Sunday, June 18, 2006


The Horse Ladies

It's June, for sure. I know that not by looking at any calendar or by listening to the radio or by looking at the date on my cell phone. No, I know it's June because Refuge Farms goes to Camp Quest in June.

Camp Quest? What is that, you ask? It's a ton of hard work, let me tell you! But it's 30 hours of smiles and giggles and tears of amazement and times when you just stop and you watch something that makes your arms fill with goose bumps. It's an event that Refuge Farms does every June, for free, that rejuvenates the very soul all of us that take the time to go.

The Center for Independent Living for Western Wisconsin, Inc. (whew!), sponsored by the local United Way, hosts an overnight camp each spring for young adults, ages 14 to 21. The camp is held at Beaver Creek Reserve in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The Reserve has an observatory where we look at Jupiter and Venus and the moon after dark. It also has nature trails, a nature center, and a butterfly exhibit. It's great! And these young adults are just as active and rammy and noisy and moody as any group of 14 to 21 year olds! They are excited to be away from home and away from their parents for an overnight and determined to soak up every single minute of the adventure!

Each camper comes with their sleeping bag, their clothes, and their meds. You see, these campers are young adults with disabilities. Physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and sometimes a combination of both. Camping is probably something these youngsters have never done before. The excitement is almost tangible!

And many times, this overnight is the very first time the parent has been separated from the child for such a long length of time. I'm sure you can imagine the stress for Mom and the behaviors that may appear in the child. The camp experience is not without it's bumps, but overall it is a marvelous growing experience and an opportunity to get really dirty!!!

This year, Refuge Farms brought 3 horses to Beaver Creek Reserve for Camp Quest. Usually I only bring 2 horses, but the volunteer team supporting me this year was the very best we have at THE FARM, so I brought ole' man Cole, our anchor, Miss April, and our little newbie, little Grace.

Now, I have to tell you, that while I was hauling this mini-herd to camp, I had some anxious moments myself, much like some of the camper's parents, I'm sure. What if ole' man Cole got in to one of his stubborn streaks? What if Miss April stepped on someone with those club front feet of hers? And I had no way of knowing even what to fear with Gracie! She had only been at THE FARM for less than four months and so this was an act of faith, believe me! Bringing such a new horse - and a blind one, at that! - to camp was faith. Pure and simple.

Kathy, Tara, and Lambing Barb were the magic behind the scenes, however. These volunteers were everywhere and "safety" was at the front of their minds for the entire time. The horses could not have been better cared for. The campers were always welcomed to our camp site any time anyone wandered in. We quickly became known as "The Horse Ladies". Cool, eh?

And each camper was given ample time with the horses to brush, to pet, to smell, or to just be near. Those campers who wanted to were given the opportunity to hang on to a lead rope and "lead" a horse...Wow! It was magic, at it's best.

This is Michael. While backing the horses out of the trailer, this young man was fifty feet behind the trailer, pacing, and loudly warning all of us not to "get kicked in the head". Most intrigued and desperate to be by these horses, Michael was yet fearful and would not come up to pet them, even when encouraged.

The first afternoon of camp, Michael, however, was the leader of the sing-a-long at our camp site. Songs came out of him that amazed all of us. We laughed, Michael sang. We clapped, and Michael sang some more. All the while within ten feet of Miss April....

Then, the next morning, Michael came to camp bright and early. "How are the horses?" he asked. Lambing Barb seized the opportunity. With just Michael in our camp, she suggested that she touch April and then Michael touch her. Would that be all right? It was done and Michael had now touched a horse! Bravo!

Then there is Charley. Miss April was surrounded by campers when Charley starting coming up behind her. She could see him back there, but she was puzzled... So I turned Miss April around and walked her up to Charley and said, "Charley, this is Miss April. April, this is Charley."

I gave April some lead rope and so she smelled. First, she smelled Charley's face. Then she smelled his feet, tucked under his torso. Then April smelled the foot rests of his wheelchair. And finally, she smelled Charley's hair.

