The Death of Dusty Brown

By Jon Hillenbrand In Poetry


I took the reins from Anne and mounted up. The sun was setting across a fall landscape of tall grass which licked my stirrupped heels. I was looking forward to riding again not having ridden a horse in some time. The feel was familiar and I looked forward to the thrill and fear of the animal moving underneath me. Anne walked and jogged beside us. I decided to let Dusty loose to a gallop. I let the reins fall long to his neck holding on only to the buckle. I urged him forward with a short kick and he surged ahead. But something was different about his run. My eyes weren’t watering in their typical stress reaction. I felt Dusty lagging and breaking into a canter. I surmised that he was tired or wanted to run in the other direction, the direction that meant food and rest. I used my legs to urge him faster but it was no use. I trotted him down the bank and up across the street. When we reached the far side of the street, he slowed again and turned his back end sharply to the right. I tried to rein him in but before I knew what was happening, Dusty began to sit down. I had read that Colic could result in a horse sitting, an unnatural position for them. But then Dusty fell to his side in a lump pinning me to the ground. This seemed much more serious to me and I began to take my feet out of the stirrups. But my right leg was trapped under the weight of him. I tugged with the futility of trying to move several thousand pounds off of yourself. But before I could panic, Dusty rotated his limp body to let my leg free. After this, he crumpled down with the undeniability of death.

I ran around to look in his eyes just as Anne was running full speed up behind us. She told me to run to the barn owner’s house and call for help. I hesitated but she screamed to go. Running in riding boots is like trying to run in ski boots. But I swung my statuesque rigid ankles as fast and as hard as I could, the leather pinching into my skin cutting it, the fate of a life on my conscience. I ran to the house and barked out breathlessly what happened and the people inside barely seemed to move. I screamed that they do something and they slowly got up and walked to the door I had just barged through. The eldest mother of the house said something about Dusty being as old as the hills. I left her behind as I ran the several hundred yards back to Anne.

Dusty was gone by the time I returned. I was later told that he had suffered a heart attack, a condition I had more associated with overweight men then horses. The guilt I felt for kicking him forward while riding was overwhelming. They also told me that they would leave his corpse on the hill to the side of the road until a bulldozer with chains could be sourced to move him the next day. This seemed terrible to me. Though I was arguably the most distant to the horse compared to my mother and sisters, I could barely stand the indignity of such a large animal being treated so poorly in my opinion. My sisters wept hard while I was strangely dry-eyed. But I was deeply effected by the last acts he had shown me and I thanked him later that night in the darkness of the falling rain, his fur still fresh, but the flesh underneath almost cold. I remembered him running, galloping, curling his head in a rictus, and finally falling. His heavy breaths. Helping me get free. It seemed he died doing what he loved, and he saved me as his final goodbye.

Today is my birthday and I thought it would be appropriate to mention this selfless act by another toward me. I sometimes feel that Life has thrown me some curve balls. And however I’ve survived them, I feel that I did so because of my own wits or logic or through plain dumb luck. But this experience has taught me a lot about how to live and how to die. And I hope to live up to the example I was shown so many years ago by a horse that showed selflessness in his final moments.

What do you think?