Sunday, August 29, 2010


A Bed of Roses

Note: Last Sunday, this blog was created to tell you of Laddee's crossing. But then the letter from Dr. Anne was received. And her words touched me so deeply that I replaced my original blog with Dr. Anne's message. So this, my friends, is my original blog. There are things in this blog I feel you must know. So please bear with me as I speak to you of Laddee, the Little Belgian Mare just one more time . . .

Laddee, the Little Belgian Mare fulfilled her destiny during the pre-dawn hours of Friday, August 20th. Laddee allowed her spirit to move on and left her body to die. And she did this in her own way.

Without any of those who loved her surrounding her, in the quiet of the night, Laddee crossed when no one was there to sing to her. No one was there to plead with her to stay. A technician was with her to insure her airway was open but those who had supported her and sustained her in these past months were not there with her. Laddee crossed when no one was there to try to save her. Laddee crossed in her own way.

The day was spent sitting with her and telling the stories of her. Laughing at how she would drag me around. Laughing at how she refused to cooperate those first few months. Sad that her anger and striking had been necessary behaviors she had needed to learn in order to survive. And then laughing once again at how spoiled and demanding of love she had become. How she had truly and completely become "The Princess". Laddee helped us heal the wound of her loss by giving us stories of her to tell. She healed us, that mare, in her own way.

When everyone was busy with the business of the day, I spent quiet time with her. I uncovered her and cleaned her. I wiped her with damp towels and brushed every inch of her that I could reach. I washed her face and cleaned her mouth and her ears. I removed the tape from her neck and used a fresh towel to close her airway. I prepared her for her journey as best I could. Singing to her and doing my best to be strong for her.

When her body was prepared, I stood by her and looked at her. So peaceful. So shiny. So blonde and soft coated. So majestic and proud. So dignified and so very beautiful. It was then that I realized that her radio was not on. So I turned on her fan and her radio. The silence from the radio made me think that I needed to adjust the tuning but then . . . the guitar chords of a song began. A song I did not recognize. A country song by a "Band Perry". So I stood by M'Laddee and listened to the words . . .

If I die young, bury me in satin
Lay me down on a bed of roses
Sink me in the river at dawn
Send me away with the words of a love song

Lord make me a rainbow, I'll shine down on my mother
She'll know I'm safe with you when she stands under my color
Go with peace and love and gather up your tears
Keep 'em in your pocket and save them for a time
When you're really gonna need them

The sharp knife of a short life
Well, I've had just enough time

Standing in that stall with her, I felt her presence and her closeness to me stronger than I had ever felt them before. Those words, of all words, were magically flowing over the airwaves as I stood looking at her. Those words were meant for her. My heart burst with the love of her and the joy of hearing her words.

As the song concluded, I covered this little mare with cloth and thanked her for being in our lives. I thanked her for showing us the depth of her transformation and the sheer power of her love. And I thanked her for enduring the pain and horrendous suffering that was needed to get her to these barns. I thanked her for giving me her tender heart and I smiled as I remembered the walk we had taken just the day before . . . .

Laddee and I had headed to the back fields as we always did. The fields where there were trees and garden plots and geese and grasses of all kinds and even more places to find fresh, sweet weeds. But on this particular Thursday morning, M'Laddee wanted to stretch her legs. We traveled farther than we had ever traveled before! Well beyond the normal paths, we went farther than the weather station! Beyond the corn fields and into the soy beans.

In one area, we found a freshly plowed field and she loved it! She dug her feet in and we flew across that field. She put her nose into the earth and smelled it deeply. Her now dirty head went up into the breeze! You could see she was remembering the smell of freshly plowed fields. It was then that I knew she had been a plow horse somewhere in her lifetime. You could see the recognition in her face.

We found a corn stalk with a freshly ripened ear of corn to pick. Laddee loved the taste of that stolen ear of corn and then back on our journey we went! Over to new fields where there was sand to tread on. More smelling and then onward again. What a journey we had that day! Farther and longer than we had ever walked before. I was exhilarated by her energy and promised to take her back to these new places again on our next walk.

Fresh tears came as I realized we would never walk those fields again. She would never nudge us to say, "Ahem. You are standing there and I am standing here so use your hands, please, to touch me." She would never enjoy the lovingly prepared apples and pears and peaches with her food. And she would never again feel the loving touch of her healer, Dr. Anne.

