A love story
The Old Man will be 93 years old this week. Amazing. His mind is full of current events and yet he can tell you his hourly wage in his first job after the Depression.
The Old Man found Refuge Farms by reading the story of Big Guy. Our first meeting was here at Refuge Farms. His neighbor had driven him on a Saturday in November when it was hard to believe that winter was coming. It was above 40 degrees, sunny, and a light breeze was coming out of the North…reminding us to prepare.
The Old Man sat in his van while he told me of his horse - and his dilemma. The horse was 25 or 26 - and a good horse. Not a mean horse. And he was an easy keeper. But The Old Man walked with two canes now and so getting water to the horse had become a real challenge. And with winter coming, the water was freezing up and the horse needed water. Could I take him? He was a good horse, you know.
My response was to promise to look for a home for the horse. Writing down its description and The Old Man's telephone number, my hands trembled. I immediately felt a weight come upon me. Something about this situation was hitting very close to home and I hadn't a clue what it was. I could feel it. That dull ache of a broken heart.
In just a few days, the cold weather came and so I called and asked if I could bring up a barrel for some water. That Tuesday, I drove north to The Old Man's house. He was waiting in the kitchen for me. Would I come in the house when I was done? Sure, I said.
The horse lived on 40 acres and had access to hay inside the back of a huge old dairy barn that had been modified to stall two horses. Their hay bins and feeder trays were worn from years of use. Old halters and harnesses hung all around me. Horse-drawn farm equipment was everywhere.
I could literally feel the history in the place. And in that space for the horses, was the frozen water supply that was worrying The Old Man. Not seeing the horse, I set about getting the water barrel and heater set up and then began the task of filling the barrel.
I heard the horse's footsteps and so stood perfectly still - anticipating our first meeting. The horse was majestic in his age, standing tall with head straight up. He came around the corner and looked me right in the eye. His eyes were dark and clear. His face was huge with an even white strip down his nose. And he looked right through me…not just at me.
Seeing that I was not The Old Man and seeing me as an intruder, he turned and walked away. Over on the hill he came to stand to await The Old Man's nightly journey out to feed him. In that brief meeting, however, my heart left me. It was now firmly planted in the chest of this old horse.
In the house, The Old Man and I chatted as two people do when they are just getting to know each other. We looked at pictures and he told me the Wisconsin Draft Horse and Mule Association wasn't something he just belonged to - he had started the whole thing! And I told him how, over 10 plus years ago, I had spent an afternoon at one of their events, watching horses till the earth, cut the hay, harvest the corn . And I had thought how hard the work was for both the horse and the man.
"I worked 300 acres with horses in my day!" said the Old Man.
My respect for the man took a leap forward. Usually, he explained, when he worked the fields, he had a three horse team. And the horses weren't as big as they are now. They were smaller but, stronger. They could last a whole day back then. Now they're bigger and couldn't last the workday, he said. Too much horse to move around. The wisdom just came pouring out of him as I sat in his living room and tried my best to be like a sponge.
"Where was the partner for the horse?" I asked. His partner had crossed the rainbow ridge six or seven years ago, The Old Man explained. The horse had been alone since then. It was just The Old Man and the horse - together.
My departure was based upon my promise to return. As I stepped toward the door, The Old Man asked, "Are you going to take him?" No, was my response. The farm was full but I had someone in mind who would give him a very good home. And truly I did.
And so the next week I explored that option and more. And every option dead-ended. I took several trips up to the old barn and checked on the water and the horse. One time, as I was walking back to my truck, The Old Man pulled in to his driveway and asked me if I would I come in to the house to visit when I was done. Sure, I said.
As we sat and talked, I heard how the very house I was sitting in had been built by The Old Man back in 1951. Built from the trees on his land. He needed running water and sewer services in his house for his new family. The old log farmhouse could have been remodeled, but it was wiser to just build new. And so a good new house he built. The house is still strong and it's warm. It works well for him now. I looked over the 1950's wood trim and arched entrance to the living room and imagined it as new with children running in and out… and dad out working with his horses… and Mom cooking a big supper in her new fancy kitchen.
