Sunday, August 13, 2017

When EUTHANASIA IS NOT AN OPTION!

She started off like many of the posts I see every day in Facebook groups. “Why do I read these?” I said to myself. I read them because I love animals and I like to help them. Sometimes this is a gift, and sometimes it seems like a punishment.

The photo was of a little chihuahua. Her little grey muzzle indicated her age. Her right eye was blue and cloudy, likely from cataracts. Her left eye was completely swollen shut and bulging with inflammation. The streams of tears were visible in the photo. I was already upset. I started to read…

She needs $2000 and fast for vet care for this dog and some other ones. She can’t qualify for care credit. She opened a new credit card but the limit is $300 and it’s already maxed out. She has a GoFundMe but she can’t post it here. What should she do? How can she get a loan with low interest? Her vet retired and no new vet will do a payment plan. These are rescue dogs and she’s doing her best. No rude comments and no judging!

My heart sunk and I felt the warm spread of anger in my neck. Either she’s trying to scam people for money or she is legitimately in over her head with all these dogs (there are SEVEN in her profile pic) and they are suffering without the proper care. I looked at the picture again and remembered what it felt like to have a simple corneal abrasion. The pain, the tearing, the light sensitivity. I commented, “What is the diagnosis on your chihuahua’s eyes?”, wondering why she knew she needed $2000. A minute later a response, “I don’t know that’s why I need a vet appointment. She has diabetes, cushings, and chronic pancreatitis. I have some ointment but it’s something else- poor old girl.”

I went from trying to think of a way to help this dog, to just plain sadness. This woman could win the powerball drawing and spend every cent of it on this dog and the dog would still be in pain, still ill, unwell, miserable as her little body just slowly gives out. Her eyes most likely hurt constantly from the pressure of glaucoma, cataracts and some kind of current infection/uveitis. Her body doesn’t metabolize food well and she battles nausea and recurrent diarrhea from pancreatitis. She shivers and feels tired and can’t regulate her body temperature well. She has to get injections every day. What kind of life is that for a little dog that doesn’t understand why she hurts? Why her sight is fading? Why she is tired, hungry, cold or in pain?

Then I said the stupidest thing you can say on the internet to strangers. I said, “I know you are heartbroken about your sweet girl, but maybe with all that’s going on with her and the amount of care and expensive treatments she requires, and the lack of funds, it would be kindest to euthanize her. Please don’t let her suffer.”

“That is the rudest thing you could ever say!”

“Are you serious?”

“She just needs some eye ointment and she will be fine! Don’t KILL her for no reason!”

…it goes on…

The owner replies,
“She has a great quality of life except for the eye thing! I would never let an animal suffer. EUTHANASIA IS NOT AN OPTION”

Ok, I get it. This is where we are and who we are dealing with. It’s too late. I’ve done some judging based on her replies to me and others and she’s the “save them no matter what” type. To some, this seems valiant, honorable, the right thing to do. Life trumps all else. To me, it’s basically abusive. Euthanasia should ALWAYS be an option. Many will not agree with my sentiments or my opinions, because everyone has different life experiences. That’s ok.

Loving animals is my first memory. My entire childhood I wanted to be Snow White and have wild creatures come to me from the woods. I feel alone in a room full of people, never, in a room full of animals. I live and work with them every day, personally and professionally. My belief is that when and if we choose to have pets, or even livestock for that matter, we take on the burden/responsibility of deciding when and how they will die. Unless they fade gently away in their sleep, and most do not, we see them through their entire lifespan. We are their stewards. We feed them and love them and pet them and teach them and give them shelter, and they give us innumerable gifts in return. Gifts that mold our souls and change our hearts in ways that we can never repay them for. 

 The last, final, and best gift we can give them, is a swift, peaceful, and dignified death if the need arises. Unfortunately for us, it usually does. It’s the hardest decision ever and it never gets any easier, but it’s entirely our responsibility to make the decision based on the best interests of the animal- NOT based on our feelings of loss, or unrealized selfishness, or plain old sadness and loneliness. I vehemently disagree with the ones that say, “they will tell you when it’s time”. Bullshit. Animals are instinctively programmed to survive, not look or act weak, to remain stoic for as long as possible. Let me assure you that we are too dumb to read their tiny signals, the subtle changes in their routine and body language, before they are often completely chronically miserable. I am as guilty as anyone of letting a dog go on too long because she was still “eating and wagging her tail”. I cringe at the thought of the pain she bore because I was unable, and perhaps unwilling, to come to terms with her dying.

Regardless of the amount of money she gets or the number of specialists she sees, that dog isn’t going to improve to a quality of life that she deserves. She deserves to be happy, pain free, and unencumbered by constant digestive issues and volatile blood glucose levels. She has THREE chronic and basically terminal illnesses at her advanced age- even discounting the eye issues.

An old guy who worked years on a racetrack once told me, “honey, dead don’t hurt”, and as callous as I thought he was being at the moment, it was just the opposite. They shouldn’t hurt, not a minute longer than they have to. Animals don’t make plans for the next day, so much of the beauty and attraction we have to them is that they live purely in the moment and they love in the moment too. It’s the curse of the human race to know that we are going to die and spend our lives fearing death.


That little dog just knows that she hurts, all over, and that she can’t see well. She definitely deserves the apparent love of her owner/rescuer. I just wish that lady knew that the best way to show that love, is to let her go. If you ever catch yourself saying, “Euthanasia is not an option”, it’s time to reevaluate your intentions. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Somerset Horses Part II


From my vantage point at the gate I could figure out what the order of operations was. The deputies were out on an ATV with buckets of grain trying to lure the horses closer to the barnyard. The night before, round bales had been unrolled out in the fields to get everyone some hay. Unfortunately, starving horses don't want to leave their new food source, but the lure of grain was working for some.

I wondered if some of them had ever had grain in their lives. 

