Sunday, January 20, 2013



Photo Credit: Dory Touhey Photography
"Awakening" is a very personal and honest story for me, as it is about the changes that I faced as a 47 year old woman who was longing to grow but was not sure where or how to wake up enough to do it.  I never thought a horse would be able to awaken in me a new voice with fresh stories worthy of telling, maybe I should just change her show name to "My Midlife Crisis"...
I had noticed the same look on faces of women my age all the time, but I just didn’t know how to make that tired look on my own face go away.  I don’t even really know my age by heart.  By the time I figured out the math and put the number to memory, I was having another birthday.  It seemed as though I began looking at a stranger in the mirror every morning when forced to look as a practical matter, and I found that I was unable to let go of the imprinted image of myself that was one of youth, of livelihood, of fun, of boundless energy.  Holding onto this old familiar image had been my fall back plan up until now, and it was fading away with the days and years that I was leaving behind me. 
My life seemed full, and I felt grateful for all of the countless blessings that were coming my way, but there was still a missing piece, and I knew that I was the only one who could fulfill it.  I had drilled and drilled myself with the knowledge that I was the one who was in charge of my life, of my happiness, and I was always willing to take responsibility for it.  I had successfully taught myself that to look outside of myself would never help me to find the answer to the mirror image questions: “Who is this woman? Have we ever met?”  
          The most surprising thing about the continual shift was that I didn’t even realize I was changing, as time had so gradually slipped through these once gorgeous fingers. Perhaps I had unconsciously decided to sleep through it all, and while I slept, life was still happening.  I had become an expert at watching omnisciently, with a sort of looking glass, seeming to live outside of myself, and losing the ability to see the sweetness within a moment.  I never really found the ability to be fast enough to leave the past in the past, to be slow enough to leave the future in the future, and I was seeking the wisdom to find the now, but had no idea where now even was.  A seemingly thick haze had formed over my life, and was steadily muddying up my days and keeping me tired. 
          The soul within me helped me begin to recognize that I needed to awaken.  I felt increasingly drawn to water and nature and I had an intense desire to find those elusive moments that were now.  I sought to be surrounded near all that brought me peace, but I wanted to be surrounded in things, not surrounded by things anymore.  “I need a vacation.” I kept thinking, and I had a burning desire to run away, to escape, to be somewhere else, somewhere warm, anywhere except with the woman that I no longer even recognized.  
It had happened so gradually, but it seemed to have happened so quickly. As time began to come and go with a new kind of swiftness that had only been explained to me by my parents, by my elders, and it even seemed like whimsy when I could not relate, but suddenly the “time flies” metaphor made perfect sense to me because time was in fact flying, and I was quietly sitting back and watching.  It felt like I was standing alone at a busy intersection as traffic flew past me.  I was close enough to get my hair blown back, or get splashed by a nearby puddle, but not close enough to get in on the chase to the next great thing, the chase to what everyone seemed to be looking for or running to.  I just couldn’t find the meaning in it.  It used to look exciting to me.  I used to want to jump right into that traffic and play in it, revel in it, even try to beat it at its own crazy game.  Everyone looked so happy on the outside, but were they feeling the emptiness of forgetting how to be in the moment?  Were they as caught up in the speed of life, as unsure of how to be present anymore? 
 Many days I found myself content staying at home, uncertain why I felt so tired.  I felt a disconnect with my soul, I felt that I had lost my voice, a gift that had once flowed freely, though I understood and was resolved that it was a temporary state and it was safely hibernating somewhere, sitting quietly waiting for something significant to happen.  I wasted time procrastinating the deep digging I knew I needed to do to awaken my inspiration again.  I thought that perhaps I had run out of things to write about, so I asked for some answers, asked again for guidance, and I sat and I waited until it came.
I began to find glimmers of inspiration when I gave myself permission to notice small, sweet details in the landscape that surrounded me, and I felt comforted by small examples of life captured in the moment.  I began to work on noticing the awe in the world and to look at it all with wonder again.  I practiced using my eyes with the vision of a child.  There is a tree near my house that is shaped like a peace sign that could catch my attention as I drove by it and it never failed to make me smile.  I learned to allow the tree to stop my mind from racing restlessly, and I began to search for the meaning of the symbol that it represented. 
I worked on alleviating my anxiety, which had been forcing me to have constant and exhausting thoughts that seemed to have no end like, “Get there fast, because you still haven’t …” or “Don’t forget to…”, as I stopped to take in the individual shapes and sizes of the leaves in our yard.  I looked very closely at the parts inside of flowers when I felt hurried or stuck in a negative emotion.  I stopped often by Lake Michigan and stood there looking out into the vastness of it taking in the size and breadth of its enormous body.  I spent time swimming in a small local lake gazing away from its shore for as long as I could do it, as if the answers to my whole purpose could be found there. I found incredible and new beauty in these things as I practiced my new found inspiration, and I started to take in the moments of my life in an effort to wake up, and it was working.  It was as though I was preparing for a great shift in consciousness, and I was slowly waking up to the possibilities of wonder in the beautiful life that I alone had designed.  I was opening my vision to seeing great things that had always been there with a slow but steady shift in my thoughts that were trying so hard to stay present. 
My life’s work, by design, had been to alleviate for others the very thing that I suddenly had been struggling with.  As a riding instructor and horse trainer my only and most important job was to teach people how to use riding horses to help them stay in the moment.  Horses have no understanding of time they only understand now.  This unique perspective creates the perfect storm for people who live lives that are fast paced, caught up, never getting a moment to breathe or relax.   People come to me seeking relaxation time with horses.  The barn is a safe haven, to remind them that life is to be lived simply and one moment at a time.  Many years ago I realized that I was not just a riding instructor, I was also a teacher of life lessons, but somewhere on my road to inspire others through these fantastic animals, I had forgotten to do the very thing that I had become so proficient at teaching.  I had forgotten the simple and pure lesson of the horse, until the night she was sent to teach me the lesson again.            
