One Last Ride

A girl finds peace after saying goodbye to her best friend.

He wasn’t supposed to compete. He wasn’t even supposed to live.

Principle N Style was born with a deformed knee. Shortly after surgery, he was kicked, and the knee never healed correctly. The veterinarians told the owners to put the horse down, but Kathryn Dunham had other ideas for her colt.

“Everybody always said he shouldn’t do this and he shouldn’t do that,” said trainer Shane Young. “The only one they didn’t tell that to was the horse. His knee never got in the way of his attitude or his desire to want to come out and do his job. He never quit trying.”

Kathryn took “Country” to numerous championships and placings in western pleasure at the major circuit shows, as well as the All American Quarter Horse Congress and AQHYA World Championship Show.

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But after the 2007 Congress, Country had given all he had left to give. His knee had finally given out. Kathryn and Country’s Congress reserve championship in 15-18 western pleasure would be the duo’s final competition.

“It was really hard to deal with because we’d gone from being No. 1 to bottom of the barrel, and there was no end in sight to his lameness,” Kathryn said.

Country retired to his pasture in Summerfield, North Carolina, and Kathryn forced herself to start over with a new horse, “Waylon.” But there was just no spark.

“She had lost the source of direction she had always found with Country and was trying to move on to a new project,” Shane said. “It was something unfamiliar, and she wasn’t quite sure how to adjust to the starting-over process.”

Then Kathryn’s world came crashing down around her.

In April 2008, just six months after starting over, Waylon died. Memories of her father’s unexpected death in 2002, her mother’s battle with breast cancer and her loss of Country as a show partner flooded Kathryn’s consciousness.

“After Waylon died, people say that for a few months, I ‘disappeared,’” Kathryn said. “I quit talking to people; I pretty much became a recluse because it was so difficult to deal with. It was a really strange feeling to be so uncertain about the future. I didn’t want to come home from college this spring. Not at all. I didn’t want to show horses anymore.”

But her mother convinced Kathryn to come home to North Carolina for the summer. The first day home, Kathryn went out to the barn to say hello to Country.

“I brushed him off and felt a twinge of belongingness beginning to set back in. So I saddled him up, got out a snaffle, walked him down to the riding pen and got on. This overwhelming sense of peace enveloped me – looking down a familiar neck at familiar ears with a familiar feel in my hands – and I started to cry. I was home.”

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Shane watched as Country helped Kathryn find herself again.

“The old adage, ‘The best thing for the inside of a person is the outside of a horse,’ if that was ever a true statement, it was about that horse for that girl. Country was always where she found her balance and her focus. No matter how bad things got in her life, she could always come back to him, and he was there, waiting unconditionally.”

Kathryn spent one week with Country, enjoying his company and finding a quiet serenity in the process.

Then, May 30, 2008, Country died peacefully in his sleep. The gelding was 9 years old.

“Shane remarked that Country did what no human words could do – he saved me,” Kathryn said. “It was like he was saying ‘OK, guys, I fixed her. I got my girl back. The rest is up to you.’

“Country taught me that it’s not enough to just wake up every day. You have to wake up and give every moment of every day all you’ve got. He had the biggest heart of any horse I’ve ever known and gave me all he had to give.”

Kathryn knew things would be all right, and it was OK to move on. She is now training a 2-year-old filly that, she said, reminds her uncannily of Country.