Memorial held for beloved local horse

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – In a grassy meadow engulfed by fir-studded hills and a cloud-puffed sky, a small crowd of women and children gather around an ancient, gnarled pine. Wind chimes hanging from a low branch ring intermittently as individuals step forward to say a few words and place foil-wrapped bouquets around an enlarged photograph at the base of the tree.

Elizabeth Collins, a freckled Big Sky 8 year old with an obvious flare for the dramatic, moves to the front of the semicircle. “He was so special,” she said. “He had this personality I can’t even describe. He was funny, sweet, kind … he took my breath away.”

Collins’ sentiments were echoed by many who were deeply touched by the recently departed, and one might be surprised to learn the dearly beloved was a horse named Chevy, a glossy chestnut-brown gelding with a distinctive white blaze who was transformed by—and in turn transformed—the many children who learned to ride upon him.

At a memorial service on June 3, Big Sky local Andrea Eastman recalled the life of Chevy, a beloved horse that impacted the Big Sky community in many ways.

At a memorial service on June 3, Big Sky local Andrea Eastman recalled the life of Chevy, a beloved horse that impacted the Big Sky community in many ways.

“Isn’t it amazing how a horse touched so many lives?” said Andrea Eastman, Chevy’s owner and host of his memorial. “Look at all this love, all these people Chevy touched.”

A former Hollywood agent and longtime horse advocate undeterred by childhood allergies or a broken back, Eastman acquired—she would say rescued—Chevy 16 years ago. A Mantle Ranch horse leased out to ranches for seasonal work and recreation, Eastman rode him for two summers on Triple Creek Ranch before purchasing him, unable to withstand the thought of him being turned out to pasture for the duration of the harsh Montana winters.

Eastman has received national recognition for her efforts to end all forms of equine mistreatment, most notably for garnering Robert Redford’s support of the 1998 California Initiative, which ignited a movement to end the slaughter of America’s wild and domestic horses for consumption and otherwise.

Eastman has also been credited with bringing awareness to the plight of mares impregnated for the sole purpose of harvesting a hormone in their urine used in controversial estrogen-replacement drugs such as Premarin, prescribed to reduce the symptoms of menopause.

With the help of journalist Katie Couric, a client at the time, the contentious topic became the subject of a 2004 NBC Dateline special. Eastman’s work led to the rescue of more than 2,000 Premarin foals (often shipped off to slaughterhouse after birth), two of which, Lucky and Shawnee, remain in her care 16 years later.

Nearly three ago, Eastman made the acquaintance of Ellie Manka, a Big Sky resident with a lifelong passion for horses that stretches back to her East Coast childhood. Eastman and Manka began riding together and soon Manka was teaching her three daughters to ride.

The idea for Lucky Horse Riders, a holistic “from-the-ground-up” riding school, was born and Eastman, who appreciated Manka’s loving dedication to the animals, offered her property and horses for private training sessions.

Eastman explained that although Chevy was extremely well cared for, he was a guest horse and never really had “his own person.”

“When these little kids started getting on him, a change came over him,” Eastman said. “It seemed to give him purpose. Chevy was never more proud or happy than when he had a child on him.”

Nearly 30 children have learned to ride on the back of Chevy, a horse that at one time exhibited signs of abuse endured during the first half of his life.

“Over time, he learned how to accept love and how to return it,” Manka said. “It was beautiful to witness.”

Chevy was 29 years old (just beyond the average life expectancy for an American quarter horse) when a debilitating digestive blockage known as an impaction forced Eastman to make the difficult decision to put him down.

Despite the tears, Chevy’s memorial was about celebrating the life and love of horse who will live on, especially in the tender hearts of the children he touched.

“He meant a lot to me,” Manka’s 13-year-old daughter Nehalem said. “It’s just like having a dog—you care for them; you love them; and they make you so happy.”

Sarah Gianelli is a freelance writer ecstatic to be experiencing her first summer in the Greater Yellowstone region.