A Girl’s Guide to Dead Horses in Vermont

Genevieve Plunkett on Friendship, Tourism, and Equine Grief

It was a warm evening in early summer, and the end of my junior year in college, when I handed my friend Audrey a silver, full-face motorcycle helmet and told her to “go with the turns.” Audrey fit nicely onto the back of my scooter, a vehicle that had recently replaced my rusted-out Jeep Wrangler, and that had, due to its bigger engine size, required me to get a much-desired motorcycle endorsement on my driver’s license. Having grown used to the drafty canvas top of the Jeep, I was claustrophobic about cars that sealed up tight, and all I wanted was to zoom around the back roads with my helmet visor up, smelling the lilacs, the cow manure, the backyard brush fires, and the hayfields. I wanted to share all of this with Audrey, who grew up in Nashville, and had spent the last three years attending Bennington College with me. This meant that she was familiar with the area, but I wanted her to know what the real Vermont was like, where the campus ended, and the potholes began.

That year, I was working at a horse farm, as a barn manager and a trail guide, leading parties up the mountain on a tall and gawky horse named Blue. Blue was only four years old and seemed as though he had not yet settled on what type of phobic he wanted to be. One day, he would shy at a parked tractor, only to discover later that it was the inertia of cows standing in a field that filled him with dread. I was eager for Audrey to meet Blue, and the rest of the horses, but overall, I just wanted her to see the sun set over the paddocks. In the evenings, the horses did this stunt where they thundered down from the hills and trotted into their name-plated stalls, all on their own. I knew that she would be impressed. I wanted so badly to give her something unique, something to remember after she left Bennington.

*

I was born in Bennington, Vermont, a place that I cannot call large or small without upsetting some larger or smaller New England town, so all I will say is this: we are big enough to have a Walmart. Even before friends like Audrey, I was welcoming newcomers, or people passing through, on their way to a downhill skiing destination that exists in my imagination as a kind of glittery hobbit village on a mountain, because I have never been downhill skiing in my life. So often, these svelte, rosy-cheeked travelers would come into the coffee shop where I worked, slap their palms incredulously on the countertop, and demand to know what there was to do in the area (besides skiing, of course) and I would assume that they did not mean to ask me what I did there—which included the occasional 7 o’clock movie, or sober bowling night, or long hours playing guitar in my room, curled against the radiator until it burned red stripes into my back.

So, I always suggested that they “go for a walk and look at the old mill neighborhoods. Check out the graveyards.” I sensed that these worldly people were looking for something special and obscure, something that they could get nowhere else, and, the way I saw it, no one appreciated those old places anymore. I have no idea if anyone ever took my advice, or if their question implied anything at all. Maybe they just wanted a map to Saratoga Springs, one hour away, as a kind of exoneration. As if to say, you don’t actually have to stay here. At the time, I was not yet leading trail rides on Blue, avoiding dormant tractors and sleeping cows. Otherwise, I might have offered them that option as well.

I was born in Bennington, Vermont, a place that I cannot call large or small without upsetting some larger or smaller New England town, so all I will say is this: we are big enough to have a Walmart.

I believe what struck me as so tragic about that afternoon with Audrey, was not what happened, but what I felt that I had been cheated of: a chance to finally give someone a worthy experience in my hometown. We wove up the back roads on my scooter, Audrey holding onto my waist and leaning expertly into the turns, like she had been riding on the backs of scooters all her life. The air was a heady mix of fresh and fermented agricultural odors, and, in the corners of our helmet-obscured vision, the silhouettes of barn swallows laced up the sky. Everything was going perfectly, until we slowed into the driveway of the horse stable. I stopped, engine still running, holding us steady with one foot. In the spot by the wooden hitching post, where I would normally place large, stair-like mounting blocks to help my riders climb into the saddle, there was now a tarp spread over the ground. The tarp must have been an emotional decision because it concealed nothing of consequence: all the most vivid signs of death protruded past the edges. We saw the four hooves first, heavy and unnaturally straight, and then the tongue, hanging thickly from the mouth, like a pink salve squeezed from a tube. It was clear that one of the horses had died, and we were not the first to find it.

