It was a beautiful Sunday morning – the kind of day that actually causes a swell of happy anticipation to spread through your body the moment you open your eyes and give a first waking stretch. I was hoping for a leisurely day after spending long hours at work on Friday and Saturday. Every part of my heart and soul was begging for a little peace and relaxation.
I decided to start the day with a visit to the barn to check on our newest addition, Big Paul, a Belgian draft horse who had just moved to Tails You Win Farm a week before.
I stepped through the pasture gate and handed Big Paul a rosy red apple. Then I worked my way from donkey to donkey to mule to sheep, doling out treats, hugs, and scratches in all the good places.
As the horses arrived to vie for their share of my attention, I couldn’t help but feel that something was off, something was out of place. Glancing back around at all of the faces surrounding me, I suddenly realized that GoGo was missing.
GoGo is Jim’s appaloosa mare. She was his riding horse for years, but now, at 30 years old, she has lost most of her vision. It was a gradual process. I suspect she was having problems long before we realized it, but managed to follow her normal routine and, when under saddle, trusted the rider to make up for her deficit. Animals are so amazingly adaptive.
To see GoGo in the pasture with the other horses, you wouldn’t likely even realize that she’s blind. With her other senses heightened and with the help of her herd-mates, GoGo usually finds her way just fine. If the herd grazes a bit away from her, she will call out to them for help and one of her friends, generally Leo our paint gelding or Ferris our mule, will walk over to touch noses with her and then lead her back to the others.
Jim and I have talked about GoGo a good deal. On one hand, it would be safer for her to stay in a stall at night and to only be let out in the small pasture behind our house during the day. We could bubble-wrap her, pull her away from the routine she knows and loves, coddle her to give her the longest life possible.
But she would hate that. OH how she would hate that life.
On our farm, our animals are given as much freedom as possible to live as naturally as possible. Our dogs come and go from house to yard freely through our dog door. Our big hog, Jerry, has a comfy spot inside the barn and a one acre pasture complete with mud hole where he can roam, graze, and wallow to his heart’s content. And our horses have always had free run of our 50 acre pasture with open access to loafing sheds and our barn. It has been a good life for them all. They are relaxed and content.
Anytime we have had to confine a horse for any reason, it is an unhappy, stressful time for that animal. Perhaps we have made a mistake in not teaching them to tolerate being in a stall better. There are times when horses do need to be confined.
However, if we pen GoGo up, even with another horse with her for company, she paces and frets, calling out to the rest of the herd, pushing at fences and gates. Jim wants the best for his mare and we have decided that “best” is to let her live the life she loves with her humans keeping close watch.
Occasionally GoGo strays from the other horses, but usually not far. On this morning, I made a quick circle around the barn, sure I would find her napping in the morning sun. But there was no GoGo.
I walked to the top of the little hill to the north of the barn so I could see that side of the pasture. Still, no GoGo.
A few times GoGo has gotten confused and wandered back to the far east end of our pasture. This is where our land is wooded, with a little creek bed running through it. We leave this part of our land in a natural state for the deer, coyotes, raccoons, and other wildlife to enjoy.
Evidence on our wildlife camera tells us that the horses occasionally follow the trails back into these areas where the trees and brush are thick. On these little forays, they generally stick close to the gently winding paths carved out by nimble deer hooves.
I determined that GoGo had probably followed the other horses back into the thicket, but failed to follow them out again. I set out on one of the trails that would take me on a wide loop of the property. GoGo is generally not quiet if she feels lost. She will call out with long, loud neighs until one of us comes to lead her back to the barn. I told myself she must be resting somewhere, not yet aware that the other horses were no longer with her.
I walked, and walked, and walked. The sun was climbing brightly in the sky actually making it harder to see through the brush with the light reflecting on the lingering morning dew that coated every blade, leaf, and branch. It was like shining a bright spotlight into a thousand tiny mirrors and I squinted my eyes against the glare.
I called out to GoGo repeatedly. She is normally very good at answering our calls, but this morning, instead of hearing GoGo’s answer, I just heard the scolding caws of a few crows as they complained about my noisy intrusion.
My heart started to feel little stabs of panic. Though still very fit, GoGo was an older gal with a significant handicap. Had we made a bad decision in allowing her to stay with the herd at night? Had she gone down somewhere in the thick brush? If she was injured and quiet, how would I ever find her?
I walked back up toward the barn and called Jim on my cell phone so he could use the binoculars to search for her from our second story window. Our house stands on a small hilltop and gives us a good vantage point for overseeing the east pasture.
While he did that, I decided it was time for reinforcements. I turned to our other horses for help. Dublin, our sturdy herd boss appaloosa gelding, and Patty, GoGo’s bay daughter, were standing near a water trough outside of the barn. Patty noticed me right away and seemed to sense my stress.
I started talking to her. “Where is GoGo, Patty? Show me where GoGo is. Find your mom.”
Amazingly, Patty seemed to understand exactly what I was asking. She immediately lifted her head to the morning breeze and started taking in some deep breaths as she looked from side to side as if to say, “Where the heck IS my mom?” She walked to the open gate that leads out to the east pasture and stood for a moment, scanning the treeline.
