In The South Field

Look south

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.

IMG_5280She 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.”

“Home.”

“Love you.”

“Forever.”

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.

Getting to know youAnd 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.”

“Home.”

“Love you.”

“Forever.”

The big horse tucked those words into his heart as he let go. As he let the deep sleep take hold.

HilltopThen, 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.

 

First morning

Big Paul in his favorite spot at Tails You Win Farm, aka: Home.

 

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. 

Nan and Paul 2         Jim and Paul

Safe/Sold

Asher

I recently made a huge mistake. I started following a Facebook page dedicated to highlighting local horses in danger of being shipped to slaughter houses in Mexico.

Huge mistake. Their faces call out to me from my computer screen daily. What was I thinking?

And they are all in danger. If the trucks come, there is a certain weight they will want to load. It’s not about individual animals, it’s about price per pound. It’s that simple and to a horse lover, it’s that ugly.

How did these horses get there? They are horses consigned to auction by their owners for whatever reason. Maybe they can’t afford them any longer, or the kids lost interest. Maybe it’s time for a bigger, better, faster, flashier horse. Maybe the horse is lame or injured and no longer useful. Maybe it’s time to reduce the herd number. Maybe the owner passed away and there were no provisions for the horses.

And maybe the previous owners believe their horses will go to great new homes. Perhaps they convince themselves that their old horse will be some young girl’s dream come true. Maybe…but in the fast, get-them-in-get-them-sold environment of a horse auction, it’s very hard to be sure who had the winning bid, who will determine each horse’s future.

If a horse doesn’t catch the eye of a responsible new owner before the gavel falls, then the “kill buyers”- the middlemen between horse auctions and slaughter facilities – will put in that final bid. At the end of the sale, some of the horses head off with individuals or families to personal trailers. They will leave the confusion of the auction grounds to go to new homes where they will hopefully receive good and responsible care.

The other horses are loaded into big stock trailers where multiple horses jostle for space, often injuring each other, their stress and confusion anything but over.  Their future filled with nothing but uncertainty and a potentially tragic end.

Do people realize that many of our once-loved, once-valued horses end up in a battle for the right to life and dignity? Or is it really just an ugly, little-known fact? For most people, it likely is.  I also suspect that a lot of people really don’t want to know the truth.

But here is the truth.

The kill buyer feedlots are filled with riding horses – good strong horses with many years left. You’ll find pregnant mares in the pens. You’ll find frantic mothers protecting beautiful young foals. You’ll find yearling colts and fillies, lost and confused in the shuffle. You’ll find horses, donkeys, and mules that have learned to trust humans, now facing the ultimate betrayal.

And for the horses who truly don’t find their savior, the future is grim. You see, we don’t slaughter horses in the United States. It’s not legal here. Nope, our castaway horses go to slaughter houses in Canada or Mexico, the latter the most common destination for horses in my immediate area.

From there, I don’t really want to discuss what happens. I know enough. I know it’s not well regulated; I know humane treatment of the horses is not a priority. Handling methods and killing methods are not gentle, not reliable. I can’t bear to actually see the images, or to dwell on the full truth.

It’s enough to just see photos of the horses that people are desperately trying to save from the feedlots. Photo after photo. Horse after horse. The plea goes out every single day for people to step forward, pay the fee that the kill buyer will accept to release a horse, to save a life.

Many are saved. Their photos are labeled “Safe/sold.”

Many are not. Their photos are labeled with one simple word. “Shipped.”

I don’t want to keep looking at the photos, but as the saying goes, it’s like a terrible car accident and, try as I may, I can’t seem to look away.

Two days ago, I saw Asher and I truly couldn’t look away.

Asher is the name a big Belgian draft horse was quickly given by the women racing against an unknown deadline in an attempt to find buyers for several horses labeled “urgent” on the Facebook timeline. Photos of Asher showed a big, sturdy, mature horse, perhaps in need of a little weight, with strong legs and a blonde coat that begged for a good brushing.

