Category Archives: At the Horse Sanctuary

One Year and An Announcement

One year ago today was one of the worst days of my life.
On May 4, 2017, I lost one of my dearest friends in the world.
Having been in the horse rescue world for almost a decade, I love each and every horse I care for with everything I have. They are my brothers and sisters, closer to my heart than anything. When they leave this earth they take a part of me with them.
But I only connect with a few on an otherworldly, soul level.
Sonora was one of the few.
Upon seeing her for the first time, I knew we had broken out of the same mold many lifetimes ago. After knowing her for an hour, I was the only one who could convince her to get in the trailer that would bring her to a safe place, and despite the fact that she didn’t know me and certainly had no reason to trust me, home to Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary she came.
She was the first horse I could ever call my own. She was given to me that very day we rescued her by Jim, who took one look at the way she followed me and said, “You saved her. That little girl is yours.”
So technically Sonora – or Nora, as I called her – became ‘my’ horse… but she wasn’t, really. She wasn’t really mine. In the end, it was always the other way around. From the moment we met to the moment she left me, I belonged to a horse that was somehow a living, breathing extension of myself.
She died on May 4, 2017, after a rapid decline due to laminitis, one week after she turned fourteen.
I have never been the same.
I never will be the same.
But this post is not about what happened one year ago. This is about today, and tomorrow, and every day yet to come.
This is about the future of horse rescue, or so I hope.
This is about telling a story. Our story.
During the weeks that followed Nora’s death, I simultaneously did two things: I Google searched other jobs that would remove me from the horse rescue world forever and ever, amen, and I read everything about laminitis that I could get my hands on. Eventually I did that second thing more than the first.
For those of you who may not know what laminitis is, let me tell you:
It is a killer.
Behind colic, laminitis (lam-in-EYE-tis) is the number one killer of horses. It is a hoof disease that affects the laminae, which are interdigitated, incredibly strong tissues that hold the coffin bone (the bottom-most bone in a horse’s foot) in place. In laminitis, those laminae break apart and the bone separates from the hoof capsule, rotating downward. It is excruciatingly painful and can be caused by a number of factors including a diet high in starch and sugar, insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome, steroid use, gastrointestinal distress – even bad trims play a factor.
I’d known about laminitis for some time. I had a pretty good idea of what it was. But after it claimed the life of one of my best friends, suddenly it became imperative to know more.
So, I became obsessed. Everything having to do with laminitis and founder and farriery and contributing factors to the disease and general hoof anatomy, I was there. I’m still there. I’m still frantically reading and learning.
And as I read and read and read academia about laminitis and tried to find scientific articles I didn’t have to pay for and looked up hard, complicated words I didn’t understand, I realized over time I was searching for resources for horse owners that were vet-backed, comprehendible, and geared toward prevention.
I found none.
I found lots of seminars that only vets and vet techs would understand. I found websites with a couple basic paragraphs about the disease.
But easily accessible resources? Tips for recognizing signs? Pinpointed causes? A breakdown of available treatment plans? Knowledge about choosing the correct vet/farrier team? Tips about necessary therapeutic farrier work that was not furthering some sort of hidden agenda about shoes vs. barefoot trims?
Nothing.
Over several months, I spoke at great length about this to our therapeutic farrier at Tierra Madre, who worked on Sonora in her final days and who trims laminitic horses in partnership with equine veterinarians – including Tierra Madre’s vet – on a weekly basis. In January this year he became our primary farrier, and during his weekly visits I pestered him for answers about what was available for horse owners about laminitis.
And through speaking to him, other farrier friends of his who would accompany him on occasion, and conducting my own research over the course of many months, I came to a startling conclusion:
We as a horse community are lacking in laminitis education and awareness as a whole. Just as I had been unable to see what the true problems were with Nora’s feet in the early weeks following her arrival, many horse owners are unable to correctly recognize signs and causes of laminitis. Just as I had been, many are unaware of just how many treatment options are available and how aggressive it needs to be. Nora had had laminitis for years prior to coming to Tierra Madre, and she was treated with absolutely everything that was available at the time, with all the knowledge that could be found.
She is proof that we need more. Owners and advocates everywhere need more than what is currently, widely available.
Furthermore, as evidenced within our own network of individuals who have surrendered laminitic horses to us in the past and stories we hear of laminitic horses in our rescue community, an emphasis on the importance of a unified vet and farrier partnership is lacking. Standards for therapeutic farrier care for laminitic horses are nonexistent, meaning that sometimes, what a vet intends and what a farrier delivers as far as a treatment plan goes can be two totally different things.
Most importantly of all, although Google searches exist, I have yet to find for horse owners readily available, easily understandable literature, videos, webinars, and seminars about each and every detail surrounding laminitis in horses. I have yet to find anything that attempts to piece together the massive, complicated puzzle that is laminitis.
ACTH levels. Insulin resistance. Hoof anatomy. Trims and choosing farriers. Abscesses. Diet. Equine metabolic syndrome. Gastrointestinal distress. Mechanical laminitis. Steroids. Commons signs. What to do if. How to act when. What to do first. What to correct immediately. Why this way. Why that way. There is so much to cover. So much to understand.
There is no cure for laminitis. Prevention is the only cure, and without education there is no prevention.
While continued laminitis research must play an enormous part of this battle, until we know how to prevent and protect, horses will continue to die despite them being in the most loving of hands.
