Sunday, May 25, 2008


Handsome Becomes Handsomer

Warning: Some pictures in this blog may be wonderful to view!

Sometimes a life changes forever.

Life is spent enduring and yet one continues. Waiting. Living and waiting. Waiting for that moment of change. Waiting for that lucky star or a Guardian Angel to appear and make that decision, take that action, or say those words that will change a life forever. Sometimes the life changes for the good and looking back one can see the point of change and thank the lucky stars.

Yes, sometimes a life changes forever. Changes because someone saw and cared and did something to change the life forever.

Handsome arrived at Refuge Farms in late November of 2007. A tall and lanky horse who seemed to move with grace, although with a slight limp in the left hindquarter. He was curious and eager to learn. Naïve in the ways of a lead rope and taking cues from the little Human on the end of that lead rope! Never having seen feed before, he played with it until finally some went down to his stomach and his life changed forever for the first time. Feed, Handsome had learned, was a good thing and he thanked his lucky stars for the change in his life that brought him feed.

And hay. Now there was a good thing! No longer having to scrounge in the woods for food, this huge mass of hay in the pasture was certainly a good change in his life! He was content with water available, hay available, and feed on a daily basis. Yes, his life had taken a change and Handsome was, indeed, thanking his lucky stars. His life had changed forever and changed for the good. He had endured and was blessed that his luck had changed and now, yes finally now, life could be easier for him.

But his eye. It still remained as it had been for years. Draining pus down his face. Weeping. Eating away at his lower lid and creating ulcerations in the tissue. Smelly. Even though his life had taken a gigantic step to the good, his eye remained an issue. Handsome was very aware of his eye and its appearance and its odor. In general, he stayed to the back of the herd. Seldom wandering up to the guests. And very aware of their twisted faces and sympathetic moans when his eye was revealed for all to see.

Yes, Handsome needed just one more change in his life. One more lucky star. One more Guardian Angel to bring the final, life-changing gift that he needed so desperately in order to be a horse again. Not a monster with the bad eye....

And Handsome’s Guardian Angel was there for him. Shortly after he arrived in the barns of Refuge Farms, Barb G. came to know and love the big horse. Her heart visibly became connected to the heart of Handsome. To those that were aware, you could see Barb’s face change when Handsome entered the barn. You could see the adoration and love she held for this gigantic horse with the bad eye. You could see the pleasure it gave her just to touch him and to maybe brush him a bit.

It was Spring of 2008 and Handsome was once again loaded in to a trailer and riding on I94. Only this time, he was heading west to the University of Minnesota Equine Center. In the truck was Barb G., his sponsor. It was time to get a professional opinion about this eye and discuss what options were available to help Handsome. His luck was changing one more time. And it was good...

A full examination complete with an ultrasound and biopsy were performed. Surgery was the only option to rid his body of the infection, the cancer, and the destroyed eye. Some of the lower eye socket bone would also be taken to help in the healing process, but also to do our best to insure that all of the malignant tissue was removed. His eyeball, the tumor, a good portion of the upper lid, and a large portion of the infected lower lid would be removed and sent in for medical evaluation and opinion.

That meant that Handsome would need to undergo general anesthesia. He was strong and healthy and so the decision was made to lay him down for the surgery. For me, the praying began at the very point of signing the permission papers. You see, Dr. Erin, one of the surgeons working on Handsome, and I have history. We have some good history, but more than that we have history of laying down the big ones. The big ones who get so comfortable laying there as they wake up. The big ones who half-heatedly attempt to get up, but think it is just so darn much easier to stay down on their sides. The big ones, who although heroic measures are taken by Dr. Erin and her teams, never stand again.

The day of surgery arrives. We are there early to hug him. Smell him. And pray with him surrounded by us and Dr. Erin. Handsome walks slowly and confidently down the hallway to the room where he would be sedated. One hour later, a report was given that the surgery was going well. Ninety minutes later another report that all had gone well and Handsome should be coming out of the sedation relatively soon. The next report told us that he was already sitting like a dog in the recovery room. Now he just needed to stand.

