This is the true story of our little rescue horse originally destined for slaughter, but saved by a little girl. A story of hope and second chances, but also of loss and incredible heartache…
We were out at dinner late Friday night with my teenage son, who was visiting from school for the holiday, when I quickly scrolled through FB and saw pictures of a little Dun QH mare in trouble and posted on Auction Horses. I showed my husband and he immediately said “let’s go get her.” I then looked at my son, feeling bad, as I doubted this is how he wanted to spend his vacation and without hesitation he said “we can leave tomorrow morning, I’ll help you guys get everything ready tonight.” Minutes later I contacted Sabrina from AH. The mare was in the kill pen ready to be shipped to slaughter the next day, so we had to act fast to keep her safe. I paid her bail money in the car on the ride home and we hitched up the trailer in the pitch dark.
Early the next morning we started the 6 hr round trip…
On our way up north to pick up the rescue mare, we encountered almost every type of weather possible. Pounding rain to freezing rain and hail, high winds that threatened to blow us off the road, snow and icy roads, then finally sunshine as we pulled into Sunnyside, WA, which seemed rather fitting.
When we finally arrived at the feedlot, it was a sad sight indeed. Horses huddled together in the pens; mares, geldings, stallions, ponies, and even some mares in foal. Some friendly and curious, some disconnected and confused. A few of them had very thin coats from being previously blanketed and shivered a bit, moving closer to the warm body next to them when the wind blew. Some still had shoes on or a clipped bridal path. These horses were once loved by humans, but we’re now standing in their own excrement…waiting.
Perhaps they wait, tragically unaware of their 50/50 shot at life or death, or they stand huddled with a sense of knowing that humans have failed them and vow to never trust again. Those are the ones that don’t turn and look at you.
But then..there she was, our little mare, up in front by herself. She was in a small pen, tied to the fence. When she saw us, she let out a loud whinny that seemed to come from a horse much bigger than she was, and vibrated every inch of her petite body. The gates of her pen rattled as she frustratingly pawed at the ground. Her mate was in the pen behind her and she seemed nervous and upset to be by herself. Her expression was curious yet friendly. Her body language was anxious but non-aggressive. She had the sweetest eyes protected by long eyelashes, and calculated ballerina-like movements as she swiveled her hind quarters back and forth along the fence. I liked her immediately.
The man at the feedlot put our halter on her and walked her towards our trailer. Her head gently bobbed left to right as she tiptoed forward, surveying her surroundings like a timid doe. She climbed right up into the trailer when asked like she’d done it a million times before and stood quietly while she was tied. The heavy doors of the trailer were closed with a loud thud and a squeak behind her, but still she stood calmly looking forward. I climbed onto the outside of the trailer standing on the wheel well to get a better look at her and to introduce myself. I let her smell me and see my hands, then reached slowly towards her neck to pet her for the first time. She had the softest fur I had ever felt. I could feel her muscles start to relax under my fingers and she dropped her head slightly and let out a slow sigh through her nose.
I jumped down off the trailer and said “let’s go home girl!” She lifted her head and whinnied again as loud as she could into the air as if to say goodbye forever to her friends still in the pen. As we drove away from the feedlot I heard her whinny from within the trailer one last time. I looked back towards the horses to see every single one of them turned in the same direction to face the road, all of their eyes watching us leave.
For the first several miles of the 3 hour trip back home, we could feel the mare moving and shifting her weight back and forth in the trailer causing us to fish tail ever so slightly. An unnerving event for the driver, in this case my husband, but completely normal behavior for a horse in an open stock trailer. Any human that has had to stand on an overcrowded bus knows the feeling of balancing your weight. You naturally open your legs wider with one foot slightly in front of you to shift your center of gravity. This allows your hips to rock and swing in a circle as the floor moves underneath you. If you’re holding on to a pole, you might even press your side into it to further stabilize your weight and avoid being catapulted forward when the bus starts and stops. Horses employ a similar stance within a trailer and if given a choice, will almost always position themselves in a diagonal or slant in comparison to the road, with legs spread far apart for balance. When the movement from the trailer subsided, we could tell she had maneuvered herself into a comfortable position.
Minutes later when we stopped for gas and a potty break for the kids, I got out to check on her and just as I had suspected, she was in a slant position with her hind end pushing slightly against the center divider for support. I gave her a small handful of hay, which she took from my hand gently yet eagerly and munched loudly with her eyes closed. Such a sweet girl, I thought to myself. Why did someone just throw her away? What was her history? Did she have some terrible vice unbeknownst or unrevealed that would rear its ugly head when we started to get to know her? I suppose I would find out soon enough. But for now, our mission was home.
When we reached highway speeds and the rhythmic hum of the road set in, we passed the time by chatting about our first impressions of her. We all agreed she seemed to have an adorable personality, and even my teenage son was quite taken by her. We started to discuss names, shouting out silly suggestions that would obviously never stick. For it was our eldest daughter, Rylee, who turned 10 last Spring, that would be the one responsible for picking a suitable name. Rylee’s first horse and best friend Jessie, a 27 year old mare, had recently been diagnosed with arthritis and a build up of fluid in her knee. The news that she would no longer be able to ride Jessie in her training sessions hit her hard. Finding this little rescue mare on Facebook couldn’t have come at a better time. Still, it was a tender subject and one that we treaded lightly with Rylee. She had been silent the ride home so far, her face still, headphones on, gazing out the window at the trees creating a green blur as we drove past. She was no doubt feeling a mix of emotions about what she had called “Jessie’s replacement” even though I witnessed her grinning and whispering to the mare when we stopped earlier and she didn’t know I was watching.
I tapped her on the shoulder and motioned for her to take her headphones down.
“What do you think of the name Whinny? She has an impressive one!”
“No. I need to get to know her first before I can come up with a name.”
“Okay honey. No rush.” I stroked her hair and I dropped the subject.
We were less than an hour from home.
About 30 minutes from home, we started plotting a strategy for our new mare’s homecoming. We left in such a hurry that morning we hadn’t had a chance to really think about where we were going to put her. We knew with her coming out of a feedlot, that we would have to maintain a strict quarantine procedure for at least 30 days in order to keep our other horses free of potentially fatal illnesses that these rescue horses can carry. That meant no sharing of water, no interchangeable tack and no touching of noses. We decided to unload her in the front of our house, rather than in the back by the barn. We would take her directly to the two front pastures where she could have her own water and about an acre of fresh grass to graze on. The front pastures and the big pasture out by the barn were about 3 acres apart, so we knew it was a good solution for now. Plus, this way we could keep a better eye on her and visit with her every time we went down to the chicken coops.
