May 27, 2017 § 2 Comments
Be warned: This blogpost – very much like this entire day – is a long one!
I’m beginning this at 10pm London time (2pm Arizona time) while sitting at my Airbnb flat’s dining room table with the terrace door open behind me so I can feel the fresh air and hear the sounds of the city.
It’s amazing because even though it’s dark, there’s still the faintest hint of light near the horizon… London summer days are long! Even though I woke up at 6am (11pm Arizona time), there wasn’t just a faint bit of light – there was tons of it. Sunrise here is before 5am!
(EDIT: I finished this blogpost a little after noon, 4am Arizona time!)
I got to my station at Golden Tours a little ahead of schedule which turned out to be great since it took some time to find the right bus. We headed off around 8:30am to Windsor Castle first, taking the bus out of London completely and heading into the seriously green English countryside.
And before I talk about Windsor… let me just get real here for a minute.
Even in the early morning today after a good night’s sleep, I was tired.
And to me it was finally a wakeup call about the reality of packing so many adventures into each day, or selecting quantity of quality, if you will.
Honestly, it was a wakeup call about who I am as a human being.
I’m sure there’s a little jet lag I’m getting over but really just the excitement of being here has been pushing me to walk miles each day, to travel literally all over the city via the Tube, to see everything my eyes could soak in before it’s time for me to go home. The excitement is still there and it will always be there – and not just about London, but about life in general, I think – but now the tiredness is sinking in.
And this trip has taught me more about a side of myself I think I have always known: that I am always trying to do more and I tend to think that no matter what I do in life, it’s not enough. I strive for perfection, which as we all know is a fruitless path as it just doesn’t exist. And while it’s good to want to be the best and do the most… there have to be limits. There has to be a time where you stop and say, “I’ve done all I can do, and it’s enough!” There has to be a time where you stop and say, “I am who I am, and I am good enough!”
So for the rest of my trip, I’m slowing down. And part of that starts tonight, where I can debrief and write about the whirlwind trip that was Windsor and Bath and – my favorite – Stonehenge. Where I can reflect and savor every moment that made today so amazing without hurriedly planning what I’m going to do tomorrow.
On the way to Windsor Castle our guide told us a little bit about its history. As a lover of English history, this was heaven for me. Apparently, Windsor Castle was built along with nine (?) other castles around the Tower of London so that if the Tower needed troops, they could be sent for within a day. He talked a bit about William the Conqueror’s defeat of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold during the Battle of Hastings (by “cheating” a bit, apparently) and how the new king set up the site for Windsor. It’s one of the oldest castles in England and apparently is still the summer home of Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth. Apparently, in 1992, a fire broke out in the castle and her own son, Prince Andrew, was among the heroes who dashed through the flames to save invaluable paintings and furniture.
That, by the way, is a leader to me. It got me thinking of the days kings rode into battle, leading their troops rather than command the forces from behind a desk. Someone who risks his or her life as much as – and even more than – those who follow.
We pulled up to Windsor and I was abruptly reminded of the touristy side of exploring when it took over an hour to get into the castle. My guide handed out our tickets and maps and we waited to get through the hefty security measures that many sites are imposing after the bombing in Manchester.
Another random thought that hit me as I stood in line: I think I’ve heard just about every language possible here (though I know I’m sure I haven’t yet heard hundreds)! It’s amazing to me how nearly everyone speaks at least two languages fluently. My tour group was so diverse – Chinese, Korean, German, Hindi, and other European dialects I didn’t recognize (probably Slovakian).
Then, finally, we made it inside.
It was absolutely stunning. I am always blown away by the fact that I get to walk in the steps of thousands before me, many of them such incredible influencers of history. And Windsor Castle is a thousand years old.
I loved seeing Windsor but I do wish it hadn’t been so touristy. Parts of the castle were blocked off that I would have loved to explore.
I couldn’t take pictures inside, where the state and private apartments were, but it was absolutely stunning and rich with detail from the paintings to the carpets to the cushioned seats to the engraved, painted ceilings. But again, there was a walkway tourists were to stick to and I was among hundreds of others listening to their audio guides.
There was the king’s bedchamber, his closet, his dressing room, the queen’s bedchamber and dressing rooms, the receiving rooms, the king’s writing room (adjacent to his bedroom), royal halls… My favorite was the long, narrow great room, with a thick red carpet and the walls lined with saluting suit of arms and the ceilings full of sigils that probably go back a thousand years. (I found a picture of it here if you’re curious!)
One thing I didn’t have time for was to make the Long Walk. But, another time!
We were told to get back to the bus by 11:40, so I was slightly stressed keeping an eye on the time. Again, I like to take my time with something as splendid like Windsor Castle.
Once we were back on the bus we started the hour-and-a-half long trek to Bath. I was so tired I fell asleep for a while. Then of course when I woke up I was even more tired and – unfortunately for me – slightly carsick. But, I powered through it and was happy when we drove through more gorgeous English countryside and into the historic town of Bath.
The Roman Baths plus the museum were interesting. When I’d selected the tour I did so because of Stonehenge and Windsor and honestly was not that excited about seeing the city of Bath, but it turned out to be intriguing. The Baths were built as a public bathing place on natural hot springs, and to this day the original architecture and aqueducts stand.
Our guide made it a point to tell us a) to be careful on centuries-old cobblestone uneven surfaces near the baths, and b) not to touch the water! I found it amusing that he immediately followed with, “But if you care to drink it, they sell small cups for 50 pence at the back of the restaurant.” (I didn’t spend 50 pence on a cup of gross, murky, god-knows-what’s-in-it water but I did make a wish on 50 pence and offer it to one of the fountains.)
Then again, by this point I still wasn’t feeling all that great (something I found ironic, because thousands of people would travel to Bath with diseases like leprosy or other ailments to be cured!), so I didn’t enjoy them as much as I could have. Plus, it was actually hot!
But then we got on the bus again and began another hour-and-a-half trek to our last destination (while I munched on some almonds to get something on my stomach – worked like a charm!). And this one, I’d been waiting to see for so, so long.
Let me have another moment of what I call getting real to explain how meaningful seeing Stonehenge was for me. And this time, this is a little more personal. But it’s relevant.
It was assumed by everyone I knew that my fiancé would be making this trip to London with me, and most were astonished when I said I’d insisted on going by myself. Because I quite honestly see this trip as a pilgrimage, if you will.
A time to just be. A time to just do things on my own and conquer my anxiety just like I did last time I was in London.
My friend from the ranch – who also recently got engaged and went through some of the same feelings I went through – recently lent me a book called The Conscious Bride. I’m not done with it yet but what I read on the plane really put things into perspective about what Western civilization has done to the life transition of getting married.
We’ve de-ritualized it. Weddings are no longer seen as a rite of passage but as large, expensive, detail-oriented parties that perfectly display the correct emotions of love and happiness and utter bliss.
Seriously though. From the moment a bride-to-be gets a ring on her finger, she is expected to be SO. BLISSFULLY. HAPPY. LIKE OMG OMG GONNA BE A MRS 4EVER!!!!!1 Everything has to be perfect, and any negative thought or concept that comes with a wedding is immediately combatted with, “Well then are you sure you’re meant to marry him/her??”
But the reality is, as this amazing book puts it, weddings are a rite of passage, and “all rites of passage – adolescence, the wedding, the birth of a child, a geographic move, a job change, midlife, old age – involve a transformation of identity as the initiate sheds the old way of like and makes way for the new role” (p. 12).
Women (and men) go through a separation phase, a transition phase, and an incorporation phase during their engagements because “If a rite of passage is to be complete, it must involve a letting go, a shedding, a separation, indeed, the death of the old identity before the new identity and the new life can take hold” (p. 17).
And now I understand the deeper complexity of my anxiety that returned with a vengeance upon getting engaged. The separation had begun. The Conscious Bride calls it the transition from ‘maiden’ to ‘wife’ and it’s one all brides must make if they so choose. And believe me, I so choose.
So this trip is a bit of a ritual for me. A time of transition and reflection and welcoming the new phase of life that is to occur.
As it happens, Stonehenge was a place of rituals, thousands and thousands of years ago. It was a place of many things. Maybe this was why as our bus got closer and closer to the site, I was filled with an anticipation that I couldn’t quite explain.
As our bus got closer and closer to the site, our tour guide talked briefly about the mystery of Stonehenge, and someone asked if it was ever truly known why it was created and for what purpose it was used.
“Ah,” the guide said. “Was it used to lay out the winter and summer solstices? To tell the stories of the stars? Aliens may look down at us today and wonder why humans are grouped around a bunch of rocks in the English countryside. No one knows.” And he smiled. “It can be whatever you want it to be.”
The countryside grew – if possible – even more magnificent as we drove closer. I was amazed by something so simple as the horizon between earth and sky. Such a stark, stunning contrast.
