From Aero to Diane Barrett while she cooked dinner, shortly after he passed on Wednesday August 5 at 6:45 pm:
And so I rest my weary bones
Turning my eyes to the light
I have been so very blessed here
Fulfilled and joyous I take flight
It feels like the end of an era.
It began twenty odd years ago when I lived on a ranch on the side of a mountain in a town called Rifle. Most of my days there were spent blissfully alone with the horses. Between myself and the property owner, and a few boarders, I was responsible for the care of roughly 20 horses, plus or minus, at any given time. This was a pivotal phase in my life. I became an equine bodyworker and started doing rehab work while I was there. But it’s also where I had the single most important paradigm shift in my understanding and way with horses. It’s where I was introduced to homeopathy, and immersion into working with animal communication as an everyday part of my work with, and care for the horses.
Aero standing sentry over his herd on the side of the mountain
Looking back, it’s those years that provided the first opportunity I had as an adult to spend time alone with horses, discovering my own way of interacting with them. I hosted a lot of clinics while I lived there. Jean Hennen and her partner Bill, with their horses (Scratch and Tay with Jean – and Buddy and Wamy with Bill) were fixtures at every clinic I ever hosted. It didn’t matter if it was a riding clinic or body work clinic, they were there. The dark green pickup with the custom topper Bill engineered so they could sleep in the back of the truck and have room to sit up on the bed, with the tan stock trailer in tow, coming down the various driveways of places I managed over the years is forever etched in my mind. And with it, the feeling of joy that they were there again!
Jean’s favorite clinician by far – Mark Rashid – riding Scratch
Aero and his buddy Jiminy came into my life while I was on that ranch on the side of the mountain. Their person, Karen, was a classically trained homeopath. Aero was the first horse that I consciously employed animal communication and homeopathy to work through his emotional issues, and distinct lack of social skills with other horses. The results were nothing short of miraculous and I never looked back. When it became clear that Aero had no interest whatsoever in being a riding horse, Karen asked if he and Jiminy could simply retire in my care. Jiminy passed some years ago, but Aero stuck around. For starting out so socially inept, he sure turned out to be one of the best herd leaders I ever had.
I used to joke that Aero must have been a fish in a past life! He loved nothing more than water!
Aero taught a lot of people over the years. He was possibly the pickiest horse ever about body work, meticulously teaching me to respect his boundaries and by all means, be fully present when I touched him! If I did not listen, or was tactless and distracted, I was met with snapping teeth and a flying rear hoof as he snaked his neck and cow kicked in my general direction at the same time! He never did make contact but boy was he loud and clear! I will never forget working with Jock Ruddock on my Level 2 certification in Equine Touch. I still have a clear picture of Jock looking over his shoulder as walked away to assist the level 1 students, saying, ‘good luck!’ Thanks Jock…
Jean came to every clinic I ever hosted, even after Bill passed ten years ago on August 5th at 88 years young. He died after suffering a massive stroke. The result of a fall he sustained that morning while playing tennis with several lady friends. Jean was off riding her horses in the hills at the time. Self sufficient and amazing humans. I always felt Bill chose a good way to go..
But I digress, as I said, Jean came to every clinic I ever hosted. A voracious and earnest learner who always showed up ready and willing to try something new. She followed me from my first job managing a barn in Carbondale, through all my evolutions for 25+ years. She never waivered in her dedication to learning the latest thing I latched onto, and always joked that she was looking forward to being able to say she knew me before I got famous. I cannot tell you how much it matters to have people in your life who believe in you the way Jean believed in me. I am forever grateful.
After one of my workshops, teaching some new idea of course, she hands me an envelope and tells me to open it later. Not one to argue with Jean, I thanked her and put the envelop in my pocket. That evening, when I pulled it out and opened it, I found a short note attached to a check that was made out to me. The note said: “I know not everyone can afford to work with you and pay what a clinic is worth, but this is what the last 3 days were worth to me”. And there is a check for three thousand dollars. How did I ever deserve such a friend as Jean?
