Sunday, April 03, 2011


The Bravest Woman I Know

It was just about three years ago that I traveled only ninety miles north of Refuge Farms to find a building for a class I was attending. The class was on Large Animal Rescue Techniques. I was attending to learn concepts and theories. Not yet ready for detailed breakdowns of knots and pulley systems, I was looking for the general outline of how to get a horse out of a well. A ditch. An overturned horse trailer. A ravine. Or a corner in the barn.

The class was two days in length and by the end of the class, I handed my business card to one of the ladies who had sat at my table for those two days and said,
"If you are ever in my neck of the woods, stop by. I'd like to introduce you to The Herd."

Time passed. In fact, almost a full year past. Easter Sunday was here and with it came the rescue of Quarter Horse, Appaloosa Mare, and the horse we called The Old Dude. Three days after Easter Sunday, I was cleaning out the trailer from the weekend miles and a truck that I did not recognize pulled into the driveway. Hesitated. Then drove further into the property. The Old Dude was in the grass - on his side - and I suspected the truck was gathering information to report me to the sheriff for starving my horses.

But no, instead of reporting me, out of the truck came this woman. Cigarette dangling from her mouth, flannel shirt on her back, and sturdy blue jeans on her legs. Her first words to me were, "You said I could stop by if I was ever in your neck of the woods. And I was in Eau Claire so I thought I'd stop by."

The woman and I talked for a few minutes. While we talked, her eyes kept traveling to The Old Dude in the grass. Finally, she wandered over to him and just stood looking at him. The horse was so weak he made no attempt to even turn away from her. The horse didn't care. He was weak, the sun was warm, and he thought that maybe, just maybe, he might live through this mess that had become his life.

I'm guessing it was a good, solid ten minutes later that the woman walked over to me and said, "I don't know what's happened to that horse, but that is one fine horse you've got there."

Odd, I thought, to look over Babee Joy and Jeri-Ann and Josephina. To look over the big, fat, healthy ones and to say that this nearly dead skeleton of a horse was a fine horse. But, you see, the connection had already happened. These two were already recognizing themselves in each other.

We spent another thirty minutes together. Wandering into the pastures and meeting a majority of The Herd. Her criticizing me for allowing these horses to get so fat. And also instructing me on how to improve my fence, how to improve my manure storage, and how to improve the way I handled the big horses. This woman wasn't critical. No, she was just out there. No airs and no artificiality to this human being. This woman was as she presented herself. As she would tell me later in a telephone conversation, "What you see is what you get with me." And I respected her for her courage to be so real.

Before she left that first day, she spent a bit more time with the near-dead horse I called The Old Dude. This time, when she returned to me she told me, "You gotta change his name. There's nothing old about him." The Old Dude soon became simply Dude. And once again, she told me, "That's a really nice horse you've got there. What are you planning on doing with him?"

My response to her was to tell her that my plans were to see if I could save his life. Beyond that, I could not see. Right now, I was just trying to get him strong enough to stand for longer than three minutes.

She climbed back into her truck and told me that she'd see me around sometime. And then she was gone. I really didn't think too much of the visit except that I had a feeling I could grow to like that salty woman. The woman with rough edges. The woman with truth written on her face. The woman of few words.

Fast forward a year and Dude is healthy and ready to be re-homed. I advertised this horse in newsletters, sent letters to riding clubs, talked to Paint Clubs, and no one - not one single person! - inquired about this horse. No one was interested in the white faced, blue-eyed horse named Dude. No one except this woman.

She and her family were about to move, so some time needed to pass, but she would be interested in adopting Dude, if I thought she was good enough, she said. Did I trust her with this horse?

I had come to know the woman and indeed, I did trust her with this horse. Any horse! She was a woman of good character and loyalty. She understood the ways of a horse and took fine care of the animals that she was responsible for. Yes, I trusted her with Dude. Was she interested?

A brief span of two months later and Dudely was on his way to his new home. With Wanda. In the trailer with Dudely was ClydeMare who Wanda would foster so that Dudely would not be alone and also to help rebuild this elderly half-starved mare into a healthy state once more. If anyone would have the patience, the dedication, and the willingness to work at it every day, Wanda was the one to restore ClydeMare. And Wanda was the one to adopt Dudely.

That day was a day of mixed emotions. Dudely had been in these barns for eighteen months. A year and a half. He had come back from near death and had exposed his severely broken jaw to us. The horse had recovered from the surgery to restore his jaw and his gelding at seventeen years of age. This horse had learned how to be a horse in the pasture with other horses. He had been frightened, but soon learned that he was safe in and out of our barns. Dudely had settled in and become a part of The Herd, in his own way.

