The Gentle Soul of Ima
It was one of those glorious spring mornings - May 1st, 1998. The sky was blue, the sun was shining and warm on my shoulders, a light breeze moved the fragrant air, and I was as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs!
Today I was taking my newly acquired heavyweight team to my very first horse pull! And not as a spectator! We were going to compete! I had spent part of the previous evening preparing my route. You see, I needed to enter the grounds from the North and exit to the South. My 16 foot horse trailer did a wonderful job going forward - but when I needed to back up, well...that wasn't a pretty picture.
So I had pre-planned the trip on county and back roads. With a bit of creative routing, I would achieve my goal without any one really being any the wiser. Or so I hoped!
Forty-five minutes in to the ride and I pulled over to find the intersection of County Roads D and F on the map. No luck. I was lost. And since turning around wasn't an option for me, I needed to find an intersection or driveway or field or someplace to turn around while still going forward! Not an easy task in the muddy springtime of Wisconsin!
Going a few miles farther, I came upon a home on the corner of two roads and voila! There was a horseshoe driveway perfect for my needs! I pulled in and parked about 50 feet in to the drive. I would go to the front door and ask permission before just driving through the people's yard.
While I stopped and was shutting off the truck, I checked out my surroundings. My eyes settled on something that caused me to pat Lassie, my dog in the seat next to me, and tell her softly, "Girl, we're not going pulling today."
As I walked up to the house, I had no idea what my first words would be...I simply trusted that the words would come. I told the owner of my dilemma, purposely omitting my plans to be in a horse-pulling contest in a few hours. Instead, I was simply transporting my horses, and would he mind if I let them out to stretch their legs a bit?
We talked as Jerry and Ruby calmly munched on a bit of ditch grass. Eventually, the conversation moved to the sight I had come across upon entering. And yes, I sure could go in and see the horse. I needed to be careful though, the owner cautioned me, as she had been a bit spooky the past few days...
I entered the round pen that was 20 feet in diameter, max. The pen's floor was packed earth with not even a root visible. No water. No hay. Only flies. And dirt. In fact, the mare was licking the dirt as I entered the pen.
I had seen a thin horse before, but this little mare took my breath away. Her mane was breaking off in hunks - hunks that were scattered in the manure here and there. Her tail had long since disappeared. Her eyes were dull and her feet looked very, very sore. The skin over her hip bones could not stretch any farther and so had split open. What was crawling and living in those wounds make me gag. I did not approach or attempt to touch her. Instead I focused all of my attention on the owner. You see, if I had looked - really looked - at the mare, I would not have been able to stop the tears. And I needed composure now. Above all else, I needed composure now.
"Would it be possible", I asked, "for me to use the mare for a while? Kind of borrow her?" I talked of how these big horses of mine were a challenge but I had always wanted a finer, smaller horse in the barn. We talked and talked and I even bought a few pieces of scrap iron for my yard, all the while praying that my actions and words would win this man over and he would trust me with his little mare.
By the end of the morning, it was agreed that I would take the mare. I had drawn a map to show the man where he could find her. And I truly meant that he could visit her any time he wanted. I reloaded my two horses back in to the trailer. There was room for the mare if I put the harness in the bed of the truck. Completely forgetting the hours I had spent the day before washing and polishing and wiping my harness, I quickly laid it in the truck bed, oblivious to the dust and dirt it would accumulate.
I took a lead rope and an adjustable halter in to the pen with me. Not trusting my voice, I did not speak but simply walked up to her from the left side. My first touch told me something I had not known and something that had not been discussed - the mare was blind. Amazingly, the owner seemed surprised at the news.
I then began comforting her and quietly praying that she would come smoothly and quickly before this entire episode fell apart. I haltered her and began to lead her out of the dirt she had called home. But this little mare would not leave.
I tugged. I turned. I pulled. I prayed. I pushed. I begged. I pulled again. But she was standing firmly and using every bit of strength in her body to not leave the pen. Every once in a while she would stomp her left front foot in to the ground and purse her lips! The stomping hurt, you could see that, but she was expressing her supreme irritation with me in no uncertain terms! And it was clear to me that I was not going to get her to leave this pen!
Why??? What could possibly hold her here? I tried a bit of hay. She took a small mouthful but did not respond to my outstretched arm with more. I couldn't even motivate her with food! Moving forward just was not an option for her! There was no negotiation!
So to answer the question of "Why?" I unhooked the lead rope to watch her. Once unhooked, this little mare turned on her hind legs and moved to the corner where a rather significant manure pile was building. She nudged the manure pile. And it moved. Dear Lord, it moved! There was a baby lying there!
My knees gave out and I acted as if I was sitting to give the mare time with her baby. But in actuality, my legs had simply collapsed. The inside of my mouth was already raw, but I found a spot of fresh meat and began biting as hard as I could without screaming. I must not cry! But every fiber of me was sobbing.
The lead rope went around my waist. Up I got and over to the baby I went. Instinctively, I scooped up the baby and allowed Mom to smell that I had her. I slowly walked backward to the horse trailer as the mare followed with her nose on the baby, constantly talking to assure the baby that she was not alone.
This baby weighed nothing! In fact, I've told people that it felt like I had an empty grocery bag in my arms. And filthy does not describe the little one! But the mare loved her foal and was protective, even on her own shaky legs with her now sweating body.