We parked the bus by the other coaches carrying tourists and our guide turned us loose, telling us to be back at 5:40. The parking site and visitor center/café/shop is a mile away from the actual site as so not to disturb such a sacred place, and free shuttle buses carried people back and forth.
I boarded a shuttle and watched the greenery go by, completely filled with anticipation and something else I couldn’t explain.
There are more than 80 rocks in the famous ring (you can see a map here). There’s also the Heel Stone about 250 feet away, which marks the spot on the horizon where the sun rises on the summer solstice. But the Stonehenge site isn’t just the main circle we see in pictures – it extends many meters around it. Recently, it was discovered that the mounds of earth around Stonehenge were actually burial sites, so the men and women who came before us must have found it important to have them buried in sight of the stones. But past being a burial site, the purpose of Stonehenge is not really known.
But as I eventually climbed off the shuttle bus and began my walk towards the stones, I realized that the possibilities were endless.
And that’s what makes them so magical.
It was more than awe I felt, looking at them, seeing something that thousands have seen and experienced and flocked to and have felt drawn to.
It was the energy of our ancestors who might have danced and sang and celebrated and mourned and birthed and died and healed around them. It was the possibility of miracles very much like somehow creating such a structure with impossibly heavy stone. It was the wildness of the human spirit that has sustained for over thousands of years, the wildness that still lives within us all.
I could have stayed there for forever and a day, and it wouldn’t have been enough time.
I wanted to soak up that magic forever. The wind – something I have long associated with the universe speaking to me – was blowing fiercely, and I wanted to stand and listen until Time ended.
It almost hurt to walk away from them. In the end, I took a few blades of grass from the earth next to the stones, then on the bus back to London I was struck with a horrible thought, which was what if it hadn’t been right to take something from such a sacred site for the selfish purpose of wanting something for myself?
I wondered for a long time, then I thought perhaps that those that came before me had taken roots and herbs and other plants from the grounds for selfless reasons like to cure the sick or to feed their families. So I am resolving to use those few blades of grass to keep as a reminder of the wild, mystical energy I felt at Stonehenge, to inspire it in others – perhaps myself most of all.
I think in our society we try too hard to focus on the good and push away the bad. Be positive, and wave away anything negative. Celebrate birth with enthusiasm, and grow quiet when it comes time to grieve death. Plan the big, fancy wedding, and push away the emotional roller coaster that comes with it. Begin the next chapter of your life, and don’t take time to let go of the last one.
Transitions in life come with joy and responsibility and sacrifice. Seeing Stonehenge in person was somehow a reminder that life events – birth, early adulthood, marriage, children, old age, death – are gifts life has been giving mankind since the dawn of time. Deep down, I think we all understand this – only in our rush from phase to phase, we lose sight of the importance of slowing down and taking it all in, both the good and the bad.
But we are made of stronger stuff than we realize. And it took staring at a bunch of rocks in the middle of the English countryside for me to realize it.
Was that the purpose of Stonehenge, to make hundreds of generations of humans reflect on their lives and the lives of those to come after them? Who knows.
But that’s their beauty and their power.
It can be anything we want it to be.
May 23, 2017 § 2 Comments
Earlier, as I dazedly walked through the crowded, bustling streets of London, rolling a small suitcase and double-checking my phone every five seconds to make sure I was getting where I needed to go, I found myself humming a line from the opening song from La La Land:
“I could be brave or just insane… we’ll have to see!”
And as I sit here, in my Airbnb flat, writing this and looking out at the quaint subsection of Shoreditch with the London skyline silhouetted the darkening sky, I’m still not entirely sure which one I am.
Was I brave or just insane to do this??
Here’s the great thing about going back to a place you’ve been before: you know what to expect, at least a little.
I was prepared for the sense of feeling out of place. The culture shock. The exhaustion from flying a total of eleven hours (and let’s be real, we’ll add on another hour of sitting on runways) plus jumping ahead eight. The inability to eat due to nerves and excitement.
Last time I was in London, I hadn’t expected all that and my first day sucked. This time, I’m coping fairly well, although I’ll feel better once I finally meet my Airbnb host who left the keys for me at a farmer’s market right across the street from her cute little place. Part of me feels like an intruder! EDIT: Host came home and is so, so lovely.
But I’d anticipated that I’d be too anxious or motion-sick to eat, and brought lots of mints (good for upset tummies!) and light snacks that would tide me over until I could locate a Pret a Manger, an organic café I fell in love with during London Take One. I’d anticipated that I’d have to carry my luggage through the streets and invested in a small, carry-on bag and squeezed all my belongings into it, which made walking through the streets of London super easy. I’d studied and restudied the map of the Tube and knew exactly where to go.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that for me, traveling isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
But it’s part of the freaking journey.
And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Earlier, when I finally got to my Airbnb room and collapsed on my bed, I tried to plug my dying phone in using my U.K. adapter and promptly had a complete meltdown upon realizing my adapter worked for my laptop cord but not my phone charger.
And my anxiety-stricken mind immediately jumped to scenarios of not being able to use my phone as my primary camera anymore or getting lost since I wouldn’t have the map and I wouldn’t be able to stay in touch with my host through WhatsApp and and and
And I dealt with my problem by doing what I think we should all do when confronted with a crisis. I took a power nap. Once I woke up 30 minutes later, my stomach was still churning with anxiety but I took a deep breath, looked up some places on my laptop, and set out to go find an adapter that would work for my phone. Voila, the first place I walked into six steps away from the flat had one for 5 pounds.
So then I went to Pret a Manger and got some soup and a sandwich then brought it back to the flat to nibble at them.
It really is true when they say how you don’t know how strong a person can be until being strong is the only option they have. That’s how I felt earlier. If I wasn’t going to solve my problems… who else would??
As I was going through customs at Heathrow Airport, the man who checked my passport had to screen me a bit, as is expected of them.
“And what brings you to London?” he asked me as I handed him my passport and information card they make you fill out on the plane if you’re not from the U.K.
“I’m on vacation,” I said with all the cheerfulness I could muster for someone who was so sleep deprived she couldn’t think straight.
“And this address?” he asked, looking at my identification card. “Airbnb?”
“Yes, it is.”
He nodded and circled it. “You’re traveling alone, then?”
“Yes,” I said. Then I blurted out, “Everyone I know thinks I’m crazy.”
The customs guy smiled.
“It’s a crazy world out there,” he said, and he handed me back my passport. “Might as well be part of it.”
After I’d eaten a tiny bit of food, I knew there was one more thing I had to do before I called an end to my first official day in London.
I’d seen the English countryside coming in to the airport. I saw all the cars driving on the lefthand side of the roads. I’d seen the Tube and ridden the Tube and interacted with the people on the Tube (some on a very intimate level as we crammed together to fit in the trains). And walking up the streets of London, I saw all the red buses and old buildings and heard all the accents and languages and soaked it all in.
But I still couldn’t end my day. Not until I saw what changed my life four years ago.
So I put my walking shoes back on an headed down to the nearest Tube station, which I rode south for a time then switched lines and rode further west.
I anticipated being at my destination in about 20 minutes. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would be commuting hour, when all the London workers and employees would be making their ways home, and boy was it a crazy few rides on the Underground! It’s amazing how many people can pack into one train.
Finally, finally, my train stopped at Westminster.
I got out, heart pounding, and followed the “Way Out” arrows up a few flights of stairs and escalators. I swiped my Oyster card to get out of the ticketing booths, and climbed the last steps to the great outdoors above.
And there it was. Waiting for me.
And tourist behavior be damned, I gazed up at Big Ben in complete and utter awe that I was there, seeing it again, and just about cried.
Then I walked around a bit, because Westminster Abbey was peeking over at me, too.
On my to-do list is to tour it again. For today, I’m thrilled I got a glance.
Because that’s when it hit me, just like last time.
I’m in London.
I stupidly scheduled a two-hour tour of the Tube for tomorrow morning at 11, and quite honestly I think I’m going to ditch it. I overestimate myself, sometimes. And I need a day of relaxing, of leisurely walking to whatever I feel like doing in that moment, of being able to eat without feeling sick (good old anxious stomach!).
That said, I write this now through the lens of someone who is running on like five hours of sleep in 36 hours, other than my mid-crisis power nap, so we’ll see how I feel in the morning.
Thanks for reading if you’re still with me. I’m hoping this made some sense to you! It is definitely a little scary, overwhelming, and nerve-wracking to be back… but it is also thrilling, exciting, awe-inspiring, and incredible.
Light doesn’t come without shadows, and I’ll take each hand in hand. I am so grateful to be here again, having this experience.
It’s 11:30pm here… or 23:30. Good night, y’all!
February 3, 2017 § Leave a comment
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?
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.
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.
December 14, 2016 § Leave a comment
Preventing the Pipeline: A Series.
My graduate studies in nonprofit management and leadership at Arizona State University have led to some pretty enlightening research with regards to my niche within the nonprofit sector: the horse rescue and sanctuary community. As I explore the world of the horse rescue and sanctuary sector through the lens of nonprofit management, I would like to begin sharing my findings to spark discussion, continued education, and the desire to create positive change.