I wondered why someone didn’t just start something that would accomplish this goal of gathering a team of people together who could help the horse community at large. And then, alongside many other realizations as I navigated life without Nora in it, I realized… I am somebody.
And so, I present the beginnings of an organization that will be dedicated to offering education about laminitis to both horse owners and rescues who too frequently treat laminitic horses saved from severe neglect and abuse.
We will focus on each miniscule detail that envelops the complex disease including basic anatomy, signs, causes, treatment, and prevention.
We will break down scientific, vet-backed evidence and research to create online content including articles and videos. Additionally, we will begin teaching workshops in January 2019 that will be open to the public.
We will target riding barns, tack stores, farrier shops, horse shows, and rescues to spread awareness. We will do outreach and network and offer help to any horse owner who wishes to challenge themselves to learn more about laminitis.
We will fundraise for what I foresee to be minimal costs of writing and producing educational content in order to provide free education to the public. Within five to ten years, I sincerely hope we will be able to award small grants to owners struggling with the financials of bringing a horse back from the disease.
I am currently going through the process of legalizing my organization through the Arizona Corporation Commission. The next step afterward will be to obtain my legal 501(c)(3) public charity status through the IRS, after which it will become an official nonprofit entity.
And while it is certainly a work in progress and I expect to see it grow within this year as I identify members of my team, I would like to introduce my board of directors that has been with me from the very start, and thank them for their support:
– Jim Gath, my partner at Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary – out of which we will be operating until the day comes I get my own facility – whose guidance will help us target different sections of the horse community here in the Valley. As someone who founded a nonprofit horse sanctuary over a decade ago and who has dealt with laminitis back in the days where very little education was available, Jim will bring a needed perspective to our future articles, videos, seminars, and workshops.
– John Samsill, APF, Tierra Madre’s therapeutic farrier who has personally seen the effects of laminitis in horses over many years and not only understands the importance of education for owners, is committed to ensuring that correct guidance is given. With his help (and patience for my thousands of questions) I have begun to map the outline of the educational content our organization will offer, and he will be instrumental in guiding our workshops we will someday offer.
And finally,
– my husband, Alex Ferri, my chief technology officer, has spent the past several months building our website, which will be launched towards the end of this year. He will also assist me with some of the technical aspects of running a nonprofit such as web upkeep, email software, etc.
My next target is to get a certified equine veterinarian on my board, who will serve as an advisor for all content that we release to the public. I will continue to define roles that need to be filled and seek out hoof specialists, equine welfare organizations, nonprofit professionals, and certified veterinarians all over the globe who would have valuable insight as to what horse owners need to hear.
After that?
Well, there’s a lot to do. A lot will happen over the next six months. In January 2019, I hope to be ready to launch.
If you are interested in joining our future newsletter to hear the latest news and updates about this organization and its mission, you can email me at my newest email address which I will post below. Stay tuned for the launching of our website, volunteering opportunities, ways to give, and ways to commemorate a horse you love who was lost to laminitis. Best of all, stay tuned for the downloadable content about all things laminitis as well as future dates for our first few workshops in Cave Creek.
And one year from now, I hope to look back on today and think, one year ago was the beginning of an organization that will bring about change in the horse community.
An organization that will help people and horses alike.
An organization that will decrease the number of equine who die every year from laminitis.
An organization that embodies the will to fight my Sonora carried with her till the end.
And perhaps most importantly of all, an organization that tells a story: the story of a beautiful red mare with an unbreakable spirit, who died far too young, too full of the will to live.
Laminitis takes so much from the creatures that built this country, from those who literally carried us into gunfire, from those who pulled our plows and dragged us across the untamed West to build what is now the United States of America.
Laminitis takes what we always take for granted in any living being. It takes health and energy. It takes weight and strength and the spark out of horses’ eyes. It diminishes the reckless, breathless freedom that horses embody and instead inflicts pain and suffering. It begets hopelessness and despair.
It takes life.
It takes just about everything. But there is one thing we can’t let it touch.
It cannot take away the will to keep fighting.
Whether you win or lose, you fight. When you are up against all odds, you fight.
Grief can stop you – oh, how I know it can stop you. Or it can fuel you.
One year ago today my little girl left me. I still can’t believe it’s been that long. Some days, it feels like yesterday. Others, it feels like it was eons ago.
One thing is certain.
Nora, my wild one,
I miss you. I will always miss you.
This is for you.
~
Sonora’s Cure is an upcoming 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization headquartered in Cave Creek, Arizona that will offer easily accessible and credible education about the causes, signs, treatment plans, and prevention of the fatal hoof disease laminitis.
To join the future newsletter list to receive our most current updates, please email the founder and president of Sonora’s Cure at alexis@sonorascure.org.
Snail mail and inquiries can be sent to:
Sonora’s Cure
Attn: Alexis Roeckner Ferri
27115 N. 45th Street
Cave Creek, AZ 85331
Alexis can additionally be reached at (480) 208 – 6896 or alexisrferri@gmail.com.
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Three Months

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 could 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 then…

“Okay.”

