I walked into Jim’s house/Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary’s office on a Tuesday morning after I got back from Washington to collect a pile of mail that’d built up in my absence.
It was December 27th, and we’d survived another Christmas. I’d been on pins and needles the whole morning, waiting to hear if anything had gone wrong (our last few Christmases at the ranch have ended in either hospital visits or emergency vets coming to the facility) and practically wept with relief when Leah texted to me to say all had been fine. On this first day back, I was especially grateful that all I’d been briefed about in my absence had been mostly good things about the horses.
Jim shuffled through the mail on his desk, taking out our bills and returned holiday letters to our donors (damn you, USPS) to hand to me, then lastly took out a thick envelope.
“Read this,” he said, handing it to me. “It’s from a lady named Sheila, and she sent us a $600 donation—”
“Well, yes, and she also wrote us a letter. And attached pictures. Of her horses.”
“She doesn’t want us to take her horses, does she??” I said, snatching the letter and looking it over.
“That’s kind of what she’s asking, yeah,” was the response.
“Well that’s not gonna happen,” I snorted. I skimmed the letter. Couldn’t afford horses, divorce, lonely and worried…. I’d heard the same thing a hundred times.
Dear Jim Gath, she wrote,
I was fortunate enough to find you while searching online for a horse sanctuary that could possibly give my two beautiful horses a forever home.
You and your sanctuary truly touched my heart, like none of the others I found online. I could just feel the love and dedication coming from you and your volunteers to seem to care so deeply.
I understand that you are unable to take in more horses at this time (“Damn right,” I mumbled under my breath), but I thought I would take you up on your offer of perhaps finding someplace through you. I also understand that you only take in some of the worst case scenarios.
My horses have been with me now going on 17 years, and both of them will be 23 years old come spring.
I thought and promised them both that we would never separate, that I would never let them go, but life can be cruel, as we all know and my dream of keeping my beautiful and sweet and loving babies is crushing my heart and spirit. I am filling ill all the time and find it difficult to eat, so I need to really push myself, so I can stay healthy for my sweet babies.
When two horses become such a wonderful part of your life for so many years you want to be able to feel peace and pray they will receive the help they so dearly deserve, as all creatures do.
I am in a desperate situation, and will try to keep this as short as I can.
I am a 70 year old woman who was divorced in May of this year.
The divorce decree ordered my ex husband and I to live together in this house until it sells, then we pay the mortgage owning, and close out our joint checking account.
My only income now and will be a small retirement sum from Canada, and $91.00 from Social Security here in Tucson.
I am a Canadian citizen, but U.S. resident with green card.
The court here in Tucson ordered my ex husband to pay me minimal spousal support, but I know I cannot count on receiving it as he is moving back to Canada as soon as we finish off here.
Canada and the U.S. do not have a treaty whereby I can get him to legally pay me that support money.
There is only one vehicle involved, and I was awarded that. A 2000 Ford f150 with about 40,000 miles left on it right now, by mileage going down as errands need to be run and hay to be picked up.
I was diagnosed with rotator cuff injury last Nov. and cannot lift things, as the pain only worsens when I do.
My ex husband has been kind enough to take care of the horses for me this past year, and was also ordered to pay for all their needs including veterinary care, but I will be unable physically, mentally and financially.
I also have extreme depression and social anxiety, which I have suffered from since childhood.
I have not one friend or any family. I will be totally alone, which does frighten me, but don’t choose to think about it if I can.
I just cannot afford to pay rent and other expenses as well as feed and keep my horses healthy.
When I look out the window at my horses they look so beautiful and happy and so innocent. They have no idea of course what the future may bring.
My horse vet was here yesterday and I told him how desperate I was to find forever homes for my horses, but he does not know of any sanctuaries off hand.
I am wishing for a miracle. For my mare “Miss Daisy Mae” a paint Tennessee walking horse and my beautiful Arabian bay gelding “Braveheart.”
Both horses have had their winter shots and semi annual exam.