Below is the first installment in my blog’s newest series which I have called Preventing the Pipeline. This research paper was written for my fundraising and resource development class in the fall of 2016 and takes a look at the challenges horse rescues and sanctuaries face when it comes to fundraising.
Fundraising and Resource Development in Equine Rescue Nonprofits
Introduction: The Animal Rescue Sector
Most television viewers have seen the commercials of shelter animals staring tragically and hopefully at the camera while a sad song (one of Sarah McLaughlin’s, more often than not) plays in the background. The text at the end of the ads begs viewers to end animal cruelty and homelessness by financially supporting or adopting. Because dogs, cats, and other pets are so immensely popular, or perhaps because those commercials are played so often, one might think that the issues of animal cruelty and homelessness are considerably handled. Thanks to the well-known status of organizations such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (the ASPCA) and the Humane Society, animals seemingly receive a great deal of attention, care, and donations.
The Giving USA 2016 report says otherwise. 3% of all charitable giving in 2015 – a total that amounts to over $373 billion – went to a lump category called “environment/animals” (Giving, 2016). This category includes natural resources, conservation and protection; environmental education; environmental beautification; pollution control; botanic/horticulture activities; zoos and aquariums; wildlife preservation and protection; humane societies; veterinary services; and many more important functions. In sum, we can assume three different sections exist within this category: environmental efforts; wildlife conservation; and the issues of homeless and abused domestic animals.
Unfortunately, we cannot be sure of precisely how much of that 3% of charitable giving goes to each of these three subcategories. Wildlife and environmental nonprofits so often go hand in hand, it can be challenging to differentiate what efforts receive how much funding, and tallying the financials of thousands of domestic animal rescues and sanctuaries that crop up across the United States is a daunting task. For the sake of analyzing the domestic animal rescue sector’s fundraising and resource development, we will assume that all three of these subcategories each receive an equal portion of that 3%, or in other words, only 1% is allocated to the domestic animal rescue sector.
That small 3% portion of charitable giving is a trend the environment/animal category has seen for years. This trend has stayed relatively consistent starting from 1987, with the amount increasing as overall charitable contributions increased over time (according to the Giving USA 2016 report, the contributions to environmental and animal organizations rose roughly 6.2% between 2014 and 2015 to $10.68 billion). From 1976 to 1985, no data was collected with regards to charitable giving to the domestic animal rescue sector, although whether this is from lack of donations or because the donations were too minimal is unclear.
As we break through the categories of the lump environment/animals section, we must additionally note that the animal rescue sector within the nonprofit world has its layers, too. According to the ASPCA, 7.6 million animals enter shelters every year (Pet, n.d.). Of that 7.6 million, 51% (3.9 million) are dogs, while another 45% (3.4 million) are cats. The 4% remainder consists of 300,000 shelter animals that fall under “other.” In other words, if we are looking only at the ASPCA statistics, we can assume that well over 90% of the entire domestic animal rescue sector consists of dogs and cats while everything else – rodents, reptiles, birds, even farm animals – are lumped into a miniscule sliver of the pie. Within this small fraction is a category of animals that receives so little attention, it is a miracle they are still being rescued: horses.
When we discuss fundraising and resource development of the animal sector, it is first and foremost important to understand that the sector already has precious little resources with which to work. Based on the amount of funding that individuals; corporations; and foundations chose to allocate during the year 2015 alone, domestic animals are seemingly overlooked by those who give to charity. Furthermore, cats and dogs receive the lion’s share of the small amount of donations, leaving very little to the equine world. This paper focuses on the plight equine recue and sanctuary organizations face to bring in enough funding to continue work that desperately needs to occur.
A History of the Equine Rescue Sector
The closure of U.S. equine slaughterhouses in 2007 plus the recession that began in 2008 launched an unprecedented epidemic in this country of unwanted horses (Holcomb, Stull & Kass, 2010). Far from ending the cruel and inhumane tactic of horse slaughter, the closing of slaughterhouses dispersed the problem. Thousands of horses in the U.S. – perhaps as many as 100,000 – are abandoned by their owners each year due to financial hardship; lack of time to devote to the animal; physical inability; or overall loss of interest. While rescues and sanctuaries take in a large chunk of this number each year, “funding and capacity are limiting factors…in continuing to care for the current population of unwanted and neglected horses in the United States” (Holcomb et al., 2010). Many of the horses face the unlucky obstacle of being “useless” to humans due to old age or injury, and those who do not find a permanent home with a sanctuary or are rehabilitated by a rescue end up at livestock auctions, where – nine times out of ten – they fall in the hands of a kill buyer. A kill buyer is an individual who rounds up the unwanted horses and sells them to slaughterhouses, which still operate with regularity in Canada and Mexico (Holcomb et al., 2010). And if the horses survive the trip across the border after being crammed together in the slaughter trucks without food or water for days, they are killed in the most brutal, agonizing methods possible: puntilla knives to the spine and neck or captive bolts to the skull, neither of which result in a quick, painless death and usually involve the horse dying slowly and in utter agony.
The existence of equine rescues and sanctuaries in the nonprofit sector prevents hundreds – if not thousands – of horses from coming face to face with these unspeakable and unimaginable horrors. This urgency to continue keeping horses out of what is called the slaughter pipeline drives these nonprofits to brace themselves year after year and continue working despite the lack of funds and resources. When we look at the annual budgets of horse rescues and sanctuaries across the country through Guidestar, it is clear that most of these organizations operate on a shoe-string budget, with annual expenditures that range anywhere to $5,000 to a few hundred thousand at most. A good number of equine rescues do manage to take in a reasonable amount of funding and, thus, they are able to rescue a large amount of horses annually as well as provide programs to the community such as basic equine education; equine-assisted therapy programs; and riding/training seminars.
To analyze the fundraising tactics and resource development of the equine rescue sector, we will examine three 501(c)(3) nonprofit equine rescues that bring in enough financial resources to qualify for the IRS 990 Form as opposed to the 990 EZ Form (reserved for small organizations with miniscule annual expenditures): Dreamchaser PMU Rescue and Rehabilitation; Redwing Horse Rescue and Sanctuary; and Habitat for Horses.
At first glance, Dreamchaser PMU (Pregnant Mare Urine) Rescue and Rehabilitation in Falcon, Missouri barely qualifies for the long IRS 990 Form. With annual expenses of $204,869 and total revenue of just under $300,00, this organization was originally founded in 2002 with the purpose of saving mares and foals from the Premarin industry. Premarin is a drug manufactured in the United States and requires the ingredient of equine estrogens, a chemical found in the urine of pregnant mares, and many ranches exist to keep pregnant mares confined so that their urine can be collected for the drug. Once their foals are born, they – more often than not – are fattened up at feedlots before being shipped to slaughter, a fate that the mares face once they have outlived their breeding usefulness. Since beginning its mission to save and rehome Premarin mares and their foals, Dreamchaser has also targeted abused or neglected horses.
|Dreamchaser Revenue Breakdown (from the 2014 IRS 990 Form)|
|Contributions and grants||Program service revenue||Investment income||Other revenue||Total|
|Dreamchaser Expenditures Breakdown (from the 2014 IRS 990 Form)|
|Grants paid||Benefits paid||Salaries||Fundraising||Other expenses||Total|
Upon reviewing the specifics of other expenses in Part IX, column A of the 990 Form, we can break that category down into subcategories such as accounting; information technology; office expenses; occupancy; and most importantly, animal feed; supplies; and care. In total, the total expenditures amount of $204,869 are broken down as follows:
Next we turn our focus to Horsepower Sanctuaries, doing business as (DBA) Redwings Horse Rescue and Sanctuary. Redwings Horse Rescue and Sanctuary began in 1991 as an organization dedicated to rescuing horses; ponies; donkeys; mules; and burros from abusive or neglectful homes and rehabilitating them. Originally founded with a herd of 15 in southern California, today the ranch currently homes 86 equines, some of whom will live at the ranch for the rest of their lives due to old age or injury.
|Redwings Revenue Breakdown (from the 2014 IRS 990 Form)|
|Contributions and grants||Program service revenue||Investment income||Other revenue||Total|
|Redwings Expenditures Breakdown (from the 2014 IRS 990 Form)|
|Grants paid||Benefits paid||Salaries||Fundraising||Other expenses||Total|
Under Part IX: Statement of Functional Expenses, we see that Redwings had similar expenditures to Dreamchaser in that their “other expenses” consist of office expenses; occupancy; accounting; information technology; and rescued equine care and ranch supplies. Also within the other expenses category is travel; depreciation; and insurance. Overall, the total expenditures of $1,019,106 is broken down as follows:
Lastly, Habitat For Horses is an organization dedicated to rehabilitating disabled or special-needs horses while additionally providing community education about proper equine care. Founded in in Hitchcock, Texas in 1999, Habitat For Horses additionally works with law enforcement to assist in animal seizures and investigations.
