The big horse, tired and confused, peered out of the back of the trailer. Another new place. More new horses to meet. Another struggle to find his place in the pecking order.
Heaving a deep sigh, the strawberry blonde Belgian draft gelding stepped out of the trailer and into a patch of thick, still-green grass. The fall air was crisp and swirled through his mane, bringing scents of the farm to his flaring nostrils. One step at a time, thought the horse, and he dropped his head to hungrily graze the first green grass he had seen in months.
Ah, what a treat. Enjoy it while you can, he thought, who knows how long this will last. And so he greedily ripped up mouthful after mouthful in case the woman holding the lead rope attached to his halter decided to bring his feast to a sudden end.
Oh sure, with his mass he could easily pull the rope from her hands and run. He had thought about that idea often over the course of the last several weeks. Just run. It would be easy. He outweighed every human by more than 1000 pounds. He could just run and knew he would bolt to the south. He felt sure he would find her there…she was south.
But his years of training and his naturally quiet, gentle demeanor always foiled his plan. You go with the human. You listen to the human. You don’t betray the human no matter what. It was a mandate that was firmly and deeply embedded in his brain. He now honored that mandate as the woman gently pulled his head up and started walking him toward a nearby barn.
“Come on, Big Paul,” she said. Big Paul…she had been saying those words a lot since the moment she came to see him at the last place he stayed. Big Paul.
She led him into a small pasture where he was immediately surrounded by a herd of tiny donkeys. Long ears pricked forward, nose stretched toward him as five pairs of nostrils flared, drawing his scent in. Oh he wanted nothing to do with these little pests. South, thought Paul. Just go south.
The big horse immediately turned and headed to the very far corner of the pasture and stood, his head hanging low as he fixed his gaze on a point over the fence. The woman came and joined him there, talking softly, offering him a delicious, juicy apple. As he crunched the treat, she ran a brush over him, loosening the dirt from his coat. Oh, it felt so good.
The woman spoke words that he didn’t understand. “Safe now.”
The big horse glanced at her from time to time, wary of her, yet also feeling a growing sense of trust replacing the unease that had lived in his heart for what seemed like such a long time now. Maybe the words she repeated held some promise. There were no smells of fear here. The other horses and donkeys were calm and curious. Maybe. Maybe this was finally the route to south.
As days passed, Paul slowly settled in at this new place. Each time the woman or the man, who also lived here, would come to the small pasture, his eyes would crease with worry, but each time the people came there were only gentle words and strokes on his massive neck. No ropes. No shuffling from pen to pen. No trailers.
In time, Paul’s worried expression relaxed into a gentle look of expectation. Would there be an apple today? Maybe one of those crunchy cookies? Will you brush me while I eat today? Paul let his guard down little by little and allowed for a new word in his vocabulary: Hope.
And so this was his life at the new place he came to understand was “home.” Days were easy and carefree. There was no work, there was only rest, play, eat, sleep. There were friends, other horses, who accepted him. Even the pesky little donkeys were growing on him. There was always hay and fresh water. There was never a lack of feed. The people were always there too, smiling, scratching in all the good places, talking of that “love” thing all the time. Paul was starting to believe every word.
It was good. Very good.
But still, there was south. His heart was always being pulled to the south. She was south. He felt sure that if he just stood and looked hard enough, he might actually see her coming for him.
Months passed at the new place and Paul found that he was indeed “safe now.” He no longer worried about what might come next. He knew what was next and it was pleasant and easy. His life had finally settled into a happy routine.
One bright morning, Paul was taking a deep drink of cool water. The dawn was beautiful, amber colors streaking across the sky with the promise of a gorgeous spring day. As Paul lifted his head and let the water drip from his lips he suddenly felt her presence. She was here!
He left the trough in a hurry, rushing to get to the place where he always looked to the south. In that moment he could hear her, she was calling to him. She was nearby, so close. His heart raced with joy.
“I’m here old friend…I think they call you Big Paul now. I like that.”
“Don’t rush,” she said. “We have all the time in the world. I’m here now. We’ll go to the south soon. Just rest first, just rest.”
As excited as he was to see her, he was suddenly so tired. Each time he lifted a giant hoof it felt as thought it was made of lead. Each step became an effort. He felt unsteady and just so exhausted. The sum of years and years of hard work rushed back to render his muscles useless, his legs weak.
So he listened to her. “Just lie down. Rest in the warmth of the morning light. When you wake up, I’ll be with you and we’ll go. It’s time to go south, my big friend.”
With a deep breath, Paul collapsed to the ground and stretched out on his side. He was so tired that even lifting his head required too much effort. His vision blurred as he drifted away into blissful sleep.
In his last moments of consciousness he could hear the voices calling to him. “Paul? Paul? Oh no. Paulie!” It was his humans. The man and the woman were calling to him. They were petting him, pressing their faces to him. He could smell the salt of their tears.
In that moment, his giant heart wanted to shake off the soft darkness that was pulling into a deep slumber. He wanted to wake up long enough to give these people one last nuzzle, but sleep called. He just needed to rest.
The woman laid on his big shoulder. He could feel her there. She whispered the words that were now so very familiar. “Safe now.”
The big horse tucked those words into his heart as he let go. As he let the deep sleep take hold.
Then, just as soon as they had shut, his big brown eyes blinked open. Everything was perfectly clear now. He stretched his long legs and gathered them under him to push himself to stand. Oh, he felt wonderful! No aches, no pain. He shook his whole body in absolute delight.