We let another group of horses through the gate and everyone was dispatched with halters to catch them and do some sorting. Yellow tags in the mane were pretty critical, green tags were in a bit better condition, black tags were the ones she wanted to keep. 

I remembered what my Vet said. That a little over a year ago, all of these horses had been in fine shape, well fed and cared for. It actually WAS a rescue. I glanced at the fence to find her face, Anne is her name. She looked anxiety filled as she spoke to a man oddly dressed in khakis and a sport coat. His loafers surely soiled by the cow manure mud we were all standing in. 

I understood her desire to start a rescue, her desire to save them all. Many horse lovers will express a desire to rescue horses from auctions and slaughter trucks and retire old ones to green pastures and give unsound ones a place to softly land. But NO ONE can adequately care for 100+ horses. I work on a farm with 34 horses. We have FIVE full time people just for the 35 on our farm and still sometimes need part time help. The difference in Anne, and the average horse person, is the ability to reason between adequate care, and a hoarding situation. Somewhere, at some point, her good intentions turned off. She made the wrong decisions over and over. Her obsession with aquiring animals outweighed her ability to reason that she couldn't care for them. She fired her staff or they quit when their paychecks bounced. She had personal issues. Some perfect storm of events blackened her soul and she became able to watch them wither away, with no way to cry for help. Our system failed them. Our community failed them. We all failed them. 

Suddenly a black and white pony with pretty extreme kyphosis appeared over the hill and ambled up to the gate. Someone caught him and I was asked to help Maya load some mini donkeys into a trailer. We went in to a barn with temporary stalls inside. You could feel death. You could smell it. I shivered. 

After loading the mini donkeys I went back to help catch more horses. I saw the pony again being walked out of the gate towards a trailer. I tried not to be disappointed. I had no idea why I wanted him, but I did. 

Moments later someone walked him back in. An man was holding him over in the corner while the draft horse rescue people were having a hell of a time trying to catch about an 18 hand not halter broke youngster that clearly wanted no part in being caught. There was a lasso around his neck and some questionable catching tactics going on. I didn't dare approach the pony for fear of being tripped or trampled by the cowgirl horse whisperer gone wrong holding the end of that rope, which was about as effective as me holding the end of a rope attached to the back of a moving car. 

Later, I got to the pony and asked the man, "are you taking this pony?"  He said no. I promptly grabbed his lead rope and gave him my empty one. I have no idea why. The pony walked quietly with me over to the corner where my friend quickly asked what I was doing with a one eyed tiny pony with a back deformity. "I love him" was my response. Always a pragmatist, she rolled her eyes at me. I wasn't personally taking a horse anyway, I was just grabbing some to send to my friends who had foster stalls available. I had to send the pony though. I wanted to know where he was. He leaned his little head on me and I scratched his forehead. He stood stock still. 

The man with the sportcoat was approaching me, between enjoying watching him walk gingerly in his nice shoes through cow feces and thinking, "Oh shit, why is he coming over here?" I steeled myself for some sort of forced conversation. Did he know I posted some really graphic pics on NBC29 FB? I knew he was on her side. I didn't like him already. 

He introduced himself to me with a gentle voice and shook my hand. He said, "do you want that pony?" Again, with absolutely no hesitation I said, "I love him and I will give him a forever home". He said, "Anne has been watching and she wants you to have him."
I thought to myself, "Well good because I'm taking him out of here anyway", but with my wits about me and remembering the delicacy of all this, I said, "tell her thank you".  He left and returned a while later to talk about the minis and how he might want some of them. I didn't like him again, knowing that the minis had been loaded onto the trailer the night before, and she made them take them off. I decided it was probably his fault. 

Horses were coming in left and right and I was waiting on my transport trailer to arrive to load the pony an another one. Then all of the sudden, it happened again. A frighteningly emaciated dark bay came over the hill. My friend Kate was out catching horses and I yelled to her, "Catch that dark bay and flip his lip up!" His silhouette was that of a skeleton, but it was a Thoroughbred skeleton. If theres a shape I know, its the shape of a TB. Kate caught him and just responded "yep" after flipping his lip. As she approached with him, he only looked worse. His hide covered bones were not cushioned by layers of fat, or even muscle. There was just nothing. His entire body was covered in dermatitis. Rain rot, a bacterial infection that is hard and time consuming to cure when this widespread. But his face was kind and his eye was soft and knowing. He joined me and the pony and I realized he looked just like the first OTTB I ever loved, a school horse called Danny Boy. A fitting name for such a guy as this. I whispered to him, "you are safe". My vet arrived back on site to look over the ones that I was sending to my friend Lili to foster. I knew if anyone could provide the care he needed, Lili could. I couldn't do it myself at the moment and so I sent him to one of the most conscientious and caring horsewomen I know. He would be safe with her. 

My vet tried to gently but clearly tell me what I had feared about Danny Boy. He was aged and his body score was barely a 1, if even that. His body had eaten all the skeletal muscle.... He went on. I appreciated his realism but was already prepared to give this guy ALL the love and care he needed until his end, however soon that may have to be. If he was going to die, he was going to do it on one of the most beautiful farms in Albermarle and until then, his dignity would be preserved and he would be given the retirement he deserved from the very beginning. 

The pony literally jumped onto that green stock trailer, and even though well over 17 hands, the OTTB lowered his head and stepped on like he did it every day. I prayed the OTTB would still be standing when we arrived. Not only was he standing, but he backed off with the most perfect of footwork, walked into his new stall, full of soft fresh shavings, two full water buckets, a flake of hay, looked around, stretched out and peed- just like any horse that loves a pile of fresh shavings does. I smiled, he knew he was home and set about steadily munching his hay. 

Part 3 coming soon. 


The Somerset Horses

It's the fourth day with those invisible hands around my throat. The slow rise of the dull burn from the bottom of my neck to my jawline. The heat washes over my face and the tears well up in my eyes. I will my eyelids not to overflow, because I know that once I start, I won't be able to stop. I don't want the ragged breaths and heaving sobs that are carefully quelled just below my sternum. The voice in my head says, get back to work, do more, find out more. And so I do.