Oh, Laddee, we cry for you! We love you so and are so proud of you! So encouraged by your strength and your stamina! So unprepared to have you leave us so suddenly and unexpectedly. So unprepared for the complete emptiness now here without you.

Last night, a new tradition was begun here at Refuge Farms. A new tradition to help us all heal after the loss of one of our own. A tradition of healing.

We gathered yesterday afternoon and spent time with the living ones. We fed them and brushed them and played with them. And, of course, fed them treats. Then we turned them out for the nighttime of picking the fresh grass. And we watched as they rolled and ate and moved as a herd. We marveled at their beauty and grace. And we talked of Laddee.

Stories of her flew out of all of us. We shared our awe of her and told our fondest memories. We talked of her and we did this as we ate. We ate dinner together while talking of her. One said, "This is what it is all about. The love. Sharing the love." And so, Laddee, you've continued teaching us, even in your crossing. You've taught us how to grieve. To share the sorrow and the stories with each other at a Memory Meal. And in that sharing, to begin to heal. You have taught us yet another lesson, M'Laddee. In your own way.

I could write volumes of the stories and the teachings of this thrown away horse. But today, I must just say that she is crossed. Her mane is flowing and her eyes can see. She is with her beloved Jack but will wait for her Handsome, as well. She is whole again. And there is no longer a need for her to be a warrior. Laddee can now relax. Finally. And simply be Laddee, the Little Belgian Mare.

We buried Laddee right next to Frances Andrew and next to him for a reason. You see, I know that this little mare will change us. I instinctively knew that a year ago but I did not see the changes nor do I yet see the full impact of her presence. I know she will change us. Change our missions. Change our organization. Change how we do things with these horses. Change us. This mare was here for a purpose. A distinct and definite purpose. This horse had a destiny and it was to be here.

The extent of her influence and even the purpose of her presence I have not even guessed at yet. But I know that her full meaning will come. In time. I know, though, like I know my name, that this horse was destined to be here. Here to teach us. So next to Frances Andrew, the horse that started it all, was the only place to bury her.

Late on the evening of her crossing, I ventured out to her in the darkness. I found her by the smell of the freshly turned earth. I recalled our walk in the fields just the day before and the joy she took from digging her feet deep into the freshly turned earth. I cried as I thought of her now beneath that fresh earth. I cried for her and then I talked with her. I thanked her again for her time here and I asked her to stay close for a while. Help us heal, I asked. And show us your purpose. Loud and clear. Show us what it is that we are to learn from you, Laddee. Show us. In your own way.

And then I placed a rose on her. Just like that song said, I laid her down on a bed of roses . . .

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Lessons from Laddee

Laddee, the Little Belgian Mare fulfilled her destiny during the pre-dawn hours of Friday, August 20th. Laddee allowed her spirit to move on and left her body to die. And she did this in her own way.

Without any of those who loved her surrounding her, in the quiet of the very early morning, Laddee crossed when no one was there to sing to her. No one was there to plead with her to stay. A technician was with her to insure her airway was open but those who had supported her and sustained her in these past months were not there with her. Laddee crossed when no one was there to try to save her. Laddee crossed in her own way.

One of Laddee's strongest and heartiest supporters was her surgeon, Dr. Anne Nicholson. Dr. Anne became her friend as well as her medical healer. I witnessed Laddee recognize the sound of Anne's voice and walk to her, place her head in Anne's chest, and take comfort in just the presence of this talented woman.

I have come to respect and admire Dr. Anne. And I am eternally grateful for her treatment, her love, and her cares of Laddee. But also for her compassion and tolerance of me. My eternal questions and challenges. My tears that just would not stop at the slightest mention of Laddee and her tumors. And my fears of not being able to care for Laddee as she needed.

As the heat of the summer created intolerable conditions here at THE FARM, Laddee became even closer to Dr. Anne. And in her kindness, Dr. Anne has written her thoughts of Laddee to share with all of you. Read for yourself the talent, the compassion, the dedication, and the gentleness of this Human Being.

Thank you, Dr. Anne, for being there for Laddee. The destiny of Laddee would not have been complete without you. Blessings to you, my friend. And gratitude for the unending, compassionate care of M'Laddee.