The plan was for my husband to unload her from the trailer while I assist and open the pasture gates. But after a 3 hour car ride and an extra cup of coffee, I needed to unload my bladder before I could assist with anything. By the time I ran back outside from the house, I could see my husband and kids already walking her through the trees to the front pasture.
“She unloaded like a dream, she’s an absolute doll!” My husband shouted over to me.
I could see my daughter Rylee running up ahead to open the gates, she had a renewed spring in her step and a much more joyful look on her face than before in the car. My husband walked the mare into the pasture as we closed the gates behind him. He quietly asked her for a walking lunge to which she obliged and then yielded her fore and hindquarters to him when he applied gentle pressure. Someone had definitely worked with this girl. Surprisingly enough, from all she had been through the last couple weeks of her life, she showed no signs of being nervous and by the movement of her ears you could tell she was listening and was eager to please. The forecast was calling for heavy rain later in the day and with no shelter besides the trees in the front pastures, we decided to put a rain sheet on her to keep her dry. With any unknown horse, you can never predict how they will handle things like having a blanket or sheet put on, having their feet picked up, taking a halter off, etc. We knew absolutely nothing about this girl so we approached every little thing with a healthy dose of caution.
We waved the rain sheet over her, rustled the fabric in front of her face and then let her smell it. She stood there politely while we buckled and tightened the straps, only lowering her head to the ground to steal a bite of grass every now and then. When my husband slowly removed the halter from her face and backed away, giving her the signal with his body language that she was free to go, we all expected her to take off in a spirited gallop across the field in a moment of wild abandon as many of our other horses had. But instead, she trotted right over to Rylee who was standing to the right of the pasture and just stood there in front of her. Rylee looked a bit shocked at first but then her face softened and you could see the gratitude in her eyes from such an unexpected gesture. She reached up to pet her forehead, running her hands down the blaze on her face and resting just above her nose. She carefully leaned in and kissed the side of her face and as the mare came closer and lifted her head over Rylee’s shoulder, she threw her tiny arms around her neck. With eyes closed and a smile bigger than her cheeks would allow, she giggled and stroked the mares mane.
“She’s hugging me momma!!!” She squealed in pure love and delight.
“I know sweetheart. I see!” But somehow, internally, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.
It was as if these two had already known each other and were being reunited, not just meeting for the first time. The vision of them standing there together in the pasture would be burned into my heart forever.
My back had really started to ache as I wiggled in the tiny chair trying to get comfortable. I realized I had been slouching in my seat as I straightened my posture and clasped my hands together on the table in front of us. My focus settled on the cartoon elephant juggling oranges on the wall above the whiteboard. Why do they make the parents sit in these tiny chairs? Mrs. Freeman began walking towards us with a rhythmic clip clop clip clop of her high heels on the floor. She had been trying to escape another teacher asking her about a student from last year for the past five minutes.
“Okay, Rylee where were we?” She sat down opposite the table from us, in a normal sized chair, and rustled through a stack of papers. She praised Rylee for her spelling scores and her efforts in writing and hurriedly showed us some of her recent math tests. She looked tired. I wondered how many conferences she had done today already.
“…and yes, our field trip is coming up. Rain or shine we will be out there planting trees. Rylee, do you know why we plant the weeping willows on the river banks?”
“Because the willow branches shade the water and keep the soil from washing into the river and killing the salmon eggs.” She said confidently.
“Yes. That’s exactly right. Great job. The willows are very strong trees and can withstand the high winds we have here near the gorge without breaking. They play a big part helping the salmon to stay safe and survive their journey back home.”
We thanked her for her time as she shook our hands and patted Rylee on the back. She told her to keep up the good work and walked us to the classroom door. Another round of parents were coming in as we were leaving.
The first several days after bringing the mare home, I didn’t see Rylee much. She would disappear before school and reappear again out of breath with rosy cheeks, her muck boots on and mud on her jeans. After school she would throw her backpack on a hook and I would catch a glimpse of her running down the hill to the pasture with a snack hanging out of her mouth and her boots halfway on.
During dinner one night I asked her how it was going out there with the horse. She tightened her lips into a partial frown, slowly shaking her head and explained how she just couldn’t understand. How could a horse like her be at a feedlot in the first place? She wasn’t lame or sick or mean, so why her? She told me about one night when she went down to feed her. It was already dark out and the wind was howling fiercely through the trees. The horse was pacing and was clearly spooked and not interested in her dinner, so Rylee had climbed through the fence to try and calm her down. She explained how her presence set the horse at ease and she hovered close to her. She could feel the horses warm breath on her cheek. Rylee said it seemed like she was trying to protect her and shield her from the wind and that it wasn’t so much the wind she was afraid of, but more the fact that she was alone. She then asked me how a horse could still be this loving and trusting after everything she had been through? It was a hard concept for a young girl to comprehend. The harsh realities of the world were sometimes just too much for a big heart in a little body to grasp. We walked down to the barn together that night to feed the other horses. We mucked the stalls, filled the water buckets and chatted nonchalantly about friends and school and of course, horses.
“Oh hey, I forgot to ask you how that field trip went. The one where you planted the Willow trees?” I asked her from the adjacent stall.
“We didn’t plant willows. We planted some other kind of tree instead.” She said as she banged the pitch fork against the wall to release the stubborn chunks.
“Hmm that’s weird. Your teacher went into such detail about the Willows and how they don’t break.”
“I guess it doesn’t really matter what kind of tree you plant. The trees breaking might be a good thing because the branches that fall into the water can create secret little hiding spots for the fish to get out of the current or away from predators. At least that’s how I look at it.”
As I raked, I thought about what she had said. Half of me beaming with pride over her sudden reflection and wisdom. The other half of me filled with sadness that she was growing up so fast. It was that heartbreaking bittersweet feeling that all parents experience at some point. Even though you know it’s inevitable, you’re never quite ready for the sting of it.
She mumbled something from the other stall that I couldn’t quit make out.
“What, honey?” I asked as I pushed the wheel barrow out of the stall onto the barn floor.