Asher appeared to be an older horse and marks on his chest indicated that he had likely been used to pull, as many horses of his breed are. I was told he was tired and stressed at the feedlot. You could see it in his stance, in the blank expression on his face. Though my heart ached for every one of the horses pictured that day, Asher had a special hold on me. It’s as if I already knew him, already loved him.

I know my attraction to him is in no small part due to the loss of my beloved spotted draft horse, Scout. Scout had lived a wonderful life with us on our farm. Scout also had a terrible, fluke accident that ended his life far too soon. I could not save Scout.

But could I save Asher?

My life is busy and full, and so is my pasture. My partner Jim and I have a herd that consists of five horses, a mule, a standard donkey, a miniature horse, and five miniature donkeys. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, hooves to trim, shots to give, teeth to care for, and necks to hug. Many of our animals are with us because they, like Asher, were no longer wanted.

Did we have room for one more? It really didn’t make sense. Life is quite busy enough and beyond our barn animals, we actively participate in fostering and placing homeless dogs and have a houseful. But even with logic trying to take control of my brain, I still could not shake the image of Asher. The big horse who was described as gentle and quiet. The big horse who watched other horses leave and just stood with his head hanging in a corner of the feedlot pen.

Then I talked it over with some amazing friends.  Renown author Jon Katz (www.bedlamfarm.com) and Pamela Rickenback, the co-founder and driving force behind Blue Star Equiculture (www.equiculture.org), learned of my concern for Asher and I shared my internal debate with them. They each listened so patiently, they responded so wisely.

The reality that kept playing over and over in my mind was that saving one horse doesn’t put much of a dent in the big-picture problem. One horse saved, but thousands more in danger.  Asher was just one horse.

Then a funny thing happened. Both Jon and Pamela, in separate conversations, told me that they both felt this horse would somehow make a difference. They both felt that Asher was speaking to me for a reason beyond just saving one horse.  In fact, they both felt he might be reaching across the miles to them as well.

“Save the horse,” Jon said. It was really just that simple. Save Asher and the rest of the puzzle pieces would come together.

And so, racing time as the trucks arrived at the feedlot, I sent the online funds that would save Asher’s life.

Payment made, I still had to hold my breath for a few hours until I received confirmation that Asher had escaped the feedlot and was safely moved to his new temporary “horse hotel.”

Then something truly incredible happened. Thanks to a touching blog post by Jon (read it here), people from across the country started offering financial support for this one horse. Five dollars here…ten there…even donations of $50 and $100 started coming in.

This amazing support will help cover the fee I paid to secure Asher’s safety. It will help cover the expense of his 30 day quarantine, necessary because feedlot horses are often exposed to illness. It will help cover his veterinary expenses and hoof care. This outpouring of kindness will prepare Asher for a new, secure life. Any funds donated beyond what we need to for Asher’s initial care will be donated to Blue Star Equiculture where it will be put to very good use.

Now that the dust has settled, I’m not really sure what will come next, but I know it will be good. I now have 30 days to figure it out. Whatever next is, Jon, Pamela, and other friends have all said the same thing: “I have a really good feeling about this.”

I do too.

Jim and I will talk. I have to admit that I may have purchased Asher without exactly consulting him. Oh I may have mentioned it…I may have showed him a photo or two. In fact, I did say, “I might rescue a horse today” as I ran out of the house yesterday morning. I doubt he is surprised. Actually, I know he’s not. This is not the first time I’ve pulled a stunt like this. Jerry Swinefeld, the giant hog living in our barn that I took in “temporarily” from a rescue group comes to mind. And Delta Donkey who popped in one weekend and never left. Oh, and Bob the sheep…I can’t remember. Did we discuss that one?

Thankfully, Jim is a good, good man with a huge, compassionate heart. (Did you read that sweetie? Jim?) I think this idea will grow on him.