Princess Laddee

Things Laddee taught me:
• Hope
• Patience
• Compassion – especially for people
• The power that one individual can have
• Determination
• Selflessness

My journey with Laddee:

July 2009: When I first met Laddee we were being filmed by a camera crew while we examined her. She was large and thin and angry and obstinate and smelled terrible. We had to sedate her for her to be calm enough for us to examine her and her eye at all. She threw her feet and head in distaste for me and what I was doing. We discovered that she had, not a “simple tumor” by her eye, but a bad tumor (epitheliod angiosarcoma), that had metastasized to other places on her head. She also had evidence of another tumor type (squamous cell carcinoma) on the third eyelid of her “good” eye.

With much thought and deliberation, we took her to surgery and removed the bad eye, the third eyelid of the good eye, and a lymph node. Now it was time for anesthesia recovery. Drafts can be hard enough to manage for recovery from anesthesia – but now we have a blind, angry, untrusting Belgian. Yikes! Well, that was the first time Laddee showed me her fight. She recovered without problems and without injury to herself or anyone else.

The aftercare was filled with sedation and bandage changes and a bit of extra wound care on our part – a lot more patience and work on Sandy’s part.

November 2009: Laddee was present and a star at the Refuge Farms Gala. I had to leave the Gala to do emergency surgery while her story was told and the audience teared up in the arena of the Equine Center. But it was my time to shine with her a few days later. The plan was to debulk the tumor below her right ear and implant Cisplatin beads in a hope to reduce the tumor burden.

Surgery was long, but went fairly well. This time, the surgery was performed standing. At the end of surgery, Laddee began to make a lot of respiratory noise. We gave her some time, but she continued to have increased effort breathing. Endoscopy showed laryngospasm – with only a small opening to her airway. Evaluation of her guttural pouches gave us a possible reason why – more enlarged lymph nodes from metastasis. A temporary tracheotomy was performed to allow Laddee to breathe.

At this point, Laddee’s personality towards me was one of tolerance. She was in the fight to live, but luckily for me, she had stopped fighting me. Now, I definitely won’t say that she liked me, but she tolerated me. And her behavior in the hospital was significantly improved from her first visit.

She had clearly touched a place in Sandy’s heart by this point. They were extremely dedicated to each other. And watching that bond was enough to keep me in the fight too. Sandy patiently learned and practiced how to change the tracheotomy tube. Before Laddee was discharged from the hospital, I read Sandy’s vows to Laddee.

December 2009: I was off studying, but Laddee returned to the hospital and was found to have enough airflow through her nostrils to have her tracheotomy tube removed. What a relief for us all.

May 2010: Laddee began having blood-tinged discharge from her nose. Endoscopy revealed that opening to her airway was OK, but there was worsening of the tumors in her guttural pouches. Unfortunately, there was no treatment that would improve that area. But, Laddee was happy and in good health otherwise. Her weight and coat were perfect!

At the end of the month, I was fortunate enough to travel to Refuge Farms with my mom. We both had a wonderful visit and were delighted in seeing Laddee and Handsome together in love.

June 2010: Medically what happened was that a permanent tracheostomy was performed on an elective basis to prevent worsening of Laddee’s difficulty breathing. The surgery itself went well. But Laddee being Laddee, things didn’t go as planned afterwards. The sutures of the tracheostomy didn’t hold so the surgery was revised. The sutures didn’t hold that time either. Creativity led us to try many different things to keep the trachea open; human rib-spreaders ordered on eBay became the most useful tool.

From June 18th until August 20th Laddee spent more time at the U of M Equine Center with us than at Refuge Farms. That is when I really got to know Laddee for who she was.

This is where it becomes so hard to put things into words. So, while this won’t be eloquent in any way here as some snippets of what comes to mind.

She knew and treated people as individuals.
• She knew that Sonja would spoil her, call her “Princess” and feed her
treats. She would paw at the door when she heard Sonja to demand that
• She knew that Pam would scratch her and would let Laddee use her as a
scratching post to rub her huge head on. This is something she reserved for
• She was sweet to Rosalie and let her brush her and bathe her. She just ate up that attention.
• She taught Robert to love horses. Here, this big, blind Belgian knew exactly how to be with a vet student who wasn’t so comfortable around horses. He developed confidence with her friendship.
• She knew me. Her ears would perk up and she’d turn when she heard my voice. She was so patient with me and would eventually let me do almost anything with her in her stall – as long as it was just the two of us. I could change her retractors, clean and examine her trachea, and make any adjustments without much fuss. She wasn’t usually so patient with others. But she had me trained as well – I would get her the hay fines she loved and the butt scratches she wanted on her command.
• How do I even put into words how she was with Sandy? It was the purest form of love I’ve ever seen.