I worked my way toward the door with a promise to return and once again, The Old Man asked, "Are you going to take him?" And once again I explained that I really couldn't take him but that I was working on finding him a home. I knew inside that I was hurting for a home for the horse.
My heart was pleading to bring the old horse to Refuge Farms. Couldn't I see that this was our mission in perfection? I could make a difference for both the horse and The Old Man! But the practical side of me took over and I would remember that the horse had to eat. So my head put my heart back in its place - in the chest of the old horse.
That afternoon, I uncharacteristically went to the post office. Usually I went on Saturday's, but this Tuesday I found myself opening the box and looking at the mail. And my answer was right there. It was clear. The answer was just waiting for me to read it.
"Merry Christmas, Sandy! God Bless!" was written on a check stub. A donation burned in my hands as the tears streamed down my cheeks. Here was the answer!
The message was clear in my heart: Take the old horse, Sandy, knowing that his care was covered by the generosity of a friend.
I raced to call The Old Man to ask if I could I come and get the two of them and move the horse to THE FARM? I wondered if the Old Man would come with me for the move and if that would be OK.
And so The Old Man and I moved the horse to Refuge Farms. It was joyful and very sad all at the same time. The Old Man saw his best friend leave his barn and his yard. The horse left his home of over 25 years. The horse saw The Old Man leave him in a strange new barn. But I promised them that they would continue to know and talk and smell each other, Refuge Farms will help this horse as he grows older and help The Old Man stay in touch with his horse.
On the return trip, The Old Man told me, quietly, that this was the first time he had been without a horse since he was 12 years old. And I then knew where the weight that had been on my heart was coming from. For the first time in this rescue business, my heart was not breaking for the horse. My heart was breaking for The Old Man.
The Old Man loves this horse. These two have been together for over a quarter of a century. Think of the hours they have spent together, how The Old Man has shown him, through his care, that the horse was safe with him.
"He had been mistreated when I got him", The Old Man had told me.
The Old Man loves this horse. He cared for him and had turned him out on the very morning his wife had crossed. Even in his sorrow, The Old Man had cared for his horses. When you love something you take care of it, you know.
The Old Man loves this horse. He loves him enough to know that a horse needs water. The horse needs water more than The Old Man needs the horse. And so out of his love for the horse, The Old Man gave the horse away.
The Old Man loves this horse. And so in his choosing of who to give him to, he did not even think of a kill buyer or just any place to put him. No, he traveled to a stranger's driveway and pleaded his case, putting his pride aside for the needs of the horse.
The Old Man loves this horse. The two are a team. The horse ever responsive to the sound of The Old Man's voice.
On the day we loaded the horse, we stopped at the back of the trailer. I started my "natural horsemanship" and was soon put in my place.
"Get up in there," The Old Man said from over twenty feet away. Obediently, the horse stepped up in to the trailer without a second thought. The horse loves The Old Man, too.
But now I have a new friend who hugs me hello and hugs me good-bye. A grandfather, almost… or is he more of a father? Or is it that I see myself in The Old Man? Is it that I see myself loving my horses enough that some day I will seek out someone younger, but like me, to take my horses? Is it that I know my heart will be breaking at giving them away but knowing that they need what I can no longer give them? And that someday I, too, must ask a stranger to take my horses - horses that I have given my heart to, yet must give away. Is that what I see in The Old Man?
I also have a new horse to love and care for and to share with his rightful and true owner. "A good horse. Not a mean horse. And he is an easy keeper. A good horse, you know."
And I go and get The Old Man and bring him to the farm to visit the horse - the Old Man who is a living, breathing history book, The Old Man who has many things to teach me about life, about people and about horses.
My Christmas presents this year are the care of an old horse and time with The Old Man. I am very rich, indeed - all because of The Old Man and his love for his horse.
Enjoy the journey of each and every day in The Spirit of The Season,
Sandy and The Herd