          On the night of our rescue horse Sara’s arrival, my 14 year old son Ryan and I left his dad asleep at home, and alone together we set out to the barn where I worked to meet her.  She was not to get home until midnight or later but we arrived at the stable a little before 11pm.  The air was warm and windy on that July 30 evening, and there was a storm beginning to blow in.  Storms in Wisconsin are beautiful and uncertain, they are edgy and foreboding, they move like fury right through you, and somehow this seemed fitting for our night full of uncertainties. We were feeling the storm rumble through so strongly, and the anxiety of awaiting the first meeting of the slaughter bound horse we had saved on a mere feeling I had from the look I noticed in her eye seen only in a photograph on facebook, was palpable. Her journey had been a difficult and sad one, but I knew that she would now be coming home to a life of unconditional love that she had only known from the 18 others in her herd that she had been torn away from, and that she would finally feel peace if she could accept a new and better life with us.   
          Ryan and I scurried through the barn with nervous energy, though we both were enjoying the familiar sound of horses rustling in their stalls, blowing air through their active noses, sniffing around for the last nibbles of hay from their evening feeding.  Night time at a barn can little be explained to those who have not experienced it, as it is sacred time for horses, time for them to be alone without people, to have their talks with one another and share their hallowed experiences between stall walls and bars.  It was a rare night indeed that we got to be a part of night time rituals with our family of horses, and I was enjoying the freshness of the smell of sweet summer rain, coupled with the aroma of fresh hay and shavings; a familiar scent that had a lifetime of history behind it for me.  I had become complacent with the smell, I had forgotten how much it meant to me, but on that night I took notice of it, and I fell in love with it again, as I was reminded to smell with the nose of a young girl who loved horses and loved being at the barn.  I smelled within it opportunity for a new life to be welcomed into our sanctuary, and I took notice that it was in fact a sacred place.  The barn was a place that I had found so much peace throughout my life, and although I had chosen to work within it, it could always be a place of peace and joy for me, and I felt overcome with gratitude for the life I had chosen, and in that moment, as I took a deep breath of fresh barn air, I realized that I was being rewarded for creating the perfect path for myself. 
            Sara’s stall was pristinely clean, and Ryan placed four flakes of fresh hay neatly down for her.  We attached her Himalayan salt lick to a rope, and added some candy to her licking treat that we hung carefully on the wall.  Ryan looked for a ladder to stand on so that he could hang her treats properly.  We installed a new red feed tub for her and gave her clean new green buckets to drink from.  And lastly, we hung her new leather halter that had her name engraved in brass on it, a gift from a friend, and hung her stall plate meticulously straight to the front of her stall.  We were ready for her arrival.  I had thoughtfully cut up some carrots and apples for her with the hope that she would know that I understood that love and food are closely intertwined for a horse. 
The shipper called saying they were still a couple of hours away and that they would be there a little after 2 am.  It seemed I had waited a lifetime for Sara so why should I be at all alarmed by the fact that it was only 11:30 pm?  So we sat, appreciating the storm, and I thought about how soon she would be here and how the waiting would be over.  Ryan and I sat pensively watching the rain beat down on the ground through the opening of the large barn door, and we talked at length about her story, and how we were so proud to be a part of rescuing her.  We told all of the other horses that she was coming, and we talked about how lucky we were to be able to take her in.  We talked about the nick names that she would have, and the walks we would take with her.  Ryan’s excitement to finally meet her was only matched by mine.  We decided to clean the bars of her stall and dust the front of her stall just to keep busy.  I arranged horse supplements in plastic baggies that I had marked with a sharpie with her show name “Saphira”.   
As the gooseneck trailer finally pulled in the driveway, I took some pictures of it on my phone.  Ryan teased me about the ridiculousness of those photos, so I stopped to notice that the storms had passed now and there was stillness and striking quiet as the trailer made its way.  I looked up and spotted a very bright star in the sky that was cloud filled just moments before, and we both knew that it was a sign from our pony MacIntosh. He had died two years earlier, and he was known to send us great and perfect stars from time to time to remind us of his continual guidance, and it struck me just then that perhaps he may have had a part in helping to send Sara to us.  I felt encompassing warmth, and a lump formed encircling my entire throat.  “Look” I said to Ryan pointing towards the star, “Mac is here.” Ryan nodded noting his own lumpy throat, as he looked at me with a sweet watery gaze full of faith and hope.
“Here she comes.” I said, feeling the anxious sensation of a person arriving at the peak of a roller coaster hill just before it takes the big first drop.  We both stood watchfully silent in the moment as the trailer made its way up the long driveway.  The storms had passed us now, we could hear the sound of tires crackling over wet stone, and from the halo of the red and white running lights we could see the silhouette of horses’ faces inside the slanted trailer stalls through the side windows.  The trailer stopped smoothly and the driver emerged from her truck with her driving partner, both looking exhausted.  I gave her a lengthy hug acknowledging that her journey had been long, and I knew that brave and heroic sacrifices had been made on behalf of my horse, and of all of the other horses in Sara’s herd that she had been instrumental in saving.
 As she opened the rear trailer door I heard Sara’s voice for the first time. It was a high pitched mare sounding tone, and she was calling frantically to her friend that she had spent years, perhaps her entire lifetime with. I felt the immensity of the pain of her broken heart for the first time.  Her eye rolled back looking for her friend, and slowly I reached in through her trailer window and felt the side of her strong cheek as she shifted her gaze toward me.  She seemed to know that I was the one she was waiting for; she seemed to know that she was safe, and I felt that we comforted each other at that moment, as she waited quietly to be unloaded while I stood on the edge of the trailer so she would not lose sight of me.  I somehow knew that she needed to know that leaving her friend behind did not mean it was the end of love for her, that leaving her last and only family behind was okay, as it was a new beginning, and if she would just give me this moment, this chance, I could promise her that I would not leave her, that she would never face a day like this day again.
It seemed like we had known each other before, it seemed like we had known each other forever.  Even through the bars in the window, I felt instantly and completely connected to her, and I felt her relax into my hand as I stroked her cheek.  I had imagined for so long what she was like. The hours I had spent looking at her facebook picture could not have prepared me for the realization that she was even kinder, stronger, and more beautiful than I had even ever imagined her to be.  
As the driver unloaded her, Sara paused and looked around.  She held her head high and took in a strong deep breath of the air that she would soon come to know as the air which surrounded her new home.
 “I have been waiting to see the look on your face when I dropped her off and you got to see her in person.” The driver said. But I couldn’t even focus on her words, as I was mesmerized by the enormity of the moment, and I was taken so completely with her and by her.   