|Habitat For Horses Revenue Breakdown (from the 2015 IRS 990 Form)|
|Contributions and grants||Program service revenue||Investment income||Other revenue||Total|
|Habitat For Horses Expenditures Breakdown (from the 2015 IRS 990 Form)|
|Grants paid||Benefits paid||Salaries||Fundraising||Other expenses||Total|
The “Other expenses” section contradicts the straightforward Part I section in that it lists a number of costs (compensation; information technology; insurance; bank charges; and computer expenses) under fundraising expenses, when on the first page of the IRS 990 Form none were listed at all. Additionally, management costs only add up to $73,852 in Part IX when in Part I salaries were listed as over $400,000. Altogether, the breakdown of expenditures for Habitat For Horses’ $2 million total is as follows:
Grants and Contributions: The Lifeline
The three equine rescues under examination are similar in that the vast majority of their contributions come from contributions and grants. In fact, based off quick searches through the IRS 990 EZ Forms of other relatively prominent equine rescue-related nonprofits such as The Equine Assistance Project (San Rafael, CA); Horse Feathers Equine Center (Guthrie, OK); The Horse Projection League (Arvada, CO); Equine Aid (Monroe, WA); and Montana Horse Sanctuary (Simms, MT), the large majority of the equine rescue community receives most of its support from individual contributions. Some organizations are fortunate enough to receive grants, which typically come from either the ASPCA or community foundations in the amount of anywhere from few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
Our three organizations – Dreamchaser, Redwings, and Habitat for Horses – are prime examples of what is becoming more clear about grants for nonprofit equine rescues and sanctuaries: many grant makers like to see that the horses are useful to humans in some way before they will award a grant to an organization that rescues them. Thus, nurturing an equine-assisted therapy program; educational riding classes; or some other form of human-related activity within the organizational structure will help ensure the successful cultivation of grants. Another factor that comes into play is the urgency of emergencies: more likely than not, equine nonprofits facing severe financial hardship with medical or feeding costs; natural disaster damages; or else must immediately act to save severely abused horses will successfully be awarded a grant from foundations or the ASPCA.
Upon searching for all three organizations on the Foundation Directory Online through the Foundation Center, we can see what grants each nonprofit has received over the years. Dreamchaser has received a number or grants from the ASPCA in its lifetime: $4,000 in 2014 for an equine trainers program; $7,500 in 2012 for emergency hay; $4,000 in 2012 for shade structures for turnouts; $4,000 in 2011 for emergency hay; $5,000 in 2010 for a seizure of twelve horses; $2,000 in 2009 for – again – emergency hay; and $5,000 in 2008 for shade structures. Redwings has been on the receiving end of only two ASPCA grants: one for $350 in 2014 for a workshop scholarship and another for $1,000 in 2009 for emergency hay support. The ASPCA gave significantly larger amounts to Habitat For Horses over several years: for example, in 2016 they received $10,000 in matching funding for fencing and in 2015 they received $14,000 for the care of 28 seized equines.
The rest of the grant makers from whom each of these three organizations has received grants are either community or family foundations. Dreamchaser PMU Rescue and Rehabilitation – the smallest organization of the three by means of revenue and expenditures – has worked with the Arizona Community Foundation (since the organization was once located in New River), and their Guidestar account additionally lists Ahimsa (Agency for Human Interconnectedness Through Manifestation of Spiritual Awareness) as a large contributor. Redwings Horse Rescue and Sanctuary and Habitat For Horses, on the other hand, have received grants from countless family and community foundations. In 2015, Redwings received $1,000 from the Philadelphia Foundation for general operating support and a handful of small grants for a few hundred from family foundations in 2014 as well as a $9,000 from the Whitney Charitable Foundation for program development for wildlife rehabilitation (wild horses). Habitat For Horses received its grants from the ASPCA in 2015 but in 2014, they also received a large number of small grants from foundations such as The Stein Family Fund; The Gerald A. Doering Foundation Inc., The Mary and Bruce Goodman Fund; and The Atwell Foundation.
Not all grant requests, however, result in success. As established earlier, the equine rescue sector only has so many resources with which to work, thus the completion is greater. Considering that the three organizations I selected to analyze were financially lucrative enough to qualify for the IRS 990 Form and these organizations seem to be doing well on the receiving end of grants, a hypothesis is that these two factors cycle together; more financially stable organizations receive more grants. Further research into the three organizations’ respective qualifications shows a number of accreditations through well-known ‘watchdog’ organizations that undoubtedly give the nonprofits a stamp of approval. For example, all three organizations are either accredited or verified through the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, an organization that certifies the standards of care for animals living in sanctuaries. Other organizations that have seemingly given one or all of these nonprofits the thumbs up are the American Sanctuary Association; the California Retirement Management Account (a nonprofit that raises money for California ex-racehorses); and Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. It is highly likely that grant makers – true to the ever present reality of donors wanting to know that their money will be put to good use within a reliable, trustworthy organization – would rather donate to an accredited, official-looking nonprofit.
So what of the small, barely-functioning equine rescues and sanctuaries that do not have the structure in place to go after large grants, or even small grants, for that matter? Receiving a grant is an enormous and often underwhelming accomplishment for an equine nonprofit due to the fact that earning one requires time; effort; organization; and expertise that the nonprofit often does not have.
Regardless of size, regardless of the amount of grant money an equine nonprofit does receive, it appears that most of their revenue still comes from individual contributions. This is strongly evidenced by our three example organizations whose contributions and grants range from 93% to 99% of the total annual revenue. Dreamchaser and Redwings both list only “gifts, grants, contributions, and member fees received” as the category for public support for its most recent years. Habitat For Horses does the same thing but with one difference: under program service revenue, it breaks its revenue down further to include adoption fees ($0 for 2015), which opens up the possibility for other program-related income in other equine rescues (details of which will be discussed later).
In sum, the backbone of the contributions and grants section of revenue is – unsurprisingly – the individual contributions. And when less than 1% of all charitable giving is going to equine rescues and sanctuaries, we confront an unfortunate truth: the individual donors are too few in number, and the number of rescues and sanctuaries that need them are too great. Finding and retaining donors thus becomes a challenging and daunting task, for without the generosity of individuals, it is clear that the equine rescue sector would cease to exist.
Mechanisms for Fundraising
Professional, for-profit businesses quite often employ marketing teams to advertise their products and promote their services. Nonprofits will occasionally attempt this strategy as well in the form of fundraising, but only if they have the funds to obtain a decent return on investment.
Dreamchaser, though it qualified for the long IRS 990 Form (as opposed to the 990 EZ form) best represents our sample organizations in that its revenues and expenditures ranged in the few hundred thousand range, which, even then, is significant among equine rescues. Furthermore, Dreamchaser had no fundraising expenses. Habitat for Horses and Redwings, however, both spent a significant amount on professional fundraising expenses: 14.53% of Habitat For Horses’ annual expenditures went to professional fundraising (a total of close to $320k) while Redwings spent over $190k on fundraising, or 18.7% of its annual budget.
The IRS 990 Forms only take us so far when it comes to breaking down precisely what these fundraising costs are. For example, “office expenses” receives over $81k in the “fundraising expenses” category under Part IX: Statement of Functional Expenses for Habitat For Horses. Compensation is over $13k under the same fundraising expenses category while Line 11e, professional fundraising expenses, shares nothing. In comparison, Redwings states under Line 11e of Part IX that over $47k went to professional fundraising fees. Despite the breakdown, it is clear that two of our three organizations – unsurprisingly, the more financially stable ones – need to spend money to make money.
Through analyzing what the organization spent in order to raise enough money to operate, we can draw a conclusion about the effectiveness of its fundraising. Personally, I consider 14% and 18% of annual budgets spent on professional fundraising staff in order to remain afloat in an industry that is already short on resources to be admirable, although it should be noted that oftentimes, grant makers; donors; volunteers; and the general public want to see the vast majority of funding go to program expenses. (In other words, people have an unrealistic expectation that nonprofits will spend very little in order to bank a large return on investment – an expectation that is not had of for-profit entities.)
What is not mentioned on the IRS 990 Forms in explicit detail is if any finances are spent on development staff, nor can any information on this matter be located on the nonprofits’ websites. Development employees are responsible for the cultivation of donor relationships. For the sake of analyzing the resource development of these three sample organizations from the equine rescue sector, we will group development in with fundraising so we can better discuss the tactics the organizations use to bring in funding.
Noted in my observations is the wide and slightly unclear range of strategies involved in fundraising and developing resources used by not only these three particular equine rescues, but by the equine rescue sector as a whole. I suspect the reason for the variance in strategy is because the targeted demographic is different for each individual equine rescue or sanctuary. While donors born prior to 1965 (known as Baby Boomers) make up 70% of individual contributions, the good news about horses is that they have the potential to appeal to all ages and generations (Giving, 2016, pg. 73). And each generation has its own set of tactics for soliciting funds, all of which seem to be utilized by the equine rescue sector.
