The View from My End of the Shovel
By Sandy Gilbert of REFUGE FARMS
Hello! I’m Sandy and I’d like to spend some time with you to explain what REFUGE FARMS is, why we are here, and just how this place came to be. Perhaps the best place to begin is in the past (doesn’t that always seem to be the way?). Just how did we come to be? I will do my best to explain, so please read on…
In 1978, I purchased my first horse. She was a registered Arab filly that needed a home with special cares because her mother had died unexpectedly and this little girl was less than 3 months old. She was very tiny and not nearly old enough to be weaned, but the filly was, in fact, just that. And she was understandably nervous and flighty. Not owning a horse trailer, she simply rode home with me in the cab of my pickup.
This young filly came to live with me and with my lack of understanding of how to raise a horse, I did what I knew how to do – I raised her like a dog! She was tied to my belt loops with baling twine and followed me around the yard as I mowed the lawn. She was treated just like a big dog and so grew up thinking she was a big dog. Her name was Ono, meant to mean Oh, No!
One summer day I left my new horse in the front yard - fenced in by a white picket fence - where she was calmly eating the lawn grass, while I ran in to the house for a glass of water. (We only had glasses of water then. There was no such thing as bottled water, let alone bottled water that you would actually buy!) A hot air balloon came overhead and frightened her when it lit its burner. So what did she do? She ran through the screen door and came right in to the living room! All I could say was “Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!” You get the picture. And she got the name.
As we grew together and taught each other, I began to understand the relationship between a human and a horse. What I found in this glorious creature was graceful movement, sharp and clear eyes, powerful physical ability, with quickness and speed beyond belief. Her heart, however, was what I most truly admired and relied upon. Ono was loyal, and honest, and she loved me even if I was crabby or had a headache or maybe wasn’t all that polite to her. Ono forgave me before I even knew I needed the forgiveness.
Innocently, I put myself into the world of horses and was aghast at some of the treatments I witnessed. I vowed very early on to do my best to stop the beatings, the use of electricity, the drugs, and lack of respect I had witnessed – and continue to witness to this day.
Fast-forward 20 years. I’m was tad bit older (?) and hopefully a bit wiser (?) and the owner of a successful Electronic Point of Sale Consulting Agency, called Gilbert & Associates. I met Andy Durco when he telephoned me as the CEO of an organization in Oklahoma City where he needed to contract for a COO for the next 18 months. And that became me. It meant I would be away from home for 3 weeks at a time, but I was okay with that. After all, I was a career woman and this was forwarding my career.
For health reasons, I retired after my contract with Andy and soon thereafter he, too, retired. His personal drive and commitment to find his perfect horse found him up by Black River Falls where he purchased a purebred Clydesdale stud colt. He introduced this little guy to me by saying, “This is my Thunder.”
Also in the trailer was a “Charity Case”, as Andy put it. This other horse was a gelding colt with a clubfoot in the right rear – caused by a sloppy vet during a too quick surgery. When asked what the future held for this little guy, the owner had told Andy “he was being fattened up for kill.” Now Andy must have seen potential in this young colt, and so this defective little horse left that man’s farm with Andy and his trailer and Thunder.
After oooohs and aaaahs, Andy reloaded Thunder for the trip back to Oklahoma City. I stood in the driveway with the lead rope to the “Charity Case” in my hand and Andy turned to me and as he closed up his trailer said, ”Sandy, you take that horse and make a difference in somebody’s life.”
What a new concept that was to me! To make a difference in somebody’s life? What about automating start-up venture capital companies? What about RPQ’s in on time? What about the next contract and the next bid? The next feasibility study? What about my career?
I stood in my driveway with that little clubfooted colt waiting patiently for me to notice him, for a long, long time. Andy was probably about to the Iowa border before I actually comprehended just what he was trying to tell me.
Later that year, Andy and I signed the papers to form REFUGE FARMS. I had traveled to Baylor Hospital in Dallas, Texas to get Andy’s signature on those documents. I had to travel to Andy then, since he had taken a simple fall and broken his spine at the base of his neck. His new life as a quadriplegic was full of challenges and he struggled to perform the simplest things that you and I do and take for granted. But he persevered and again and again reminded me of my charter: “Make a difference, Sandy,” he said. Ever time we talked. Subtle, he was not.
Since then, a total of 41 horses have come to THE FARM for sanctuary. I promise each horse 3 things when they arrive:
1. There will be no more beatings, electricity, use of performance enhancing drugs, hollering, or any other type of inhumane treatment. There will be plenty of respect.
2. There will be no more hunger. There will always be food and water available.
3. There will be no more moving to another farm, fighting for a place in a new herd, or getting used to another routine or the taste of other water. This is home. Forever. Even in death you will not leave THE FARM.
And as I read this, I feel the weight of these promises, alone, are a worthy mission statement. However, REFUGE FARMS is going one step farther. And that is the step of healing Human Beings as a result of sharing time with these recovering creatures.
I have personally witnessed the "MAGIC" on this farm. I have seen people arrive with the fear written all over their faces. They are sad and withdrawn, sometimes crying and shaking, but definitely in pain from some sort of disappointment or loss or fear. We spend a little time on introductions and the first piece of MAGIC occurs – the person is naturally drawn to a particular horse where there exists a common space of trust and a willingness to share. They are friends before they spend even one full minute together!
At this point, I will leave the two alone and what I witness when I return is the result of this MAGIC. I see a human who is moving – petting, brushing, or walking with the horse. The conversation is mutual – the human is talking with the horse listening and offering complete understanding with no judgment. The person is calm and many times the tears have gone. There is an aura of contentment. Of peace. Of finally finding calm in the middle of the storm.
This is the “MAGIC” of REFUGE FARMS. This is why we exist. Not only to rescue abused and abandoned horses but to offer those recovering horses to Human Beings so that we may heal with and from them. And hopefully learn the art of trust, respect, and acceptance again.
“Horses Helping . . .” is the name of the program we are building. It is not therapeutic riding. It is not equine management. It is not dressage or anything like it. What it is may be best described as MAGIC. It is the bonding and healing that occurs when two creatures sense mutual respect, trust, and acceptance. It is the recovery that occurs, in tiny steps, when these creatures realize that there is no judgment or criticism – only unconditional love. The power of such a thing can be overwhelming.
REFUGE FARMS, as a formal non-profit, started with my dear mentor, Andy, in late 2002. The concept has been here and operating privately since that first little filly, Ono, back in 1978. But Andy had seen the greater potential and the greater need and he relentlessly pushed me to see it created.
As the year turned to 2005 during what was to be our last conversation, Andy told me he had dreamed that he was riding his horse, Thunder. We lost Andy this past month. At least we lost his body. His spirit is alive and thriving up here on the hill in Spring Valley, Wisconsin where everyday we try to do good and make a difference in somebody’s life. Thank you, Andy, for your unwillingness to allow me to rest.
So, here we are. A newly formed non-profit with only a bucket of faith and a herd of ragged looking horses. The Allis is always broken and we have too few barns and no fancy facilities – we are plain and practical around here. However, what we have to give is enormous. We give safety, peace, grace, and unconditional acceptance. We ask only for what we want to receive – no abuse, no criticism, no hollering, and no drugs.
There you have it – the view from my end of the shovel. The shovel I hold is the manure shovel, which, on a daily basis, fits comfortably in my now calloused hands. I use this shovel as I take care of these creatures who only desire what we all desire – a chance to live.