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.”

Her first day.

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.

August 31, 2016

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.

July 24, 2016

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.

“Okay.”

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 thousand 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.

Gone.

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. 

The Weakest Step

I see her in the mountains.

I see her in every saguaro and palo verde and creosote bush.

I feel her in every breath of wind and in the sun on my face.

I hear her charging across the sky.

I look all around me and she is there, breathing life into my aching heart.

With every breath I take I miss my little girl.

And to be honest with you as I always try to be… part of me has wanted to quit all of this.

Run away so I could never feel this pain again. Choose another career that would never break me so intensely. Find another place to work that would never subject me to the cruelty of losing a beautiful, wild, happy, spirited angel with her whole life ahead of her to the horrors of laminitis.

But when I’m at my weakest I look around me and see Chianti peeking over her stall bars, hoping I’ll sneak her a treat or two.

I see Studley give a happy little nicker when he sees someone walking towards him with a halter.

I see my brother Chance, his eyes such a unique shade of light gold, looking at me with such understanding.

I see Sedona sneak a bite of alfalfa out of a passing food cart then try his best to look innocent.

I see Rain – an acute laminitis survivor – walk back in forth with such ease and contentment.

I see Guess happily splash the water out of her tub onto her chest (and part of Bella’s face) and on the ground.

I see Rusty standing patiently while some of our younger volunteers hang off of him.

I see Iron Man, dark coat shimmering in the sunlight, toss his magnificent head.

They still stand.

They still face tomorrow.

And just as I realized when I was 17 and meeting these horses for the first time, if they can live on despite all forces that tried to bring them down… so can I.

I meant to write about my last day with Sonora and how it mirrored our first. I meant to write about what she gave to our ranch and how she was so loved and how lucky we all were to get to love on her one last time.

I still can’t. Maybe someday.

For now, we all still recover. Because as selfish as I am for writing about *my* heartbreak, Nora was a part of everyone here.

She belonged to no one. She was untamed and free-willed and fiercely independent right till the end. But she gave everyone here her heart. Willingly and trustingly.

And she took a piece of each of us with her to the Great Herd last Thursday.

We are all – as always – forever grateful to each of you for your support. I write such a raw post in the hopes that it offers some insight into the reality of the horse rescue and sanctuary world. I write so that you may understand how powerful your place is in our battle.

Sometimes we get our hearts ripped out and torn apart. We face terror and doubt and devastation. We stand on the edge of the abyss. Sometimes we fall.

But with you at our backs, we also rise.

And we keep going.

“The weakest step toward the top of the hill, toward sunrise, toward hope, is stronger than the fiercest storm.” ~ Joseph Marshall

Liz Lee Studios

An Announcement: Sonora

She’s gone.

My little girl, my sister from the moment our eyes met, my beautiful, young, wild and spirited mare joined the Great Herd today at 12:30.

Liz Lee Studios

Her X-rays yesterday showed further rotation in both front feet and her coffin bones were actually starting to sink. She was losing weight, her poor legs shook with exhaustion, and every now and then she’d put her nose on the ground and stand still as she quietly, bravely powered through a wave of pain.

It was time. She knew it, too.

When she was first brought through the gates two and a half years ago I led her out of the trailer and she stepped forward eagerly, excited at what awaited her. Today, I walked her back up that lane and despite the level of pain she was in, she didn’t stop or struggle. She wanted to go. Everything was peaceful, the look in her eyes most of all.

Her spirit was strong till the end. It never broke, not once. But my heart has.

A Living Nightmare

I debated even writing about this.

About how we – in the last 48 hours – came to the edge of the abyss of losing Heighten. 

The edge

of the freaking abyss.

Neither Jim or I want to relive the nightmare that was Sunday afternoon and Sunday early evening and Sunday night and Monday in the wee hours of the morning and the few hours before Monday’s sun peeked above the horizon.

Because what happened during those hours defies anything I could accurately put into words.

It was, simply put, a living hell.

A living hell I never believed possible.

Jim told me point blank today he couldn’t relive it through writing. But we both agreed that we wanted to tell you, our faithful friends and followers and donors and supporters, what happened for two reasons:

1) Writing is the way I cope with traumatic events. Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, whatever) is how I process something my brain keeps telling me was a bad dream.

And 2) We feel that we owe it to everyone – especially our volunteers who love Heighten as a brother – to share the good, the bad, and the ugly of what goes on at a horse sanctuary. A dosage of reality, if you will.

And quite honestly I don’t know where to begin or if I should go into detail or just summarize or just leave it at a few sentences.