The driver handed me the lead rope and I felt Sara’s energy come through it and into my hand as I pulled it taut, encouraging her to follow me.  I pulled only for an instant though when I realized that she needed me to stop, to wait for her, as she took in the moment and the significance of it. She took another long deep breath, as she stood in the realization of how much her life had just suddenly changed.  I felt her strength both inside and out, and I thought about the vastness of her journey, and how she had been with the others for so long and how one by one they had all gone.  Her family, the only family she knew, had been torn apart as if by a war, but still she stood strong and eventually, in her time, she followed my lead with a broken heart.
As we walked into the barn she snorted as she stepped onto the cement, and she cautiously tip toed onto it as if it was polished ice.  She moved slowly and fearfully, trying to understand the sound and the vibration of cement beneath her feet, and she looked around at the walls and the ceiling as she tried to find herself in time and space.  I patiently helped her across the barn aisle, though her fear took my breath away, and for the first time I realized that this horse may have never even been inside a building before.  She may have never lived in a barn, or walked on a cement aisle.  She had slept outside under those same stars sent by our pony for her whole life, and she most probably had never slept under a roof with four walls, and she was afraid.  The moment, the shock of this overcame me, as I stopped with her for several moments to allow her to look around, and I patiently gave her time to try to understand walls and doors, and a ceiling, and other horses that lived behind barred stalls. 
When we arrived at her stall, she went willingly and trustingly inside.  I closed her door and she rolled right away in the clean dry mountain of shavings we had carefully fluffed for her.  She shook herself off and looked around seeming composed, so I left her there while I went to pay the driver, and I could hear her calling frantically for me, for someone, anyone who she could bond with.  She was afraid to be alone, she had never been alone conceivably, and perhaps she felt the fear of solitude for the first time.
                           Sara's first day in her paddock As a herd member, there was never solitude, but now she had to experience what lonesomeness really meant, another first for Sara.  It must have felt so foreign, so isolating to her.  As she looked around, she was surrounded by others but she could not touch them, and she could not be with them in a way that was in any way familiar to her.  She could not introduce herself to them in a way that she was accustomed to meeting new herd members, as show horses are kept separated for their own safety, but she could not have understood this peculiar practice which at the moment must have felt so barbaric to her.   
Fear and loneliness seemed to live within her now and I felt called to help her through it all, but I had no idea where to even start.  It was an experience I had not anticipated, as I was so stuck in the fact that she was coming to a better life that I had not considered the loss she would experience from leaving the comfort and familiarity of the life she had known before. After all, she did not know that she was a slaughter bound mare, to her she was a member of a very strong herd that understood the meaning of strength in numbers, but the number one was not even in her repertoire, individuality was not a part of her twelve year life experience.  
Ryan and I went into her stall to be with her.  She was quickly quieted by our presence, and her sweetness, the warmth of her spirit showed through her expression so strongly that tears just rolled down my face when I realized just what she was facing.  Her forward pricked ears, and a sweet willing eagerness to know us was overwhelming, and I felt that we were immediately accepted and looked upon as her new herd, perhaps because there really was no one else.  
The feeling of unconditional love overcame us as we struggled to help her understand her new surroundings.  I remember thinking that I easily could sleep with her in her stall and that I could stay there and never ever leave her.  I remember feeling the immense pain of her loss with such empathy, as she quietly smelled my hand with trust and reassurance that she was most certainly the horse that I had imagined her to be, and in fact she was the horse that I had asked for while I was asleep, and that the manifestation had exceeded my expectations of who she was by such margin that I was literally weighed down by a parallel moment of overwhelming happiness for her arrival, and unfathomable sadness for the loss that she was experiencing. 
We hadn’t spoken in a few minutes when Ryan in his sensitive way quietly asked, “Can we try a carrot mom?” As he crouched down in front of her showing her where her hay was and trying to show her the treats, she gently bent down toward him and sniffed the carrot in his hand.  She sniffed side to side along his hand and looked at him sweetly, wondering what he was asking her to do.  She did not take it from him though, as it looked nothing like a rolling green pasture with a group sized feeder for everyone to collectively share. 
Her new leather halter was loose fitting and comfortable against her skin, but it did not cover the scars that her old nylon one had left on her face where her hair had worn down to the skin. I imagined that halter must have been left on her perhaps for years as she was probably difficult to catch.  She looked like one who could have spun quickly around lush pastures away from people whom she had no interest in knowing. 
She seemed to be searching to understand the language we were speaking to her, but she was not able to immediately recall it from memory.  I had wondered if any of her former owners had ever spent any time with just her, if she had ever even known human love before.  The driver had handed me her Paint Horse papers that had a tiny picture of her as a foal. The photo showed a wanted and loved baby, and I wondered how she ended up within such loss.  I noticed a yellow sticky note with the name “Sadie” tucked carefully within the plastic sleeve that held the paperwork with her extensive lineage on it.  I thought about the person who must have held her in their heart too, I wondered if she too had loved her like I did, but had to let her go.  I couldn’t imagine letting her go. 
I was certain that she had never seen a treat or a carrot, as she continued to politely sniff them and look curiously into Ryan’s hand.  Ryan bit the top of the carrot and chewed it up for her, spitting it into his hand to try to coerce her into trying it.  He crouched low to see if she felt more comfortable trying it closer to the ground thinking that if he showed her near the ground she may decide that it was food worth trying.  She sniffed it harder this time and then looked at him again with puzzlement. “She doesn’t understand us mom.” He said sounding concerned. 
“She will honey,” I reassured him, “She just needs time.”
We sat with her for a while longer and I let her sniff into my ear for as long as she needed to, and I allowed myself to trust her.  I felt like she was taking in my entire soul with each breath and trying to distinguish and initiate me into her new herd. She was so curious and so innocent, I felt like she wanted to identify and understand every inch of who I was.  It seemed as if she wanted to trust me, and she was so accepting of us, that I felt invited by her to stay there.  We each hugged her dozens of times, and felt called to do so.  I felt her long neck stretch around me as if she understood how to communicate with love even if she did not understand our words or our offering of treats yet. 