Dreamchaser, Redwings, and Habitat For Horses utilize the power of social media to show pictures of their horses; share updates and news about individual herd members; post links about proper equine care; and upload videos that range from educational content for the public to horses running; playing; eating; or doing something endearing. Dreamchaser recently posted a call to action with regards to the Havasupai horses, allegedly being abused up by the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, by urging individuals to stand up for them. By generating ‘likes’ and engaging people in conversation over often brilliantly marketed pictures of horses, these organizations not only generate interest in their nonprofits, they keep their donors informed about the happenings of their respective ranches. Other sites such as Instagram and Twitter are additionally utilized by Habitat For Horses, and only Dreamchaser is currently on LinkedIn. Facebook, as it seems, is the way to go with social media.
Social media has the advantage of appealing to multiple generations. It has recently been utilized by not just the millennial generation (individuals born from 1981 to 1995, also known as Generation Y), but by older generations (Baby Boomers, born from 1946-1964; and Matures, born in 1945 and earlier). In an article that depicted the myth that online fundraising was only for the younger generation, author Sean Chisholm wrote:
The fact is, email and social media users are getting older. The first social networks began appearing in the early 2000s, and modern email began gaining popularity in 1993…. [P]arents and grandparents are also rapidly adopting email and social media as effective ways to communicate with friends and family members, and connect and reconnect with long-lost friends they made when they were children. (Chisholm, 2013).
Not only has social media become a platform for keeping their followers up to speed, equine rescue nonprofits can solicit donations through online campaigns. “Donate Now” buttons on Facebook encourage giving, as do online “crowd funding” campaigns on websites such as GoFundMe and Kickstarter.
Transparency and Donor Trust
Another mentionable tactic in fundraising that all three of these organizations utilize is simply the art of being incredibly transparent with the public. The nonprofits had either a Guidestar Gold or Guidestar Platinum rating and each Guidestar account offered extensive details about their programs; board members (although whether or not board members are required to contribute financially to the organization remains unclear); financials; and educational information about the problem of horse slaughter as well as details as to how individuals can help combat it. Their websites additionally boasted financials and a great deal of information about the care of each of their horses.
None of our three example equine rescue nonprofits appear to have a direct mail strategy; however, this is not to say the tactic does not exist in the sector. Many animal rescue nonprofits utilize direct mail such as the ASPCA; the Humane Society; and Best Friends Animal Society. A horse rescue to whom I personally donate (HiCaliber Horse Rescue in Valley Center, California) occasionally sends me a handwritten postcard as a thank you, a very genuine and heartfelt aspect of donor cultivation that I have found to be successful. After all, building trust with donors is not only an enormous advantage in a field where they are hard find and retain, it is also a necessity.
Worth mentioning is that while large nonprofit organizations often hold large fundraiser events with several thousand dollar upfront costs (such as Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure), the equine horse rescue community seems to be divided on the importance and effectiveness of big events. Some pull off magnificent and financially successful barn bashes; galas; winter balls; and silent auctions, and others – recognizing that large fundraisers usually do not account for a large portion of a nonprofit’s annual revenue – do not hold big events at all. For example, on its Guidestar account, Habitat For Horses lists a $100k profit from its annual The Horse At Home special event, while Dreamchaser and Redwings have no mention of any special events on their websites.
Adoption Fees and Merchandise
Further development of resources for the equine rescue sector is built on the idea that it is unwise to rely purely on individual contributions as sources of income. Thus, program service revenue – which largely consist of adoption fees – and merchandise sales were all noted as small factors in at least one of the organizations’ strategies. The nonprofits that adopt their horses out (rescues) have the advantage of being able to collect fees for adoption. Additionally, Habitat For Horses and Dreamchaser’ websites have online stores while Redwings currently has a 2017 calendar for sale. While these sources of income are drops in the bucket, merchandise promotion helps branding and – as those in the equine rescue sector so correctly say – every bit helps.
Through my analysis of what fundraising tactics Dreamchaser, Redwings, and Habitat For Horses use, I found no pattern or structure to the tactics based off each nonprofit’s alleged fundraising costs or financial status, nor did I make a clear analysis of what the targeted demographic might be for each organization based off each researched fundraising technique. Each nonprofit appears to utilize a little bit of everything, though generalizing this statement and applying it to the entire sector would be incorrect. These three organizations, if we recall, were financially lucrative enough to qualify for the long IRS 990 Form, whereas most of the nonprofits in the equine rescue sector are so small financially, they only qualify for the 990 EZ Form.
To gain knowledge about donor cultivation from the perspective of an actual donor, I took the liberty of donating $5 to each of these organizations and analyzing the responses I got from each of them.
Dreamchaser PMU Rescue and Rehabilitation sent me a tax receipt for my donation, and then a few days later, they sent me a link that took me to a sweet thank you video that involved happy dogs running around, which was very fun to watch. They were very meaningful in their wording in both emails, even telling me that I “helped lift the world today.” I was not expecting too much considering I donated $5, so I was pleasantly surprised to feel that my donation had meant something to them.
At Redwings Horse Rescue and Sanctuary, I wasn’t allowed to donate anything under $10. This was slightly surprising; as a donor, I felt as though I should have had the opportunity to give the amount that I choose. In the end, I decided to give $15, which would buy a 2017 calendar. This was ordered going on three weeks ago and while I still have not received my calendar yet, I did get a thank you email on the day of my donation.
Following my donation to Habitat For Horses, I immediately received a personalized, heartfelt thank you email from the executive director. Since I had entered my email in with my personal information as I donated, I continue to receive emails from the organization each week, including a very sweet email that went out on Thanksgiving that included statistics of horses saved that year. On top of the email was a picture of a horse with the caption: “You helped save me.”
The winner among all three of these organizations was the genuine thank you. Perhaps because I am of a younger generation, I did not need to receive anything via snail mail to feel validated. And also perhaps I personally work in the equine rescue sector, I understand just how busy one gets around a ranch, particularly when limited staff is involved in the running of the organization, so I did not feel as though any of the organizations were personally turning their noses up at me.
Overall, based off my findings, the combination of grants and individual contributions with a dollop of program service fee revenue thrown in for good measure is what keeps the sector afloat in what might be considered intensely choppy seas. And heartfelt, genuine donor-nonprofit relationships are the fuel that keeps the ship chugging.
The most obvious of challenges for Dreamchaser; Redwings; Habitat For Horses; and other equine nonprofits is the lack of resources. When 3% of all annual charitable giving goes to a category in which the environment, wildlife, and domesticated animals are grouped together, we do not need to know just how much of that 3% is allocated to each subcategory to determine that domestic animal rescue receives very little donations. To top it off, that majority of that miniscule portion of the pie goes to the rescue and rehabilitation of dogs and cats. Very little – in fact, next to nothing – goes to horses.
Horses are unique animals in that nobody is quite sure how to classify them. Not only do they serve as “pets” and companion animals to humans, they are working animals that perform in show rings and have jobs on ranches and farms. In some ranches and businesses, they are considered to be livestock. Not having a clear label for the animal makes it that much easier to get rid of them when individuals decide they do not want to own their horses anymore. And the reason for their abandonment comes down to a lack of education – another huge problem the equine rescue sector faces. Individuals are often romanticized by the idea of owning a horse, but they do not understand the physical, financial, and mental requirements involved in properly feeding; exercising; training; and homing one. Thus, after a few years out of the horse’s 30-year lifespan, their would-be horse owners pawn them off from one home to the next until the horse falls into an auction ring, where the kill-buyers await.
The scope of the problem rescues and sanctuaries seek to solve – that of unwanted horses having nowhere to go – is unreal. 100,000 horses face slaughter every year, and rescues and sanctuaries can only take in so many of them on their shoestring budgets. Overbreeding of horses remains at the heart of the issue, and as long as individuals continue to regularly breed their animals in order to preserve bloodlines; try for the next Kentucky Derby champion; or else encourage backyard breeding while retaining a negative conception of rescue horses, thousands of horses will continue to be herded into slaughter trucks and hauled over the border year after year.
Conclusion: Resource Development is Preventing the Pipeline
The nonprofit sector combats societal problems that range from world hunger to disease to lack of literacy to refuge crises. In the grand scheme of national and global challenges, we can perhaps draw the conclusion that animals simply get overlooked in the desperation to find solutions to considerably more relevant problems. While the environment and animal category received among the lowest portion of donations in the United States, Giving USA emphasizes that religion; education; and human services were the top recipients of donations (Giving, 2016).
What many people have forgotten in our modernized society is that horses helped build this country. They pulled the plows that grew our crops and the wagons that families used for transportation. They marched us into battle and helped win wars that shaped our democracy. They carried us for thousands of miles across this country as we settled the wild land and make it into the United States of America. They shaped the idea of Manifest Destiny, and without them, we have no history. Without horses, we have no country.