Laddee helped me recognize the power of love and caring for humans. I would like to think that loving and caring for horses has always come easy for me. I’m not always good at recognizing the same needs of people. Laddee brought such a varied group of people together and helped me to get to know them as individuals, like she did.

I have been so fortunate to develop my friendship with Sandy over this journey, and to let her teach me too. Hugs from friends feel good, especially when they are from the heart. The pureness and honesty of Sandy and all she does for horses and people shows in the people who she attracts. The compassion and openness Sandy has for others is amazing. This makes other amazing people such as Pam, Rosalie, and Tracy flock towards her. That loving, giving spirit is truly moving, eye-opening and motivating for me.

So thank you Laddee, for being yourself and trusting in others who had no agenda other than to bring you health and happiness. You brought joy and hope to so many people. Thank you Laddee for showing me how to have more compassion for people as individuals, and inspiring me to do the same. And thank you Laddee for being the catalyst of my friendship with Sandy.

Laddee, I love you and will miss you dearly. The only comfort your crossing has provided is the hope that I have you as an angel watching over me.

Anne Nicholson
August 22, 2010

Sunday, August 01, 2010


"She Is A Warrior!"

As I turned over the Refuge Farms 2010 Calendar to display August, there she was. In all of her misery and puss. With all of her flies and pain. In all of her fright and anger. And with all of her hunger and thirst. There she was. Laddee. A little Belgian mare dropped off in the corral with her best friend, Jack.

A swift twenty-four hours after being dropped off in a strange place with strange water and strange humans around her, the one she depended on and the one she trusted was gone. Jack no longer took her to safety or walked with her into the shade. Jack no longer made noises in the water to show her where the stock tank was sitting. And Jack no longer scratched her mane to comfort and love her.

This blind mare was alone. Frightened. Starved. Fearful. And battling a draining, pussy, fly infested tumor on her eye that created pain and itching all at the same time.

From the very beginning, this little mare was controversial. Do we operate on the eye? Do we put her down? Do we treat her at all given her tendency to put people in the air and strike out with her front feet? Do we spend a penny on this horse that appears to be a danger to any human who ventures into her space? Or do we simply put the "Killer Mare" down and move on?

The decision of whether to operate was posed to four people. Of the four, one answer was to operate only if it would cure her. If surgery would not cure her, don't operate. One answer was "put her down" before I could even finish the presentation of the case. This reply came after the first utterance of the word "cancer". Another answer was a question, actually. "Would she live long enough to heal from the surgery?" And the fourth answer was the one I rested upon. It was yet another question, but this person's guidance has steadied me throughout this entire past year with Laddee. The woman simply asked, "Does she have to be a healthy horse to be loved? Can't you love her if you make her healthier? And not all the way to healthy?"

Laddee's initial eye surgery healing process was not complicated from my perspective but was made complicated by the fact that the horse was not yet trusting of those humans around her. So treatment of the wound required Dr. Brian to stop by THE FARM so we could sedate her in order to clean the wound well and be safely in front of her. Given that huge head and those powerful legs, it seemed the only safe and sensible way to insure a healing horse and whole, unbroken humans.

Laddee flourished. The controversy seemed to diminish a bit. No more "put her down" talk. I observed as some simply stood quietly while looking at the horse with the growing bumps on her skull. I knew the thoughts. I knew all of the thoughts very well. Every single day I ventured there and discussed with myself the pros and cons of treating this horse. And then I relied on my gut. And I chose to listen to Andy's guiding words once again. When I asked him countless times how I would know what to do, he just repeated this answer: "Keep your eye on the horse, Sandy." And so with that guidance, I chose to make her healthier.

Her 2009 Refuge Farms Gala presence was the gift of a lifetime to me. And, I think, to a few others. To be able to proudly march her into that arena and have her walk with me on a lead rope! To have her in with the other horses and safely eating hay and listening to the new noises around her! To look over at her and see the body filling in and her response to the voices that she recognized! That evening, once again, it seemed that the controversy over her was diminished a bit.

Winter passed with stories of her first winter blanketing experience. Her love of feed. And her patient work and gradual winning of the love of Handsome. Many began to ask of the mare and even visit the mare. She became a fixture and we all seemed to forget the word that created all the controversy in the first place. Cancer.

