Dakota Darya – Death in the Family

The center of our little compound is the horses. There are a hundred rabbits, 7 cats, a couple of dogs – but the horses are the largest mammals about, and they require someone to be there every day, and a lot of care and feeding. They give and take a lot of love; they’re all heart.

The call came through about noon. Misty and I were in town shopping for Christmas as the latest snow fell around us. Tammy was on the phone, “Are you driving?” “No.” “Donna just called, hysterical, Dakota is dead.” Misty and I flew back to the car and took off home. As we pulled into the drive, we saw everyone on hand – Annie and John and Donna and George and Tammy, all standing in that hunched and forward way that earnest people assume in the wake of a tragedy about which they can do nothing – gathered around a large mound of brown in the sea of white that is Maine this Christmas. Dakota, fallen.

Fallen in a decisive way – he went right over sideways into the fence and took one of the paddock’s posts with him. Donna thought he had impaled himself on it, but it is not even broken under him, no blood, no injury. In fact, all signs were that he just keeled over standing, making a snow angel impression of a horse. There are no signs of a struggle, not from his legs, not from his head. Baffled and crazed, I picked up his head – rigor had not set in yet – and his neck movement felt normal. There were no signs of excess salivation or foaming at the mouth, nothing in his throat. His ears were up, his eye open and clear, his stomach still gurgling and beginning to bulge – but he is gone, solid gone, no trace of him anywhere around. He had defecated after he had fallen, but that seemed normal enough. Neither his poop or his mouth smelled strange.


And yet Donna, Annie and John had seen the three of them cavorting around the paddock and pasture, tossing their heads, kicking up snow and really racing, spirited enough to call all three to the window to look. Literally minutes later, Donna went across to give them some hay; there was Dakota and the broken fence and the hell of an afternoon began.

First the three of them, then George and Tammy came up from the office, then me and Misty.

Quan came home shortly after, direct from a deep osteopathic treatment – she’s been poorly, and now this. I sprint to the truck as she turns in to break the news so she can take it in slowly, and after the first wave of shock she lies with her head on Dakota’s, but as with the rest of us it is no use – as alive as he looks, he is gone.


We’ve been having some trouble over a horse with a neighbor (long story) and he had made an indirect threat against our horses a couple of months ago, and then this week she dreamed about him in war paint, so Quan’s natural and immediate tendency in her initial keening is to think of poisoning. But there were no signs of it. Dakota was 19 or 20, had goodly years left. Donna said he coughed sometimes after a good workout, perhaps a sign of underlying heart trouble, but nothing definite. The manner of his death suggests a heart attack or stroke, not poisoning.

Camelot and Celebrity each take it differently. Cammie keeps coming over and nudging Dakota and biting his side, as if to say, “Joke’s over. Git on up, now.” Celebrity turns his rear end to Dakota, clearly upset. After a few minutes, Celebrity goes down on his knees and then to his side and starts to loll and roll. My God, it’s like 9/11, we now have a second horse going down. The call goes out to Wendy at the hospital, and she is out of the OR in minutes and here with her precious CB.


Wendy, who spends half her time in Hawaii for her husband and her play, and half her time here in frozen Maine for her work and her horse, is alternately professionally stoic and brimming with tears. CB (Celebrity’s nickname) is back in the stall, head down, eyes at half-mast, clearly out of it, circling the stall like a dog circling for a nap, and then backing into the wall and tucking his pelvis under, lifting his leg to ease his belly pain. Poisoning comes back to the fore in our thinking.

Wendy talks to animals, and CB keeps telling her, “I killed Dakota.” CB had a little blood coming out of his nose, and there was a little blood – a few drops – on the snow just in front of where Dakota’s head would have been just before he fell sideways – but there is no blood coming from Dakota, not his mouth, not anywhere. What credence I can give to Wendy’s animal conversation I put in the category of child psychology: horses are 3-year-olds, and most 3-year-olds think that anything that happens – a fight, a divorce, a death – is their fault, they caused it somehow. So if CB feels guilty, it is probably just the egocentrism of a child. We do consider whether the two of them could have butted heads hard enough in their cavorting to kill Dakota, but who has ever heard of such a thing? And the corner of the paddock fence where he died would have been a hard place to get much momentum going.