The ethics and moral of every human on this earth can be judged by how he treats those that are largely considered to be “beneath” him. If we lose sight of the happiness of all living things that call Earth home, we become self-serving creatures, and that contradicts the entire nature of the nonprofit sector. We are here to serve and to heal and to help – especially those that cannot speak for themselves. Overall, the equine rescue sector gets by on the goodwill of individuals who believe in this message, and while it can be concluded that the sector has some work to do to increase their financial sustainability, perhaps the nonprofits have also been doing the best they can with what they have. Scraping by on next to nothing; finding creative ways to obtain funding; and managing to make things work while overcoming all obstacles are songs the equine rescue community has been singing for decades, long before slaughterhouses closed down and long after the rest of the world thought the problem of horse slaughter had been solved.
Chisholm, S. (2013). MYTH: Online Fundraising is Only for the Young. Retrieved November,
Giving USA 2016 Highlights (Rep.). (n.d.).
Holcomb, K. E., Stull, C. L., & Kass, P. H. (2010). Unwanted horses: The role of nonprofit
equine rescue and sanctuary organizations. Journal of Animal Science, 88(12), 4142-4150. doi:10.2527/jas.2010-3250
Pet Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved December, 2016, from http://www.aspca.org/animal-homelessness/shelter-intake-and-surrender/pet-statistics
March 19, 2015 § 2 Comments
ALL THROUGHOUT COLLEGE, I was groomed to enter the 9-to-5 workforce the moment after I walked across the stage to grab my diploma. My peers and I were taught in a special class how to write the resume, nail the interview, impress the big boss. All the professionals were brought to clue us in to all the big secrets. All the knowledge we needed to succeed and finally enter the grown up world was in the palms of our hands.
Well, I walked across that stage, grabbed my diploma, and faced the world, ready to land that job that would finally make me into an adult. But nothing worked. For months, nothing worked. Nothing I wrote on resumes worked, nothing I said in interviews got me anywhere, and I didn’t impress any big boss. The professionals I’d learned from were wrong. Nothing I was taught did me any good.
I was angry for a long time. While I job searched and worked through my anger, I volunteered at Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary, the horse ranch I’d been volunteering at for five years at that point and the place that was my second home. To make a long story short, I helped a few other incredible people hold the ranch together that summer after I graduated until its owner returned from a much-needed retreat. I cherished every single one of those days, half-dreading the day I finally got something right and joined the official, grown up workforce of button down shirts and heels and air conditioned offices.
But then, as summer faded into fall, I figured out why I hadn’t found a job. All the rejections I’d received over the summer made perfect sense when the indescribably amazing lady that had run the ranch in the owner’s absence contacted me and told me she had to resign since she was having a baby. Although the ranch had two part-time employees – without whom the ranch wouldn’t have run smoothly, if at all, over the summer – there was no one else that could be there full time. Would I do it?
I cried. I felt guilty for all the months I’d been absent from the ranch earlier in the year to go to school while others were there consistently. I didn’t feel worthy of such a position. Not to mention, I’d volunteered there for years. But running the place? That was a whole other story.
I told a volunteer once that horses turn you into someone you never thought you could be. And that is what I am thoroughly convinced each horse at Tierra Madre attempted to do when I told the lady yes.
‘Ranch director’ sounds so prissy and arrogant. It’s too fancy a title, in my opinion. It’s a title that should be shared with every other person that has willingly come to work and volunteer at Tierra Madre. I may run it, but I couldn’t do it without my team. But I do love to tell people I’m a rancher who works at a horse sanctuary. Most of the time, people are very interested and want to know more. And boy, do I have lots to tell them.
Some jobs go beyond description. Mine is certainly not one that I could accurately sum up in neat bullet points on a resume or reasonably describe in an interview to impress any big boss.
All I can do to describe my job is describe exactly what it means to be a rancher.
Working at a ranch means working with animals that are ten times heavier and a thousand times stronger than you.
It means outsmarting them when they want to be stubborn and plant their thousand pounds of force firmly to the ground when you need them to move.
It means knowing what to do when they spook and use that same insane amount of force to launch you in one direction at the speed of light. It means jumping in front of charging thunder when someone is loose and running free as fast as they can.
It means knowing how to approach, halter, and lead a horse that has put five people in the hospital without being seriously injured on a daily basis. It means knowing how to approach, halter, and lead a horse that has been mistreated by humans and still spooks around them.
It means lifting up 50-pound bags of bran, 80-pound bales of hay, and hooves that are attached to horses that are pissed at you for touching their feet.
It means going home each day with a new bruise or scratch or aching muscle. It means getting slammed into fences and nipped and having your feet stomped on.
It means wrestling with Bentley when you’re trying to dig an abscess out of his hoof and dealing with Wild Bill leaning his entire weight onto you as you scrap pebbles out of his frog. It means standing your ground when River and Suze charge at you when you’re standing guard over Solo eating his bran mash in the field.
It means knowing what to do when you’re getting the seven wildest horses out for their playtime in the arena and you’re bringing the last one in while the other six are gathered around at the gate, running back and forth, rearing and snorting and blocking your path while the 1,000 pound horse at the end of your rope dances in circles around you.
It means working outside, rain or shine, in 20 degrees or 120. It means shivering in the rain when you’re trying to put hay in 30 feed buckets and sweating in the sun when it’s beating down on you while you wave lunge whips, push heavy wheelbarrows, and muck poop from stalls.
It means watching your best friends grow old or sick. It means having the strength to fulfill the promise you make to them when they first enter through your gates. It means staying with them as the vet sends them to their next adventure.
It means holding them until the very end.
Being a rancher? Being a ranch director? It means being responsible for every human and every horse on the property and having everything upright, intact, and alive and well by the time your boss gets back at closing time.
It means hearing three different people talk at once – from a volunteer with a fundraising idea and a volunteer with a general question and a volunteer calling from across the ranch about a horse that’s limping – without losing your mind.
It means knowing and accepting you are never going to make everyone happy.
It means overseeing every aspect of the ranch – from getting 30 stalls mucked and water tubs scrubbed and re-filled and getting the necessary horses out in the arena each day and on schedule and getting the right mashes with the right medicines to the right horses and watching for colic or abscesses symptoms every second of every minute of every day and scheduling farrier visits and vet visits and hay deliveries and writing checks and planning fundraisers and brainstorming improvements and answering emails and answering the phone and answering questions and giving lessons and giving tours and telling visitors no, you can’t get free horse rides and no, we’re not a petting zoo and no, you can’t just stop by without supervision and no, you can’t touch that horse or that one and probably not that one.
It means making split-second decisions and making new plans and readjusting the plan and saying to hell with the plan. It means taking the hit when things don’t work out the way they were supposed to.
Sometimes it means driving home in tears feeling like an utter failure.
But being a rancher?
Being a rancher also means watching your horses follow you when you move to leave their stalls.
It means watching them light up and whinny with excitement when the arena is empty and you walk their way with a halter in hand. It means watching them run and buck and rear and roll and kick and gallop and play in the arena like foals every day.
It means seeing the gentleness in their eyes and feeling the warmth of their breath on your face as they nuzzle your forehead.
It means knowing who just whinnied and who likes what place scratched and who eats where and who dunks their hay and who needs medicine and who likes to be left alone and who needs extra discipline and who needs extra love. It means watching them thrive under your undivided attention.
It means loving every single one of your volunteers with all your heart and all your soul. It means loving every single one of your horses with all your heart and all your soul.
It means taking the lead rope from a kill buyer and leading a horse through the gates not 24 hours before she was to be sent to slaughter. It means looking into her soft eyes and realizing if it hadn’t been for you, she wouldn’t be there.
It means getting stripped to your core every single day and being reminded that barriers do not exist in the equine world. It means learning something new in every single moment.
It means going home every day with hay in your hair and mud on your jeans and dirt in your pockets and sweat on your face and fierce joy in your heart.
It means knowing who you are. It means being proud of who you are.
It means knowing that despite how ornery and stubborn your horses are, they are grateful for you and you for them. It means knowing their love for you is unbreakable and unconditional.
It means knowing that if your horses believe in you, then there is absolutely nothing on this Earth that can and ever will get between you and your dreams. It means knowing that no matter what demons from the past still arise unpredictably, if you are strong and brave enough to be a rancher, then you. can. do. anything.
At the end of the day, I didn’t have to write the resume, nail the interview, impress the big boss. My job is not the one I was taught to do.
My job is the one I was born to do.
February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
[Insert random kitty picture here.]
I’ve wanted to write another blog post for a while. Tonight I forced myself to take a night off of school because I feel like my life has been really weird lately, and in order to cope with it I had to do what I do best: but my words to paper – er, screen.
Let’s just say, at my job (I manage Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary), I deal with some pretty stubborn, ornery and crazy horses. Someday soon, I want to start documenting all the crazy stuff that happens at a daily basis at the ranch. But the people I have to deal with sometimes make my four-legged brothers and sisters look like flawless angels. As for parts of my life outside of work? Just weird.
