Thursday, November 24, 2005


"Jerry, the Champion of my heart"

It is late Wednesday afternoon, the 23rd of November. Thanksgiving Eve. The clock and the sky tells me it's time to feed the herd.

Today the temperature has been as high as 40 degrees although the Northwest wind has kept it cold. You can feel the raw wind of winter coming down from the North. I bundle up and put long underwear, sweatshirts, jackets, hats, and winter gloves on to try to keep the cold out. Somehow, after all of these clothes are on me, I'm still cold. I'm cold from inside today.

Taking Lady-the-Dog with me, I tell her that "If I'm cold, they must be cold. Let's go to the barn." As we walk to the barn, the steady 20 mph wind pushes at my back. My cheeks are chapped and they sting. My head is low and I feel the cold in my bones tonight.

The herd comes in to the barn for their supper in a quiet and orderly manner - showing their respect. Their winter coats are all full of air - fluffy-like - with that natural insulation they have. I am jealous of their ability to be warm and still be hungry tonight.

I go about the routine of placing and hooking all of these charges of mine. I must watch over and so I check each one as I prepare them and their meals. While the barn is full of the sounds of their eating, I stand and survey this family of horses of mine:

Starting with Halima I notice her wounds on her feet are healing. Unit is hoovering her food as she always does. I shake my head at this tiny animal and wonder if she will ever fill up!

Next I touch the flanks of PONY! who eats gently but steadily. Then there is Babee Joy who stamps and waves in the air with those front feet of hers! She is gloriously happy when she eats! Big DukeDuke gets a hug from me tonight, as does young Jeri-Ann. This baby girl stops eating and looks me right in the eyes and says "Use me, mama! I can be a healer, too!"

The center of the barn allows me to watch Blaise and Beauty, each in their stalls, quietly eating and enjoying each mouthful. Both are content and so I continue my rounds.

On the other side of the barn is Miss Bette who is cautiously watching me out of the side of her head. Something is amiss, she senses, and she's nervous that I will ask something of her.

Cole cannot get enough food in to his mouth and my touch on his flanks does not even cause him a pause. I do not touch Sweet Lady Gray, as my touch will cause her to leave the barn. After 27 years, she still dislikes a disturbance when she eats.

Lanna hears me coming and so moves over, anticipating that this will be my request. I assure her that I want nothing but to touch her big body and so she allows me the grace to do just that.

On the back wall is standing our newbie, Big Guy, who raises his head above the 6 foot wall to see me and his eyes question me with "What's wrong?" I tell him he's safe and to enjoy his supper and so he goes back to eating, showing me his gratitude for his new home.

Bonita eats next to Big Guy and April is devouring her supper next to Bonita.

Jimmer is creating his usual soup out of his supper but he respects my wishes and allows me to hug his neck between mouthfuls.

I come to the last feeder. And then I cry.

The tears run freely down my cheeks and I feel the sting of my own salt on my chapped skin. I swear I can hear the sound of my heart as it is breaking. I stand in the dents in the earth where his big feet would be. I touch the collar for his big neck. I cry at the empty feeder.

I can no longer hug Jerry, the Roan Horse. I can no longer feel his warmth or smell his smell or thrill at his dread-locked mane. His hind quarters are not where I would like them to be so that I can hug them. I cannot see those light brown eyes that have seen so deeply in to my soul.

Instead, this glorious minister's body has been laid to rest in the west lawn next to his buddy, Slim. Jerry has been allowed to cross over today, on this Thanksgiving Eve, and I cry for his absence.

It is selfish of me to cry, I know that. I know that Jerry is free once again and no longer trapped in that huge, failing body that had challenged him and me for these past few months. I know that I only helped him on to the next stop of his journey. I know he has freedom now! And he is alive again! I know this! Still I cry.

Selfishly, I cry for me. Who will I go to when I need comfort? Who will I go to when I need support? You see, Jerry, the Roan Horse has been my horse. I have shown him to others and never really shared him. Jerry was mine. He was my comforter. My shoulder to cry one. He was my playmate when I just wanted to play!

A small prayer comes from my lips as I stand at his now empty feeder. I pray for a safe journey for this creature I have come to love and respect. I pray for all of us he left here in this barn. I pray that we will remember him and the lessons he taught us. The lessons of respect and loyalty and being true at all costs. Of taking care.

It's then that I pause. And I smile a true smile from my heart as I remember how he protected me years ago. Jerry put himself between me and a horse with big, dangerous pulling shoes on. I saw the horse's rump rounding and knew the kick was coming but I couldn't move fast enough to get out of the way! Jerry saw it coming, too, and he pushed himself in the path and so the kick of that horse connected with Jerry and not me.