When I found out about the horror that existed just down the road from my quiet, peaceful farmhouse, I was sitting on the steps of side porch, watching the dogs in the yard as they sniffed, and pulling old blooms off of the mum next to me and the pumpkin. My phone dinged its familiar ding, and since we live so far out in the country and only get intermittent phone service, I knew I better take a look at whatever it was, while it was still working. It was a link in a FB message to a press release from our local Sheriffs office describing a possible seizure and search of a local horse farm. My brain flashed back to my coworker telling me of the local farm with more than 100 horses, the owner not paying her employees and firing people, the horses getting less care, the money she had, the local authorities not responding, the frustration of the former workers. It came in pieces my memory of this conversation, but it was MONTHS ago, surely something had been done, surely this wasn't the same farm, surely it wasn't this close to my home and I didn't know about it.

I picked up the phone and called my boss, the owner of a large local horse farm. Maybe she would know who this was and tell me it wasn't as bad as it sounded. My dog sat down next to me on the steps and the sun fell behind the trees. My boss didn't remember the conversation, she said to call my coworker. I called and texted and stared at my phone for a response. I grew frantic. I have learned the hard way to trust my gut, and my gut said this was real.

She called my back and my phone dropped the call. I called her back and there it was. The confirmation that it was the farm just down the road. A road I had never been down- so very close to me. Then came the pictures by text. The dead horses. The pelvic bones so sharply jutting out that I knew that there was no rehabbing a horse in that condition. Even still standing, that horse was already sentenced to death. And then there it was, the hitch in my breath, the heat rising to my face, and the gripped taughtness in my neck. On my screen was a blood spattered stall wall, underneath was a horse, with neck curled, eye bashed in. This animal had gone down and tried over and over to get up, bashing its head against the wall trying to get its front legs unfolded to right itself. This horse had died in agony. It was the first time I pushed down the tears. I knew I had to help. I knew there were up to 100 horses there. My skill set, though odd, would be useful to whomever was going to sieze these horses. I can catch almost anything, I can intelligently and accurately assess basic veterinary needs, I can administer first aid, I can manage people, I can get almost anything to get on a trailer, but most of all, I can spread the word.

Though I hadn't formally volunteered for a rescue in VA, I messaged my friend that does and she put me in touch with Hope's Legacy Equine Rescue. I basically forced my presence at the next day's seizure on the director of the rescue. She didn't know me at all, I probably scared her with my zealous recruitment of foster homes. I knew I couldn't take one at my personal barn because I can't adequately care for four horses alone with a partially paralyzed wrist/hand plus formally quarantine another while maintaining a full time job. That reality kills me, but there's no point in rescuing an animal and taking it to another situation of less than perfect care. These horses would need an extraordinary amount of educated and conscientious attention from lifelong horsemen/women. This was not a job for those that haven't had rehab experience or those that were just hobby horsemen, or the one armed girl, (me). So I sent out the call. God Bless the power of social media. In minutes, I had foster homes for seven horses, hay donations, and the word was spreading. I prayed a quick prayer that I could be beneficial for these horses, and I tried to go to sleep.

I texted my boss at 6:35 am that I would be at the seizure farm today and not at work. I made oatmeal that I forgot about and left on the counter and did laundry and took a long shower where I tried to predict and prepare for what I might see. Surely the owner would not be present. Someone must have a plan for how this is going to go. Should I bring hay? I threw an old halter and lead rope in the car and put on an old pair of rain boots. I might have to throw them away after this if conditions are really bad. I put a change of clothes in my car and some baby wipes. I couldn't go to my own barn after without changing clothes. I couldn't risk my horse or the others if these guys were unvaccinated or ill. My phone was blowing up with texts and messages offering help with transport and warnings to be strong. I told the dogs that I would be home later and that this might be a hard day. My poodle jumped the baby gate and ran to me. She knew I needed one more moment of love.

I rolled slowly up the gravel road past the pumpkin patch and turned down the driveway. I was greeted by a Deputy who asked for my name and phone number and I told him
I was there to help load horses onto trailers. There were two trailers there already forming a line in the driveway. I got out of my car and the lady in front of me told me we had to stay there because another horse had collapsed and they didn't want anyone but the vets and Animal Control in the barnyard right now. She told me where she was from and what rescue she was doing transport for and about her own horses. I tried to listen, but her voice was just a hum in the background of my thoughts. A large truck rumbled up the driveway with a tall sided construction dumpster on the back. It took me a second to realize it's function. I watched it disappear into the barnyard and then I heard the tractor start up. One. Two. Three. Plops into the dumpster. I knew what the plops were. Dead horses.

A lady I didn't recognize arrived and she knew the first lady I talked to. She looked at me as I stood there with a questioning look on her face and I introduced myself and told her my function. She said, "Have you put in an application to be a foster home?"
Before I answered she said, "Because no horses are going to foster homes that aren't pre-approved." I explained for a moment that I wasn't a foster home and tried to comfort her distrust of me by telling her that I was there in place of one of her long time volunteers who had to work. Then I was interrupted by, "Are you Ellie?"  Whew. A friendly face. It was Maya from Hope's Legacy Equine Rescue whom I had spoken to the night before. More familiar faces arrived from Equine Rescue League in Keswick. My vet and his assistant arrived and we all waited.

I thought for a moment about my less than welcoming greeting from the first rescue director. I got it. I knew she'd seen the crazy people that show up at hoarding situations to increase their own hoard. I understood her distrust of a new face and that her stress level was perhaps in the stratosphere knowing that every single foster home she knew, every single stall she has and every single cent in her account, was about to be used. Although I didn't think it prudent for her to turn me away without even a few questions at a time like this, I knew I had found a place to deposit my desire to help and my web of connections that were just waiting on the word about what was needed, and that was with Hope's Legacy. I felt comfortable with Maya and compelled to help her with whatever I could.