I am just still reeling. In Jim’s words, we are still bruised.

But I suppose it started around 3:30pm on Sunday, the day after our wonderful Help A Horse Day, when Jim called me to tell me Heighten was going crazy. He was mad, kicking at the fence, pawing at the ground, pacing in his stall like a maniac. Not eating. Jim called the vet, called Abel, then gave Heighten 10 cc-s of banamine, hosed him down, and started to walk him. I got in my car and rushed over. Abel did too.

The vet got to the ranch around 4:30 or a little before, after we’d been walking Heighten for some time. He was nibbling at the old, dried Bermuda on the ground but wouldn’t touch the fresh alfalfa or Timothy or Bermuda we offered him. Odd.

At one point, we let him loose in the arena and let him roll. He hasn’t gone out in the arena for some time, due to a) his bad leg that makes getting up difficult for him and b) the fact that he always seemed to want to go home directly after putting him out. But on Sunday afternoon, he rolled and got himself up with next to no difficulty but resumed his pacing. He seemed nervous, but the banamine was kicking in and he began to get interested in food.

Regardless, despite a relatively normal rectal exam and the fact that he was somewhat more like himself, we decided to have Dr. T tube him, probably around 4:45 or 5pm.

We put Heighten back in his stall and cleaned out his feeder so he couldn’t snack while still under sedation. We also gave him a tube of Gastrogard. Jim has long suspected Heighten has ulcers, and though we couldn’t be totally sure, we hypothesized that he might have had a little flare up. And Heighten, being a bit of a baby that he is, reacted to the sudden pain with anger and bewilderment.

“Just keep an eye on him,” said Dr. T as she got all of her supplies together and prepared to leave. “I’m on call all night, so give me a ring if anything goes wrong.”

We nodded and thanked her and she left, all of us feeling much better.

I had no idea that we’d be calling her again within hours.

With Heighten on the mend, Jim and I talked a bit about him – getting him back on Gastrogard, making sure he gets some arena time for as long as he wants (even if it’s only for five minutes) – before I left, supposedly for the night.

I was in Target, grabbing some things for dinner, when my phone rang again.

My heart dropped when I saw Jim’s name.

“It’s Heighten,” he said as soon as I answered. “He’s bad again. The same as he was before he was tubed.”

Shit.

Heart racing, I sped back to the ranch. It was sunset – around 6:30 or 7 – as I trotted up the wash to the walkway between the breezeway and the arena, where Abel was walking a visibly distressed Heighten.

Pawing. Refusing to eat. Looking around anxiously. Pawing again on the dirt. And again. And again.

That damn pawing.

I hope I go the rest of my life without hearing that awful sound.

I could see it in his eyes as he looked around.

Something is wrong. Please, help me.

Jim got the vet back on the phone. She was at another colic emergency, of all things, but said she’d be there as soon as we could.

I texted Shana and Denise – our ranch managers – and let them know what was going on before putting Heighten back in the arena so he could walk around. Around 7:30, right before the vet showed up again, he lay down and looked somewhat comfortable (head up, looking around him still), so we let him stay down.

Just as Dr. T pulled up, he put his head down and started twitching. Whether the pain was that bad or he was trying to get back up, I don’t know, but it almost looked like his body was seizing.

“Doc!” I yelled and she came hurtling out of her truck. The words, “Let’s try to get him up,” weren’t even out of her mouth before Heighten had – in one astonishingly powerful movement, pushed himself off the ground and stood before us calmly.

Bewildered, I grabbed his halter and put the lead rope back on him as Jim started talking to the vet.

“It’s like we never even tubed him,” he said. “I’m thinking….”

“Yep,” said Dr. T, and I felt my heart drop again.

I’d heard of intravenous bagging before. I’d never actually seen it happen.

Over a decade ago, Heighten had coliced and had been hooked up to IV fluids all night long in an effort to save his life. Jim said it wasn’t until dawn – after staying with him all night – he knew Heighten was going to live.

This was to be an instant replay.

We brought Heighten to the front half of Chiquita’s stall, above which hangs a lead rope that Jim says he hates with a burning passion. I walked an increasingly frantic Heighten in circles outside of it while Jim and the doc got a ladder and hung two bags of fluid front that lead rope. Then, after a shitload of sedation, Heighten calmed down and we brought him inside so the vet could insert a catheter with a port for more sedatives that hooked up to the bagged fluids.

And, god love them, at that time Shana and Denise showed up right as we were attaching hoses to ports and the doc was sewing in the catheter in Heighten’s neck/vein, around 8pm. They’re both nurses and while Jim and I gave each other a look of confusion as the vet explained how to change the bag and clamp on/off the fluids, those two nodded and assured us when the time came to change everything they’d be on it.

With the first two bags of fluids set to drip into his system really quickly (there’s a medical term for that but I can’t remember it), the vet left the ranch for the second time and Jim, Shana, Denise, and I settled down in chairs outside Chiquita’s stall (Chiquita herself shut safely in the “outer” portion of her stall) to watch our boy.

