Where Sunflowers Grow

Run in Peace Big PaulThe patch of broken, brown earth stood out in sharp contrast to the surrounding blanket of green dotted with splashes of colorful wildflowers. This was the first time I had ventured out to visit this spot in the pasture since the day it happened more than two months ago.

I looked at the packets in my hand, eight in all. There were two each of four varieties of sunflower: Mammoth, Moonshine, Autumn Beauty, and American Giant. The promise of the massive flowers seemed a fitting tribute to my big boy. Soon, I hoped to see a small forest of sunflowers covering the bare spot in the earth that marked the place where Paul, my big draft horse, was buried.

It was a gorgeous spring day. The perfect day for a walk in the pasture. Life was erupting all around me. The trees were covered with tender, brilliant green leaves unfurling to greet the changing season. The birds darted about, busily tending their nests. Insects flitted lazily about from blossom to blossom, finding nourishment as the warmth of the morning sun fueled their meandering mission.

Hi there NanYet I stood oblivious to the spring parade. I was fixated on that one patch of cracked, clumpy earth that represented the beautiful ghost still testing my heart.

I’m no stranger to loss. We live with lots of animals…all lives more temporary than our own. We’ve said our share of goodbyes and we always find a way to celebrate the beings that have shared their time here with us. Each has taught a lesson, each has been a blessing.

But, Big Paul. I just wasn’t coming to terms with his loss. The stately Belgian horse who won my heart from one photo on a Facebook page. Our story was supposed to roll gently toward a very distant sunset. It was not supposed to be a short story, over in just a couple of chapters.

So my morning visit to Paul’s piece of earth was to find resolution. It was my private ceremony. I was going to welcome closure.

gogo 2016Standing clutching the seed packets in my right hand, I heard a quiet shuffling behind me. I turned to see GoGo, our old appaloosa mare, with her nose to the ground as she followed my trail through the pasture as surely as a faithful tracking dog.

GoGo is a special girl. She is 30 years old. She has lost her vision. But she doesn’t hide in the barn, she doesn’t beg for special care. In fact, she won’t tolerate being kept in a stall or safely confined to a paddock. She is, despite the toll advancing years have exacted, strong-willed and determined to keep pace with the rest of our horses. Where one sense has failed her, others have grown stronger. She is a survivor.

I stroked the sweet mare’s neck as she sniffed the seed packets, perhaps checking to see if I might be holding a carrot or a horse cookie. I was immediately thankful GoGo decided to join my private memorial service. The mare who had graced our farm for such a long time, joining me as I paid respect to the horse who touched my life so profoundly in such a short amount of time. Perfect.

I opened the packets, one by one, and sprinkled the contents across the bare earth, watching as the small seeds bounced and tumbled into the cracks and crevices. Soon they would find purchase, sprout, and spring back up toward the sky, strong, tall, and golden. Just like Big Paul was.

Job done, GoGo and I retraced our steps and headed back to where the rest of our little herd watched in seemingly silent homage. Did they know I needed some space? My very spoiled animals are not known for restraint, especially when they see a human that normally has pockets filled with cookies. But somehow, today, they showed quiet respect.

As I moved closer to the barn, the truce was broken and my herd surrounded me, snorting and sniffing. I looked into a half dozen pairs of soft, hopeful eyes as impatient noses pushed at my hands and nudged my pockets.

In that moment, it hit me. Just as surely as the sunflower seeds would sprout roots in the fertile soil and grow to fill the cracks and gaps in the broken earth, these silly horses and donkeys, in the here and now, would help fill the cracks and gaps in the fertile ground of my heart.

I would always remember, and I would always be grateful for what was, but I could also let go. It was time to stop replaying the pain of loss and instead focus on the good times I had with Big Paul. And it was also time to simply allow myself to appreciate what was standing right in front of me.

Just like that, a spring day became a gift. The sunflowers to come became a promise. A ghost became a beautiful memory. A heart was allowed to begin healing.

Oh…and yeah…a little herd of horses, donkeys, and one fine mule got to eat cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Firsts.

First day out

Monday was the first day that I left the gate open to Big Paul’s pasture. Up until this week, the new, giant addition to my equine family really showed little to no interest in joining the other horses. He seemed content in his small pasture with just our gang (you can’t call this bunch of tiny hoodlums a herd) of miniature donkeys.

