The horse who started it all, the first horse of Rosemary Farm Sanctuary. Jack is an off the track thoroughbred, and was considered ‘a contender’ in his day, but lacked the racing heart to match his huge size. There were health issues and surgeries and before he knew it, Jack was in upstate NY being peddled a a trail horse even as he aspirated food out of his nose. Handsome Jack is happy here, in sanctuary, still the tallest thoroughbred we have ever met, and here he gets the extra care he needs to enjoy is life. This photo shows this party animal ringing in his birthday in the field. We love Jack and hope we are able to enjoy his company for many years.
It’s an early March morning and I am sipping hot coffee, gazing out onto the fields. It’s a week past a big snowstorm, the snow receding to piles surrounded by dark mud paths. I gaze around to the various fields, checking on the state of the herds. Even if I can see just one or two horses, I can tell what is going on; someone frantic, or neighing, or focused on something unseen? Then we hustle down to help. Most mornings there is a quiet horse or two, nibbling on some hay, basking in the early morning sun filtering into the valley, peaceful. This morning, I see a horse laying flat out in the lower field, stretched out on a hay pile, far enough away that I am not sure which chestnut mare it might be. And she might be fine, but it’s a bit early for napping, the sun is not yet in the valley. I watch for other clues and notice no horse is near her; No one was guarding her. Hmmm.. I collect the cat bowls, continuing the morning ritual, then look out again. I recognize her now, it’s Venezuela, one of our teenage arabian mares, and I see her picking up her head and looking back towards her body. Trouble. That’s not a normal look for a napping horse, combined with her being alone and it being early, there are too many clues that there is a problem. I pull on tall muck books, a farm coat and grab a rope lead, and head out the door, leaving the dog inside. The farm is entirely mud right now, and I slip-slide down the first hill, then through a smaller paddock to the next hill and down to the lower field where she lay. She’s flat out on a bed of hay that is really squishy, and has created sort of a ‘trough’ where her body is. I call her, ‘Hey Ven…’, and she moves her head a bit in response. Clearly something is wrong but I cannot tell yet what it is. She flinches at first when I touch her, she’s still half-wild and had some rough handling before we welcomed her, so she is very cautious still with trust. I pet her until she relaxes a bit, visually examining her legs, her body, for any issue. No sign of a break or anything catastrophic, just a stuck horse. I see she has pooped several times so she’s been down at least an hour. It appears she is cast (stuck), not colicing, but even a cast horse can develop distal limb paralysis, or other issues if down too long. The first step is to see if she can get up, as soon as possible. I try grabbing her foreleg closest to the ground and pull up to, roll her over (this is called flipping); she begins to struggle, both to free herself from the earth and from me, and then bites my arm. “OW” I shout reflexively, and jump back, before my brain recognizes she didn’t actually get more then my coat. I am wimpy and would like to stay alive. So, I take the rope and wrap it around that knee, high enough to get some leverage, and stand back out of teeth’s way, and try to flip her again, pulling so her legs are almost straight up, flailing, but I cannot roll her over. I debate going and getting help, because this is better as a two-person job, but sooner is better then anything, so decide to try one more time from the hind end. Both back legs are straight out, stiff and cold, worrisome. I get the rope around her rear leg closest to the ground, hoping not to get kicked, and pull her up, trying to pull her over. Legs go up into the air, flailing, she fights and struggles. I pull and pull, I cannot quite get her over, she’s a big mare, but as I release, the counter swing down is enough to give her velocity in the other direction and UP, she stands…Wobbly but up. She stands and breathes. We both pause, I am sure her rear legs are tingly and partly asleep. She wants to join the other horses and begins slowly, stiffly, walking. I walk with her, about 15 feet off her side, watching her stride. She does not consider me her best friend and did not like the ropes on her legs. No sign of a colic or paralysis, just a stiffness that loosens up as she goes. She gets near her friends where she feels safe and stops, breathing, but shivering a bit. I have a few molasses treats in my pocket, and figure that a jolt of sugar is just what she needs. I approach as softly as I can, and Ven cautious of me at first, (I still have that rope in my hand) but I offer the treat. She sniffs it, then takes it gently and chews slowly. Her eyes light up a bit; it’s helping. But now the other horses get wise to the treats I have and start to come around, begging hopefully. I break a few into tiny bits to give a taste to Alice, Violet, Glory, Duke, Nala and Ven’s sister Moon Mist. Then I give another full one to Venezuela. She’s more relaxed now, eats the second treat with more gusto, then takes a bite of snow…then yawns. This is all positive, all indications she is feeling better. I move away from her since the surrounding herd is becoming a bit excited by the idea of snack time, and wander around greeting and saying good morning while keeping an eye on Ven. She’s moving better and has stopped shivering, so she was just cast. “Just”, fortunately freed and will be fine, I think. Very happy that there are no signs of colic! Nearby, I see the tractor in the next field bringing fresh hay to the bands, so I head up to wash the mud off, and continue the day. The regular chores don’t seem so bad now!