Oh, just read what my brain spat out tonight……
-ranch phone rings at 1pm on a Thursday-
Me: -picks up the phone- “Thank you for calling Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary, how can I help you?”
Woman: “Yes, hi, I was wondering what is your address? I wanted to come out and see the horses.”
Me: “Wonderful! I’m actually driving right now, so let me think really fast off the top of my head what day I can schedule you to come out—”
Woman: “Wait, you’re not open right now??”
Me: “No, we close at 11. Our office hours are 11 to 3 during the week, but they’re off site.”
Woman: “So there’s no one there right now?”
Me: “Well, the owner is, because it’s his property. But the ranch itself is closed.”
Woman: “So I can still come out?”
Me: -head desk-
Woman visiting the ranch with her kid: “So, you guys do riding lessons?”
Me: “Yep, we do!”
Woman: “How much are they?”
Me: “$50 per session.”
Woman: “That’s way too much. My son is only three. Don’t you guys do discounts for younger kids?”
Me: “Well, you can take it up with [the owner]. That’s the price he sets, and because we’re not really a riding facility, it’s a $50 donation since you’d be using our horses, our people, and our time.”
Woman: “Well, okay. But *I* know how to ride. If I wanted to just come over in the afternoons, there’s no fee for just coming and riding whenever, right?”
Me: “……..Yes, you still have to pay $50 if you want to ride one of our horses.”
Me internally: -screaming-
This conversation took place over email between a potential volunteer and me. We had been emailing for a few days about her being with us for six months as part of her government program.
Potential volunteer, at the very end of her email: “I will also need a place to park. I’d be willing to pay a small fee for my electricity and water.”
Me: “….Forgive me for not understanding. May I ask what you mean by ‘a place to park’?”
Potential volunteer: “Yes, as part of [popular government program], I am required to live just below the poverty line, so I currently live in a trailer. I will need a place on site to park and will gladly pay a fee for electricity and water.”
Potential volunteer: “Just contact my case manager and she’ll give you all the details.”
I have so many problems with this. First of all, if someone wants to come volunteer for us as part of their program, I don’t contact anybody. It’s not my job to contact anybody. It is THEIR job to have their supervisor contact ME if they need to fill me in on details of their program. (On that brainwave, I once had a potential intern email me with her required list of goals for the semester, saying: “Yeah, my professor emailed me back and we need to revise my goals for my internship.” WE. Um, no. I ended up telling her the goals didn’t line up with what we did as an organization, and then called her professor and told her the same thing. I never heard from her again.)
Second of all, live on site??
Me: “I’m very glad you told me this. Unfortunately, we are unable to accommodate a trailer as Tierra Madre is on private property. Please have your case manager contact me if you still think this is a good choice for you.”
Needless to say, I never heard from her again, either.
My boyfriend recently watched this video of a giraffe giving birth. He wasn’t exactly inthralled with it.
Boyfriend: “WTF, IT’S POOPING OUT A GIRAFFE.”
Boyfriend: “THERE’S A GIRAFFE COMING OUT OF ITS BUTT.”
Boyfriend: “IT’S STILL POOPING.”
Me: “You mean it’s giving birth?”
Boyfriend: “LOOK IT POOPED OUT A GIRAFFE ON THE GROUND.”
Me: “….We are never having children.”
And this crazy amount of weird. This. This just happened yesterday, and I’m STILL pissed about it.
Some background: my boyfriend and I live in an apartment complex. While we’re allowed to have as many cars as we want (within reason), we are all assigned one covered parking spot per unit, and my boyfriend parks in our assigned spot. All along the different buildings, there are rows of uncovered parking that are fair game to all other residents that don’t have an assigned parking spot. Since my boyfriend parks in our spot, I always park right outside our building in one of the available spots. We live on the third floor, and I always have at least two heavy bags to carry (four or five if I have school that night), so I try to park as close to the building as possible.
Now, I leave my apartment at 6:30 am, six days a week. It’s winter, so it’s pitch black out when I leave.
As I stated above, I park in whatever spot is available when I happen to come home for the day, so it switches all the time. There are roughly eight or nine to choose from so they line all up and down our apartment building. Thursday night, I got the best spot – the one closest to the stairwell as possible.
So, Friday morning, I walk to my car, start it, start my wiper blades to get the frost off the windshield, turn on the heat, and turn on my lights. Like I said, it’s pitch black when I leave.
I was fumbling with my seat belt and had just put my car in reverse to leave when I looked up to see an older lady walking out of the apartment on the first floor, the one closest to my car. She was in her pajamas, and she was scowling.
I rolled down my window and said, “Hi!” cheerfully.
Her response? Without greeting, she said, “Okay, your car lights shine directly into my bedroom window all the time, and they wake me up!”
Me: “Oh my God. Really?”
Her: “Yes. That right there – ” she points across to the building at the window my car is close to – “is my bedroom window, and you wake me up when you turn your lights on!”
Me: “I am so sorry. I had no idea.”
Her: “I need my sleep! I can’t get up this early in the morning!”
Me: “I’m really sorry. But you know -”
Her: “So I’m going to have to go to the office and file a complaint, because you need to park over with visitors or something when you visit!”
Me: “…Um, I LIVE here.”
Me: “Yeah, I’m so sorry, but I park here because I don’t have a choice. The office gives all of us one parking spot, and my boyfriend has it. So I have to pick one of these spots along this row. Yesterday I happened to pick this one.”
Me: “I have to drive to work at this time. I work at a horse ranch. I have to leave early, and it’s dark.”
Her: “….Oh. Well….”
Me: -humoring her- “So maybe we can go to the office and maybe ask for another spot for me? Because I don’t really have a choice here. There’s nowhere else for me to park.”
Her: -getting angry again– “Well, we’ll have to, because I can’t afford to be woken up like this. I’m sick, my doctor needs me to rest, they just found blood in my urine, I have cysts and-”
Me: “I’m really sorry. But I need a place to park. I’ll try to park away from your window, but sometimes that’s the only spot available.”
Her: “Well, I’m going to go to the office and just see. I’ll have my daughter come with me, that’s what I’ll do.”
Me: “Great. I’m Alexis, and I’m in 3076. We’ll figure out a solution, okay?”
Her: “I just need my sleep.” -she starts to walk back towards her apartment, still talking angrily – “This happens all the time. I’m really sick of it.”
Me: -calling after her– “Um, a word of advice though: people need to leave for work in the morning so it might not just be me turning lights on.”
Her: “It happens every now and then, so -”
Me: “Well, I can’t do anything about the lights that come on automatically when I start my car, but if I’m in front of your window again I’ll be sure to not turn my main lights on until I’m on the road, okay?”
Her: “I suppose that would help.”
Me: “Would it help if you got some curtains for your windows? Or-”
Her: “NO. Those blinds are what the apartment comes with! I can’t do anything about that.”
Me: -checks clock, and see that I’m late for work– “Okay, well, we’ll figure out a solution, okay? I’m really sorry. Go back to sleep.”
Her as she walks back into her apartment: “Well, I CAN’T now!”
I forced myself to roll up my window before I said something I’d regret.
The long story short after this was that I called my apartment office and they immediately sighed when I told them the lady’s name (I can’t remember when I asked for it during our exchange, but I did somewhere). Apparently, the woman is a bully and has given people problems before.
“She didn’t yell at you, did you?” the staff member asked me.
I laughed. “She did, but it’s fine.”
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry she did that! She tends to bully people, and-”
“Listen,” I said. I was in the tack room at the time, stirring up bran mashes and looking out at the four-leggeds I was feeding, “I get pushed around by 1,200 pound animals on a daily basis. I have to be tough. I don’t get bullied by nobody.”
The staff member laughed and told me not to change a thing about what I was doing.
I really can’t make any of this crap up.
November 12, 2014 § 1 Comment
[tldr version is at the end of this blogpost]
(I listened to this song today, hence the title of my blogpost. I think it’s appropriate here, honestly.)
Okay. So several months ago I wrote a rather depressing post about how life as a college graduate sucked. To recap, I complained wrote about how I couldn’t find a job, how no one seems to be hiring recent sustainability grads, and how anxious I was to be out in the real world. I wrote about how hard it was to stay positive.
Well, that was towards the end of June. I couldn’t sit around and dwell on those thoughts, so I distracted myself instead. I filled my days, and so these past six months have been a whirlwind: a happy, exciting, sometimes stressful, always crazy whirlwind.
Since my last post I:
- volunteered like crazy at Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary
- went back to Hallmark to work part-time
- applied for jobs
- got published
- signed a lease with my boyfriend at an apartment in Ahwatukee
- applied for jobs
- moved all my stuff over to said apartment in Ahwatukee
- went to several interviews
- got 6 job rejections so that I lived at my mom’s house in Glendale all summer (P.S. the 40 minute drive to see my boyfriend every few days was no bueno)
- worked for my dad as a social media manager for his website
- applied for jobs
- went to a good friend’s wedding
- wrote curriculum for and helped to launch the nonprofit SmartRoots Global
- tested several lessons at Homeward Bound
- applied for jobs
- turned 23
- FINALLY got a job as ranch manager at Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary
- FINALLY moved to Ahwatukee with my boyfriend
I also applied for jobs over the last few months.
