Sunday, September 21, 2008


The Reformation of Refuge Farms

It has been quite a span of time since I last wrote to you. Life and its challenges have absorbed my energy, my mind, and my time recently. We are changing here at Refuge Farms and change can be scary. It can be confusing. And it can create tensions, if you let it.

But change is also healthy and good and full of excitement and potential! It is a time to plan and reorganize and restructure something that has grown for over these past eight years! And it is a time to become sleek and trim and effective and full of newly generated energy with new ideas and new members! The excitement of beginning anew! It's a Christmas morning every morning!

Just what in the world am I talking about now? Well, in order for you to understand this change that I'm talking of, I must tell you the story of the Trempealeau Rescue. You must read all three chapters of that event. And then you will understand the change that Refuge Farms is going through. I call it "The Reformation".

So fill up your coffee cup. Curl up on the couch or in your favorite chair. And read on. My heart is poured out in these words that follow as I tell you of the Trempealeau Rescue and what, ultimately, was really rescued that day.

The Trempealeau Rescue - Chapter 1: The Ghost Horses

As we walked down the overgrown trail that had once served as a driveway, my heart was pounding and my mind was racing. What would we find beyond this overgrowth? Would the horses be able to be salvaged? How wild would they be? How starved would they be? How weak would they be? How many would be down? And how would we ever get them in to our horse trailers?

It was a sunny, warm day in early June. In this valley, however, there was no breeze – only the sun beating down on our heads. The ‘driveway’ was washed out leaving only craters and boulders everywhere. Even my four-wheeled pickup would drag bottom on the drive in. The “yard” was a mess of wires and tires and overgrown brush. An old weathered and collapsed mobile home was on my left as we rounded the curve in the washed out road.

The corral fence was really a collage of branches and pipes and bent over woven wire. And a few gates that were buried for the bottom two feet in old manure. But in that corral stood the Daddy of Them All. A twenty-something stallion that announced our arrival and began his dance of protection. He was glorious! And wild. This was his herd and he was proud of it!

Next to him in another pen area were three more stallions. Younger and more fit and even more wild. Taking their cue from the old stallion, the valley now echoed with their warnings to the herd that strangers – no, predators! – were in amongst them! Beware!

Just in front of us was what once had been the “field”. Now completely a dirt lot with not even a root visible. And the trees had been stripped up to the very top of the reach of the tallest member of the herd. In this field stood the majority of the herd. Twenty-one of them. Dear Lord.

They all stood together on the back line. Ears forward and eyes fixed on the predators who simply stepped over the fallen wire, bone-dry bent up stock tanks, and buried gates to approach them. Huddled together, this herd of wild horses did not bolt or make a move. Standing still with ears forward and eyes watching us. As we approached them we studied each other.

What did they see? They saw a small group of humans who had come together to rescue them. This group did not smell of fear. We were curious, too. And yes, there were tears on many faces. Tears of appreciation for the determination of these horses to survive. Tears of appreciation for the emaciated leaders of this scrawny herd for doing their best to protect the weaker ones. Tears of regret that these creatures had been left to survive all on their own. And tears of relief that, at least today, some would leave this hole and begin a new life.

What did we see? We saw twenty-one sets of big eyes looking at us. Wondering. Questioning. And watching. The twenty-one bodies we saw were all undersized and severely malnourished. The manes were all snarled and twisted and their bodies were caked with dried mud. Their heads were oversized and the hipbones stuck out with ribs that were clearly visible for counting. But in this little herd, I saw no cloudy eyes, no runny noses, and no sores. This isolation had severed them well, at least in that respect.

I saw a herd that had managed to survive and had managed to survive decently well.
Twenty-one in a single little pack. A baby barely standing and a few studs in amongst this mostly pack of mares. Some rounded tummies told me that some of these emaciated mares were carrying even more babies. Dear Lord, why had this been allowed to go on?

I extended my gloved hand and surprisingly, a nose came out to smell me. No touching but no running away either. A calmer group of starved, wild horses I have never seen and probably never will ever see again. It was as if they knew. They knew we were finally there. And they looked at us as if to implore us: "Where in the world had you been? Why has it taken years for you to get here? Did you realize how cold it was in the winter in this valley? And how hot in the summer in this valley? Can you even imagine how bad the flies can get down here? Did you realize the struggle it has been just to stay alive?"

