She arrived at Infinity Farm unceremoniously. We moved a fence panel, backed the rig in close, and she pretty much fell out the back of the trailer. That was good news; they weren’t sure she’d survive the trip.
It isn’t my intention to cue a circle of hand wringing, sympathy is not the goal. If we write heroic stories about champions and lifetime partners, then rescues deserve to have their story told, too.
I’m on the board of a local rescue. We’d picked her up at an auction, malnourished with last winter’s hair matted over her skeleton, and a spine that had both a curve and an arch. The vet thought she was young, perhaps an injured rope donkey. Just guesses, really. She wasn’t doing well at the busy intake barn, so I got the call; I keep the Grandfather Horse’s spot ready for an un-adoptable someone.
She had elegant ears but flat unmoving eyes. She started eating but she drank way too much water. She slowly gained weight but took several long naps a day. She arrived without a name, but she became our Pearl, the living definition of bittersweet.
Pearl hadn’t been haltered and was people-shy, probably with very good reason. But as soon as she had some strength, she was interested in the herd. First, we tried Arthur, the goat, but when he touched the top of his horn-less skull to her shoulder, Pearl tumbled to the ground. Edgar Rice Burro was the obvious choice. It’s been his job to welcome newcomers here for the last decade, putting fear to rest in the most frightened hearts, but he ate all her hay. We gave her run of the yard by the barn with the best grass, but she ended up chasing my barn manager around the tree. She eye-balled Roo, Nickole’s refugee from a therapeutic program, but he pinned his ears, still too grumpy and aggressive after almost two years here.
While in New Zealand at Equidays, Nickole messaged me that Pearl was in trouble. On an icy-cold morning, she’d found Pearl on the ground, disoriented and too weak to stand. Nickole got her up to her wobbly feet and hours later, the vet arrived for a scheduled horse appointment. The vet felt Pearl was too frail for testing, but guessed Equine Motor Neuron Disease. Unsurprisingly, it’s both debilitating and terminal. I asked Nickole to not let her suffer, if it came to that, and I started home.
This is where Cupid comes in. I was feeling sorry for myself at the L.A. airport, sipping wine and voting. The board of directors of the rescue were making some hard decisions. It was late October and we had too many elders. That’s a bad combination for a horse who’s done nothing wrong but get old and crippled, then dumped at an auction. It still gets to me; some of the photos of elders we were making decisions about had Christmas bows from last year’s attempt to find them homes. I messaged them we’d have a stall soon and he came to Infinity Farm.
Pearl had a come-back. Cupid hated everybody, especially the goat. Roo continued to attack anyone if there was a blade of hay around. The anxiety worried Edgar and Bhim, the mini… don’t even ask. My “deplorable pen” was full but at least the price of hay was going up. Bittersweet.
Around this time, Pearl started chasing Bhim, not that she had the strength or agility to do it. He baited her on, and it usually ended with her falling on top of him. Pearl continued sleeping too much, but she convinced Cupid to join her. His knees are both double-sized with arthritis, having the courage to lay down with her was a balm. Now the two of them slept for hours, snoring away. After lunch, Pearl would latch onto Edgar Rice Burro’s backside and he’d tow her around the pen until he was tired. Then everyone had another nap. Eventually Roo was drawn in. The first time we saw him playing with Pearl, then wrestling with Bhim, we thought we were hallucinating.
Pearl stayed in a “veal pen” at night, a run by herself next to Cupid, with too much hay and a couple of servings of my miracle mash. Turned out in the morning, she’d gallop, using her hind legs as one, careening into her friends. By now, she knew we had fingers and when she needed an ear scratch, she’d come at a dead run diagonally, either hitting a fence a few feet away or slamming into us dead center. She had no steering but had gained enough weight to be dangerous. We loved that she felt the thrill of running and playing, tormenting the goat, chewing hunks of hair out of Edgar. We couldn’t take our eyes away. Bittersweet.
She crashed into fences, gate posts, and the side of the barn, hitting hard. Sometimes she’d take a slow step back and her hind would give out and she’d flip over on her back, hitting her head, frozen and dazed. Sometimes, struggling to stand, she’d stagger, flinging herself in all directions until she got hung up in a fence, and had to be rescued. We couldn’t take our eyes away. Bittersweet.
No, Pearl is not a common rescue, adoption was never a possibility, but Roo and Cupid are too normal. They don’t require a miraculous human effort; the more I’ve done this over the years, the more certain I am that we do not heal them. They don’t need special handling, training of any kind, or a fortune in supplements. They need herd life. They need a safe place to live out their days with other horses and donkeys. It takes no special skill; you throw hay and muck. One day a cloudy-eyed, decrepit Appaloosa stands behind you, almost unnoticed. As you turn, you see his eye softer, and not that he’d ever ask for it, you have the privilege of thanking him.
Please, no lamenting for Pearl. Reliving the horrors of abuse leaves a mark on us, energetically. Repeating horror stories only adds to our collective negativity and I’ve never met an equine that benefited from commiseration. They don’t need our thoughts and prayers, or our rage and disgust. They just need a little time at your farm. The herd will do the rest.
Learning to let go of the darkness inside of us is the hardest and best lesson for any of us- elder horses, wayward goats, long-ear misanthropes, or the “gray mare” that cares for them. My friend Elaine says, “I guess when she was fulfilled, she could leave the party.” And it would have been very selfish of us to ask her to stay longer.
We said good-bye on Valentine’s Day. When I was younger, it was a hard day most years. I would long for the relationship I wasn’t having, the hearts I had not stolen. Standing with Pearl waiting for the vet, surrounded by gang of reprobates, each one of us was changed by her cantankerous visit… Letting go never felt better.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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