January 18, 2016
Written by Laura Hillenbrand
This post was originally made on Laura Hillenbrand’s Facebook page and is being reprinted here with her permission.
In 1987, when I was young and desperately ill, I wrapped my heart up in horse racing. Watching the paradox of mass and lightness that is the Thoroughbred, I could briefly forget my own broken body and live instead in his. That season, a horse named Gulch came along. He was everything: scorchingly fast yet long on stamina, beautifully crafted, hell-for-leather tenacious. He left the track long ago, but I never lost my gratitude for the thrilling escape he gave me.
Last fall, when my boyfriend and I were planning a road trip to move me across America, we had a thousand wonders to choose from, but there was one place I felt I had to go. It was Old Friends Equine Retirement, where Gulch lived. Then an unlikely 31 years old, he had proven as enduring in old age as he’d been brilliant in youth. A longtime supporter of Old Friends, I had been corresponding with the farm’s founder, Michael Blowen, and always inquired about Gulch, asking Michael to walk by his paddock and give him a kiss for me. I had long dreamt of going to see the horse, but the trip was so far beyond what my ailing body had ever been able to do. When my health improved and I began to believe I could traverse the country, I thought long and hard about going to Old Friends. Swinging south to Kentucky would add days to a journey that was already an extremely risky leap for me, but I had to see Gulch in his waning days. Of the marvelous horses who’d kept me breathing in the early days of my illness, he was the last one left. A horse who had been a part of my life as it fell to pieces was still part of it when I set myself free. I owed him this.
When the RV crunched up the driveway and pulled up at Old Friends, Michael hurried out, gave me a big hug, and pointed to a distant paddock. “There he is,” he said. I could see only a brown form, far away, in a vivid sea of green. We rode into his paddock on a golf cart. There Gulch stood, surrounded by caretakers, who were gently giving him acupuncture. The sun, setting behind him, lit up his coat in an amber penumbra. As we drove up, his sleepy eyes grew worried, his crooked ears flipped forward, and he raised his head in alarm. Michael stopped the golf cart, knowing it was unsettling the horse. I walked up and stroked Gulch’s face, and they let me hold his lead while they worked on him. He was gentle and so kind, murmuring his lips against my fingers. He looked impossibly youthful for his age, which was roughly 100 in human years. I stood a long while with him, stroking his face and neck and whispering my thanks for what he’d given me so long ago. I’d never felt so privileged.
He was so very old. In the two days that we stayed at the farm, I spent many hours just watching him as he ambled about his paddock. Michael told me that they worried over him, knowing he couldn’t go on forever. Sometimes he’d lie down in the grass and they’d fear he was gone. They’d rush out to the paddock, calling his name. Not wanting to be bothered, he’d wave an ear at them, and they’d stop, laughing, and let him enjoy his sunbath.
As we drove out of Old Friends, I called out my goodbyes to Gulch, knowing I would not see him again. I turned all the way around in my seat to get a last glimpse of him. He was cruising around in the grass, at peace and full of years.
Gulch died yesterday morning. He was 32 years old. Thank you, old friend.