‘One of Those Important Reminders’ by Karen Dalke

As the campus community continues to mourn the loss of faculty member Karen Dalke following an accident, it may be her own written word that brings healing. This story was recently shared by her close campus colleagues, with permission from her husband, Dan.

One of Those Important Reminders
by Karen Dalke

“Why do animals have to die, mommy?” the little girl asked clutching her stuffed dog.  At first it seemed obvious: all things are born and all things must die.  That didn’t seem like the right answer as those big blue eyes beamed upward searching for enlightenment. Sure, birth and death are the facts, but what meaning can we glean from the loss of a close friend.

Twenty-two doesn’t seem old. I remember 1980. It was the year that Mt. St. Helen’s erupted after 123 years of dormancy, Ronald Reagan was elected president, the U.S. refused to participate in the Summer Olympics because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and John Lennon was assassinated. Those are facts, but whom we were with and what we were doing during those events determined their meaning.

Once a horse moves past the age of twenty, death doesn’t seem too far from possibility.  Advanced medical treatments and stories about advanced aged horses seem more frequent, yet in the grand scheme of things, most horses don’t reach their thirties and beyond.

At just two years of age, Lady raced eleven times, achieved a Register of Merit, and was retired from the sport by the end of 1982. After that she moved from owner to owner being used for barrels, trail rides, breeding, and lessons. To many, the ribbons and money that she earned made her useful.

I did not have the pleasure of knowing Lady when she was younger. In fact, I did not meet her until she was 18. She was my introduction to horses.  It all began when my husband came home one night and announced, “You know that black horse you liked? Well, I got you that one and another one and they are both pregnant!” To some, this may seem like a dream come true.  For me, there would be three weeks of crying and a litany of reasons why I could not have horses.

Lady wasn’t the black mare, but the other one. I could not foresee the impact she would have on my life. For the most part, she was a smooth ride and had impeccable ground manners. She was the first horse I loped comfortably on in an arena and on the trail. However, she was also the first to send me into the air. I remember seeing her ears between my legs as I headed toward the ground. I never thought much about the height of a horse, but that launch made me respect what 15.2 hands really meant.

That moment made me seek out professional training. Although it seemed reasonable at the time, I would find out, because of Lady’s “encouragement”, that squeezing one’s legs as hard as possible into her sides and pulling up on the reins had quite a different meaning to a trained horse than was intended. To an untrained rider, it meant, “Oh my God, stop!” If I could have crossed my legs beneath her stomach, I would have done it. When I finally landed, Lady gazed at me with annoyance and compassion as if to say, “You’re not a bad human, but you’re pretty clueless.”

She knew I was not a good rider, but it was like she forgot I was the one on her. Lady had lived in Oklahoma, Michigan, and Wisconsin. She had competed in racing, shows, trail rides, and been bred. This girl had been moved around and learned a lot about people. She knew the level of rider that was on her. She was reliable and gentle, but buried deep inside her was a passion to run.

The first spring that I had Lady, I marveled at how a horse her age would run and buck as if to greet the New Year. She seemed happy when she was moving fast. Whenever she would see a wide-open space she would blow with excitement. Sometimes those situations would present themselves while I was on her. To the advanced rider, that would probably be fun. To me, it was a combination: fear of falling, opportunity to use the information from my training lessons, and exhilaration.

Through all of her journeys, work, and challenges, Lady held on to something she loved: the ability to run. When she could no longer do this and passed on, I cried and asked the same question from many years ago: “Why do animals have to die?” I realized we couldn’t appreciate life without it. I will always remember her as the horse that taught me to ride, challenged me to get better, and encouraged me to seek out that one thing inside of me to hold on to when everything is out of control. As I kissed her goodbye, I told her I loved her and I thanked her for bringing meaning into my life. It was a gift I never expected.

A private memorial celebration will take place to honor Karen. In addition, her family wishes to honor her with internship funding for a UW-Green Bay student. Learn more.

Online condolences may be expressed to Karen’s family at www.muehlboettcher.com