May 7, 2017 § Leave a comment
I see her in the mountains.
I see her in every saguaro and palo verde and creosote bush.
I feel her in every breath of wind and in the sun on my face.
I hear her charging across the sky.
I look all around me and she is there, breathing life into my aching heart.
With every breath I take I miss my little girl.
And to be honest with you as I always try to be… part of me has wanted to quit all of this.
Run away so I could never feel this pain again. Choose another career that would never break me so intensely. Find another place to work that would never subject me to the cruelty of losing a beautiful, wild, happy, spirited angel with her whole life ahead of her to the horrors of laminitis.
But when I’m at my weakest I look around me and see Chianti peeking over her stall bars, hoping I’ll sneak her a treat or two.
I see Studley give a happy little nicker when he sees someone walking towards him with a halter.
I see my brother Chance, his eyes such a unique shade of light gold, looking at me with such understanding.
I see Sedona sneak a bite of alfalfa out of a passing food cart then try his best to look innocent.
I see Rain – an acute laminitis survivor – walk back in forth with such ease and contentment.
I see Guess happily splash the water out of her tub onto her chest (and part of Bella’s face) and on the ground.
I see Rusty standing patiently while some of our younger volunteers hang off of him.
I see Iron Man, dark coat shimmering in the sunlight, toss his magnificent head.
They still stand.
They still face tomorrow.
And just as I realized when I was 17 and meeting these horses for the first time, if they can live on despite all forces that tried to bring them down… so can I.
I meant to write about my last day with Sonora and how it mirrored our first. I meant to write about what she gave to our ranch and how she was so loved and how lucky we all were to get to love on her one last time.
I still can’t. Maybe someday.
For now, we all still recover. Because as selfish as I am for writing about *my* heartbreak, Nora was a part of everyone here.
She belonged to no one. She was untamed and free-willed and fiercely independent right till the end. But she gave everyone here her heart. Willingly and trustingly.
And she took a piece of each of us with her to the Great Herd last Thursday.
We are all – as always – forever grateful to each of you for your support. I write such a raw post in the hopes that it offers some insight into the reality of the horse rescue and sanctuary world. I write so that you may understand how powerful your place is in our battle.
Sometimes we get our hearts ripped out and torn apart. We face terror and doubt and devastation. We stand on the edge of the abyss. Sometimes we fall.
But with you at our backs, we also rise.
And we keep going.
“The weakest step toward the top of the hill, toward sunrise, toward hope, is stronger than the fiercest storm.” ~ Joseph Marshall
May 4, 2017 § Leave a comment
My little girl, my sister from the moment our eyes met, my beautiful, young, wild and spirited mare joined the Great Herd today at 12:30.
Her X-rays yesterday showed further rotation in both front feet and her coffin bones were actually starting to sink. She was losing weight, her poor legs shook with exhaustion, and every now and then she’d put her nose on the ground and stand still as she quietly, bravely powered through a wave of pain.
It was time. She knew it, too.
When she was first brought through the gates two and a half years ago I led her out of the trailer and she stepped forward eagerly, excited at what awaited her. Today, I walked her back up that lane and despite the level of pain she was in, she didn’t stop or struggle. She wanted to go. Everything was peaceful, the look in her eyes most of all.
Her spirit was strong till the end. It never broke, not once. But my heart has.
April 25, 2017 § Leave a comment
I debated even writing about this.
About how we – in the last 48 hours – came to the edge of the abyss of losing Heighten.
of the freaking abyss.
Neither Jim or I want to relive the nightmare that was Sunday afternoon and Sunday early evening and Sunday night and Monday in the wee hours of the morning and the few hours before Monday’s sun peeked above the horizon.
Because what happened during those hours defies anything I could accurately put into words.
It was, simply put, a living hell.
A living hell I never believed possible.
Jim told me point blank today he couldn’t relive it through writing. But we both agreed that we wanted to tell you, our faithful friends and followers and donors and supporters, what happened for two reasons:
1) Writing is the way I cope with traumatic events. Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, whatever) is how I process something my brain keeps telling me was a bad dream.
And 2) We feel that we owe it to everyone – especially our volunteers who love Heighten as a brother – to share the good, the bad, and the ugly of what goes on at a horse sanctuary. A dosage of reality, if you will.
And quite honestly I don’t know where to begin or if I should go into detail or just summarize or just leave it at a few sentences.
I am just still reeling. In Jim’s words, we are still bruised.
But I suppose it started around 3:30pm on Sunday, the day after our wonderful Help A Horse Day, when Jim called me to tell me Heighten was going crazy. He was mad, kicking at the fence, pawing at the ground, pacing in his stall like a maniac. Not eating. Jim called the vet, called Abel, then gave Heighten 10 cc-s of banamine, hosed him down, and started to walk him. I got in my car and rushed over. Abel did too.
The vet got to the ranch around 4:30 or a little before, after we’d been walking Heighten for some time. He was nibbling at the old, dried Bermuda on the ground but wouldn’t touch the fresh alfalfa or Timothy or Bermuda we offered him. Odd.
At one point, we let him loose in the arena and let him roll. He hasn’t gone out in the arena for some time, due to a) his bad leg that makes getting up difficult for him and b) the fact that he always seemed to want to go home directly after putting him out. But on Sunday afternoon, he rolled and got himself up with next to no difficulty but resumed his pacing. He seemed nervous, but the banamine was kicking in and he began to get interested in food.
Regardless, despite a relatively normal rectal exam and the fact that he was somewhat more like himself, we decided to have Dr. T tube him, probably around 4:45 or 5pm.
We put Heighten back in his stall and cleaned out his feeder so he couldn’t snack while still under sedation. We also gave him a tube of Gastrogard. Jim has long suspected Heighten has ulcers, and though we couldn’t be totally sure, we hypothesized that he might have had a little flare up. And Heighten, being a bit of a baby that he is, reacted to the sudden pain with anger and bewilderment.
“Just keep an eye on him,” said Dr. T as she got all of her supplies together and prepared to leave. “I’m on call all night, so give me a ring if anything goes wrong.”
We nodded and thanked her and she left, all of us feeling much better.
I had no idea that we’d be calling her again within hours.
With Heighten on the mend, Jim and I talked a bit about him – getting him back on Gastrogard, making sure he gets some arena time for as long as he wants (even if it’s only for five minutes) – before I left, supposedly for the night.
I was in Target, grabbing some things for dinner, when my phone rang again.
My heart dropped when I saw Jim’s name.
“It’s Heighten,” he said as soon as I answered. “He’s bad again. The same as he was before he was tubed.”
Heart racing, I sped back to the ranch. It was sunset – around 6:30 or 7 – as I trotted up the wash to the walkway between the breezeway and the arena, where Abel was walking a visibly distressed Heighten.
Pawing. Refusing to eat. Looking around anxiously. Pawing again on the dirt. And again. And again.
That damn pawing.
I hope I go the rest of my life without hearing that awful sound.
I could see it in his eyes as he looked around.
Something is wrong. Please, help me.
Jim got the vet back on the phone. She was at another colic emergency, of all things, but said she’d be there as soon as we could.
I texted Shana and Denise – our ranch managers – and let them know what was going on before putting Heighten back in the arena so he could walk around. Around 7:30, right before the vet showed up again, he lay down and looked somewhat comfortable (head up, looking around him still), so we let him stay down.
Just as Dr. T pulled up, he put his head down and started twitching. Whether the pain was that bad or he was trying to get back up, I don’t know, but it almost looked like his body was seizing.
