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

The Secret Lives of Animals

these two too

I admit it. I spy on our animals.

I’m not really trying to catch them committing some doggy crime or horsey misstep, though we have put a hidden camera in the house a time or two to solve a few mysteries. The purpose of my espionage is pure and simple.

I just want to see my animal companions being themselves.

If I join them in the yard or out in the pasture, their games, their focus, and their activities become centered around me. I can’t seem to convince them to ignore the human and go about their business. So sometimes, instead of joining them, I simply watch and photograph them from a second floor window.

This vantage point overlooks the backyard and allows a good view of a majority of our horse pasture, as well. I love sitting up there just after dawn. On a clear day it’s a magical time on our farm and the rosy glow of the sun’s first peek over the horizon serves as a lovely backdrop for our animals, framing them in glowing halos.

This morning I sat shivering a bit in the open window. Our Indian summer has finally surrendered to autumns’s chill. But I stayed perfectly quiet in my “box-seat” perch as I waited for my furry actors to take the stage.

these twoI was soon treated to a play session between Kainan, our wolfdog, and Snowflake, our husky/malamute mix girl. They are the perfect pair. Both are nordic breeds (a DNA test revealed that one of Kainan’s parents was a husky/malamute mix, while the other parent was a wolfdog), and both boast woolly coats that are impervious to the early morning cold.

These two play every day. It actually seems like an elaborate dance that involves much leaping, twisting, rolling, and racing about. If you watch long enough, you will actually see a pattern revealed. Their play is not random. They have favorite games.

Kainan’s personal favorite is the “prey vs. predator” game. Kainan will crouch down, his head level with back, his body tensed, his gaze locked onto his gazelle in dog’s clothing. Snowflake, or any of the other players, will wander innocently past and then WHAM! The giant pounce and take-down.

Calm before the pounceIf the prey happens to be lucky, he or she will escape certain pretend death and then the wild game of chase is on. If the prey is really lucky, the tables will be turned and the hunter will become the hunted. Kainan loves it when this happens. He loves to have the other dogs chase him. He runs away halfheartedly and then falls to the ground dramatically as the smaller dogs pile on. It’s like seeing a favorite big brother in a rowdy play session with his younger siblings.

I’ve also been watching the pasture a lot now that Big Paul, the Belgian draft horse we recently saved from slaughter, is free to interact with the other Tails You Win Farm horses. For more than a month, Paul has shown little interest in trying to fit in with our herd. He preferred to stay shut in his own private little pasture. Now, however, he is free to mingle with the others, or free to be apart. It’s all up to him.

Morning glow

Paulie, far right, still enjoys his personal space, but the gap is closing.

Right now I’d say he prefers to stay on the fringe of the group. He is a very calm, easy-going horse and has not challenged any of our horses, in fact, if any of them give him a hard look, he just moves quietly away.

But as each day passes, as I watch from my vantage point, I can see specific horses starting to warm to Big Paul, in fact, a couple of the mares seem to be a bit flirtatious with Mr. tall, blonde, and handsome. I’d say the ladies have excellent taste and I’d say Paul’s quiet demeanor is serving him well.

I learn so much about my animals by just quietly, unobtrusively watching their natural interactions. I can’t wait to see what game the dogs invent next. I look forward to seeing Big Paul continue to feel safe, secure, and welcome in his new home.

Carry on kids. Pay no attention to the smiling woman watching from the second floor.

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

9-24 2

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.

Lost. Found. Never Really Lost In The First Place?

Jerry is backJerry Swinefeld, the 700ish pound Hampshire hog that calls Tails You Win Farm his home, is a bit of a Houdini hog. Seriously. Yesterday he vanished into thin air. And this morning?

Yep, snoring away in his stall, right where he should be.

How the hell does he do that?

This creature is larger than my smallest horse. Larger than my miniature donkeys. Big enough to command a little respect from even our big horses and mule. He sends coyotes running in terror. And yet, he can just seemingly pop in and out of existence on a whim.

Maybe he really is a magical pig. Maybe I’m actually a witch and I just don’t know it! It’s my own little Harry Potter world. Harry Potter had an owl as his special, magical companion. Figures I would get a giant, lumbering hog.

But I’m not the one with the magic. It’s all on Jerry. Yesterday, he disappeared; he was no where to be found. He did not answer when Jim whistled, as he normally does (that whistle means dinner). He did not answer when I called out for him, as he sometimes does if he feels like it. He was not napping in any of his favorite hideouts.

However, today when I went to look for him again, I found him sound asleep, back inside his stall, inside the barn, inside his fenced pasture.

Huh.

Well, no harm done (as far as I know). I checked on Jim’s cherished, still-ripening, late-season tomatoes and they were all present and accounted for. Whew.

You see, I wasn’t really too concerned about Jerry being lost. He’s a big boy and can take care of himself. I was more worried what havoc he might be wreaking in an unsuspecting world. One year he took a bite out of every cantaloupe Jim had growing in his garden. He didn’t just pluck one and eat it. Nope, he did the Goldilocks routine: This one isn’t ripe enough, this one is too ripe, this one is just right.