Under sedation, he was very calm and while he walked around a bit, he seemed worlds better than he’d been just a few hours ago. He watched us a bit while the four of us sat and talked and drank some soda leftover from Saturday and I stole a few pieces of turkey from Jim’s fridge and shared them with Lee.

It was dark then and the weather couldn’t have been more than 75 degrees. The stars were out and the crickets were chirping and the night was warm and perfect and as I sat there, watching Heighten improve steadily, talking comfortably with three people I loved dearly, I thought that we were out of the woods.

Here’s the thing about that, though.

The moment you let your guard down just a bit, the moment you think all is well, Life has a terrible, terrible habit of reaching towards you and grabbing you by the throat.

At 10pm, I assured Shana and Denise – who run the place on Mondays during my office days – that all was well and that they should go rest up before they had to be back here around 8am. I could tell they wanted to stay, but with some convincing, they decided all would be well and left. They changed the bags before they did, and with two full bags of fluid in Heighten and another two slowly on their way into his system, we all hoped for the best.

Jim and I sat watching Heighten for a few minutes longer and I kept thinking I’d rise too and get in my car and go home. I don’t know what possessed me to keep sitting in that chair. Instinct, maybe. Because around 10:30 or so, Heighten started pacing again. Pawing. He lay down and rolled and got up again and resumed his anxious pacing.

We caught him – with some difficulty – and gave him some domosedan. He calmed down and I took the opportunity to untangle the IV. Still pawing. Still hurting, somewhere, somehow. Some time between 11 and 11:30 we gave him another sedative in the port in his catheter, xylazine. Dr. T had left us a few and warned us, “If you stab yourself with the xylazine, call 911.”

I kept Heighten as still as I could while Jim carefully gave him the xylazine then got the hell out of the small stall. He lay down again, this time comfortably. At 11:45 we got the vet back on the phone to give her an update. At midnight, I left the ranch for Chaparral to go get some more sedatives in case we happened to need them.

I pulled up to the back of the vet’s where Dr. T was replenishing her truck.

“How is he?” she asked as she gave me the bag of shots. I sighed.

“He’s still pawing,” I said. “Still hooked up to the bags though. He keeps pacing.” I hesitated. “I… I don’t have a good feeling about this, to be honest.”

Dr. T looked at me anxiously. “You’re doing everything possible for him,” she said. “Call me with any updates, okay?”

When I got back around 12:30am, Heighten was on his feet and calm again. Despite having the new sedatives, we agreed that we wouldn’t sedate him again in the hopes that if he had another attack of pain he would work through it.

Here’s where everything becomes a haze, like something out of a living nightmare.

Heighten started to wake up and as he did, his pawing returned. His anxiety. He paced and paced and paced around and around and around that stall, stopping every now and then like he was going to roll, tangling his IV attached from to the bags hanging from the lead rope dangling from the barn ceiling.

Jim and I watched in silence, helplessness.

“Should we sedate him again?” I asked half-heartedly at one point and Jim shook his head. “Let’s see if he can power through it,” he said. “And we can maybe see whether it’s getting better or worse.”

At one point I put a blanket in the dirt on the ground outside the stall and lay down to try and sleep for 20 minutes or so. Lee – who refused point blank to go sleep in the house – put his wet nose on my face anxiously until I assured him I was fine. When I closed my eyes I could hear the pawing and the pacing. If I close my eyes even now I still hear it.

Jim got up from his chair and turned the barn lights off. Heighten – fully out of sedation now – continued to pace, but it somehow didn’t seem like he was in pain anymore. With the lights off, he could check on everything around him. So he’d go peek in one corner at one end of the shed then walk to the other corner to look at the other end. Like he just wanted to see what was going on. Back and forth, back and forth, around and around, like a merry-go-round straight out of hell.

We rushed in at one point to untangle his IV cords, exhaustion and anxiety taking over as we barked orders at each other and Heighten – trying his hardest to listen to us – stood still, trembling, while we tried to untangle that stupid, horrible tube that he’d twisted around and around and around with his walking.

After we’d done what we could we got out of there he lay down again, on his bad side. But he’d shortened that damn tube so much that when he lay down, he pulled open one of the bags of fluid. And – like things couldn’t be worse – it started dripping on him. That must have been around 2:30.

Rush to turn on the lights. Grab the halter. Fumble with the ladder. Jim – on the wall of the stall – reaching to grab the bag to try and release it. Heighten on his bad side, eyes scared, sides heaving, that bag dripping steadily on his side.

The image is forever burned in my memory as one of the worst things I’ve ever seen and ever will see.

It was then we called it.

We got the vet on the phone. We asked her to come back out.

We decided we were going to end it.

We stood on the edge of that abyss and looked into Heighten’s eyes as he lay in the stall and thought for sure he was telling us it was over.