The rest of the afternoon is a melange of images – I’m not sure of the sequence – handing off phones, checking the grain for poison and the hay for mold, running to house for water, vet numbers, tea, warmth, back and forth between the dead and the living horse, between the stunned and the grimly determined people. Aside from the first few minutes of hysteria, and the moments of crisis with CB, there is just the heavy-headed tunnel vision of grief – do what’s next, what needs to be done. There is nothing we can do for Dakota, so we cover him with a tarp in the gloom, and all our attention goes to CB.

The kindly vet arrives after the early dark drops over us. The stethoscope to the flank, checking his lips, taking some blood from a vein as large as a garden hose – even I could do that one, I think. She decides he’s colicking, and proceeds to sedate him, and then feed a large surgical tube up his nose and down his throat as he’s standing there – 6′ or more of it, blowing in the other end as she feeds it in to open the esophagus before her. Once it is in his stomach, she pumps warm water and mineral oil down the tube, so grease the way. I try doing some gentle visceral on him, but his cecum, she says, is 6′ long, and the tie up could be there or in the small intestines.

He needs to stay upright, if he lies and rolls in his pain, he could twist his intestines further and die in extreme agony. Wendy sets herself up for a night in the barn- she’s a nurse, she’s used to pulling all-nighters. By now it’s about 10 degrees (-12 Celsius) and everyone is dog tired. We go out and take the tarp off Dakota and the vet examines him in the frozen, ‘Fargo’-like atmosphere of a couple of flashlights bouncing their light off the snow. She looks at his lips and gums, smells his poop, and attempts to get urine for a poison test to put Quan’s mind at rest, but we can’t get enough. It’s enough that he’s dead, I say, gathering her in.

Later, the vet calls back with CB’s blood test results – could be poison, could be ulcers, creatinine enzymes up, albumen down, something else – but in any case we are shoved back into uncertainty. Last to show up is Lea, horse whisperer and bodyworker, who checks CB out and says, “He thinks it’s his fault. It’s his stomach or liver that wonky.” Seems to fit with the tests, but we are still in uncertainty. She goes out to Dakota and pulls back the tarp and puts her hand on him for a minute, chuckles – I thought she was crying, but – and says, “It happened so fast, I don’t know what happened” she is quoting Dakota, “Something exploded in my chest, then I felt it draw in in my hind end, and then I was gone.”

Maybe yes, maybe no, but it’s devastation, a friend gone, can’t count on anything, never too early to say goodbye, life’s impermanence, and what to do with 1500 pounds of frozen horse flesh? Somebody’s called Toby, and he’ll be over tomorrow with his excavator. Wendy’s on a mattress in the barn watching over CB, Donna and Quan are emotional pulp, and all of us fall to our beds and what sleep may come.


My friend, our horse. Sort of – really he was Quan’s – she almost literally birthed him, as his mother Sonoita rejected him, and the vet had to knock her out so Quan could lift him to the teat, so that it was Quan’s smell and Quan’s face he bonded to as he took his first nourishment. Inseparable they were in the first days of our relationship – what a thrill it was to see the two of them flying down the beach, sand flying behind them, their movements so synchronized that they moved as one animal, one mind, one heart. He would come out of a herd at her whistle, head up and mane flying, ready to play. He even put up with me bouncing around on top of his awkward trot from time to time.


But after Quan’s closed-head brain injury, we had to get her a smoother-gaited horse, and Camelot the Tennessee Walker became Quan’s horse, and Dakota was ridden by Donna (more often) and I (occasionally). At her urging, I rode him for the last time just the other day – I guess I was the last one to ride him, throwing snow behind us as we galloped (believe me, I was trying to slow him to a trot, but he was full of oats) out to the point. After these many years, I don’t have the same strength or agility, but I’ve gained a little seat, and feel our centers move with each other – or at least know when they are not. Oh, I will miss him, chestnut brown, half quarter horse, half standard bred, probably the worst of each but we loved him dear and will miss him sore.


That was yesterday. Today we all woke up to the new reality of life without Dakota. I turfed out about 6:30 and went to the barn. The orange rising sun was bouncing off the crystalline snow – a perfect Maine winter day. I figured if the worst had happened and CB had died, I would have heard about it. Wendy had left at 6am, a note says: CB looking ok. I give him 1/2 cup of oats, and he eats, drinks, and farts with relish. Not wanting to awaken Quan, I tromp off through the woods, but the snow is too deep, so I end up by the water, taking the outboard off my dad’s scow, Marisco, and setting it upright for it’s long winter sleep, and then poling the boat over to the ways and trigging it. It’s a concentration job, taking my mind off it all, keeping my footing by the water with all the snow and ice.