She was turned away from me looking out towards the back of the barn into the muddy run with the trees blowing back and forth.
“I hate the wind mom.”
“I know. I do too bug.”
She came back around the wall of the stall continuing from earlier
“…they bend and they sway but they don’t break. They just stay there, fighting the wind but not giving in. They just keep growing in order to protect whatever is living underneath them.”
I stayed quiet as I knew this was a conversation she was having more with herself than with me. Just then her face changed and she looked like she had just invented electricity. Wide-eyed, she looked around, thinking. Then all at once her face and cheeks wrinkled into a precocious smirk.
“I know what I’m going to name her.”
The name seemed to really fit her, and although I had mistakenly called her “Whinny” several times that first week Rylee named her, there was no doubt in my mind that she had chosen the right name.
A few weeks had flown by since we brought Willow home. She was still in the front pasture, under quarantine from our other horses, but her sweet spunk had somehow started to dissipate. She seemed…sad, lonely. She would stand by the front fence for hours looking down our driveway road to the neighbor horses and donkeys about 1/2 mile away. She stopped grazing on grass and her pile of hay from the previous days were still there, untouched. She still enjoyed our company, especially Rylee’s, but she didn’t come prancing down the hill to us like she had the days before.
It was heartbreaking to watch. Was she sick? unhappy? Somehow I knew it wasn’t that. My heart said she was just terribly lonely. Perhaps she had never been on her own before. Horses are herd animals after all. I needed to give her a friend, even if they couldn’t touch noses – she just needed to see there were other horses here with her.
The two pastures are divided by a wooden arbor covered in a climbing white rose bush, a strip of grass and two rows of cherry trees – just enough space to keep them apart but still close enough to get a good look and smell of a friend close by. I closed off the smaller pasture and added a trough of clean water, then headed back to the barn via the blackberry trail to get Jessie.
The trail is wide with tall and fragrant Oregon blackberry bushes on either side. Halfway down the trail is a small bridge that covers the trickling stream that runs through the property year round. The bridge makes a loud hollow thump and shifts slightly when you walk over it. It is a perfect training tool for the horses to learn to walk over scary sounding things and to trust their footing on something moving underneath them. We walk any new horses up and down this trail and over the little bridge over and over again until they learn the sound and the feel of it and then when they’re ready, we hop on their backs and ride them over it the same way. This trail is the only one wide enough for a horse and a human to walk side by side from the front of the property back to the barn, so a spooked horse is not an option here. We take every precaution to ensure our horses are confident and quiet on the trail, as our girls often have to walk them through there in the pitch dark coming back from riding lessons. In doing so we are asking the horses to place all of their trust in the human walking them, as horses have terrible eyesight in low light or dark situations. You learn pretty quick how much a horse trusts you or not on this trail.
During the first few weeks we brought our quarter horse mare Cinnamon home, I had a pretty terrifying experience on this very trail. Cinnamon is a big girl, large boned and hefty and when we got her she was 150 lbs overweight. Just a massive girl at the time. I had done a fair amount of ground work with her and knew she had a go go GO personality. She was pushy, high-strung, nervous, spooky, not your typical quiet minded QH. You could usually calm her down pretty quick though when you got her thinking. She was calmer than usual this day, a little sleepy looking so I took it as a good time to do some more ground work with her. I decided to walk her up to the front pastures as it was a nice warm day, and after we worked a little I could reward her with some grazing time on the fresh green grass. She walked great the first half of the trail up until the bridge. When we got to the bridge I stopped her so she could clearly see what she was about to walk over, then without hesitation and looking forward I confidently but slowly walked over the bridge and urged her forward with the pressure in the lead. She stepped over it like a champ, smart girl. Too smart I later figured out. A few steps after the bridge, something panicked her and instead of trying to flee forward, she unexpectedly stepped sideways and used her left shoulder to nudge me hard, effectively pushing me into those unforgiving blackberry bushes. The vines were caught in my back and hair and I could feel blood running down my cheek, the lead rope had slipped through my hand but I had somehow grabbed tightly onto the knot in the end of it. The feeling of the pressure from the lead rope behind her made her turn and she was now facing me. I could see in her eyes that in that moment she had figured out how much stronger than me she was and combined with her animalistic fear making her eyes appear mostly white, I was in trouble. This trail would forever haunt her and me unless I did something quick. There was no way I could outmuscle a 1200 lb horse and I could certainly just let go of the lead and let her run, which was her instinct. But somehow sending a huge, terrified, running crazy beast right towards my little girls didn’t seem like the best option. Without really thinking, I leapt towards her like a mad woman, swinging the lead back and forth and backing her up. I walked forward towards the pastures, turning her around and she sped up and nudged me again, hard, and this time with her whole body. She had me pinned up against the pasture fence, her huge feet dancing around in her own state of panic, dangerously close to me. I managed to get in front of her so I could move her out and away from me with the lead rope, which was working but I still had to open the pasture fence that was secured with a chain and a clip. I could move her away from me and back her up and get her to move her feet where I wanted, but there was no way I could turn my back to her and use one hand to unlock the chain without her crashing into me. From a far off distance, I could hear my husband running through the trail to help me open the gate.
Walking through the trail now to get Jessie, I thought back to those first few months with Cinnamon and how far she had come. My little girls walk her through that trail now with ease, something I feared may never happen. But we were patient and persistent with her and she had rewarded us with her trust and friendship and love. We couldn’t imagine our lives without her now.
The moment Willow saw Jessie and I coming out of the trail she perked up her head and called out to us with a loud and friendly nicker. She came galloping up the hill from the fence line and danced around excitedly near the gate. Jessie was more than happy to hang out in the small pasture and showed no real interest in Willow, but Willow was beside herself with happiness. Sniffing the air to get a good whiff of Jessie, she finally lowered her head and began to eat. Seemingly surprised at her own newfound burst of energy, she went galloping around the pasture again, still with a large bite of alfalfa sticking out of her mouth. I couldn’t help but watch the two of them for several hours afterwards. Willow seemed so relaxed now. Happy and calm with a full belly, she laid down slowly in the grass and rolled from side to side kicking her legs in the air and stretching her back and neck in a moment of simple pleasure and pure horse bliss.