And as we waited for the vet to come we sat in numb disbelief, Heighten raising his head every now and then to look at Jim, and Jim gently reassuring him to lay back down, because everything was alright, it was all going to be alright. All will be well again, he said. Lay your head back down, my brother. I’ve got your back. All is well.

And I sat and thought of how many people loved Heighten and could I call them all at 2:45 in the morning and what would I say and how would I describe the horror of the night and how – how? – could this have happened and what was really going on with our baby boy and was it something we did and was it something we could have prevented and our 32, our 32 and U that had been our theme for Help a Horse Day just the day before, was going to be 31 and how could this be happening and maybe this was just a dream, a horrible, horrible dream….

The vet got there around 3. Jim and I stared blankly at her when she said, “Let’s get him up. Let’s get him back to his stall and see how he does.”

What about the IV? I thought stupidly, but the vet unhooked him, despite the one unbroken bag not being empty yet, and out of nowhere, out of nothing… he was standing again. I dazedly grabbed the lead rope and lead him back to his stall.

Heighten still paced a bit but something in his attitude shifted when he realized he was home. He wasn’t pawing nearly as much. Jim looked at him and said, “I’m starting to think the pacing was an emotional thing. He woke up and realized he wasn’t home. He got stressed out.”

Dr. T nodded as she listened to his heartrate. “That’s definitely an option,” she said. “And the stress could contribute to other things going on with him.”

She listened for gut sounds, then did another rectal exam. Heighten stood still, eyes alert, breathing normally – well, as normally as one can breathe with a hand up your ass (TMI? Sorry not sorry) – and Dr. T eventually declared, “Everything feels normal. In fact, better than the first exam last night.”

I let out a breath, astonished, and Jim put his arms around Heighten’s neck.

“What caused him to go crazy?” we all wondered. “What could have caused this?”

We threw around ideas. He did colic for a time, then the bagging with IV fluids helped, but he was stressed upon being in a new stall hence why he paced so much all night. His ulcers acted up suddenly and the pain caused him to get angry around 3:30 and caused flare ups now and then. Later on, Jim wondered if Sunny had gone into her first heat, making Heighten – a gelding we suppose was proud-cut – crazy. It was colic season. Maybe it was just something in the air. Something in the hay.

We had no clue.

But we did know one thing.

Heighten – who an hour before looked like he was on his last leg – stood in his stall with authority and not without unease to be sure, but without pain.

It was a mystery.

It still is.

We talked about getting him tested for ulcers in the next few weeks, but we’re pretty sure – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that ulcers are very likely. We gave him another tube of Gastrogard and left his stall so he could resume exploring his stall like he’d never seen it before.

“He’s just been through some trauma,” the vet said. “It’ll probably take some time for him to settle back down.”

We agreed, and the vet left around 3:45. Heighten paced a bit in his stall, but without the same amount of urgency, and without pawing. Without pain. Without fear.

Just a bit anxious.

But I mean, hell.

I’d be anxious too.

At 4 with Heighten on the mend, I left. I was terrified of getting another call telling me he was bad again, but at that point I was going off adrenaline and about 15 minutes of Lee-interrupted sleep.

I slept for a few hours then called Jim at 7:30 for an update.

And he said Heighten – though still walking around in his stall just a little bit – was calmer, happier, better.

I went back at around 8:30 to see for myself.

You know how the sun seems brighter when you’re tired? It was like that when I walked onto the ranch again.

And there in his stall, in the bright, bright sun in contrast to the image of my head of his silhouette against the starry sky hours before, stood Heighten.

Impossibly.

Bravely.

Surely.

Jim looked exhausted but beside himself with happiness.

“Over a decade ago, when we bagged him, I didn’t know if he was going to make it until dawn,” he said, looked at Heighten who was nibbling slowly on a handful of Bermuda. “And today, just before dawn broke, we won again.”

As of today, Tuesday, Heighten is still recovering from what we are guessing was a combination of colic and ulcer-related pain and extreme anxiety. He’s still nibbling at food and sleepy. We think his throat might hurt a bit from being tubed and it was suggested by Dr. T we take a look at his teeth. We’ll probably arrange to have them floated within a few weeks.

In the meantime, he’s on Gastrogard for some time in addition to his usual Neigh-Lox and we’re offering him all three types of hay along with plenty of bran mashes to coax his appetite.

And just as I look back on that god-awful night in a daze, I find myself looking at him as though not totally sure he’s real.

But he is.

He is strong and brave and on the mend.

And he is alive.

He is alive.

When I’d gotten back from the vet’s around 12:30am Monday morning, I brought from my car a small book I keep on me all the time, a book I love dearly. It’s called Keep Going: The Art of Perseverance by Joseph Marshall, and it is a collection of Lakota stories that piece together a beautiful perspective of dealing with the harsh realities of life.

At one point during the night, out of nothing but desperation for something to do other than focus on our misery, I read aloud some parts of it to Jim and Heighten.

I think Marshall’s words from the prologue sum up everything.

~

“A young man asked his grandfather why life had to be so difficult sometimes. This was the old man’s reply.