“Daisy Mae” is suffering from some lameness in her hind end and could possibly have DSLD, but right now she is managing well on Previcox.
“Braveheart” is in really good condition but cannot be ridden as I believe he suffered abuse at some point. (There is a story there.)
I would pray that they could be together forever, as they are extremely close.
I will be praying very hard that you may be able to save their lives from going to an abusive situation or worse yet to slaughter.
They need love and affection just like all God’s creatures do.
Thank you very, very much, from the bottom of my heart for reading this overly long letter, but wanted you to know as much as I could about my horses and myself.
Also I need to tell you that I would never surrender my horses to anyone who could not keep them both and together. I never want them to be separated. If you can help me find my impossible dream, I will gladly make as large a contribution to their new home as I can. it would make my heart feel good to know I could help them as well.
I am also sending a check to Sierra [sic] Madre Horse Sanctuary in hopes that it will help your horses with their daily needs.
My name is Sheila [last name omitted for privacy], and I will be sending along a few photos of my babies in hopes that it could help find them a good-best home.
My situation is not urgent right now but will become so as soon as house sells. I will be desperate by then, and one never knows when a house will sell, this is why I am preparing now and doing my searches.
God bless, and keep you and your angels and all the wonderful people who are part of Sierra [sic] Madre Horse Sanctuary safe and happy.
I sighed deeply, and looked at the attached pictures. One was a low-quality image of a handsome bay gelding. The other was a paint mare, looking at the camera.
Something in my heart stirred.
I tossed them aside. I saw pictures of horses needing homes all the time.
We had 31 horses. We didn’t need any more.
“We’ll put her in touch with our network,” I said to Jim, referring to our network that consists of every nonprofit horse rescue and sanctuary in the state of Arizona along with well-known, regularly checked individuals who save and rehome horses from auction on a regular basis. “Every time we send out an email to Susan she forwards it to everyone and that horse finds a home within a day.”
Jim looked down at the floor. But, he nodded. “Okay.”
A few days later, I typed up a response to Sheila. As I’d told many other individuals before, I let her know that I would be working with her personally to try to help find a home for her two horses and that I was grateful for the dedication she was showing her animals.
Far too often, in a surrender case, the owner is out of time to find a new home, and the result is that the horses are snatched up by a kill buyer.
And we all know what happens then.
I told Sheila that I would be sending her information and story to our network head and that she would send it along to all the horse rescues, sanctuaries, and individuals in the state.
Keeping horses out of the slaughter pipeline is our mission and our priority, I wrote, and Jim and I just want to reassure you that one way or another, we will find your horses forever homes.
Sheila wrote back almost at once.
Thank you so much for getting back to me so quickly, I cannot tell you how very much I appreciate your kindness.
I too have had anxiety and deep depression my entire life.
Thank you for sharing with me, and giving me a little background on your four legged family of animals as well as your two legged ones. I wish them all well and much happiness.
God has answered my prayers. Now I can start believing my horses will never go to slaughter or cruel hands.
I wish I could say more, but keep crying for joy and sadness. The tissues are really piling up on my desk.
I knew immediately when I found ” Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary” online, that you folks were the ones! It was magical and heartbreaking watching your YouTube videos. I honestly cannot describe all the feelings I had about your “heart filled” work.
I was watching each horse’s face and could almost read their past and present in their eyes. So beautiful and so fortunate to be “home”.
I read all this and smiled. Then, I scanned her letter and pictures of Daisy Mae and Braveheart, wrote up an email to Susan, and sent it off in relief. Our network hadn’t failed us yet. We get requests with regularity to take in horses, and whenever we hit up the network someone always stepped up.
Two weeks later, I checked in with Sheila to let her know I’d mailed her a Tierra Madre painting to show appreciation for her donation and asked how the search was going. I recommended an additional network on Facebook where people post pictures and stories of their horses to find them homes.
Her response – that I got Wednesday – shocked me.
Thank you for your email.
Alexis, I just got back from Canada. My brother is in the end stages of his life, and I unable to function as well as I would like.