The wind sounded like a freight train as it pushed through the openings in the trees, ripping off fragments and twigs and thrusting them to their death. Pieces of pine branches with needles still attached twirled through the air like sailboats caught in a tempestuous sea. There was a new bitter chill in the air, the kind that buried itself deep into your bones, freezing you from the inside out. Even skin fully covered wasn’t safe and burned a furious red and purple hue.
Jessie had been up front with Willow for a little over a week before the cold front hit that threatened a deep freeze very early on in the season. Both water troughs were already frozen as were the pipes that fed the hose that watered the troughs. Cold weather like this was rare for us in our area and always took some creative thinking to keep the animals safe from the elements. Jessie was 28 years old now and was more than used to us pampering her. With her old arthritic bones and thin coat, she just couldn’t handle the cold as well as the other horses could.
The dim light of dusk had started to settle in, the temperatures continued to plummet, and the wind was picking up speed. The trees were leaning almost horizontally now and several had already uprooted and gave in to the forces of nature. Jessie was pacing anxiously, wondering why we hadn’t taken her back to the safety of her warm stall yet. With each howl of the wind she grew more and more impatient. As for Willow though, the wind didn’t seem to bother her at all. The sound of the trees swaying and cracking near the west side of the pasture kept her on the east side and she kept looking across the field, wondering if those trees in the distance would offer her refuge or doom.
Jessie lowered her head for me, as she always did, and I slipped the rope halter over her muzzle and felt her instantly give and relax. She knew exactly what the feel of the halter over her nose and the jingle jangle sound of the clasp on the lead meant. I didn’t even need the lead rope with her, and I was attaching it more out of habit than necessity. I could have just opened the gate and walked back through the blackberry trail and she would have followed close behind me, her head lowered and her joints creaking a bit as she stepped over the bridge. She knew the trail well, more from feel and smell rather than from sight, as she was blind in one eye and nearly blind in the other. She also knew that the trail meant relief from the wind and a flake of fragrant alfalfa was waiting for her on the other end, so she was a very willing walking companion. As Jessie and I exited the pasture, I saw Willow lift her head suddenly in our direction and cry out a loud, open mouthed nicker to us. Her worried eyes and stiff neck seemed to plead “Don’t leave me!” as she darted her head back and forth. She was running along the fence line, desperately looking for a way out so she could come with us when I called out to her through the wind, “I’ll be back Willow!”
My gloved fingers had turned numb as I led Jessie into the barn, my face stinging from my hair that had whipped across it and my lungs and nose burning from the frigid air. I could hear Willow still calling to us from the pasture. It was a far more desperate sounding whinny than I had heard from her before. After settling Jessie and the other horses in, I closed the back of the stalls to keep the harsh wind out of the barn and returned to Willow. I found her still running back and forth along the fence, with a terrified look on her face. Not the fierce winds nor the biting cold had bothered her earlier, but seeing Jessie disappear around the bend to a mysterious place had sent her into a frenzy. It was getting dark fast as my husband and I secured the chicken coops for the night. We discussed what to do with Willow with a note of concern, as we knew moving her back to the barn in the dark was going to be tricky. The only part of the property she had seen so far was the front pastures and she was in no way familiar with the blackberry trail, or the small bridge in the middle of it. It was also a week and a half shy of her 30 day quarantine period and allowing her in the barn that close to the other horses was a huge risk. Seeing her now this distraught and frantic, looking as if she might scale the fence at any moment, we quickly made the decision that the benefits outweighed the risk.
My husband bravely volunteered to walk her back to the barn, while I prepared a stall for her. I would wrap the inner walls with plastic so she couldn’t touch noses with the horse in the adjacent stall. Being the A type personality that I am, I needed to make sure he made it to the trail ok with her first before I retreated back to the barn. I watched my husband go into the pasture with her and then quickly lost the sight of him through the heavy darkness. In the distance, I could see the light of his head lamp come on and then a few seconds later I saw it turn off. I waited there a few minutes, wondering where they were, the silence overpowering the cacophony of the wind. My nerves were going crazy but I knew my husband would be cool as a cucumber like he always was. A man with reasonable caution but seemingly never an ounce of fear. I both envied and admired him for that.
Suddenly, I could make out their shapes, walking towards me in the dark. I could hear Willow breathing deeply, no doubt dealing with her own set of nerves. With her breathing I could hear my husband talking to her in a low soft voice as they grew closer to me.
“Whoooooo girl, nice and easy…that’s it, you’re doing great…I’ve got you.” He crooned
“I saw the head lamp go out, what happened? You took forever!” I said
“Yeah, I had to have a little talk with her about trust…and she didn’t like the head lamp at all, freaked her out, I had to turn to off.” He said calmly
“Oh my God. How are you going to see on the path, it’s pitch dark out there!?” I asked, my concern growing with every passing second.
“The same way Jessie does…by feel.” He said as he walked Willow past me towards the trail. “We’ll be fine.” He said as their bodies disappeared into the dark together.
I stood there for a minute, straining to hear any noises coming from their direction. I wanted to hear the hollow strike of her hooves on the bridge so I could determine how successfully and willingly she crossed it based on the sound. I knew my husband would yell out if anything terrible happened. I waited…and waited. Nothing. My whole body was shaking, perhaps from the cold perhaps from the nerves, and even though my senses were heightened I couldn’t see, nor hear…anything. I put the tips of my fingers over my lips and in just the few moments I had to spare, pleaded with God to keep them both safe.
I could hear my heartbeat pounding inside my head as I pivoted around and began a full sprint towards the barn on the foot path.
As soon as I started across the foot path, I could see the barn was still dark. I ran over the foot bridge and up the small hill and opened the side door to the barn. I turned on the barn lights, the stall lights and the big outside light so my husband could see better as he came up the trail from the other side with Willow. I got to work right away covering the side of the stall that shared a wall with the adjacent one with plastic. I was almost done when I heard breathing and footsteps coming into the barn from the big door. Stepping out of the stall I immediately saw Willow and my husband at the entrance. Willow was wide eyed and stiff and her nostrils flared wide open with each breath. She was extending her head into the barn sniffing the air and seemed excited to see not only Jessie but two other horses. My husband, Corey was standing still next to her with his right hand on the lead rope, taking a moment to gather his breath as well.
“How’d it go?” I asked anxiously. Relieved they both appeared to have made it one piece.