The lady in brown with the badges and the bulky belt accessories arrived to speak to us. She looked as if she had seen more than she was comfortable with that morning. Behind her smile was sadness and her joking demeanor seemed to just barely cover what surely were those same invisible hands on her throat. She explained to us that the owner was willingly surrendering all but 35 animals but that the situation was precariously hinged on the woman's decision. At any point she could stop the whole thing. There would have to be a hearing in order for the animals to be formally siezed. That meant they would have to wait there in her (lack of) care. Some of these horses didnt have another few days.

My anger at this woman, though palpable throughout my entire being, would have to be hidden. My disbelief that she would be allowed to keep 35 animals, or even one animal, would have to be put in the same place as my tears. She was there, and she wasn't in handcuffs or a straight jacket or locked into a cage with no food or water, or any of the other places I wanted her to be. She was leaning against the fence, totally free, to watch a community of rescues and volunteers come to clean up her mess. A mess that could've been prevented 1000 times by a ton of people if she had chosen, just once, to do the right thing for the horses in her care. But she didn't, and me being angry at her gave her power over me and the situation, so I focused my energy on the horses. Horses, thats where Im comfortable. Thats where I can make a difference.

The first trailer rolled up to the barnyard and I watched as they loaded mostly donkeys. I could barely see the other horses from where I stood, but I could see a Deputy on his phone while struggling to open and close the gate to the barnyard from the pasture while preventing horses from escaping back into the pasture. Bingo. Non-horse people don't typically feel comfortable with large animals threatening to run over them, especially while trying to make phone calls. I walked quickly to the gate and scooted him right over.

Part 2 coming soon.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Glittering Night

The chain clangs like a wind chime against the gates as I push them open, from where I stand I can hear the song on the radio in my car ending as the clock reads 11:57pm. I know they'll do the weather update at midnight. For now, it's clear and cool and dark. The gravel crunches under my feet as I head back to the car and look over the field as the glitter of the fireflies fills the sky. This is how I prefer the night, cool and quiet and dark, save for the glittering beauties.

I realize now that my chosen profession is odd. My college education and post-graduate studies seem wildly irrelevant most days, but none the less did satisfy my desire for a degree and some of my insatiable curiosity. The horses however, never get boring. No day is the same as the one before and there is never an end to learning here. While many families have a horse crazy kid that rides for a few years, maybe even gets a horse, and then slowly recedes from the horse life into something else, I just always fell deeper. Drowning myself in books about horses, horse care, horse breeds, horse supplies. Even after a hiatus from riding regularly in high school, I would hide in my room, away from the pressure of trying to fit in and doing all the things high school girls are meant to do, and re-read my books. I would sit on the floor in my walk in closet, safely behind two closed doors, and gingerly pick through the memory box of momentos from my first horse. I could still smell him. That scent, comforting and velvety, was my ocean, and it still is. 

As I make my way up the drive to the barn, I can see the silhouettes of the horses in the darkness. Together in their little bundles, two standing with a hip dropped, leg cocked and resting, while watching over the one laying on the ground with her long neck curled and her chin in the dirt. They are intermittently lit with the glittering fireflies, so very bright against the dark skies in the country. The glittering night of city lights does not hold my interest, it's overwhelming and lonely all at once. Here, this is how I wind down. My work is done and my soul is soothed all at once.

I park my car as close as possible to the barn doors and grab my bags. Quietly sliding the big doors apart, I am greeted by a few low nickers and the tramping of hay and straw as they rouse to see who's here tonight. "Hey mamas", I say quietly as I make my way down the aisle towards the low light in the wash stalls to put down my bags. The mare end of the barn is mostly filled with the sound of rhythmic chewing. Those ladies like their hay,  and as I glance into their stalls to make sure everyone is supplied for the night, a few of them approach to snuff me with their soft breath and get a neck scratch. The little one is flat out with his mouth open and his little short foal breaths huffing in his dream. His dam comes to say hello, carefully placing her feet in the straw around him so that she doesn't step on him, and I think, she doesn't want him to wake up just yet. She knows it won't be long until he's rooting at her udder, sometimes fiercely and loudly nursing, with no regard to being as careful with her body as she is with his. "You're a good mama", I whisper to her, and she rests her muzzle heavily on my arm and breaths into my face. Our affections and respect are mutual.

Down the aisle I hear a clang of teeth on a stall door and I know he knows I'm coming with more hay. He, as usual, would like me to get on with it and arrive spit spot. I open his feed door and there they are, those wet teeth; his lips peeled back in anticipation as he catches the flake of hay in the air on its way to the floor. He sticks his nose out of the door, presenting me with a mouthful of hay. My fingers graze over his nostrils and scratch a soft circle. He's really quite pleased with the attention, as I don't much trust putting my fingers near his mouth unless it's already full. The stallion end of the barn is quieter, two are down for the night, and only those shiny teeth, still holding a chunk of hay out of the small feed door, are visible in the aisle. 

What is becoming my ritual begins. I stack the hay bales four across and two high and take an open bale to stack the flakes higher at one end. Over the top goes a soft clean medium weight horse blanket, my flashlight gets hooked onto the blanket rack, and the chair next to my hay stack holds my purse, sweatshirt, extra blankets, and snacks. I settle onto the hay pile lounge, IPad, coconut water and clipboard in hand. Kicking my moccasins off I cover my legs with another blanket as the air cools quickly through the night. One of the pregnant mares groans as she goes down for a bit, her belly creating the mountainous landscape I can see through the stall door. They all sleep for short stretches, waking up to eat and drink or switch sides and settle back into the straw. I love to hear them sleep. Their stalls are too dark for me to see anything but their outlines, their sighs and snorts and wiggles indicate their state of rest. The mare on the end is a dreamer, small curdled whinnies and kicks erupt from her stall and I wonder what fills her dreams. 