The task of rescuing these horses had come about by my answering a single telephone call. It was in the afternoon in late May and I was walking past the telephone when it rang. And so I stopped and answered it. A Trempealeau County officer was on the line. She had called two other Wisconsin rescues and was hoping someone would take the lead and get everyone to work together to help rescue these horses that had come to her attention. Twenty-seven of them, in fact. My notes recorded her observations: “No hay, grass, or water – truly starvation; can see ribs and hips; some old; normal riding horse size; older stallion is alone and three stallions in another area; at least one stud in the herd.”

Rescue them from abandonment. It seems that a couple had lived in the mobile home on this property and had decided to move in to town. They had packed their belongings and had begun their life in the city. Leaving the property behind. And the horses. For several years, these horses were left to fend for themselves. A neighbor had finally complained about the conditions of the herd. Thank you, Neighbor.

I stood in total awe and amazement and wondered just how they had survived? I saw no carcasses around me and so assumed that so far, at least, all had survived. But how? And then the answer came. One of the herd had deposited a weak, small, but viable pile of manure on the ground. As it walked away, several others walked over and the manure was spread out to cool. As it cooled, the others used this manure for nutrition. These horses had survived by living off of each other.

My mind flashed back to the pictures I had seen at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Those same big eyes. That same demeanor of resigned calm. The same quiet spirit of determination. That same acceptance of the situation. No energy was wasted. All energy was conserved.

The deep gash of a scar was firmly on my heart and my life had been changed forever.

The job was now in front of us to save these creatures from certain and painful death. But how to get these horses who had never been handled and were undoubtedly fearful corralled and in to the trailers? How to get them separated? And how to do that without jeopardizing the lives of the weaker ones? There were twenty-one in this main herd and nine of us humans.

A prayer began pouring out of me for strength and skills that I knew I did not possess. The task in front of us was monumental. And we nine humans were strangers to each other! But we banded together and began the risky business of rescuing these starving wild horses. Horses that had been left alone in this valley by other humans who somehow had gone on with their business of living.

Who were these rescuers? How had they come together? And how many of the twenty-one would be rescued that day? And what of the stallions? And the two on the hill? Would all twenty-seven horses make it out of this hole?

The Trempealeau Rescue - Chapter 2: F A I T H

“They will die. The ones not taken today will die. You will never get them in this corral again and so they will die.”

My mind raced and my heart broke as I heard the answer to my questions: If all of these horses didn’t get loaded in to trailers today, what would happen to them? Would we be able to get them into this makeshift corral again in a week from now? Could we come back for those we have no room to take with us today? What will happen to those left behind if we don’t take them all today?

Early on a sunny morning in June, I found myself and eight strangers wandering a dirt floor valley where 27 horses had been abandoned by their owners. The owners had moved in to a house in town and had simply left the horses behind. The condition of the abandoned home told me it had been some time since humans had lived here with these horses. No food was supplied and the horses had eaten the bark and branches off of the trees for as high as their lips could reach. The ground contained not one single root of one single sour weed. And the water tanks were either bent up and tipped over or rusty and full of dirt and leaves.

This herd had managed to survive by living off the droppings of each other and today, as we wandered amongst them, it was apparent that there was much rescue to be done in this valley. The Valley of Death as I soon came to call it. There were many lives to be saved today. And saved very carefully.

Some of the younger horses were so weak they were barely standing. To start this herd running would mean certain disaster and likely death to these weak ones. And besides, there was no where to herd them! The “pasture” was a small spot of dirt surrounded by scraggly brush and broken, pieced-together fencing.

Creative manual labor was completed and a make-shift corral was built out of pieces of gates and wire, pieces of scrap wood, empty tanks and barrels, and even ropes we had brought with to use with the horses. We built a corral that was weak, at best, but would hold the main herd of 21 horses if only we could entice them to enter it.

Not being able to herd the horses due to the condition of the weakest ones, the brilliantly trained stallion that came with for today’s rescue was left unused that day. A talented horse handler had agreed to donate his skills and that of his mount to the cause of rounding up this herd. But his mount would remain in the trailer. Too much horse for such a weak little group, we feared.

And so we humans made a chain and we moved the herd the best we could. Up the west side of the grounds and then up the east side of the grounds. We repeated this until finally we were able to shorten their retreat a bit more each time. Soon, we had cut the ground space of the “pasture” by quarters. Soon, some in the little herd noticed the hay lying on the ground in our makeshift corral. Soon, some of the more inquisitive and least fearful ones ventured closer and closer to the hay. Soon – although it seemed like hours – some of the ghost horses wandered in to the corral to eat the hay awaiting them. And soon, all twenty-one of the main herd were in the corral and munching on the hay. Content to look around them. Content to let us close off the exit to this makeshift corral. And for now, not concerned about the humans that wandered amongst them. There was hay and survival took precedence over any fear of us.

