“The End of Old Horse” begins with the narrator, an unnamed Native American boy, leaving home with his younger brother to go to the nearby creek to cool off on a hot summer day. They pass by Old Horse, a dog who is tied up with a rope, in front of the home of a neighbor, Tony. Old Horse jumps about wildly, chewing at his rope, trying to free himself. The boys tell Tony, who is fixing up an old horse stall so that he can park his truck in it, that the dog is overexcited, and Tony tells them to just ignore him. Gilly, the younger brother, curses about the dog, calling him stupid, awkwardly working the word “hell” into what he says.
The narrator muses about how boring life is. The only real excitement in the summer, he says, is when there are Grab Days during festivals for saints. Grab Days are a tradition of giving out candy and toys to children, similar to the practice of piñatas. It is here that he first points out the different perspectives of his mother and father: his father does not mind if the children hear graphic or explicit language, but his mother does.
At the creek, the boys chase trout into a trap that they made with some scrap tin. Gilly stops to wash some mud off of his jeans when Tony, the dog’s owner, approaches, looking somber. Tony makes small talk about the cleaning that Gilly is doing before announcing that Old Horse, the dog who was straining against his leash, has strangled himself with the rope and is dead.
After a moment of silence, Gilly, trying to hold back his tears, eventually cries. The narrator tells Tony that he should not have tied the dog up and is surprised that Tony’s reaction is as emotional as it is: he reaches out and pushes the narrator, who falls into some bushes. But Tony immediately regrets having done this, and he reaches down and pulls the boy to his feet and brushes him off. He apologizes, tells the boys to go home, and then hops across the creek and walks off beside it.
On the way home, the boys glance mournfully over at the place where Old Horse had been tied up. Gilly curses, using a variety of words that he knows are offensive, and then cries openly. The narrator blames Tony for having tied the dog, when he could have let him roam freely or even asked the boys to take him to the creek with them. The narrator, angry and sad, tries to distract himself by asking Gilly to race him, but Gilly is not interested in running. The narrator swears at Gilly and takes off alone. He ends up running so hard that he makes himself sick and vomits on the side of the road. When Gilly catches up, the narrator apologizes for having sworn at him.
They arrive home after dark, and their mother is angry. She tells them to wash for supper. Their father seems to notice the mud on Gilly’s jeans, but he does not point it out to their mother, instead changing the subject to an upcoming rabbit hunt.
When the subject of Tony comes up at the dinner table, the boys are silent. Gilly breaks the silence by saying that Tony choked the dog to death, immediately following his summary with the curse word “hellfire.” Their mother warns him about using such language, but the narrator and the father do not react because they both understand the seriousness of the young boy’s emotions and feel that swearing is his way of putting his mind to rest over this traumatic event.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Simon J. Ortiz, Published by Gale Group, 2010