First Day of her new life (photo credit Sarah Townsend)
It was 4 am when I finally noticed my watch, and the sun was beginning to rise through the windows in the barn, and although I was reluctant to leave her, I knew it was time to let her work out her fears inside the barn alone for a few hours.  My heart ached as I listened to the quickness of her hooves circling the stall frantically, and she called anxiously for us as we turned and walked out.  I could still hear her as we drove down the driveway, and I could even hear her in my restless sleep which I struggled to get through so that I could get back and be with her again the next day.  I remembered my mom telling me so often that life always looks better in the light of day and I had hoped that it would be true for Sara, as my heart was full of love and so stricken with empathy at the same time.
 When I woke up the next morning I went straight to the barn to meet her.  She was standing in the center of her paddock looking stoic and sure of herself though I knew she had suffered through the early morning hours after we left.  Many of the early days were spent letting her meet the children of the barn, and letting her observe what daily life in a training barn was like. Every day I watched her try to be a part of our world with great success and begin to immerse herself in the joy of the love and pampering that we provided her.  She works at finding her way among us all, and fitting in, but she is a mare with conviction, and with a full heart that is slowly healing.
I found interesting parallels when we both took a step back and looked around at the walls and the bars that seemed to hold us back.   As the days and weeks passed I realized that acceptance had been a large part of her healing, as it was in my own.  As I awaited her arrival, when I spent all of the hours staring at her photograph, I had not considered that I would be aiding her with the transition into a life of acceptance.  Within my own struggles and my own evolution I recognized this very longing, and knew that she too would help me to accept my daily life as I was awakening and learning to accept what is now, and release old dreams and promises made to myself so long ago that those promises no longer needed fulfilling.
I was surrounded by beautiful horses every day, and had built a life around loving and training them and the people who ride them, but I was missing the whole point of the meaning of horses within my own life.  I have always had the gift of being able to compare the content within teaching riding lessons with life lessons, but somewhere along the path I had forgotten that the most important student was me.  I laugh inside when I think about how I rescued this horse, as it was me that was the real rescue.  Today I can teach from my heart again, my message feels authentic and fresh, and I genuinely cherish every horse and rider in my care more than I had ever imagined possible.
The woman in the mirror looks much more recognizable now.  I see the lines and the not so perfect body, but I know that I have grown into this image, and that sleeping through my life would not lead me to the beauty of the days that lie ahead for me.  Watching the strength of the character of this horse has brought me back to this moment of gratitude so quickly.  I have lost the need to seek happiness outside of myself, as she reminds me by example that healing and happiness is within me and within reach.  And although the heart of this horse was wounded, she would repair it in her own time, accept life at her own pace, and she has begun the process of owning her role as a human healer among horses. 
As I watch Sara mend herself and become so sure of her place in our world, in her new life, I feel incredibly proud to follow her example of great strength and acceptance in my own life.  I have long believed that a person’s horse is a clear reflection of the best of who they are, and I aspire to be more like her each day; for she is a fear facer, a heart healer, and a strong individual who can be anything for anyone.  I am awakened by the flow and strength that Sara renewed for me, and the lessons that she gave to me. Gratefully today I live contentedly, and I am experiencing life from the voice of my soul perhaps for the first time.  I can find “now” so easily these days, and I watch Sara with great pride, as she eats carrots from her red feed bucket, and enjoys a daily smorgasbord of apples and sweet potatoes along with them.   
                                        Sara one year later...
                  (Photo Credit: Dory Touhey Photography)