The mare I'm here to watch for signs of labor is calm and quiet. Her milk test tells us she should foal any hour, and has been that way for four days. But these horses, they don't ascribe to our human habits of relentless planning and vigorous impatience. The mare decides when it's right- so I wait. Night after night I stay with them, traveling to the ends of the Internet and existing on coconut water and beef jerky and fresh peaches, with an occasional hunk of dark chocolate when I'm feeling sleepy. 

It will be dark and quiet until 4:30, when the swallows come in from hunting bugs and bring the spoils to their nests. Their chatter signals the end of my glittery night and the impending separation of the mountains from the sky as the black goes to navy and then to royal blue. The pink sun will peek above the horizon at 5:30 sharp, and the volume of the world will increase by the minute. The
stallions welcome their day with crescendo nickers and whinnies, and if they had mirrors, they would look approvingly into them and congratulate themselves on a night well spent. The mares, they wait for the barn doors to part again as the morning crew arrives to make their breakfasts. I will drive back out over the crunching gravel to sleep for a bit of the day and wait to hear if the mare has decided that daylight is her preferred hour of foaling. If not, I'll be here again- me and the horses and the glittering sky.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

First and Lasts
There are so many more, but these are the best ones.




The first of my four-legged children, you were my very own dog. Acquired accidentally on my lunch break on a hot June day in 2004, I should have NEVER walked out of the pizza place next door and into the pet store holding an adoption event from a local shelter. There you were, the “Georgia Black Dog”, cowering under the table, away from all the dogs vying for attention of prospective adopters. I sat on the floor and stroked your shoulder and heard a voice behind me say, “she doesn’t let anyone touch her, did you just touch her? She’s just here to get socialized and isn’t really up for adoption, she has been badly abused and is in no shape to be adopted yet”, and there it was-
The Last of my willpower, the last of my ability to reason that as a poor college student that lived in a rented townhouse that didn’t allow dogs, that I shouldn’t bring the scared, abused, skinny brownish dog with welts on her hind end home. The last time that pet store probably ever had someone buy and assemble a crate in store, food and bowls and a bed, and then pay an employee $100 in cash to take care of her in the stockroom all day until I could retrieve her after work. You were mine, and I was yours, as soon as I touched you that day.

The first time I ever had a dog that came with tons and tons of “baggage”. You were afraid of me, of food bowls that were shiny, of ceiling fans, and flashlights, and lightning, and beeping noises, and men with beards, and the opening of trash bags, and outside, and inside, and door frames, and going upstairs-
The Last time I ever considered giving you up and taking you back to the shelter, convinced that you would never bond to me, was two weeks later, in the wooded trails, when the strange lady with the ancient German Shepherd stopped me and told me- out of the blue- that I needed to let you love me your way, that I was trying too hard, and that I just needed to be patient and quiet and tell you simply, every day, “I love you Doodle”, and that you would understand, that you were a special gift. No one has ever been more right.

The first time I ever had a dog that wouldn’t come when she was called, but would just look at me, come near and stay near, but not let me catch her until she was darn ready to be caught-
The Last time I ever took a dog to a public dog park before an impending thunderstorm, and was the last one to leave since you decided not to be caught and we sat in the pouring down rain, lightning and thunder crashing around us, six feet away from each other, until you decided to come over and sit.

The first time you saved my life was on the trip home from Athens to Columbus. You were such a good car rider, it was always your favorite. You sat still and quietly in the back with your nose out of the cracked window gleefully taking in all the smells. I only knew you were awake by the short, short,  looonng, rhythm of your sniffing. But not that day, you were restless and softly whining. I was confused about what you wanted since you had already eaten dinner and gone potty before we got in the car and we’d been on the road less than an hour. We were behind a big red pick-up truck the whole way down the two lane road and your whining grew louder. I saw a gas station and pulled over to offer you water and see if you needed to go potty again. You pulled me around on your leash for, in my hurry, what seemed like forever, without so much as a pre-potty sniff. I was growing impatient. You jerked the leash to go TOWARDS a lady that was walking towards us, and I was so surprised as she reached out to touch you. Not only that you went towards her, but even more so at the scars all over her forearms. Like she had been dragged through briars, her arms, and her face implied scars of a much deeper sort. She asked me all about you and I told her about your past. She seemed to connect with you on a level that I couldn’t understand then. I didn’t know why this lady was holding up my trip, and why you were content to be patted by her. We got back in the car and went a few miles, only to be stopped by traffic on the same two-lane. At the bottom of the hill I could see multiple fire trucks. I sighed. A bad wreck. Something else to make my trip longer-
The last thing I remember before I burst into tears and had to eventually pull over, was what I saw when we passed that wreck. A red pick-up truck and another car, smashed between two tractor trailers. The red-pick up truck was compressed front to back to the width of a double door frame. I was stuck for a moment as the firemen rushed to put a tarp up so that our lane couldn’t see the remains in the truck. But I saw them. And I recognized the pick-up truck, the one we had been behind before you made me stop for the weird petting with the stranger. We would have been right there in that horrible wreck. Every time I passed the cross on the side of the road for years after that, I said a prayer for peace for that man’s family, and thanked you and that lady for making us late to that scene.

The first time you chased down the tennis ball that I threw for you, you ran and ran and ran with it, around me in circles, with no real intention of bringing it back. I laughed as you got all the other dogs in the dog park running too, now sleek and black and shiny, your confidence made me smile and your happiness was evident-
The last time you chased a tennis ball, the poodle beat you to it. You weren’t fast anymore, and maybe not sleek, but black and shiny and happy you still were. She lost interest in the ball moments later and you retrieved it and took with you to your couch. You placed it between your front legs and every time she came near, you just bared your teeth silently. It was your ball anyway, and she needed to know it.

