Nearly every person that comes to our ranch has a connection with one particular horse. They fall in love with all of them, naturally, but there is usually one with whom they share a powerful bond.
Before I started volunteering at Tierra Madre, I used to think that everybody chose their “favorite” horse based on simple things, like something cute the horse did, the way the horse looked, or simply because it was the first horse that person happened to know.
Now I realize that they – the horses – are the ones who choose the people.
Even if neither party realizes it at the time.
I was 17 when I first started at Tierra Madre. At the time, I was coming out of a dark depression. I regularly confronted many, many mental and spiritual demons. And I dealt with these problems by pushing them deep, deep down into my subconscious and proceeding like nothing was wrong, by pushing everyone away from me as far as I could.
Jim – the owner and founder at the ranch and my current boss – took me around and introduced me to all the horses. Just like I now joyously watch visitors interacting with each one, he witnessed me falling in love with them all. The horses were so different. They had such personalities. I’d learned to ride at a place where horses were punished (not cruelly by any means, but punished nonetheless) for being different, for acting outside what was considered normal for a horse. Here, the ranch thrived on uniqueness.
To end our tour, Jim took me over to the very last horse at the end of the long row of stalls. He was a big, stunning palomino with light brown eyes. Something in the Earth shifted when I looked at him. I think my breath seriously caught in my throat as our eyes locked.
“That’s Chance,” Jim told me as I gazed and gazed at the horse, “and he’s only been here three months. Don’t get anywhere near him. He’s been badly abused and he’ll nail you.”
He didn’t need to tell me twice. When I first laid eyes on Chance, his ears were pinned to his skull. He was pawing angrily at the ground. His eyes were burning. And he had his head thrown up over the bars of his stall, clearly ready to send anyone who got near him to their deathbed.
And all I ever wanted to do from that moment on for every day I was there was just be near him. To sit outside his stall – a safe distance away – and just look at him.
And every single day I was at the ranch for five straight years, that’s exactly what I did.
The summer I began at Tierra Madre, I was tasked with putting on all the horses’ NoFly every morning. I first interacted with Chance by spraying his face through the bars of his stall. Then I moved up to offering him my hand just close enough so that he could sniff it. Then I started offering him leaves. And all the while, I’d just talk to him.
I never went in his stall. I never touched him more than grazing his lip with my finger. I never attempted to go put a halter on him and walk him out to the arena. I never set out with anything to prove.
All I wanted to do was to play a small part in his healing process, to show Chance what love was. Because for the first four years of his life, he didn’t know what it was. He was kept in a prison of a stall with no windows, fed every three or four days, and through the bars of his stall some really awful, horrific abuse must have taken place, because six years after he walked through Tierra Madre’s gates, he still lunges at anybody on the other side of his gate.
Going inside the stall with him is a whole other story. He might be fearful and defensive with a gate in between himself and a human, but he’s come to understand that whenever someone he knows comes into his stall with a halter, it means he gets to go out to the arena to play.
And one day last year, when I was in the process of taking over the ranch when the amazing lady running it was about to go on maternity leave, I looked over at Chance and thought to myself, “I need to be able to walk him. If I’m going to be in charge, I can’t rely on my boss or our other worker to handle him.”
It’d been five years. He knew me. I knew him. It was time.
So I gathered every ounce of my courage, grabbed a halter, and walked into his stall.
He looked confused for only a second. Then, after hearing me talk cheerfully, just like I’d talked to him for five years, he came up to me, studied me, and turned his head.
“You’re doing this now? Okay,” was his response, and I could have sworn he almost shrugged. “Just be quick about it. I don’t have all day.”
And with hands trembling only slightly, I got his halter on and away we walked. I still remember the two of us being jumpy with each other as we learned how to walk together those first few weeks. But over the course of a year, we’ve figured out a system. And we do things the same way every single time. In fact, there are only two other people who can enter Chance’s stall, and all three of us do things the same way for him every time. Chance likes consistency. He likes knowing exactly what’s going to happen each time, and after living four years of hell when the unknown happened every day, I can’t say I blame him.
Six years after I laid eyes on him – a horse so badly abused he was completely unapproachable – we walk calmly together. And don’t get me wrong. I get nervous every now and then. But most of the time? It’s magic.
The other day though, it didn’t start out that way.
Chance is part of the ‘Chance Crew’ – a big group of horses obviously named for him that goes out into the arena together. There’s seven of them altogether, and they’re wild when they go out. They are so full of energy and have a great time, sometimes at our expense.
There’s one horse who’s apart of the gang called Cadence, except we never call her by her real name. To us, she’s Tater Tot, or Tater, because she’s a big, stocky Quarter horse. She likes to be taken home first, and she’s not afraid of letting us know.
Usually when the Chance crew goes home, I try to take Chance home first so the rest of the volunteers – who can’t get near him – can start taking the other horses home. And every time before we go home, we make a stop at the treat can. All part of consistency.
This past Wednesday, when I went to get Chance, Tater was not having any of it and went after him a few times as I tried to halter him first. At one point, Chance took off with the halter on and the lead rope flew behind him as Tater tore ass across the arena to get him away so she could go home first. And the more they ran, the higher my stress level became.
