Read an Excerpt
Our Tears Mingled
I was eleven years old and sick with the flu when Daddy stepped into my room. While his deep but tender voice always caressed my heart with comfort, today it made my heart beat faster. 'I've got something for you, honey,' he announced in a singing tone. He was holding the most beautiful saddle I'd ever seen: It was bright red and black with brilliant diamond cutouts around the edge. Its sparkle seemed to brighten my room, and I inhaled the scent of fresh leather that filled the air.
Daddy placed the saddle at the foot of my bed. Pushing aside the covers, I ran my fingers slowly across the cool, smooth seat. I looked up at him and beamed. 'Do you like it?' he smiled back. He knew that something for my four-legged friend Scout would delight me more than any other present. 'I guess even the flu can't keep you from enjoying your gift.' He laughed and bounced the saddle on the bed, mimicking a bucking bronco. The new saddle seemed to make my flu symptoms all but disappear.
'Scout will love this!' I exclaimed.
The next day, with the saddle in my hands, I headed to the barn to see Scout. As usual, he stood in the back stall, hiding in a shadowed corner, looking scared. It was no wonder. Daddy and I had gotten him from a sale barn three months earlier. He was scrawny and scared of everything—especially men. We suspected he had been abused and neglected. Even so, there was something about him that Daddy and I couldn't resist. Once we got him home, I spent every day in the barn with Scout, stroking him, talking to him, and feeding him. As soon as I saw him, I quickened my steps.
'There you are,' I murmured. I could feel the soft dirt under my feet and smell the strong odor of wet hay. I drew closer and whispered, 'Hey, boy, look what I have for you.' I swung the saddle up and positioned it on his back, taking a step back to observe his reaction. He held his head higher and looked from side to side with seeming pride. The colors of the saddle accented his shiny, dark-brown coat, and he seemed transformed from a skinny, shy horse to the strong, radiant equine he was meant to be.
When we spent precious moments together Scout became my warrior, my defender, and my confidant. Countless rides over familiar paths became our routine, and it seemed he grew to know me better than I knew myself. The passing years faded some of the radiance of the red and black saddle, but my relationship with Scout shone more brightly than ever. Even at seventeen, I still revealed my fears and joys only to him. No one else listened as he did.
One afternoon as Scout grazed peacefully, the sun's rays striking his coat and a soft breeze lifting his mane, my world shook violently in a whirlwind of emotion many miles away. As I sat in the examining room for a routine eye checkup, the ophthalmologist abruptly announced, 'She has a retinal disease for which there is no cure.' I sank in the chair, unable to breathe, the horrid news pressing like bricks into my chest.
'I'm afraid it will eventually take her sight. It's only a matter of time.' He spoke as if I weren't there. On the way home, Daddy's light comments broke the silence, but my blaring fear drowned them out.
Each passing day brought dreaded evidence of my diminishing peripheral vision. The retinal condition dimmed the light of my surroundings and also dropped a veil of gloom over my soul. As my eyesight deteriorated, so did my desire to enjoy activities that had brightened my teen years. Conflicting emotions tore at my heart.
'Do you need any help picking out your clothes?' Daddy asked in a soft voice one day.
'No, I can do it myself!' I shouted back. I was angry at the world. I could only imagine the look on his face as he walked out. I threw my clothes down, flung myself onto the bed, and sobbed. Colors and shapes, vibrant and inviting before, now faded into the dark gray of my surroundings. Coordinating my clothes, a task I once performed with pleasure and ease, was now impossible.
'Any time you need to go anywhere, just let us know,' my friends offered. 'You know we're here for you.' Their tone rang with compassion. Sure, I appreciated their support, but they couldn't know the turmoil that plagued my heart.
When they made plans to see a movie, they added, 'You can go, too, if you want.'
'No, that's okay. I'll just go home,' I replied quickly. With tears trickling down my cheeks, I made my way across the grass, following the sounds coming from the barn. I found the stall where my loyal friend waited and hugged his muscular neck, feeling the warmth of his body. Scout stood still, listening to my sobbing whispers. He understood more than just my words. Gratefully, I stroked his face with palms wet from my tears. He seemed to cry with me: You're not alone. I'm hurting, too.
Scout was the one, the only one, who seemed to understand my anguish, fear, and frustration. When I cried into his neck, he nickered softly and nuzzled my shoulder with his velvet nose. I sensed his tenderness when I revealed to him my deepest pain and desperate longing. He stood by me when my world sank into a dark tunnel. I'll be here for you. I'll be your eyes, he seemed to say.
We still took long rides. Unlike before, I couldn't steer him around dangerous obstacles. Yet he seemed to know and he was protective of his now-sightless rider. Unable to guide him, I trusted his judgment. His steps, careful and smooth, matched his tender heart.