“I have been trying to call you!” A small figure with feathered yellow hair came toward us from the darkness of the barn’s exterior. It was the senior barn manager, Nancy, a fierce woman who had developed borderline neurotic standards from working at a racetrack: stalls were to be combed with a fine-toothed pitchfork, hay bales sniffed for traces of mold, and water buckets scrubbed daily, even if it meant picking away the last bit of grime with your fingernails. Audrey and I pulled off our helmets. I checked my flip phone to find that, indeed, it was blinking with unanswered calls.

The dead horse, Charger, was as old as any old horse in recorded history. His owners had lost count of his exact age around thirty, which in human years, amounts to something like ninety. The death was not a tragedy, but I certainly did not want him to be dead at that moment, in front of my friend. Audrey was upset—and not naively, as if the sight shocked her beyond composure—but in a real, heartbroken way. We took in the scene, not certain what we were supposed to do, or how we could help, while Nancy busied herself around us. Nancy was always moving, always talking to the animals or to herself, and often followed by an entourage of small, wiry, rescue dogs. She would save anything that needed saving, would pluck half-drowned rats from the water troughs by their tails, and stay up all night syringe feeding baby birds.

Occasionally, Nancy also led trail rides, but she did not enjoy the role, like I did; it was not her duty to acclimate people to foreign territory, to tend to their egos, and transform their ignorance into confidence. In her eyes, there must have been too many runts to nurse back to health, too many barn cats, and neglected creatures to fight for. I admired this about her and found that I could only hold myself tentatively in her good graces by working harder than I had ever worked before. Nancy was easy to be around, because I knew what she wanted from me, which was not some complicated and personal strain of friendship, but whatever it took to get the job done.

*

I have always been perplexed by adult friendship, for one, because I have a habit of taking it too literally. As with the skiers marching into my coffee shop, searching me for answers, I make the mistake of assuming that my friends want something specific from me, and that I must deliver it, or fail. Perhaps I have taken myself too literally as well, demanding of myself that I say the perfect non-cliché to a grieving friend, or that I broadcast such uniqueness that people want to say, “wow, I’ll never get this anywhere else!” As if my only value lies in what sets me apart, and not what makes me the same.

I have always been perplexed by adult friendship, for one, because I have a habit of taking it too literally.

And the drama at the horse farm was not finished. Charger, our freshly dead horse, had a pasture mate—a small brown pony named Penny—that was still living, and Nancy, whose very existence seemed to be built around putting the animal kingdom to rights, knew that the pasture mate would need closure. I was torn: my loyalty to Nancy meant that I could not leave, but I also did not want Audrey to have to watch what was about to unfold. I remember standing there, unable to act, or say anything other than a weak and frantic string of apologies: to Audrey, for leading her there; to Nancy, for not getting her calls; maybe even to Charger, whose brutish personality had frightened me when he was alive. I wondered: could I have been gentler with him? I remembered how I used to rub sunscreen absentmindedly onto his pink muzzle, then give his halter a sharp tug to warn him against trampling my feet—a habit which, I assume, was the inspiration for his name.

Now that the tarp was flung aside, I found myself looking at a completely different version of him; pale, impotent, and not any more gruesome or shocking than he had been seconds ago—only that there was more dead horse to look at, and more guilt, on my part, for an event that was beyond my control, but still felt to me like a burden that I had created.

Nancy walked briskly and bow-legged down the hill, leading Penny by a rope. She made the rope long, putting space between her and the pony, who still did not know what lay at the bottom. When they reached Charger’s body, I thought for a moment that Penny would not react. She dipped her head, as if she were being led to some unfamiliar obstacle. I expected that whatever form of grief this animal was going to experience, would occur in the deep and mysterious recesses of her animal soul. Maybe it would be digested in the same spiritual stomach as absolute acceptance and forgiveness, and we, crude humans that we were, would not even see a glimmer of it pass through her. But then her head came rearing up and I understood why Nancy had given her so much slack on the rope. Penny screamed. She screamed at the sight of her dead companion, and came up on her back legs, leaping away from it. Here was a pony who had stepped on and bitten me, who had dumped me and my riders more than once on our backs on the trail. It was easy to grow complacent around these animals, to begin to define them by the routines and bad habits that they were associated with. Until, of course, these rare moments occurred, and revealed their hearts with startling clarity.

When Penny had recovered herself, Nancy brought her past the body and into the barn, where a helping of grain was waiting for her in her stall. I do not remember what was said between the three of us, only that Audrey assured me that she was fine, and that I probably pestered her too much about it, expecting, in my literal way, that we were capable of apologizing the event out of existence. It ate at me, as I drove Audrey back to campus, and for some time afterward, that I had not given her what I had promised.

