Thursday, December 24, 2009



I was just in the barns on this Christmas Eve. All is quiet. The rain has stopped and snow is finally falling. The horses are extraordinarily calm. The radios in the barns are playing Christmas music as I feed and move among them and talk with them. Touch them and assure them that I love them. Feed them the special treat which is now a Christmas Eve tradition for me and The Herd, whoever that may be as these years pass by. These horses give to me, on this Christmas Eve, the calm and peace and joy of the season. I am grateful on this warm, snowy night.

My ears hear an old familiar song and I am once again back in Homecroft, Minnesota as a child. Busily doing child chores in the living room as I ready the house for Christmas. Mom is in the kitchen readying a meal for all of us when Dad arrives home from snow plowing. When, on that old console radio, I hear my favorite Christmas song of all time. I begin to sing along since I knew all the words - every single word. Who did not know those words? Read on and see if you don't recognize the song, too. The first line should give it away . . . .

"C" is for the Christ Child, born upon this day. Yes, the "C" in Christmas is the very reason that this holiday is even celebrated. The birth of a leader. A leader of the world born among the common people. A birth in a lowly manger. Out in the cold of the night. In a barn amidst the cows and the sheep and probably, a mule. In the straw. Not even a bed.

This year, I don't think the Christ Child would mind if we also made "C" for Cole, too. The old leader of Refuge Farms has just crossed and his vacancy is still so new and so very obvious. The absence of his whiny is still loud. And the noise of his rambunctious antics is still too vacant.
On this silent night, "C" is for the Christ Child. And "C" is for Cole, too.

"H" is for hope. In this world all around us, I fear we are misplacing our hope. Misplacing our faith. Misplacing our upward trust. Whatever it is that is "upward" for you, that hope must remain and must prevail. Whether it be God or Buddha or Allah or Mother Nature or The Great Spirit or your dog or your horse. Whatever it is that is the Faith Source to you, may you find your hope and faith renewed this Christmas Season. May your hope become strong within you and fight to spread itself out through you. Remember that a human reaps what he sows. Let us not become weary in doing good, for when we cross we will reap the harvest of our works. Let us have hope and faith and do good to all people.

"R" is for rescue. It is what we are. It is what we do. A word that describes our actions but also describes our purpose. We rescue. We go out in the worst weather. In fact, the worst of the weather is when the need for our services is at its greatest. We are a rescue. A shelter and a safe place for those whose lives have been brutal and neglectful. Those who are old and blind and of "no good use anymore". Rescue. It is what we are. And it is what we do.

It is not a fancy or well recognized purpose. It certainly isn't a popular or financially supportive purpose. But the rewards are those that cannot be priced. The saving of a life, even for one day, is worth more to those who rescue than any donation check. To help one cross rather than lie there to wait for the end. To console and sing in the ear rather than have only the sound of the wind and the approaching varmints. We do not ask age or breed or personality. We go.
We rescue. Because our hearts demand we go. Rescue. It is what we are. It is what we do.

"I" is for intensity. This world of rescue is intense, to put it mildly. We deal with the results of what humans can create. We smell the filth and the rot. We hear the moans and we hear the calls and their cries. We see the sores and the maggots and the wounds. We shake our heads at the weakness and the skeletons so visible under the thin, torn hides.

But we also see the spirits and the determination of these creatures to survive. Their wills to live are strong. Their wills to live are intense. And our call to rescue is equally as intense. To meet them partway and to receive them. To support them. And to adore them. To celebrate and revere them. This world of rescue is intense, to put it mildly.

"S" is for the stories. Their stories. The stories of what their lives were before the rescue. The stories of the rescue. And then the stories of the magic they have worked while here. Their stories are their lessons. Their teachings. Their legacies. How many times have we told the story of Big Guy? How many times will we tell the stories of Ole' Man Cole?
The stories - their stories - are their purpose. In the stories are their lessons. Their destinies. So we tell the stories and in telling the stories, they never die. They live on with us through their stories.

