn, she lunge at the cattle that ran by on the other side of the fence, her ears laid back and her teeth gnashing. Often when we'd sort, she'd get caught up in the excitement and start to buck - not nasty bone-jarring bucks, but delicate, funny, happy-to-be-alive bucks, and I'd laugh and laugh as we worked the cow even while she was bucking. I loved riding her.
I sorted cattle on her until she was in her late 20s. After that I still turned her out with my handful of cows. When Odelia, the donkey, came to join us, I put her in with Holly. Holly, always the boss mare here, immediately was smitten with that little donk. I turned them both out with the cows, much to the chagrin of my husband. "That donkey can't protect herself! She's so small!" but I wasn't worried. I knew Holly would look out for her. And darned if Holly didn't do the same tremendous, heart-filled job she'd done at everything I'd asked her to do. Her little donkey pal would venture towards the donkeys and Holly, always keeping one eye on her and an ear cocked in her direction, would veer away from her bucket of grain, dart between the cows and her precious donkey, and drive Odelia back to safety. It was amazing. Holly was amazing.
I quit riding Holly a couple of years ago. Her hocks had become wobbly and I knew she'd easily fall. Soon she had trouble standing for the hoof trimmer; he's extraordinarily patient and kind, and between the two of us and lots of encouragement we'd support her while he worked. If he raised her back foot just a smidgen too high, she'd tremble all over, but never did she willingly resist - she gave it her best shot, and we looked out for signs of anxiety so we could help her out and not stress her out.
A few weeks ago I had the vet out to float her teeth and give her a checkup. The vet was impressed at her condition; everything was looking fine. I added some senior horse weight booster to Holly's feed, as she was starting to lose muscle tone and body fat. She wasn't skinny; just lean, but a horse in its thirties needs a little bit of a fat cushion, and Holly was losing hers. She was turned out with the donkeys most of the time in between feedings, and she loved those little devils.
Last night, for some reason I walked down to the barn in the dark. It was a broadly moonlit night, so bright as to almost be daylight. I could see a light-colored shape to the side of the donkey turnout. Holly. I knew immediately something was seriously wrong. She'd been fine at feeding time, but the way she lay ... so flat, so unmoving ... I thought she'd already passed. As I approached and called out, she raised her head slightly, but made no effort to rise. She wasn't thrashing; there was no disturbance in the dirt; she hadn't rolled. She wasn't touching her belly; she was barely moving at all. And I knew her time had come. Holly always had so much try, so much heart. Now she wasn't trying. She was breathing heavily and gritting her teeth and not making any effort to get up.
I roused my husband, called the vet, and gave Holly a shot of Banamine, and then I just sat with her and stroked her face. Her donkey hung out beside her, sometimes resting her head on my shoulder, and Holly's pasture pal, Buck, and her two granddaughters, Sassy and Poppy, were turned out in the adjacent pen. Poppy and Sassy were concerned, particularly Poppy; she continually kept her nose near Holly's, quiet and present.
We tried to get Holly to her feet, but she would do nothing more than rise up partway to her chest and then quietly lay back down. It was clear to me; she didn't want to endure any more. Something had happened and she didn't want to struggle against it, whatever it was. I covered her up with a blanket to keep her warm. I know when people are dying, they often become terribly cold as their organs shut down. I wanted Holly to be warm.
When the vet arrived, gentle Odelia the donkey abruptly became agitated. She began galloping around the pen, and as she passed each of us - Russ, the vet, and myself - she kicked out with both legs at us. She was terribly upset and she was taking it out on us. I confined her while we took care of Holly.
The vet and I discussed our options. After a brief conversation she confirmed what I already knew; that it was time to let sweet Holly go. I didn't want to force Holly to her feet only to have her start down that rocky path of steady decline, where we'd have more incidents of increasing severity. She was, after all, 33, and I wasn't going to cause her distress and suffering if she wasn't trying on her own to get up and fight whatever had afflicted her. Holly reminded me of elderly humans who'd decided it was simply time.
And so we gently helped usher Holly from the world she'd graced with her presence for over three decades. She'd produced a beautiful array of foals; one even went on to win the palomino world reining championship. She'd discovered her true passion in life when we introduced her to cows, and she'd put everything she had into it. She'd been so, so gracious; always steady and reliable, that Holly. And she was stunning. I used to think of her as the horse I, and any other teenage girl, would have given anything to have when we were young. Riding her always made me feel like a teenager again - she was just so beautiful, a golden palomino with an iridescent coat and a lovely, refined head. You couldn't help but feel like a million bucks on a horse like that.
The barn felt empty without her. After she'd been taken away, the donkeys gathered in the spot where she'd lain, staying there for most of the day, licking the ground she'd lain on and huddling. Donkeys form strong bonds, and it was important they be able to grieve Holly's death, and so they did.
It has been sixteen years since I've had a life without Holly in it. I've had so many memories with her, so many hours of riding our photo was even featured in an AQHA magazine - and I can't imagine not having Holly's voice greeting me in the mornings when I'd walk down to the barn, or hollering on those nights when another horse or the gang of cows would get loose.
Holly. Love you and miss you, old girl.