(Venezuela on a non-muddy day)
(If you read this within 24 hours of it’s publication, I ask that you read the postscript added since then.)
We share our stories and adventures honestly, even when they do not work out at planned. We risk baiting the critics…BUT with our adventures, we learn, and with our sharing, others learn, and that is larger than ego.
SO, yesterday we set out to move River’s band across the road, back to Stardust Meadows. With a proper set up and humans on hand, this is a smooth endeavor, and yesterday the actual move was smooth, when we got to it. Before the move, however, as we were separating the horses that were to go, we accidentally had Little Nell and her (adult) daughter Katniss on the opposite side of a gate, and I remember thinking that I needed to correct that, but thought I had time. I was wrong. Little Nell did not want to wait, the separation was against the natural order of things, so she went over/through it, destroying it and getting some minor cuts herself.
No, this was not good.
With these minor wounds, she and her daughter were going to need to remain at the home barn (near our medicine), and River’s band would be traveling across the road without them. This did not please anyone, and they were loudly protesting the split. However, we pushed forward, with seven horses crossing over, quickly and safely. After River’s crew was safely moved, they continued to call to the pair of mares over here. Then Finn, Molly, and the other horses all started calling also. The calls were going back and forth. I began to question the wisdom of my decision to split the herd (they were 23 strong) but the reason was to give each slightly smaller herd a size-appropriate field. With 7 on one side and 13 on the other, I thought we were creating safer, more manageable herds. HAH! The horses laugh at my folly. By nightfall all was quiet, both sides grazing peacefully and I hoped we were all good. I was wrong! Apparently my reasoning was lost on the horses, who really, really, wanted to remain together as one big happy herd family. This morning, our big beautiful new fence was strong and intact, but empty; one of the horses in River’s herd had played with the chain long enough to open the gate, and River’s small band of 7 calmly walked out, and were waiting by the home entrance at sunrise. Fields of grass and freedom surrounded them, but they wanted home. Sunrise, and River was the first to walk over to me, returning my gentle greeting, no treats, no rope, and walk with me to the gate that I opened for him, and let them peacefully walk back inside. Through a gate that means nothing, but a home that apparently, is everything.
When we are able to purchase more land (more money, more donations, more growth), and have intact 30 acre fields (right now we have many fields but they are 15 acres at the largest), our home will be the size it needs to be for everyone, without splits, without moves, without these questions. It is great to learn. For now, we will continue to work together to find solutions that keep everyone happy and safe. And allow me to sleep in on occasion. 🙂
P.S. I wrote this blog yesterday, about our attempts to move a portion of a larger herd, and how it backfired. In my sharing of this series of events, and my anxiousness to ‘take responsibility for it all’, I think that I actually missed some very significant milestones. River has been here for over two years, a mustang that has been untamed. Many tried and he knows every move. Instead here, we have been working on trust…that elusive ingredient that cannot be trained or forced. Our trainer has made the most progress with him, but it’s been very slow, and I was less sure about my relationship with this beautiful wild boy. Thus, his possible escape has weighed on me, because I am responsible for his safety and care. What a word, ‘responsible’. So I keep making decisions to try and set us up for success; this included building a big strong fence, giving River a herd group, and giving him training sessions every week, as we tried to build a bridge to him. All of these tools were in the background yesterday, as I walked up to this mustang at sunrise, loose and free in front of our property. Breakouts are much less frequent now, as our fencing skills have improved and usually it’s human error such as leaving a gate open, that has allowed a romp. And generally a loose horse will romp for a bit, joyously, before peacefully coming home. So there was River, in misty morning light, standing there. River and his band had opened the gate at Stardust Meadows sometime in the night, and he could have been anywhere, anywhere. But he was standing right by our property, waiting…He sees me from 150 feet away, as I leave the house and begin walking across the dewy lawn. “River” I call his name softly, and he lifts his head a bit, recognizing my voice…”Hey boy”, I say, and he walks slowly towards me and I slowly towards him. I am careful to keep my gaze ‘soft’ and my gait easy as I near him, because River has ‘spooked’ many times when humans approach. Several feet apart, we greet, I keep it brief and without touching (I am a hugger so I have to remind myself to leave it!) and I veer left towards the paddock gate, and he turns and latches onto my shoulder. Without looking I know he is there, his soft footfall echoing my own. I open the gate, which pushes in, and invite River into the space; it’s a small space really, but his definition now of ‘safety’ was within that space, rather then out in the world. River walked past me and over to a hay pile and began munching, and my attention turned to the other horses in his group, who were watching and waiting. Sawyer, Leo, then Piper, Aimee, Shannon, then Lexi, all followed in, ambling easily back into their home. Now, loving horse owners get used to seeing this with their domestic horses, who know where home is and are happy to return….but mustangs….well with a mustang, you really do need to earn it. So while mistakes happen and need to be corrected, the years of building trust were there.