"T" is for The Three Promises. Given with tears. Given with a heart so full of hope and love and dreams that it becomes difficult to breath. Given with a vow to keep those three promises. Those gifts. To keep them until they decide it is time to let them go. The Three Promises are solemn and righteous. Not given lightly. Not given as theatrics. Given as solemn oaths to a creature from a creature. The Three Promises. Something to hold onto. And something
to work for. Something to count on. And something to trust.

"M" is for miracles. The miracles they work in our hearts. In the barns. In each other. To see a killer mare become a peace giver. To see a fearful huge one become interested and curious in these little humans and now so readily approach them. To see one who could not be tied stand quietly while tied. To see the one who has sore feet relate and communicate to the young man who uses the wheelchair. To see the miracles that love and calm and safety and routine can provide. Miracles. They are visible in these barns from these horses every, single day.

"A" is for Andy Durco, Jr. The man who began this whole thing we now call Refuge Farms. The man, who with his simple challenge, created a sanctuary where miracles happen. Where promises are given. Where hope resides and faith guides our decisions. Where stories are made. And where rescue is a way of life.

My dear Andy, did you know? Did you know what you were creating? I wonder if you did. And yes, I wonder if you didn't. But, my dear Andy, I am grateful to you and for your challenge. Now fully immersed in this world of rescue, I cannot imagine being anywhere else. Doing anything else. Did you know I was lost, Andy? Did you know? And do you know now that I am found? Do you know? Thank you, my dear friend. Thank you.

"S" is for the season. A season of smiles and hugs. A season of strangers holding doors for strangers. A season of goodwill and good deeds. Of giving and caring.
Of hope and faith. Of humming songs while you work or shop. A season that, this year, is my prayer. May this season last beyond December 25th. May this season reside in our hearts the whole year long.

With a full and grateful heart, I wish each of you a peaceful, loving, and joyful Merry Christmas. God bless you and your loved ones as He has certainly blessed me. May your heart be filled with love and the true meaning of Christmas today, tomorrow, and forever more. Pray for peace. Amen.

Enjoy the journey of this very Special Day,
Sandy and The Herd

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Ole' Man Cole

On any typical Saturday, I would be at my desk at Chickasaw Technology Products in Oklahoma City, OK by 8AM. I worked at paperwork and proposals and performance reviews until 3PM or so and then I would begin my weekend. I was hired as a consultant for a specific purpose and I felt a personal obligation to complete that purpose to the very best of my ability.

This particular Saturday, however, I was at my desk by 5AM. I worked heartily until 7:30AM when Andy Durco filled the doorway to my office. “Ready?” he asked. “We’ve got a long ride ahead of us.” We left the parking lot within minutes. A cooler in the truck contained tea and Mountain Dew and a grocery bag contained M&M’s and licorice. As far as I was concerned, we were set for our journey.

Five and a half hours later, we pulled into the gated entrance of one of the largest Tennessee Walker breeding facilities in the country. Perhaps the world. Andy was on a quest to find the horse of his dreams and this facility held a particular stallion that Andy had taken an interest in. We had driven from Oklahoma City, OK to the heart of Texas to look at a horse.

Completing the security clearance, we were guided by a man in a motorized cart to an assigned parking spot. The keys for Andy's truck were handed over to this man. We then were chauffeured to the waiting guest lounge to relax and await the arrival of our guide.

While in the lounge, we could watch closed circuit television of horse competitions all over the world. We could drink from the fully stocked beverage cabinets. We could munch on every food imaginable from the fully stocked refrigerator and cupboards. We could rest in massively overstuffed leather chairs. Or we could simply stand and look out at the grounds and try to imagine living in such an opulent world.

Our walk to view the stallion in question took us into a building and down an aisle that was perhaps a quarter mile in length. An aisle with perfectly groomed box stalls on both sides for the entire distance. An aisle with perfectly groomed Tennessee Walkers in those perfectly groomed stalls. All except for one corner stall at the very end of the aisle. A stall that was dark and not so perfectly groomed. A stall which housed a Tennessee Walker and another horse. No water. No food. And two depressed sets of eyes looking out at us.

Andy’s look to me told me not to continue the question that was erupting out of me and had caused me to open my mouth. So, trusting his judgment, I walked on without as much as a word. But I knew we would not leave without dealing with those two creatures. I knew they had not gone unnoticed.

