Mal Irish

March 3, 2011
November 27, 2009. That is the day that my old barn decided to put down my old horse. December 1, 2009, second lunch. That’s when I found out the news.
Let’s go back a little in time so you can get the whole picture. Irish, or Mal Irish, which is the name by which everyone on the racetrack knew him, raced for thirteen wonderful years and won over eight hundred thousand dollars. He retired at age fifteen and was bought by a woman named Tammy McPherson. Tammy spoiled him rotten and treated him the way he should be treated. Tammy had owned Irish for about two years, and then he lost her. On April 5, 2000, Tammy was on her way to the barn for a horse show for which she had to get ready. She never showed up.
Tammy ran into a tree near Randolph Ave, in Milton, MA. Three police cruisers arrived at the scene. Among the police officers was Steven Murphy, our barn cop. He called Jodi, the barn owner, to tell her what had happened. Everyone who knew Tammy was at a loss because she was one of the most skilled local horseback riders anyone’s seen, and more important she was a wonderful person. She left behind a husband, two daughters, one son, a whole life of friends, and one incredibly talented horse.
The McPherson family, who did not want anything to do with horses after the accident, couldn’t sell Irish because they would be selling a piece of themselves which they weren’t quite ready to say goodbye. Just because they didn’t sell Irish, though, doesn’t mean they visited. Tammy’s family paid the board and the vet bills. That was it.
In October 2005, I left Blazing Saddles in Randolph and started riding at Hillside Stables in Milton. I tried out all the different horses to see which one would be a good match to ride. I tried Jack, Sunny, Wonder, and PJ. Yes, they were all great horses, but they weren’t thoroughbreds; they weren’t for me. I was about to start riding PJ to see if we’d fit, when I saw Irish running around in the paddock playing with the other horses. I asked Jodi if he was for lease.
Jodi told me he hadn’t been ridden in years, except for a couple of sessions with random people at random times, but few wanted to ride him because he was an ex-racehorse and had a lot of energy, so he’d be hard to handle. But, she said that I could try him.
I tacked up, brought him to the ring and mounted. We walked to get started; then went faster to a trot and eventually faster to a canter. I had no idea what Jodi had been talking about. Irish was perfect. After a couple of weeks, we were attached. I was at the barn everyday, rain or shine, and stayed til’ around seven or eight at night. On weekends, I was there by seven in the morning and I’d help out with barn chores, and then, in the afternoon, I’d start my work with Irish. We’d work on things like lunging, jump formations, or sometimes I’d just hop on bareback and we’d walk around.
On days, when life was hard I could just go grab a bale of hay, put it in his stall, and lay down. He’d come silently and seemingly accept my pain while putting his head on mine or lying down with me.
One day in December Jodi told me that Tammy’s family was trying to find leasers to come and ride Irish. Right before my eyes, I saw my world crumbling down. The only thing that Jodi could do was give me Joe McPherson’s phone number. So later that day, I called him and explained that I was riding Irish and we were working daily with a routine. I asked him not to find someone else to ride him. I also asked if he was for sale.
Joe hesitated, then said, “I’m sorry, Shannon, but there’s nothing I can do.” and hung up.
I grabbed Irish’s tack box and groomed him for hours, talking to him the whole time. I truly think that he understood everything I was saying to him. A few days later, when I was riding in the ring on Irish, a man was watching from the loft. At first I thought he was some kind of a creep, but after awhile, I thought that maybe he was watching because he was interested in leasing Irish.
When we finished our workout, Irish and I headed back up to the barn to Irish’s stall so that I could un-tack and cool him down; the same man was standing at the stall and offered to help me brush him off.
As we were working silently side by side, I introduced myself. A few moments later he held out his hand and introduced himself, “Hello, my name is Joe McPherson. I talked to Jodi earlier in the week and she told me to stop by and see you ride. She told me that she sees the same enthusiasm, sprit, patience and persistence as my wife had. I would like to take you up on your offer to buy my horse on two conditions. Condition number one, I will continue to pay his board and vet bills, but you have full overseeing rights. Condition number two, if you need anything, please call me.” And with that he shook my hand told me he’d see me around and walked away.
When he was out of sight I gave Irish the biggest hug ever. I was so happy that Joe knew that Irish was getting the attention the he needed and more. Later that week, Joe signed off on the papers that said that Mal Irish belonged to me. He shook my hand, looked me in the eyes and wished me luck. Irish became my world.
But in the winter of 2008 going into 2009, I started getting into a lot of trouble in school and with the police and I began hanging around with the wrong crowd as well as drinking and smoking. Because of these changes, I felt that I was no longer the same person I was years before and that I was being unfair to Irish. So I called Joe, signed custody back over to him, and walked out of their lives. I felt that if I walked away with no strings, I would feel better and it would be better for everyone else, just because I was spiraling out of control didn’t mean I had to bring down everyone around me. There is not one bone in my body that doesn’t regret this decision and there is not one day that goes by where I don’t feel guilty for leaving without saying goodbye.
The promise I left with Jodi and Joe was that if anything was to ever happen to Irish, they would call me. But that promise was broken, because on that December 1, I heard that something happened to Irish. My friends were not sure if it was that he was sick, but they did hear that he was suffering and thought they overheard that he passed away. Right there in school, at second lunch, my heart dropped.
When I got home from work that night, I called Jodi. No answer. I called Joe. No answer. I called Janine, a good friend from the barn, and she answered. Irish had died four days ago, of pneumonia he got from aspiration. Everything that could have been done had been done. Everything except call me.
I guess this was payback for my previously breaking my promise. I learned that he had been sick a month prior to his death. I felt awful that I hadn’t been there to help him through it. I felt even worse that I was not able to say goodbye. Not only did I lose my best friend, but I lost someone who was there for me whenever I needed him. Never again would Irish sit come and sit with me without question when I was down and give me peace of mind. A piece of my heart died with him, a piece that I will never get back, no matter how I try to fill the void. The only thing that is certain is that Irish is gone and no matter what I say or do, he is never coming back.
Whenever I go to the track to ride, people ask “How’s Irish doing?” and when I answer, their faces drop with remorse and they say that they’re sorry. It hurts every time, because it’s inevitable. It’s like a sad song on your iPod that you don’t want to hear but can’t turn off. It hurts and the process happens over and over again and, yeah, it gets easier in time, but it is going to take years to fix.
Sometimes, I think maybe if I didn’t go, he wouldn’t have become sick, he would’ve stayed strong and wouldn’t have died at age twenty four. It’s kind of ironic if you think about it. He raced for thirteen years and he didn’t get a single injury. But once off the track, his life lost its luster and he died early, aged by aspiration. It’s supposed to be the other way around: have a hard life on the track and a luxurious life in retirement. But Irish died alone.
All I know is that the world lost a precious presence that day. No one gets why I take his death so hard. Try and think of it as if your best friend or someone really close to you passed away. That’s how I feel.
Every time when I’m feeling down, Irish comes to mind. I once let Irish down and now that he’s looking over me, I owe it to him to show that he taught me a lesson. Maybe a part of loving is learning to let go. I loved him with all of my heart, but living in the past will not change the past. Moving on and keeping Irish’s legacy alive will last a lifetime.

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