His shoulder was bruised and sore for a month. Never did he hesitate that day. He simply did what it took to protect me. Without being asked, he saw a need and filled it with eagerness. And then he asked nothing in return. What a teacher he was!

Here I'm standing and crying because I lost Jerry.

I never found Jerry! He wasn't mine! I was his!

Suddenly it becomes crystal clear to me. Long ago, that Saturday in May of 1993, I didn't find Jerry, the Champion Horse Puller. Jerry found me. He selected me. He allowed me to enter his life.

I now feel enormous gratitude for his generosity and for his choice. It changes the tone of my tears abruptly. This is the lesson of Jerry, the Roan Horse. To be watchful and a good leader. To be fair but firm. To have compassion and let someone have their way. To be true and loyal and honest.

I am thankful on this Thanksgiving Eve for the honor of knowing Jerry, the Champion. I am grateful that he selected me for his keeper. I am very aware of the new door that his passing is opening up in me. As he wanted, I am just now beginning to see and to learn the true meaning of his presence. Thank you, J, for giving me this lesson. It will take me some time to ponder and really figure it out, but your spirit will guide me. Your spirit which is just over my left shoulder.

You have crossed over, Jerry. Your body is no longer here for me to see or to touch or to smell. But your spirit is here. You are still here. I just need to find you differently, that's all.

I will keep you with me, Jerry. In my memories. In my mind. And in my heart. And I will call on you to guide me. Reinforce your lessons in me, Big J. And thank you for selecting me.

Jerry, the Roan Horse. Jerry, the Champion Horse Puller. Buppa, as I called him. Jerry, the Champion of my heart.

We lost a great one today. What pain! I cry.
The healing is over, the time has come to move on.
Selfishly I want a bit more time - another chance to help.
But soon I smile through my tears and tell those stories
Of how this one touched my life and how he taught me
               even more.
I’m sad but so grateful to have been there next to him
And to hold that big, roman head at the end of his days.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


And so "The Season" begins!

My mother used to tell me that the older I would get, the faster the years would go by. She also told me that the older I would get, the colder the winter's would be. My, she was a wise, wise woman!

It seems only a few days ago that it was my priority to bathe the horses and cool them in the summer heat. Then it was my task to judge the feed adjustments based upon the cooler air and the hint of frost. Where did the hot summer days go? Where did the fall colors go? Where did my long underwear go???

Truly, the holiday season is upon us again. And truly, as I grow older and hopefully a little wiser, I find the true meaning of the season is not in the gifts I receive or even the gifts that I may give. I find the decorations in the lawns fun to look at but nothing warms my heart from all those colored lights and animated elves. And I do love to listen to the holiday music, and I must admit it often brings tears and longing for those family and friends that have passed and left me here behind. So where do I find the true meaning of this holiday season?

I find it every single solitary day in their eyes. I find it every single solitary day in the sunrise and the sunset. And I find it every single solitary day in the words of a wise friend of mine who challenged me to use a crippled, rejected little horse and make a difference in someone else's life with that horse .... do good! he said.

Many times Andy and I would just sit and talk about life and it's purpose and his reason for living and my search for a reason to be living. It was during those conversations that Andy would warn me saying, "When you were born, Sandy, you were given a certain number of heartbeats. Once you use one of those heartbeats it's gone forever. You can never get it back or put more heartbeats in to the pool. So", he would teach, "use every one as if it's your last."

Andy was trying to teach me the value of a single gesture. A single word. And the beauty and gift of a single day. He did. I listened and I now see, to the best of my small mind and heart's ability.

You see, I now realize that I have Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's every day in my backyard! I have new beginnings and in 2005 I even had a birth! And we feast every single day here at THE FARM! How could I not have "the season" all year long?

As we all begin the hectic, frantic, and expensive holiday season, please take a moment to just pause and feel a single, isolated heartbeat in your chest....Feel the pressure of it coming and going.....and then coming again. Be aware of how that single heartbeat came and went - never to come again. A new heartbeat comes just in time. And you live because the heartbeats just keep coming. And they keep coming to the extent that we take them for granted.

Feel a single heartbeat and take the spirit of the upcoming holiday season with you. Spread it around! Smile at one another! Be kind and forgiving! Be loyal and true! Be grateful and respectful! Be like them - the herd of Refuge Farms who show me - and you - that it's Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's every single day!

Be like them and forgive what has been wrongfully done to you. Be like them and protect and care for one another. Be like them and be grateful and respectful when good things come your way. Be like them and give love while expecting nothing in return. And be like them and be so happy when love is returned!

