Tala died on a Friday.
A month shy of 34 years old, the caramel-colored Arab mare with a fleck of white between her eyes looked up at her longtime owner, rider and friend, Bonnie Swiatek, whinnied weakly and struggled in vain to stand.
It was April 7. The wind was calm, and the sun was warm.
“She picked a good day to die,” Bonnie writes in memoriam.
Tala’s packmates — Sage, Rocket and Sky — knew she was dying for some time, Bonnie said.
But while the mares hung their heads and refused to eat, Bonnie wiped away her tears, straightened her back and took to the mountains to remember Tala as she truly was — an endurance horse.
Tala lived two lives. First, she was a cow pony at Connie Wilbur’s ranch east of Laramie, where she was born.
Tala put in 16 good years for Connie before meeting Bonnie, who bought her for endurance racing in 1998.
“I never expected her to win anything,” Bonnie recalled.
“But she was fearless — she would try anything and do anything.”
Considered past her prime by many, Tala surprised Bonnie with her youthful spirit and blind determination.
During the next 10 years, the duo logged 1,250 miles in limited-distance endurance races, which range from 25-35 miles. They won the Mountain Region Endurance Riders Partners Award, and twice Tala received the best condition award, which is granted to the horse determined by a veterinarian to be in the best physical condition after a race.
Tala competed in 48 endurance races, completing 45, and finished 27 races in the top 10 rankings.
“When she wanted to go on an endurance ride, she would come right up to me, stare me in the eyes and look out at that distant peak,” Bonnie said.
Because Tala’s dam, a foal’s mother, died the day she was born, Connie handfed her for two weeks before convincing another dam to raise her.
“She really imprinted on women because of her being handfed,” Bonnie said.
A small horse at 14-hands tall, Tala never raised her own foals, but she mothered several.
“She had no babies, but she was a mentor mare,” Bonnie said. “We’d be riding (in an endurance race) and she would barely tip her head — I did not tell her to do this — but she would barely tip her head to see where the new horses were. And if they were going too slow, she would slow down by herself and ease them up to the correct pace.”
While nurturing, Bonnie said Tala had no patience for “stupid horses” frequently pushing past animals much larger than herself if they froze in fear at the sight of a difficult climb.
Clad in a light-blue T-shirt tucked behind a large gold-and-silver “Fort Howes 55” belt buckle, Bonnie’s hand meandered over several awards she and Tala won throughout the years.
“She talked a lot,” Bonnie said. “She didn’t whinny like you would expect of any horse — she had a repertoire. She had language.”
Imitating Tala’s speech, Bonnie snorted, snooted and honked to illustrate the horse’s communicative range.
“And of course, I talked to her as well,” she said. “I talk to all the horses.”
After Tala’s death, Bonnie said the loss was hard on her other horses.
“They all got real quiet,” she said. “Sage just wasn’t eating like she normally does. One morning, I was picking up manure, and (Sage) followed me around like a dog, and I was crying, because I was finally realizing what I had lost. When I was done, (Sage) put her head on my shoulder and put her head against my head.”
After sharing a moment, Bonnie said the two parted ways feeling much better.
Tala was a cow pony, mentor mare and endurance racer, but Bonnie said she will always remember Tala as her best friend.
“She took as much care of me as I took care of her,” Bonnie said.