As a half asleep passenger on a slow train from Moscow to St. Petersberg, I watched the passing row upon row of green pines dotted with the perfect peeling white of a birch tree when it brought back childhood memories of life in the 40s in a small prairie town.
It brought the memory of the milkman’s horse, Tom, whom I had fallen in love with when I was eight year’s old. That memory stuck in my throat and almost robbed me of breath. That memory has changed my life in the most remarkable way.
I wanted that feeling again. I wanted to touch the soft nose of a horse, have him lick my hand, whiney when he saw me. I wanted to feel the power of the beautiful body as it ran towards me. I wanted to be in the presence of that most spiritual and spirited of creatures – the horse.
I wanted it so badly I sold the home I loved in the heart of a city I loved and moved to the country.
Today finds me and my daughter living on a small farm, nestled in the foothills of Golden Ears Mountain. Strangely, I don’t miss the easy access to theatre and restaurants when I sit in our rancher whose many windows permit me to view all of my five acres and the many companions I have come to love: Two mares, two mini horses, five llamas and the many feathered friends, doves, ducks, chickens and the rooster named Stanley.
I am beginning to better understand myself as I fell deeper into the reason I was had been so strongly called to be with horses and other four footed and feathered creatures. I needed to heal. I yearned for the wisdom and honesty that equines provide. I realized with a shock that it had been the same for me back in the prairies, as a sad eight year old. I had been wounded by the unhealthy advances of a family member who had thrown all our lives into troubled turmoil. Visiting Tom, the milkman’s horse had been the one time of day that I felt understood, grounded, safe and eventually, strong and able to deal with the truth of what was happening to me, able to seek help.
So it is now, as I age and face retirement and the fear of illness, the fear for the future of a child I have raised alone. It is a fear many single mothers responsible for chronically ill children must fear. It is a fear we all share when new illnesses are diagnosed. It is a fear that many face even though we are lucky enough to leave the comfort of wonderful employment and good wages. We recognize how privileged we have been; and we wonder how we will manage without that privilege.
The horses teach me how to live in the present, rather than be locked in fear for the future. They reflect my moods and make me honest with myself. They give me strength. Twilight, 7 year old Chincoteague mare has become my most treasured companion and most remarkable therapist.
Early this year, I returned from the memorial of a dear friend and colleague. I was feeling a deep sense of loss for both my friend and for a way of life at our university which was and is no more. It was late and dark and I went out to the barn to check on the horses as I do every evening before retiring.
Twilight was there, but there was no sign of my elderly retired race horse rescue, Lady Rhythm. I stared out into the dark field, unable to see her. I called and no one came. “Lady, Lady, here girl. Come girl.” Nothing. I was becoming frightened. She always came to my call. I turned to Twilight. “Where is she? Where is Lady Rhythm?”
Twilight raced at full gallop to the end of the field and returned at full gallop. Alone. Twilight was the herd leader. She was the kind of horse who would gather her herd, including the llamas and bring them home if someone had accidently left the gate open and the curious ones had gone off to munch on the neighbor’s grass. She was the one who stomped the ice if an unexpected cold froze the pond and their water source. Twilight controlled over and cared for her family with a brilliance and natural grace that took my breath away. But now, even she couldn’t find our old mare.
I left the field and wandered into the sand paddock calling, searching, my voice faltering. I turned to Twilight in despair. She lay her strong head on top of mine, to still me, to calm me. It had become a habit we shared whenever I was feeling weary or worried. I began to weep. “Why couldn’t you find her?” I sobbed. “Where could she be?”
Twilight raised her head. She licked her lips, as if thinking, as if a bit confused. “Why didn’t you bring her to me?” I pictured Twilight leading Lady Rhythm to me. Twilight looked right into my face. She raced away and returned a second time. This time she was leading her friend towards me.
I hadn’t asked Twilight to bring her, only to find her. She had found her. But in my panic, I hadn’t seen the truth in her action. I was still making up my own dark stories, that Lady Rhythm was getting old, might not be well, might not live long. I was projecting all my fears on the situation. But when I actually asked Twilight to bring the old mare to me and when Twilight felt my deep fear and understood that I needed to have Lady by my side, she ran and brought her to me.
The three of us stood together in the dark. Two horses and one old woman, our breath mingling, vapors in the cool air, becoming one, rising to the sky. I could feel their shoulders pressed to mine. I was wrapped in so much strength, so much acceptance, I moved from fear to gratitude and a pure happiness in being alive.
The significance of experiences like this one have encouraged me to open my little farm to others and it has become a sanctuary for organizations and teachers and individuals to come and learn and heal. What I did not expect was that it would also become a place of healing for other animals, or in this particular case, a brain damaged chicken.
Blinkey, a small red hen who had been attacked by a hawk, had lost the ability to walk. Her head twisted into a backwards angle and she would fall helpless on her side. Loretta, her owner, was doing everything she could to retrain the little bird to use he other side of her brain.
I so admired this woman who was so determined to bring health back to this young hen. Others might have let her fend for herself, or put her out of her misery. Others might have eaten Blinkey for supper. Not Loretta. Loretta carted her around in a woven basket, offering stimulation at every opportunity. She straightened the little head when it flipped backwards. She threw Blinkey into the air, teaching her to move her wings before she fell back into Loretta’s waiting arms.
She brought Blinkey to work with her at a group home, where Blinkey taught the girls to be brave and to care for others. Blinkey, who herself was becoming therapist, was in need of more therapy. She still could not walk. With that thought, Loretta brought her injured charge to our farm to see if the horses could aid in the healing.
Though a little skeptical, I was delighted by the idea. We introduced Blinkey to Twilight and Lady Rhythm. They smelled her. Twilight licked her with her big warm tongue. And then Loretta did the bravest thing. She placed Blinkey on the huge thoroughbred’s back. I wanted to run to Lady Rhythm’s side, hold the hen in place, prevent the fall I was sure would happen. But she didn’t fall. The hen relaxed on the horse’s back. Lady walked around as in her slow perfectly balanced rhythm.
I’d experienced the effect riding a horse had on children suffering from autism. The rhythm of the walk quieted the brain of the child, soothed, allowed the child freedom from brain activity that too often served to confuse and frustrate. And so it was with this chicken.
When Loretta lifted Blinkey from Lady’s back and set her on the ground, the hen took her first steps since the hawk had stolen her eye and a piece of her brain.
Loretta and I were silly with excitement. Twilight and Lady Rhythm exchanged looks as if to say, “Of course”. It was no surprise to them. They shared the wisdom of ages. They knew. They accepted. It was, for them, the way of life.
And more and more, lesson by lesson, it is becoming the way of life for me.