Regardless of your faith or belief in this upcoming season, know that in a little spot of land (albeit frozen now!) here in Spring Valley, Wisconsin, a herd of rejected horses and an ever hopeful woman are here for you - to receive you and welcome you and hug you and laugh or cry or just be with you. We try to have the Spirit of the Season for you every single day.

Enjoy the heartbeats and the journey of each and every day,
Sandy and The Herd

Sunday, November 13, 2005


.... and then the telephone rings ....

It has been some time since I've talked with you last. Jerry, the Roan Horse, has had my mind, my heart, and my very being totally preoccupied lately. It is a critical decision point for that glorious creature and I have been completely absorbed with that task and the resulting implications. But I will talk of Jerry, the Roan Horse, later. Right now I must tell you of yesterday - Saturday, November 12th.

The day was forecasted to be a keeper. Remember where Refuge Farms is located - it's often called the Northern Tundra up here. It gets to -40 degrees (yes, below) zero in the winter and the winds can create weather conditions where your flesh will freeze in seconds. Really! And so to have the 12th of November to be forecasted for 60 degrees ABOVE zero was most uncommon and something to take full advantage of.

I had spent time Friday evening creating my list of outside things that must, truly must, get done before the freeze. I had the pond to drain and clean, the birch trees to stake, stock tanks to clean, lumber to move, barns doors to close up for the winter, lawn equipment to store and cover, and even bulbs to plant on Frannie!

The list was long and I knew I must have a steady source of energy so I took time to eat some breakfast. Up I was - at 4:34am I was walking out to the barn to rouse everyone and get the day on it's way!

By 5am I was cleaning barns while filling stock tanks, and muttering that the snow fence also needed to get done sometime today...and, oh yeah, I needed to get the gravity box of sawdust home, too. The day had just begun and I was already feeling the pressure of so little time....

And then the telephone rings. I looked at the clock and it is 5:17 in the morning. My heart skips a beat. I feel my chest tighten. Something is wrong. I know that answering the telephone will change my life forever. I've been here before. Experience is a great teacher... I am a good student.

With anxiety in my voice, I hear myself say "Good morning! Refuge Farms!". Maybe if I am chipper, I hope, the message on the end will change....

"Sandy", the male voice orders, "I need you here before 10am."

I recognize the voice and immediately respond. "John", (not his real name), "we are full - overfull, in fact!"

John is what we call a kill buyer up in this end of the country. He makes his living picking up animals that people want to dispose of and transporting those animals to the appropriate slaughter houses. John is a family man. I have had many conversations with John. I personally like John. It's his job that I detest. In our conversations about that job, John tells me "It's a business". It is my impression (read that as hope?) that John and I have come to know each other so maybe a bit of my heart can rub off on John. Just maybe....

Well, it's obviously working. John has called with a request for help. An ill and depressed man has taken to taking pot shots at his animals with his shotgun. Many of his animals are dead or are being put down due to the extent of the injuries. But a few have been sheltered in the barn awaiting pick-up. John was called. "Ship 'em!" the owner had said. So John was about to go back to the man's farm and pick up the remainder of the animals and deliver them for slaughter.

But a few of the horses stuck in John's mind (or should I say his heart?). A few of the babies and a couple of the grown horses were eyed by John and he was making three and only three calls this Saturday morning. He would put those horses out there and if anyone of us 3 came, we came. By 10am that morning - less than 5 hours from now! - any horses that weren't picked up would be on the truck.

I was his last call. He said he figured I was full. He chuckled with his comment that he had never known me to have an empty feeder for long. But he had one horse in mind that he thought really needed us.

He went on to tell me of the big Belgian who had run in to the woods to escape from the panic of the shootings. When the owner had found the horse in the woods, the man had beaten him and hauled him back to the barn where he refused to feed or water him. It had been several weeks.

The horse was thin but had the big belly of starvation.... or maybe worms. But regardless, John said, there was something in this horse's eyes that caused John to think of Refuge Farms. He said the marks from the beating were healing over, but the horse was imploring him. Interesting, I thought, that a horse would implore John. Part of me is thrilled to hear the voice of this man explain the story.

I could come and pick up the horse or not. It was completely my choice. But by 10am he was on the truck. The "old John" came back as he closed the conversation with "It really doesn't matter to me either way. I can make some money off of him or I can give him to you. Whatever." Click.

I go back to cleaning barns and attacking my list. Tears roll as I think of the terror of the animals as they are being shot. The ones that are killed are the lucky ones. The maimed ones are the ones to be cried over, and I do. The few that ran were smart, I think. But for what is their bravery? Just to be hauled away and slaughtered?

