For almost as long as he can remember, Daniel Byrne has loved horses.
As a child growing up, in his words, “pretty dirt poor” in the Bronx, he had a fascination with cowboys and westerns.
At the age of 10 — back in the 1940s, right before World War II began — he found himself on a horse for the first time, when his Uncle Eddie, an elevator operator for the London Terrace apartment complex in Manhattan, arranged a riding lesson for him through a friend of a friend, whose job it was to take several wealthier children from the building to and from their riding lessons.
He fell off the horse during that first lesson, and his family never did have enough money for him to ride more than a few times.
But throughout a long life in which he raised four children, worked for 38 years as a peace officer in State Supreme Court in the Bronx, served on the front lines as a rifle platoon leader in the Korean War and served for nearly 40 years in the U.S. Army Reserves, the fascination remained.
It’s why last week, at the age of 89, the Riverhead resident told nurses at East End Hospice’s Kanas Center in Quiogue that he’d love nothing more than to see one of the animals again before he succumbs to terminal bladder cancer.
Spirit’s Promise Horse Rescue in Riverhead made that wish come true Dec. 4, bringing two miniature ponies — mother and son Sweetie and Christmas — inside the facility and straight into Mr. Byrne’s room.
“It was such a surprise, really,” a delighted Mr. Byrne said after the visit, as he lay in bed in a private room at the pristine and peaceful facility, overlooking the marshland surrounding the building on a cold and overcast day. “Since I was a little kid, I’ve loved horses. As I grew up, I didn’t love them any less.”
Mr. Byrne smiled and was clearly happy and at ease, despite the reality of his situation. He reveled in telling stories about his life, particularly tales of the few times he rode a horse, expressing his lifelong affinity for cowboy boots, his preference for the more comfortable and secure western and Australian saddles over English saddles, gesturing to illustrate his points, making jokes and breaking repeatedly into wide grins — even as the tubes and wires snaking around his hands delivering medication were visible.
He even admitted to trying to take a riding lesson just last year, and then finding that, to his disappointment, he was unable to get into the saddle.
“Nobody knew how old I was,” he said with a hint of pride. “The big shock came when I couldn’t get on the horse. When I told the doctor I had tried, he said, ‘You can’t do that. Your spine is going to get crushed.’ ”
Mr. Byrne admitted that his family members had similar concerns, before sighing and adding, with a dismissive wave, “Sometimes your worst enemies are your friends.”
In recent years, Mr. Byrne found a way to satisfy his desire to connect with horses through Spirit’s Promise. The horse rescue and rehabilitation facility, a nonprofit located on Sound Avenue, was founded by Marisa Striano, who seeks to give the animals a new lease on life and then teaches them how to help human beings in need, such as those dealing with the loss of a loved one or other tragedies and setbacks.
Ms. Striano said she recalled that Mr. Byrne began visiting the farm roughly six years ago. “Every time he’d come, he’d bring a check and a bag of carrots,” she said with a smile, while sitting inside the lobby of the Kanas Center after the ponies’ visit was over. “He would come and say, ‘I want to help you in any way I can, because I love what you do.’ ”
Ms. Striano said she’d put the check in her pocket without looking at it — something she does whenever someone hands her a donation — and would then show him around the barn so he could interact with the animals — horses, ponies, miniature ponies, donkeys and goats.
Later on, after he’d left, she’d often be floored by just how much money Mr. Byrne had given them. She’d always thank him during his next visit.
Mr. Byrne stopped coming around after a while, and Ms. Striano and others at the barn were unsure why until they got word of his request from staff at East End Hospice.
They were happy to comply, Ms. Striano said, both because of their fondness for Mr. Byrne and their great working relationship with East End Hospice. Spirit’s Promise has partnered with East End Hospice on several initiatives, including an equine bereavement program that is run at the farm, as well as the farm’s “mini on the go” program to bring the mini ponies — which, unlike horses and regular ponies, can be brought indoors — to grief groups sponsored by East End Hospice, as well as to other places, such as Camp Good Grief and the Long Island Center for Recovery.
Angela Burns with East End Hospice has worked closely with Ms. Striano on many occasions. Both women were thrilled to fulfill Mr. Byrne’s request, and bring the ponies into the Kanas Center for the first, and what they hope won’t be the last, time.
“He’s just a really good guy,” Ms. Striano said of Mr. Byrne. “He’s very witty, and just such a nice man, so we do what we can. And I’d do anything for East End Hospice.”
Ms. Burns said that the moment they all experienced with Mr. Byrne that day is the perfect encapsulation of what the organization is all about.
“Being able to be with people at this point in their life is a privilege. I always say that, and I feel that,” Ms. Burns said. “If someone is asking for something specifically, we do whatever we can to make it happen. For this, it adds another level of being able to hear what’s important to a person and to put a smile on their face. I think that’s the beauty of it.”
It’s clear that they achieved that goal. The afterglow of the experience still had not worn off for Mr. Byrne after the ponies had been returned to their trailer. Despite the reality of his circumstance, he seemed fully at peace.
“This is some place,” he said, gesturing to the room and looking out the window. “I love it. The staff is wonderful. It doesn’t get much better than this.”
Top photo caption: Daniel Byrne gets a visit from mini horses Sweetie and Christmas at the East End Hospice Kanas Center for Hospice Care on Dec. 4. (Credit: Dana Shaw/Southampton Press)
Eight days after the mini horse visit, Mr. Byrne died while surrounded by family. He was 89.
Cailin Riley is a freelance writer. This article also appeared in The Southampton Press.