Thinking About Johnny

There’s a certain kind of heartache only another horse lover can understand.

There comes a time when you have to let it all out. Pour your heart out on paper, not because anyone will ever read it, but because it’s the only way your heart can mend. Mend, to repair something that is broken or damaged. We must remember, though, some things can never be repaired to their original condition.

Credit: Photo by Dalton Joyce The author’s Paint gelding Johnny, at 36.

As I write, my heart aches. I tell myself no one else can understand, can really get it. But deep within my soul, I know someone understands. Someone has felt this way. Certainly I’m not the first, nor will I be the last.

There’s a heartache that’s not like others. I’m not comparing my imminent loss to that of losing a child or a close family member. This loss is different, but also exquisitely painful. We tell ourselves—just as others who don’t get it try to reassure us—that at least it’s just a horse. Oh, but trust me: He has never been just a horse. He’s a part of my heart, my very soul that God developed into the being I am today.

Speed, Finesse, Stamina
My Johnny worked his way into my life when I was just 13 years old. He was one of a few horses I used to care for when their owner was away on the show circuit. A series of circumstances led to our purchasing the young Paint gelding, registered name Heere’s Johnny, the following year. And how to describe him? He had speed. He had talent. He had finesse. English, Western, trail, speed events—he could do them all. He was my ultimate all-round fella. Yet, he also had spunk and stamina, which meant plenty of work for me.

As a result of Johnny, something special happened in my teenage years. While other girls were worried about their overhand serve or their dream guy, I had a unique confidant with whom to share the trials of adolescence and the excitement of competition.

I never logged my hours, and of course he didn’t come with an odometer, but the energy and love I poured into him during a pivotal time in life kept me in balance most of the time. Through junior high, high school, college, boyfriends, marriage, jobs, and now children, he’s always been there. He witnessed a lot—and heard it all, from me.

How Do We Say Goodbye?
It’s not the arena time I’ll miss. It isn’t even the shows, the awards, or the accolades in my youth that’ll leave a vacant place in my heart. What I’ll miss most are the intangibles only another horse lover can appreciate.

The smell of his muzzle when his face meets mine. The warmth of his breath on winter mornings. The feel of his coat in early fall. The rhythmic motion of his gait as we ride along with the summer sun on my face.

The unwavering trust we share…right up to the end.

That last bit hurts to my core. He trusts me so much! Through frightening or uncertain moments of colic, entanglement, and long trailer hauls, he trusted me. I could coax him through almost any challenge, using just my voice and my touch.

That’s what happens when you spend 30-plus years investing, loving, and caring for a creature who always listens and never betrays. We have a friendship I cherish, but which causes an almost unbearable ache inside me. At times, it keeps me from sleeping.

Because I know I have to say goodbye. The time is near when I’ll see him struggle to get up or feel the ribs I could never imagine noticing before. His spirit is still the same and so is the look deep in his eyes when I say, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” His body, though, after nearly 40 years, is simply giving out.

So how do we say goodbye? Me, I simply let the tears flow down my cheeks while everyone else is sleeping. I peer out the window for another midnight glimpse of his beauty and know one morning soon there will be one less bucket to fill. And when that happens, there’ll be a void where he once stood, both in the pasture and in my heart.

Tina Joyce lives in Forest, Virginia, with her husband and two teenaged children. A Colorado native, she grew up competing in Western, English, and speed events. Johnny, now 37, has remained in tow through every move and life transition. Joyce is a freelance marketing consultant/writer who teaches health and technology at a local Christian school.

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