“Doc!” I yelled and she came hurtling out of her truck. The words, “Let’s try to get him up,” weren’t even out of her mouth before Heighten had – in one astonishingly powerful movement, pushed himself off the ground and stood before us calmly.
Bewildered, I grabbed his halter and put the lead rope back on him as Jim started talking to the vet.
“It’s like we never even tubed him,” he said. “I’m thinking….”
“Yep,” said Dr. T, and I felt my heart drop again.
I’d heard of intravenous bagging before. I’d never actually seen it happen.
Over a decade ago, Heighten had coliced and had been hooked up to IV fluids all night long in an effort to save his life. Jim said it wasn’t until dawn – after staying with him all night – he knew Heighten was going to live.
This was to be an instant replay.
We brought Heighten to the front half of Chiquita’s stall, above which hangs a lead rope that Jim says he hates with a burning passion. I walked an increasingly frantic Heighten in circles outside of it while Jim and the doc got a ladder and hung two bags of fluid front that lead rope. Then, after a shitload of sedation, Heighten calmed down and we brought him inside so the vet could insert a catheter with a port for more sedatives that hooked up to the bagged fluids.
And, god love them, at that time Shana and Denise showed up right as we were attaching hoses to ports and the doc was sewing in the catheter in Heighten’s neck/vein, around 8pm. They’re both nurses and while Jim and I gave each other a look of confusion as the vet explained how to change the bag and clamp on/off the fluids, those two nodded and assured us when the time came to change everything they’d be on it.
With the first two bags of fluids set to drip into his system really quickly (there’s a medical term for that but I can’t remember it), the vet left the ranch for the second time and Jim, Shana, Denise, and I settled down in chairs outside Chiquita’s stall (Chiquita herself shut safely in the “outer” portion of her stall) to watch our boy.
Under sedation, he was very calm and while he walked around a bit, he seemed worlds better than he’d been just a few hours ago. He watched us a bit while the four of us sat and talked and drank some soda leftover from Saturday and I stole a few pieces of turkey from Jim’s fridge and shared them with Lee.
It was dark then and the weather couldn’t have been more than 75 degrees. The stars were out and the crickets were chirping and the night was warm and perfect and as I sat there, watching Heighten improve steadily, talking comfortably with three people I loved dearly, I thought that we were out of the woods.
Here’s the thing about that, though.
The moment you let your guard down just a bit, the moment you think all is well, Life has a terrible, terrible habit of reaching towards you and grabbing you by the throat.
At 10pm, I assured Shana and Denise – who run the place on Mondays during my office days – that all was well and that they should go rest up before they had to be back here around 8am. I could tell they wanted to stay, but with some convincing, they decided all would be well and left. They changed the bags before they did, and with two full bags of fluid in Heighten and another two slowly on their way into his system, we all hoped for the best.
Jim and I sat watching Heighten for a few minutes longer and I kept thinking I’d rise too and get in my car and go home. I don’t know what possessed me to keep sitting in that chair. Instinct, maybe. Because around 10:30 or so, Heighten started pacing again. Pawing. He lay down and rolled and got up again and resumed his anxious pacing.
We caught him – with some difficulty – and gave him some domosedan. He calmed down and I took the opportunity to untangle the IV. Still pawing. Still hurting, somewhere, somehow. Some time between 11 and 11:30 we gave him another sedative in the port in his catheter, xylazine. Dr. T had left us a few and warned us, “If you stab yourself with the xylazine, call 911.”
I kept Heighten as still as I could while Jim carefully gave him the xylazine then got the hell out of the small stall. He lay down again, this time comfortably. At 11:45 we got the vet back on the phone to give her an update. At midnight, I left the ranch for Chaparral to go get some more sedatives in case we happened to need them.
I pulled up to the back of the vet’s where Dr. T was replenishing her truck.
“How is he?” she asked as she gave me the bag of shots. I sighed.
“He’s still pawing,” I said. “Still hooked up to the bags though. He keeps pacing.” I hesitated. “I… I don’t have a good feeling about this, to be honest.”
Dr. T looked at me anxiously. “You’re doing everything possible for him,” she said. “Call me with any updates, okay?”
When I got back around 12:30am, Heighten was on his feet and calm again. Despite having the new sedatives, we agreed that we wouldn’t sedate him again in the hopes that if he had another attack of pain he would work through it.
Here’s where everything becomes a haze, like something out of a living nightmare.
Heighten started to wake up and as he did, his pawing returned. His anxiety. He paced and paced and paced around and around and around that stall, stopping every now and then like he was going to roll, tangling his IV attached from to the bags hanging from the lead rope dangling from the barn ceiling.
Jim and I watched in silence, helplessness.
“Should we sedate him again?” I asked half-heartedly at one point and Jim shook his head. “Let’s see if he can power through it,” he said. “And we can maybe see whether it’s getting better or worse.”
At one point I put a blanket in the dirt on the ground outside the stall and lay down to try and sleep for 20 minutes or so. Lee – who refused point blank to go sleep in the house – put his wet nose on my face anxiously until I assured him I was fine. When I closed my eyes I could hear the pawing and the pacing. If I close my eyes even now I still hear it.
Jim got up from his chair and turned the barn lights off. Heighten – fully out of sedation now – continued to pace, but it somehow didn’t seem like he was in pain anymore. With the lights off, he could check on everything around him. So he’d go peek in one corner at one end of the shed then walk to the other corner to look at the other end. Like he just wanted to see what was going on. Back and forth, back and forth, around and around, like a merry-go-round straight out of hell.
We rushed in at one point to untangle his IV cords, exhaustion and anxiety taking over as we barked orders at each other and Heighten – trying his hardest to listen to us – stood still, trembling, while we tried to untangle that stupid, horrible tube that he’d twisted around and around and around with his walking.
After we’d done what we could we got out of there he lay down again, on his bad side. But he’d shortened that damn tube so much that when he lay down, he pulled open one of the bags of fluid. And – like things couldn’t be worse – it started dripping on him. That must have been around 2:30.
Rush to turn on the lights. Grab the halter. Fumble with the ladder. Jim – on the wall of the stall – reaching to grab the bag to try and release it. Heighten on his bad side, eyes scared, sides heaving, that bag dripping steadily on his side.
The image is forever burned in my memory as one of the worst things I’ve ever seen and ever will see.
It was then we called it.
We got the vet on the phone. We asked her to come back out.
We decided we were going to end it.
We stood on the edge of that abyss and looked into Heighten’s eyes as he lay in the stall and thought for sure he was telling us it was over.
And as we waited for the vet to come we sat in numb disbelief, Heighten raising his head every now and then to look at Jim, and Jim gently reassuring him to lay back down, because everything was alright, it was all going to be alright. All will be well again, he said. Lay your head back down, my brother. I’ve got your back. All is well.
And I sat and thought of how many people loved Heighten and could I call them all at 2:45 in the morning and what would I say and how would I describe the horror of the night and how – how? – could this have happened and what was really going on with our baby boy and was it something we did and was it something we could have prevented and our 32, our 32 and U that had been our theme for Help a Horse Day just the day before, was going to be 31 and how could this be happening and maybe this was just a dream, a horrible, horrible dream….
The vet got there around 3. Jim and I stared blankly at her when she said, “Let’s get him up. Let’s get him back to his stall and see how he does.”
