Three months ago today, I lost my horse after a battle with laminitis. I finally wrote about it.
I have turned to words as a means of self-expression for as long as I can remember. The first thing I ever wanted to be in life was a writer. From the time I was a little girl, I loved being able to document my experiences, my reactions, my feelings. In a way, writing was how I made sense of the world around me.
But for the first time in my memory, I didn’t want to write about this.
For so long, the idea of putting words to paper and documenting what was one of the most painful experiences of my life was more than I bear. I didn’t want to relive the cruel reality that was losing my first horse at such a young age. I didn’t want to find words because doing so made it permanent, done, irreversible… in my grieving mind, anyway.
Time, however, is unforgiving and ever-present and everlasting. And as the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, I found that my waves of grief grew shorter and struck with less of a vengeance. Little by little, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, day by day…. I wrote our story.
The story of my first horse and the short time we had together here on Earth.
The story of a mare who died too young and too full of life.
And most importantly… the story of how horse rescue can either make you or break you.
And I suppose it all starts at the beginning, as stories usually do, when Tierra Madre got a call in December of 2014 from a woman down the road who owned a very strong, very spirited mare she needed to rehome immediately.
At first, I remember, we said no. We were full as we always tend to be.
But the situation grew perilous as this mare began to truly frighten her owner with her erratic and aggressive behavior, which was bad enough for euthanasia to be considered. Without even knowing or seeing this horse, something in my spirit stirred upon hearing these words. In my heart of hearts, I knew we had to get the mare to safety. We all did.
So Jim, my boss, called her owner and said, “We’ll take her.”
The day this dangerous horse was to arrive at Tierra Madre, her owner called me midmorning, hysterical.
“She won’t go in the trailer,” she said. “She knows something’s different, she can sense it! She’s gone crazy. She’s scared…”
I didn’t even think about my answer.
“Where are you located?”
Fifteen minutes later, I was on her property, greeting her and her sister who was helping with the situation. “We’ve tried everything,” they said. “She just won’t go in…”
“I’ll help as much as I can,” I said, fully aware that both of these women were far more experienced at loading than I was. But hell, we had nothing to lose.
As we stood and talked, I looked just beyond them and saw her: a beautiful red mare, with a white blaze and deep, expressive eyes, standing in a little pen.
My heart skipped a beat as our eyes met.
“It’s the alfalfa,” her owner was saying nervously. After spending a good hour attempting to get this horse into the trailer, the poor woman looked completely distraught. “I can’t believe I didn’t have her tested for PSSM. That’s it. I know it is.”
I listened, but kept me eyes on the mare, mesmerized. She was gazing at us unblinkingly.
“It’s like she knows she’s going away for good. She’s different,” the woman continued as we stood watching the mare shake her head a little. “She’s been different for two years. I’ve never been afraid of her before. But she’s just out of control. I just—”
“Can I go in with her?” I asked her, and she sucked in her breath and looked at me with fearful eyes.
“Oh, yes, yes, whatever you want. As far as I’m concerned, she’s your horse now. Go meet your new horse.”
I took a brief second to explore all my options as I walked over to the mare’s pen. I could avoid any potential accident by not going in with her. Of course, after working with Chance, anything this horse had to offer would be a walk in the park. And this woman had said she was ready to put her down if she couldn’t get her to another home.
And all the while that mare kept watching me with uneasy eyes. I couldn’t decipher them.
There was no other option. I threw caution to the winds, slung the halter over my shoulder, and went in with her.
She immediately came over to sniff me, more curious than aggressive. As her owner and her sister continued talking about the horse’s current behavior, things they had noticed, tests she’d undergone, that horse and I just looked and looked and looked at each other as the world moved on around us. She was nervous. She was in perfect physical condition and her mane was nicely combed, but she couldn’t keep still and her eyes kept wandering. Every now and then she pinned her ears back and tossed her head a little. But as I stood calmly in her small pen, her amber eyes would keep settling on mine.
And just like that, I fell head over heels in love.
I haltered her and walked her around a bit, or rather she tried to walk me as she pushed me around in what I would soon come to realize was her typical fashion. I worked with her for an hour while the trailer sat ahead of us. And all the while, I talked to her.