But so far it appears he truly just went on a little walk-about, as one friend suggested. Then he apparently got sleepy and magically popped back inside his fence. Poof!

I suspect his magic has more to do with “hey, look what happens when I shove all 700 solid pounds of myself against this fence” than it does with magic wands and invisibility cloaks. That means I need to head back out to the barn with some tools to see what damage has been done. You’d think a hog-sized hole in the fence wouldn’t be too hard to find, but there have been times when we never could figure out his escape route.

Delta and Ferris

Delta Dawnkey and Ferris Muler on a sleepy Sunday morning.

In the meantime, Jerry got to have a bite of breakfast and I got to enjoy a lovely early morning visit to the barn. My horsey friends will understand this immediately. There is nothing better than visiting with your horses/donkeys/mule in the night or in the early morning. It’s a very serene time in the barn and so very good for my soul.

The flies are still asleep (do flies sleep?), the temperature is pleasant, and everyone still seems a bit drowsy. The start to this Sunday was rainy and gray, no spectacular sunrise to light the day, but that just made the inside of the barn seem even cozier. I spent some great quiet time just moving from animals to animal, saying good morning, and giving scratches in all the right places.

Horse lips quivered in appreciation. Ferris Muler played with the hood of my sweatshirt as he always does. My miniature horse rubbed his head on my hip (I’m a great scratching post). My big red appaloosa, Dublin, put his nose against my cheek for a thorough sniff.

I’m pretty sure I now have horse slobber on my face. My clean jeans are now filthy. My hoodie may have some carrot crumbles hiding in it. And I’m starting the day with a huge, relaxed grin on my face.

All is right in our world today. I got the boost that even good old caffeine can’t deliver. And it’s all thanks to a mischievous, sneaky pig.

Yesterday I believe I ended my post with the worlds “dammit Jerry.” Today I think I’ll end with something a little different.

Thanks, Jerry. (Now stay put, damn you!)

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.”

When Your Horse Is Too Sick To Go To School

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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 Are NOT Alone.

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One of my favorite gorgeous weather activities here on Tails You Win Farm is heading out with my camera for a nature walk back in the still-wild-and-woolly section of our 70-some-odd acres (72.25 for those who prefer to be specific). I generally start my hike by walking through the barn to get to the north pasture and then I head back to the east pasture (yeah, I may appear to have mad directional skills, but not really. I get lost on my own property on a regular basis.).

So on Easter Sunday, a beautiful day was unfolding so I headed out, camera in hand and ready to capture the magic of a new spring. I dove straight in to the woods and brush and quickly realized that I would have made a terrible Indian scout. Light on my feet is apparently also not one of my mad skills. My dreams of photographing wild creatures enjoying the rebirth of the land were quickly dashed by my clumsy feet snapping every twig and crunching through the remaining dry grass.

I flushed three groups of quail. I spooked two groups of deer. All were far swifter than my fledgling could-you-hold-still-for-just-a-moment camera ability. I also tried to creep up to get a closer shot of numerous birds, but the birds just found me flat creepy, and played a fine and elusive game of ring around the brier patch with me. This little exercise in the tall grass resulted in many, many, MANY chigger bites in many, many, MANY delicate places on my body. Hooray spring.

So I kept wandering, thinking that if I found a good spot I should just stop, plant myself and try…really TRY…to stay quiet to see what might stumble upon me instead.

So I did just that. I planted myself. I waited.

Soon enough, I did hear the distinct sound of something approaching. Something on the large side. We’re not talking bunny here.

I got ready. I put my eye to the viewfinder. I held my breath. I was finally going to get that shot of a deer or something equally fabulous.

But wait.

Um. We also have a huge population of coyotes here. Oh…and didn’t I write about wild boars on our land in the not so distant past? Then the reports of cougars cruising around in the area popped into my head. Cougar stories aside, I had personally seen a beautiful bobcat nearby and I’m pretty sure babbling “nice kitty, gooooooood kitty,” would not sooth a startled wild cat.

As the sound of “something” approaching grew louder, I grew a tad bit nervous about just what kind of critter was about to discover me hiding in the brush.

And then…

And then…

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Yes, I captured a photo of the rare, wild Iniature-ma Onkey-da (that’s the technical pig Latin term for…well…you get it.) Yes, my mini donkey, Stormin’ Norman proved that he is a far better tracker that I am. Upon finding me, he sounded the loud, yodeling bray that can only mean “tag, you’re it,” and I was soon surrounded by the rest of the players–four more miniature donkeys and our new standard donkey, Delta Dawnkey.

Wildlife photo session quickly morphed into donkey and horse photo session. Eh, sometimes you just have to go with it. They are willing models and WAY less scary than a wild boar.

OK kids, strike a pose!

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The mighty Fergus

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My 2014 Easter parade

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Patty…I’m pretty sure she’s mocking me.

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Small, but mighty.

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Gorgeous GoGo

 NOTE: I am a very amateur photographer just figuring out my new, fancy (meaning not a cell phone) camera. These photos are raw, have not passed through Photoshop (because I still don’t get it), and are just a result of my shoot-to-learn theory. Tips from true shutterbugs always welcome. 

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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.