Then it happened. Amazing. Miss April was comfortable with Charley and chose him as her friend. This horse then gently rested her chin on the top of Charley's head. And just stood there. These two were connected and just spent time touching each other. Together. Quietly in the presence of each other. Comforting each other and relating to each other on the problems you have when your feet and your legs don't work like they are supposed to.

My tears ran. How did April know? How did Charley know? Why were they not afraid of each other? What were they saying to each other with their hearts?

Their relationship grew all throughout camp. Whenever Charley appeared, Miss April would move over to be close to him. And Charley would smile and spend as long as he possibly could, just looking at her huge face. A face that was just inches from his! The intermingling of their breaths was almost sacred, it seemed to me.

Those are only two of the stories I could tell you. There's also Alex, who was a most intelligent young lady who's questioned caused me to stop and think before answering her. Not the typical questions out of this young lady, that's for sure!

And there was Meredith. So much in love with any horse. She thrilled at just being able to touch them. More than once I caught her with her face in their hair, breathing in that horse smell.

And there was Andy. A senior this year in high school, Andy is going to be a journalist. We all recognized Andy since this was his second year at camp. And once again, this year, Andy chose ole' man Cole to lead to the water tank. Proud as could be, Andy took special care to direct Cole away from the trees and lead him straight to the water. Smiling, the entire time. Both of them.

So now you know how I can tell when it's June. It's time to load up and set up a temporary pasture at Beaver Creek Reserve and move feed, and water buckets, and wheelbarrows, and hay, and hoses, and forks, and fence posts, and buckets, and water tanks, and horses for an overnight stay with some very special friends.

When we finally get home, we are all pooped. Kathy, Tara, Lambing Barb, Lady-the-Dog, me, and the horses. But we have more memories and we know, absolutely know, that we just made a difference in some camper's lives with these horses that no one else wanted.

Just like Andy said. "Sandy, you take this horse and make a difference in somebody's life." Yes, sir! How'm I doin', Andy?

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

P.S. There are more Camp Quest photos in our Photo Gallery, if you'd like to see them.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Where does happiness come from?

This morning began like most mornings at Refuge Farms. I was up and dressed and standing at the kitchen island with a glass of orange juice at 4:20am. It was a gloriously cool and clear morning with the bird chatter just starting. The house cats were still sound asleep and Lady-the-Dog looked at me and said, "Later, Mom. I need to rest a bit more."

I love this time of day! I'm fresh and ready to go and the day lies ahead full of possibilities and accomplishments!

Out of sheer habit, I go to the refrigerator to review my TO DO Lists. Yes, there is more than one TO DO list on my frig door. There is the list I created for myself of the major projects that need summertime to get done. Projects like "Re-line the Barn Floor" and "Build Slim's Memory Bed" and "Create the West Line Fence". Not small projects. Huge projects to me. Huge in both effort and cost. Overwhelming projects on that list. But things that must be done.

And then there is the colorful, organized and detailed TO DO list from Vincent, our Webmaster Extraordinaire. His list for me is about horse stories to write, new Essay Contests to create and sponsor, new barn plans and announcements, and decisions to be made about the upcoming Open Barn.

I stood in front of those lists and said outloud, "Not today, Sandy." I said this to no one. And yet I felt I had said it to everyone. But mostly, I had said it to me.

You see, I've been so buried in lists and so overwhelmed with what has yet to be done and so worried about not getting it all done, that I've lost my happiness! The very thing Suzanne warned me about before her crossing, I have lost.

And so I ask you, "Where does happiness come from?"

As I listen to the 4am radio news, it seems that to the big world out there, happiness comes from market gains or criminal convictions or captures of insurgents. My mind hears these things every single day. I work hard to stay in touch but to also not allow the heaviness, the sheer weight of all of those hardships and fears, to bear on my mind. Sometimes, I am unsuccessful and I fear for the world in general.