How can you explain the breath catching experience of having a mustang trust you? We will keep working on that.
I have been writing and re-writing this blog, erasing entire sections, trying to say what I have to say. I have tried being poetic, or upbeat, something that will breathe life into the reader, something to inspire.
I got nothin.
A year ago, a persistent wound in Rhett’s butt was identified as cancer, and we went to war. It was an awful, painful spot, but the horse remained stoic while we poked, prodded, took samples and chunks. Two surgeries and many more chemo sessions later, driving back and forth to the hospital….we are losing the battle. This cancer is a freight train, it will not let go. Every time it has surged back and I have contacted our medical team, they have been sure I was imagining it, worrying too much. This is not a reflection on their skills, because we are very grateful for a talented team that has fought hard for our horse…it was disbelief that it could be back, after having twice been carved out of his hind end, after having been blasted with chemotherapy, comforting Rhett, learning about aftercare, learning how to be soldiers in this fight. All of our efforts have lost. That’s the reality we must live with, while our horse enjoys his last days of life.
I sense this is one of those times when our own emotions, our own tremendous drive to save lives, our sense of success, fueled by our deep love for this kind horse, could overshadow his needs. I have to be the adult and make a decision no one wants to make, and for once everyone here is glad they are not me. Everyone surrounding this horse is distraught with helplessness to stop this from happening. While we all know that everyone dies….not this horse. not now.
In the swirl of emotions, I need to find calm.
I don’t feel poetic, spiritual, or calm and I am sorry if this is going to bum you out. I am angry. I am very sad and very tired. I am throwing stones at Goliath. I don’t want to get up today. But, others require it. I will have years to re-visit and probe for mistakes but right now, chores await. The herds here, living fully, need care. Grief must wait until nightfall. As for Rhett, mentally we are in ‘hospice mode’, which means nothing to the horse, because it is simply more love.
What is it about this horse?
Well for one, he is gorgeous, that tall hunk of handsome to cause women to swoon. But his looks pale compared to his calm spirit. His gentle eyes, and quiet energy. When Rhett arrived he was not quiet or calm, having lost his brother at auction, where they were separated after a lifetime, having moved and moved, being flipped through three auctions as they travelled up from the south, before being intercepted by a kind friend who began his rehab and then got him to us. He was alone in his heart, and very scared. It took time to ground him, to find out who he was, to connect. His throat suffered previous damage, perhaps from ropes in his past, and he was sometimes a runaway under saddle, so afraid of pressure. Rhett was not an old horse, but displayed a lot of fear. Sometimes with huge horses, people change their voices, slip into this fake baritone, ‘hey big fella’ thing, but Rhett has been a little guy in a large body. Once he settled and connected, he revealed his superpower of empathy. Unlike the other horses, who reject weakness, Rhett would hang his head over the stall, to comfort a horse in need. We haven’t seen anything like it before or since. His gentle love has touched us all. Rhett became family, cherished for himself. He has been with us for five years, and has become the ‘go to’ greeting horse for new arrivals. He leads a sub-band of paint mares, and together they can be moved anywhere, with any of our herds, as needed. He plays with the other geldings, he cuddles with every human, he watches his mares faithfully. He is maybe 15 or 16 years old now, still gorgeous.
I can see the shadow in his eyes now, a veil that is some pain, as we watch and draw out what days and weeks we are able….but he is living today. Living fully, with his family. And yes, it has occurred to me that he is better at this then I. His gift to us should be this simple lesson, but humans are stubborn and slow to learn.