“Grandfather says this: ‘In life there is sadness as well as joy, losing as well as winning, falling as well as standing, hanger as well as plenty, badness as well as goodness. I do not say this to make you despair, but to teach you reality. Life is a journey sometimes walked in light, sometimes in shadow.’

“Grandfather says this: ‘You did not ask to be born, but you are here. You have weakness as well as strengths. You have both because in life, there is two of everything. Within you is the fill to win, as well as the willingness to lose. Within you is the heart to feel compassion as well as the smallness to be arrogant. Within you is the way to face life as the fear to turn away from it.’

“Grandfather says this: “Life can give you strength, Strength can come from facing the storms of life, from knowing loss, feeling sadness and heartache, from falling into the depths of grief. You must stand up in the storm. You must face the wind and the cold and the darkness. When the storm blows hard you must stand firm, for it is not trying to knock you down, it is really trying to teach you to be strong.’

“Grandfather says this: ‘Being strong means taking one more step toward the top of the hill, no matter how weary you may be. It means letting the tears flow through the grief. It means to keep looking for the answer, though the darkness of despair is all around you. Being strong means to cling to hope for one more heartbeat, one more sunrise. Each step, no matter how difficult, is one more step closer to the top of the hill. To keep hope alive for one more heartbeat at a time leads to the light of the next sunrise, and the promise of a new day.’

“Grandfather says this: ‘The weakest step toward the top of the hill, toward sunrise, toward hope, is stronger than the fiercest storm.’

“Grandfather says this: ‘Keep going.’”

Head vs. Heart: A Follow Up

I believe in transparency.

I believe in truth and integrity.

I believe our family – be they donors, volunteers, Facebook friends, or longtime followers – have the right to know what goes on within our gates and our ventures and our decisions and our lives.

Before anyone starts worrying, let me just say quickly that all 31 of our herd are good. They’re happy and healthy and while I need to post some updates on some of our usual Facebook stars very soon (Rain, Chiquita, etc.), they’re all doing great. All the humans around here are doing pretty well, too.

Well, I’ll be honest.

Not me so much.

I wrote the other day how we’d been quiet on Facebook because we were busy cleaning up the facility after all the rain.

There’s another reason I haven’t been posting too much.

I’ve been putting all my energy into dealing with a situation that began over a month ago – with a letter from a lady who needed homes for her two horses – that escalated over the past few days.

I told you about the two new horses in a blogpost called Head vs. Heart two weeks ago.

Daisy Mae and Braveheart.

I told you about how their owner had written us a letter begging for help, and we made a decision to give them a forever home after none of the rescues or sanctuaries in our network were able to take them.

This was two weeks ago. Two weeks ago, we said yes, we’ll open up our gates to two more spirits. We’ll house them. We’ll love them.

We started making tentative plans for their day of arrival.

I told all our volunteers and staff about the decision. I told all of YOU guys about the decision.

Most everyone jumped over the moon. The words of love and support lifted me and all of us here to the high heavens.

I posted pictures of Daisy Mae and Braveheart on our volunteer board along with their owner’s letter so everyone could see them and get excited over them.

This was two weeks ago.

As of Tuesday this week, they are no longer coming home to Tierra Madre.

And I’m grieving the loss of those two horses we never had.

Not only am I grieving, I’m deeply scared for them.

Now, I’m having a hard time writing this at all, because there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to talk about the details and just keep this under the radar as not to bad mouth anyone, particularly anyone going through a difficult time.

But I can’t keep silent. I won’t. Because in this big, big mess there’s a lesson here for the entire equine rescue/sanctuary sector to learn as well as horse owners everywhere.

Awareness needs to be raised and education needs to be spread, all for the sake of those who can’t speak for themselves.

This business is messy, because – as Jim has told me time and time again since Tuesday in a valiant attempt to comfort me – we deal with human spirits and horse spirits which are complicated and inconsistent and ambiguous.

That said, I want to really reign in what I write as I tell you all what happened. In my anger and grief and sadness and denial and bewilderment, I don’t want to say anything unkind or unfair.

The long story short is this: Their owner decided she did not wish to surrender her horses to us.

She and I emailed back and forth many, many times over the past two weeks with regards to where her horses would be living, what their current diets were as well as their supplement intake, when she wanted them blanketed, what medications they were on and why, previous vet analyses as well as farrier work, dental work, etc., etc.

She loves those horses. That’s the silver lining in all of this. She cares for her babies deeply and for that, she has my respect.

Sometime about a week ago, she asked if she could hold on to them until her house sold. Only she didn’t know when that would be. Weeks? Months?

Uh…

I gave her a date. I told her we would give her until the end of February to get them to us, but that in our line of work we were used to handling emergencies and urgent situations – holding pens for that amount of time was going to be a stretch. But, I understood her reasoning – she’d gotten a little extra time than she’d anticipated and didn’t want to give up her horses just yet.

Then came more questions. And with them, demands.