Thursday, November 1, 2012



Last year on 11-7-11 our family adopted a kitten named “Lucky”.  I often look at her and think about what she endured at just 10 weeks old, and how she appears to have absolutely no attachment to the pain or to the loss that she may have experienced as I watch her playing with her toys, chasing what seems to be nothing, and begging for treats next to the dogs who have trained her so well.  Maybe she understands that she had to experience some hardships in her short life to get to the life that she was destined and blessed to live? 

Lucky was left for dead in a school yard in one of Chicago’s worst and most violent Southside public schools.  Someone had placed a miniature noose around her tiny neck and attached it carefully to a wire fence on a school yard leaving her there to die.  I would imagine that the people who did this have done terrible things to other animals.  I would imagine the people who did this have had horrible things done to them.  But I do not feel that I should judge them sitting here in my suburban glory; I do not feel that the lesson of the kitten lies anywhere within the pain that someone felt they needed to inflict upon the kitten to alleviate the pain of a life that someone like myself could not even begin to understand.

 Conversely, I do find within myself very deep appreciation for, and a reflective need to honor the children who found her in time.   It is profound to imagine the children who must have been brought up in very much the same environment as the ones who inflicted the death sentence on the kitten.  But instead of leaving her there, these children chose love over pain, and saw some value in her little life, and perhaps at that moment, the kitten had awakened some value in their own lives too.  The children who were running and playing were given an opportunity on that day to be more than just kids playing.  Those kids were given the opportunity to be heroes in a place where heroes are rarely seen; Right there opportunity met them on their own playground. 

When they found the kitten, I can picture a scene where one of them lifted her away from the tension of the noose and held her still, while the other child untied her as friends looked on. I can imagine how they felt empathy maybe for the first time, while speaking of how cute she was, and how everyone together wanted to help too.  I envision the one who was holding her above her noose, putting her neatly into his coat and zipping it up to help to protect and warm her as he ran her back to the safety of the inside of the school to tell his  teacher.  I picture the feeling of warmth inside his heart, as he felt the safety of the kitten, so very small, resting calmly within the security in between his coat and his warm body. I envision the kindness within the hearts of the others, when they realized that they had done something good in a world where it often seemed that little good could be done. 

When the children got to the doorway and brought the tiny infant kitten to their teacher they were worried about what would happen to her now.  These kids had seen so many horrific things in their short lives, and they could relate to the pain of the kitten who like themselves, had seen too much pain in her short time here on earth.  She seemed okay though, and she still looked back at them with love, for she held no resentment towards people, but instead the kitten basked in the gratitude for the moment of the celebration of her survival, as she purred in the arms of the child who found it within him to save her.

The teacher made sure that little Lucky found her way to an animal shelter where she would remain until our family found her.  My cat Jake had just died three weeks prior.  Jake was also found in a situation that seemed to have no way out.  He found warmth on the gas tank of a dually pickup truck hauling horses from the stable where he was born to be one of many barn cats.  The driver kept hearing what sounded like meows coming from somewhere inside the cab.  When they found the kitten still hanging on for dear life to the gas tank after hours of driving in the rain, they decided to name him Lucky.  Twenty years later, after a blessed life, he passed the torch to the new Lucky in our lives. 

When Rene and I walked into the Pet Smart on that Saturday we had no intention of getting a kitten.  I was looking at pure breeds, like Ragdoll kittens and Bengals, online all night the night before, and I really had completely convinced myself that I wanted to buy from a breeder this time.  Rene was convinced that we were not getting a cat of any kind, so when he said, “Let’s go look at the cats”, I almost fell over.   

“Okay.” I said surprised, but I got really keyed up inside, like my intuition was speaking to me to go and take a look, especially since Rene had suggested it, and he was so against getting another cat.  It was an unusual day at Pet Smart, and on that particular day the Safe Harbor Shelter was there, and there were many, many kittens visiting for the weekend in the hope that someone would take them to their new forever home. 

I curiously looked into all of the cages. They were placed on stands that were right out on the sales floor, not inside the cattery behind glass as they usually were.  Many families were there holding kittens.  We had our dogs with us on leashes, and they were curiously looking in at the kittens, and behaving respectfully, as they always do.  I spotted a little gray and white female kitten in a cage of three or four black kitties who were playing wildly while she sat contently and watched.  I stuck my hand inside her cage and she bent her neck so that I could scratch her behind her ears.  She was so beautiful and delicate looking, and seemed so sweet and quiet so I asked if I could hold her.  “I have never had a female pet.”, I thought, and I was drawn to her.  I pictured a pink girly bedroom for her full of frilly pink toys, and pink bedding.   

 A woman from the shelter came up to me and said, “Oh, you’re holding Lucky.”

“Lucky?” I said. The woman who ran the shelter told me about Lucky’s story, and I was positive that she would be coming home with us.  I was overwhelmed right then, with the awareness that she was indeed our cat; that for certain she had been sent to us and for us. No more dreams of pure bred Bengals and Ragdolls, we had most certainly been called to this rescue and rescue now we would.  I have never once regretted this kitten, and she has become one of the greatest gifts of my life, one of the greatest blessings of our family.     

This kitten was not ever intended to be a cat of the streets of Chicago, hunting for food and living out her days in a cruel and harsh world, but while she was there she had to endure, she had to fight, and she had to push through those horrible and frightening days in order to find us.  I often think about the lessons in the story, and I know that her destiny, her purpose was wrapped and packaged so neatly within those lessons. I think that we are often times put in agonizing situations to teach and learn lessons, and in turn we are rewarded for our sacrifices when we see our way through, and we can look back and see the path which was to be our own fate both as the student and as the teacher. 

Perhaps it is simply that the lesson of the kitten is found within the journey; as she offers us a lesson of endurance, of fortitude, and a lesson in patience, as we trudge along to overcome hardships in our own daily lives.  Perhaps her message is simply to teach us that if we learn to walk through our lives unafraid of the pain, with very little attachment to the outcome, and with no worry; there will undoubtedly be a promise of freedom, peace, love, and serenity right there waiting in front of us.  The lesson of the kitten is one of great hope and optimism.  Hope for the future of the kids who saved her in their school yard, hope for us that we can endure anything, and hope for the kitten who was graciously rewarded the beautiful life that we are blessed to be able to give her. 

On November 7, 2011, Lucky became another lucky cat, who will live out her life blessed with gratitude, as she is forever carrying the gifts of the lessons her sweet soul came to leave us with on that day. 

(In keeping with the tradition of the Lucky who came before her, Lucky’s name has been changed to Coco.)   

