Two Lives Long Harnessed Together, Until One Could Not Go On
WINDSOR, Conn. — Bridget Eukers paused in the barn, her thoughts seemingly far away, and touched her horse’s halter like an amulet. On the floor just outside his empty stall lay a scattering of yellow chrysanthemums left by a sympathetic friend.
Eukers explained she hadn’t often used the halter on the horse. She and Rush had an understanding.
“I would only really put it on to exercise him because we could go in and out of the barn without it,” she said, her fingers lingering on a strap. “I would just put my hand on his mane and we’d walk in and out.”
It had been just over a week since Rush had died on the concrete floor a few feet from where she stood. Eukers was still grieving, but also celebrating Rush’s extraordinary legacy. He was 39 years and 188 days old when he died, making him perhaps the longest-lived thoroughbred ever in the United States.
The record is hard to pin down. The Jockey Club, the industry’s breed registry, does not keep longevity statistics, so people in horse racing go by word of mouth. The horse thought to be the previous American record-holder was 38 years and 203 days old when he died in 2016, according to the racing publication BloodHorse, which first reported Rush’s death. An Australian thoroughbred lived to be 42, according to Guinness World Records. A typical thoroughbred lives into its late 20s.
To keep Rush active in old age, Eukers had him step over poles. “It’s more of a challenge than you might think for a horse,” she said.Credit…Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times
Whatever Rush’s rank among senior horses, his death marked the end of a 30-year partnership — Eukers’s word — with horse and owner showing a level of dedication to each other that would be extraordinary for any two beings, equine or human.
“He would fight for me and I would fight for him,” Eukers said. “Whether it’s your relationship with your horse, with your friends, or with your life partner, that’s what it comes down to. You’ll fight for me and I’ll fight for you.”
They forged their relationship competing in equestrian events. Six days a week for six years, separated only by a saddle, they honed their skills, moving fluidly together and soaring over obstacles, three feet high at first and then three and a half. For Eukers, being with her horse became a way of life.
She attended college close to home so she could stay near Rush, turned down jobs that would have cut into her time with him, didn’t socialize much and never went on vacation. The longest she ever spent away from Rush was one week, for a school trip.
In return, he gave her joy by carrying her on his back — around show rings and across Windsor’s quilt of farmlands, often at a thundering pace fit for a racetrack. “It really is a special thrill to feel a racing thoroughbred at full speed underneath you. It’s just magic,” she said.
Beyond that, he gave her a purpose, and a measure of peace. The simple routines of feeding Rush, cleaning his stall and giving him medicine made her feel useful and freed her mind. He was a job she loved doing. “It’s one of those Zen things,” Eukers said. “You have that rhythm, and it somehow centers your life.”
Through all of life’s challenges — angst about the prom, hard days at work, dates that didn’t happen, her father’s death — Rush was there for her. Eukers said she occasionally wept into his neck. He actually didn’t love that.
“He would sit and listen,” she said, “but he would get to a certain point that was like, ‘OK Mom, you cried. We’re good. I’m going to go have my hay now.’”
The horse who became known as Rush was foaled in Kentucky on May 4, 1983. He was sold as a yearling for $60,000 ($170,000 today) and registered as Dead Solid Perfect. He ran 16 times and won once, in 1986 at the Meadowlands, according to the horse racing statistics site Equibase, with the Hall of Fame jockey Julie Krone up. After his racing career, he was sold to a new owner and trained in dressage.
Eukers’s parents bought the horse for her when she was in her early teens. Already named Rush, he was a beautiful athlete, Eukers said, with massive shoulders that swayed like a lion’s when he walked. He was also a scaredy cat, unnerved at different times by flowers, squirrels and a mosquito lamp.
“His mission in life at that point was to worry about things and he was really good at it,” Eukers said.
They grew to understand each other. She fed and groomed him and protected him from everyday objects. And when she asked him to clear a fence, he did, even though he was afraid.
“If I asked him to try, he would always try, and he would try and try,” she said. She still keeps the ribbons they won in riding competitions.
Eukers believes Rush’s diet contributed to his longevity. At 30, he indicated that he wanted a change from commercial horse feed (“He started to tell me, ‘You know what? This just doesn’t work’”). She began giving him organic meals of alfalfa pellets and whole grains. When the grains were too hard for Rush to chew, she turned them to mush in a slow cooker.
Last week, she still had two bags of bright green hay in the back of her car. It was made for guinea pigs, but Rush liked it.
Eukers stopped riding Rush when he was 35. He was still able to carry her, she said, but she now had a different priority: Her father had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Caring for Rush had to be balanced with researching treatments for her dad and just being with him. When her father died in 2019, she said, Rush was no longer fit to be ridden.
The once-brown horse was now mostly gray. He spent his days at Windsor Hunt Stables under an apple tree, communing with dogs named Wilson and Lola, red-winged blackbirds, wrens, a yellow barn cat and a quarter horse called Cowboy, who stole his hay.
Day after day, Eukers walked Rush up and down the little hill next to the barn, steering him away from the gravel path because the stones hurt his feet. She massaged him with essential oils while he napped. She tied a rope to him and had him trot in a circle around her. She experimented with all kinds of dietary supplements, and Dr. Michael Stewart, Rush’s veterinarian for more than 20 years, gave him steroids to keep him strong.
People would ask Eukers how old Rush was, and when she told them, they would follow up with what she considered an indelicate question: “How long do horses live?”
Last summer, Rush somehow hit his head when he was alone. Eukers could tell by the swelling and his behavior. It took him a long time to recover. He also suffered from an abscess on his left front hoof and persistent breathing difficulties. Amid it all, Cowboy, his companion of 14 years, died at 26, leaving Rush bereft.
About that time, Eukers, who worked in administration for an aerospace company, began receiving frequent texts at work alerting her that Rush was lying down, and she’d have to hurry to help him.
It is fine for horses to lie down, Dr. Stewart said in an interview, but because of the way their digestive systems work, they must get up to survive. Eukers always managed to get Rush back on his feet, often with help, but as time passed she felt less and less comfortable leaving him alone. She began to spend nights in the barn, placing a chair outside Rush’s stall and wrapping herself in horse blankets as she listened to his breathing.
“You and I would be lucky to have somebody care for us like she cared for him,” Dr. Stewart said.
On the night of Nov. 7, Eukers stayed with Rush until late, then went home to get a couple of hours’ sleep in her bed. When she returned at 5:30 a.m., Rush was down, spilling out of his stall onto the cold barn floor. Eukers called her mother, then Dr. Stewart. For hours they worked to get him up, but the cramped space and the slope of the floor worked against them.
In recent years, Eukers said, people often told her that animals can sense when they are dying. He’ll tell you when it’s time, they would say to her. But Rush didn’t do that, she said. Even after she rubbed his forehead and told him, “You’ve done enough, you don’t have to try anymore,” he kept struggling to lift his head and scrabbling to get his feet under him.
Finally, Eukers asked Dr. Stewart if he thought this was the end, and when he said yes, she made her decision. She had fought for Rush as long as she could. She knew that even if they got him up, they would be back here again soon, and Rush would be suffering, and he would try for her again.