The first trailer was loaded with the three weakest horses. The horse handler was also talented with a lasso, and so it was good to get those three separated and safely into a trailer to avoid risking broken legs or cuts to them. Not that they went quietly or easily! Even though starved and very weak, we soon heard their displeasure at being put in a trailer! That caused me to sing! Better to hear their noises of discontent than to hear the silence of resignation and defeat. These horses were still fighters and therefore they would fight to live!

The next trailer took another three of the herd. And so fifteen remained in the corral. The horse handler and I began a conversation with his commitment to take three or four of the remaining herd home with him. All eyes turned to me.

I then asked the horse handler what was the fate of those not loaded in to a trailer today. His answer was calm and quick and created an absolute panic in me: “They will die. The ones not taken today will die. You will never get them in this corral again and so they will die.”

I stood immobilized with only two alternatives! I could load my trailer full, sure, but where to take them?! If I took them to Refuge Farms that would mean giving them each The Three Promises and we could not absorb an entire herd of starving horses! If I did not load my trailer full, then the ones left behind would die! Oh, the physical pain this dilemma caused me! Oh, the corner I was in!

I took a minute to separate myself from the others and to walk alone. Head down I asked for the answer to come to me and come to me swiftly! Please! Help me with this one! I looked to the hills and saw the sun on the trees and the blue sky and the white puffy clouds and bent my head forward waiting for the answer! What was I to do? My hands went to my temples as I squeezed my head thinking that maybe I could hear the answer if only I could stop this overbearing chatter in my head! What was I to do? Take only two and leave the remainder here to die? Take the remaining herd of ghost horses and go to a place I don’t even know yet? Dear Lord, what was I to do?

My answer came swiftly. It was an image in my mind. A blue plastic feed bucket. Dusty and a bit coated with dirt from hanging in the barn. Yes, the answer came to me as the image of the blue bucket hanging in my own barn. You see, on the outside of that cheap blue plastic bucket in black electrical tape are the block letters: F A I T H. My answer came to me as the image of the faith bucket that I looked up at every single morning when I entered my own barn. I was being told to move forward on faith. Use your faith, Sandy. Trust that the answers will come. Do the right thing and know the path will be made open.

I walked back to the horse handler and looked him square in the eyes. “Load my trailer,” I told him. “I will take them so they will live.”

Eleven horses ran in to my trailer for the hay that was awaiting them. Eleven of the remaining bunch which left four horses for the horse handler. He was happy, the other rescues were happy and I was panicking! Eleven horses! Where in the world would I put eleven horses? Eleven starving horses that needed last year’s grassy hay and tons of water! And homes! Who would want to adopt a wild, skinny, dirty horse that you couldn’t even touch?

We said our goodbyes and I began the ride home. Pulling a trailer loaded with eleven starving horses. Where was I heading? What in the world would I do with eleven starving, wild horses? Dear Lord, what is it that I have done? Have I simply moved the tragedy? Have I created another situation of abuse? Oh no, Sandy, what did you do?

The Trempealeau Rescue - Chapter 3: The Reformation

I began the journey home with a horse trailer filled with eleven starved, wild horses and nowhere to go. I couldn’t bring them back to Refuge Farms since horses that come to Refuge Farms receive The Three Promises and we simply couldn’t afford eleven more mouths to feed. I was feeling that I had simply moved the disaster from the Valley of Death in Trempealeau County to my trailer. And now I was on the road hauling a starved herd with no destination.

I began searching my brain and telephone calls were made. A round pen for a weeks homing was located. Last year’s grassy hay bales were located. And a plan was constructed. At 10pm I was loading bales in the back of my pickup to haul up to the little herd who stood patiently in the round pen, totally calm and simply awaiting the next change that would occur in their lives. It would be a late night but these horses were on the journey of their new lives! Little did I know that The Eleven from Heaven, as I now called them, would begin new lives for themselves that night but also begin a new life for me, personally, and for that of Refuge Farms.

You see, this past summer I had been feeling guilty and undeserving. THE FARM had its eighteen rescue horses that we loved and cared for with all the care that one can give to one of God’s creatures. But I was finding myself unable to sleep and increasingly restless. I was driven by a need to do more and feeling unable to deal with the need. There were horses dying out there every single day because no one would answer their telephones or go to the work needed to rescue them from the slow, painful death they were facing. And I was just sitting on the edge looking in – crying for them but doing nothing!