The second time you saved my life was at 2:17 am in the summer of 2005. I was fast asleep with you next to me on the floor. We were alone in the townhouse since our other roommate had gone home for the summer. Your big growl woke me up with a start. I didn’t have my glasses on or the lamp on yet to know what was happening and you were throwing your body at my bedroom door trying to get out- with the kind of bark I almost never heard you do. The deep snarly bark that meant you were dead serious. I opened the door to my room and you rocketed down the stairs. I was almost frozen with fear as I could now hear, and comprehend the banging at the back door that meant someone was trying to kick in the door. My cell phone was charging in my car outside, and we didn’t have a land line. It was just me and you. I could now hear you throwing yourself at the back door and barking like you were going to get through it first. I ran to the window and peeked down to see a dark figure on the porch run away into the woods. The banging had stopped, but the barking continued. I wouldn’t let you out because you would have chased him down and killed him I think. After a few minutes you stopped barking and I was brave enough to run to my car and get my phone. My neighbor was outside already asking if I was ok and she had already called the police. I had to lock you in my room when they arrived because you simply were not letting anyone in that house, even the policeman who bolted a 2x4 across the door for the night to secure it since the door frame was split. He said one more kick and the intruder would’ve been inside-
The last thing I wanted to hear a few days later was that the guy they caught after he kicked another woman’s door in, was that he admitted to watching me and a few other girls for days before that. He knew I was home alone, and he knew I had a dog, but he didn’t think that you would protect me. He was wrong. I’ve never ever felt unsafe again because you were always there.

The first time my bathroom door creaked opened while I was taking a shower, I timidly peeked out to see if I was about to become a story out of Law and Order SVU, but thankfully it was you. There was no door you couldn’t open and I became accustomed to your presence during any and all activities, as you were not one to be left out. You settled down onto the bath mat and waited for me to finish showering. You didn’t move as I reached over you to brush my teeth, because the bath mat in front of the sink was much better than your array of beds just outside the bathroom. It was sometimes hard to put on mascara while leaning over a large dog to see the mirror, and you always huffed and left the bathroom annoyed when I would dare to turn on the blow-dryer. I knew you just wanted to be with me, and I appreciated it. I never minded you being there, ever-
The last time I showered and you were there on the bath mat, was yesterday morning. I thought to myself for a moment about how it would feel to get out of the shower and not see you there because I knew you were declining. It happened today, a million days too soon, while we were waiting for the vet and you were resting a little more comfortably on your couch. I opened the shower door and the bath mat was empty. I sobbed into my towel and tried to hurry and get dressed to get back to you. Thank you for the hundreds of times you were there. I think I will probably look for you on the bath mat forever and ever.

The first time you woke me up with the thwap, thwap, thwap of your tail on the wall, it was because you needed to go outside and I had overslept a little. You soon trained me to get up at any and all hours of the day or night and attend to you with your metronome tail. The “weapon of mass destruction” as we sometimes called it, your tail was the reason I have a higher than normal coffee table and cheap wine glasses. You quickly taught me not to leave things in the path of that tail, the excited and expressive tail that greeted me every day and woke me up every morning, and had a way of shedding more hair than most dogs have on their entire body-
The last time I heard the thwap, thwap, thwap of your tail was Monday morning early. You were having a hard time breathing and wanted me to come to you. You called me with your tail. For eleven years that tail has been the soundtrack to my life. I don’t know how I’ll ever get up again without the encouragement of that sound.

The first time I felt grown-up and moved into my very own apartment after college, you were finally my only roommate. It was a third floor apartment and we walked up and down those steps together for what seems like thousands of times. You waited for me patiently at the window to come home each day, and you made me feel safe and secure and happy. Just the two of us in our big girl apartment, looking out the window at the world that we were ready to take on-
The last move you ever made with me was last May, we’ve lived in a townhouse, an apartment, and four houses together. Six times we’ve packed our life together, and I can’t even begin to know what to do without you in our home. I can’t even remember having a home where you weren’t there.

The first time you met him, you liked him immediately. Little did he know that I would’ve never gone on a second date with him if you didn’t make it clear that he was “good”. A better judge of character I’ve never known. When he laid on the couch with you, you didn’t growl at him, and you hated sharing your couch with anyone but me. I loved him almost immediately, and you let me know that I was safe in loving him because you did too-
The last time you saw him was this morning when he petted you and said your name as he left for work and told me to call him and let him know what the vet said. I don’t know if he knew that you were leaving us today for sure, but I know you loved him since your tail wagged as he patted you, and your tail hasn’t been wagging in two days. He’s digging you a resting place on his mom’s farm as I write this. He came home from work early and gently moved you from your couch into his car while I hid upstairs and cried and typed. He’s kind, and you always knew it.

The first time I knew I loved you was on the way home from the pet store that day when you awkwardly rode home facing backwards in the front seat of my car. I knew we had work to do, but your eyes were so kind even though your body looked neglected. I didn’t know when or if you would love me, but I knew I already loved you. You were panting a bit and I saw you had an under bite, it was always my favorite thing when your lip would get stuck against your teeth and I would barely see the under bite. And when you would guard some toy and bare your teeth at other dogs and instead of lifting your lips to the side, you would part them in front and reveal the under bite. Or when you would greet me at the door or at the steps and wag your whole body and “smile” and there it was, the under bite that I love. From that first day until today, my love for you has consumed more of me than I knew could exist. You have been there for almost every first as I grew from a naive teenager into an actual adult, and so many lasts-
 I can’t believe that today was our last day. You were beautiful and kind and warm and soft and loving and protective and loyal and independent and patient even to the very end, and you taught me more about life than most human relationships have. I don’t even know who I am without you. I owe you so much more than I could ever give you, and I can only hope that today, when I held you in my arms and felt you take your last breath, that you know that I will love you until my very last breath.