My hope is that we can keep Asher ourselves, as a new family member at Tails You Win Farm. (Picture Jim shaking his head, sighing, and saying “I knew it.”)

But to be fair, if Jim and I don’t feel we can keep Asher here, he is a much larger horse than we have ever cared for before, then Pamela has said she will help us find him a good sanctuary where he can live his life with security, good care, and in peace.  By buying Asher from the feed lot, I made a promise to him that he will never again face the uncertain future that comes with the bang of an auctioneer’s gavel. I fully intend to keep that promise.

And maybe this is the start of something bigger. Maybe Asher is the horse that will get some great and compassionate minds thinking about ways to make humane, compassionate treatment of horses a priority in our world – especially for the horses that are seemingly cast aside so easily. Pamela has already dedicated her life to that very mission through her work at Blue Star Equiculture. I urge everyone to go to their website to read their mission statement. It is truly inspiring.

Asher’s plight, along with that of the other horses at the feed lot, makes me determined to spread the word about the right of all horses to receive humane treatment. This is not about vilifying the “kill buyers.” While I do condemn the way some of them treat the horses in their care, the reality is that they are doing a job. They are in a supply and demand business. I may not agree with their chosen profession, but this is a bigger issue than just pointing a finger and placing blame on the middleman.

The issue goes much deeper. It speaks to the flawed way some people perceive horses and their role in our lives. Horses are not a throw-away commodity. They are our partners in work and in pleasure. Treated properly, they thrive in our care and in the jobs we have for them, whether it’s to give a little girl a dream come true, to proudly carry a police officer, to work in partnership with a rancher, or to take tourists on a carriage ride through the park in the heart of New York City. They deserve our protection, our respect, and the right to dignity in life, and in death.

IMG_3483Jim and I are no strangers to caring for special horses who might have otherwise been throw-away horses.  Leo came here as a five month old colt. He has a congenital neurological disorder that results in a lack of coordination in his rear legs. He is what horse fanciers would call a “pasture pet” or “pasture ornament.” He is exceptionally good at that job.

Our mule, Ferris Muler, was bred to be a pack mule, but suffered a compression fraction to his pelvis as a youngster, so instead of sending him to that big pasture in the sky, his owner asked if Jim and I would take him. He cannot be ridden, he will always have a limp, but he is happy and healthy none-the-less and quite a fun character here on the farm.

Cheyenne, our paint mare, came to Tails You Win farm when she was just a few weeks old – a tiny orphaned foal. We raised her on buckets of formula and with our miniature donkeys taking turns keeping her company. She is now a beautiful, healthy girl.

GoGo and Patty, a mom and daughter pair, came to us from a friend who needed to find her girls a new home. Gogo is now about 30 years old and has lost her vision. She gets around just fine with a little help from her friends.

These animals are our companions. Jim and I are very devoted to their care. Their value is in nuzzles, in welcoming nickers, and in seeing them lope carefree across our pasture.

I think Asher would make a fine addition to our family if that is right for him and for us. I have a bit of back-peddling to do with Jim on that topic (insert sheepish smile here). But I do promise this horse safety for the rest of his life. I am committed to him now. I love him dearly and I’ve not even had the chance to stroke his handsome face yet.

So maybe my huge mistake, wasn’t really a mistake at all. Maybe I was supposed to find Asher. If his story touches a few hearts and opens a few eyes, who knows what might come next. If people are willing to pull together to help just one horse, maybe there’s a way to pull together to try to help them all. Maybe that’s what is supposed to happen next.

Waffle 2

First mouthful of hay after arriving at the horse hotel where he will stay until we know he is healthy and able to safely be around other horses.

For Asher, the definition of next is good food, good care, and a new name. It’s time to abandon the memories that come with his feedlot name and focus on his future. “Next” for this horse is bright and now filled with people all over the country who know him and care about him. I am so grateful, and somehow I think he is too.

Every horse should be so lucky. Every horse deserves to live in a world where he can be “safe/sold.”