Friday, September 28, 2012

Herd Bound

This is the story of the special herd saved by a caring individual, who found another caring individual who knew just what to do to get this herd home. This story is nothing short of a miracle, and has provided me so much hope for the future of all of us. (Our girl Sara is pictured here resting her head on a friend)   

Paint horses are mystical creatures surrounded with spirit, and each one has as much mystique as the divinely designed flawlessness in the markings that make them each so distinctive. I now own a Paint; she was one of a herd of nineteen others, mostly Paints like herself, that I played a part in rescuing this past summer.  I witnessed proof of compassionate humanity existing among us as I saw hundreds of friends looking at posts of pictures of the almost forgotten ill fated herd on Facebook. This group grew to become an unstoppable force of hopeful humanitarians that magically orchestrated a new and hopeful reality for these horses.

 I took an enormous leap of faith and picked the mare out of a lineup of photos. I couldn’t stop going to her picture and looking at the side view of her face and eye. It looked like there was a beautiful painting of a swan on her right side and a dragon with a full wing span on the left. Up by the top of her neck near her ear was a tiny picture of a horse that looked like an Egyptian cave drawing I thought.

Her eyes were what really struck me though.  They had bold expression in them and though you could see the white, like so many paints, it was not like a mistrusting eye that makes a person leery of a horse, it seemed more like an intelligent eye that could look right into your soul. Her eye was one that could soften you, explain your fears, your pain, or anything that deep kind eye needed to teach you at the exact moment you needed to learn the lesson. That eye could demonstrate kindness, bring you warmth, understanding, and an eye like hers could even heal you. I saw in her something that I desired, and although initially I knew that I would be rescuing her, I also knew with great faith and clarity that she would come into my life to salvage me, to awaken me, to heal me, but most importantly to teach me.


The herd, which had learned to move like an easy river over rock, and sludge, and any further difficult terrain put before them, was in trouble. There were nineteen horses all total, and each had been fattened up, and housed drug free for the 90 day waiting period needed for a kill buyer to ship them alive to Canada and then onward overseas to countries where eating horse meat was now a popular delicacy enjoyed often by patrons of fancy European restaurants.

The herd’s original owner was a dying woman who was given an ultimatum by her husband. She had spent years laboriously developing this herd of beautiful breeding stock which she had enjoyed and loved like her very own children. They each had registration papers and pedigrees miles long that seemed to tell the story of a proud woman who could boastfully talk about the horses she owned and bred for pleasure. When she was weak and ailing, the resentment her husband felt from the time lost to her prized horses, coupled with the expense of taking care of an entire herd of horses, had overtaken him enough that he forced her to sell the last facade of joy in her life to a single buyer. Sadly, the rare buyer buys herds of beautiful horses, so they were sold to a horse dealer, a kill buyer we call them in the industry, who would prepare them to be sold for top dollar by the pound for overseas slaughter, a fast growing and lucrative business in these hard economic times.

In our country, horses are a national treasure that have enriched our history so much that we can hardly even imagine the horrors that go on, and we often choose not to acknowledge these misfortunes as horses are shipped out of our country where they can be consumed in cultures that accept them as food. I have been blessed to know enough of horses personally to believe that whenever possible, they should be given a chance at the best life we can offer them.  Sadly for this herd, the house of cards they had fallen victim to, had finally come down, and they were no longer safe from the harsh reality that existing here on earth can sometimes bring.



The herd knew nothing of their impending doom as they moved quietly through a simple life that had defined them for so long. They worked cooperatively as one pack and no horse among them was either the leader or the follower. They had learned to live together without competition, they were a team, and they had learned to move as one strong entity. They shared space, food, and water; they groomed each other, and slept outside together under trees or shelters that may or may not have been provided them by the humans who were to care for them. They had developed love and affection for one another over years of shared experiences, and each individual in no way felt that any of the others were separate from them. Bound for slaughter, though they had no way of knowing, they had formed a pact that together they were safe, but separate they were uncertain.


The hired driver of the goose neck horse trailer pulled into the kill buyers’ driveway and loaded the first ones she could catch. She immediately took note as to how magnificent they were, and when she was handed the appropriate paperwork for slaughter bound horses, something in her drove her to plead with the kill buyer. Maybe it was the colorful herds’ uniqueness and oneness that had saved them, and somewhere buried just below the surface of the kill buyers own humanity was enough consideration to impel him to give her permission to sell them, if she did it quickly enough, and he received his money. Facebook lit up as the message of desperation and hope was passed along from the shipper to her friend who runs a Michigan horse rescue who quickly moved and decided it was right, as animal rescuers know all too well, to get the word out about this herd and their dire story as this was their only and last hope.

I see countless horse’s faces every day on Facebook that need or are looking for homes, they all have a story in their eyes and it all seems so hopeless. When the first post caught my eye, I admit ashamedly that I glazed over it thinking that I would share it but it would end there. There are so many dismal pictures plastered over my wall that I am overwhelmed by them all, thinking that I cannot possibly do anything to stop this madness of homeless horse after homeless horse. “Too many”, I thought with a head shake. “But I will pass the word along anyway.”

My friend who owns the rescue did not share my languid attitude at all and instead stressed the urgency of the looming situation at every turn and enough times that I could no longer ignore her pleas. “These horses have until Friday to live, and there are many more where these came from.” the post read. There was a photo of a beautiful bay gelding that caught my eye immediately. He was a thick and sturdy looking quarter horse, who somehow was thrown into the mix of breeding mares.


“How on earth did this guy get here?” I thought as I looked at his picture, which showed his confident demeanor and strong stance, “He looks like a riding horse, not a brood mare.” I thought out loud.