Now don’t get me wrong! Refuge Farms had developed over these past years in to a true place of peace and healing. Many found our yard filled with Memory Beds and barns filled with touching stories and our remarkable herd a good place to visit. I was thrilled by the reception of the public to our Missions and sure that for those who found the magic when they visited, we truly were changing lives for the good.

But I felt incomplete and somehow that I was missing my life’s true calling. What was I supposed to be doing that I wasn’t doing already? I began a process of talking to myself, talking to close friends, talking to Andy, and talking to The Herd. What was it that was out there that I wasn’t seeing? What was missing and creating such a huge, troublesome void in the pit of my soul?

And then the Trempealeau rescue with The Eleven from Heaven came in to my life. Placed right smack in my face and right in my path complete with obstacles, muscle stretching work, backbreaking lifting, human squabbles, and hours upon hours of soliciting for new homes. These horses simply put themselves in front of me and said, “Just look at us, Sandy. This is what you have been in training for all these years. It is now time for you to rescue, truly rescue, those of us that so desperately need you.” And there I was in this valley, restless and looking – ready to hear their plea. I would say that this was The Master Plan most certainly at its very best, indeed.

The idea has taken hold of me and the supporting cast of Refuge Farms. We now find ourselves in a phase of reformation. A process of change with all of its bumps and issues. But these bumps and these issues will get us to a point of being able to take in the desperate and then re-home them to new loving homes. For the first time in the life of Refuge Farms and in my personal life, horses will come and then go from this little patch of land and these barns.

We will go out in the mud, in the heat, in the woods, in the cold and we will search out the sick, the starving, the down, the neglected. We will cry over them and plead with them and pray for them and do our best to help them. We will take them in and nurture them. We will fall in love with every single one of them and then we will give them away. Against everything our hearts want to do, we will give them to new owners to love and help them.

Case in point? Meet The Emaciated Old Mare, as I called her. This girl stole my heart completely. How she stood is beyond me. Her head hung low and she did her best just to get out of the way of the younger, stronger, and more agile horses. Her hip bones didn't just stick out of her body - they jutted out like sharp spears! Her coat was matted and hadn't shed the icky old hair from last winter. Mud was caked and dried to her bare skin. She had a tired face. Weary to the bone. She cried for care and love and food. Dear Lord, she needed food without the worry of competing with the others! She was the very last to load and the most needy of the herd. Her days were numbered if left in that valley much longer.

Now meet Annie. This is The Emaciated Old Mare after 60 days or so of that very care and love and food that she cried out for. Yes, my heart was torn in to pieces as I pulled out of the new owner's driveway. Tears streamed down my face and I worried that I had left her when she needed love and care the most! Leaving her behind was truly a test of my commitment to the world of rescue. But I managed and she has flourished! Isn't she beautiful! She isn't emaciated and she isn't old anymore! Her new owners "dote on her" and I am thrilled that all of them are happy together! THIS is what the business of horse rescue is all about! THIS is why we risk our bodies and our equipment and their lives! To pull them from their own personal hell and give them a chance! THIS is what we must do!

And my heart will probably always cry when a special one is delivered to its new home. Oh, how I feel I must be the one to nurture and care and watch its steady progress! I cry as I walk away and I can feel the eyes of the horse asking me why is there yet another home for me? But then pictures arrive for the one-month anniversary and I see that yes, indeed, the animal is thriving! And as a result, I have room to save another because I somehow found the strength to let a very special one go on without me. I will still cry, though, I'm sure. My heart is so soft and so full of love for these creatures that have been tossed aside and forgotten!

So we are growing and changing and learning new skills. It’s a bumpy ride, you bet! But worth every bruise! The rescue of Trempealeau County and The Eleven from Heaven worked their magic on us. We are re-energized and focused on rescue! Watch us as we change and grow in to the new Refuge Farms – now a horse rescue and sanctuary. My dear Andy has listened to me as I pleaded for his guidance on this journey. I pleaded that he would show me the path and help me find the strength to see the reformation to its completion. And that we work hard to be prepared and ready for the onslaught of starving and freezing horses that is undoubtedly coming this winter.

He has placed the answer to all of my restlessness and uneasiness square in my path. Right in my face. The Eleven from Heaven were truly his message saying, “Just save some lives, Sandy. And in the process, you will help others and find your own true and complete peace.”

So join us! Join us as we do something to save those left behind and forgotten! Help us to do something to save some lives! Blessing to all of you and truly, keep us in your prayers!

Enjoy the journey of each and every day,
Sandy and The Herd and Those Awaiting Our Rescue

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