Donkeys and paulBut over the past couple of days I noticed Paul grazing near the fence that separates him from the other horses. I saw him standing at the gate, looking out into the big pasture with definite interest. It seemed that the new guy was ready to make some friends, ready to explore new boundaries. I granted him the freedom to do just that.

I watched for a bit as Paulie took his first steps out into our big pasture. He stopped just outside the gate, raised his massive head up to scent the morning wind, his warm breath forming puffy little clouds in the frosty air as he likely pinpointed exactly where the other horses were grazing. I was grateful our herd was away from Paul’s gate at this moment. It gave him time to have a look around before running that gauntlet that all new horses seeking acceptance have to run.

After a few minutes of watching Paul’s very uneventful big release, I gave in to the pressing call of my morning schedule and headed off to work.

I didn’t have human children, but I now think I know how a mom feels the first time she drops her child off at school. It’s a good feeling…your baby is taking those all important first steps into the world. It’s also a terrible, what-have-I-done feeling that causes you to spend the day worrying about your little – or not-so-little in this case – darling.

I knew Paul could be in for a rough day. I’ve introduced new horses and donkeys into the pasture at Tails You Win Farm numerous times.  it truly is just like a kid starting midterm at a new school. There are the nice kids who are welcoming with friendly curiosity. There are the kids who just ignore the new guy. And there are the bullies determined to initiate the newcomer.

Our pasture has all of the above.

Dublin and PattyI knew that Patty and Dublin would likely chase Paul away from the group. I guessed that Leo and GoGo might just go about their business, not caring about Paul one way or another. And I had a good feeling that our sweet paint mare, Cheyenne, would likely flirt a bit and follow Paul around like a persistent kid sister.

I got home from work after dark (why must the sun disappear so early in the fall and winter?), grabbed a flashlight and ran to the barn to see how my boy’s first day went.

Would he be stressed and hiding in a far corner of the pasture?

Would he have bite marks from hazing by the bossier members of the herd?

Would he need a hug and a cookie? (Anthropomorphize much?)

What I found was Big Paul standing in the loafing shed in his small pasture patiently waiting for his dinner in the feeder he has been using since day one at our farm. On either side of him were his new kid sisters, Cheyenne and our standard donkey, Delta Dawnkey. Apparently the younger girls at school did indeed develop crushes on the tall, handsome new guy.

Paul was quiet, relaxed, unscathed and hungry. His first day was apparently a success, though I can’t say he is part of the herd quite yet. He grazes near the “popular kids,” but doesn’t try to dive in the middle of them.

Smart boy. Flirt with the cute little girls. Take your time. Find your place.

Hey Paulie, this ain’t your first rodeo, is it? Geeze Mom, what were you so worried about?

 

 

The New Kid.

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He stands quietly in the far corner of his small pasture. He is not sleeping, he’s just looking over the fence to the south. I wonder what goes through his mind, I wonder why he is drawn repeatedly to this spot, to this view. Does it remind him of a place he once knew? A place where he felt safe? It feels that way to me as I watch him.

Look south stillBig Paul is the Belgian draft horse we rescued from the killer buyer feedlot a couple of months ago. With the help of donations from many kind people, Paul was purchased just an hour before he was to be loaded on a trailer to make a very final trip to a Mexican slaughterhouse. Since that time, he spent 45 days in quarantine as a safety measure to ensure his health – horses on the feedlots often come down with upper respiratory infections – and then he moved to Tails You Win Farm. More appropriately said, he moved home.

Big Paul finally has a home and, lucky me, it’s my home too.

A quiet, easy horse,Paul seems to have settled in well, but unlike any other horse I have ever brought to the farm. Paul is not particularly curious about our other horses. He does not rush to meet them over the fence. He does not call out to our little herd when they move out of sight of his pasture. He seems content in his solitude.

It is odd to me that an animal with a heritage so firmly embedded in herd mentality is not pining to be a part of this new herd. Maybe his journey from his previous home to the auction barn then to feedlots, perhaps even transporting across the country, has made him weary of the process. The new kid has to be tested, has to earn a spot within the pecking order.

In the past, when I have turned a new horse out to be with our herd, the horses meet and immediately size each other up. Is it a mare? A gelding? Is this horse a leader or a follower? There will be some squealing, some foot stamping, biting and kicking, some chasing about. It’s usually not very serious and the drama generally plays out within a day or two as the newcomer finds acceptance.