What about the IV? I thought stupidly, but the vet unhooked him, despite the one unbroken bag not being empty yet, and out of nowhere, out of nothing… he was standing again. I dazedly grabbed the lead rope and lead him back to his stall.
Heighten still paced a bit but something in his attitude shifted when he realized he was home. He wasn’t pawing nearly as much. Jim looked at him and said, “I’m starting to think the pacing was an emotional thing. He woke up and realized he wasn’t home. He got stressed out.”
Dr. T nodded as she listened to his heartrate. “That’s definitely an option,” she said. “And the stress could contribute to other things going on with him.”
She listened for gut sounds, then did another rectal exam. Heighten stood still, eyes alert, breathing normally – well, as normally as one can breathe with a hand up your ass (TMI? Sorry not sorry) – and Dr. T eventually declared, “Everything feels normal. In fact, better than the first exam last night.”
I let out a breath, astonished, and Jim put his arms around Heighten’s neck.
“What caused him to go crazy?” we all wondered. “What could have caused this?”
We threw around ideas. He did colic for a time, then the bagging with IV fluids helped, but he was stressed upon being in a new stall hence why he paced so much all night. His ulcers acted up suddenly and the pain caused him to get angry around 3:30 and caused flare ups now and then. Later on, Jim wondered if Sunny had gone into her first heat, making Heighten – a gelding we suppose was proud-cut – crazy. It was colic season. Maybe it was just something in the air. Something in the hay.
We had no clue.
But we did know one thing.
Heighten – who an hour before looked like he was on his last leg – stood in his stall with authority and not without unease to be sure, but without pain.
It was a mystery.
It still is.
We talked about getting him tested for ulcers in the next few weeks, but we’re pretty sure – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that ulcers are very likely. We gave him another tube of Gastrogard and left his stall so he could resume exploring his stall like he’d never seen it before.
“He’s just been through some trauma,” the vet said. “It’ll probably take some time for him to settle back down.”
We agreed, and the vet left around 3:45. Heighten paced a bit in his stall, but without the same amount of urgency, and without pawing. Without pain. Without fear.
Just a bit anxious.
But I mean, hell.
I’d be anxious too.
At 4 with Heighten on the mend, I left. I was terrified of getting another call telling me he was bad again, but at that point I was going off adrenaline and about 15 minutes of Lee-interrupted sleep.
I slept for a few hours then called Jim at 7:30 for an update.
And he said Heighten – though still walking around in his stall just a little bit – was calmer, happier, better.
I went back at around 8:30 to see for myself.
You know how the sun seems brighter when you’re tired? It was like that when I walked onto the ranch again.
And there in his stall, in the bright, bright sun in contrast to the image of my head of his silhouette against the starry sky hours before, stood Heighten.
Jim looked exhausted but beside himself with happiness.
“Over a decade ago, when we bagged him, I didn’t know if he was going to make it until dawn,” he said, looked at Heighten who was nibbling slowly on a handful of Bermuda. “And today, just before dawn broke, we won again.”
As of today, Tuesday, Heighten is still recovering from what we are guessing was a combination of colic and ulcer-related pain and extreme anxiety. He’s still nibbling at food and sleepy. We think his throat might hurt a bit from being tubed and it was suggested by Dr. T we take a look at his teeth. We’ll probably arrange to have them floated within a few weeks.
In the meantime, he’s on Gastrogard for some time in addition to his usual Neigh-Lox and we’re offering him all three types of hay along with plenty of bran mashes to coax his appetite.
And just as I look back on that god-awful night in a daze, I find myself looking at him as though not totally sure he’s real.
But he is.
He is strong and brave and on the mend.
And he is alive.
He is alive.
When I’d gotten back from the vet’s around 12:30am Monday morning, I brought from my car a small book I keep on me all the time, a book I love dearly. It’s called Keep Going: The Art of Perseverance by Joseph Marshall, and it is a collection of Lakota stories that piece together a beautiful perspective of dealing with the harsh realities of life.
At one point during the night, out of nothing but desperation for something to do other than focus on our misery, I read aloud some parts of it to Jim and Heighten.
I think Marshall’s words from the prologue sum up everything.
“A young man asked his grandfather why life had to be so difficult sometimes. This was the old man’s reply.
“Grandfather says this: ‘In life there is sadness as well as joy, losing as well as winning, falling as well as standing, hanger as well as plenty, badness as well as goodness. I do not say this to make you despair, but to teach you reality. Life is a journey sometimes walked in light, sometimes in shadow.’
“Grandfather says this: ‘You did not ask to be born, but you are here. You have weakness as well as strengths. You have both because in life, there is two of everything. Within you is the fill to win, as well as the willingness to lose. Within you is the heart to feel compassion as well as the smallness to be arrogant. Within you is the way to face life as the fear to turn away from it.’
“Grandfather says this: “Life can give you strength, Strength can come from facing the storms of life, from knowing loss, feeling sadness and heartache, from falling into the depths of grief. You must stand up in the storm. You must face the wind and the cold and the darkness. When the storm blows hard you must stand firm, for it is not trying to knock you down, it is really trying to teach you to be strong.’
“Grandfather says this: ‘Being strong means taking one more step toward the top of the hill, no matter how weary you may be. It means letting the tears flow through the grief. It means to keep looking for the answer, though the darkness of despair is all around you. Being strong means to cling to hope for one more heartbeat, one more sunrise. Each step, no matter how difficult, is one more step closer to the top of the hill. To keep hope alive for one more heartbeat at a time leads to the light of the next sunrise, and the promise of a new day.’
“Grandfather says this: ‘The weakest step toward the top of the hill, toward sunrise, toward hope, is stronger than the fiercest storm.’
“Grandfather says this: ‘Keep going.’”
April 4, 2016 § Leave a comment
That is truly the only way I can describe this feeling: this feeling of having my heart ripped out, scraped roundly against the rough edges of a wall, then thrust back into my chest.
And I can’t stop the pain.
When you love the horses you care for with everything you have, you don’t have a choice.
Saturday night, our ranch lost its oldest member of our herd. His passing was sudden and shocking and all of us who loved him – especially his mama, Amy, the incredible person who saved him from slaughter and has come to care for him every weekend of her life ever since – are reeling.
His name was Wild Bill, but he was far from wild. He was the epitome of gentle.
He was the horse I had brand new volunteers approach and walk on their first days. He was the horse I could let kids hang around without getting nervous for their safety. He was the horse who dutifully, unquestioningly, trustingly followed everyone anywhere.
He didn’t like getting his syringe of medicine every day. I used to bring a lead rope with me to gently put around his neck to encourage him to stay still.
Not that he needed much encouraging. Even though he didn’t like that medicine, by god he took it for me.
That’s just the kind of horse he was. Always trusting, always mellow. And always willing to love and validate whomever he was with.
A few days before he coliced, I’d brought him up to the breezeway to clean out his feet since his frogs are so deep and he gets stones lodged in them easily. I thought I had left my hoof pick out on one of the pillars, but when I realized I’d left it inside the tack room, I walked Bill up on the concrete and halfway into the tack room so I could reach it.
He calmly followed. He didn’t mind in the slightest.
Thinking about the night we lost him, remembering every. single. detail. is somehow very important to me. If I can just put the pieces altogether, if I can just break everything down into digestible chunks, if I can mull over all the painful details (and I do go into those in this post)… then maybe everything will all make sense. Maybe I can comprehend what happened.
Jim, our ranch’s executive director, called me just before four on Saturday afternoon – two days ago.