No I have not been looking, on facebook or anywhere.. I thought Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary would help save them. I have never done any sort of social networking. I am a very private person.
Also I am a loner and very seldom go anywhere, so have no contacts regarding horses whatsoever. I asked my horse Vet Dr. Michael Conaway from Reata Veterinary and my farrier Wes Robinson from here in Tucson and neither one knew of anyone.
I was hoping for a miracle in that you could find them a forever home. I wanted to feel that they would be very loved and wanted.
Now I am starting to get very frightened.
I must have read your first email incorrectly, as it gave me hope that my horses could be saved, with your contacts. It is sad to hear that no one has shown any interest to give them love.
I guess there is no one out there who wants 2 horses they cannot ride, and one with beginning stages of DSLD. (it is a very difficult situation).
My horses really, really need a miracle. (someone that doesn’t care about their disadvantages, but will love them in spite of them).
I had and will continue to look online, but your place was the only one that I felt I could really trust. The others made me fearful, and needed me to give them money. I will have very little money for myself as I mentioned, so that would not be possible.
I think I mentioned in my first email, that I have really seen TOO MUCH out there. Things that broke my heart. Things that were acceptable to certain people, but I could not believe, anyone could treat horses with such cruelty and think it was ok because they were humans, and horses were just animals to be used for the peoples pleasures.
It is in God’s hands now. I trust in Him.
Thank you, Alexis,
I read and reread the email, trying to wrap my head around her words. Around two things, mainly:
Number one: This lady had no contacts or network of her own to work with, nor – as it seemed to me – she was at a point in her life where she just couldn’t handle networking anyway.
And number two: Nobody from our network had come forward.
No, I thought to myself. That can’t be right.
I sent what I thought later was a somewhat curt response, telling her that we were happy to help find her horses homes, but that the effort had to be a team effort. As in, we couldn’t be the only ones looking.
Then I emailed the network head – Susan – and asked if anyone had responded to her to say they could take Braveheart and Daisy Mae.
“No one,” she responded.
No one? I thought in despair.
I emailed Sheila again before driving downtown to class, to a) apologize if I’d come off as rude; b) reassure her that we wouldn’t let her horses go to slaughter; and c) ask for a timeframe by which she needed her horses rehomed.
I wish I could give you a date in which Braveheart and Daisy Mae will need their new home, she responded, but this house has been for sale since last May, and it is hard to say when it will sell. When my ex husband and I do get an offer on this property, we are asking for a 60 day close.
The reason I asked for 60 days was to insure the horses would have a good chance to have a home to go to. Right now there it is no an emergency. I will give you plenty of notice.
Living with my ex is just another stressor in my life and why I find it difficult to function at times. I am sure he feels the same.
Unfortunately the Arizona divorce law is such that we must remain under this roof together until the sale is finalized, and any profits from sale will be divided. It’s sort of like being in prison.
I spent all night with a debate raging in my head and in my heart.
Two older, unridable horses needed a forever home. And for the first time, the network we’d relied on for years had failed us.
There’s still time, my brain told me smartly. There are others. Let it go.
But I couldn’t. Yesterday morning – the equivalent of my Saturday morning – I got up, ran errands, came home around noon, and started making lunch.
I paced back and forth in my kitchen. You know those cartoons with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other? It was like that for me.
We couldn’t take in two more horses.
We had an open pen. And for God’s sake, those two horses probably ate the same amount of hay Bentley alone ate in one day.
Your volunteers will riot. We already have 31 horses, all of whom need daily care and love and attention.
Should I contact out of state rescues? But how would Sheila afford a trailer to move them? How would we ensure their safety?
Your management committee will want your blood. We just met to talk about how we needed to stabilize our organization and prioritize our short-term and long-term goals.
Two lives. Two innocent lives.
What if people left? What if people got fed up with the number of horses we already have and stormed out our gates after hearing we’re getting two more?
No one had come forward to take them. It’d been two weeks.