IMG_5280I initially decided to keep Paul in our smaller pasture for several reasons. First, to let him have some time to rest and get to know our other horses without any confrontations. Second, Big Paul has been on dry lots (paddocks with no grass) for at least 60 days, perhaps longer. Our pasture still has good grass available and it is dangerous to turn a horse out on pasture if he is not accustomed to free grazing. Grasses in fall and spring  have higher levels of fructans. Excessive ingestion of fructans is thought to cause laminitis, a crippling hoof disease, in some horses. My veterinarian has recommended that we limit Paul’s grazing time until we have a good freeze.

Paul seems very happy with this arrangement. He is in no hurry to move out of the small pasture. Oh, and he’s not alone now. My band of five wooly miniature donkeys decided to invade Paul’s pasture. These little guys basically see fences as mere suggestions of boundaries. They have been keeping Paul company for about a month now.

I think he’s pleased to have his tiny friends around, except maybe at feeding time when they turn into a little band of thugs determined to steal bites of his food, despite the pans of grain set out for them. Paul is very patient and gentle with them, just occasionally shaking his big head at them in protest.

Getting to know youThe decision to join the other horses is completely up to him. I open the gates every few days to let him mingle a bit with the others. They try to engage him…Cheyenne our young paint mare is fascinated with “Uncle” Paul, Ferris the big mule grazes calmly near Paul, and Patty the bay mare pins her ears and snakes her neck toward him in a grumpy fashion. She is obviously not the chairwoman of the neighborhood welcome wagon.

So far, despite the open gate and free access to good grazing, Big Paul just sticks to his small pasture, moving away from the other horses to his favorite corner in the south end. So I shoo the other horses out and shut the gate, allowing Paul all of the time and space he needs. We’re in no hurry here.

Meanwhile, I’m thoroughly enjoying my time getting to know Paul. It’s a been a gradual process of gaining his trust, and finally, I think, gaining his affection. Each morning I go out with a sweet red apple to share with my big boy. Each morning I give him a scoop of feed, rub his massive neck, and give his soft nose a kiss. This morning, as I walked toward the barn calling, “Paulie, Paulie, breakfast,” I was greeted, for the first time, with the most beautiful, rumbling, bass nicker I have ever heard.

What a wonderful start to my day. Thank you Big Paul. I love my time with you too. Welcome home.

Look Where Your Horse Looks

easter gogo 2 (2)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.”

Patty and DublinAmazingly, 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.

IMG_3483Finally, 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.

Online Love Affair

It’s true. Today is the day. Today is the day I am finally going to meet a man I met through an online matchmaking page.

Are you shocked? I know. You’re thinking, “But what about JIm?” How can you do this to Jim?”

Oh, he knows. In fact, I think he’s coming along with me. He wants to meet this guy too.

Scandalous? Have I lost all good sense? Taking the man who has been my partner for more than a decade to meet a man I recently met online? A tall, strawberry blonde for whom I admittedly have strong feelings?

Well, think what you will, but I feel pretty good about this love triangle. I think my two men will get along just fine.

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The man we are going to meet is Big Paul, the handsome Belgian draft horse I purchased online from the killer buyer feedlot a month ago. Paul has a lot of fans across the country, many of whom generously donated money to help secure Paul’s safety. Today I finally get to make the trip to meet this special guy.

And I don’t think Jim will mind seeing me give Big Paul a huge hug. I don’t think he’ll mind one bit.

I already even have a pet nickname for him…he’s Waffle. My big Belgian Waffle. ❤ There will be stories and photos to come. Hopefully a long, happy lifetime of them.

A Runny Nose. A New Name. A Second Chance.

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Today I got a great update on Big Paul. The horse, previously known as Asher while at the kill buyer’s feedlot just a week ago, is doing very well. (Original story here) I can see the difference in him just by the way he turns to look at the person taking the photo. No longer is he staring blankly ahead. Now he is engaged, he is looking hopeful. His spirit is restored.

Big Paul’s rescue is the climax to the story of my month-long odyssey as I watched horse after horse featured on a Facebook page dedicated to trying to find last minute buyers for horses purchased at auction and destined for livestock trailers heading to Mexican slaughter houses. Many horses are saved through the efforts of the people pouring information into these posts. Many horses are lost.