I told her about Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary.
I told her that at our ranch, she could just be a horse and not have to worry about pleasing others. She could run around to her heart’s desire by herself or with as many friends as she wanted. She could be nobody but herself, and no one would prevent her from being anything else.
Again and again I brought her to the trailer and let her explore it.
But she wouldn’t walk in. She didn’t want to get in that trailer.
After an hour of us walking in circles, nearly all of my hope was lost. We were all exhausted and while the mare had put a tentative hoof in the trailer once or twice, she still didn’t want that much to do with it.
Finally, as she hemmed and hawed and twitched and laid her ears back and looked around anxiously, I played my last, craziest, desperate card.
I put my head against hers, closed my eyes, soaked in every ounce of her wild energy, and whispered in her ear.
“You have no reason to trust me on this,” I said, hoping against hope she would listen. “But I need you to trust me now.”
She looked at me, looked at the trailer, looked at her owner and sister nearby helping with the attempt, and looked at me again.
And after a few more hesitant steps, in she went.
We drove her down the road to Tierra Madre and when I opened the trailer door, she charged out like a bat out of hell, taking in her surroundings with a fierceness I’ve never seen before or since. And the first thing I did was turn her out into the arena. Around and around she flew, mane flying, tail streaking out behind her, a blaze of red as she galloped with joy in her heart for a good twenty or thirty minutes.
On that day, when Jim saw the two of us together, he pointed at her, pointed at me, and said, “She’s yours. You saved her. That’s your little girl.”
Later, we stood watching her in her temporary home in the round pen. And I took in the craziness of that day, not knowing that my next few days and weeks and months would be spent working with her and letting her ease out of her nervous habits, not knowing that she would be more than a handful, not knowing she had no intention of learning ground manners or ever tolerating a saddle again, not knowing that by the end of that week she would be following me around in her pen and putting her head against mine in something damn near devotion.
I did know one thing. The mare I was now to call my own was as wild and as utterly, breathtakingly beautiful as the desert around us. And it made naming her that much easier.
“Sonora,” I said, as we watched the mare eat contentedly and look around at her new home. “Her name is Sonora.”
In the two and a half years she spent at Tierra Madre, Sonora – or Nora, as I nicknamed her – blossomed into one of the most unique, strong-willed, loving horses I’ve ever known.
A month or so after she’d been with us, our farriers tried to trim her. She fought them tooth and nail, going so far as to rear up on them and make an effort to charge.
I didn’t know it then, but that was the earliest sign of her problems. And boy, did she constantly have problems with her feet.
For as long as we had her, Nora always struggled with abscesses no matter what we did to her stall. We tried her with shoes, then without, then with again, then without as we tried to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Within a year, I learned she’d had an acute case of laminitis with her previous owner, and the owner before that one.
Isoxsuprine. Ichthammol and bandages. Hoof supplements. Bute, then previcox. Diet changes. Special booties. We all spent hours and hours on her feet. Whatever she needed during a sore phase, we did. Sometimes, she would be sore for weeks. Sometimes, whatever we did one day would bring her completely back to normal the next.
And when she was feeling her best, she was a force to be reckoned with.
She charged out of her stall when it was her turn to go out in the arena. She hopped and jumped and leapt and ran and kicked with fearlessness, with reckless abandon.
Twice at this ranch I’ve been in life-or-death situations that would have ended in disaster had it not been for a few inches of space. Twice, she was the cause of those incidents – one in which she kicked at my head in irritation at not being taken home first and another in which she turned, knocked me down, and nearly ran me over in haste to run.
But within the untamed wildness of her heart lay kindness, and trust, and an intuition that was always right on target.
Everyone who walked within our gates loved her. And she humbled us all by loving us back.
In the spring of 2016, I was absolutely terrified for her when it became clear that her abscesses were not the problem but rather another flare up of laminitis. After several months of corrective trims, booties, supplements, a cushy stall, and more prayers than I can count, she flew around that arena again by the end of the summer.
I had no idea then it would be her last.
In March of this year, the soreness came back. Our new vet and new therapeutic farrier – who’d worked on laminitic horses at our ranch before – came out to diagnose her with severe, acute laminitis.