I lay the baby on the deep bed of straw. The baby was panting and so very, very skinny. Mom was struggling to get in to the trailer and beginning to panic since she had lost the smell of her baby! Before I could get to her to help her, the owner smacked her hindquarters and hollered, "Get in there, Ima!" causing her to jump and fall forward. The mare pretty much fell in to the trailer. But immediately her nose was searching for her baby. While still laying, she must find her foal!
When Ima reconnected with her foal, she rested for a moment before struggling to her feet. I had put a half-bale of hay in to a hay bag and she found the hay. But she did not inhale the hay as I had expected. Instead, Ima ate steadily and slowly. Smart, she was. Too much food too fast would cause her pain. She knew she should eat slowly and steadily. Had she been in this spot before? Is that how she had become so wise?
One mile later, I pulled the truck and trailer over to the side of the road to check on the precious cargo I was hauling. Jerry and Ruby were as close to the front of the trailer as possible - they instinctively knew to give the mare and foal as much room as they could. I was concerned that the mare may not be standing - could her weak little legs on those sore feet support her through the ride? Even though I was traveling only 15 miles per hour?
Ima was indeed standing. The half-bale of hay was gone! And she was attempting to eat the hay bag. I pulled an entire bale out of the truck bed and put the hay in front of her. Taking the hay bag gently out of her mouth, I pet her unbelievably tiny neck and gave Ima the first promise saying, "You will never be without food again, gentle soul."
This picture was taken on May 28th, 1998 - a mere 4 weeks have passed. Ima still ate constantly and slowly. She drank gallons of water every day. Her mane had pretty much completely broken off and the only portion of her tail that remained was a fragmented, ragged piece of about 12" in length. A very, very thin layer was forming over her ribs and flanks. Her neck was still so tiny. But Ima had heart and was totally committed to raising her foal.
Upon arriving at THE FARM on that day of discovery back on the 1st of May, I saw that the mare was dry. The baby had no milk! So, with good intentions, I attempted to bottle-feed the baby. That baby fought me as fiercely as its mother had fought leaving the dirt pen! I finally conceded and so I left the baby with its mother in a two-foot layer of straw. I kissed its little face and apologized for taking its strength. Sweating and panting, the baby simply closed its eyes and worked on catching its breath after our ordeal.
When I finally left the barn that night (or should I say the next morning?), I prayed that whatever their fate, the decision would be kind and swift. My logical side told me the baby would be gone by morning. Ima, however, showed signs of hope. That girl had eaten an entire bale of hay and was beginning the second one. A good foot of water had been consumed out of the stock tank. She was focused on eating, knowing that her baby lay safely on the straw just behind her.
At 4am I could not stay out of the barn any longer! I needed to check on them! When I crept in the door, as quietly as I could possibly be, Ima turned her head - good ears, for sure! - and there the baby was…suckling on a small but producing milk bag! Once again, tears came as I felt the grateful swell of relief and the awe of total amazement!
Then it hit me - I saw her purpose and intent and stared in true and honest admiration at this beaten up little mare. Ima had been so focused on the hay and water not because she was hungry! She wasn't taking care of herself! She was doing what she had to do to take care of her foal! This mare was totally and completely devoted. She now calmly stood as her weak and trembling but hungry little baby drew its strength and food for life from her wracked, maggot infested, broken down body. My heart swelled with respect and in awe of them both.
The baby in this picture? Yup, that's the foal! I left the two of them together for 6 months - the whole of the summer and in to the fall of 1998. I did that not because of the milk that they needed to share. No. The baby was eating hay within almost days of her birth, it seemed. No, they needed to share the ample hay, the fresh water, the coolness of shade, the dryness of a straw bed, and the contentment of safety. They needed to share themselves now that they could relax and trust that their day-to-day needs would be met. They needed to share life!
Late in the summer of 1998, the owner did appear in my driveway to check on the mare and see if the foal had survived. Bringing him to the pasture, I had been talking and so Ima was unaware of his presence until we were within 10 feet of her. "Hi there, Ima!", the owner called. Ima's head shot up, she spun on her hind legs, called to her baby, and ran to the far side of the pasture. Somewhat embarrassed, the owner said he could see she was happy and left us, never to return.
Dear Ima spent six wonderful years with me. She never lost her determination or her spunk. It took her 3 winters before her body had recovered enough to produce a winter coat of hair. Until then, I simply blanketed her and kept her warm using all of my creativity. Ima was my special one all that time. I babied her and coddled her and did my best to make up to her. And when she finally showed me she was ready, I was there singing in her ear as she crossed. And even then, she was calm and steady and strong. A truly gentle soul.
It's been two years now since Ima has crossed. And to remind us all of her sturdiness and strength and will, Ima has not rested yet. What I mean is, she hasn't settled yet. I cannot build her Memory Bed because she is still just about as raised as she was two years ago when we buried her!
What is she telling us? I wonder that all the time. Is she worried about her daughter? Is she waiting for her love, PONY!, to join her? What is it that she feels is so undone that she cannot rest and move on? I don't know what it is, but I know that Ima will not give up until she is satisfied. And no one can tell her or make her believe any thing that she does not know for herself. That was just Ima's way!
One thing I do know is that I tell the stories of Ima...and her little stomping acts...and I tell the children that come to Refuge Farms of devotion and commitment by telling them of Ima. And by showing them April, the baby. The glorious work of our Ima is our April. Muscle bound and sturdy April.
April. Born the last day of April, 1998. And then reborn during the night of May 1st.
Thank you, dear Ima, for all of your gifts! Thank you for being an example to me of just how to do "it" right.