Of course, Jean knew Aero from the time he first came to me. She made a point of spending time with each and every horse in the herd, especially in the last few years as she, Scratch and Wamy (the two remaining of her herd of 4) made a mutual decision that they didn’t need to be hauled to clinics anymore. Jean could go and work with my horses, bringing what she learned back to them to explore on their own. We were just laughing this last week about how long it took for Jean to get Aero’s name right. She always wrote down the names of all the horses and humans at the clinics to ensure she would remember them right.
Aero turned 31 this year. Tall and lanky, he sometimes would lay down in just the wrong spot and find he didn’t have the right traction to get those hind legs underneath him. I swear, if he could lay down NEXT to the water tank in mud, he would choose that spot! He might struggle a bit and ultimately find a way up. Other times he needed a little encouragement or help from me. As he got older, I kept a close watch on him, looking for signs that he was struggling more than he should, that I should let him go. Each spring and fall I have Theresa do a check in with all the old ones to find out how they are doing, if anyone is feeling they are nearing the end of their life…
Romeo, on the left, Aero on the right, and Gin in the middle. Romeo and Aero were inseparable until Romeo passed. In the last few years it’s been Aero and Gin.
Way back on that ranch on the side of the mountain, when I realized how intelligent and sentient horses really are, that I can communicate with them accordingly, well, from then on, I vowed to take that level of communication and connection into every aspect of their lives. Each horse is involved in all of the decisions related to their work, care, and ultimately when and how their life ends. Several years ago, I took a look around and realized that my core group of horses from those days in Rifle were all over 28 years old. As they pass on it would truly be the end of an era. This group of horses that lived with me for 20 or 30 years and made me the horseperson I am today….
What would that be like?
Last year, Jean learned that she had malignant metastatic melanoma on her head. It was stage 4. Never one to take a conventional approach to anything, Jean embarked on a mission to do what she could to slow it down and maybe cure it. Her best chance at a cure was a treatment that got delayed due to Covid 19 lock down back in March. She finally got her long-awaited treatment about 6 weeks ago, but by then, it really was too late. It was clear to all who bore witness that the cancer was winning this round. Still, she lived far longer with this disease than most and retained her quality of life with fierce determination, in true Jean style!
She spent the summer re-reading every book Mark Rashid ever wrote. She owns them all! At one of the first clinics I ever hosted for Mark, Jean latched onto a concept he taught. Her interpretation was that if she thinks walk, Scratch should walk. Sometimes she would get the connection just right and off Scratch would go. Elated she kept seeking that elusive connection, her Holy Grail of horsemanship. A month ago, with the help of her neighbor and friend, Ellen who spent so much time learning together and sharing horsemanship philosophy, Jean mustered up that determination of hers because she felt that she finally understood what Mark was talking about. She got on Scratch bareback with just a halter, and did several laps around the ‘learning center’ as she called her arena, successfully getting Scratch to walk according to Mark’s theory. She found her Holy Grail!
Jean came to visit after she learned of my friend Cori passing. I shared a story about Cori’s family tradition of making earrings out of cherries. So here we are with our cherry jewels.
Last week I got word that Jean was declining and that if I wanted to see her, I should come sooner rather than later. Of course, I hustled down there, trimmed Scratch and Wamy’s feet and sat with Jean for a while. She was still absolutely determined to stay strong enough to give that treatment time to work. It was amazing to see such drive to keep going in someone who outwardly appeared so frail.
On Monday evening, Aero came in for evening feeding having clearly done something to his hind end. As is always the case with him, I wondered if this was it? I gave him the night to see if he was just stiff from a struggle to get up, or a stumble and tweak incident. By morning it was clear he was not going to recover from this. Much like Jean, he made it clear he was not ready to go. He had unfinished business.