“I have an emergency with Bill,” he said over the phone, and as I started running to the closet for my ranch shoes he explained he’d just gotten Bill up from rolling around in his stall. He’d actually cast himself from rolling so much – and he wasn’t eating. And he was getting him 10 cc’s of banamine, a medicine that usually pulls horses out of colic symptoms within half an hour. Jim said the vet was on the way.
For those readers of mine who don’t know what colic is, the best description I can offer is that colic is a medical emergency that happens when there is some sort of blockage or obstruction in a horse’s extensive digestive tract. There are several causes, and unfortunately the fact that horses have poorly constructed digestive tracts is one of them.
Sometimes it’s gas or – as Jim puts it – “a fart stuck crosswise.” Sometimes it’s a little sand. Sometimes it’s heat. Sometimes it’s stress. Sometimes it’s a type of food.
And one of two things happen when a horse colics. Only one of two things.
Nine times out of ten, the horse can be saved, and he pulls out of it.
Or he dies.
I called Amy as I was gathering my things together and running out the door. When I got to the ranch, Bill was standing with one of our other mangers in the arena, being walked and sprayed down. (Hosing a colicing horse down is essential in that it keeps their body temperature under control, and walking encourages the twisted or otherwise blocked intestines to right themselves.)
Amy and the vet got there a few minutes later, at the very same time. The vet and her assistant immediately started examining Bill. After listening to his gut sounds (which were quiet – a bad sign), she did a rectal exam, which goes just as it sounds.
“I don’t feel an obstruction up to the colon,” she told us. Good news. She listened to his heart rate, which was normal. Also good news.
Either way, we knew we had to tube him. I’d given him two large scoops of electrolytes right before the vet arrived, and after Jim pinched Bill’s skin only to have it stay where he’d pinched it, we determined that he was dehydrated. Pumping him full of minerals and water and more electrolytes would help get things moving in his system, if there was indeed an impaction. Lack of water could do that. We figured getting fluids in him would do wonders.
The vet and her assistant got to work. Tubing a horse involves sticking a tube through his nasal passages into his stomach and pumping out anything in it before pumping in the necessary fluids. When the vet tubed Bill the first time, nothing came out. A good sign. So, she put a half gallon of fluids in his stomach.
Wild Bill was the first horse I’d seen tubed who didn’t need to be sedated. That’s how incredible he was. We used a twitch on his lip (painless for the horse) to release endorphins and calm him, which made the process easier.
Tubing a horse is terrible to watch. But I’ve seen several of our horses’ lives saved this way, and I know it is often necessary to pull a horse out of colic. We watched anxiously.
After the vet had pumped in the fluids, we put Bill in the front half of Rain’s stall, who has the “penthouse suite” of stalls up in the barn and could afford to give half of it to Bill so we could monitor him over night.
But when we put Bill in the stall, he started stretching – as though he were trying to do the downward dog yoga position – and shifting around uncomfortably. And he was the type of horse who usually stood still as a rock in his stall.
Amy and Jim and I watched him shifting around and turning his head to look at his belly and attempt to turn around and roll….then we called the vet and her assistant over just before they were about to leave. “His whole demeanor has changed,” Amy said as she watched him. “He’s not acting normally.”
The vet watched him with us. We were puzzled. Bill continued to shift around uneasily.
“The best guess I can give based off his actions is that he’s too full,” she said, frowning. “When we tubed him that first time nothing came out. And the capacity of a horse’s stomach is about one gallon, and I put half a gallon of fluids in him. But there could very well be some food in there.”
“Can you take it out?” Jim asked. The vet nodded.
“Absolutely. I’d like to keep an eye on him to see if this isn’t just the fluids hitting him all at once. There’s a chance that this will ease up in ten or fifteen minutes.”
She took his heart rate again. It had gone up. We watched him for a little while longer then – when Bill didn’t seem any more comfortable – she had me put the halter back on to check out his heart rate again.
It had skyrocketed.
We took him out again. We put the twitch on to release those endorphins again. The vet put the tube down his nose again.
And this time so much partially digested food came up.
So much food. Easily his entire lunch. And all the minerals and water and electrolytes the vets had pumped in him an hour before. Everything.
It had all been in his system. It’d all been stuck somewhere the tube couldn’t reach. And – based off the rectal exam that showed no sign of impaction up to the colon – the vet’s and our very best guess was that the impaction was in the small intestine. Virtually unreachable.
Dusk was settling in as the vet and her assistant tubed him, bringing up more food, steadily becoming covered in more blood (poor Bill’s nose was bleeding from the tube).
The whole time, Bill stood quietly. Bravely. He fell once. He wanted to go down and went down in a fraction of an instant. Amy gasped and ran toward him, but he rightened himself at once and got to his feet almost before the vet had time to move her equipment.
He didn’t like what was happening But the whole time, he trusted us.
Tubing a horse without sedation is nearly impossible. Even sedation sometimes doesn’t work.
Not with Bill.
He knew we were doing everything in our power to save him.
The sun had completely gone down and was taking with it the last rays of light when they stopped, Bill’s stomach completely empty. Still no signs of progress, even with the banamine and even the buscopan the vet had given him. Still a terribly increased heart rate – a sign of stress.
We discussed bagging him – the very last resort. Bagging is giving a horse fluids via an IV. I’ve never seen this done, but I’ve heard about it. The process is apparently incredibly intense. But it would give him a shot at survival.
Or so we thought. Bill wanted to walk around, and the vet’s assistant walked him up and down the little lane that leads to the front gate while Jim, Amy, and I silently stood with the vet.
“We could bag him,” the vet said at last, gently. “But given his age…given the fact that the obstruction is in the small intestine…and seeing all that food come back up…” She paused, then finished, “Based on all of the facts we’ve gathered, all the things that we’ve already done… I don’t think the prognosis is good.”
I knew that. Jim knew that. Amy knew that. We’d known from the start. When I got to the ranch I’d seen Bill, looked into his eyes, felt his demeanor, I knew.
They always tell you when they’re ready. Always.
Numb, I heard myself say we could turn him out into the arena and let him walk around a bit while we talked. Our vet nodded. “It’s a tough choice,” she said quietly. “There’s no right answer.”
“He’ll tell us,” Jim said in reply, and the vet’s assistant walked him to the arena and took his halter off.
It was completely dusk. Bill patiently, steadily walked along as he always did, headed towards our new garden, walking with the same mellow demeanor he always had. I’ll never forget the image of our buffalo, so calm and collected even after everything, walking along with so much tranquility.
Then, he gracefully sank down and lay there quietly in the sand. The tears came then. He told us.
I had moved Sunny – our baby – over into the half of Rain’s stall we were going to use for Bill, since bagging Bill would have meant using the rope we had hanging from the rafters in Sunny’s stall. As Amy went into the arena to spent time with her boy, I went to move Sunny back to her stall, the stall we weren’t going to be needing anymore.
Sunny is going to officially be a yearling in May and she has an incredible amount of energy. She is always moving; sniffing inquisitively, nibbling curiously, and running around like crazy.
After I took her home, as the vet and her assistant waited patiently by their van, I buried my face in Sunny’s mane and cried.
And Sunny stood completely, utterly, totally still. She rested her sweet little nose on my hip and just stood, letting me lean on her, letting me come to terms with the fact that we would soon be releasing Bill to the Great Herd and that tomorrow when the sun rose and I came to work, he would not be there.