And then he remembered.
Looking just to his right, he saw her. To his right, as she had always been. She was basically his mirror image. They had been together for so many years, working side by side. Sleeping side by side. Eating side by side. He on the left, she on the right. She was his partner. She was the horse who made him whole.
He briefly flashed back to the day she had been pulled away from him. She had been limping, her strong front leg injured, and she could no longer work by his side. Despite his frantic calls, she had been taken away and loaded into a big trailer that headed south. It was the last time he would ever see her. Until now.
And suddenly there she stood. She too must have had a really good rest because she looked beautiful and perfect, as she had years ago when they were quite young. She was strong, tall, and shining. She was waiting for him.
He moved to her immediately, pressing his head against her shoulder in greeting as she reached up and scratched her teeth along the top of his withers, just as she had every day for years. He couldn’t believe his luck, she was here too. Did his new humans find her and bring her to him?
Looking around, Paul realized they were definitely at the place called home. He could see the house, the barn, and the pastures with the donkeys and the other horses. Everything was normal, except for one thing. Everything was to the north and Big Paul was outside the fence, in the pasture to the south.
Paul stood watching just as the man and woman came out of the house and walked toward the barn. As he saw them step through the gate leading into the small pasture – the place where he had always waited for his apple and his feed – he gave a low, rumbling nicker, the one that came from that spot deep in his soul. The one that came from the place born of hope.
And in that very moment, the woman looked up, an expression of confusion and then realization dawning on her face. She looked to the south, right where Paul now stood, and smiled as she handed an apple to one of the horses.
With that, Big Paul turned his face into the gentle wind that played through his mane and he followed her, his partner. Together they walked to the south, a team once again. Together they went into the promised place called forever.
I have written this story as much for myself as I have as a tribute for Big Paul. Big Paul was horse that captured my heart from a simple photograph. He was featured on a Facebook page filled with photos of horses at a kill buyer feedlot. In the photo, he was standing alone, head hanging down, eyes half shut as if to keep the reality of his situation from piercing his consciousness.
When I saw his photo, Paul was in imminent danger of being herded onto a stock trailer to begin a grueling journey to Mexico where he would be sold, based on weight, to a slaughterhouse. It is, in my opinion, a torturous, inhumane demise for creatures who have stood by us for so long, as our partners in work and in pleasure. To me, it is the ultimate betrayal of trust.
But it is a deep and longstanding problem. There are too many horses. There are not enough good homes. People fall on hard times. People look the other way. People are often irresponsible. And we fail our big friends, time and time again.
The topic of horse slaughter will stir up passionate debate and emotion faster than you can blink an eye. There are many sides to the story…many what ifs, and lots of finger pointing. I don’t have answers for the problem. I know what I feel…I know I wish the castaway horses could all find peaceful homes, or at least a humane end closer to home. Sparing them the long trip to an unregulated slaughterhouse in a foreign country seems to me the most important issue to immediately address.
And there are those who say we should not buy horses from the kill buyer feedlots. You’re just giving them money, they say – more money than they would make if the horse sold for slaughter. You are giving them more money to just turn around and buy more horses. I guess that’s true.
But the reality is that the kill buyers will continue to buy horses. They will continue to sell them to slaughter. It’s their business. I don’t like it, but I also don’t have other answers for the thousands and thousands of unwanted horses that pass through their lots each year. Just as I don’t have a quick fix for the thousands of dogs and cats who die in animal shelters every single day.
What I do know is that we can each do what we can…what feels right. For me, seeing Paul’s photo and making a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy him and turn his fate around was the right thing for me to do. He was a gentle giant. He had a good heart. Though his faith in humans was obviously shaken, he was willing to trust again and again.
Paulie was an older guy than we first suspected. It didn’t matter to me one bit. I knew his time with us would be limited…though I really expected years, not mere months. But the reality is this: Jim and I brought Paul to our home to save him from a terrible end, to give him good care, to let him experience a quiet, carefree life, and to just love him. In the months he was with us, I believe we did just that. Mission accomplished.
As for Paul, well, I don’t believe he is waiting anywhere for me now. I sure hope not. I am not Paul’s forever after. Jim and I were just the bridge to his ultimate reward. He spent a lot of time gazing over the fence to the south. He always had an expression of quiet expectation on his handsome, wise face when he did that.
I’m told that big working draft horses are often a part of a team. They work and live as a pair day in and day out. If one of the team dies, it’s said that the other horse often becomes useless…lost without the constant companionship of his partner.
I always felt that Paul was looking for his partner. He seemed somehow lost, even in a crowd. He was incomplete.
Now, I believe with all of my heart that Paul has found her, the partner that stepped into this story from my imagination. I think she is real and I think she came to take Big Paul to his forever. In my mind’s eye, I watched them walk together – two tall, strong twin draft horses – once again a handsome team.
As for me? Well, knowing everything I know now…knowing my time with Big Paul was too, too short, I can honestly say I would buy him again, a hundred times over. He taught us so much in our time together and it was our honor to help him find his happily ever after.
A lot of people helped make Paul’s rescue possible. Friends and people we don’t even know fell in love with photos of the big horse, and helped fund his purchase and care until we could bring him to Tails You Win Farm. That’s the type of kindness you can never repay, but I hope my expression of sincere thanks makes our gratitude clear. Paulie had a village watching over him at the end of his time here and that love was reflected in his brown eyes more and more each day.
Thank you to everyone who cared. Most of all, thank you Big Paul. We changed your life for the better, just as you did ours.