The brilliant painted white and brown stallion was equally fueled by testosterone, a long lineage of powerful and proud ancestors and the primordial terror of something leaping onto its back for the first time in its life.
The battle that ensued over the following five to ten minutes was beautiful, violent and fearsome to watch. Both horse and man were determined to convince the other of their power -- and both horse and man threw each other from one part of the corral to the other seemingly without fear or concern for the other. . . . . but they were not to be separated.
As the stallion began to slow its leaps and contortions, it reared up one final time so that its front legs were almost vertically in line -- and over -- its hind legs. The exhausted young man hung on to the waving white mane with every remaining ounce of strength he had . . . . . and catastrophically pulled the massive horse backwards -- hurtling them both to the rocky hard ground on the other side. The rider threw himself to the side, narrowly avoiding being crushed by the 1,500 pounds coming down on him. The stallion, twisting and snorting as it went down, was unable to twist its neck in just the right way so as to avoid having his head smash into the ground.
There were screams and gasps around the corral --- and sighs of relief as the takoja picked himself up, dusted himself off and staggered over to the horse, now twitching and desperately trying to move its legs as it tried to stand again. It's breath was raspy, eyes fixed on something in the distance and blood began trickling out of its ear. The Grandfather ran over to his horse, touched his takoja on the shoulder and knelt besides the once powerful stallion.
For the next several hours, we sat beside the horse, bringing it water, swatting away at the flies gathering, gently trickling water into its weakening mouth and smudging it with sage. On a reservation the size of Delaware and Connecticut, there is not a single veterinarian. Even if there were one, there is not the money to pay for one. The horse could not be loaded to be brought anywhere, nor were there shots, medicines or CAT scans to give us direction and hope. As the only White Man and a non resident of Pine Ridge, I spent the first half an hour problem solving with various suggestions: Trailers, send someone to Rapid City to bring a Vet down, Facebook pleas for help . . . while the Grandfather prayed and talked to his dying horse. For hours. He knew that if the beautiful animal had the strength to stand, it would have the strength to live. And if it did not . . . it would not.
And so, it died later that afternoon. And we were all left with the body as its Spirit moved on. As well as the complicated emotions and realities of a young man who had been showing off and made a mistake --- and his Grandfather who had lost the pride of his herd.
A year or so following the stallion's death, I was traveling with my wife and two of my children on the other side of the bluffs from where the horse had breathed its last breath. We were driving through the prairie towards a house that we were working on. Off the rutted tracks and in the prairie grass, we saw a young brown and white horse lying in the weeds. He tentatively lifted his head and whinnied to us -- clearly calling us over. So, we stopped the car and approached the horse, uncertain as to why a yearling was lying in the grass and not able to move.
Though unclear why it was not able to stand, we gathered around and again swatted away the flies, brought it water and apples . . . . and prayed. We had been taught that if it could stand, then it would live. And if it didn't, it wouldn't. We also knew now that on Pine Ridge, there were no veterinarians, magic medicine or sanitized outcomes.
One of the beauties of the Lakota People and of their lands are that those things that many of us find uncomfortable to talk about or face -- are there to be dealt with regardless of age, what is fair or what is planned. The Wounded Knee Massacre, White Clay, poverty and the mistakes of our government and ancestors are unhidden and required to be faced. Horses, dogs, bison, cattle, deer and humans get hurt, suffer, die or live. That happens off the reservation also, but largely behind closed doors and with the hope that we can sanitize, legislate or even avoid it. There is a beauty of being in a place where life, death, pain, suffering and the miracles of health, recovery and those who don't hide from any of it are there to be experienced.
This time the horse stood up.