As a riding school owner I was in need of a lesson horse perhaps, or even a horse I can lease out to one of my clients. We can train any horse if they are level headed enough and this was a robust, handsome quarter horse, so I inquired. When I spoke to the driver she had a strong voice with heart and mileage behind it. She was a trainer too and she informed me that this horse was very sensitive to leg aids and probably could not have a beginner rider on him.

 I really appreciated her honesty, and thought that even though she only had a few days to home this group, she was not going to sell him to the wrong home. So he was not to be my horse, but now the seed was planted that I should continue the search for the right horse. I watched facebook all night after that and noticed that there were some takers on this first group. “If we get this first group homes,” my friend from the rescue posted, “We can get the next group homes and keep on going.”


The first group of four was sold before the Friday deadline. It seemed like a miracle as we all held our breath and looked at the daily reminders and the comments from onlookers. There were plenty of “I wish I had more room”ers  and “I wish I had the money”ers, and an abundance of oohers and aahers, but the actual buyers, those willing to take a leap of faith and listen to instinct and intuition from just a cell phone picture, those were the people we needed to find, and the rescue farm owner knew that the only way this herd would survive was to share, share, and share some more.


The next group of four was picked up by Monday and we were off to the races yet again to find the next batch of would be owners for them. There was a handsome chestnut gelding in this bunch that interested me but he was described as too green for my needs, and the others were not exactly right either. One by one we shared and shared the pictures of the innocent faces of these kind horses, and had to watch with our breath held as the owner of the Michigan rescue stuck the neck of her rescue efforts out to save them, pleading with the Facebook community to share and repost so everyone could see them. She actually had people asking her why they weren’t free horses, questioning her integrity, and the integrity of the rescue, leading her to pose the question “What is a horse rescue?” and “Who qualifies as a recue horse?”


I watched in anguish as she fought for her cause as she so often does, but knew that my horse was not in this second group. Some of my fellow trainer friends were getting agitated on my shared posts saying things like, “Come on people! These horses deserve homes, they deserve a chance.” Someone even reminded us all that the famous Snowman was once a rescue horse and he was bought for $200 and went on to become one of the greatest show jumping legends of all time.

“One of these could be the next Snowman”, she pleaded, which lead one of our peers, a professional horseman within the hunter jumper community to step up and become a Facebook hero when he bought the chestnut gelding who had such an innocence about him that we could hardly stand waiting to see if he had to be shipped to a deadly fate. All four were sold by Friday and the kill buyer got his cash in hand late that afternoon. I heard a collective cheer seemingly through the vibration of my laptop on Facebook that night, and I cried for the horses that had no idea they were in danger, no idea that tonight they had been saved.


Pleased with his fast money, he told the shipper to take the last group of horses in their entirety and sell them. She was given two weeks this time. When she arrived there, she put as many in her trailer as she could catch and made a few trips. She had to leave two behind because one was a stallion who was too wild and unruly to load into the trailer, and the other one was so lame and elderly that she could hardly stand up any longer.

Her heart was broken as she drove away unable to keep her promise to the herd. When she got the horses to her farm she tied them all to a hitching post to bathe them and assess the situation. Some of the horses were very rarely handled by people and were frightened. One horse was so afraid that she tried to break loose from the holding area and tragically slipped, fell, and broke her neck. The horse had to be destroyed the old fashioned way with a bullet at the scene with the whole herd looking on. The kill buyer insisted that the shipper pay for the dead horse, so money had to be added to the prices of the last group in order to make up for the one that had died.

It was to her the worst most heartless experience of her life, and although she was doing the best she could and felt called to do the work, she could not help but feel the enormity of the tragedy which had unfolded before her. Unfortunately she was not a Facebook user, and she had no idea of the rally that was going on behalf of the herd.  She had no idea that people across nations were now rooting for them, and the driving force behind finding the members each homes had become virtually unstoppable.

The powerful determination of Facebookians far and wide would see nothing but a happy ending to this story. With the rescue owner at the helm of the motion to push through, the wall post read, “Slaughter Bound herd in Michigan in need of homes now!” We all shared, and shared again the message of impending doom each day, posting the album of the individual pictures of each horse like “wanted” signs all over our walls and the walls of our friends, and pretty soon we had roughly a thousand onlookers behind us.


The final and largest batch was posted on a Friday. I remember getting very restless to see them and knowing that my horse was probably among this last group of horses. I recall checking my facebook page, my friends’ personal page, and her rescue’s page several times that day, and when the pictures finally came out I saw my Sara. She was called “Honey” because her papers said “Honey Dus Print”. I looked at her photo for a long, long time. People were making comments beside her picture saying things like, “This is my pick.” “Save this one for me.”, and, “This is my dream horse can I have her?”

Honey Dus Print
I said nothing, made not one comment or even a “like”, as I did not want to bring any more attention to the photographs of the horse I knew would be my own. I remember calling my husband on the phone at work and asking him to look at her photo. “She’s nice.” he said with indifference behind his tone.


           Saturday and Sunday, I looked at the photo several times, and looked deeply into the one showing eye of the horse I had already named Sara after my guardian angel.  I could not stop thinking about her. “She is not a beginner horse you know.” my pragmatic husband said with a coolness in his voice. “If we are going to buy a horse Rhonda,” he said sensibly, “We really need a horse that is useful to us right away.” I stayed quiet because I knew he was not wrong about any of it, his reasons were realistic, and practical, but I couldn’t stop staring at her photograph. More and more comments were lining up underneath her photo as the hours went on.

“SLAUGHTER BOUND HERD IN DANGER AND IN NO WAY SAFE!!!” The haunting description read, “We have only two weeks to sell the rest of them or they WILL get shipped.” The photo share caption threatened and I shuddered to imagine that beautiful, perfect mare on a trailer heading to a holding pen, and eventually on to an airplane, and then perhaps countless more dangerous holding pens preparing her for a devastating fate. It was her journey that worried me the most, and I thought about the immeasurable number of other beautiful horses who never even get the chance to be seen on facebook.