Ten minutes passed. Twenty minutes passed. Thirty minutes passed. Forty minutes passed. Something was wrong. He should be standing by now… Instinctively, I stood in the hallway and called to my Jerry. Help him stand, J! Get him up! Come on, Jerry! Step up, Jerry! Bring him up, J! Please help him get up!!! Please don't let him be one of the big ones that doesn't get up!! Jerry! Please! Get him up!

Just over fifty minutes later, Dr. Erin arrived to tell us that Handsome indeed was up. Weak and sweating and shaky, but he was up! Dr. Erin told us honestly that he really didn’t want to get up. She told us that she was going to give him one more try and then re-sedate him to put him in the harness and lift him up with the hoist. And it was on that last try - that very last try - that he stood up. Thank you, Jerry. And thank you, Dr. Erin.

Within a few hours, we were standing next to Handsome and massaging those big hind hips and legs. Encouraging the muscles to recover from the surgery and not to atrophy. Hugging him and treasuring the fact that he had truly come through the surgery. And quietly, at his head stood Barb. Just watching and observing. Watching over this gigantic horse that had stolen her heart.

It was almost time to head home. Seeing that he was standing and progressing out of the sedation, I felt my body start to crumble. A massive headache began as some of the stress was relieved. Now, it was just a matter of time to allow his system to expel the fluids and for his body to “right itself” again. His team would watch him throughout the night and honestly, the best thing we could do for Handsome right now was to leave him by himself. He was in capable hands. We needed some rest.

I walked to stretch my legs before the ninety minute ride home. Down the hallway to the “mattress room” where Handsome had rested. Standing in the hallway I let the tears roll as once again I realized just how close we had come. The horse needs to want to stand and want to get up. The harness works but seldom does the horse make it through if the harness lifts them. They need to want to stand themselves.

But Handsome had come back to us. Now it was a matter of watching him for clues that he was healing and returning fully. Now it was simply a matter of good care and time.

I came down the hallway to Handsome’s stall and felt the intrusion immediately. I was pursing my lips and wrinkling my brow as I came to his door. Was something wrong? Had he gone down? What was going on? No, there was nothing wrong. The intrusion that I felt was me.

Quietly, at his head, stood Barb. Leaning in to him and talking to him. Quietly. Privately. And then it happened. Barb leaned forward and kissed this big horse on his long nose. A kiss overflowing with love and compassion. With the pure joy of being his Guardian Angel and changing his life forever. The kinship between these two was so evident you could feel it in the air. Handsome looked directly at her then. And I could feel the mutual affection. It was one of those times that you will never forget. I’ll never forget that scene and that feeling.

Soon after, we decided that Handsome had become Handsomer. Yes, we would change his name as a symbol of his new beginning! All of his pain and hard work and the chains and whips and pulling and plowing were left back on the surgery floor with the decaying flesh. The tumor had been cut out and his past was thrown out with it. Handsomer it is! A new beginning for this big, lanky work horse.

The healing process for Handsomer has not been without its bumps and worries. There was the trip to the U of M to check on the drainage that appeared during the daily bandage change. We learned a new term that day: schmu. Yup. One of those technical terms to describe the drainage that occurs as the regenerative tissue builds and must secrete these fluids to ward off infections. Schmu. Who would have thought...?

Then there was the morning a small bump on his neck by the catheter site began to swell. The size of a golf ball then the size of my fist then the size of two of my fists. In to the U of M we go and this time, Handsomer stays for a visit as we examine and ponder what this swelling is. The tissue over the jugular is swelling, yes. Is it a blood clot? Doesn't appear to be. Officially, this swelling is in his records as "undetermined and unknown source". Hot packs and careful monitoring have followed and the swelling is dissipating. Thankfully.

And so finally, Handsomer is home, we believe, for good. He is back in his pasture and the King of his domain. He is frisky and feeling good. He is finally eating his normal daily ration of feed. And yes, he is eating his fair share of the hay, too! All is good for Handsomer. Yes, all is very good for this remarkable creature.

Barb is Handsomer’s Guardian Angel. She has made a decision and has taken action to change his life for the good forever. And her decision was not just a check in the mail. No, Barb was there for the evaluation. There for the discussion and the painful decision. There for the surgery and there for the recovery. And Barb is there for the after care and the healing. Visiting Handsomer often at THE FARM, Barb continues to hold those private conversations with her big friend.

