A Horse Helped Her Heal From the Death of Her Son

Caring for the troubled ‘Handsome Harry’ taught her how to accept God’s comfort.

Posted in , Feb 25, 2021

Kathy Norton and Harry at her home in Hahira, Georgia. Sept. 2020.

The vet had made yet another emergency visit to our farm to treat my injured horse. “If he rips the stitches out again, there’s nothing I can do,” she said.

I put a hand on Harry, my beautiful Morgan horse. For most of my life, at a moment like this I would ask God to help Harry be patient, to help him understand we were trying to make him better. But I no longer believed that God was there for me. Not since he’d let my son die.

Hunter’s death happened so fast. One Saturday he confessed to his father that he was struggling with depression. We invited him to come home and stay with us. Made plans to take him to get the help he needed. But he never made it home. He took his own life the next day.

In the months that followed I didn’t know what to do. No human could make things better, and I found no relief in turning to my faith. All my life I’d trusted God’s word. But he had said he was there for me. I felt no evidence that was true.

Harry shook his head and stepped away from me. At least he’s not snapping at me, I thought. Harry’s fear sometimes made him aggressive. “He looks at me like I caused this pain,” I told the vet. “As far as he’s concerned, I’m the enemy.”

“The two of you were nearly strangers when Harry got hurt,” she reminded me, packing up her equipment to leave. “Give him time.”

Harry had injured himself just a few weeks after he came to live at our farm. My husband, Ernie, and a riding buddy had encouraged me to get a new horse to take my mind off my grief. My first impression of Handsome Harry, as his owner called him, wasn’t the best. When I tried to mount him, he jumped around so much I could barely get my foot in the stirrup. I got off him as soon as possible. When his owner offered to let me walk him back to the stable to untack him, I only agreed out of politeness.

But alone in the barn, brushing out his mane, something changed. Harry pressed his soft nose at me, sniffing me over and over. When he looked at me so closely with his big, kind eyes, something stirred in me. A feeling I hadn’t felt since Hunter’s death. I knew I had to have him.

“What happened to that horse who looked at me like that?” I asked Harry now. He refused to meet my eyes.

When Harry first came to our farm, I put him in a paddock by himself, away from the elderly pony and the lame mare that shared our barn. I hoped to introduce him to his new family slowly, one at a time, as soon as he’d gotten settled in his new surroundings.

Then came the storm. Thunder and lightning are common in southern Georgia in the summer, but this was one for the record books. At first light I went to check on the animals. Everyone was accounted for except Harry. His paddock was empty.

I spotted him in the distance, standing under some trees. From the way he hung his head I could tell immediately something wasn’t right, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw up close. Harry had run right through the paddock fence, tearing open his chest. I called the vet in tears. “He must have been terrified,” I said. “He tried to get to the other horses and tore himself open on a broken board. The wound’s so deep, I can see his muscles and tendons!”

The vet rushed over right away. Harry was in such pain he could barely walk, but we got him into a stall in the barn, where she stitched him up. “Keep him in here where he’s safe,” she said.

I was still shaky when I waved goodbye to her, but at least the worst was over. Or so I thought. In the weeks that followed, Harry ripped out his stitches not once, not twice, but three times. His wound got infected, and the antibiotics wreaked havoc on his digestive system. I mucked out his stall every day. Administered his medicine, fed him every meal, took him out by hand to graze. But despite it all, Harry lost weight from the stress. As a last resort the vet had left me a collar to fasten around Harry’s neck to keep him from biting at his stitches.

Looking at him now, I saw a horse who looked as if he might have been starving, he was so skinny. A horse barely recognizable from the Handsome Harry who’d looked at me with eyes full of kindness. Caring for an animal who seemed to hate me was exhausting, but Harry had only me to rely on. “If only you could understand that,” I said. “I’m right here. I’m trying to help you. If you would just trust me, I could help you heal.”

But Harry couldn’t understand. It seemed hopeless. I couldn’t help Harry any more than I could help my son, and I couldn’t face another loss. I imagined myself just collapsing here in the stall and never getting up. Ernie would have to drag me out when he got home from work. But I knew I needed to get my rest to keep going for Harry.

Back in the barn the next day, I went into Harry’s stall to give him fresh water—and stopped. Something’s different, I thought. Harry was still as skinny as ever. His stitches were still in place. Then I realized what it was. His eyes. For the first time in months, Harry was looking at me the way he had looked at me the first day we met. There was no anger or fear in his eyes. He had given up—not in resignation, but relief. I’m ready to trust you, Harry seemed to say. Because I don’t know what else to do. Harry finally understood.

I understood too. God was right here. He was trying to help me heal. If only I would let him. I looked back at Harry, saw peace in his eyes, finally.

I’m ready to trust you again, God, I thought. I don’t know what else to do either.

Harry no longer fought me when I gave him his medicine. Instead of reacting to me each morning with wide nostrils and a stiff body, Harry started greeting me with the horse version of a smile, as if he was happy to see me. Now that Harry was no longer resisting my efforts, he could focus on healing. There was hope.

The same was true for me. I stopped fighting God, stopped refusing to accept the comfort he offered. My wounds, like Harry’s, took time to heal. I still carry the scars. But I trust God’s word, and he is there for me.

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