Seven years ago today, I walked onto a horse ranch to begin a hundred hours of community service required for my high school graduation. I’d wanted to get a head start on my hours and complete some work during the summer before senior year. I figured I could do a few hours a week for a month or two then start again in the fall.
So I did a Google search, found a ranch called Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary, and shot the owner an email. He told me to come on down on the first of June for a tour and to start work.
I got lost on the way there that first morning. The directions were so confusing. I finally figured out where the front gate was among all those horse properties and that I had to get out of my car, open the gate, drive through, then get out and close it again. I didn’t know where to park. The ranch hand who was there at the time waved at me to come back when I drove up the wash.
When I finally figured out parking and got out of my car, a black and gray dog greeted me, and he wasn’t friendly. He snarled and barked at me and I immediately took the advice of the gray-haired man standing at the end of the driveway to “Don’t look at him – just ignore him!”
The man, Jim, introduced himself and smiled as he shook my hand. I didn’t know then that he took one look at me and figured I wouldn’t last more than a week. I didn’t know then that over the next few months and next few years, he would become one of my best friends in the world.
He showed me around. He introduced me to all the horses, all 29 of them. These were horses of all different colors, all different sizes, and…to my utter astonishment, all different personalities. Some of them liked to have their faces scratched. Some of them looked at me with trepidation. Many of the horses looked eager to play while others moved around anxiously. A few had wise, ancient eyes.
I didn’t know then that they all had different stories, that they all had lessons to teach me.
I didn’t know a lot on my first day.
When Jim introduced me to Heighten, one of the big chestnut Thoroughbreds, he laughed a bit as he told me how whenever he was with Heighten, he had the strange, subconscious feeling that the two of them had known each other in a past life. That way back in the 1800s, Jim had been the horse and Heighten had been his rider. And – speechless – I actually saw it. I watched this horseman interact with his “kids,” and I was utterly stunned that one person could have that deep of a bond with a horse.
As Jim introduced me to the other horses, my curiosity was overwhelming. How did something like that happen? How did one make that kind of connection with a horse?
When Jim introduced me to the last horse, my question was answered.
The gelding’s name was Chance, and he was and to this day still is the most beautiful horse I have ever seen in all my life. A golden palomino with a white star, this boy looked straight into my eyes, pinned his ears to his skull, and pounded on the bars of his stall with his front hooves. He blew air out of his nose angrily and very clearly gave me the message to stay away. He’d been abused, I was told, and he didn’t want anything to do with humans.
One look was all it took. I fell, and I fell hard, for reasons I still don’t entirely understand. From the moment I laid eyes on Chance, I have felt connected to him more than I feel connected to most humans.
And that was just the start. But I didn’t know it then.
That first day, Jim showed me the rakes, the poop carts, and put me to work mucking out the barn: Five stalls, starting with Sweet Boy’s, then Sedona’s, then Moose’s, then Ted’s, then CharlieHorse’s. I got to meet each horse up close and personal. And in between raking poop, Jim answered my (many) questions. One thing I’ll never forget was how he told me each horse on the ranch only lived in the present.
“If there’s a big field of grass a hundred yards away,” he said, “and a small patch of grass directly in front of a horse, which grass is he going to eat first?”
I didn’t know then. I guessed, “The big field? Because there’s more to choose from?”
Jim shook his head. “The small patch. Horses live in the here and the now. There’s no yesterday. No tomorrow. Only today. We’re flying along on this planet at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour and we’ll never be in the same place we were a few seconds ago. There’s only now. And the horses know that.”
A great awakening begun for me that day, but I didn’t know it then.
I didn’t know so much then.
I didn’t know then I would come to the ranch nearly every day that summer, surpassing my required hours for school by far, wanting nothing more than to muck stalls and spray NoFly and clean waters and groom horses and walk horses and be with horses.
I didn’t know that when school started in the fall, I would come by afterwards in my school uniform to help feed dinner just to see them all again.
I didn’t know then I would feel an enormous sense of pride upon looking behind me and seeing freshly mucked stalls.
I didn’t know then that something so simple as buying supplies at the grocery store for the ranch would make me feel like part of a team.
I didn’t know then that Mike – the black and gray dog who snarled at me my first day – would soon see me coming each morning and bound up the lane to meet me, smiling joyfully and wagging his tail.
I didn’t know then that Tarzan – a horse blind in one eye who was terrified of humans – would trust me enough to let me put NoFly on him within my first month of being at the ranch and how overwhelmed with gratitude I would feel upon touching his nose for the first time.
I didn’t know then that whenever I would take Mistah Lee on his walks, I would watch the old horse limp along contentedly and marvel at my own impatience.
I didn’t know that that summer, we would lose Mr. Steve Vai and little Rusty and a piece of my heart would be forever cracked.
I didn’t know then that Moose – our great Medicine Man with eyes that pierced me through to my soul – would die the day after I made him a promise to be brave just like him, a promise that I would remember every single day of my life thereafter. I didn’t know then how an animal so great – someone I only knew for four months – would have such a huge impact on my life.
I didn’t know then that I would come to understand how it was far better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.
I didn’t know then that I would spend the summer slowly gaining Chance’s trust, sitting outside his stall and talking to him, loving him more with each passing day. I didn’t know then how slowly seeing the recognition grow in his eyes when he saw me would be more meaningful to me than anything in my life at that point.
I was seventeen my first day. I had been through five years of hell at that point in my life and was deep in the throes of a dark depression.
I didn’t know that the words I said to Chance’s abused spirit – of love, and tenderness, and forgiveness and patience and respect and healing – were words I needed to say to myself.
I didn’t know then that each horse at that ranch would blow my soul wide open. I didn’t know then that they would show me that if they had been through hell and back and could face each day with hope in their eyes and joy in their hearts…then maybe I could, too.
I didn’t know then that they would take a timid, angry, reclusive, self-loathing little girl and turn her into a fiercely strong woman who loves her life and everything in it.
I didn’t know then that those horses would define me as a human being. I didn’t know then that they would give me a sense of purpose.
I didn’t know then they would teach me about joy and happiness, about fear and terror, about courage and hope, about grief and loss, about true strength and wisdom and bravery.
On my first day seven years ago I didn’t know that I would someday be in charge of their happiness, that I would be called the ranch director. I didn’t know then that I could ever know enough about horses to have even the slightest comprehension of how to care for them.
But I didn’t know then that they would teach me, that they would show me some of their ways, that I would someday be able to just look at them and know what they were feeling and thinking.
I didn’t know then that I would learn every single day.
And above all, I didn’t know then that everything I am, everything I want to be, I see in their eyes.
I didn’t know a lot that very first day seven years ago. But I did know one thing.
I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I would never be able to leave that ranch.
And now when I tell people how it all began, how I came to volunteer and eventually work at a horse sanctuary, they smile and tell me how cool of a job it must be. “How rewarding it must be,” they say, “to get to save horses.”
No, I want to say. I don’t save horses.
Seven years ago, they saved me.