Aero and Gin this year on Memorial Day
Following my instincts, and trying to imagine what a 31-year-old horse could have left to do, I decided to turn him and Gin out with the rest of the herd. That core herd they were a part of for so many years. The herd they chose to be separated from as they both got older. Before heading out with the rest of the group he paused and had a long chat with Feather. Karin said it looked like he was telling him important things he needed to know before he left. Then, Aero waded right into the herd, defending Gin, and telling those boys to mind their manners! He reveled in his power and had a wonderful day.
In the meantime, my friend Diane said she felt a strong connection between Aero and Jean. Aero felt her inner conflict about letting go and wanted to help. Jean had had a rough weekend and yet, was still conflicted about letting go before the drug could work. When I told Steve that Aero was working his timing to go with Jean, he said, ‘Jean just wants to ride the tallest horse into Heaven!’ I loved that image and idea so much that I had Ellen share this vision with Jean, and tell her what was going on with Aero since I knew she’d want to know.
Who wouldn’t want to ride this guy into Heaven?
Jean loved this idea too. Ellen said she kept whispering Aero’s name over and over like she was intentionally connecting with him. Jean’s friend and care giver said it’s all Jean talked about for several days. How she wasn’t sure how she was going to get on such a tall horse, and what if he passed before her, she’d have to run to catch up. Early in the week Jean made peace with the fact that she was dying. Aero’s timing seemed to give her comfort and help her make the decision to stop fighting.
On Wednesday morning I decided Aero was stable enough for me to go visit Jean one more time. She was awake and lucid and so I just went. Steve drove so that I could make arrangements for Aero on the way down. I lined up the vet for that evening. And had the backhoe guy on standby to bury him for me. I had a truly special visit with Jean, sharing memories of when we met at that first clinic back at the barn I managed in Carbondale. It was her neighbors Ellen and Jacob who had coordinated that clinic and brought us together. We talked about how horses have always been part of her life. Even when she didn’t have horses, she tied reins to her bicycle and rode broomsticks.
When I got home, Aero had naturally started separating from the herd, and Gin was staying with them. Now I understood his unfinished business. He needed to see Gin back into the herd. To do the job he’s done so many times over the years, and make sure that she was integrated back into the group safely. When I led him down to where we would bury him, shortly before the vet arrived, the herd lined up along the fence line to see him off. Making a hard left, he walked down that fence line and greeted each herd member, pausing where Gin stood in the middle. They nickered softly to each other and Sundance took one step forward between them. Aero pinned his ears at Sunny and gave him a stern look, and then he was done.
He passed the baton to Sundance, leaving Gin in good care with her herd. They all stood by, along with his human friends, to bear witness to his passing. There is always a moment when we all feel he is gone, and in that moment, the entire herd, led by Gin, filed away back to the paddocks to eat. It was a beautiful experience to witness how Aero navigated the end of his life. With similar determination to Jean! He passed on August 5th, the ten-year anniversary of Bill’s passing. I have felt his spirit standing vigil over Jean ever since.
This afternoon Jean passed peacefully at home, just as she wished, with her loyal friend by her side, and Aero in spirit form ready to carry her off into the sunset, back to Bill and Tay, CC and Buddy, and so many more who went before her. It might seem like a tragedy for me to lose both a horse and human friend in one week, but really, it is such a blessing, as Jean would say. A blessing to know they walked the last leg of their journey together.
I spent the afternoon tuning into Jean and Aero and this is the message that came through loud and clear form Jean. I could even hear her voice..:
‘Please don’t shed tears of sadness for us, only tears of joy for the wonderful lives we both lived. We both lived and died on our own terms. Who can ask for more than that? Full, rich, deeply satisfying lives.
We are SO blessed! There is so much to be grateful for.
YOU have been a blessing in my life. (this last is from Jean to all of you, but it’s also from ME to all of you!)
And so, it is, truly, the end of an era…