Rest in Peace my sweet Doodlebug and thank you. 
Run free with ample breath, and swim and roll and rest and play and love.
Spring 2002- May 19, 2015


Friday, October 3, 2014

The Horse Shaped Hole

During what seems like a lifetime ago, I was sitting in a stuffy room filled with other high schoolers clad in North Face fleeces in the mountains of what I think was somewhere in North Carolina. Outside, the air was sharp and chilly and fresh, and I remember wanting a breath of it. I was hot, but I didn't want to take off my fleece and draw attention to myself in that quiet room, or accidentally expose what I thought then, were totally hideous love handles that might pop out of my jeans. I laugh at that now, because I would pay for those love handles instead of these...

Anyway, the reason I was sitting in that room is because I was on a Young Life retreat, and although I don't remember the speaker's name, what he said has stuck with me for 15 years. He was talking to us about our hearts, not in the pumps blood to the rest of our body sense, but in the representative of our soul sense- which is how I am referring to it here. I have always been spiritual and identify as a Christian. I was reared in a Christian family and we attended church most Sundays. However, religion and Christianity were never forced on me and one of the things I appreciate most about my parents is that they allowed and encouraged me to question  my beliefs while growing up.

I've always held a closely guarded and personal set of beliefs that some Christians may out right disagree with. I do not believe that if you have never heard the word of God, or about God, that you go to hell. I just don't think the God I know would hold that against you. I also believe that God comes to people in very individual ways and that although I identify as a Christian and my friend may identify as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist etc., that we are all probably receiving our spirituality and religion in the way that our culture, upbringing, and heart is most available to receive it. In other words, I think that the Native Americans, and the Hindus and me and everyone else, are all probably communicating with the same omniscient being. That's the part of my beliefs that some Christians would get really uncomfortable with, and that's their right. I get really uncomfortable with forcing other belief systems on those that don't want to experience them using threats of eternal hell and burning in lakes of fire, but that's just me. If you look at the basic premise of any religion, they are ultimately eerily similar. Religion and spirituality is extremely personal and comes to each person differently and not one minute before or after their heart is ready for it. Christianity is right for me, but I totally feel uncomfortable and out of place in Pentecostal Christian churches. I feel judged for my quiet faith and my preference to pray when alone in nature, and I feel like everyone there is having a contest to see who can be the most Christian in front of the most people, so instead of it being about faith, it's about appearing faithful, and I don't get it. If waving your hands in the air and shouting Hallelujah in a room full of others while singing praise songs is your thing and makes you feel full of the Spirit, then go for it. It's just not for me. I find that I don't very often feel comfortable in rooms full of people though, I'd rather worship while riding through a field on a horse as that is where I feel the most connected to God and all of His creation

So this takes us back to that stuffy room and what that man was saying. He described our hearts like a block of swiss cheese; full of holes. In order for our hearts to feel full/whole/fulfilled, we filled those holes with various things that were important to us and each hole had a shape. Unless you filled those individually shaped holes with the right shape, much like a puzzle, you were left there with a hole and an ill fitting piece and the yearning to find the right piece of the puzzle. He was talking specifically about the God shaped hole that nothing else could fill. This visual really stuck with me.

At 31 years old, I'm far more secure about what my heart needs to be filled with to be whole than I was at that time. My God shaped hole is filled, my love shaped hole is filled, my family and friends shaped holes are filled for now, and the things I do that make me feel like me, those holes are filled as well. The only glaring, gaping hole in my heart, is shaped like a horse. My heart and soul ache for it to be filled. People who don't love horses or understand their role in my life may find that statement to seem selfish, bratty, or shallow, since having a horse is technically a "material possession" and an expensive one at that. Trust me, I wish I had a bicycle or elliptical machine shaped hole instead; for oh so many reasons, but I just don't.

I do not remember a time when I wasn't obsessed with and fascinated by horses, ponies and generally anything with four legs. I don't understand people who don't love animals any more than I understand serial killers. Not to compare the two, but that is the level at which not loving animals seems foreign to me. I try REALLY hard not to judge people that say they don't like dogs or think horses are super scary. I don't mean to make assumptions about them based on that, but I do, because I feel like they can't possibly feel complete without knowing what I know about how a life filled with creatures can bring happiness, healing, comfort, joy, beauty, sadness, heartbreak, faith and all the emotions and lessons you need in life to become a decent human, and I don't understand how a life filled with other sports or possessions can possibly compare. But that's presumptuous of me, and I know that. I continue to work on it.

Luckily, my parents figured this out about me at an early age. We always had dogs, a couple of cats, some hamsters, a guinea pig, a potbellied pig named Bocephus, numerous fish, parakeets, and some involvement with horses. I took riding lessons starting at about age 8, worked in barns and would've lived there if they'd let me. When I was 13, I got my very own first horse. It was a glorious day and I'll never forget it. I'm sure it was much like the first time you get high on cocaine, and you want that feeling forever and ever and ever. It wasn't the "getting" part though, it was the "having and loving" part. My horse shaped hole was filled, and at a time when I hated school because everyone seemed mean, suspicious and generally intolerant of the new girl that was totally wearing the wrong brand of jeans and was therefore worthless, I could go to the barn and my horse would happily trot to me from the field, and tolerate my hours long grooming sessions, and let me sleep on his back while he grazed, and teach me that down banks in XC were in fact not scary at all, and that the more I gave of myself to take care of this fantastic creature, the more love and life lessons I got in return as we grew together. He was a young greenie when I got him, and so every success was our success and every failure was mine to learn from and fix. He taught me that there are almost never problems that can't be solved with hard work and good intentions. My horse just let me be me, with no judgement, and he taught me that letting other people and animals be themselves and feel comfortable in who they are and how they learn, is perhaps the greatest gift you can ever give another creature.

After my first horse was injured in a trailer accident, I went a very long time without a horse of my own or doing much riding at all. In my grief and sadness and ignorance that those emotions were what I was experiencing, I tried to fill the horse shaped hole with lots of teenager-y things that seemed to make everyone else happy. Cheerleading (which I was terrible at), getting attention from boys, making good grades, having parties at my house to try to make other people happy, excelling at art; all of those things did make me happy temporarily and art probably helped me the most, but when I look back at those years without involvement with horses, I think I was probably depressed for most of them.