After the stallion presentation we began the walk back down that very same aisle. And ever so casually, as if asking of the weather, Andy said, “So what’s with the two in the corner?” The reply was friendly and honest. Andy had done a good job of befriending the man. “Oh, those two. When the board stops the feed stops.”

Back in Andy’s truck, I once again opened my mouth but stopped short. Andy was already digging in his glove box and I began digging in my briefcase. We proceeded without talking. Our funds were pooled and we left his truck. Security men soon arrived and we asked to be re-admitted. Time spent on walkie-talkies. Questions asked but no answers given. Andy said only that he had his checkbook and wanted to speak to the same man again. Good move, Andy. Slick move, Andy. Smooth move, Andy.

We were once again chauffeured to the guest lounge and soon our guide appeared. All smiles and with a folder of paperwork under his arm. We shook hands and the guide was still all smiles. I stood quietly waiting for the shoe to drop.

Andy explained that he was there to pay up the board for the two in the corner stall and that he would be back in the morning to pick them up and that in the meantime he wanted them moved to clean stalls with water and hay and is there any problem with any of this? The face of the guide turned to sheer amazement and incredible disbelief. You want to buy the two boarders? Not the stallion? You want to do what?

Andy stood quietly as the man processed the information. A straight-on look at the man right in his eyes. No smile on Andy’s face but no wrinkled brow, either. Simply the look of patience while the man processed and re-processed Andy’s intentions and demands. A number was quoted and we all knew it was padded. But the check was written. Hand shaking once again and we were returned to our truck.

We left the premises and began the five and a half hour ride home. Once back in OKC, we both got some rest and we were quietly back on the road at 4AM on Sunday. No guide this time. Plenty of security and only a young Mexican worker to show us to the horses. While loading “the two boarders”, a cat jumped into the trailer, too. A flea infested, skinny, malignant looking cat followed the horses into Andy’s trailer. For a third time that weekend, I opened my mouth to speak but shut it again. “Let the cat come, too”, he said.

So began the new journey of Blaise and Cole. A registered American Paint rodeo champion mare and a registered Tennessee Walker gelding. The two boarders. And, oh yeah, the new journey of Patches, the cat, too.

Several years later, I am at Baylor University Rehab Facility with my dear Andy. We have spent the last week together engrossed in rehab exercises, learning how to transfer, talking about possibilities and dreams, working hard to get even the smallest response from Andy’s broken spinal cord, and trying to be positive. We have spent hours with the physician talking about barns and horses and cats and each time the answer was the same. It was time to make decisions. Time to deal with those animals.

Andy had three horses. One of the horses, Cash, was ill and so we agreed that Cash should be peacefully and humanely allowed to move onto his new life. I was asked to call the vet and have Cash euthanized. Since Andy would be selling his ranch, I also was asked just “to deal with” taking care of Cash after the task was done.

But the other two horses, Andy was adamant that they come to Spring Valley. Refuge Farms had been initiated. On paper, anyway. We still had many, many hours of discussions and planning and creating to do but the name and the Declaration of Purpose was in place. And so Andy looked me right in the eyes just like he did that man in that big breeding barn. No smile on his face but no anger either. Simply a peaceful look as he waited for me to process and accept his proposal.

“You take them”, he said. “You take them to your place and you care for them like they are your own. You were there when we found them. You take them. They are yours now.”

I protested about the old one. The Tennessee Walker was thirty-two years old. It was a sixteen hour ride. In July. It was over a hundred degrees outside. “The old one won’t make it, Andy”, I reasoned.

Impatience now appeared on Andy’s face. “You take them. And don’t ever sell the old one short. Hell, he’ll outlive you and me both.”

It was July of 2002 when Blaise and Cole arrived here at Refuge Farms. Blaise exited the trailer by breaking her halter and knocking me out cold as she reared and somehow got herself out of that trailer. Cole stood quietly and waited for me to come around and get up off the floor to lead him out. But they both made the journey. And Refuge Farms gladly became the home of Andy’s two horses. Horses he loved as much as he had ever loved any horse in his life.