Going through the downfall hurts even now and blurs together.
The little sole depth she had that kept decreasing. The day the solar corium began to rupture through the sole. The brief 24 hours we thought she improved and her attitude was good and we really, really thought we were going to make it. The day she sunk to the ground in pain rather than stand on one foot while we checked the other. The weight she lost. The way her legs shook. The look in her eyes – determined and strong and fighting pain every instant of every day.
The awful, awful day before we ended it, when we realized there was no saving her.
We always wait for them to tell us they’re ready.
But this time, our vet said to general agreement that Nora was the type of horse that would keep fighting even when she was walking on bone.
This time, we had to be the ones to decide for her.
And I hate that.
We made the call and scheduled it for noon on May 4th. I gave the volunteers a heads up the day before. And that morning, she was surrounded by so many people who loved her and wanted to send her off with love.
We gave her everything she wanted: alfalfa, watermelon, carrots, apples, peppermints… hugs and kisses and pats and scratches. In my haze I was under that morning, I remember getting a bucket of anti fungal shampoo and water and washing her legs one last time, because I couldn’t bear the thought of her leaving without perfectly clean legs. She was so grateful for everything and returned the love that was given to her without hesitation.
After feeding at 11, everyone left one by one, leaving me alone with her in her stall.
And just as I’d talked to her on our first day together, I talked to her on our last.
I told her about the Great Herd.
How the horses in it didn’t live in fear. How they could walk perfectly and jump and buck and run across fields of grass as fast as they could for as long as they wanted. How they lived forever in happiness, with no fences or terrible heat or restricting booties or terrible pain.
I told her that in the Great Herd, she could be nobody but herself, and no one would prevent her from being anything else.
Far too soon, the vet and her assistant pulled through the gate. Nora was quiet, accepting. I was aware of every breath entering and leaving my body. The two of us would only be breathing together for just a little while longer.
Our vet looked at me with complete sympathy and compassion when I walked over with a halter. “You don’t have to watch,” she said. “You don’t have to be there.”
Breath in. Breath out.
“Yes, I do.”
She nodded. I walked. Walked to Nora’s stall. Opened the gate. Haltered her. For the last time. The very last time.
I looked at my little girl, so different from the mare I’d first walked through our gates. I took a breath, one that took all my strength.
And I repeated the words.
“You have no reason to trust me on this,” I whispered in her ear, and it was then I felt my heart break, truly break. “But I need you to trust me now.”
She looked back at me, strong and confident and calm and impossibly beautiful.
The vet was worried Sonora wouldn’t be able to walk up the lane all the way to the spot where we’ve always sent horses to the Great Herd. “She will,” I said.
And Nora walked – sore and in pain but never stopping, never hesitating, never turning back.
We started up the lane up which we’d walked together a hundred times, exploring the ranch, learning to trust one another. We walked slowly, with purpose, as we had during all the days I’d spent showing her the trees, and the cacti, and the desert around us for which she’d been named and all the days she spent showing me what it meant to be living.
We walked past the barn where she had spent her first year with us before we moved her to the field side, where she lived when Sunny was born. I remembered how we switched her and Bentley so she could be the one living next to Rain and the new baby and how she and Sunny used to groom each other over the fence.
We walked past the nearly-gone sand pile she’d play in and over the woodchips she’d occasionally attempt to eat. The day I rushed off the ranch to save her, my volunteers were spreading eucalyptus wood chips on the driveway. To this day, whenever I smell that tree, I’ll think of the day we first met.
We walked past the arena, whose side gate she’d broken with a spirited kick to the handle, the arena into which I had turned her out the moment she came off the trailer, the arena she had torn to bits time and time again in her eagerness to run and kick and buck and leap in happiness. It was the arena I’d lunged her in frequently, where she listened to my thoughts rather than my commands. It was the arena where we’d played together, time after time, after everyone else had gone home, where we could run and dance and chase each other and she would follow me, trustingly, every which way.
We walked up the lane and I saw the round pen in the distance, where she’d lived for her first few weeks and where we would oft return to goof around. Someone once took a video of us playing together – me skipping and her trotting happily at my heels.