By 6am my horse trailer is dropped on to my truck and I am changing in to travel clothes for the 3 hour ride. I must go directly there if I am to be make the 10am deadline. I need fuel in the truck. I take $50 of the hay money to spend on fuel. That should just about get me there and us back.

The ride seems long and never-ending. What if I am late? That is the least of my worries. What if I meet the eyes of others being loaded for slaughter? I am too weak to look away and I am financially unable to support the few mouths I have now! Dear Lord, I pray, help me to not see any others. Please do not let me see any horse other than the one destined for Refuge Farms.

"Why am I crying?", I ask myself as I drive. I am afraid. I am sad. I am scared. And I am going against every logical, practical, and real bone in my body. "DO NOT TAKE ANY MORE!" is being screamed at me! But my heart overrules, and I drive on.

I arrive and park at the end of the driveway. I walk in with my head down. I do not wish to see corpses of animals. My ears are ringing loudly. Nerves, I think. I hear voices of men but no animal sounds. I'm okay and moving far.

I come in to the barn and immediately a huge head greats me. Oh no! We meet eyes. Regardless of John's intentions, this is going to be the one. I pet him and say, "It's okay now. You are safe now. I will watch over you now."

John comes around the corner and says "See what I mean?" I start sobbing with relief. This, in fact, is the intended horse! Thank you! In a gesture totally out of personality, John puts his arm around my shoulder and says "I knew you couldn't take what's going on so I pulled him up front here for you. Take him and go now."

With that John turned and left. I dared not run after him because of what I may see or hear. So I hollered "Thank you, John! Thank you!" He waved his hand in the air as he continued to walk out to the pastures and back to the ugly tasks that await him.

As I pet the horse for a moment, it dawns on me that maybe my relationship with John is existing so that I can see, through John, the other side... The side that I do not have the guts or the stomach to witness, but the side that makes places like Refuge Farms needed. A new light comes in to my mind...

The big guy and I walked down the driveway and in to the trailer. There is no hesitation. No fear. No defenses in this creature whatsoever. He is passive because he thinks and is that way. And he has the right to be angry and mean. Amazing. He is forgiving us Human Beings already. This horse has much to teach all of us around him. I smile for the first time that day.

I have hay in the trailer and he begins eating immediately upon entering. This big, skinny Belgian turns his head with a mouth full of hay and looks me in the eye once again. I hear it. I hear what he says. "Your welcome", I say, "Glad I came. Although I don't know how I'm gonna feed you, big guy!"

Closing the trailer I begin to hear the sounds of the works around me. The ringing in my ears is going away and so now I can hear. I run to the truck and pull away. I am such a softie! I cannot bear to look at the sights or hear the sounds. Someone must do it though, and I am thankful for John.

Once home, I put this big guy in corral where he calmly begins the process of eating the round bale. At one point, he lifts his huge head and surveys his surroundings. Yes, he has had the 3 promises before exiting the trailer. I gave them to him while standing calmly next to him in the trailer. He looks at his home - his final home. The place where he will spend his remaining days and where he will be laid to rest when he crosses over. He looks at all the others and feels the peace of the place. A huge sigh comes out of the horse. I feel his calmness and remember Pastor Jean's sermon from last Sunday....

You see, last Sunday, I didn't have a clue what she was talking about. As this Pastor stood in front of the congregation on her stilts (yup, she did), she told us that if you walk on stilts and look down at the ground you will fall. Very simple, she said. Looking at the immediate ground before you will make you fall. But if you look out in front, you will be able to walk on those stilts. Keep your eye on the horizon and you will move forward.

Well, I'm keeping my eye on the horizon and trusting the ground immediately around me will be dealt with somehow. I have faith that our mission is good. That the job of Refuge Farms is to heal - horses and Human Beings alike. Heal, we will do. How? Don't always know that answer. Some days it's overwhelming. Some days I just try not to think of the details. And some days, I go against my brain and act on my heart. And those days, I sleep well.

I have my eyes firmly on the horizon and I will watch over. As I visualize my mission, isn't it interesting that I always picture myself standing on a hill with my walking stick in hand surveying the herd and the horizon? It's always at sunset and the sky is pink and the wind is calm. And there is peace. And I am pleased with what I see. Peace and contentment and healing everywhere around me.

This particular Saturday started out to be a normal day on THE FARM. Much to do. A list of tasks to complete. And then the telephone rings.

The day was, indeed, normal! We made a difference out there today. Another minister has joined the herd. And I sleep well that night - even with that task list barely started!

Enjoy the journey of each and every day,
Sandy and the Herd

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