And fifteen minutes later, as I walked him to his final resting spot – the clearing just ahead of the front gate where our volunteers park – I came to terms with the feeling of utter helplessness. The feeling when the universe takes control out of my tightly grasped hands and forces me to trust blindly. The feeling that despite all the systems I create and policies I write and rules I live by, there are some things I can never control.
Knowing the routine helps. Knowing what happens before it actually happens helps. I knew what was going to happen when I saw the vet and her assistant walking up the lane with the two pink syringes, Jim beside them.
I leaned against Bill’s head. He blinked, almost sleepily.
“All those times I gave you your medicine,” I choked out, “I – I could have stopped…”
I couldn’t finish. I’m not sure what I wanted to say.
Maybe that I could have stopped and given him an extra pat now and then.
I could have stopped and thrown my arms around his neck and held him tightly every chance I got.
I could have stopped being in such a hurry to finish my tasks, to move on to the next horse’s needs.
I could have stopped and asked him questions.
I could have.
I could have.
But I didn’t.
The vet and her assistant and Jim joined us. The vet asked if I could get Bill a little bit off the incline.
I led Bill forward. And he – ever gentle, ever trusting, ever loving – humbly did as I asked for the last time.
Our ranch – a sanctuary for horses – gives the best lives imaginable to horses with nowhere else to go. We make them a promise when they walk through our gates.
We promise to give them health and happiness every single day. And when neither of those things are possible any longer, we promise to send them to the Great Herd with all the dignity, respect, and love in the world. We promise to be there with them right till the very end.
Because in caring for these incredible animals, those horses that have been abused or neglected or injured or otherwise abandoned or unwanted, they become something beyond family. They become extensions of ourselves.
Giving them health and happiness – that is our greatest joy and out highest honor.
The hardest, most shattering thing I have ever done and will ever do in all my life is help Jim and all the others at the ranch fulfill that second part of the promise.
One last kiss, one last hug, and the injections were given. Jim put his hand on Bill’s sweet face and told him – over and over, as he does to each and every horse leaving this Earth – “I love you, Bill. I love you, Bill. I love you, Bill.”
Bill went down. I went down with him.
Jim stroked his nose and murmured, “I love you, Bill,” again and again and I laid my face on Bill’s and stayed there long after the vet told us he was gone. And long after the last rays of light had faded and the vet and her assistant had left, I lay there.
Wild Bill. Our sweet buffalo.
My last words to you were that I would see you in the morning. For with every dawn that breaks, the Great Herd is there, pulling the sun across the sky.
I knew you’d be running with every other family member we’ve released to the Herd over the years. And you didn’t let me down. You never have.
Sweet baby boy, thank you for showing me patience and showing me that true strength lies in the gentlest of hearts. The pain of losing you is not as strong as the love we all will forever have for you.
October 14, 2015 § 2 Comments
It was towards the end of my morning, perhaps 45 minutes before it was time to feed the horses, when I heard the words.
I had taken my oldest gelding up to the breezeway to take off the three-day-old wrappings I’d placed on his hoof to heal an abscess. One of my volunteers and her three children stood a little bit away, watching me struggle with the bootie and the wraps, sticky with ichthammol.
“What is she doing, momma?” I heard one of her daughters ask.
“It looks like she’s taking the bandage off his foot,” she replied. “How would you like to do what she’s doing? She’s a horse mommy. She takes care of all of the horses here.”
I smiled at her words. I’m still smiling at them.
I’ve often given thought to what it might be like to have kids – human kids – of my own someday, although admittedly I’ve stopped wondering whether or not I genuinely want them after adding a wild kitten to our household last week.
But sometimes it escapes me that I already am a mommy, and not just to two ornery cats.
At the ranch, I make sure each of our herd of 33 has a clean stall and clean water and clean feeders. I know who’s allergic to alfalfa and who’s allergic to Bermuda and who should get less food at lunchtime and who should be getting a little bit more.
I make sure that they don’t get too many treats before mealtime. I make sure Sunny, the baby, gets next to none.
I know where each one likes to eat and where each one likes to be scratched and where I can find each one napping during the afternoon. I groom and bathe where necessary. I know who likes to be rinsed off and who just might attempt to run me over if I come near them with the hose.
I can be standing anywhere on the ranch and know which of the 33 just whinnied, and why.
Instead of scheduling soccer practice, I’m in charge of the turn out schedule so that each horse gets the proper amount of exercise depending on their age, medical problems, history, and stamina. I try to see that the ones who like to be stimulated are worked with on a regular basis.
I know their different personalities and who gets along and who would get along and who should never get within ten feet of each other under any circumstances.
I kiss boo boos. I doctor scrapes, sores, and blemishes. I try to make them better and get vets involved when I can’t. I have – for several summers now – regularly and casually and willingly picked maggots out of various spots on one of my geldings who gets summer sores for six months out of the year.
I put medicine in runny eyes and hurting hooves and protesting mouths. I know who won’t take a needle to the neck and who will fight to the death rather than take a syringe to the mouth and who will smell medicine in a mash a mile a way. I have taken handfuls of mash and hand fed it into stubborn mouths. Once I got mad and took handfuls of mash and just shoved it into one of my geldings’ face till he ate his supplements.
I know with a single glance when something is wrong. I have known the cold terror of watching a sick horse while the vet speeds to the ranch. I have known the helplessness of wanting to do more but being unable to fix a problem on my own.
Likewise, I know with a single glance who just stole Solo’s hay or who just knocked over the food cart or who just made Jazz squeal at the top of his lungs by biting him on the butt. I holler at bickering horses to knock it off without looking up but instantly break up fights when necessary. I do time-outs. I tell the troublemakers to think about their actions. (They tell me, in turn, that I need a straitjacket.)
I discipline, sometimes sternly. I can make a 1,200-pound Thoroughbred back up without stopping for 30 feet with nothing but a lead rope, my hand on his chest, and a ringing, commanding tone. I can make a similarly powerful ex racer mare do laps in the arena with a mere wave of my arm and a sudden “Cht!” Several of the people who come to the ranch can’t get our ornery Miniature horse – Min – to walk back to his stall after he’s been allowed to wander throughout the morning. One word from me and a firm poke on the butt for good measure, and he races off home without protest (usually).
I know when the horses misbehave for the hell of it or because they want – crave – more attention. And I’ve learned that reacting to the latter kind of misbehavior with love and tenderness goes a much, much farther way.
I bribe and scold and threaten, often all in one breath. I can tell the difference between stubbornness and pain and the varying degrees of uncertainty and downright fear. I soothe and comfort and console. I hug and pat and kiss worried foreheads.
I notice achievements and differences and strides in character and temperament. I reward and I praise and I am forever whispering the words, “I’m so proud of you.”
Every single day, I make mistakes. Every single day, I learn something new. And every single day, those horses never give up on me.
The 33 of them step on my feet, nip at my arms, aim kicks at my legs if they’re in a really foul mood, throw me into gates in their excitement, tear food out of my hands, dump out their water tubs after I’ve filled them, rip my clothing, dribble bran and slobber in my hair, knock over mashes I’ve made, and take every ounce of energy I have and then some. And through it all there is more laughter and joy and happiness than I could have ever asked for in my life.
Each and every one of them is a part of me. And I love each and every one of them with everything I have.
Horse mommy, I was called today.
I don’t think I want any other title as long as I live.
August 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
Nearly every person that comes to our ranch has a connection with one particular horse. They fall in love with all of them, naturally, but there is usually one with whom they share a powerful bond.