To find the courage to unload Dudely and leave him in someone else's care took just one look at the two of them together. Wanda and Dude were destined to find each other. He walked up to her and left me behind as if he knew exactly where he belonged. Not one look back at me. Dude followed Wanda as she showed him every fence post outlining his new pasture. I was now the outsider. And my heart filled as I witnessed such a perfect fit between a horse and a human.
"A good match", I told people. "This was a good match."

Later that fall, I mentioned to Wanda that it would be spectacular if she would ride Dudely into the arena at the Gala. Would she consider it?


Weeks later, after I had bargained and pleaded and reasoned my heart out to the woman, she said: "I'm not a people kind of a person, Sandy. I really don't like being around people. And to be the center of attention at something like that just makes my stomach roll! But I'll do it. Hear me, though. I'm not doing it for you, Sandy. And I'm not doing it because of me or something I need to learn. I'm doing it for Dude. He needs the chance to show off how good he looks. I'm doing this thing for Dude."

And she did. And he did. It was a magical moment that I will cherish for as long as I am on this earth. The perfectly matched human and her horse made an appearance at the Gala that brought many to their feet and to tears. I could not have been prouder of Dude or Wanda.

The winter was past and her horses had done well. The care they had received was better than what most horses dream of! They were brushed at least once per day and sometimes twice per day. They were fed and had a clean water barrel every single day. They were given choice hay. And they were sheltered in the cold. Their blankets were kept clean and dry. And they were de-wormed on the date they were scheduled to be. Both horses flourished.

And Wanda? Well, she would call and talk to me about her "magic horse". About the horse that gave her a reason to put air in her lungs. About the horse that she loved like mad. This woman and this horse were a unit. Together they were one, solid, knowing unit. They both worked their magic on each other. They were healing each other. At times, Wanda would simply say, "I just love that horse, Sandy. I just love him."

Just a week ago, I received a text message that puzzled me. It took two days of talking before I understood enough of the situation to realize that action needed to be taken. Actions that I did not necessarily agree with and actions that I would have never, ever dreamed would be requested of me, but actions that Wanda expressed to me herself. And so I did what she asked. I went and took ClydeMare and Dudely back.

It seems that Wanda has some health issues. And those health issues prohibit her from being with her horses alone. Unfortunately, there seems to not be a support system for her to allow her to spend time with her horses, and love them, and groom them, and heal from them. Unfortunately, it seems the decision was made that Wanda needed to "get rid of" her horses.

I did as Wanda requested. I didn't like it then and I don't like it now. The slumped over little woman that I left standing in that driveway was severed. Her heart was broken into little pieces. To load Dudely into the trailer and close the door on him took monumental strength on her part. She did it. But she was now the "Old One". Her face showed the pain of her loss. And her shoulders showed the weight of having to give him up.

On Thursday of this past week, Dudely and ClydeMare (Sophie, as she is now called) returned to Refuge Farms for re-homing. To find another home for each of them and to help them adjust to another handler and different water and new hay and different ways. The horses will survive. They are nervous and a bit unfriendly right now. And that's understandable. They want to go home. They want to see and hear and feel that familiar woman who has cared for them so well this past year.

On Thursday of this past week, I witnessed bravery beyond words. To give up the other half of yourself because of things out of your control. To give up your horse when you love and cherish that horse. To give him up trusting he will land well and that someone else will know about his jaw and his tendencies. To give him up to perhaps never touch or see him again.

On Thursday of this past week, I came to know this woman again. Yes, she is still salty. Yes, she still says what's on her mind in plain, direct ways. Yes, she still tells you how to correct your mistakes. And yes, she still doesn't listen too well. But this woman is brave. She has no control over her health, it seems, and so as a result of things out of her control, she must surrender Dude.

I hugged her and tried not to cry. She told me she needed to stay "tough". "But", she says, "this is a hard one. This one is going to take a while."

Wanda is the bravest woman I know. And I cherish her friendship, her criticisms, and her ways. But most of all, I'll do my very best with Dudely to insure that she knows he is safe and well cared for. And maybe, when her health is restored, I will work with her to find another horse that she can love. Not as much as Dudely or in the same way as Dudely. But another horse to brush and smell and feed and talk to.

Please say a prayer for Wanda. That she is healed on all fronts. And that she finds a way to survive.

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

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