The mutual respect and adoration continues. Our walks in the pasture send Handsomer away if I approach him. But Barb? Well, she walks right up to his face. Looks him in the eye. Has one of those private conversations with him. And then it happens again. A gentle caring kiss on that long nose of his. And once again, his big brown right eye looks right at her and you can hear it. You can hear the appreciation and gratitude pouring out of this creature. Pouring out of his heart to this Guardian Angel of his standing in front of him.

Sometimes a life changes forever.

Life is spent enduring and yet one continues. Waiting. Living and waiting. Waiting for that moment of change. Waiting for that lucky star or a Guardian Angel to appear and make that decision, take that action, or say those words that will change a life forever. Sometimes the life changes for the good and looking back one can see the point of change and thank the lucky stars.

Yes, sometimes a life changes forever. Changes because someone saw and cared and did something to change the life forever.

Sunday, May 04, 2008


The Story of Handsome - Part 2

Warning: Some pictures in this blog may be difficult to view.

I know what I am about to tell you will sound peculiar. In fact, some of you will say it’s weird. Risking your ridicule and your raised eyebrows, I’m going to tell you this anyhow:

On Friday, the 16th of November in 2007, as I was walking to and from the barns all day long, I felt a presence. Something or someone was right behind me. Following me. Waiting for me to see them. Was there a physical being there? Well, no, because I actually did turn once in the day to look behind me. No, my eyes fixed on no being back there. Only air. But there was something there. Something right behind me and waiting.

The feeling intensified until finally on Sunday, November 18th, I gave in and hooked the trailer on to the truck. I had no logical need to do so. I had no horse that needed hauling anywhere. Only this feeling of another one waiting. And on Monday, the 19th, I posted on the Refuge Farms bulletin board a comment that I knew it was going to sound weird, but I had dropped the trailer on to the truck on Sunday evening. I asked The ‘Other’ Herd to try to understand and to prepare. Another one was coming. I did not know from where and I did not know when it was coming and I did not know what was coming. I just knew that strong feeling of presence right behind me and I knew that another one was coming.

That ring was heard in my ears and my heart jumped. “The” call, I was sure. It was Monday evening on the 19th of November and it was George (not his real name). He had a horse that needed a home. A good horse. A big horse. Had “kind of a bad eye” but it really didn’t bother him. He worked just fine all the same. Could I take him in? Things had changed for George and he needed to find a home for this horse. A good horse. Just a bit of a bad eye….

And so I found myself driving east on I94 with a gut full of nerves and apprehension and fear and hope. I was going to take in another one of George’s horses and just what that meant was anybody’s guess. Knowing that the horse needed rescue was my driving force. When George called, I was convinced the horse was truly and honestly a “dier”. And it was mandated that I go by forces much bigger than me. And so I went.

Three hours later I am winding the truck and trailer on the county and back rounds in central Wisconsin. I’m back in the hills where there are farms every mile or so. Buggies on the roads. Narrow roads. And few places to turn around if I became lost. So I focused on the roads and my now battered directions written on an old piece of paper from long ago. For a moment, my mind wandered back to Tom-Boy and Sonny and Clyde. A deep breath and a quick prayer and I saw the destination up on the next hill at the curve in the road. A neat white house with an older red barn. Neat as a pin, my Mom would have said. The hills behind the house are where I had spent my time here.

Upon entering the driveway, I was met by several pickup trucks and out poured several large chested men. All in wool flannel shirts and all with long beards and long hair under their dirty caps. Neighbors, George told me. Neighbors there to help me with the horse.

That was my first clue but I busied myself with opening the trailer, setting the emergency brake on the truck, getting my gloves on, my lead rope, my draft halter, and my treats in my pocket. We all started toward the horse that was tied to the old steel trailer not 50 yards from where I was parked. It was then that I stopped and asked just what were the plans?

“Oh, not much,” one neighbor informed me. “You just get him close to your trailer and we’ll get him in for you. He doesn’t like to load much.”