It is very, very important to me that things go smoothly when taking Chance out of his stall and putting him back home, because otherwise he has the potential to become nervous. And a nervous Chance always made me nervous. And the moment I wasn’t confident, he’d pick up on my anxiety and potentially make me his sixth victim to end up in the hospital.
So when Chance and I ran out of the arena at top speed just as the other horses were starting to get riled up and Tater proved to everyone once and for all she was pissed she hadn’t gotten her way, my nerves were up. It doesn’t help that I’m moving next week and at the time was thinking about packing while also thinking about, oh, ten million other things I had to do before leaving the ranch that day and planning the office work for that afternoon and why did Tater have to be so difficult and are Chance’s ears back? God, I hope not.
I let Chance eat at the treat can as per usual while I was silently running over the craziness of the past few minutes in my head and taking deep breaths. Getting nervous or mad while taking Chance home was a setup for disaster.
Eventually we started to walk back to his stall and I tried to calm myself down.
And then, as we walked, out of nowhere, I felt his nose gently – so gently – touch my side. And for a brief moment right after, he pressed his whole head up against me.
I almost dropped the lead rope in astonishment.
“Hey,” came his thoughts softly, merging with mine. “It’s okay, Lex. Don’t worry. That stuff that happened back there. Don’t worry about it. I trust you.”
I trust you.
I trust you.
I felt the words radiating from the depths of his soul. I had to close my eyes briefly as the tears rushed into them and all the anxiety that had stirred within me completely and utterly melted away.
And after he was back in his stall and I had taken his halter off and I moved to leave, I paused at his gate instead of latching it right away and just looked at him. Just as I had for all those years.
He was still munching quietly from the treats from the treat can, but he gave me a polite glance nonetheless.
“Oh, my brother,” I whispered to him and his ears perked to hear what I had to say, “I trust you, too.”
I meet people every now and then who come to our ranch, meet Chance, and loudly declare that they are going to win his trust. That they’ll fix them. They’ll save him. That they’ll turn him into a gentle beast in no time and you just watch – are you watching? Watch me cure him.
Their egos are bigger than the sky. And Chance and I both see through them each and every time.
They’re never in it for Chance. They’re in it to prove something to themselves or everyone else around them – usually the latter.
But to some degree, when I first interacted with Chance, maybe I, too, was trying to “save” him in a way.
I wanted him to know it was okay.
I wanted him to know that sometimes the world can chew you up and spit you out, but that doesn’t mean it only consists of horror and darkness.
I wanted him to know that sometimes it only feels natural and safe to put walls up and shut everyone out, but that in the end, there are far more people in life waiting to love you than hurt you.
I wanted him to know that it takes as much time as it takes to recover from abuse.
I wanted him to know that it was far better to live to see each day than end it all.
I wanted him to know that every baby step, every little bit of progress that he made, was something to be proud of.
I wanted him to know that no matter what he did and what he’d been through, his past did not reflect who he was. That he was a unique individual who deserved to love and to be loved in return.
And the more I spent time with him, the more I came to realize I wasn’t just telling him all these things.
I was telling every single word to myself.
When I laid eyes on him on that very first day, I truly believe that Chance chose me, even though neither of us realized it at the time, and not necessarily for his sake.
I don’t know how big of a part I’ve played in Chance’s recovery. I don’t know how much I have healed his heart.
But I do know that over the course of six years, from the day we met and he wanted nothing to do with me to the brief moment in time just the other day when he pressed his head up against me in absolute trust, he has completely and utterly healed mine.
Pst…. while I have you here, you can help Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary celebrate its 11th birthday! That’s right, horse ranches can have birthdays, and this September we’re turning 11.
During our 11 years of operation, Tierra Madre has given health, happiness, and hope to over 50 horses. Horses that were abused or neglected or injured or abandoned found a forever home within our gates, Chance included.
Today we are able to continue our mission for 33 of the most incredible horses Mother Earth has ever seen.
Help us celebrate our 11th birthday by giving our horses what they like best: HAY! For our herd, we want to buy not one but TWO squeezes of alfalfa.
One squeeze of alfalfa (roughly 80 bales) is just shy of $1200. Two squeezes will total $2400. And because it is our birthday, after all, we want to spend another $100 on treats, apples, and carrots for our 33 kids.
So our birthday goal? $2500.
In honor of our 11th birthday, will you contribute $11 today toward our goal?
Remember, all donations to our 501(c)(3) organization are tax-deductible. Click HERE to donate. Under “I would like to designate this donation to a specific fund,” you will see the option “11th Birthday Hay Fund.”
From all of at here at Tierra Madre, thank you for 11 amazing years of support!
Love the two-leggeds AND Solo & Suze & Bentley & Kiss & the Min & M’Stor & River & Studley & Chance & Sweet Boy & Sedona & Nibzie & Rusty & Hollywood & Cadence & Guess & Bella & Hudson & Heighten & Jani & Buddy & the Iron Man & Slayer & Bourbon & Spencer & Wild Bill & Jazz & Chiquita & Sonora & Danny & Chianti & Rain & Sunny.