Let me tell you, reader: if there is a more soul crushing, devastatingly painful thing to do in life other than try to be something you’re not in order to get people to like you and hire you so that you can spend your days in a cubicle doing work you don’t care about, I don’t know what is. But that’s what I did.
Well, the long story short of that brainwave is that I did get a full time job after waiting for so long, the perfect job that I think was meant for me all along.
But that’s a post for another day.
This post is to make an announcement to my friends and family, friends and family I’ve neglected lately since I’ve been so busy with three jobs (two part-time and one full time). Perhaps this is an apology of sorts to you guys as well, because as you’re about to read, my life is about to get even crazier.
I guess all I have to say about this decision that I made is that, surprisingly, not a whole lot of thinking went into it. I mean, I thought about it a lot. But my reasoning behind doing what I’ve done is not complicated at all.
On September 26th, two days after my 23rd birthday, something in my brain snapped. Snapped, I tell you. Since this was before I became ranch manager at Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary, on that day I was scouting out jobs on my good friend Google.com and was typing in just about every variation of the phrase that would capture my interests:
“sustainability jobs in….”
“sustainability education jobs in…”
“education jobs in…”
“environmental jobs in…”
“environmental education jobs in…”
Jobs in Arizona. Jobs in Washington, D.C. Jobs in California. Washington state. Oregon. Massachusetts. New York. I even looked in London, if only because I’m dying to go back. I looked for jobs everywhere and I qualified for nothing. The few jobs for which I did qualify, I sent out applications and received brisk email responses informing me that I “lacked experience”.
On September 26th I sat staring at my computer screen and thought…. Is this what I’m destined to see for the rest of my life? Email after email telling me I’m not good enough?
Once that thought entered my head, I started asking myself a lot of other questions. Why is my $20,000 bachelor’s degree useless? Why does no one want to give me a chance? Is this even the field I want to be in? What do I want to do in life? What do I want to DO?
Make your announcement already, Alexis, you say. I’m getting there. I think you see where I’m going.
Anyway, I spent all summer asking myself what I really wanted to do, and another post for another day is how the horses at Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary guided me towards the answer to that particular question. There’s no lying with them, no barriers to hide behind and no denying what is truth. And as I spent this summer with them – and in fact, as I currently spend every single day with them – they led me to my conclusion that prompted my decision:
Later in my life (I’m having fun working with horses and helping to built up a nonprofit right now), I want to help fix the education system in this country. After writing curriculum for SmartRoots Global, I realized I want to continue doing so, but I want to add sustainability initiatives at the K-12 level. I want to study education policy and figure out what works and what doesn’t. I want to help teachers teach. I want to give kids a chance.
I want to go back to school. I want to keep learning. I want to give myself a better chance in the battlefield that is establishing a career in my early 20s.
Oh, I sure as hell won’t make a career for myself the way everyone wants me to, by starting small and quietly making my way up the ladder that is the unwritten hierarchy of business.
No, I want to make my own path. And starting in the spring of 2015, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
[Tldr version starts here]
And so, I am very excited to announce that I will be starting my master’s degree in Educational Leadership with an emphasis in Instructional Leadership at Northern Arizona University (Online) in January!
I told my boyfriend the minute I found out I was accepted. I said, “I am officially going to be a grad student!”
He said, “You are officially insane.”
Yes, yes I am.
But as I said before, I have no idea what’s going to happen in the future. And that, my friends, is half the fun.
October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
The other day I and several other volunteers over at Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary went with our friend to check out an absolutely gorgeous property just down the road. Our soon-to-be newest addition still lives there and we all wanted to check out his home.
We weren’t disappointed. The place was 11 acres and had two arenas, stalls and pens galore, a round pen, a hot walker, a hay shed, and lots and lots of trees.
They also had a barn with eight stalls, a wash station, and a tack room. It needs to be renovated a little bit, but it’s absolutely gorgeous.
The best part of all? The sweet little foal we found in one of the leased corrals across from the property.
I definitely didn’t want to leave! Hopefully we can make our way back there soon. 🙂
October 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
I’ve been around horses for seven years now, and they still teach me new things each and every day.
A bit of background: I have been volunteering at my second home, Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary, for five years now, and since June I have been out there at least four or five times a week while I look for work. (Actually, starting next week, I will be starting as a full-time worker as a ranch manager! More on that later.)
Today started out just like any other day. I have been running the ranch in the mornings and am in charge of turning horses in and out of the arena, giving medical care, feeding, dolling out mashes, and overseeing that the chores get done. We are always short on volunteers on Mondays, so I was running around getting things done. Make mashes. Make dinners. Check water buckets. Give mashes. Do wound care. Turn horses out. The most important thing is to oversee the volunteers – because when you’re in charge, anything that goes wrong on the ranch is your fault. Part of my job is to make sure everyone else on the ranch is safe at all times.
As my mind dipped into 10 or 11 different places, another volunteer and I went to grab Slayer and the Iron Man, two big Thoroughbreds that needed some serious exercise. Slayer went with my volunteer like a champ. Iron Man, on the other hand, promptly freaked out when I walked in his stall with a halter. Threw his head up, bit the horse beside him square on the butt, head butted me in the shoulder, the works.
Pissed, I scolded him and made him back up in his stall so I could get his halter on. Several of our horses need to work on their manners, as was evidenced to me not fifteen minutes before when one of our horses in the field bullied two more I was taking home and scared them enough to make them nearly run me over. I was burnt out from everything and more importantly, I was remembering last Wednesday’s adventure during which I was briefly dragged by another horse before I was smart enough to let go of the rope.
I got the stud chain to show Iron Man I meant business. Either he listened and behaved nicely, or there would be consequences. As much as I love all the horses on that ranch, I was not in the mood to get dragged again.
After I told the volunteers watching to clear the way for us, we walked out of his stall and as I predicted, Iron Man pranced around me and occasionally jumped up on his hind legs, butting into me and walking in front of me and overall being ornery. When we got up to the barn right across from the arena, he bolted and would have gotten away from me had I not turned him in a tight circle to slow him down. I spoke to him firmly and pulled my lead rope down to give him a little tug with the stud chain, telling him to behave himself until I finally got him out to the arena. Once I took the halter off he ran off, but stopped after a minute or two.
Seriously confused and just a little bit irritated, I went on about my day and while he and Slayer galloped around for a little bit, mostly Iron Man just stood and watched me. He didn’t want to play. He just stood.
Finally another volunteer and I went in there with them to try to get them to play and burn off some steam. Slayer galloped around as we bounced our awesome huge pink ball (what we use to get our horses to exercise), but Iron Man just stood watching me. He backed away when I tried to run beside him to get him to move.
Maybe he thinks he’s in trouble, I thought as I tried to keep approaching him. After all, I’d just yelled at him and used a stud chain. Maybe he was confused.
Iron Man stood blinking at me and I stared back, unsure if my treatment of him had been the right thing to do. Slowly, gently, I side-stepped toward him with my hand out, not looking at him and making no sound. (Horses get uneasy when humans make a beeline for them and walk directly at them like a predator would do. It’s always better to zig-zag your way to them instead.)
I put my hand on Iron Man’s neck and scratched him to no response. Ashamed, I realized that while I addressed his behavior earlier, I hadn’t figured out what caused it. I had dealt with a symptom of a problem rather than the problem itself. And as I threw my arms around his neck and buried my face in his mane, I quickly realized what had been the problem.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to him. “I was crabby with you, baby boy. I rushed to get you into the arena so I could get on to my next task. I didn’t listen. I’m so sorry.”
And he melted. At my words, Iron Man thrust his face into my arms and nuzzled my hands and let me hug and kiss his face all over. I stayed with him for a long time and just held his face close to me, whispering and patting and listening. As my volunteer happily told me as she watched us, “He just melted like butter in a frying pan.”
When I finally walked Iron Man back to his stall, I took the long way and let him eat leaves from one of the trees outside the arena. Instead of hurrying him along in order to get things done more quickly, I let him take his time. And when he walked back like a champ, I took the halter off and spent another minute or two kissing his face and telling him how proud I was of him.
Being burnt out is a part of life. Being tired and having lots of things to do in a short amount of time is inevitable. But stressing out over getting things done rather than slowly, surely taking one thing at a time hurts everyone. And today, it hurt one of my best friends in the world.
By being firm and harsh earlier, I won the battle between Iron Man’s strength and mine and got him to do what I wanted. But by listening to him, by showing him understanding and unconditional compassion, I won back his heart.
And when I looked into those liquid brown eyes of his that shone with love and forgiveness earlier, I knew that his heart is all I ever want to win.