*

When my Jeep died (or really, when the rusted holes beneath the gas pedal became so large, I feared I might fall through), I wanted to replace it with a vehicle that was just as free-spirited, and, admittedly, something that would perpetuate the same statement. This statement was that I was not afraid to take risks, get mud-spattered, or drive over a mountain on a washed-out road. That I was someone who, despite her small-town upbringing, had something impressive to offer. I suppose that I was sick of tourists coming through the coffee shop, sneering at me over their sunglasses, asking me—as if it were my fault—why none of the shops were open past five, why they could not get a cellphone signal, and why nothing in the pastry case was low-carb. Had I never heard of Splenda?

I have had people lean over the espresso machine, breathing in my face to make sure that I prepared their drink properly, others who have quizzed me on my coffee bean knowledge, hoping to catch me off guard, just so that they could correct me in front of their friends. These were the same people who wanted me to tell them what to do, how to have fun in a place that, by their standards, had not caught up to the rest of the world. And the truth is this: I wanted to help them. While many of my high school friends had already moved away, I was still hanging on, trying to convince people to go find an old grave, because sometimes they have strangely sedate, folkloric angels carved into the stone.

And then, a few years later, when I was giving a trail ride to a nice young couple from New Jersey, the inevitable happened: the dead tractor, nestled quietly in the corner of the hayfield, became too much for Blue. When he saw it, he swerved, and bucked, and took off running so fast, that I had to roll out of the saddle, fearing that my weight would make him lose his footing and tumble. The New Jersey couple caught up to me on their horses, and we watched Blue gallop away, back to the barn, which was a good two miles from where we were. Still, I was determined to give my customers what they had paid for, so I continued to lead the trail ride on foot, with as much cheer as I could muster. I smiled, and pointed to landmarks, while my ears rang and, in the back of my mouth, my molars were packed with dust. Later, I would find that the fall had left an alarming amount of dirt in between my toes, under my helmet, and in my underwear.

Somewhere along the way, I must have confused friendship with tourism, assuming that I was excelling at the former, by providing the latter.

I was a dedicated tour guide, but I may have taken it too far. During this time, in lieu of partying, I was inviting college classmates—like Audrey—on Jeep rides, then scooter rides, and trying to persuade many (including, regretfully, some of my professors) to let me put them on a horse. Being on campus made me feel awkward and out of my element, so it seemed natural to move into more familiar territory. The only problem was that somewhere along the way, I must have confused friendship with tourism, assuming that I was excelling at the former, by providing the latter.

After graduation, Audrey moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in screenwriting, while I, newly married, stayed in Bennington to start a family. We lost touch, and the memory of the dead horse faded into the background, resurrected only occasionally by my father who had heard about it, and who liked to shake his head and wonder aloud: “What could that girl have thought?” The subtext of this question being: If only we could know how our life appears to others. What a hoot it would be. My father was always my best audience when it came to weary coffee shop anecdotes, or stories of bizarre encounters with tourists on the trail—like the woman who tried to climb into the saddle wearing five-inch heels, or the family who cheered and whipped out their disposable cameras when their Auntie slid off a pony onto her back. My father has always been good at facing these situations with curiosity, instead of judgement; amazement, instead of cynicism.

In 2020, Audrey and I reconnected by phone. I could have called her any time during the last ten years, but it took the Covid-19 pandemic and the new social standards that it brought, to finally break through my wall of excuses. Suddenly, phone calls no longer felt like lengthy and intimidating trials. Emails could be satisfying—even ungrammatical—and brief. The pandemic had changed my psychology around these once dreaded modes of communication, by showing me that they could be relentlessly friendly and casual. And it was in an email, just this year, that Audrey used the words “surreal” and “magnificent” to describe her memory of our visit to the horse farm. I love these words. They expand my own version of that day and help me to see how it might have served another, more complex—maybe mystical—purpose beyond what I could have predicted. I love finally knowing how the memory has lived in her mind all these years, like a pearl that has been forming, and can now be reeled in, and marveled at.

_________________________________________________

Genevieve Plunkett’s Prepare Her is available now via Catapult. 

Genevieve Plunkett
Genevieve Plunkett
Genevieve Plunkett’s stories have appeared in the New England Review, Willow Springs, and Mud Season Review.





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