Returning to the house, things start to happen fast. Quan goes to find the excavator, because the (other) vet who is to do the necropsy is coming soon. Toby’s brother Sean (Eileen’s new boyfriend – Maine is a small town) shows up with the excavator. He takes off through the fence to the crest of the field, where another horse, Duster, was buried years ago. I know that on that little ridge, at least, there is enough soil to bury a horse – the rest of this land being not far from sod to solid granite ledge. The backhoe is like an extension of his hand, and soon there is a 10′ x 10′ hole – only the top 6″ or so of topsoil is frozen, and he breaks through that easily.

Then he creeps the treads back through the snow to Dakota’s body. We scrabble around under the snow to find some space under him and pass a chain around his chest. This morning he looks really dead – legs splayed with bloat, the eyeball frozen opaque. Sean gently lifts the backhoe’s arm, and – Christ, it’s strong – the horse comes all the way up, as if in a sling, so the huge animal is carried in the air like a returning Achilles, not dragged over the ground like a vanquished Hector. Over the road – no traffic this Christmas Friday, though the whole operation does draw stares from the few passers-by – by the pond to his final resting place.

Sean lays him down by the hole, just in time for the vet. The vet wants him in the hole, so with as much care as if it was his own hand, Sean lays Dakota down on hs side in his grave. Me and young Sara, open face and blue eyes, a cover-all and rubber gloves up over her elbows, clamber down in with our equipment. Sean, John, Misty, and Donna watch from the rim above us; Wendy and Quan have opted out.

Sara starts with a mid-abdomen slice along the linea alba, layer by layer, ever so careful not to cut the intestines themselves open. There is a rush of foetid, farty air as the peritoneal cavity is breeched, and the cecum – 6′ long indeed and as big around as a gallon of paint – billows out onto the clay. But everything we find looks perfectly healthy in the small and large intestine – no twists, no necrosis, no discoloration, no sign of poisoning. The wind takes the smell away, and we are quite comfy – down in the hole, out of the wind, but with the smell Venturied away off the top.

We reflect the abdominal layers up toward the spine, and then use branch loppers to crunch and splinter horribly through the ribs just lateral to the spine. I don’t look up while I am doing this, knowing the sounds are as bad as the sights in these things, and remembering my first anatomy teacher and his sadistic delight in scaring the neophytes when he carved the chest of our first cadaver with a carpet knife, and ripped the ‘breastplate’ off with an unforgettable sound, sending students rushing for the lav and the sinks. Now we can see the lean, tuna-red horsemeat, including whatever passes for a trap or lat that the saddle rests on and I was pressing into with my knees not 4 days before.

The loppers and the scalpel alternate with a serrated knife because of all his winter fur, but finally we are able to reflect the whole side of ribs from scapula to hip so we can see the chest and abdominal cavity. The general cause of death is immediately visible – everything above the diaphragm is literally swimming in blood. I literally have to take a jar to bail liters and liters of still-warm (!) but coagulating blood from the chest cavity (Sara thinks they have 50 total, but she’s not sure), until we have emptied it enough to see and disconnect the spongy lungs at the hilum and expose the pericardium. The pool of blood I have emptied is literally around my feet, coating the bottom of the hole.

I know, it’s a friend, but he’s a carcass now, and Sara and I are well and truly into it, trading horse and human terminology back and forth as we play the CSI number of following the clues. The lungs are clean and clear. We bisect the aorta – smooth and open. We carefully detach and take out the heart – it’s as big as my head and looks very healthy. Nevertheless, here we find it: the pulmonary artery, just outside the right ventricle on its way to the heart, has given out – hemoraghic signs are all there. It could be just a genetic weakness, or – Sara’s theory – some pulmonary edema gave him that little cough Donna had reported, the pulmonary edema created pressure back against the artery, and then exercising hard on a cold morning gave extra push from the heart and boom – something exploded and, like those who end their own lives by opening a vein, he bled into his chest so fast that he simply went into euphoria and fell over dead. Lea was right.