“She was spooked pretty good, but I just kept talking to her. We walked pretty slow so she could get a feel for everything and wouldn’t feel rushed, that’s what took so long.” He said leading her further into the barn so we could close the big door to keep some of the wind out. “I’m going to walk her on this far side. Close the tops of all the stalls so the others can’t stick their heads out and touch noses with her as we walk by.”
When we got her into the stall we had prepared for her I rushed inside and finished tacking up the plastic while Rylee brought her in a flake of hay. We loved on her for a bit, petting her and reassuring her she was safe then exited and closed the stall door. She immediately began pacing nervously, running back and forth, pawing and digging at the ground. She looked terrified. Our previously sweet and docile horse had all at once been turned into a wild and crazy beast. It suddenly occurred to me that this mare may have never seen the inside of a stall before. No wonder she seemed so at home in the pasture. But here was our predicament. If we opened the back of her stall she could get out into the big pasture from the run. She could also drink the water out there. There was no way we could take her back to the other pasture in the dark and wind. It was a one way ticket. She would have to stay out here tonight.
The wind continued over the next week but around day 6 started to die down. It had warmed up by around 15 degrees and was lovely and sunny out. Willow had grown more accustomed to her stall even though she made sure to let us know she hated it with every ounce of her being. Her final week of quarantine was over and it was time for her vet check before we would be able to finally let her loose to be with the other horses. She was looking good. She had put on a few pounds and was eating much better than she was the first weeks we had her home. We had wormed her a few weeks ago, put her on some supplements and probiotics and had her terribly overgrown feet trimmed. She could finally walk without dragging her back hooves and she seemed rather keen on that. When the vet arrived and looked her over, I was so relieved to have her give a clean bill of health.
The vet was there to float one of our other mare’s teeth that day so I asked her to check Willow’s teeth as well and give me a confirmation of her age. We had tried to look into her mouth several times since we brought her home, but Willow had refused and was doing so now with the vet as well.
“Oh boy, you’re a tough girl, aren’t you?” She said wrestling with Willow’s muzzle. “Come on let me see those pearly whites.”
We all watched as she twisted her tongue about looking into her mouth while Willow not so politely objected.
“Yeah I’d say she’s a young teen, around 14 or so. She has some pretty sharp points up here so we should probably go ahead and float her. And…” She grew silent and her forehead wrinkled into a frown as she squinted her eyes to look deeper into her mouth. “Oh dear.”
“What is it?” I said moving closer to get a look at what she was seeing.
“She has a pretty nasty scar on her tongue here. Looks like her tongue was almost severed completely in half at one point. No wonder she doesn’t want anyone messing around in here.” She said as she retrieved her hands from her mouth and began petting her forehead and muzzle in a circular motion.
“What in the world would have caused that!?”
She must have seen the worried look on my face as she attempted to reassure me. “Oh she’s ok, it’s all healed up now and doesn’t cause her any pain but she’s had some trauma there and just doesn’t want anyone messing with her mouth. I’ve seen things like this before unfortunately. Some folks use barbed wire bits or even bicycle chain in a horses mouth when they’re breaking them. Pretty horrific stuff.”
My stomach sank and I felt the nausea rising up from my gut into my mouth. “Barbed…wire?” I said with all of the horror I could muster. The visions of someone nearly severing this mares tongue using barbed wire or bicycle chain in her mouth was just more than I could bear and I had to walk away for a moment and collect myself. Then something occurred to me and I walked back over to where Willow, Rylee and the vet were standing.
The vet was showing Rylee her tools for floating a horses teeth and explaining the procedure. I felt myself interrupting them even though I didn’t intend to.
“I have a question for you.” I said, pushing a strand of hair behind my ear. “About a week ago before we brought her back to the barn, we tacked her up and rode her a bit around the pasture just to see what she knew. Rylee rode her too and Willow was amazingly careful with her. In fact, she let Rylee put the bit in her mouth with no problems at all. Is it safe to say she will be ok with a bit going forward or do we need to explore bitless options for her?”
The vet looked over at Rylee and Willow. Willow was nuzzling Rylee in the shoulder and standing close to her smelling her hair and making Rylee giggle. She was ground tied and her lead rope lay dusty and lifeless on the ground in front of her. Any other horse would have gone straight for the big pile of hay bales just feet away or headed for the big door out of the barn, but Willow was content as could be standing next to Rylee, sniffing her hair.
“I’d say she is quite smitten with Rylee and would let her do just about anything. She trusts her and she knows she won’t hurt her. I think you guys will be just fine, whatever you decide. She is a very nice mare. Now Rylee, you want to hold her while I give her a shot to make her relax? She may not like it, so I need you close by to reassure her? Okay?”
“Of course” Rylee said stroking Willow’s cheek. “I’m not going anywhere girl.”
The other horses were already out in the pasture munching on hay and grass when we opened the gate of the run and let Willow out for the first time. Without any hesitation, she pranced out through the mud to greet them in the open field. One by one they each pinned their ears back, lengthening their necks and waving their nose in her direction, warning her to stay away from their pile of hay. Their display of unfriendly body language didn’t seem to phase Willow one bit. She reminded me of a young child running out to the playground with an innocent overwhelming desire to play with everyone all at once. The other horses were being very serious about their breakfast and were in no mood to socialize with a newbie. I watched her circle around in a sunny spot in the grass then pawed at the ground. I knew what was coming next. She slowly buckled her front knees down underneath her and her rump followed close behind in one clunky crash to the ground. She let out a moan as she rolled on to her back digging her head into the Earth, all four limbs flailing about in the air.
Within a week the other horses had clearly accepted her in as part of the herd. They would move aside and let her in to eat hay next to them or even wander away to a different pile when she would approach and pin her ears back. Everyone except Jessie that is. Maybe it was Jessie’s aloof demeanor or simply her age, but whatever it was the others just didn’t mess with her. She was the old lady that simply wanted to eat her hay and stand in the sun and be left alone and so they obliged with courteous respect. Willow’s lack of spacial awareness irritated Jessie a little, but she eventually came to like her presence and they would often be seen out in the pasture standing very close together with their heads hung down in unison. It was a heartwarming sight. Even old grandma horses need someone warm and willing to overlook their crankiness and enjoy their company despite of it.
