And then the telephone rang...
It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Nov. 12, 2005 and it was forecasted to be a keeper - 60 degrees above zero! I had full intentions of taking advantage of this gift of exceptional weather. My "to do list" was long and by 4:30 a.m. I was walking out to the barn to rouse everyone and get the day on it's way. By 5 a.m. I was cleaning barns while filling stock tanks, and already muttering that my list was woefully not completed.
And then the telephone rang. I looked at the clock and it was 5:17 a.m. My heart skipped a beat. I felt my chest tighten. I knew that answering the telephone would change my life forever. I'd been here before. Experience is a great teacher. I am a good student.
With anxiety in my voice, I heard myself say, "Good morning! Refuge Farms!". Maybe if I was chipper, I hoped, the message on the other end would change.
"Sandy, I need you here before 10 a.m.,"the male voice ordered."
I recognized the voice and immediately responded.
"John, (not his real name), we are full - overfull, in fact!" John is what we call a kill buyer. He makes his living picking up animals that people no longer want and transporting them to the appropriate slaughterhouses. I personally like John. John is a family man. I have had many conversations with John. It's his job that I detest.
In our conversations about that job, John tells me, "It's a business". It is my impression (or hope) that John and I have come to know each other so maybe a bit of my heart can rub off on John - just maybe. Well, it was obviously working.
John had called with a request for help. An ill and depressed man had taken pot shots at his horses with his shotgun. Many of his horses were dead or were being put down due to the extent of their injuries. But a few had been sheltered in the barn awaiting pick-up. John was called.
"Ship 'em!" the owner had said.
So John was about to go back to the man's farm and pick up the remainder of the horses and deliver them for slaughter. But a few of the horses had stuck in John's mind (or should I say his heart).
He made three and only three calls that Saturday morning. He would put those few horses out there and if anyone of us three came, we came. By 10 that morning - less than 5 hours from his call, any horses that weren't picked up would be on his truck.
John said he figured I was full. He chuckled with his comment that he had never known me to have an empty feeder for long. But he had one horse in mind that he thought really needed us. He went on to tell me of the big Belgian who had run in to the woods to escape from the panic of the shootings. When the owner had found the horse in the woods, the man had beaten him and hauled him back to the barn where he refused to feed or water him. It had been several weeks. The horse was thin and had the big belly of starvation.
But regardless, John said, there was something in this horse's eyes that caused John to think of Refuge Farms. He said the marks from the beatings were healing over, but the horse was imploring him.
Interesting, I thought, that a horse would implore John.
I could come and pick up the horse or not. It was completely my choice. But by 10 a.m., the horse would be on the truck.
The "old John" came back as he closed the conversation with, "It really doesn't matter to me either way. I can make some money off him or I can give him to you. Whatever." Click.
I went back to cleaning barns and attacking my list. Tears rolled as I thought of the terror of the animals as they were being shot. The ones that were killed were the lucky ones. The maimed ones were the ones to be cried over, and I did. The few that ran were smart, I thought. But for what was their bravery? Just to be hauled away and slaughtered?
By 6 a.m. my horse trailer was dropped on my truck and I was starting the three-hour ride. I had to go directly there if I was to make the 10 a.m. deadline. I needed fuel in the truck so I took $50 of the hay money to spend on fuel. That would just about get me there - and us back.
The ride seemed long and never-ending. What if I was late? That was the least of my worries. What if I met the eyes of others being loaded for slaughter? I was too weak to look away and I financially unable to support the few mouths I had!
"Dear Lord," I prayed, "help me to not see any other horse other than the one destined for Refuge Farms!"
I arrived and parked at the end of the driveway. I walked in with my head down. I did not wish to see corpses of animals. My ears were ringing loudly. Nerves, I thought. I heard voices of men but no animal sounds.
I went in to the barn and immediately a huge head greeted me. I thought, "Oh no! We met eyes. Oh no!"
Regardless of John's intentions, that was going to be the one. I peted the horse and said, "It's OK now. You are safe now. I will watch over you now."
John came around the corner and said, "See what I mean?" I started sobbing with relief. That in fact, was the intended horse. "Thank you!" I said.
In a gesture totally out of personality, John put his arm around my shoulder and said, "I knew you couldn't take what's going on around here so I pulled him up front for you. Take him and go. Now."
With that John turned and left. I dared not run after him because of what I might see or hear. So I hollered, "Thank you, John! Thank you!" He waved his hand in the air as he continued to walk out to the pastures and back to the ugly tasks that awaited him.
As I petted the horse for a moment, it dawned on me that maybe my relationship with John exists so that I could see, through John, the other side. The side that I do not have the guts or the stomach to witness, but the side that makes places like Refuge Farms needed.
A new light comes in to my mind. The "big guy" and I walked down the driveway and into the trailer. There was no hesitation, no fear and no defenses in this creature, whatsoever. He was passive, yet had every right to be angry and mean. Amazing. He was forgiving us human beings already.
This horse has much to teach all of us around him. I smiled for the first time that day. I had hay in the trailer and he began eating immediately upon entering. This big, skinny Belgian turned his head with a mouth full of hay and looked me in the eye once again. I heard it. I heard what he said.
"Your welcome", I said, "Glad I came. Although I don't know how I'm gonna feed you, big guy!"
Once home, I put this big guy in corral where he calmly began the process of eating the round bale. At one point, he lifted his huge head and surveyed his surroundings. Yes, he had the 3 promises before exiting the trailer. I gave them to him while standing calmly next to him in the trailer.
He looked at his home - his final home. The place where he will spend his remaining days and where he will be laid to rest when he crosses over. He looked at all the others and felt the peace of the place. A huge sigh came out of the horse. I felt his calmness and remembered Pastor Jean's sermon from the previous Sunday.
You see, as this Pastor stood in front of the congregation on her stilts (yup, she did), she told us that if you walk on stilts and look down at the ground you will fall. Very simple, she said. Looking at the immediate ground before you will make you fall. But if you look out in front, you will be able to walk on those stilts. Keep your eye on the horizon and you will move forward.
Well, I'm keeping my eye on the horizon and trusting the ground immediately around me will be dealt with somehow. I have faith that our mission is good. That the job of Refuge Farms is to heal horses and human beings alike. Heal, we will do. How? I don't always know.
Some days it's overwhelming. Some days I just try not to think of the details. And some days, I go against my brain and act on my heart. But each and every day I am thankful to be in this place at this time. As I tell people, this is why I was born.
That particular Thanksgiving Saturday started out to be a normal day on the farm: much to do and a list of tasks to complete - and then the telephone rang and a Thanksgiving gift was given and gladly received.
We made a difference out there that day. Another "minister" had joined the herd. And I slept well that night even with that task list barely started.
Enjoy the journey of each and every day,
Sandy and The Herd