Before I started volunteering at Tierra Madre, I used to think that everybody chose their “favorite” horse based on simple things, like something cute the horse did, the way the horse looked, or simply because it was the first horse that person happened to know.
Now I realize that they – the horses – are the ones who choose the people.
Even if neither party realizes it at the time.
I was 17 when I first started at Tierra Madre. At the time, I was coming out of a dark depression. I regularly confronted many, many mental and spiritual demons. And I dealt with these problems by pushing them deep, deep down into my subconscious and proceeding like nothing was wrong, by pushing everyone away from me as far as I could.
Jim – the owner and founder at the ranch and my current boss – took me around and introduced me to all the horses. Just like I now joyously watch visitors interacting with each one, he witnessed me falling in love with them all. The horses were so different. They had such personalities. I’d learned to ride at a place where horses were punished (not cruelly by any means, but punished nonetheless) for being different, for acting outside what was considered normal for a horse. Here, the ranch thrived on uniqueness.
To end our tour, Jim took me over to the very last horse at the end of the long row of stalls. He was a big, stunning palomino with light brown eyes. Something in the Earth shifted when I looked at him. I think my breath seriously caught in my throat as our eyes locked.
“That’s Chance,” Jim told me as I gazed and gazed at the horse, “and he’s only been here three months. Don’t get anywhere near him. He’s been badly abused and he’ll nail you.”
He didn’t need to tell me twice. When I first laid eyes on Chance, his ears were pinned to his skull. He was pawing angrily at the ground. His eyes were burning. And he had his head thrown up over the bars of his stall, clearly ready to send anyone who got near him to their deathbed.
And all I ever wanted to do from that moment on for every day I was there was just be near him. To sit outside his stall – a safe distance away – and just look at him.
And every single day I was at the ranch for five straight years, that’s exactly what I did.
The summer I began at Tierra Madre, I was tasked with putting on all the horses’ NoFly every morning. I first interacted with Chance by spraying his face through the bars of his stall. Then I moved up to offering him my hand just close enough so that he could sniff it. Then I started offering him leaves. And all the while, I’d just talk to him.
I never went in his stall. I never touched him more than grazing his lip with my finger. I never attempted to go put a halter on him and walk him out to the arena. I never set out with anything to prove.
All I wanted to do was to play a small part in his healing process, to show Chance what love was. Because for the first four years of his life, he didn’t know what it was. He was kept in a prison of a stall with no windows, fed every three or four days, and through the bars of his stall some really awful, horrific abuse must have taken place, because six years after he walked through Tierra Madre’s gates, he still lunges at anybody on the other side of his gate.
Going inside the stall with him is a whole other story. He might be fearful and defensive with a gate in between himself and a human, but he’s come to understand that whenever someone he knows comes into his stall with a halter, it means he gets to go out to the arena to play.
And one day last year, when I was in the process of taking over the ranch when the amazing lady running it was about to go on maternity leave, I looked over at Chance and thought to myself, “I need to be able to walk him. If I’m going to be in charge, I can’t rely on my boss or our other worker to handle him.”
It’d been five years. He knew me. I knew him. It was time.
So I gathered every ounce of my courage, grabbed a halter, and walked into his stall.
He looked confused for only a second. Then, after hearing me talk cheerfully, just like I’d talked to him for five years, he came up to me, studied me, and turned his head.
“You’re doing this now? Okay,” was his response, and I could have sworn he almost shrugged. “Just be quick about it. I don’t have all day.”
And with hands trembling only slightly, I got his halter on and away we walked. I still remember the two of us being jumpy with each other as we learned how to walk together those first few weeks. But over the course of a year, we’ve figured out a system. And we do things the same way every single time. In fact, there are only two other people who can enter Chance’s stall, and all three of us do things the same way for him every time. Chance likes consistency. He likes knowing exactly what’s going to happen each time, and after living four years of hell when the unknown happened every day, I can’t say I blame him.
Six years after I laid eyes on him – a horse so badly abused he was completely unapproachable – we walk calmly together. And don’t get me wrong. I get nervous every now and then. But most of the time? It’s magic.
The other day though, it didn’t start out that way.
Chance is part of the ‘Chance Crew’ – a big group of horses obviously named for him that goes out into the arena together. There’s seven of them altogether, and they’re wild when they go out. They are so full of energy and have a great time, sometimes at our expense.
There’s one horse who’s apart of the gang called Cadence, except we never call her by her real name. To us, she’s Tater Tot, or Tater, because she’s a big, stocky Quarter horse. She likes to be taken home first, and she’s not afraid of letting us know.
Usually when the Chance crew goes home, I try to take Chance home first so the rest of the volunteers – who can’t get near him – can start taking the other horses home. And every time before we go home, we make a stop at the treat can. All part of consistency.
This past Wednesday, when I went to get Chance, Tater was not having any of it and went after him a few times as I tried to halter him first. At one point, Chance took off with the halter on and the lead rope flew behind him as Tater tore ass across the arena to get him away so she could go home first. And the more they ran, the higher my stress level became.
It is very, very important to me that things go smoothly when taking Chance out of his stall and putting him back home, because otherwise he has the potential to become nervous. And a nervous Chance always made me nervous. And the moment I wasn’t confident, he’d pick up on my anxiety and potentially make me his sixth victim to end up in the hospital.
So when Chance and I ran out of the arena at top speed just as the other horses were starting to get riled up and Tater proved to everyone once and for all she was pissed she hadn’t gotten her way, my nerves were up. It doesn’t help that I’m moving next week and at the time was thinking about packing while also thinking about, oh, ten million other things I had to do before leaving the ranch that day and planning the office work for that afternoon and why did Tater have to be so difficult and are Chance’s ears back? God, I hope not.
I let Chance eat at the treat can as per usual while I was silently running over the craziness of the past few minutes in my head and taking deep breaths. Getting nervous or mad while taking Chance home was a setup for disaster.
Eventually we started to walk back to his stall and I tried to calm myself down.
And then, as we walked, out of nowhere, I felt his nose gently – so gently – touch my side. And for a brief moment right after, he pressed his whole head up against me.
I almost dropped the lead rope in astonishment.
“Hey,” came his thoughts softly, merging with mine. “It’s okay, Lex. Don’t worry. That stuff that happened back there. Don’t worry about it. I trust you.”
I trust you.
I trust you.
I felt the words radiating from the depths of his soul. I had to close my eyes briefly as the tears rushed into them and all the anxiety that had stirred within me completely and utterly melted away.
And after he was back in his stall and I had taken his halter off and I moved to leave, I paused at his gate instead of latching it right away and just looked at him. Just as I had for all those years.
He was still munching quietly from the treats from the treat can, but he gave me a polite glance nonetheless.
“Oh, my brother,” I whispered to him and his ears perked to hear what I had to say, “I trust you, too.”
I meet people every now and then who come to our ranch, meet Chance, and loudly declare that they are going to win his trust. That they’ll fix them. They’ll save him. That they’ll turn him into a gentle beast in no time and you just watch – are you watching? Watch me cure him.
Their egos are bigger than the sky. And Chance and I both see through them each and every time.
They’re never in it for Chance. They’re in it to prove something to themselves or everyone else around them – usually the latter.
But to some degree, when I first interacted with Chance, maybe I, too, was trying to “save” him in a way.
I wanted him to know it was okay.