It was a peaceful time at the barn. The horses were calm and quiet and everyone was getting along harmoniously. A few days after Willow’s introduction though I noticed Cinnamon standing off by herself, looking sleepy. I dropped her pile of hay down but instead of going after it she followed me slowly with her head low. Cinny lived just to eat. It was her favorite thing in the whole world so this was definitely unusual behavior for her. It was just her and I in the pasture by the gate and I whispered to her softly to tell me what was wrong as I massaged her back and smoothed her tousled mane. I worked my hands down her face and muzzle to her nose and felt something wet. I looked down and saw thick mucus sitting inside her nostril. I quickly felt around in her neck and then her throat and could feel that her glands were swollen and she had a walnut sized lump in her throat, right under her jaw.
I left Cinny where she was and went and put a pair of surgical gloves on before touching the other horses. I checked Jessie, nothing. Then Comet, he was fine too. Then I checked Willow with a knot in my stomach knowing that if something contagious was running amuck it would have had to come from her, as the horses hadn’t been in contact with any other horses in months. But Willow was fine too. No runny nose, no swollen lumps. I thought it was bizarre that Cinny was suddenly ill as she was fine the day before. I led her into her stall and closed the back door. I gave her fresh hay and fresh water. I would need to monitor her closely for the next few days and see if she was eating, drinking and pooping regularly.
Over the next couple of days Cinnamon’s health had noticeably improved. She was eating again and her nose wasn’t running. The lump in her throat also seemed to be shrinking. She still wasn’t back to her spunky self, but I could tell she was feeling better. I walked out into the pasture to check on the others and as I approached I could see the piles of hay from the previous nights dinner still laying there. Willow was the only one eating but she looked guilty for doing so and she snuck small bites of hay as she stood there looking worried. I immediately could see the snot coming out of Jessie’s nose. Thick white mucus in both nostrils and something dripping from under her face. I bent down underneath her to take a better look but her fluffy winter coat was covering whatever was there. I brought her into the barn and called Corey out to help me. He shaved the hair under her chin and down to her throat while I held her still. She didn’t argue or flinch and just stood there looking quite ill and lethargic. And then I saw it. A large swollen open wound under her throat, draining puss. We took her temp…steady at 102. I swallowed hard as I looked at my husband.
“This is strangles.”
“Shit!…NO!” He paused “How? I mean it has to be Willow but she got a clean bill of health from the vet just a week ago and she’s not showing any symptoms is she?”
“No. None. She’s completely fine. I don’t get it.”
“What about Comet, have you checked him yet?”
“No, I got so freaked out about this stuff draining out of Jessie’s head I haven’t checked him yet.”
Minutes later he was returning from the pasture and walking into the barn with Comet.
“He’s got a lump, it’s open and draining. We’ve got to shave him too to keep it out of his fur and then I’ll temp him.”
“Oh my God. Oh my God.” I had to think for a moment. “Okay, from what I remember reading I think it’s good that it’s draining. I also know you can’t give antibiotics at this stage and you just have to let it run its course, right?”
“Yeah…wait, didn’t the guy at the kill yard tell us that?”
I thought back to the day when we picked up Willow. I remember the man walking Willow into the trailer and after securing her he looked right at us and his face changed dramatically.
“Okay,” He said adjusting his baseball cap. “You know you have to quarantine her right?” We nodded yes, as we were prepared for that. “30 days, okay? No contact with healthy horses. And this is the most important part, okay?” We nodded again, listening carefully. “If she gets a real bad runny nose, don’t be stupid. Don’t call a vet to come out right away and pump her full of antibiotics. Just let it run its course. Let it drain and drain. Antibiotics can kill her, okay??” Again we nodded.
“Yes, okay, we got it. Thanks. We’ll be careful.”
We had discussed his abrasive nature on the way home but never thought of it again, until this moment. Did he know something we didn’t? Was he trying to warn us somehow? But then again Willow wasn’t sick…at all.
Yet all the others were. 1-2-3, they all had it. Jessie was definitely in the worst condition. Comet had more symptoms than Cinny but Cinny was acting sicker than Comet. None of it made any sense.
We closed up the barn and walked back to the house in silence, in disbelief, in heartache. The uneasiness was palpable. We sat down at the table together and dialed the phone number for our vet.
The phone on the other end of the line rang and rang for what felt like an eternity. Finally a voicemail came on and Corey left a message to please call us back as soon as possible. It was getting late into the evening and we weren’t sure we would be able to get a return call until the next day. We finally went up to bed and I grabbed the iPad and started researching and reading everything I could about Streptococcus equi. The more I read, the more I was sure it was what they had. What I couldn’t figure out though was how they got it. Sure, we rescued a horse from a kill pen. Yes, it’s pretty typical for these horses to bring home strangles and other infectious diseases, which is why you quarantine. But Willow was healthy and she had never shown any signs of being sick, and if she was sick she would have had symptoms by now as we brought her home almost 2 months ago. Incubation period was 3-14 days for strangles, she was way past that. I had so many unanswered questions, but for now I needed to get some rest. I was mentally and physically a mess.
The following day we received a phone call from our vet’s office. Our large animal equine vet was out of the area for the next several days and wasn’t available via phone either. We hung up and started calling other vets in our county. We finally got a hold of a vet about 30 min from us and he was willing to talk over the phone before making an emergency visit out. We explained the situation, listed the symptoms we were seeing and told him we suspected strangles. He asked about Willow.
“So you say you got this rescue horse from Eastern Washington? Was it near Yakima, up there at um…what is it, Sunnyside?”
“Yes, it was the feedlot at Sunnyside. We picked her up the last day of November.”
“Okay, that makes sense. I have several other cases in Clark county with your exact situation. Picked up a rescue late November early December from that same feedlot and the horse ended up with strangles.”
“So you definitely think it’s strangles then?”
“Yeah I sure do. The symptoms and the scenario fit.”
“The rescue mare doesn’t have any symptoms though. She got a clean bill of health from our regular vet and before that we quarantined her for 4 weeks.”
“Well here’s the thing. You can’t reeaaallly quarantine on the same property. If you have dogs, or cats…they can transfer the bacteria. So can bees and flies. You have no control over a crow landing in one pasture and then flying over to the other. The bacteria that causes strangles is so deadly because it’s so contagious. It just can’t be contained the way we wish it could. I can come out on an emergency call, but really the best I could do at this point is give some stronger anti-inflammatory meds or lance open the abcesses, but you say they are already open and draining?”