In college I started riding again, and something was missing. I rode on the equestrian team for a year, I rode other people's horses, I took lessons, I volunteered for a Hippotherapy program for kids with special needs. It was all wonderful and taught me tremendous things about horse care and management and the power of a horse for a human spirit, but at the end of the day, those horses didn't belong to me, and they weren't mine to love, nurture, care for, and develop a partnership with on a daily basis- but I did those things anyway and it healed me a lot.

After college I got an OTTB, it was the first time I felt ready to really fill the horse shaped hole, and honestly I think that without her and all that she taught me, I would never have had the courage to get out of a bad marriage, chase my dreams and move from GA to VA and start a whole new chapter in my life. If there's one thing an independent mare will teach you, it's the value of picking your battles and that self preservation and selfishness are two very different things. I ultimately lost her due to a freak slab fracture in her knee, and although I still get teary when I see a photo of her, I know that we were in eachother's lives for very specific reasons and that she is probably much more at peace now, than she ever felt she could be here trying to live up to the expectations of humans.

I've spent the last few years fully immersed in Eventing as a rider and professional groom- from watching and riding Beginner Novice and young horses, up to being able to "read" a XC course at the 3* level and understand what it takes to care for and ride upper level eventers. I am insatiably curious, and it pays off to be so in a sport like horseback riding where you can never ever know everything. One thing I do know about myself now, is that I am a good steward of the animals in my care. I can confidently and comfortably manage a group of horses, but especially my own. I know what they need and what they want and I understand them and they seem to understand that about me. I'm the girl the loose horses at shows run to, and the girl the scared, lost, or wandering children in public places flock to. I don't know why and sometimes I laugh when I remember praying to God when I was little for him to please make me like Snow White so that all the animals would come to me, and I think He has a funny sense of humor in answering that prayer. People say to me often, "this ____ (horse, dog, child, etc.) seems so comfortable with you!" and sometimes I'm very thankful for that, and sometimes I would like them to remove their snot covered child from my lap and take it home so that I can eat my dinner in peace...

The hardest part for me now, is that the horse shaped hole isn't full. I have the perfect place to keep a horse, the time to care for and ride a horse, the supplies and tack and equipment to outfit us for any activity, and the knowledge and skills to provide the horse with a happy career and happy life suitable for what he or she may need. I even have the income to maintain the horse, but the horse shaped hole still isn't full. I have, luckily, had the chance to ride some amazing horses and lease a few really nice horses that have taught me a lot and for that, I'm extremely appreciative.  I'm just finally ready to have my own horse again. Partly because I really like to manage my own horses based on my beliefs in what they need, but also because, as I'm sure a mother knows that their child may love their nanny, but will never have the same bond as they do to their mother, I'm tired of being the nanny to the horses, I want the bond that you only have with your own horse. My gut keeps telling me no when I'm offered leases. It's time for me to find my "heart horse".

I've been casually looking at OTTB's again because I love Thoroughbreds and want somewhat of a young horse, but unfortunately my champagne taste in young prospects is often overruled by my beer budget. The two horses I have really liked, both sold in a matter of hours, as I'm not the only one with good taste in horses. I also do not have a truck and trailer of my own (pro grooming is great experience, but not for those that wish to maintain large bank accounts), so I'm at the mercy of timing and borrowing things when it's convenient for others- which makes it rather difficult to purchase anything quickly. I also find it really important to find someone who wants their horse happy and well cared for, but ultimately I have to also realize that the bottom line is often the money for a seller. I think that's what I find the most foreign of all when it comes to humans, money is always the driving force, even over love, and I HATE that about our culture and motivations. I have removed a variety of relationships from my life when I realize that money is more important to them than a relationship with another human being and it frightens me that this is the norm for so many people. I totally understand that it takes money to live, but I can assure you I will probably never have a surplus of money, because I will spend it on, or give it to those that need it more than me at that moment. That's what life is really about- getting everyone's holes in their hearts filled.

So for now, the search continues, my $1000 budget is not likely to change any time soon, but somewhere out there, I know there's a horse that needs me, and that I need, and eventually, I hope someone will see that even though my funds are meager, my capacity to care for and love a horse, is worth more than the money in their pocket.
  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Six Days...

There are six days until the wedding, and I just heard the most beautiful words I've ever heard out of my fiance's mouth. Better than "I love you", better than, "Will you marry me?", better than, "Do you want me to bring you some ice cream?". Yes. Better. I was just casually mentioning that Liz (his sister) told me that their family in England has access to extra WEG (World Equestrian Games) tickets in Normany, France and how cool it would be to go. Then he said the words "I've always wanted to go to Normandy! We should go watch cross country and stay at a winery before the weekend or go to my family's house in the Alps as our honeymoon! Is Boyd riding?" I mean, other than the fact that my fiance has a somewhat sizeable man crush on Boyd Martin and whether or not he is riding could dictate the plans for our honeymoon, these are perhaps the most fun series of phrases I've ever heard him utter. I reminded him that Kim (Severson) is riding and that Lis Storandt will be there too. (We know these people better than we know Boyd, and I think they are equally as pretty) He then said, "We should look for flights!" OMG. Could this be the honeymoon of my dreams? Wine. Romantic dates with my new Hubby. Horses. Friends. French. Boyd stalking. Bread.
Here's the hitch... I am a TERRIBLE flyer and these flights are LONG. Also we can't currently afford anything even close to those plane tickets. However, I found a four leaf clover today in the yard so maybe some luck will come our way. Maybe they can drug me for the entire flight if we go. Even if we don't go, I'm still pretty sure I'm marrying the sweetest man in the world just for considering letting me watch XC at WEG as part of our honeymoon. I love him. He loves Boyd.