So what?? We can’t save them all. And there’s still a chance. More people to contact Sheila and offer a forever home.
Who? Who would take in two older, unridable horses??
I couldn’t handle it anymore. I called Jim. If anybody had the right to tell me no for what I wanted to do, it was the person whose finances had kept the ranch going for many years and continues to keep it going when we’re short.
“Okay, just hear me out,” were my first words.
I told him the story. Jim listened patiently.
“You know, every time I’ve taken in a new horse,” he told me, “people told me I was crazy. They said, ‘Jim, you don’t need another one.’”
I was silent. I’d been one of those people. I still can be.
“But,” he went on, “I get letters and pictures and stories all the time. I don’t respond to most. But there are just some where I feel that that horse needs our help. Something deeper. Something different. I felt that when I opened Sheila’s letter.”
“We keep talking about solidifying our structure and going back to our roots and rewriting our bylaws…” I said, turning off my stove so I wouldn’t burn the chicken I’d set in a pan and forgotten about, “but I think this is the core of what we are and what we do. Jim, they have nowhere else to go.”
“And our mission first and foremost is to save horses.”
“It is,” he agreed. “And they’ve had a good life. They’ve had love. To break that would be a crime against nature.”
And so, as soon as I hung up the phone with Jim, I dialed Sheila’s number and waited with a beating heart as it rang.
Knowing what was at stake.
Knowing there would be those within Tierra Madre who would not be happy with me.
But knowing what I’d known all along from the depths of my soul since the moment I saw the pictures of Daisy Mae and Braveheart: they needed us.
And – I’m not making this part up to make the story more flavorful or help my case at all – the smallest, most dejected, driven down voice answered.
“Hi, is this Sheila?”
“Sheila, it’s Alexis, from Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary.”
She sniffed a little. “Oh, hello,” she said in a flat, empty tone.
“How are you?” I asked.
I can’t make this stuff up. She told me she’d just gotten off the phone with her brother. He lives in Canada (I gathered) and had just requested to receive euthanasia in the hospital. He would be passing away within a few days. [UPDATE: As of yesterday evening, her brother has passed away.]
I listened in stunned silence as this broken-hearted lady spilled her heart out to me. She hadn’t been kidding in her letter (not that I’d expected her to). She had no one.
“I’m so sorry,” was all I could say.
“Well,” she mumbled. And she paused, then asked tentatively. “Do you have any news for me?”
Oh boy, do I ever.
“Well, Sheila,” I told her, struggling to keep the emotion out of my voice. “I do.”
I took a breath. “Ever since we read your letter and saw the pictures of Daisy Mae and Braveheart, I just have to say… our executive director, Jim felt a connection to them. I did too.”
At this, she let out a little cry and began to weep.
“I mean it,” I said. “I see pictures of horses needing homes all the time. But listen. I just got off the phone with Jim and Sheila, we’re gonna take them.”
I’ll be on my deathbed someday, looking back on my life, and I will remember the moments that happened after I said these words.
She cried out again – a joyful sound I’d never have expected from her – and began to sob uncontrollably. “God answered my prayers, God answered my prayers,” she bawled. I started crying too, but caught phrases: “Oh thank you, thank you.”
“You just get them to us,” I managed to say. “Just get them to our gates, and we’ll do the rest. They’ll be loved for all their lives. You don’t have to worry any more.”
She cried and cried and thanked us over and over. “You are angels sent from God,” she sobbed. “Good things are going to happen to all of you there, I know that. They’ll never hear a cruel word. They’ll never be separated. They’ll never know a horrible fate. Oh, Alexis, thank you, thank you.”
I listen to the logical part in my head every minute of every day. I’m a list-maker, a task-checker, a systematic creature of habit that abides by rhythm and plans and schedules.
I listen to my brain which guides my choices and my actions and my life.
This time, this one time, I listened to my heart.
And as Sheila and I hung up, as I sat in the knowledge that two more innocent lives were saved and that we’d helped a very lost human spirit in need, I will never regret it.