We have spent seven and a half years together. Cole has learned what snow is and that the winters are his good season. Blaise has learned that her days of having a performance purpose are over and she must now find her purpose in herding the blind ones in her pasture. Both have settled in and become favorites of the guests of THE FARM. Both are very easy keepers and almost predictable in their ability to tolerate kids and dogs and noises and surprises. Both are ones that we pull out of the pastures for “hands on time” regardless of the age or horse ability of the visiting human.

Ole’ Man Cole decided it was time to join Andy this week. In his typical fashion, Cole trotted into the barn Tuesday morning and voiced his impatience with me. I had decided to get the Helen Keller side tied and fed before I fed Cole and that was not satisfactory to the old horse. He whinnied several times reminding me that he was waiting . . . waiting . . . patiently waiting . . . Hey! I’m waiting over here!!!

All were tied and eating breakfast on the bitterly cold Tuesday morning when I closed the barn door to head back up to the Old Barn and care for the horses housed there. Ninety minutes later I returned to the barns to let everyone outside. The sun was out and the coldest air of the day during sunrise was past and so it was time to let their days begin.

Ole’ Man Cole was peacefully on his side. No sign of a struggle. No sign of a fight. Mane tucked under his neck. Winter blankets laying smoothing on and under him. Like he was stretched out in the Texas sun. Ole' Man Cole had crossed.

That little gelding leaves quite a legacy behind him. Ninety days from his fortieth birthday. Ninety days from fresh spring grass. Ole’ Man Cole took matters into his own hands once again. Not a horse to conform, Cole had an independent streak in him. Escaping through the gates was his favorite pastime. He loved to look back at me as he sauntered through the gates out into the yard. Only to return to the barn. Just to prove that he could get away with it. No intention of running away. Just showing me he could. He could do what he wanted when he wanted. “It’s that Texas thing in you, Cole”, I would tell him.

Many were touched by this horse. He was a favorite of many. His impact was far reaching. He illustrated endurance and tolerance. He had an insistence on being so close to the mare of his choice that they would be continually touching. His humorous Casanova efforts that never, ever ceased. And his desire to eat. Cole loved his mares and he loved his feed.

But there is one person that he touched especially dear. One person who misses him not only for his presence in the barns and his willingness to eat and talk and be anything we needed him to be with the current guest. One person who feels like she was there when he was born. Or should I say, re-born? One person who misses the smell and the feel of him. Every day. Twice a day. The person that misses him because she could hug him every morning and every night. And in that hug, she knew she was hugging his owner. That big Texan who went by the name of Andy Durco.

Take care of each other, you two! Be peaceful and content together. And save a spot for me.

Some day I will find you both and then we can all hug once again.

Until then, stay close. Don’t wander far from this place. From this heart that loves and misses you both.

Don't cry for the horse
That life was set free

Don't cry for the horse
Now in God's hands
As they dance and they prance
To a heavenly band

They were ours as a gift
But never to keep
As they close their eyes
Forever to sleep

Don't cry for the horse
Love the ones that are here


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

Sunday, December 13, 2009


We MUST meet again!

It had been a tough week. On Monday, June 22nd, dear Addie-Girl was eased to her next life with the help of dear Dr. Brian’s medicines. She seemed fearful to me and so I had asked Miss April to come and stand by her side to give Addie comfort and strength. Miss April did just that. She eased Addie-Girl’s fears and stood strong while Addie reluctantly put her emaciated body down onto the ground.

Dan was here and her burial was swift given the heat and humidity of the day. Out in the pasture, far from human touch, Addie-Girl was placed at rest. Finally. Free of her fears of humans and their mean and aggressive – even thoughtless – ways to her. Finally, this little mare could rest and relax.

That was Monday. On Wednesday, June 24th, a brief departure from THE FARM for less than two hours yielded a pair of Belgians in the corral. A sickly pair of Belgians. Starved and abused beyond my belief. A little mare with a horrible eye tumor and no body mass to speak of. A dangerous mare that swung her head and struck with her front feet in an attempt to keep cruel and pain-generating humans out of their reach of her. And a huge, chocolate Belgian. Kentucky Jack. I knew this horse. I had seen him pull at a few competitions. A Mahoney horse out of Kentucky. Years ago I had tried to buy this horse. But was turned down. “He’s too much for a little girl like you”, I was told.

