Thursday, August 13, 2009

Blue Horse

{A Dead Horse, A New Life}

 Blue Horse / oil on canvas / 36 x 48 in. / 2008

I always knew I'd come back to the image of Laddy lying like this but I never quite knew how to paint it. A few months ago I was cleaning up after a full day in the studio working on a portrait of my husband, P., who at the time was in Iraq. I had a palette covered in leftover green paint, which I couldn't stand to throw out. So I started a new painting and stayed up all night, and by the morning this is what it looked like.

About the green paint. When I was living in New York and dating my now-husband, we bought a can of house paint on a whim because it was the most marvelous color- "Fresh-Cut Grass"- and stayed up until 2am painting most of my furniture with it, whether it needed it or not. I moved across the country with that can of paint after we got married. When P. deployed to Iraq for six months I started a portrait of him with the green house paint as the ground color around his head. So that's the story behind the green paint.

Now, about the horse. I fell in love with a mustang named Laddy many years ago when I was working as a wrangler at a dude ranch in Montana. He was, as my mom put it, a once-in-a-lifetime horse. Laddy was born on the range as a wild mustang (over thirty-thousand feral horses roam federal land in several western states; you can read about them here). He was caught when he was two or three and sold at auction to my friend the ranch foreman, who saw potential in his sturdy confirmation, good feet and unusual intelligence. Supposedly if Laddy didn't buck a cowboy off before breakfast it was free beers for the barn crew that night. He was a handful, but he was an incredible wrangle horse once you were firmly planted in the saddle. Laddy spent twenty years working as an ace wrangle horse in the mountains outside Big Sky, Montana, and I inherited him into my wrangle string during my summers working on the ranch. I bought him for a mere three hundred dollars in 2003 and brought him back to my parents farm in New Jersey, where he enjoyed a retirement of lush timothy, easy winters, and a pasture full of mares. That's the happy part.

Fast-forward five years. I got a frantic call from my mom one morning at my office in New York City. Laddy had broken his hip, she said. It was a freak thing; the vet said that from the images of his MRI Laddy had hundreds of old hairline fractures in his hip. They were probably the result of an accident in the mountains years ago, and they had calcified enough so that they didn't bother him for the next decade. Now in his old age he could have just stepped wrong and the brittle hip bone shattered like a potato chip. There is nothing you can do for a horse with a shattered hip. He was in intense pain and going into shock, my mom said, and she wanted my permission to put my sweet Laddy down.

I was on the next train down to our town in NJ, where my parents picked me up and drove me out to see his body. While I was on the train they'd taken him to a world-class equine clinic that happens to be nearby, and my dad, a tough man who loved Laddy perhaps as much as I did, tearily recounted how little bay Laddy, the wild Mustang from Montana, valiantly got himself off the horse trailer with a shattered hip and limped out to the grassy knoll where they put him to rest, as if he knew it was time. I still treasure the image of my gallant old ranch-broke Laddy hobbling past the million-dollar thoroughbreds with his head held high.

My parents led me out to the knoll. I lay with Laddy's body, which was warm from the evening sun, and curled up against his strong neck, now so small-seeming, and cried. That horse had carried me across rushing rivers, over vast alpine meadows choked with lupines, and protectively pushed the other horses out of my way in the corral. We had encountered grizzlies, bull moose, and forest fires together. He had been my closest ally and partner in all my adventures out west. I lay with him until the sun began to edge low against the valley and the barn swallows dipped and dived at insects in their evening acrobatics. We lay together, a girl and her horse, until night came, and I remember feeling that as I lay with his body his spirit was all around me.

Laddy died two weeks before my wedding. The symbolism of his death was poetically apparent to me; the girl must give up her horse, her girlhood, in order to embrace the next chapter of her life. In my case, that chapter was my darling husband and all the adventures of young matrimony. Laddy embodied my coming-of-age in Montana, self-discovery in the wilderness, the freedom of an unencumbered life. I felt an overwhelming loss, as if Laddy had been an existential part of me, but it was balanced out by the joy and excitement of my new life with P. I think of Laddy's loss as a great equalizing of the scales so that I could have P.

And so here he is on canvas, finally: my little Blue Horse.


  1. this is incredible. stunning. and a visual delicious treat for the heart and the soul. keep it up, girl!

  2. Once again, I cried at the story.
    Laddy was your Pooh.

  3. Lily, what a lovely story and what a lucky husband you have ... x sno

  4. Love the cacti- but give us more pictures!! they are all so beautiful!
    your horticultural poetry is under-portrayed here- and let us see the hills beyond the pots- Roxaboxen revealed!!
    P.S. Any recipes or yummy tips for today? we need our hit of Lala's kitchen magic!

  5. Lily; I'm sitting here crying into my morning coffee. I also grew up on a horse farm, and from the age of 8 to 19, my partner in crime was my gray Arab Pewter. When I was 8, he was left abandoned by his owner at a neighbors barn, and knowing that we were in search of a good horse for me, she offered him to us for a dollar, making us promise only that if we ever decided to give him up, we would return him to her. For 11 years, Pewter and I competed in local and state events, and though he was 21 when we got him, he was kept out of retirement until he was about 29/30. Pewter was a family member, to say the least. My dad used to call him "the old man" because he would boss the other horses around in the paddock. The only other horse that Pewter was gentle to was my mum's eventer, Monte. Monte was the biggest sweetheart I've ever met, but when you got him out on the cross country course, he became a speed demon, jumping anything you put in his path. During spring of 2008, my sister was competing Monte, who landed wrong after a jump and bowed several tendons in his shoulder. He was unable to walk properly and wasn't expected to make a recovery. We kept him on grass, hoping that with a little TLC, he would be able to walk again. Last fall, I was sitting waiting for my Italian class to begin in NYC when my my dad called. He told me that both Monte and Pewter had been put down that afternoon. Their time had come, they were both unable to live happy lives anymore. While I could understand that, I had not gotten a chance to say goodbye. By the time I got home, they were gone, buried in our back yard. I envy the moments you had with Laddy and am totally in love with the painting. It's an impeccable tribute to a life partner. Maybe one day, I'll be able to create something to commemorate Pewter, my lovely little gray boy.

  6. OK , crying now. Dear Laddy's last moments as you tell them make my heart ache. it sounds like you had a precious bond with that horse. The painting is a very fitting tribute.

  7. oh gosh i can't breathe. i live on a farm now in love with mike a horse that was left behind here on the farm, scared from a harness that was left on way too long. he is shy and scared yet gentle his eyes have such sadness mixed in with kindness, just last night he let me scratch him, bet him then he followed me around wanted me to pet him some more- i cried 10 weeks in the making and he gave me his trust...

  8. This is so beautiful and poignant. Thank you for sharing. Your writing is stirring and your painting is perfect.

  9. So I've been creepily reading through old posts on your blog for the last few days (little treasures and breaks from the monotony and boredom that sometimes comes with being home for winter break), and this one is by far my favorite (though the one where you talk about meeting Judi Dench and Bill Nighy is fantastic). The story is beautiful and sorrow-filled, just like the painting. Seriously. Wonderful.


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