“Yes they are.”
“Do you have any bute?”
“Yeah we have some out at the barn.”
“So, two clicks of bute, AM and PM and hot pack each horse twice per day as well. Two sponges and very hot water, hold over the abcess for 15 seconds or so then switch sponges. About 15-20 minutes of steady heat each time. It’ll help draw the gunk out.”
“Okay, we can do that. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.”
“You bet. If anything changes or worsens, give me a call back.”
Two days of bute and hot packing Jessie was making little difference. The procedure seemed to feel good to her though and she would press her jaw into the hot sponge and roll her eyes closed in what looked like a small amount of relief. She had stopped eating hay all together several days ago. The vet said strangles is like a really bad strep throat in humans, so I imagined the hay would hurt her raw throat. I was making her warm mash twice a day with tea and herbs and her supplements. At first she would gobble it up in excitement, but now it sat there on the ground uneaten. If I lifted it up the bucket and held it under her mouth she would nibble at it, but she wouldn’t drop her head to the ground to eat it anymore because of the pain.
Cinny and Comet had gone off their hay too for a few days, so I was making a lot of mash and the coffee maker at the barn was working overtime heating up herbal tea. But now, those two were getting better and were back to eating hay while Jessie was slowly going down hill.
I took advantage of the sunny day and took Jessie for a little walk up to the front. It had been days since she had moved around or left her stall and I felt like I needed to force her to get some fresh air and move her body a bit. She was very reluctant to move at all, and walked on at a much slower pace than even her slowest of days. It took us forever to get to the front, but I didn’t care. The air smelled so clean from the previously wet pines and the sun felt nice on our backs, so I was in no mood to hurry either.
When we were almost through the blackberries I could feel her walking funny. Scrape-drag-thunk. I looked back over my shoulder to watch her walk and could see the drag marks in the dirt that she was making with her rear hooves. It was like her hind legs were solid tree trunks with no movement in the knees. It wasn’t until she tripped, rather badly, in the pasture that I really started to worry about this new symptom. She was trying, but was failing to lift up her back hooves enough to clear the ground.
“It’s like she has some sort of paralysis in those hind limbs.” I said to my husband, who was walking behind us and saw her trip and almost fall on me. I attempted to hold her up when I felt her falling forward, out of pure instinct of course, not logic, and my wrist was now throbbing. Jessie was looking stunned and scared from her near fall and was borderline gasping for air. The muscles on the right side of her body were twitching with uncontrollable spasms.
“She’s just stiff from standing in her stall for so long. She’s out of shape. We just need to keep her walking around and she’ll be good.” He said as he took the lead rope from me, and slowly walked her in a big circle as she dragged her almost lifeless legs behind her.
Something was wrong. This was more than just strangles. Call it woman’s intuition or motherly instinct or some other unknown secret force that whispers into those ears and hearts that are open to listen. Jessie was in trouble, and I felt it with every ounce of my being.
“I think we need to get the vet out here. I can’t explain it but I just know something is wrong and…” I heard my own voice trail off when I saw the look in Corey’s eyes and the color drain from his cheeks. I saw him reach into his pocket and pull out his cell phone and begin to dial a number. I turned around and saw a steady stream of dark red blood pouring out of Jessie’s nose and pooling into the grass below.
I led her back to the barn on the short path as quickly as her dead legs would allow, while Corey’s voice got quieter in the distance. I wasn’t sure if we were making progress to the barn or the thumping of my heart pounding out of my chest was drowning out the sound of his voice on the phone. Everything became a blur. I was suddenly aware of every rapid breath I was taking and every horrible raspy sound Jessie was making.
“Hold on girl, please just hold on” I said to her either subconsciously or out loud, I can’t be sure which.
We stood there in the barn, waiting for Corey to meet us back there with news from the vet. It took me a few minutes, but I realized she was able to stand okay on her own and the blood had suddenly stopped flowing from her nose. Her eyes even looked a bit brighter and just then I allowed a tiny light of hope to sneak in through the crack of an anguish I had never felt before. I hugged her around her neck in my blood stained, muddy sweatshirt and tousled ponytail and my tears began to flow into her soft fur. She was warm and I could feel her shallow breathing and she didn’t move an inch.
What if she is dying? What if this is my last moment with her alive? What if I can’t save her? What if this is it? The intrusive thoughts starting flowing in like hot lava and I was helpless to stop them. My anxiety and panic mode was a 20 out of 10 and I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. Taking deep breaths and telling myself internally to calm down was doing nothing to help me, and I kept seeing the other horses lift their heads from the pasture and eyeball me in an effort to figure out what was going on.
The sun was nearly starting to set when Corey came huffing and puffing into the barn. We had been together long enough that I could gather enough information in just a few seconds by reading his facial expressions and body language. He didn’t have good news for me and he was trying to figure out the best way to let me down gently.
“Sooo, okay… do you want the good news or the..
“Oh my God just tell me what he said!”
“He can’t get here until the morning. But we are first on the books”
“THE MORNING!! BABE SHE’LL BE DEAD BY THE MORNING!!” I screamed at him through my tear soaked face as I turned around, my first instinct to just run, run any where, run as far away as I could get
He said nothing but quickened his pace and caught up to me and gripped my arm, pulling me into the safety and comfort of his chest and held the back of my head tightly in his hand, matching my sobs with his.
Neither of us could speak. It was a moment that no words could fix nor soothe. We were just helpless victims of pain. Pain from loving so much you could burst.
There was a lovely breeze in the air that night. We left Jessie in her stall with the back door open to the pasture so she could breathe the fresh air and we told her we would be back in the morning. The vet was scheduled to arrive at first light. 7 A.M…she just had to make it to 7 A.M.
By 6 A.M I was up and putting on my boots. I barely slept, if at all. Corey was up making coffee and for the first time ever the aroma made me nauseated.
“I’m heading out there to check on her.” I yelled from the mud room
“Wait for me, I’ll go with you..I’m just brewing some coff..”
I pretended I couldn’t hear him and let the door close quietly behind me. I needed a few minutes alone. To breathe. To think. I couldn’t handle conversation. I was also terrified of what I was going to find in that barn stall and a piece of me needed to discover it on my own.