I took some comfort in the fact that Kentucky Jack had found his way back to me. My energies immediately went to assessing him and formulating a plan for his recovery. Twelve hours later, however, I saw clearly that the best thing I could do for this gentle, chocolate giant of a horse was to help him cross over. His maggots and his hips were just too far gone. His pain was too present. What loss engulfed me!

And so we spent a day of eating feed and hay and drinking cool, clear water. We spent a day of dressing his wounds and stopping those maggots from biting his leg meat and muscle. We spent a day with a big fan on us in the shade and out of the flies. We spent a day singing to the songs on the radio and generating calm and loving touch on his frightened hide. We spent one last day.

That evening, after the sun had gone down, I took him back out to the corral to join the little mare that had waited so patiently for him that entire day. She hollered for him and he rumbled back. When they met, he scratched her with a fierceness that told me he that knew his time had come. He was loving her and passing onto her his strength. Strength to continue without him. He had been her eyes. He had been her protector. He had been her guide. And he was leaving her.

The next day, Friday, June 26th, he left her. And she mourned. We all mourned.
It was a very, very quiet little patch of land that day as we all grieved the loss of Kentucky Jack. I stood in the corral next to him that Friday afternoon and the tears just poured out of me.

What a waste of a marvelous creature! What a kind soul he was to still be gentle and forgiving after the horrible suffering he had been put through at the hands of humans. Sick humans. Humans that, I told him, would burn in hell for what they had done to him. Even Dr. Brian had been affected. “The suffering that horse has been through...”, he said as he hung and shook his head.

So, it had been a tough week. Addie-Girl's crossing. The arrival of the two Belgians in horrible condition. The crossing of Kentucky Jack. And then being left with a mare that would rather kill me than let me touch her and treat her. It was time to withdraw and regain my center, I told myself. I need some time to get past this and then all will be well again. I’ll be okay. I just need some time alone.
I need to grieve.

It was Monday, June 29th when I walked out of the office in mid-morning and saw them walking down the driveway. An elderly couple, a younger couple, and about four children or so. One child small enough to be carried by the Mother. They were walking back from the barn to their waiting vehicles. I walked outside and asked, “May I help you?”

The young man explained that his parents knew of Refuge Farms and thought he and his family would like to see the place while they were in town. I listened politely but I knew my face showed my lack of tolerance for trespassing. I knew my face wasn’t looking as friendly as my voice was attempting to sound.

I took them on a brief tour – only the old barn – and encouraged them to come back during our public hours on July 4th. I explained that the public hours would have volunteers here so they could meet the horses and hear their stories. I tried to be polite but I had no heart in me. I was still deep in grief and my time to heal had been interrupted.

The families left and I went back deep into my hole. After their departure I realized I had not even given them a brochure or asked them to sign the guest book. It had not been a good visit. I had been intruded upon and my grief, I felt, was written plainly on my face. I needed time to heal. I needed time alone.

A couple of days alone and I am beginning to find my center again. I am working with the “Killer Mare” and trying to get her to trust me. Trying to get her to stop tearing the gates down and the hinge pins right out of the wall. Trying to get close enough to get a lead rope on her filthy, puss-coated halter. Trying to get her used to my voice and associate it with shade and fans and feed and hay and water and a fly mask. After only a week or so, it seemed hopeless. But I had promised Kentucky Jack that I would take care of his little mare. And so I persisted. For Kentucky Jack I persisted.

The following week, I looked up at the sound of tires on the gravel driveway. I recognized the car and the family in the car. It was the family that had “intruded” last week. I had a bit of my center back and so when the eldest daughter approached me, I bent down to look her in the face. I glanced at the rest of the family who stood in waiting as she presented me with a card and a gift.