I wouldn’t have done this to a friend, except for another closer friend to us both. Dakota is like her son; Quan deserves to know whether he died of natural causes or foul play, and so I must do what I can, even desecrate his body, to reassure her. And now we know:

Definitively, no poison – Sara doesn’t even take any tissue samples for toxicology tests. We have the confirmation of no ‘skulduggery’ as George calls it, and even better, knowing for sure that he did not suffer at all.

Sara and I, fingers frozen in nitril gloves, climb out of the hole, and way say goodbye as Sean pours the dirt back into the hole with his deft ‘hand’ – soon he is finished, the ground smooth, where we will put a memorial come spring.

It was a 24-hour cycle from death to another horse’s crisis to the burial. In fact, this story sticks with all three of the Greek unities – it all happens within 24 hours, all in one place, and no sub-plots – we were all totally focused on this unfolding for the entire time.

Sara checks CB, who is fine and recovered from his seemingly stress-induced colic, though both he and Camelot keep going over to where Dakota fell, and looking around for their friend. How does a horse do grief? How does a horse do closure?


I have been on a deep tear to finish my book and preparations for Asia, and now I am another day behind. But who cares? – what gets done will get done. Misty and I have an arms-around-each-other talk on the sofa, alternating tears. The Christmas-time edgy bickering is gone. Tonight Lea will come and preside over a ritual to send his spirit on its way. Tomorrow will come, as it always does, and we will go on. But no one knows for how long.


The ritual went well – drums and a fire, calling the directions, sending him on his way with whoops and sage – sure, we’re playing at Indian rituals, but we’re not pretending to be anything but white, and it helps seal the deal.

After the doing comes the being – realizing how scratched and cut up my hands are, how my shoulders ache Refinding my line and growing along it, taking the terrible stun and heaviness out of my body. And finally, doing done, the tears flow. We went to a party last night, but we could not stay – too raw, too easy to burst into tears, we were the only ones we could talk to.

Cammie is so sad this morning, we are all so sad. We cannot wish for a better death – stop dead in a second in the middle of playing with no pain. But for us, the living, it is too soon, too sudden, and the hole in the middle of our hearts – and literally in the middle of our compound, where the barn is, is tremendous.


Camelot and Celebrity have been lost for days. They are both despondent and don’t know what to do. “Dakota taught them how to play,” Quan says. And I realize it’s true – the other two were raised in stables where all they did was work, but Quan made sure Dakota’s first two years were in a herd, and free running, and besides she literally taught him how to play. So he taught them how to play. And now he’s gone they don’t know how to continue playing, but they know they miss it. So do we – a big spirit gone, a big hole in the farm’s spirit, though the community rose to meet the challenge, each in his own way.

Quan has called a prominent animal psychic, who says that CB did in fact inadvertently kill Dakota – striking him in the chest with his hoof or knee or head when they were cavorting, and setting the artery-break in motion. It may be. We know it wasn’t poison; we know it was sudden and relatively pain-free. We know it came too soon for any of us. We know Dakota was overweight – he had a slab of fat around his torso as we took him back, layer by layer. We know he had an odd cough when overworked – could be an indication of heart weakness. We know he was leaping, rearing, and cavorting in very cold air just before he died. That could have created back pressure on his pulmonary system.

Perhaps CB was right, and he really did strike Dakota in their play and break the artery – we will never know. Quan is ‘mad’ at CB, but temporarily – it was no more CB’s fault than it would be if someone died in an auto accident, so she will let it go in time. We all move on from death, and so we are moving on, but slowly, heavily.


Dakota Darya!

Gift to our little alien nation,

Your breath was sweet and white in this winter world

I held your still-steaming heart in my hand

It was as big as my head, and just as strong,

I will remember you prancing sideways,

Forever feel the tattoo of you galloping uphill

Leading the others, pleasing yourself.

If you can be stopped in your tracks,

So can we –

Watch out! Love while you can!


One Response to “Dakota Darya – Death in the Family”

  1. Trisha Martin Says:

    I just read about your loss and I offer my deepest sympathy to you and all those who knew and loved Dakota. It is so difficult to lose a close companion that gives you unconditional love. I just lost a young dog suddenly 2 days before Thanksgiving and I know how you feel. Horses are the most beautiful animals that God created and those of you who have the fortune of owning at least one are truly blessed.
    With my deepest sympathy,

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