I wanted him to know that sometimes the world can chew you up and spit you out, but that doesn’t mean it only consists of horror and darkness.
I wanted him to know that sometimes it only feels natural and safe to put walls up and shut everyone out, but that in the end, there are far more people in life waiting to love you than hurt you.
I wanted him to know that it takes as much time as it takes to recover from abuse.
I wanted him to know that it was far better to live to see each day than end it all.
I wanted him to know that every baby step, every little bit of progress that he made, was something to be proud of.
I wanted him to know that no matter what he did and what he’d been through, his past did not reflect who he was. That he was a unique individual who deserved to love and to be loved in return.
And the more I spent time with him, the more I came to realize I wasn’t just telling him all these things.
I was telling every single word to myself.
When I laid eyes on him on that very first day, I truly believe that Chance chose me, even though neither of us realized it at the time, and not necessarily for his sake.
I don’t know how big of a part I’ve played in Chance’s recovery. I don’t know how much I have healed his heart.
But I do know that over the course of six years, from the day we met and he wanted nothing to do with me to the brief moment in time just the other day when he pressed his head up against me in absolute trust, he has completely and utterly healed mine.
Pst…. while I have you here, you can help Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary celebrate its 11th birthday! That’s right, horse ranches can have birthdays, and this September we’re turning 11.
During our 11 years of operation, Tierra Madre has given health, happiness, and hope to over 50 horses. Horses that were abused or neglected or injured or abandoned found a forever home within our gates, Chance included.
Today we are able to continue our mission for 33 of the most incredible horses Mother Earth has ever seen.
Help us celebrate our 11th birthday by giving our horses what they like best: HAY! For our herd, we want to buy not one but TWO squeezes of alfalfa.
One squeeze of alfalfa (roughly 80 bales) is just shy of $1200. Two squeezes will total $2400. And because it is our birthday, after all, we want to spend another $100 on treats, apples, and carrots for our 33 kids.
So our birthday goal? $2500.
In honor of our 11th birthday, will you contribute $11 today toward our goal?
Remember, all donations to our 501(c)(3) organization are tax-deductible. Click HERE to donate. Under “I would like to designate this donation to a specific fund,” you will see the option “11th Birthday Hay Fund.”
From all of at here at Tierra Madre, thank you for 11 amazing years of support!
Love the two-leggeds AND Solo & Suze & Bentley & Kiss & the Min & M’Stor & River & Studley & Chance & Sweet Boy & Sedona & Nibzie & Rusty & Hollywood & Cadence & Guess & Bella & Hudson & Heighten & Jani & Buddy & the Iron Man & Slayer & Bourbon & Spencer & Wild Bill & Jazz & Chiquita & Sonora & Danny & Chianti & Rain & Sunny.
May 14, 2015 § Leave a comment
It’s 1 am on May 14th, and I can’t sleep.
I am floating. Celebrating. Rejoicing.
Tonight (technically it was yesterday, I suppose), at 9:20 pm, I watched this precious baby girl come into the world.
We didn’t think it was going to happen then. In fact, around 8 I was preparing to get some sleep before midnight, which is when I thought the labor would start.
I left the ranch this morning at 11:30 and was back by 2:30. I set up camp in the trailer our ranch worker kindly put outside Rain’s stall in the breezeway and settled in for a long night. Around 6 I went and got a pizza for Jim and I but every other moment, I was waiting.
Around 8 or 8:15, when the ranch was dark and all the other horses still, I heard Rain pawing and groaning in her stall. Every five minutes I’d get out of my little bed to try to check on the momma. We had the baby cam, but about half the time it doesn’t work and won’t connect, and tonight was no exception. Every time she saw me she’d stop.
So rather than having her see me and get scared during the early stages of labor, I changed tacts and tried to watch her on my iPad using the baby cam app but that didn’t work out. So a little before 9 pm, after hearing her pawing and groaning for almost an hour, I went into the house where Jim was watching her on the one monitor we have that’s hooked up to the camera and actually works.
“She’s really restless,” I said as I walked in. Then I looked at the monitor. “She just went down!”
“Yeah, she’s been doing that for a while. Let’s stay in the house a while – right before is the time she needs to be alone.”
We pulled up chairs and watched. I called Bre, our ranch manager, and told her to book it down to the ranch. My mom called and asked how everything was going, and right as I started to answer that Rain was down and seemingly groaning, Jim jumped and pointed. A hoof. A foal hoof.
We both ran out to the stall – me abruptly hanging up on my mom (sorry, Mom!) and Jim flipping on the barn lights – and saw Rain on the ground, sides heaving. She stood up once and flopped the other way, groaning quietly. The hoof we’d seen on the monitor was still peaking out.
There I was thinking we were in the early stages of labor, that it would be another few hours before any real action happened.
There came the head.
There it was.
I gasped when I saw it – it absolutely knocked the wind out of me. Jim grabbed my hand as we watched it slowing, steadily sliding out, wrapped delicately in its milky sac. We stood there watching Rain in complete and total awe as she pushed and pushed and pushed until that tiny, perfect little head was followed by its tiny, perfect little body. Then that body met the earth and Rain groaned again and lay her head down and rested and that little body lay quivering in the straw.
Out of nowhere.
Out of nothing.
There that baby was.
There she was.
Mere minutes after we’d run out of the house to make sure everything was okay.
After so much waiting. After so much excitement and anticipation.
There she was.
I didn’t think to even touch my camera for a few minutes. I was in absolute shock. Not only at the abruptness of it all… but the indescribable, calm, natural beauty of the birth.
That little girl nibbled at the sac, the straw, the air within moments. Her nose quivered as she took her very first breaths.
Watching her attempt to take her first steps was unbelievable. Such a tiny, helpless little thing not even in the world an hour ago, to be thrusting herself upwards attempting to walk. I simply have no words.
I have no words for the moment I touched her soft, soft neck and she looked at me with liquid brown eyes.
I have no words for the gentle – gentle – nickers Rain gave her baby as she encouraged her to suckle.
I have no words for the way that sweet little filly finally stood on her own and jumped, kicked, and bucked with the pure joy of being alive.
I never understood why everyone called it “the miracle of life”. To me, being born was the most ordinary thing in the world. Just another event that occurred on a daily basis.
I see now.
Our Sunny is a miracle.
As I watched her in amazement tonight, the song “With Arms Wide Open” kept playing in my head.
And to me, the words are perfect.
I sang them to little Sunny before I left at midnight. I will sing them to her for the rest of her life.
With arms wide open
Under the sunlight
Welcome to this place
I’ll show you everything
With arms wide open
Now everything has changed
I’ll show you love
I’ll show you everything
With arms wide open.
Oh, sweet girl.
Welcome to the world.
April 27, 2015 § Leave a comment
For those of you following along on my Facebook and Instagram accounts, you know that we saved a pregnant mare from slaughter two and a half months ago at my ranch. We have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of her foal for ten long weeks, and now – as of April 27th at 9 pm – we think we are mere days away.
I can’t even describe what I’m feeling now.
I didn’t go through an excitement phase when we first got her. I don’t think most of us at the ranch did. When I found out about the mare – Rain – she was 36 hours away from slaughter. The owner of the ranch and I were so scared for her and desperate to get her out of the hands of her kill buyer that honestly, when we brought her through the gates, I couldn’t be excited for the new beginning we were going to witness. All I felt was relief. Baby? I constantly wondered as I’d look up and see her eating contentedly in her stall. What baby? All I could think about for a long time was how close we’d come to not being able to save her.