I stared at her photograph all night until it seemed that I knew her. The vibrant colors on her sides seemed to blend now, morphing into one large painting of another perfect horse losing hope.


          No one had taken any of them in yet and it was Monday morning. “Two weeks from last Friday comes so fast.” I thought out loud. “Someone else would have bought her already if she was not meant to be ours.” I convinced myself. I was folding laundry and feeling so anxious about her and in a moment of hopeful panic I picked up the phone and dialed the number of the shipper who had stumbled upon the ill fated herd. I felt I could trust her because she had been so very forthright with me when I called about the bay gelding from the first group.

If she hadn’t have answered the phone I would have questioned myself and might not have attempted another call. She told me that she had never seen such a horrible scene, and that she would never do anything like this again, as she was affected so profoundly that she would never be the same. I remember thinking with great clarity and conviction that she was being utilized as an angel, and how through the wreckage and the heartache she could not see this yet.

I remember trying to comfort her in vane as she shared with me the story about the dying woman who had owned this herd, and how she could never forgive herself if she didn’t see this herd through, and finally she told me quietly about the two whom she had to leave behind. Tears streamed down my face as I listened and empathically felt her pain, noticing the words weakening as they came from her once strong voice which now cracked as she spoke to me.

My reply felt cold but I was honest. “I don’t think I can do it because she is not exactly what we need.” Then with a softening voice I told the truth, “There is something about her picture though that I just can’t shake.” I spoke with hope in my voice, “I promise you,” I said with sincerity, “I will call my husband and call you right back if I can take her.” As I hung up the phone I was confident that she would never expect a call back from me, and I also knew for certain that I had only a moment to get my husband on the phone.


I contemplated the uncertainty of his answer and knew that I had to be careful. But I also knew that my husband understands how fate and intuition play a large role in our lives way more than I ever give him credit for, so I spoke from my heart. I spoke of my experience on the phone with the woman and told him the story she had shared with me. He was quiet but he knew that we had to do what was right by this mare. He too had gone back to her picture several times, though he had been much more discreet about it. “Let’s get her.” He said in a calm strong voice.  I sat stunned for a moment, “Go ahead and call her back.” He repeated, noting my breathless silence. 


I am not sure if I even said goodbye to him, but I do remember that I couldn’t hang up the phone and redial fast enough. My hand fumbled recklessly on the keys once or twice.  I then had to concentrate and redial the number more slowly as I was not going to make an untimely mistake in dialing it again when I had only moments to spare.

I anxiously asked how to pay for her.  I could feel my heart beating strongly against my chest as I momentarily assessed the impulsivity of the act I was about to embark on. Nevertheless, when she sent me to her PayPal account, I spared not even a minute before making the transfer, and within moments she was ours.

I pensively sat on the bed where I had made the calls, sitting precisely where I had spent hours looking at her photo and the photo of the herd together so many times, and recognized that I had just made a profound and significant decision for all of us. Chills blew through me as I connected gratefully with the guidance that I had listened to, and I knew, without any evidence of remorse, that I had done the right thing and that Sara was finally coming home.


I proudly posted a comment under the beautiful photo showing our Honey, my Sara, declaring that she was sold and confirming to all of the onlookers that we had bought her. A sudden and immediate barrage of posts flooded the photograph. There were now 30 or 40 comments underneath her picture congratulating me on our new horse. I felt completely uncertain of what journey lay before me, but I knew one thing, at that instant I knew that I could breathe again because she was safe. I had never felt so much relief, and now I could wait for her safe arrival, and deal with the next chapter of our journey as it came, knowing with great faith that I had listened to the right voice this time. I was now able to continue to help find homes for the others, as I was now able to begin to lead by example.


          All of the horses found homes and followed suit after Sara was sold. No horse that was taken to the shelter of the kind shippers’ barn would have to endure a grueling slaughter journey. The final horse that remained from the herd did not find a home within the strict time frame. She was an older mare who was plainer looking than the others, and barely broke, but she was slow and kind. An anonymous donor from our group of faithful Facebook friends, found it in their heart to pay for the last and final horse so that the shipper could put the payments behind her, on time, and begin to heal herself as she now had the occasion to find the perfect home for this final mare, which she did just a couple of weeks after the deadline.

The more time I spend with our Sara, the more that I appreciate how the herd acted as one. I think about the parallels of the work we all did together that was much like the work of the herd, and how really simple our place and purpose is as individuals. We are here to learn that we are all more the same than we are different; That when the universe asks us to step up, we can either choose to disregard the call, or we can become a powerful force that rallies around each other sharing the simple message before us, because after all we do recognize the idea that as one we are just one, but as a working herd we are the sum of our whole.

Together, we witnessed all of the posting and sharing that began with one and multiplied into a flock of many who had just one goal in mind. The goal, though it seemed to be as simple as the saving of some horses, was about the humanity that binds us together and the hope of people who proudly want to proclaim that love always wins. The herd was nothing but a reminder of the lesson, and living with the blessing that is Sara in my everyday life, I am reminded of the power of all of us together for one purpose, as we are as strong or as weak as the herd that was built out of a dream of one, which went on to become a vision of hope for so many.

When we glance back at the tragedy of the misbegotten herd, separated but bound as a whole, living forever within each of us who were lucky enough to be touched by this story that we all chose generously and collectively to share, we can hear a quiet undertone that reminds each of us that wherever we look, we will always find love seamlessly within one great herd moving together steadily throughout our lives.


If you would like to help rescued horses like Sara who are still looking for permanent placement, sponsorship adoption, and donations, please visit