I won’t bore you with details. Basically, she wanted to dictate how much of different supplements the two horses received every day and was insistent that they not receive bran, that we blanket them at certain temperatures, that we tie Daisy Mae during feeing, that we…

Again, all normal from a worried horse owner about to give up her babies. I gently told her about Tierra Madre’s feeding routines and assured her all would be well with her kids.

On Tuesday (two days ago), we had our final email exchange.

I’m going to exercise my civility and continue to reign this in in the nicest manner I can manage.

The owner grew agitated and wanted to know specifics about what her horses would be receiving here (again, she didn’t want them to have bran). She also asked if we’d ever had a coronavirus outbreak.

Again, I believe in transparency.

I believe in truth and integrity.

I told her yes, we’d had a coronavirus outbreak a year ago, but that we’d managed to contain it within a week or two thanks to our heroic vets and our hasty sanitization of our property. I told her only a few of our herd had been affected.

Then, I told her that at Tierra Madre, we do things a certain way based on our 100% success rate with our feeding schedules and supplements and medications. And at our ranch, at our vet’s recommendation, we feed daily bran mashes with electrolytes and mineral salt in lieu of psyllium pellets for colic prevention (a few other horses in need of a further boost in gut health also receive beet pulp and apple cider vinegar). And since changing a horse’s diet all at once is irresponsible, I told her we would gradually wean her horses onto our tactics.

When she emailed me back, I must have read through everything four or five times in shock and bewilderment.

I fear this is getting too long and gossipy, so I’ll suffice it to say that she became convinced we were putting her horses in an isolation pen away from the other horses; stated I’d lost her trust since I wasn’t going to follow her instructions; implied that any ranch with a coronavirus outbreak wasn’t suitable; questioned “what we’d done” with the horses that came down with the virus (um, we healed them?); and came to the conclusion that we were hiding other things from her.

Did the words, “Wait, what?” just come out of your mouth?

Yeah, they did for me, too.

Here’s the lesson that needs to be shared with our community, and it is a little dosage of something called Reality:

Once you surrender your horse to a facility that operates as a rescue or sanctuary, you lose the right to have any say in that horse’s diet and overall care.

Our vets have worked wonders on our herd since 2004. We’ve been doing this for over a decade for horses who have walked in our gates in worse conditions than should ever be legally and humanly acceptable in a living creature. We know what the hell we’re doing.

Sometimes horses come in with misdiagnosed conditions and our reevaluations pull them onto the path of recovery. It’s happened many times before.

But Daisy Mae and Braveheart’s owner didn’t like this answer and said she’d take her chances keeping them with her. Nor did she accept the aerial photograph of our facility I sent her, pointing out where her horses would have gone so she could see it wasn’t an isolation pen. And when Jim called her himself yesterday morning to reiterate what I’d said over email and express concern for the wellbeing of her horses, I’ll only say publically that she didn’t like what he had to say, either.

So.

Saving horses is the name. Sometimes, broken hearts is the game.

The past few days, I’ve wanted to curl into a ball and cry and scream into the wind and shake this owner by the shoulders and yell in her face, “Do you KNOW what happens in an auction ring?? In a slaughter house??”

I know she’s clinging to them desperately. I get that.

But what on earth will happen to those two horses when her time runs out?

Jim tells me she might call or write again in a few weeks or a few months or whenever her house sells and she can’t find another rescue or sanctuary that will meet her demands. It could be in a few weeks, they could be in our pen and I’ll write on here to say everything changed again.

For those horses’ sakes, I surely hope so.

I am trusting that she loves them enough to do what is right, and that she won’t bring them to a facility that might tell her what she wants to hear then separate the two of them and sell them to the kill buyer the moment she walks away.

But I just can’t believe this.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blogpost about how we were getting two family members. That I was so glad that in the decision making process, I’d listened to my heart and not my head.

Two weeks ago, I was imagining these two new spirits and wondering about them in excitement.

Who would they be? What would their personalities be like? Who was the leader in their little herd?

Where would they want to be scratched? How would they take treats? Would they vacuum them out of my hand like Sedona or take them gently and one by one like Heighten?

I could already see two pairs of bright eyes watching me with excitement as I came over with halters to get them out of their pen for playtime in the arena.

I could already hear two new whickers of excitement as I came around with the food cart.

Two weeks ago, I sat in the knowledge that we’d saved two more innocent souls from the horrors of slaughter.

Today, I am scared for them and am hoping with every fiber of my being their owner sees reason soon and puts them in a safe place, because kill buyers are around every corner.

Today, I’m sitting in grief, looking out into the field at the corner office that stands waiting for two family members who – as of today – will never come.

That pen is empty.

And so is my heart.

Head vs. Heart

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—”

“Wahoo!”

“Well, yes, and she also wrote us a letter. And attached pictures. Of her horses.”

Oh, hell.

“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.

Sheila

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.

Dear Alexis

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,

Sheila

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.

I dialed.

“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.”

“I know.”

“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.

“Hello?”

“Hi, is this Sheila?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

Silence.

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.