We returned home two weeks ago after our trip to Colorado for the funeral of my wife Marilyn’s young nephew. I went out at night to feed the horses and noticed that Skjoldur had a heavy discharge pouring out of his eyes. When I saw him the next morning, he was a little wobbly and his eyes were so opaque that he was effectively blind. I took him into the nearby Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Clinic where he was immediately put onto intravenous fluids. He was diagnosed with an internal infection of possibly his heart and of his liver. He slowly improved for a week until he worsened again. After test after test, his veterinarian informed us that it was clear that his liver was no longer functioning and that there was no hope of recovery. When she told me how he would suffer as his brain deteriorated, we made the decision to put him down last Friday. He was only eighteen years old.
I’ve been in trial but was able to get out early that afternoon and reach Alamo Pintado while the sun was still up. It was a beautiful day. I brought Remington over and met Marilyn at the clinic. I found Skjoldur in his stall at the intensive care barn wobbling on his feet with his head hanging down to the floor. After an intern disconnected his tubing, I haltered him and led him out into the sunlight. When he saw Remington, Skjoldur rushed over and laid his head against Remington’s neck. We put them into the large grassy “playpen” behind the hospital and turned them loose. They both had a good roll in the sand. They then grazed on the fresh grass together under the warm sun while we took turns petting them and taking pictures for half an hour or so. When one would move off a ways, the other would race over to be with him. They were obviously joyous to be in each other’s company again. As the sun started to dip below the horizon, the veterinarian and an intern came over. I fed Skjoldur a final cookie while they administered him an overdose of anesthetic. We left him lying peacefully in the grass under a sycamore tree. I pray his last thoughts were happy ones.
Although we didn’t think we had any tears left after Colorado, Marilyn and I cried our eyes out this weekend sharing memories of our lost pony. Skjoldur was a paradox. He was a stunningly beautiful little horse at just under 13.3 hands high. His summertime palomino pinto coat would turn snow white in the winter. His wavy full, flaxen colored mane was unusual even for an Icelandic. He looked like a toy horse come to life. He was gentle and affectionate. We sometimes used to call him little happiness. My friend Lynne Glazer told me once that Skjoldur was the pony every woman wanted when she was an eight year old girl.
But Skjoldur also proved himself to be one of the toughest horses in the sport of endurance riding. He had tremendous metabolic recoveries and was essentially tireless. During the XP 2001 ride from Missouri to California on the Pony Express trail, he completed 32 fifty mile rides, 1,600 miles, in a 52 day period. He was the first horse in the AERC to complete 1,000 miles of sanctioned endurance rides in a thirty day calendar period. He completed 40 rides that year for 2,010 miles with no pulls. He won first middleweight and first overall in our region, the regional mileage championship, the middleweight Pioneer Award for most points nationally in multi-day rides, and came in 2nd for the national mileage championship even though all of his rides but one were in the last half of the ride season. Almost all of his career miles came from multi-day rides. He was never entered in a ride less than fifty miles long.
Five gaited, he was just as smooth at the trot as he was at the tolt. He liked to poke along at a steady pace, preferably two or three feet behind Remington’s tail. But he was a demon going downhill. He would trot and canter at full speed down the tightest trails, flinging his body around the turns. He had a way of paddling out his front feet so that he didn’t have to slow down as the slope got steeper. My most thrilling ride ever was his 2,000 foot wild descent from the mountain ridge down to the valley floor at 2 am near the end of the Californios 100 mile ride three years ago. I can still feel the exhilaration of not being able to see whether we would fly right or left or dip up or down as he rocketed down the single track trail in the pitch dark. It pains me to think I will never feel what it is like to ride him again except in my memory.
But it comforts me to know that so many people will remember Skjoldur. Although he was Remington’s back up for me, calling him a back up would be like calling Ginger Rogers Fred Astaire’s assistant. Skjoldur was the Icelandic my family and everybody else got to ride in endurance. Probably my most memorable endurance rides were with Marilyn in Utah, my son Andrew in Nevada and my son Willie in Wyoming. Nine different people completed fifty mile endurance rides on him. My friends Laura Hayes and Kat Swigart each completed several rides on him. Jane Blair rode a fifty miler on him wearing a cast at Bryce Canyon three days after breaking her arm falling off her own horse. Everyone who rode him thought he was the smoothest horse they had ever ridden. Lori Cox wrote after riding him in a seventy five miler in Nevada that it was like riding a horse on wheels.
Skjoldur was also the horse my non horsey friends felt safe on in weekend trail rides at the beach or in the mountains. The many children and other beginners who were introduced to horse back riding on his back were proud to know they were on a horse who could take them as far as they could imagine. Remington and I tend to be loners on the trail. By allowing people to ride with us, Sjoldur served as our bond with family and friends. My life is richer for the deep friendships we made throughout the endurance community in the years we shared with him. He was so much a part of our lives.
We never had the sense that Skjoldur relished going down the trail mile after mile for its own sake the way Remington does. Instead, it seemed that Skjoldur did the amazing things he did simply because we asked him to. When he was young, he would get nervous and sometimes spook and throw me when I would ride him alone on conditioning rides. The more angry I would get, the more nervous he would get. So I composed a dumb little song about how I loved him from the minute I picked him out of the herd and how lucky I was to have him. I would sing this out loud to him while we trotted along. It forced me to calm down which, of course, allowed him to relax. This dumb little song has been going through my head all day even while I’ve been in court. I hope it never stops.