Spring arrived and Laddee journeyed to the Menomonie Middle School with Handsome. Over seven hundred children visited those horses in their corral area. Hundreds of hands touched this mare. Never, ever did I dream that in such a short time she would come to trust and love and relax around us. The power of forgiveness was illustrated in grand fashion that day. The power of healing. And the power of her determination.

Spring brought increased pressure on her windpipe and the decision was once again in my face. Do I treat the mare or not? Several new voices were polled this time. Some said don't trach her. Others said that she must be trach'd. One person, again, said the words that I rested upon. Those words were simply that it is our job to support her until she no longer wants to go on. To support her in her fight against this disease. And to give her more time with Handsome and all of us. To match her determination for as long as she is so determined.

Controversy swirled all around me. Telephone calls to ask what were my intentions. Emails to support the cares provided for this mare. And that solid, stoic quiet from some. The sound of quiet disapproval.

But trach her we did. And Laddee is recovering and showing us all her new found personality once again. This mare is the most loving horse I have known in quite some time. If you stand by her and don't touch her, she nudges you. Reminds you that she is there and that you are (Ahem!) idle. She has come to love carrots and apples and pears and peaches and grapes. All foods that she had no idea even existed a year ago. And she recognizes the voices of those that love and care for her. She is a 1,800 pound puppy on a lax rope walking the grounds with me.

And most notably, she now lifts her head to "Princess". You see, the name "Princess" was given to her by one of her care givers. And it so fits this horse as she blossoms into her new life! She is, indeed, now Princess Laddee. And she could not be more appreciative of the life given to her.

Just last weekend, I was at the University of Minnesota Equine Center with Pam and Rosalie and Dr. Anne and Dr. Jose and Robert. We were all standing and recalling, once again, the transformation of this horse. From the "Killer Mare" to "Princess Laddee". From one who did not tolerate human touch to one who now craves human touch. From one who was to many "dead already" to one who is now alive. Totally alive.

We talked of her travels and her solid determination to heal and move forward. To not give the disease a glance but to work with it and around it. To live in spite of it. To be determined to live now and rejoice now. Dr. Jose said it perfectly when he said:

"Sandy. Oh, Sandy. It was a year ago that she came to us for the removal of her eye and that tumor. A year ago! And many thought she had only two to three months to live. And it has been over a year! A year, Sandy! She is a warrior! This horse is a true warrior. She will fight to live."

Controversy swirls around her. Yes, I am aware and I know. I listen and I watch. And I see the magic this horse creates in Pam and Rosalie and Sonja and Toni and the little girls that brush her and the total strangers that stop by to meet her. I see this horse win people over with her first meeting. And I see people stand in awe as we explain her odds and how well she appears to be doing a full year down the line. I hear of people who ask to see her because they have heard of her. I talk with people who recall her from a full year ago and stand and smile as they see the quiet in her and the size of her now.

Do we treat her? Yes, we treat her. How long? Until "she isn't Laddee anymore" is the response that I'm resting on. The woman who knows her the best answered my question of how will I know when she is tired? How will I know when it is time? Dr. Anne looked at me and calmly replied, "You will know when she isn't Laddee anymore."

How interesting that one year ago as we created the Refuge Farms 2010 Calendar that we would select to place Laddee to appear on the August tab. How interesting that her face appears as I flip the calendar to August amongst this year's meetings of plannings and challenges of treating horses. How interesting that Laddee, as she stands beautifully today, wins over new friends every time one meets her. How interesting that I am more sure now than I have ever been that treating this horse is exactly the right thing to do.

As you turn to August in your Refuge Farms 2010 Calendar, read the words under Laddee's picture. The heartfelt words of one full year ago:

"She has cancer. She is a dier, yes, but we will care for her like any other horse that comes into these barns. We will care for her like she is the most special creature God has ever created. Because, you see, she is."

Controversial? You bet. But before you say anything either way, come and spend some time touching this mare. Stand quietly next to her as she soaks up the breeze of the fan. Talk with her as she eats her feed. Rub her ears. Rub her face and have her fall asleep in your arms. Brush her mane and feel her freeze at the very feel of it. Stand and observe she and Handsome scratching each other. Then, after you have experienced her magic, then speak with me about treating this mare. And we will talk of controversy at its very, very best.

Enjoy the journey of each and every day,
Sandy and The Herd and Laddee, the Little Belgian Mare

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