In this post, I will not focus on the overwhelming issue of our castaway horses and the battle over what is truly right and humane in dealing with them. It is a topic that cuts through me and one that needs to be discussed, that needs to be faced head on, but tonight, I just want to focus on Paul.

I was drawn heart and soul to this horse the very instant his photo popped up with the label “urgent.” With the encouragement of friends and amazing support from people across the country, I purchased Big Paul and secured his transfer to a short term boarding and quarantine ranch for horses.

Silvermoon TLC is often a stopover for horses rescued from kill buyers and headed to new homes. Because the risk of illness is very high on the feedlots, it is strongly recommended that a horse purchased there go into a 30 day quarantine.

Paul is in the caring hands of Tonni, who together with her husband and son, runs Silvermoon TLC. She has been more than kind in sharing photos and news of Big Paul as he settles into his temporary home. Hopefully this Saturday I will finally get to make the 100 mile drive to thank Tonni in person and give this big horse a huge hug.

Today the veterinarian payed Paul a visit to assess his overall health and to pull a little blood for a few necessary tests. To no one’s surprise, he has developed a runny nose after his time in the stressful environment of the feedlot. It’s all too common. Some horses fall quite ill, some shake it off easily. So far it appears that Paul is going to fall in that latter category. He’s a strong boy.

Overall, the veterinarian declared Big Paul to be in good shape. She recommended worming him and giving him some supplements to help strengthen his system. All easy steps that the good people at Silvermoon TLC are willing to take for Big Paul’s welfare.

The vet, who said this is the horse she’d want to take home with her – high praise for his disposition, indeed – estimated Paul’s age to be around 16 years. With good care, he should have many good years left. Belgians have a life expectancy of about 30 years. I’m so pleased that this beautiful, impressive horse will now have the chance to enjoy a full and happy life.

faceThis is just one horse saved out of the thousands and thousands that are in danger every day, but as many people have reminded me, that’s how change happens. One at a time. And right now, I’m going to focus on making sure this one horse, who has a new name and a new chance in life, has “he lived happily ever after” at the end of his story.

He deserves that. They all deserve that.

While Big Paul rests and regains his health at the horse hotel, I’m going to sit down to write thank-you notes to all of the amazing people who put their faith in me and donated to help with the expense of his purchase and immediate care. The expenses would have overwhelmed me and I’m grateful beyond words for the assistance that continues to come in daily.

This one horse has quite a following of wonderful, compassionate people now. Somehow, by the relaxed, gentle expression on his face, I think he knows he is safe. I think this one horse is quite thankful for all of his new friends. I know I sure am.

When Your Horse Is Too Sick To Go To School

Dublin sick day 2

My mother’s words will follow me forever, no matter how old I get.

“If you’re too sick to go to school, you’re too sick to go out to play.”

OH the risk of claiming a tummy ache on a school day. Sure, maybe you start feeling way better about an hour after the school bell rang, but it just didn’t matter. You played the sick card, so you were doomed to a day under the covers with a Sprite and some saltines on the bedside table. If you were lucky, there might be some new comic books included.

And after school? When your friends all came racing home to play and you were feeling much, much, much better? Too bad, so sad. You played the sick card.

Too sick for school, too sick to ride your bike. Too sick to play hide and seek. Too sick to go see the neighbor’s new puppy.

Not fair.

Now, as a living-by-my-own-rules adult, my mom’s rule still has a magical effect. If I don’t feel up to going to work, I’m not allowed to go out of the house that day or that evening. No one is here telling me that, it’s just the dang rule.

But today, my day as the enforcer has finally arrived. I get to impose Mom’s No Go/No Play rule on my horse.

It all started with one simple sentence.

Easter bud 2“You should go out to check on your horse,” Jim said as he came in the house from feeding the barn menagerie. “He didn’t want his dinner.”

Uh oh. Those are the words that make a horse owner’s pulse step it up a notch.

If a human isn’t hungry and skips a meal, it’s no big deal. If your dog or cat seems a little off and skips one meal, it’s not generally a race to the emergency vet. But when a big, stout, never-miss-a-meal horse turns his nose up at a ration of yummy sweet feed? Well, it can be an early indication of colic.

My horse savvy friends just cringed.

For my non-horse-savvy friends, colic in horses is a fairly common disorder of the digestive system. The true definition of the word simply means “abdominal pain,” however when it comes to horses, the term refers to a condition of severe abdominal discomfort characterized by pawing, rolling, and sometimes the inability to defecate. More to the point, suspicion of colic means you call your vet and you call fast.

