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Empty chairs at empty tables

At the start of his surgery training, attendings told my husband that he would walk around his entire career with a graveyard. No one tells you this directly when you want to go into medical school;

they save the darkness for those who are already in too deep with debt to turn back. A doctor’s graveyard consists of tombstones belonging to patients with inscriptions only the doctor remembers.

Horse people aren’t much different. Except with us, it’s empty stalls.

When the news broke about Medina Spirit’s sudden death, it hit me harder than most would expect. He was such a beautiful soul surrounded by people who loved and admired him daily, but he was also surrounded, by no fault of his own, by controversy. Say what you want about his

Kentucky Derby and career, but, at the heart of the matter, there are people today who are trying to keep it together when they walk by an empty stall.

I have two empty stalls right now. One is my first horse I’ve written about before, Sofie. But the second empty stall is the one that still punches me in the gut when I think about it.

Remember the horse of my dreams that I bought? In a similar fashion to how the world lost Medina Spirit, the world lost TF Mahalia.

But let me tell you about our journey together since it’s been so long without an update.

Hailey was started under saddle by Heather Spies at Talaria Farms, and the partnership between them was one of those rare cases when Hailey trusted Heather more than anyone. Don’t get me wrong; Hailey and I had a wonderful relationship. I remember one day when I had a lesson on Huey that Heather led Hailey to me and had me ride her. It was the best birthday present I could have ever hoped for.

It was also when I realized what it was like to ride a big, comfy couch. That was how we described riding Hailey. Once you were in her saddle, she was always trying to take care of you.

But then, as it always does, life happened. In the middle of the pandemic, we moved to Statesboro, GA. For those who aren’t familiar, Statesboro is roughly 4 hours from Talaria. I couldn’t take Hailey away from the only life she’d ever known, especially when she and Heather were so close to their first show.

Right before I moved, Hailey came down with none other than Equine Coronavirus and had to be rushed to the emergency vet at Auburn. Heather, Jose, and I couldn’t even stay in the parking lot to wait for the diagnosis and prognosis. We had to drop her off and drive home with an empty trailer, and we cried the whole way. Hailey stayed for a little over a week in the ICU before she was ready to come home, signaling to the team of vets by trying to kick off her ice boots and begging for treats and affection. The doctor on call with her admitted he wasn’t an Arabian fan, but he was a fan of hers. I told him that it was her special talent.

I relied on Jazmin and Heather to send me updates on Hailey, who everyone at the barn dubbed their Walmart Greeter because she always was vocal until you came by her stall and asked how her day was. Maddie took to riding western Quarter Horses at Mill Creek Equestrian Center. She was thriving there. At her last lesson at Talaria, she finally advanced enough to get off the lead line, and she transitioned to jogging and loping patterns at our new home. I rode once a week to keep myself in shape for the day when I could show Hailey.

Hailey’s first show was a trial and error kind of situation. She was ready and knew what to do, but she wasn’t ready for everything a show actually entails. That’s not something you can really train for. As Heather explained to me, that first show was to just show her what it was about, and the only goal was to get around the arena. After some stubborn moments, Hailey placed last but got around the ring successfully. For a baby, she did extremely well. We were all happy with her because we had time and room for improvement.

After that show, she took home three Junior Horse Western Pleasure championship titles and was in the Region 12 Spotlight Futurity top 5 for her division. We were all riding high and prepping for the 2021 show season, planning to capitalize on such a successful first year of showing despite the delayed season due to the pandemic. And I made it my goal for the year to show Hailey myself.

Her first 2021 show was great, winning a Reserve Champion Junior Western Pleasure title. Because Hailey was doing so well, Heather called to let me know she was ready for me to show her. I had a month to finish prepping and getting our outfit together. Deciding to forego spending thousands of dollars on a western show jacket and shirt, I opted to go the Etsy route for my attire. The day my show jacket arrived, I snapped a photo and sent it to Heather.

The next day was when it all came tumbling down.

Heather was working Hailey like she always did, and before she mounted, Hailey reared and fell over backwards, hitting her head hard enough to make her nose bleed. She never got back up.

Jazmin called me in tears. I didn’t even have time to react because I was frantically dialing the insurance company so that I could get permission to put Hailey down as the vet sedated her and tried to keep her comfortable. It was the longest 10 minutes of my life, followed by a hollow, haunted feeling as I realized that as soon as I hung up with them that Hailey was gone.

Jazmin called to confirm that Hailey was at peace, surrounded by the people she loved and just a few feet away from where she was born.

I felt numb as I talked to Heather a few days later, and I hesitated putting anything on social media because it made it too real. I didn’t want to believe my girl was gone, that she wasn’t going to be the barn’s main greeter when anyone walked through the doors, that my new outfit and saddle pad would never sit on her back, that Maddie wouldn’t have the chance to show her.

Oh, Maddie…

When I told her what happened, she took it better than I thought she would. She cried for a moment, but then looked at me through her tears and said, “Momma, it’s okay. She knew she was loved. She knew she was a good girl because she was ours.” I know she meant that Hailey was mine and hers, but Hailey belonged to everyone who showed her kindness and affection. She was just that kind of soul, and that was what made her so special. She belonged to me on paper, but she belonged to the entire Talaria family.

Plenty of people consoled me, and I tried to make a point to keep in touch with Jazmin and Heather to make sure they were okay, knew I didn’t hold them responsible for such a terrible accident, and mostly because I wanted to make sure that what happened didn’t break them.

No one really talks about mental health, but when something traumatic like that happens, it shatters the people around it. And they’re never really the same afterwards.

Allison, the owner of Talaria, contacted me a few days after it happened. And a few weeks after that, Hailey had a sibling on the way. Jazmin said she was in tears when they did the initial ultrasound. I was excited because this sibling would be mine, but when I came to visit and walked by Hailey’s empty stall, it hit me again.

And it’s hitting hard today for the people who love Medina Spirit. I can only hope that they take solace in the fact that he had a great life. He never had any unkind treatment and had a life better than 99 percent of the horses in the world.

But that empty stall hits hard, even after it’s filled with a new horse.

God bless the empty stalls that fill an equestrian’s heart.

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