We walked to the place where she first took in Tierra Madre and her new life and stopped. We stood still, waiting. Breathing.
Jim followed along with the doc and her assistant, armed with the two pink syringes. To this day I hate that bright, sickly color of pink with every fiber of my being.
As is protocol, she was sedated first, so she wouldn’t feel a thing. And after a few minutes that lasted hours, as the sedation began to take effect, the vet looked to me. I nodded.
The injection went in. The first, fast. Her knees buckled. Then, the second.
I put my face on Nora’s for the last time. Breath in, breath out.
And when she went down, I went down with her.
Her eyes reflected such a state of peace and contentment that I gazed into them as she left me, as we had gazed at each other the day we met, as Jim murmured, “Love you, angel,” over and over again so it would be the last thing she heard.
It was quiet for those few, peaceful moments – or minutes or hours or days for all I knew – as the vet listened for the final beats, the final breaths.
Then she said, “She’s gone.”
And every fiber of my being cracked and involuntary sobs burst out of me and just like I had so many times before during my hard days, I buried my face in Nora’s mane and held her to me and cried. Only this time, the final time, she wasn’t there to comfort me.
Fourteen years old, of which I’d gotten two and a half, in the prime of her life, gone to the horrors of laminitis.
Nothing broke me like that day.
Losing Nora – a mare with whom I’d made a soul connection at first sight, the first horse I could ever actually call my own – so rapidly, and after so many ups and downs when she was so, so young… it almost turned me.
I’ve never once doubted my commitment to horses and my desire to work in rescue and help them and make their lives better… until that day.
I’m not proud of this. But that day, I searched for other jobs. Desk jobs. Office jobs. Any jobs. Anything that would take me away from this.
I wanted to lock my heart away and throw away the key and just up and leave, leave behind every possibility of heartbreak and never again have to feel like my heart was ripped out of my chest and scraped against every rough edge on the planet.
I wanted to leave behind the ranch and find a job where I could be numb to pain, numb to unfathomable grief, numb to the unimaginable suffering of innocent, beautiful spirits with their lives ahead of them.
I spent the next several weeks drowning in grief, questioning my will to be in the horse rescue/sanctuary world.
Who does this? I thought to myself.
Who does this?
Who keeps pouring every ounce of love into such incredible spirits over and over and over again only to have them ripped away?
Why would anyone do this?
Why would anyone go through agony such as this? Why would anyone in their right mind do horse rescue?
Why does anyone work in animal rescue?
I wish I could say that a shining realization came to me all at once, that I had an a-ha! moment that made me realize how silly I was being and how I could never quit.
But the truth is, the area is so gray that there are times I still ask these questions just as I simultaneously see their answers in the form of 31 other horses living at the ranch. And selfish as I am, I know deep down that to turn my back on them and all others for the sake of guarding my heart would be an insult to Nora’s memory.
Furthermore, it would be an insult to Moosie.
The Moose at Tierra Madre was our Medicine Man, a wise horse with an ancient soul who I only knew for four months before he died in his sleep in September of 2009. And the day before his death, I made him a promise that I live by every day of my life, a promise to be brave in the face of anything.
Moose taught me that life was worth living, that I was a person with a purpose. Sonora taught me what that purpose was.
It’s because of her I know that we rescue animals for the shining glimpses of hope between the storms.
We do it to watch them savor their first good meal after being starved or get the diets they need to keep them healthy.
We do it to watch a medical team fix the fractured bones, the torn ligaments, the open wounds, while we fix their broken hearts.
We do it to watch them gallop for joy after being locked in a stall or sprint across the grass after spending life on the end of a chain.
We do it for the new beginnings, the wonders of self discovery, the unbreakable, unspeakable bonds we forge with spirits we’d otherwise never meet.
We do it for the look of peace in their eyes when they leave this world, surrounded by love, knowing love, feeling love.
We do it knowing we’ll get knocked to our knees again and again, knowing there is no reprieve between heartbreaks but that there is no end to the hope we can offer if we rise again.
The blessing and curse of life is that grief is the price we pay for love. Living means we agree to accept the bad that comes with the good. And in the end, living means accepting that no matter how short a life is, it is still a lifetime.