The vet came out to examine Rain a few days after we got her and said she hoped she wasn’t pregnant, as we had been told, on the grounds that Rain was too skinny. After an examination, however, the vet confirmed she was. I and one of the volunteers that had stayed for the visit actually jumped up and down and shrieked. But again – all I really felt in place of happy anticipation was relief.
Over the past few weeks, Rain gained a lot – a LOT – of weight. Soon it became pretty obvious that she was eating for two. Not to mention, she sure got comfortable in her new home considering she’s learned to yell at anyone passing for food!
A few weeks ago we had our former vet and one of our dearest friends come out to visit. He kindly looked over Rain for us and gave us more information about newborn foals and advice about what needs to be done when he/she gets here than we could have ever thought we needed. I took notes about what to do with the placenta, how to make sure the baby passes meconium and what to do if he/she doesn’t, and the type of Chlorhexidine we need to dip the baby’s navel.
And these past few days? I swear Rain got bigger whenever I turned around.
Last week we set up our baby camera that connects to our smartphones and tablets via a free app (head over to the Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary Facebook page if you want to access it, too!). The three of us that will be present for the birth (the owner, the other ranch manager, and me) are taking shifts waking up in the night to check the camera to see if anything’s happened since most mares give birth in the middle of the night.
Tonight I packed a little bag with a change of clothes and some food that I can grab at a moment’s notice and run to my car with should I get a call in the middle of the night or see something happening on the camera myself.
And now – finally – as I watch Rain on my iPad and look at the alarms on my phone for me to wake up and check the camera and look over to my packed bag, the excitement is kicking in.
In the last few days Rain’s udder has swollen up and the baby has really started to move downward. The time is coming soon.
I’ve felt that baby move around inside her for such a long time that it never really sunk in that he or she was eventually going to come out and join the world. I don’t think it will really sink in until I see that baby for the first time with my own eyes. But for now, I am finally feeling the excitement. It’s amazing how much we all already love this precious little foal, and we haven’t met him or her yet.
Rain has done an amazing job carrying this baby and I am in awe of her. I am in awe of her strength and her grace and the fact that she walked onto our ranch a miserable mare and has turned into the happiest, sweetest, most gentle spirit in the world. Her baby has no idea how lucky he/she is.
Hurry on out, little girl/guy. The world awaits you.
April 22, 2015 § Leave a comment
I have absolutely no idea where this year is going. It sounds so cliché to keep insisting that I blinked and suddenly found myself four months into 2015, but that’s truly how I feel. With full time work (read: 31 horses to take care of) and then some, full time school, friends and family and a boyfriend and a kitty and an apartment that needs to be cleaned and a refrigerator that needs to be filled, the only time I can catch my breath a little is when I sit down to watch an episode of Game of Thrones. (I didn’t want to jump on that bandwagon, but after giving the first episode a chance now I can’t stop watching them.)
And so, I am very grateful for the moments that slow things down for me.
In my line of work, several of the horses I take care of have medical issues. One of my geldings, a gray Arabian named Studley, was found tied behind a dumpster as a baby, having been gelded by his previous owners with no tranquilizers and a knife. We suspect that he was weaned too early from his mother and didn’t get all the nutrients he needed from her milk, because his immune system is terrible, and as a result of this abuse, every single summer since he’s been at the ranch he gets horrible things called summer sores. Summer sores are essentially scratches or bits of nicked skin on horses where flies bite, enlarge, and use to lay their eggs. They become nasty, oozing, open sores filled with maggots.
Delicious, isn’t it? The hands-down grossest thing I’ve ever had to do at that ranch is pick maggots out of Studley’s shoulder.
Well, the sores come back every year when the heat begins and the flies return. A few weeks ago, the big sore on Studley’s shoulder returned and I picked a maggot out of one developing just under his right eye last week.
Long story short, we called our vet immediately to try and nail the sores as fast as we could, and she and her assistant came out on Monday to inject the sores with a steroid that would reduce inflammation.
Normally during the morning I’m running around getting things done: Turning horses out, dolling out mashes, doing necessary medical care, cleaning and organizing, doing chores, etc. I spent most of Monday morning standing with the vet and her assistant by Studley’s side.
To backtrack, Studley is what our entire ranch calls a punk ass. He is a total pain to take out of his stall since he throws his head up and grabs the halter in his teeth when anyone – I or any of the volunteers – tries to put it on him. It often gets so bad that I have lightly smacked him in the face to get him to stop flinging the halter around on more than one occasion. I’ve yelled an exasperated, “Studs!” many, many a time when I’ve caught him misbehaving. He is a goofy boy – a loving, happy one, but very ornery, to say the least.
Knowing this, our vet sedated his punk ass so she’d be able to stick needles in his sores (including the one less than an inch from his right eye) without fear of hurting him or anyone else in the vicinity. Thirty seconds after the sedation, Studley was high as a kite. On a horse, that looks like a thousand-pound animal standing with his head hanging down, legs wobbling, and almost completely unmoving. And on a very energetic horse – albeit a punk ass one – well, it’s unnerving, to say the least. Let’s just say every time I see one of the horses sick, or in pain, or sedated the way Studley was on Monday, it is a sharp, almost painful reminder of the fathomless love I have for each of them.
The vet and her assistant stuck needles into the sores for the injections, and the one under his eye oozed blood all down his face. Poor Studley didn’t react, just stood miserably with his head down, blood dripping from his nose onto the ground. The vet and her assistant left when their work was done – the vet giving me some very helpful pointers to relay to the owner about ways to help control the flies this summer – then I left one of my employees in the pen to make sure Studley didn’t fall over while I ran to the tack room to get a bucket of water and a washcloth.
And then, as thousands of other stupid tasks called my name, I did what any other person on that ranch would have done – I sat on my heels (you NEVER fully sit down on the ground around a horse, even a sedated one), put my left arm around Studley’s face as best as I could, and slowly, lightly began to wipe the blood away with the washcloth in my right hand.
“I’m so sorry, baby boy,” I kept murmuring over and over. It wasn’t fair. None of this was Studley’s fault. He didn’t get a say in the neglect he had to go through as a baby, but for the rest of his life he’ll battle summer sores and all the medicine, injections, and vet visits that come with them. But Studley was so out of it that I’m pretty sure he didn’t even know I was there or that he was a horse or that he looked like he’d just gotten the shit beaten out of him at a bar. He blinked slowly and glumly as I dipped my washcloth in the water again and again, taking my time getting the blood off, being as gentle as I could.
It’s so easy to get caught up in how wild and crazy these horses can be – and in fact how wild and crazy life can be – and how I so often get pissed at everything for not going exactly the way I want it to go, dammit. It’s so easy to insist upon a strict schedule in order to accommodate everything, to get mad when things take up two and a half minutes more of my time because that just means something else I have to do later on has to suffer. That’s how I’ve felt lately, anyway. Like I have to keep moving in order to condense a 50 hour day into 12.
But as I stood there with one of my best friends under the sun who needed me on that Monday morning, it occurred to me that the world around me was still moving. And even if everything else I had to do that day had to be postponed until tomorrow, or next week, or next year, the world around me would keep on moving.
I knew before then that time never really stays still. But as I stood there with Studley for a long time, cleaning his face, kissing his nose, rubbing his neck as he slowly started to come back around, I realized that every now and then, if you know how to apply the brakes, it’s okay to make it slow down for a moment.
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.