Dad spoke for them. They had sensed I was in grief. They had sensed I was deeply troubled. And so they had gone home to his parents and gone to the Refuge Farms website. There they had seen the black banner for Addie-Girl on the homepage. There they had read about Kentucky Jack. And, upon arriving today, they had seen the two black flags flying here next to the road sign and they had read my words on the road sign. “You’ve had a tough go of it”, he said. “We are sorry for intruding and wanted you to know we respect your privacy and your need to grieve.”

This time we hugged as they departed. I smiled and waved and thanked them for returning. I confirmed his assumption by saying that the week had been one of the worst. But that there had been a purpose to it. I just couldn’t see the purpose yet.

After they left, I sat in Donna’s swing and read the card. It was addressed to “Sandy & The Herd”. The picture on the front was perfect. Absolutely perfect. It showed a little girl pushing up against boulders that were twenty times her size. No, a hundred times her size. She had her feet planted and the determination was written on her little body as she pushed these boulders that any observer knew she could not budge. The message inside said:

"Dear Sandy -
Thank you for welcoming us even though we dropped in unannounced. I read your blog and realized you have been through a lot lately. You may be feeling like the girl in the picture. Just know that even if you can’t move the stone your effort is NOT in vain. God bless!
Your friends, (Dad) & Elaine”

The gift was a small box. I opened it and fresh, new tears flowed. It was a Willow Tree figurine. A young girl in a plain floor length gown. Standing with her head bowed. Her hands holding a single flower. Standing bare footed and in reverence and respect. The title of the piece is “Remember. Always remember.”

I wanted to thank them. I have wanted to thank them every day since that last visit. But even on that second visit, I did not have them sign the guest book so I don’t even know their names! I can’t make out his name on the card and all I know is the wife’s name is Elaine. There were three or four children and their grandparents are from River Falls. That’s the extent of my knowledge of them.

But they touched me beyond belief with their compassion and support. With their gentle and kind ways. They did more for my healing than all of the time I spent alone. I am glad they dropped in unannounced. Glad they disturbed my quiet time for grieving and healing. I treasure their card and the Willow Tree piece is in my curio cabinet. I look at it and remember Addie-Girl and Kentucky Jack. And I marvel at that “Killer Mare” and what she has become. I would love to send them a CD of Laddee's story so they could see the good that did become of that week. Amidst all of that grief and pain and sorrow.

It had been a tough week. But the unexpected kindness of strangers brought me back to my center again. Thank you, Family. Whoever you are. I pray you or your parents read our blogs from time to time. I would love to hear from you so that I may personally tell you of the gift of strength that you gave to me. And I so want your names. Address, too, if you are willing to share it. The final piece of this story is yet to be played out. We must meet again and I must look you in the face and I must say "Thank you"!

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

Sunday, December 06, 2009


A Little Grace Needed

It is a sunny day. Warm, actually, for the time of year. Still brisk compared to what we were enjoyed two weeks ago, though! A day for being outside and completing those last minute tasks before it is truly too cold to be working outside. A day for me to attack this infernal "TO DO" list I have on the counter!

My plans for today included traveling in the early morning to a benefit breakfast at the Zuhrah Shriner's Horse Patrol barn. A quarterly breakfast that I love to attend in support of their Mission and to also, selfishly, give me a chance to see Randy. Remember the 22 year old stallion that we rescued, gelded, and then re-homed with the Zuhrah's? I enjoy the good food, the fellowship, and then I wander to the barns to enjoy the sight of yet another life saved. Randy is thriving and it does my heart good to see such a success.

But my plans for today disappeared upon my waking this morning at 3:04AM. My throat was sore, my head was splitting, and I was freezing cold. A few aspirin, a few more blankets, and I headed back to bed for some rest. The morning feeding routine took me over two hours. A task I typically complete in 90 minutes.

I ran one errand today in support of Laddee, the Little Belgian Mare. Then I headed home to clean barns and rest. The fever is sitting at right around 101 degrees and my body feels like a balloon with a slow leak. To say my legs are weak is an understatement.

So, I need a little grace from you today. I have many things to tell you but a body that is demanding rest, orange juice, and warmth. With a little TLC, I will be restored and then back with a story to tell you.

Take care! Eat well. Sleep well. And be good to yourselves!

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

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