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Remembering the best horse I never had

Jenny Johnston

This Memorial Day weekend, I thought I’d take a moment to remember Mamacita “Mama,” the best horse I never had. Death is hard. It’s final. Oftentimes it is unexpected, unfair and uninvited. It is also inescapable.

I remember the first time I ever saw a horse in the wild. I was hiking in the middle of nowhere in the Navajo Nation with my daughter during some personal existential crisis. I was looking for answers, not wild horses but they found me. Three dark horses and one white horse came galloping around a mesa and skid to a stop in a cloud of dust, almost ethereal.

To this day, I have questioned their plausible existence in that moment. We were equally startled at the unexpected and then they disappeared off into the horizon as instantly as they appeared.

My daughter Reesie and I found out about the Mustang Challenge and she asked to participate. I had spent months at the Bloomfield Wild Horse Corrals considering two pregnant mares, a dark brown mama and a bay my daughter wanted.

When the babies were born the bay had a palomino foal and the brown mama a sweet bay baby. Despite the fact my daughter dreamed of the palomino, I wanted the brown and bay mama. I watched her through the metal cattle panels. I couldn’t touch her but she had already touched recesses in my soul no one had ever been. In that first moment we looked at each other, I came full circle and knew she was the answer to the questions I’d been seeking all those years ago on that hike where the mesa meets the stars in the Northern New Mexico Desert.

One of 136,500 wild horses gathered from the state of Nevada alone since 1971, she was heavy with a foal and she needed a place. I prayed my daughter would pick her too but she chose the other mare and as fait would have it we ended up with the mama I wanted; my mama. When we were assigned the brown mare and bay foal pair I knew I could never give her wild but I could give her freedom to learn what it felt like to be loved and to trust.

Last week we brought her home and the next day, tragedy struck. The 3-week-old filly got stuck under a corral panel and mama and baby alike panicked. Time stood still as we attempted to free the baby. Mama lodged her head in the fence trying to get to her and broke her neck in the process and it was the beginning of the end. I stood there with my daughter devastated at the fait awaiting the mama and daughter in front of us that we so desperately loved and couldn’t save.

Two mothers, two daughters and so many dreams gone and replaced by a stark reality in the blink of an eye. Like the original wild horses I saw all those years ago, she too would be here and gone in a moment.

Some horses you have all of your life and some you have but a moment in time and they change your life. Mama was never mine to keep. She was wild and belonged to no one. She was born to Mother Earth and raised by the wind at her heels pushing her across an unforgiving landscape. She shared her spirit with me for four brief days and she died wild in my lap, knowing what it felt like to be loved by a human. I watched as my 12-year-old daughter told her we would raise her baby for her. It was a gut-wrenching lesson.

Maybe death lives in that space between wild and free, waiting as inconspicuously as the wild mustangs themselves, there but hard to find until they find you. I am trying to find the lesson in this for Reesie and for me and for Sassy, her orphaned foal. I try to tell my daughter that Mama will live on in her baby and in my heart.

A human had never touched her in her life and as I sat down next to her in her final moments, she lifted her broken head and placed it in my lap and I stroked her face. For the first time, she knew that warm teardrops felt different than cold rain and what it felt like to be trusted and loved. I could give her that gift before the wind came to carry her away.

They say horses can sense your heartbeat from four feet away, so in that moment, I knew she could feel mine break and I knew I’d be there to feel hers stop. Both of us mamas close enough to feel each other’s hearts saying goodbye. I knew she needed to run free to a place with no cattle panels, no helicopters, no traps and I had no choice but to let her go. Like all things wild, she didn’t belong to me. Like those wild horses in the Navajo Desert, she only briefly appeared in my life and left my daughter with a challenge to raise her foal.

The true lesson in this great death for me is to take life and raise it. Raise every second like it’s the last, even if you don’t know what you are doing, even if it’s thrown in your lap. It’s to let the wild horses run through your soul and to let moments capture you and to find the answers as they appear like wild horses in the desert, like orphaned foals in your lap. Pay attention to moments before they are gone. Grab lessons by the reins and ride them out until you find answers on the great trail of life.

So run free Mama. You were the best horse I never had.

Jenny Johnston is a fourth-generation Durango local, part-time rodeo announcer and wrangler to two lil’ buckaroos.