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The Passing of a Kindred Spirit

By Jennie Williams

     It was in the eyes. Everyone who met him commented on his eyes, those windows to his heart. And when they heard, it was "Not the one with the eyes!!" "How could it be?" He was very special, this one with "the eyes". His name was Valentino, and it fit him well. At heart, he was a lover, a protector, and a kindred spirit. His incredibly sweet, deep, gentle eyes held the pain and sadness of a vitality almost broken, but then revived.

     Valentino came to live with us in September of 1997. He had just been imported back from Puerto Rico only 45 days earlier. When my husband, Gene, saw him, he had to have him. There was just "something" about him that struck a chord in Gene. Under saddle he was incredibly controlled and collected and Performance all the way, but on the ground he was hell on wheels. His manners, to say the least, needed some work. We were told up front that he had problems that would take time to work out. But we had to have him anyway. And thus began a time in my life that will never be repeated and that no one can take away from me, not even death.

     Valentino was filled with fear and resentment, with no trust for any human being. Despite that, he still had a need to please under saddle. This stallion was finger-tip controlled and weight sensitive in commands. The slightest shift of body weight would turn him in any direction, or extend his corto to a flying largo, or stop him on a dime. Due to his extraordinary hocks, he was glass-smooth, like riding on a cloud. Under saddle, he was the perfect Paso Fino. On the ground, was another story entirely. The ears were definitely off limits in big red letters. Add to that the feet; forget the medicating, particularly wormers; and God’s biggest punishment to a horse, the bath. Then, of course, there was the battle to put on a bridle, halter, etc., anything that might touch the dreaded EARS. We were not entirely prepared for what "problems" really meant in regards to this horse, when we first began to work with him, but we learned. Fast. He was everything we had ever hoped or dreamed of under saddle, and everything we dreaded like the plague on the ground. He could delight the senses and totally frustrate the will, all in the space of an afternoon. Patience, what a great word that is. Valentino taught us all there was to know about patience, over those first few months.

     That was a very hard time for all of us. I had just come through seven major joint surgeries in six years. I had had six years of the pain and torture of physical therapy, with doctors, nurses, therapists, and technicians trying to cut and paste Humpty Jennie back together again. I even resembled our dear friend Humpty Dumpty, after the 60 extra pounds I gained from lack of use of a poor broken body. Among the many activities that I was told I could no longer do, riding horses was probably the one that distressed my doctors the most, because I refused to give that one up. I had lost so much, that I could not conceive of losing horses too. That truly would have broken the life and spirit in me. Valentino and I had so much in common, we just didn’t know it. He trusted no one due to past life experiences, and I didn’t trust my broken body to function and be safe around him. Gene worked with him for months.

     Then the miracle occurred. God smiled on both of us that fateful day. It was a typical, cold, very damp, dreary, winter day when life truly was the worst for me, and the pain was so intense. I didn’t truly believe that I would ever be able or fit again, and my spirits were at their lowest. I hobbled out to the barn on a cane, with tears in my eyes. I wasn’t sure that I could stand another minute of pain, much less a whole lifetime of it. I had stopped believing in miracles. They were for other people, not for me. So I sat there in the barn, feeling so low, feeling sorry for myself, just searching for a reason to keep trying. It was so hard to do … trying. I had just about given up on it, when I heard a voice, demanding, cajoling, and enticing me to come to him. There was Valentino, stretched as far out of his stall as possible entreating me to come and visit him.

     Being very vocal, he had a way about him that was hard to ignore. When he wanted something, he had no problems telling you all about it. I suspect that he probably had quite a colorful vocabulary built up through the years, that he was not afraid to use. Intrigued, I went. This was new behavior for Valentino, the horse that didn’t like or need anyone. I stepped to the front of the stall, and Valentino hugged me. He wrapped his head and neck around my shoulders, held me close, and nibbled on my shoulder, uttering soft and comforting sounds of encouragement. He recognized the pain and despair. He held me while I cried, and we were soul mates from that moment on. The pain just seemed to drain away and was replaced by an indescribable joy in living. It truly was a miracle for both of us.

     From that day on, Valentino became my horse and my friend. He tolerated Gene and adored me. He listened for my footstep, or my voice, or my truck driving up. He watched the windows for sight of me. I used to look out and hear the gate banging loudly, and I knew that he had seen me. It was his way of saying, ‘Come visit, I need to see you.’ Everyone around the barn knew when I was home, from the banging gate. I never could sneak in, because he always knew when I was near.

     Largo was Valentino’s preferred speed, the faster the better. He didn’t walk unless absolutely forced to, and only under duress. Performance was Valentino’s middle name. I could see the fear in Gene’s eyes the day that I said that I had to ride my boy. It was time. I was recovering. There was hope again. My two men, standing there together, both afraid of what I was about to do. One helped me into the saddle, and one stood like a stone statue until I was settled. This horse, that never walked, stepped out like he was walking on eggshells, the slowest and most deliberate walk I have ever experienced. Each step was carefully calculated and performed as if in a ballet. If I had fallen off, it would have broken his heart. But I didn’t. It was the best ride of my life. There was no fear of injury, no expectation of pain, because I was being protected by one who was dedicated to my safety.

     And so it went. Our rides together, our time together, the love and need that we shared. There were the jokes this very mischievous horse played on me, the games he thought up, the true blossoming of his very loving spirit. He became the favorite among favorites for everyone who met him. He started trusting everyone, realizing that life can be good, no matter what may have happened in the past. He became everyone’s friend and carried even the rankest beginners with true awareness of all of our frailties. He protected the women and was as soft as silk for them. He hyped up for the men to share the excitement. He became the horse for everyone. He just seemed to know in his heart what each person wanted from him. And he gave it freely, honestly, and with total trust. He was exceptional in his generosity.

     And then it was time for him to leave us. God called this wondrous creature back to him. Valentino died Sunday, 5/23/99. He was 9 years old in body, and 90 years old in spirit. But he was happy, truly happy, probably for the first time in his life. He taught me that there is a reason to keep trying, and to keep going, no matter what the adversity in your life. Gene swears that he still hears those special sounds that only Valentino made in the barn, and that he still can see him running in the pasture. He left us a very special filly, his only offspring in the US, born only two weeks before his death. He will be sorely missed by all, and will never be forgotten by any that met him. He has left his mark on this world and on me, forever. I will miss him so.

      Lest you think this tribute is just a statement of grief, it isn’t entirely. This is a celebration of a remarkable personality that I was privileged and honored to know. What more can we strive for in this short time on earth, other than to be happy and to trust in each other? To have that happiness and trust shared and returned a hundred fold is a bonus beyond words. Valentino and I were very happy, and I celebrate the time we had together. The incredible gift that he gave me, I will strive to share with others – unconditional trust and love for my fellow beings. His heart touched everyone he met this past year. It is my duty to Valentino, to share that joy of life with all, and to pass on the message that -- The amount of time you have is not what is important. It is how you use the time you have been given....  Use it wisely.




     For those who want to know, Valentino died of an acute, sudden onset, small intestine strangulation.  It is the most deadly type of colic out there.  There was no warning, no thrashing, no chance to save him.  He just laid down and died in the space of minutes.  There are four basic types of colic that can attack your horses.  For those of you who always wondered why you have to walk a horse for so long with a colic, be thankful that you can walk them.  If you can get them up and walk, then the likelihood is that you have one of the lower levels of colic, and you have a chance to save them.  Never bemoan the fact that you may be walking them all night.  At least you have a chance to save them.  With this type of colic there is very little chance.  It just takes them away.

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