Just thinking about it made me quicken my pace and I nearly tripped on the bridge. I had to stop and take a minute and steady my nerves.
Everything’s going to be alright. Everything’s going to be alright. I chanted in my head
I was now sprinting.
When I got to the barn it was empty. No one was in their stall and there was no sign of Jessie.
Could it be? Could she be better? If she was able to walk out of her stall and into the pasture, that meant her paralysis was gone and that could only be a good thing…right?
But then I saw it. Something very strange going on in the pasture. All three horses lined up in a row, shoulder to shoulder, with their heads bowed looking at something on the ground. Something….thrashing around on the ground. Jessie. Oh my God. It was Jessie.
I don’t think my legs have ever carried my body through time and space faster than that moment. Was I running or flying?
I reached her in just seconds and collapsed down next to her body, falling hard onto my knees. I could see a large, smooth indentation in the ground where her head must have been moving continuously back and forth in and effort to lift up her own body. She had been here for hours. Possibly even all night. Her eyes were huge with fear, she was struggling dangerously to breathe, she was completely paralyzed from the neck down. The part of her face touching the ground was caked with mud and her mouth was full of dirt. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It felt like that part of a dream where it’s too horrific to continue so you will yourself to wake up. Only I couldn’t wake up.
Just then I heard Corey’s footsteps running towards us, his voice shaky and unsteady
“Oh my God, oh my God! The vet just called honey, he’s 5 minutes out, let me get in there and hold up her head” he said as he gently nudged me out of the way, no doubt sensing that I was mentally drowning in my own trauma.
And just like drowning, you have moments of terrifying clarity and moments of slipping under the surface.
Gate opening. Horses nickering in the distance.
“…yeah the paralysis can be common at this stage unfortunately when the lymph nodes swell and put pressure on the nerves.”
“It’s the right thing to do…”
“she’s likely been at this all night…complete paralysis”
“…no recovery likely…”
” it’ll be done and over real quick”
“put her out of her suffering….yes sir”
I must have returned to my body at that point because I heard the vet say that he’d go get his medical bag from the truck and I watched as his blurry silhouette walked from Jessie’s body through the pasture to where his truck was parked.
And then another small silhouette appeared in the pasture, that of a small girl running towards Jessie. I blinked several times until I made out who it was.
“Rylee. No! Go back to the house!!” I yelled as I began running in her direction
But I was too late. She was already at Jessie’s side sobbing and petting her. Tiny knees and legs covered in mud.
“Honey, go back to the house, you can’t see her like this, you can’t…”
“MAMA, SHE’S DYING, IM NOT LEAVING HER!” she cried “please mama” she spoke softer now “let me say goodbye” as she gently stroked the fur on her head.
This young mind was able to recognize a painful reality in just minutes what I was trying to ignore for days. I couldn’t shield her from this. She had a right to be here, to witness the reality of life and death. She was right about all of it. Jessie was dying, and she had a right to say goodbye to her old friend.
I glanced at Corey, and he nodded his head and his eyes told me it was alright and he motioned to Rylee to move in closer to him.
“Come over here honey. Put your hands right here on her belly and pet her here. Let her know you’re with her. You’ll be right here with her until the end.”
By the time the vet returned, each second we watched her suffer and gasp for air, seemed like an eternity. Her tongue was now hanging out of her mouth completely absent of any sort of moisture and as Corey cradled her huge heavy head in his lap, her eyes stared back at both of us and pleaded …to end it. It felt like the vet was moving in slow motion. Just yesterday we were fighting to save her life and now this morning, as the sun was beginning to peek over the majestic evergreens, we were fighting to end it. The vet was preparing the barbiturate carefully and accurately, but every muscle and fiber in my body was silently screaming HURRRYYYYYYY, I can’t take seeing her like this one second longer.
As he approached her body and knelt down beside her looking for a good vein, I looked up and once again saw all three horses lined up, shoulder to shoulder behind all of us, looking down on Jessie.
Did they know? They couldn’t know, could they?
It was the strangest, most beautiful thing I had ever seen…
And then, just like that. In a single moment, Jessie was gone. She was finally at peace. No more pain and writhing and gasping and suffering.
Our beloved Jessie girl was gone.
In a quiet and gentle voice, a voice filled to the brim with wisdom and empathy, the vet said to us as he slowly gathered up his things…
“I’ll leave ya’ll to grieve in peace. I can’t tell you how sorry I am for your loss. Someone will be by tomorrow to take care of the body for ya’ll. Please take care”
“Thank you’ I said to him. Quite proud of myself for being able to speak.
Out of the corner of my eye as I looked up, I saw that the other three horses had walked off and were now grazing in the south part of the pasture, as if nothing had ever happened. They were completely unbothered by the fact that their friend’s dead body was still lying there in the pasture, in the mud.
When she was alive and suffering, they wouldn’t eat or graze. They had obviously stood there with her in that pasture all night and watched over her to keep her safe. I know this because all of their feed from the night before was completely untouched. They watched her pass. They felt her move on and I believe they had said their goodbyes in their own way. Once they knew she was gone, they were at peace and they began grazing the pasture again.
Animals are amazing. Horses are amazing. If they could be at peace and resume life, I could too….eventually. In that moment I so badly wanted to be a horse, grazing that pasture with them, free from the burden of grief and sadness and with the knowing that my friend was gone and at peace. I wanted my only thought to be eating grass and feeling the sunshine on my back.
That night I dreamt of Jessie. My old girl was young again. Running and running in a field of wildflowers, the most vibrant shades of golden yellow. Willow was there too. I didn’t know what that meant, but I awoke with a sense of calm that I hadn’t felt in days.
Later that afternoon, I saddled up Willow and turned onto the river road north of our property. I remembered seeing a field of wildflowers that had just started to bloom and so that’s where we were headed. After wiping away a face full of tears, I blindly reached my hand into the saddle bag, my fingers searching for a hair tie and instead found a little handful of dandelions that had gone to seed. I forgot I had collected these during one of our last rides for the girls and I. You never know when you might need an extra wish or two…
Huh. I thought. Remembering how much Jessie loved eating the dandelions that grew in the pasture in the warm days of Spring.
I closed my eyes. Pictured her sweet face in my mind…and with a big puff of air, blew…
…sending the delicate white tendrils swirling into the air all around us.
“This is for you Jessie.” I whispered into the wind
“I miss you.”