In the time that it had taken me to prepare to load this new horse, the neighbors had donned their apparel, as well. One had a length of logging chain. Another had a whip with nuts and big bolts tied in to the end of the whip. Another had a long piece of 2x4. Another a three-foot cattle prod.

Looking at them and what they held in their hands, my mouth opened and out came the instructions – not questions or pleadings, but instructions. Orders. I was now in charge and they were done doing whatever they had done to this horse in the past.

“No.” I stated. “You guys go sit in your trucks. I’ll get him loaded my way.”

Chuckles and grins were surrounding me. “We’ll be here when you’re needin’ us!” one informed me as they meandered back to the warmth of their trucks. George stood and looked at me. “You too, George!” I ordered and pointed the way just to be sure he knew which direction to head! And obediently, the men retreated out of sight.

I waited for the last truck door to slam shut and then I turned to the thin hindquarters that awaited me. Praying the entire way, I walked up to this creature wondering just what was tied to the old trailer???

I smelled him long before I could touch him. Rotting meat. That smell of old dirty pus. Married with burrs in every inch of the remnants of his mane and tail. Married with ribs and spine sticking out. Married with hooves that hadn’t been trimmed in well over a year. Married with a head hanging low. My heart swelled with compassion for this animal. Beaten up and beaten. His life was about to change.

I approached him from a wide front angle. Giving him time to see me and realize I had nothing in my hands at all. I had long since dropped the lead rope and the halter. They could be weapons, you know. I was empty handed and full hearted. I stopped and we just looked at each other. His sadness filled the field around us. I could taste his weariness in my mouth. I let the tears run while we just stood and looked at each other. And then I started to tell him that I was there to take him away from the chains and the whips and the boards and the electricity. I was there to take him to a barn with other horses and feed and clean water and maybe some help for that eye. I was there to help him if only he would let me.

He allowed me to touch him the very first time. He just stood there. Pretty much resigned to whatever was the next step in his life. He had seen horse pulling contests and the hours of work and labor to get in shape for those contests. He had seen the rounds of “motivation”, too, in preparation for pulling. He had seen years in the plow with shorter horses that could never keep up with him. And he had seen years of flies and gnats and maggots and the stench of his eye. He had seen it all. And he was tired. That was plain.

With very little coaxing, the halter was soon in place and I felt comfortable in unhooking him. We stood for a moment and then I asked him to come to the trailer with me. We turned and his good eye saw our destination. A horse trailer. All of those pickups. Certainly those men were just waiting for him. Off we went!

This lanky, giant of a horse headed for the hills! Pulling for all I was worth and doing my best to stop this giant, we headed north and my truck was sitting south! This horse was strong and dragging me around like I was a leaf on a stick! He dragged me for a while and then stopped to look behind him. They were still there! So we went again! Further from those pickups and that trailer. Further from the pain and abuse that he was convinced awaited him.

When we finally stopped, I dropped the lead rope and went forward to look him in the eye. Totally out of breath and desperate for some kind of way to relate to this horse, I told him what was in my heart:

“You big, handsome, brute of a horse. I am a proud woman. And you are a proud horse. I will protect you but you’ve got to stop dragging me around! I am not going to allow them to touch you! I promise! You will come with me because you want to! Because you want to leave these men with their chains behind you! Forever! Come with me and eat hay and drink water. No more harnesses. No more plows. No more pulling. No more! Just the barn and feed and contentment. No more abuse. I promise!”

“In fact, if you come with me, I will promise you these three things: I promise you that you will be safe. Truly and honestly. No one will ever hurt you again. I promise you that you will have feed and hay. No more scouring the woods for something to eat or drink. And I promise you that you will never be given to anyone else again. We will love you and keep you until you decide you need to move one. I promise you all these things. But you’ve gotta stop dragging me around! I’m too old for this!”

And then dropping my voice to a whisper, I moved closer to him and asked, “Would you please come with me and show these men just how gentle it can be? That trailering a horse does not need to be mean and violent? Would you please do that for me and for the horses that they have yet to load in to their trailers? Would you please try to help all of those poor horses?”