There are different types of colic, and the severity of the illness varies greatly. Sometimes a horse may have a mild bout of abdominal pain that resolves with a single dose of medication. In other cases, if a horse suffers a displacement, or, in highly technical terms, a twisted gut, emergency surgery is necessary. When blood supply to the intestines is cut off…let’s just say it’s a bad situation. In worst case scenario cases, euthanasia is the only humane answer.

I have seen worst case scenario with one of the best horses I’ve ever loved. I know not to mess around when I see even the most mild symptoms of a potential colic.

When Jim told me that my big boy, Dublin, didn’t want his dinner, I immediately raced out to the barn to check on him. Let’s start a symptom list: 1: Lack of appetite.

When I walked into the barn, Dub was standing quietly watching the other horses finish their grain. Symptom 2: Fat pushy horse quietly watching underling horses eating.

I walked straight to my boy and haltered him. Symptom 3: Dub let me walk right up and halter him without a 15 minute game of keep-away. Yeah, he’s generally naughty that way.

I gave him a quick once-over. He wasn’t sweating, he wasn’t nosing his belly, he wasn’t trying to lie down or roll – all additional sure signs of colic – but his breathing was a bit shallow and rapid, his nostrils flaring with each breath. He was stressed and uncomfortable. Symptom 4: Breathing that would have made an excellent obscene phone call.

Colic symptoms can truly be that innocuous. Someone who is not a horse owner would likely not even notice from these early signs that big trouble could be on the horizon. But with years and years of experience with horses, these quiet symptoms immediately warranted an after-hours on a holiday weekend call to our large animal veterinarian.

Because that’s just about the only time my large animals manage to have an emergency. Talk to me about the once-upon-a-time Christmas Day emergency call. Sorry, Doc.

By about 9:15 in the evening, the veterinarian arrived. Dr. Meg Hollabaugh stepped out of her truck and, without much of a hello or how ya doing, got straight to work. Colic is serious business.

After an initial exam, checking his heart rate, listening to his lungs, listening for stomach sounds, it was time to give the boy a little sedation for “the” exam. The long glove exam. The “just relax” exam.

If you ever thought for a nanosecond that you might want to be a large animal veterinarian, one glimpse of your vet, arm buried to the shoulder in your horse’s backside, just might change your mind. Yup. Don’t try this at home. Leave this one to the pros.

But it’s an important part of the exam because the veterinarian has to check for an obstruction and needs to obtain a REALLY fresh stool sample. Really fresh.

Long exam story cut short, Dr. Hollabaugh determined that Dub had an impaction in his small intestine. Well no…she did not determine that from her arm-length exam. Horses have about 50 to 70 feet of intestines (Really? Really!). She arrived at the diagnosis through what we shall call veterinary detective work based on the appearance and texture of his manure sample, his gut sounds, and his other symptoms.

Dr. Hollabaugh treated Dub by passing a long tube through his nose and into his stomach. This is done for several reasons…in Dub’s case to check for reflux and hopefully help break up an impaction; oftentimes it is to pass oil into the horses digestive tract to help things “move along.” You can’t exactly ask a horse to drink a quart of oil like a good boy.

Finally, with pain meds and sedation on board (for the horse…for me? Nada. Not even anything to help with the pain of the after-hour-holiday-weekend bill), it just came down to a game of watch and wait.

Watch for more signs of discomfort. Wait for my horse to shit. Yes, in this case, poop, and lots of it, would be our friend. Each pile of manure would be a positive sign that Dub’s intestines had dislodged and were on the move.

While the wonderful Dr. Hollabaugh headed out to salvage what was left of her Friday evening (Did you draw the short straw for holiday weekend on-call duty, Doc?), Jim and I secured an unhappy Dub in the barn for a night of observation.

Dub was not pleased. Horses do not like to be separated from their herd mates. And Dub is the leader of his pack (Jim might say bully), so he was raising a bit of a ruckus calling out from his stall into the dark pasture. Honestly, his displeasure was actually a good sign in my mind. He felt good enough to be annoyed. Maybe we were going to skate by with just a mild case.