Then she froze, eyes and ears fixed on a distant point in the tree line, every muscle tensed. Dublin, who had followed her to the gate, stood at her shoulder, ears swiveled alertly in the same direction.
In that moment, my brain reminded me of my personal creed: Always look where your horse looks. You’ll see things you would have otherwise missed. Listen to your horses, Nancy.
As Patty and Dublin remained as still as statues, I followed their gaze and started out into the pasture. Patty immediately fell in behind me as surely as if there was a lead rope between us, stopping from time to time to sample the air while she continued to listen. Suddenly the little bay took the lead, calling out in short, excited whinnies while stepping out in an extended, hurried trot, Dublin close on her heels.
I followed at a jog, keeping the two horses in sight. At the edge of our woods, Patty stopped again and called out a long trumpeting neigh. Finally, the stark morning silence was broken by a distant answering call. GoGo!
Patty and Dublin took off again, loping and leaping straight through the trees and brush. I followed the horses as best as I could, now thankful for the heavy dew that their hooves disrupted to paint a trail for me to follow.
When I caught up, I was shocked to find that GoGo had somehow wandered into the most dense section of our little woods. I’m not sure how she got there, but even Patty and Dublin weren’t willing to push through the thicket to get all of the way to GoGo.
Shafts of golden light piercing the dense foliage to highlight her pale speckled coat, Gogo was trapped in a small clear spot just big enough for the length of her body. Behind her, in front of her, and to her far side was a thick wall of sapling trees and thorny undergrowth. Separating us was a dry creek bed, about three feet across and an equal distance deep – a hazard GoGo could not see or judge. Her hooves were perched on the very edge. One wrong step would send her sliding blindly into the crevice.
Excited by the proximity of the other horses, GoGo started to step nervously forward and back, but was trapped on both ends. She turned her head as if to step toward us, tiny pills of dirt already crumbling away from beneath her hooves as she leaned over the creek bed.
Banishing the mental image of my horse falling and potentially getting stuck or breaking a leg, I focused on GoGo’s face, took a deep breath and started talking to her, using her training as my strongest tool.
“Whoa, GoGo. Whoa girl. Whoa.”
Somehow, despite my growing panic, I found a low, steady voice. I spoke calmly, but firmly, hoping the mare would settle down long enough for me to cross the creek bed and slip a halter on her. I was not excited about stepping down into that narrow ditch for fear that GoGo might come crashing down on top of me, but I was running out of options. I had to get to her.
I am very grateful that GoGo is a well trained, level-headed, intelligent horse. The familiar verbal cues calmed her and she stood quietly while I scrambled through the creek bed and came up right under her neck. I got her haltered and pulled her head away from the edge.
Relieved and ready to get my horse out of this mess, I took a look around to find some sort of exit. Problem number two quickly presented itself. How the heck DID she get back here?
The clear path was on the other side of the creek bed. A horse with vision could have judged the distance and probably hopped right across, but I was sure not going to ask GoGo to try to that leap of faith. I thought about calling Jim to come help us hack our way out of the brush, but I couldn’t begin to figure out how to tell him where to find us.
Ok. Plan B. Slowly and carefully, I started stomping down the brush and briers, thankful I had on my sturdy leather boots and thick jeans. Our progress was slow and a bit sticker-laden, but we were cautiously, somewhat clumsily making our way toward a clearing. Patty and Dublin, still concerned for the older mare, followed along on the opposite side of the creek bed.
Finally we got to a spot where the terrain flattened out enough for GoGo to cross safely. She nickered softly as Patty came to her to touch noses in a reassuring gesture. The rest of the walk up to the barn was easy and calm. Just a woman out for a nice morning stroll with three horses trailing along.
Once back at the barn, I gave GoGo a thorough exam to make sure she had no significant cuts or scrapes. Thankfully, she was perfectly fine, and mentally seemed no worse for the wear. In fact, she seemed a bit impatient with me as she pulled against the halter, determined to head straight back out into the pasture – to the life she knew and loved.
I was the one with frazzled nerves and a few scrapes and cuts. But all in all, we came through in good form, though it was clear that Jim and I would need to have another conversation about possibly keeping GoGo confined, at least at night.
Finally, removing the halter, I smiled in gratitude as I watched GoGo head confidently back out to graze with her herd. Crisis averted, I took a moment to reflect on how amazing it was that Patty not only understood what I was asking of her, but that she was able to jump into action to help rescue her mother.
I have been drawn to animals my entire life, always finding kinship and comfort in their company. And still, even with 50+ years shared with countless creatures of different species, I remain in awe of the connection I feel with each of our barn animals and dogs on a daily basis. Our ability to form meaningful relationships and establish effective communication that breaks through species barriers has always been, and always will be, both a mystery and a blessing to me.
I will always honor and nurture the miracle of this connection, whether it is with a dog, a horse, a donkey, a big snorting hog, or, especially, a clever old mare named GoGo.