When I go to work every weekday, it seems that happiness is just out of reach there, too. There is not enough money to retain benefits or salaries. We must contemplate layoffs and cutbacks in health care coverage. "How can we tighten the belt?" seems to be the mantra. I see the need and I also see room for improvements, but it wears on a person. Everyday there is the edginess, the fear of losing my job and my health benefits. It wears on a person. How will I make the house payments? What would I do if health insurance gets too expensive for me? Dear heavens, how I will I support the herd?

And then when I pull in the yard of my residence, my most critical eye sees weeds and fence lines and lumber piles and burn piles. It seems my eye scans over the beauty of it all. Why is that?

And so I ask you again, "Where does happiness come from? And when we lose it, where does it go?"

Now, nothing magical has happened during the early hours of this morning to change my soul or to make me bubbly and oozing with happiness. No, that's not where this is going. But I do sense a sea change coming. I really do.

We were open to the public yesterday and early in the day, Lynn had noticed that our Bonita had thrown a shoe. Good eye, Lynn. But where was the shoe? Oh dear heavens, where was the shoe? The pasture seemed way, way too huge all of a sudden. And the possibilities seemed way, way too many all of a sudden. But we need that shoe. For Bonita and for the safety of the others, we need to find that shoe! A huge draft shoe with nails in it laying out in the pasture was just an abscess waiting to happen - many times over.

So I went out to the north line of the pasture and started walking. With my head down. Walk from west to east and hit the fence line. Take four steps south and walk from east to west to the round bale line. Take four steps south and walk west to east to the fence line. Over and over. Monotonous and boring.

As I walked, I thought. Why is this monotonous and boring to me? Where did my happiness go? Where was my smile? Oh, I could smile, but where was my heart's smile?

My frustration was growing with each step. You see, if the shoe was upright, my eye would probably catch it in the bright sunshine. But if the shoe was upside down, it could be hiding in the grass or the hay or the mud or the manure and I may not find it at all! At least on the first pass of the pasture! The thought of multiple passes on this pasture was exasperating! But the shoe must be found, so I kept walking.

Part way through, I said, "Throw the shoe up to me. Please. I'm feeling a bit tired here and I could use some help." More walking. How far was I in this hour of walking? I was half-way completed with one third of the pasture. Long, long way to go yet. Get your head down, Sandy, and look.

There it was! I found it! Laying upside down with all the nails still in it - and with their pointed ends sticking straight up in the air! A heart smile came through. Yup, I was happy! Over something so simple.

So this morning I began my day at the refrigerator door looking at all the things that needed to be done. And said, "Nope. Not today." Today Lady-the-Dog and I will plant glad bulbs and we will play. And we will brush ole' Cole. And we will grill some supper. And we will think. And we will see not just what has to be done. No, instead we will see the beauty that is around us.

Andy used to warn me that I needed to take the time to "soak in some of your own medicine." What did he mean by that? I used to wonder this, but now I think I know. I need to soak in some of the gifts of Refuge Farms myself. I need to find the peace and trust and faith of the place that is offered to everyone for me. And I have all the tools that I need to do that here in my own back yard. How lucky am I!

So I will start the sea change for me today. In just a few minutes I will be outside in the sun and the breeze and putsing. Enjoying every bit of it. And looking around me and smiling. Remembering that what this little patch of land has to offer is available to everyone - and to me. I will take some of my own medicine and be happy through and through.

So how will you find your happiness? Whatever it is, remember to treasure it and keep it close. Because this world can get too tense and too stressful and too set on getting lists done. We can spend our time doing and feeling successful but not happy. We can get wrapped up in crossing things off of our TO DO lists and we can forget to be happy. That, in my opinion, would be a wasted day.

There. I feel better already. Can you feel the tide moving?

Enjoy the journey of each and every day and be happy!
Sandy and The Herd

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