Finally the other horses answered Dub’s insistent calls and wandered up to hang out around the barn. Everyone calmed down and Jim and I made a plan that we would take turns visiting Dub through the night. I took the first, late night visits, Jim took the wee-hours-of-the-morning visits. Jim is WAY better at the past 1:00 a.m., pre-dawn stuff. (He might be a vampire.)

Dublin colic day 9-5 2 redoBy morning, Dub’s breathing was normal. He was relaxed, no signs of stress. He had pooped a couple of times, though not as many times as we would have liked. But he was interested in the small handful of grain I offered him. Interested to the point that my fingers were a bit in danger.

Good sign, but not out of the woods yet. Jim and I would keep close watch on Dub for the rest of the day, offering small amounts of feed or hay every two hours. If all continued to go well (and that included seeing many more piles o’ pooh), I would let him out of the barn Saturday night when the temperatures cooled. All of these precautions would be enforced despite Dub’s sincere and emphatic protests.

Oh, to be stuck inside on a glorious, sunny day. In Dub’s opinion, he was fine, fit, and ready to head back out to assume his role as boss horse of Tails You Win Farm. But by my rule, if he was too sick to eat dinner the night before, he was too sick to go out to play the following day. And I needed to be sure he was ok. I needed to be 100% worth-pissing-the-horse-off sure.

Oh Mom. You taught me well. I may not have human children to introduce to your old rules, but I have one large pouting horse learning your timeless lesson right now. And maybe I’m learning a new lesson too. All these years I thought you enforced that rule just to thwart and/or punish any feigned illnesses. I’m sure that was part of it. But I also think you needed to be really, really sure your baby was truly ok.

Thanks for that, Mom. Right now, to me, I have the most beautifully sullen, but healthy horse in the world.

You Came For Her

Silent-001

In loving memory of Silent Confidence

I swear I saw you.

I was looking out of the window that gives me the best view of the back pasture. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunrise. It’s also the perfect place to check on the horses, donkeys, sheep, and mule that share our home.

As my eyes scanned the pasture, I saw a horse in an adjacent pasture where no horses live. He was standing at the edge of the pond, getting a drink in the misty light of dawn. My first thought was that one of the neighbor’s horses must have strayed from his pasture. I quickly glanced at my own horses to be sure the headcount was right and then I looked immediately back to the spot by the pond, but the horse was gone. Just a vision lost in the early morning fog.

A vision, but one that stayed so very clear in my mind’s eye. As I studied my mental picture of the horse, something familiar emerged, and I knew. It was you. My dear Scout, the horse born of childhood dreams. Gone now for what? Two years? Three years?  My heart can’t bear to keep count.

I committed the image to memory and moved into my day. Grateful for perhaps a little visit from a friend I miss more than I can begin to explain.

I think you have come here a few times before; times when I have needed you. The dogs charging out to bark along the fence at absolutely nothing. Was that you? The wind ruffling the back of my sweatshirt just as you used to do when you were in a playful mood. I feel sure that was you.

But this time, you didn’t come to see me, did you. You came for her.

The dear old mare, retired from her days of streaking around the track in colorful silks with a roaring crowd spurring her on. A true black beauty, allowed to live here in her golden years, to do a new sort of job raising not just one, but three sweet young foals who were not her own, but youngsters she took under her tutelage, teaching lessons that only a wise old mare can teach.

IMG_0653 (2)She raised you, didn’t she dear boy? With her patient ways that knew when to let a nosy little weanling push his way into her feed bucket, but also knew when that nosy little boy needed a nip on the neck or a quick, restrained pop from a back foot.

Even when you grew to tower over the old mare, you respected her. You still looked up to her in a figurative sense. You needed her guidance. You needed her to nuzzle your mane in reassurance.

And now, she needed you, so you came for her.

Silent stretched out in the middle of her pasture. Her long legs not willing to gather up to bear her weight again. Her giant heart heavy from decades of life.

Yes, she needed you. You came to wait for her. I saw you there. And when she called to you, you answered. You showed her the way to the wide open pastures where she could be reborn, where she could once again have the strength to do what she most loved—stretch out her legs, grab the earth with her hooves, and race the wind.

I can see the two of you racing together, the one who left far too soon running alongside the one who stayed for so very long. I think you allowed the black mare to win by just a nose.

Scout and Bob

Scout. The horse born of a little, horse-crazy girl’s dreams. Gone too, too soon.

