Saying Goodbye to My Beloved Horse

Losing this lifelong equine companion was heartbreaking.

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Janie (J.F.) and her beloved horse, Skookum Cat, in 1997Photo: Courtesy of J.F. Dickinson

Leader of the pack

Janie (J.F.) and her beloved horse, Skookum Cat, in 1997.

Losing a friend is devastating. I recently lost one whom I’d had for over 21 years. We’d spent so many days together it is difficult to even think about him not being there for me. I don’t know how I’m going to go on without that shoulder to cry on, or enjoying the great outdoors with him through all kinds of weather, knowing I could count on him to get me wherever I was going in comfort and style.

I am speaking of my horse, Skookum Cat. I first met “Cat” in 1997 while looking for a replacement horse for a cross-country ride my husband and I had gone on the previous three summers. We were taking part in the NWMP (North-West Mounted Police) Boundary Commission Trail Ride that went from Manitoba to Alberta. I’d been looking for a while when we went to a local estate auction one Saturday and happened to run into an acquaintance who we knew was very knowledgeable about horses. I mentioned the type of horse I wanted, and he said he had the one for me.

I’d always owned Arabians, and still do. I know many people have different opinions on breeds of horses, however, I believe that how you treat the horse will determine the response you get in return. This particular gentleman only raised quarter horses, but I am open-minded and was willing to see this special horse. We chatted with the potential seller, and agreed to meet him the following day at his ranch.

We arrived and walked out to the corral where there were a number of horses milling about. I looked around, trying to pick out that special horse but none caught my eye until I spotted one way in the back looking over the fence, ears pricked forward—and I knew. Skookum Cat was a 16-hands-high, nine-year-old handsome lad. He was brought forward, following behind his handler, and calmly walked into the barn area, where he was brushed down and saddled. We all went out into the ring where you could see that hours of training had taken place; the groove in the outside circle was well worn. Cat stepped up, and around that circle he went, ridden by his handler who wore duck boots and kept speaking gently to that big, brown, bay quarter horse gelding. I was hooked, now it was my turn. Cat turned big intelligent eyes on me and we did the circle. Stop, turn, back, trot, walk, canter, “Whatever you want, I will do it for you” he seemed to be saying.

We were given the option of coming back and spending more time with this horse to make sure—but I didn’t need to. We had brought the trailer and the deal was made that same day. I brought that beautiful quarter horse home. The days that followed were a dream for me. We rode every day, venturing into uncharted areas that I hadn’t been to before, and Cat was just as curious as I was to see new vistas. I’d carry a canteen and granola bars with me on those long day excursions. When a drink was needed, Cat would slurp water from my hand, seemingly quite pleased with himself. When he heard the crinkle of the wrapper from the bar, his ears would flick and he’d try to look at me while maintaining his gait. I’d reach forward and we would share that granola bar.

After Cat had been with us for about two weeks, I was out riding and decided to take a path I hadn’t been on before. My sense of direction in the bush and mountains isn't the best, so I will generally stay on a well-travelled trail. The trail petered out, and now we were well into the dense bush. I was confused and it was time for this horse to do what every other horse I had would do. Take me home, and he did! We ended up right back where we had started. Over dead fall and under trees, always giving me time to get myself through without scratches and head bumps, giving me time to assess the logistics of getting both of us through his chosen path, this was my horse.

We had other horses join our small herd and Cat became their protector. One day while working outside, I heard the horses squealing. I rushed over to see that neighbouring horses had broken in, and our mare with her two-week-old foal was in jeopardy. The mare was frantically trying to get her foal separated from the strange horses and the foal was caught in the middle. Cat went into that fracas, also screaming as horses do when in a fight, and with teeth bared and hoofs flying, got that foal away from those strange horses and put himself between them and the foal. It was a while before I was able to get everyone into their respective places. I checked the foal and mare, finding no damage, thanks to my brave Cat.

Over the years, I had long conversations with Cat; he was my sounding board through the many trials of life. He knew when I was feeling down, and also when I was doing great. He’d lay his head on my shoulder when I gave him hugs. He was such a comfort when my dad was rushed to the hospital and I was three provinces away. He let me sob on his neck when my dad passed away, standing quietly until I cried myself out. He’d walk so nicely when I put the grandchildren on him, the children feeling so high up in the world aboard that big brown horse. He’d stand perfectly still and let them brush him, as well.

Cat even knew how to open gates. He’d watch when you went through a gate to see how it worked. Apparently, the grass on the lawn was much tastier than the pasture grass! We soon learned that different latches were required. I’m sure that Cat was laughing when I’d find him on the lawn.

Meet the Canadian saving the Newfoundland pony from extinction.

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Just days after Cat came to live at Janie’s place, the pair were already bondingPhoto: Courtesy of J.F. Dickinson

A final farewell

Just days after Cat came to live at Janie’s place, the pair were already bonding.

One morning when my husband went out to do the morning feed, he called to me, “Cat is down.” I’d been expecting the inevitable, but still, you tend to put that out of your mind. We’d had a March storm the day before so I dressed quickly and ran out. Cat saw me and came towards me, stumbling a little. I started to sob. He was so thin, when did that happen? He was wet, shivering and trying hard to stay upright. I put my arms around him and sobbed some more. Once again his comfort came through. We put blankets on him and led him closer to the barn. He lay down again, moaning as he did. More blankets were added and we prepared some warm mash, but it was too late. I stayed with him, stroking his face and reminding him of all the good times we’d had, and how special he was. When did he get all those white hairs on his face? His muzzle was so soft. He moaned quietly as I stroked his face. Then he was gone. He is buried next to the mare whose foal he saved so long ago. He visited her in that corner many times over the years; it was only proper to have them together again. Will I find another? I don’t know if there are any more Skookum Cats out there.

Next, learn what it's like photographing Alberta's wild horses.

Originally Published in Our Canada