OK, it’s too cold to do much outside today. Critters are fed and heat lamps on. So, time to write a bit about the loss of a great friend. I have needed to do it for a while. I think it will be therapeutic. This was a really good friend.
His name was Lakota. He was a big paint gelding. I remember the for-sale ad up on the bulletin board of Weber Hall at Kansas State University, where I was a student. “For Sale – Paint Gelding. 15 years old. Broke to ride. Make offer.” I called the phone number and we went to see him.
After a short drive out into the country east of town, we came to a little old stone house at the end of a dead-end dirt road. The owner took us out into the pasture to meet the horse for sale. He stood alone in a large pasture, big and beautiful. The gentleness in his eyes was immediately apparent.
“If you want to saddle him up, go ahead,” said the owner. I took another look at those eyes, grabbed a halter and lead rope, and jumped up on his bare back. Perfect. He was perfect.
“What’s his name?” Doug asked.
“George,” came the response. OK, so that part wasn’t perfect.
That was back in 1994, I think. The owner “guestimated” the gelding’s age at about 15 years, but he didn’t know for sure. We changed his name to “Lakota,” which meant “friend.” And that horse was one of the best friends we ever had.
Over the years Lakota was always a solid and reliable riding horse. Those gentle eyes didn’t lie. He was intelligent and steady. You never had to worry about falling off of Lakota. He just was a good horse and took care of his rider.
He helped with seasonal burning. I used him to manage the “runaway” lines of fire, wielding a wet towel to beat out the flames. He trotted right through the burning vegetation, never once shying away from the cracking, popping, nostril-burning heat.
Lakota went many miles on trails all over the state and beyond. My husband, who was a beginner rider when we met, learned to ride better on Lakota’s back. Scenic views were enjoyed with ease from his back.
Doug and I rode in the Mayetta Pioneer Days Parade. Doug rode Lakota and I rode my horse Cheyenne. We had them all decorated in red, white and blue paint and ribbons. For some reason the parade organizers had positioned the high school marching band directly behind us. Cheyenne, a good mount in his own right, became certain he would rather have those screeches and crashes of the band in front of him, rather than following behind. We let the band pass, and resumed our parade ride. I’m sure Lakota was laughing at him. In hindsight, I’m sure the band was glad to have us behind them anyway.
Our wedding was in September 1997. Doug rode Lakota in our wedding. He walked right down the middle of two big rows of people in bright, flapping dresses, hats, creaking metal chairs, crying children, and funny smelling flowers. Never missed a beat. I treasure those wedding photos with Lakota. He made them even more beautiful.
When I got pregnant in 2007, Lakota was the only horse I rode during my pregnancy. None of our other horses was as trustworthy as Lakota to bear the burden of my awkward belly with its precious cargo.
Lakota was a complete gentleman and stepped up to the challenge when another horse “chickened out” at the front of another local parade. The other horse’s rider was supposed to lead the parade carrying the American flag. A place of honor. But, the horse freaked out and his rider could not control him and carry the flag safely. So, Doug carried the flag on Lakota, who bore it with pride. Lakota also rode many times in the Lawrence Christmas Parade, an all-horse parade in Lawrence, Kansas. He was so handsome in his red and green ribbons, garland, and jangling sleigh bells!
When Kate was born, Lakota became the obvious choice to use as her mount. But, Doug was still using him occasionally to ride when we hit the trails. So we got a new mount for him. And then, Lakota was the first horse Kate fell off of. It wasn’t his fault at all … of course. He would never have done anything to unseat her on purpose.
Kate was about 3 years old, if that. The farrier was over trimming hooves and she wanted to ride while the horses were out. So, after Lakota’s manicure, I put an old saddle blanket on Lakota (to protect her cute little jeans!) and put her up on his back. We rode around the yard, Lakota plodding placidly behind me as I lead them. When we stopped, I turned and asked Lakota to move his rear over so I could get past him. Whoops. He did as I asked, of course. But the shift sideways and the unsteady weight on his back made the saddle blanket slip. Down she went, to the ground, with a THUD! Mortified, I snatched her up and hugged her while she cried. Lakota nuzzled at her shoulder and my back, puzzled by the excitement and obviously sorry he was partner to the issue. After calming down, Kate wanted back on. She proudly rode over to where the farrier was still working and related the story of her accident and the subsequent pride at overcoming her fear by getting back on the horse. Lakota never once worried or shied away from the shrieking toddler after she fell.
I joined the historical re-enactment group “Wild Women of the Frontier” along with a friend of mine, Kris. She didn’t have a horse. But Lakota stepped up and became a fabulous Wild Woman Horse for her. He braved gunfire, parades, running children and foolish parents, even cannon fire! Kris wore some pretty fancy dresses, as the character she portrayed had been a turn-of-the century madam. But he took it all in stride. He carried Old Glory very proudly in many of our performances and parades.
We took Lakota on one “last” trail ride in the spring of 2012. It was Kate’s first trail ride in which she rode solo on her own horse. I ponied her off of my horse, but she was alone in the saddle. Lakota was, of course, perfect. I cherish the photos of that ride.
It was to be Lakota’s last hurrah. We retired him completely after that ride. And the following fall, he died. Quietly. No illness or indication that it was really his time. He just wasn’t with the herd when we checked them. When we found him, you could tell he had just calmly laid down and peacefully died.
I had spent some time with Lakota just a couple of days before he died. I massaged him all over. I talked to him, even cried a little as I poured out my fears and feelings. He was good at that. Helping me release that stored up frustration at the world and its maddening twists and turns and huge gaping potholes. When he walked away he looked tired, and slow. But not ill or in pain. I remember thinking to myself how sad I would be when his time came. I knew it was getting near … he was pretty old. And I was shocked when I mentally tabulated how old he was.
He was with us for 18 years. If the person we bought him from was correct on his age, he would have been 33 years old at the time of his death. He gave us years of love, beauty, fun and service. He was one of those special horses that I knew I could put any level of rider on and they would have a great ride.
I remember he always grew a cute little mustache in the summer. I remember how he loved to have his belly scratched, and would “dance” back and forth in pleasure when the scratching started. I remember his pogo-stick, teeth-jarring trot … walking was preferred. I remember when he got an abscess in his foot. How patient and forgiving he was with the daily treatments to heal it. I remember the feel of his soft coat, warm body, and the wonderful, sweet smell of him.
So, thank you, Lakota. Thank you for your years of faithful, gentle service. I miss you every day.