He proved more than capable, not only of carrying me around physical dangers, but also of easing me through emotional pitfalls. And when no one else knew how to take away the sting of living a sightless life, with each ride he gave me joy—joy that helped lighten my burdens.
With the unconditional love I felt from Scout, I slowly learned to accept the challenges of my new life. When the day came for me to leave home for college, Daddy parked the car alongside the fence so Scout could put his head through my window. As I hugged his neck, our tears mingled once again. We didn't need words. Like the beautiful saddle I had once placed on his scrawny back, he had given a shining glow of compassion and love to my broken world. Our hearts were forever braided together in a rope of unconditional love. He became my eyes, showing me the other side of a dark world. And when I was unable to express my pain, he read my heart, sensed my grief, and gave me the strength to face the world on my own.
As the sun rose, I walked though the Churchill Downs backstretch stable gate on Derby Day and made my way though the crush of media. As the track chaplain, I was determined to maintain my tradition of praying with the owners, trainers, and stable staff of each horse entered in the 'Run for the Roses.'
In the glamour and grit of Thoroughbred racing, the horse is king. Sit in the track 'kitchen,' and you'll rarely hear a conversation not about horses. Here, you are who you rode, groomed, exercised, shod, or hot-walked. Each morning horses' temperatures are taken, feed tubs checked for leftover oats, hooves picked, stalls cleaned, tack shined, and their all-important legs expertly inspected for any sign of swelling or heat.
Each day on the track at America's twin-spired racing cathedral, several hundred horses train; straining at their bits, relishing those moments when their riders guide them to the rail, give them rein, and bow into a crouch as they accelerate to a full 'breeze' of more than forty miles an hour.
That day, Derby hopes were high for Eight Belles, a strapping, gun-metal gray girl who had grown from a playful, overgrown ugly duckling into a sleek and very serious racing star. In a few hours she would attempt to become the fourth filly to win the world's famous race, and as I stood in front of Eight Belles' stall, I prayed that the Lord would bring her back safely.
Later, I watched from the grandstand's second floor overhang as Big Brown won the race. He was the winner, no doubt, but Eight Belles would not stop trying and came in second, beating eighteen of the nation's best boys. Her triumph is one of the moments those of us who love the horses will hold in our hearts forever. But the sweetness of that memory was all too brief. Seconds later, a crackling voice came over a walkie-talkie that one of the horses had gone down.
I rushed downstairs through tens of thousands in the Derby crush to the unsaddling area where I learned from Z Fortune's jockey, Robby Albarado, that the rider was fine, but that Eight Belles had a freak accident, breaking both front ankles while pulling up.
He said it was fatal. A jockey always knows.
I hurried to the backstretch area where I knew Eight Belles would be. Stunned and near tears, I stood over her lifeless body and thanked God that her rider was safe and that he allowed her to bring joy to so many who had watched her run.
My concern then turned to the people who were close to Eight Belles; her trainer, groom, exercise rider, and owners. I drove my golf cart to Eight Belles' barn, threading my way through the throng of media to her stall, the same one she had walked from earlier on her way to the paddock. In the somber stillness, I prayed with those who cared for and loved Eight Belles, and now grieved for her. We thanked God for giving her such a great heart and prayed that something good would come out of this tragedy.
The next day when I visited, the barn was enveloped in a cloud of grief. I offered a short prayer asking God to give all of the crew patience and wisdom. Caring for their other horses was a responsibility that came as a relief. The familiar routines of being around these great and giving animals let them forget, for brief moments, the tragedy of their brave strapping filly, taken mere moments after her greatest triumph. Mourning is the price every human pays for loving.
I went home that night physically, emotionally, mentally, and in some sense, spiritually drained. None of my words could bring the brave filly back or bring solace and peace to the people who loved her, but it was a chaplain's duty to make every attempt to do just that.
It is human nature to try to understand why tragedies occur, but we don't have the mind of God and I do not question his wisdom. Instead, I have faith that something good will come from the loss of Eight Belles to further protect the race horse and advance research in prevention and treatment of equine injuries and rehabilitation.
Revelations tells us that Jesus will return riding a white horse, so I know there are horses in heaven, but my memories of that huge, steel gray filly who loved to kick up her heels, play on the track, and strike a pose when someone took her photo are no less bittersweet knowing that she has been welcomed home by a loving God.
-- by Patti Schonlau as told to Janet Perez Eckles
EDITORS' NOTE: Eight Belles had a great heart and tremendous courage. Her ashes will be buried in the Kentucky Derby Museum alongside four Kentucky Derby winners, and a memorial service held there on Derby Day 2009. The Eight Belles Memorial Fund to fund studies on preventing equine injuries has been established in her honor
©2008. All rights reserved. Patti Schonlau as told to Janet Perez Eckles. Reprinted from The Ultimate Horse Lover by Marty Becker, D.V.M., Audrey Pavia, Gina Spadafori, and Mikkel Becker. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street , Deerfield Beach , FL 33442.