I leaned on his left shoulder and felt his body start to calm. We both needed a rest and now it was time to start back down the hill. We turned and we moved slowly and very cautiously. On that short trip down that hill, we must have stopped twenty times. Each time I restated the promises to him. Each time I promised him he was safe and that those men would not come near him. Each time we stopped I hugged him and lathered the side with the good eye with touches and warm hands on his sweating, nervous body. And then each time we would move forward a few more yards.

A few times we turned to go back up the hill. But I had learned that if I stood in front of him he would see it was me and he would stop the mad dash. He would chew his mouth a bit and think it over. I would pick up the lead and we would head south again. For a few yards. Then we would stop and we would talk and then move once again.

We neared the trailer and we stopped. I dropped the lead rope and let him just stand there. Approaching the trucks, I instructed the men to stay in their trucks. No one was to move. I’m sure I came across a bit strong, but that, truly, was my intention. Their appearances now would ruin everything.

I pulled a flake of hay out of the barrel at the front of the trailer and offered it to the horse. His mouth went around the hay and it disappeared in no time flat. Another flake was placed on the ramp in to the trailer. On his own, he moved up to the ramp to eat the hay. Once the hay was devoured, he took the time to smell the ramp. Then he looked at me.

I was in the trailer with empty hands. The lead rope was draped over his neck. So I walked down to him and repromised him all of my promises once more. And then I turned him away from the trailer and we walked to some lawn grass so he could munch for a while. Then back toward the trailer and closer to the ramp. Standing for a while, I looked at the trucks and the chuckles had quieted. Maybe, just maybe they were learning something?

We left the ramp one more time and ate a bit more of that sweet lawn grass. Then back to the ramp and our front feet were up on the ramp. I went in to the trailer with my back to him and applied gentle but steady pressure to his halter. When he leaned forward, I dropped the lead rope. A short rest and then a bit more gentle but steady pressure and when he came one step forward I dropped the lead rope again. We repeated this process for quite a while and soon he was in the trailer eating the hay.

Standing in the trailer with this monster, I was grateful I had paid attention to the Parelli workshops and thankful that I had applied their technique of getting a horse to go against all instincts and walk in to this cave on wheels. Then I took the training one step farther and I lifted the lead rope and took this horse – this tough loader! – out of the trailer for a bit more of that lawn grass.

By then I was hugging this horse and he was starting to see his future. He wanted more of that hay and in his huge, absolutely huge, left ear I whispered one more enticement. “And oh, big handsome one, I’ve got mares!” We walked in to the trailer and his halter was unhooked from the lead rope. It was time to close up the trailer and head home with this precious, enormous animal.

Without my seeing it, George had wandered in to the back of the trailer. I turned to look at him and this time I really looked at him. Something was physically wrong with George. He had been a ruddy-faced, full-bodied man. The man that stood in front of me now was a pale yellow and barely a skeleton with flesh covering his bones. I changed my focus from this horse to a full focus on George. He was dieing. And so he had called me to take in this horse that he knew no one else would want. He was dieing. And he was trying to find the courage to say something to me.

I turned to him and thanked him for calling me. I told him I appreciated his confidence in me and that I promised him that I would take good care of this horse. Did he need help with any of his other horses? Was there something I could do to help him out? “How can I help you, George?”

His answer to me was a question. He looked me right in the eyes and asked, “Sandy, do you think I’m still going to hell?”

A single tear literally bounced off of his protruding cheekbone. After all of these years, he remembered my outburst and my warning to him that he was going to go to hell if he didn’t take better care of his horses. I was not the one to answer that question for him and so I told him what was in my heart. We talked about death and God and heaven and hell and life’s regrets and forgiveness. He declined the offer to touch this horse before we left. He had regrets, he said. “It was a simple wound, you know. I just got carried away getting ready for the Stanley pull and nicked his eye. Never took care of it though, so it festered. A good horse, though, he is. You’ll take good care of him. I know that.”

We talked and I hugged George before I left. I could now wrap my arms clear around this little man. I told him again that I was glad he that he had called me and that I would take good care of his horse. “Handsome”, I said. “That will be his new name, George. We will call him Handsome.”

Next week:
Handsome - Part 3 How Handsome becomes Handsomer!

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

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?