The Guns of August

(by Dan Harvey Pedrick)

If diamonds are a girl’s best friend (a rather dubious contention, I think) then certainly horses are a polo player’s best friend. And for all the tough cowboy exterior we may exhibit in our bravado and our hubris in playing this incredibly exciting and dangerous game, we love them. We love them. We love them because we need them.

But do they love us? Well, not really. But it doesn’t matter. We love them anyway. I remember trying to explain this to my young daughter (and to myself) years ago when she was just a kid. She was frustrated by a pony that was playing hard to get in the paddock and drove her to tears as she chased the ingrate creature around, leadrope in hand. “I thought she loved me!” she wailed. “No,” I said, reaching into the feed bin for the requisite bribe, “we love them.” She cried even more at this and I regretted saying it.

But, one-sided or not, our love for our horses and other pets is true and many a song and poem testifies to it. In his “The Power of the Dog,” for example, Rudyard Kipling suggests that the tendency for us to become emotionally involved with an animal is irresistible in spite of the inevitable pain it must bring. And, as if to answer Kipling’s poignant question,

“So why in Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?”,

Ogden Nash’s poem “On a Good Dog,” cuts even deeper:

“She seems to pant, Time up, time up!
My little dog must die,
And lie in dust with Hector's pup;
So, presently, must I.”

And, if anyone might think that our Latino friends are any less sentimental about animals, the popular Mexican ranchera “El Cantador” by Nicandro Castle narrates the entire biography of a horse from birth to death—“he was my most faithful friend… my greatest companion” cries the devastated vaquero in the song.

The point is, what makes it so hard to lose a beloved horse (or dog, or parakeet) is that we realize that a part of the life—our life!—that we shared with another living being is gone forever, and won’t come back.

And so it was with “Ruffian.” There we were, such a short time ago, galloping briskly downfield as we had done in so many previous chukkas throughout his long career. Feeling the hot sun and the wind on our bodies, vocalizing in the excitement and reveling in the exhilaration of a goal about to be made—we were running on the very edge of eternity, totally alive together!

Suddenly he’s on three legs, his stifle shattered, along with the temporary illusion of immortality that polo can bring. I mean, that’s why we play this game, isn’t it, to achieve that larger-than-life feeling, if only for a moment? But to come to such depths from that height so quickly! One minute you’re on top of the world, the next minute the vet is explaining to you your very short list of options. He’s in pain and there’s hardly any time to think. You reach out and touch him and his coat is smooth and warm and beautiful. If he had any faults you can’t remember them now. He returns your gaze, trusting you to do the right thing by him as he always has. What else can he do? What else can you do? A shot, the sound of a backhoe, someone hands you a halter and a leadrope.

Yes, this pain hurts, and reminds us with its acid bitterness that we love our horses’ lives because we love our own. Deny it if you want to.

So, where do we go from here? I don’t know. Life goes on, time heals all wounds, and a hundred more clichés that taste like putty in your mouth. But—by God!—he was a great horse, that one! I guess all we can really do is follow that vaquero…

Por éso cuando el sol muere
Y la luna va a salir
Me voy hasta aquél potrero
Mis recuerdos a vivir.

(So when the sun goes down,
And the moon’s on the rise,
I’ll head to his corral,
And remember our lives.)

(This article was published in Polo Players' Edition magazine in December 2005. Photo by Tony Austin)

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