Thank you dear boy.  You have guided your old friend to the path of healing and light.  At the same time, maybe you have allowed my heart to begin to heal just a little bit as well.

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Silent’s Vigil

Silent's Vigil

The donkeys are standing very still—all together in a line, all staring at the same something.

If I have learned anything from living with donkeys, horses, and one fine mule it’s that you should always look in the same direction as your herd animals are looking. If all eyes and pointy ears are riveted and locked in one direction, there is always something to see.

Always.

They may show you deer. They may show you coyotes. They may show you a random plastic bag blowing across the field. In one instance they pointed out a young orange-clad hunter that had come onto our property “by accident.”

Today they are showing me our mare, Silent. Silent Confidence, as she is formally known, is a tall, willowy, black thoroughbred. She is a retired racehorse that boards with us. Her owner keeps Silent in memory of her late husband, who had cherished the horse, his dream horse.

Silent was injured in her last race. A tendon damaged in one of her delicate front legs forced her into an early retirement. She went on to have two foals, both used as pleasure mounts.

Then her owner, the man who lived the dream of owning his own Black Beauty, passed away. For a time the mare was left in the hands of people at a racing stable. There she may not have technically been abused, but she was certainly not leading a life of comfortable retirement and the woman who had inherited responsibility for the mare recognized that.

Silent hated being in a stall. She would pace from side-to-side. She would weave back and forth in frustration. She refused to eat her full ration of grain and hay. Basically, she was miserable.

A common friend knew I had a large pasture that was home to a few horses and donkeys, so she mentioned the plight of the beautiful mare to me. Her owner could not afford to pay much in board, but truly wanted to find a place where the horse could just enjoy life.

Having already provided a haven for a few other “useless” animals, it didn’t take much for us to agree to give Silent a home. It didn’t really matter to us that she couldn’t be ridden. It was enough to look out into the pasture to see the shiny black mare frolicking and stretching her legs across our gently rolling acres.

Now, we fast-forward more than a decade. Silent is a senior citizen horse of more than 30 years. Her black shiny coat is salted with a good deal of gray now. Her tall body has lost its tone and bones protrude where muscles once rippled tightly beneath her skin.

Every winter we wonder if it will be her last. We blanket her, we feed her a special diet that is easy for old teeth and systems to process. We provide shelter, though never, never inside a stall in the barn. No, Silent still can’t tolerate confinement after her years on the track.

So Silent lives in the small pasture behind our house with a loafing shed for cover and our mismatched herd of miniature donkeys, a miniature horse, one sheep, and our young orphaned filly for company.

Today, all eyes and ears are focused on Silent. The donkeys, filly, mini horse and sheep stand at attention, a respectful distance from the grand old lady who is lying in the middle of her pasture, embraced in beams of gentle morning sun. Even my big horses are perfectly still in the back pasture, focused on the old mare. Everyone is watching. Everyone is waiting. I am watching and waiting too.

Silent is lying on her left side. Her graceful neck is curved around to allow her graying muzzle to rest on her front legs. Her back legs are pulled in to meet her front legs against her belly. Everything about her posture is almost fetal, as if she is curling into herself.

I hold my breath for a moment as I watch, joining my animals in this delicate early morning vigil. Is she in distress? Is she “down,” or just sunbathing? I think in this moment my animals and I share the same images, the same concern. We all, animals and humans alike, recognize that Silent’s time with us is limited. The years are catching up with her. It’s just a matter of time.

Slowly, deliberately our precious paint filly walks quietly over to the old mare, the horse that stepped in to mother her when she lost her own mother just a few weeks after her birth. The filly sniffs the old mare’s neck and softly nuzzles her mane.

Silent raises her head to return the attention offered by the younger horse. Then, with a big stretch of her front legs, she pulls herself up, heaves a big sigh and shakes her whole body as if she were a dog coming out of a pond.

1 4 14 donksIn an instant, every member of our herd resumes normal activity. The big horses head out to graze in the east pasture. Silent’s little crew wanders to the big round bale of hay for a bit of breakfast. And with a relieved and grateful heart, I head off to feed the dogs.

We will have another day to enjoy Silent’s grace. Perhaps another week with Silent. Hopefully another month, or even year. Whatever the amount of time, we’ll all treasure it. Then, when the time comes for Silent to leave our herd, we’ll help her do that with respect, with love, and with an honor guard of wise eyes and sensitive ears giving her a final, fitting salute.