"Whatever is in that trailer needs to keep on going! Really!! Don't even open up the trailer! Whatever it is, I can smell the rotten meat out here! Just keep on going! DON'T OPEN IT UP!!!"
"Oh, dear Lord in Heaven. Oh, my. Oh, Lord. Oh, don't worry; I just want to look at your mouth. Oh, who did this to you? How long have you been like that? Oh, you are so skinny and you've gotta be so thirsty…and sooo sore! Oh, my dear Lord. Oh, oh, oh... I need to tell you three things - three promises that I will keep with you my poor, dear creature. The first promise is that you are safe here..."
Such was the start of The Gentle Giant's new life at Refuge Farms. It was a hot day in August with heavy air from the oppressively high humidity, flies that stuck to you like tape, and no moving air whatsoever. I was in the only barn I had at the time, cleaning and liming the walls, the floors, and the horses trying to prepare them for the day. I was worried about the heat and how to keep the big ones - Jerry and Ruby - cool in this intense air. My worries soon shifted to the truck and trailer pulling in to the driveway.
Immediately, I recognized Shelley's truck and knew the driver had a "case" in her trailer. She worked with the Humane Society and sure wasn't pulling in to the yard for a visit! The smell of rotten meat preceded her truck by 20 feet. My upper lip curled. It smelled like raw hamburger that's been on the sink drain for 3 hot days... rotten meat. The smell of that morning has never left me.
Against my orders and my pleadings, the trailer was opened. A very tall, very emaciated, very sad creature turned his enormous head and those huge, brown, soulful eyes of his pleaded with me to take him out of this trailer. To give him a shot at healing. To not let the trailer head to their appointment. This horse just wanted a chance. He would cooperate. He would help in any way he could. He just wanted a chance.
He came out of the trailer all hunched over. The trailer only had a 7-foot high ceiling so he needed to bend over to make room - somehow - for his 9-foot frame. Skinny. Tall! Hips sticking out everywhere. Long, long legs. Very long legs! Big, brown, sad eyes. Feet bigger than anything I had ever seen - must have been 14" across! Scars from rude stitches over an old wound on his chest. And his mouth...Oh, dear heavens. Blood and pus and drool all mixed up and coming out of his nose and his lips. All smeared over his chest and dripped on to his front legs. Lips swollen and deep purple bruises under his blonde skin. And hiding only God knows what in that mouth of his. How could this have happened? Did a truck hit him? Or what?
"He's big", she said. "And the owner thought he should be able to pull more than he pulled. So this horse was motivated with a lead pipe to his mouth. When he still didn't pull, he was turned out to pasture to live or to die. The smell got so bad the neighbors called us in and we just picked him up. We're on our way to the vet to put him down. Wanna try, Sandy?"
Well, the fact that the horse was standing in my driveway with me at the end of the lead rope was the obvious answer. Slim, as I called him, had been given the Three Promises in Shelley's trailer and my mind was already speeding forward to how to treat this infected raw meat we called his mouth. As a gesture of appreciation, the Humane Society gave me the $50 they had allocated to the vet fees for euthanizing the horse.
Within an hour, Slim was in a newly cleaned and limed box stall and I was surveying his movements. He was dehydrated and obviously in pain. Everything - including his life - hinged on me getting his mouth working enough to get water and mushy meal in to his belly. But how?
Given his size and my lack of experience, I did what was the only thing I could think of: I mixed a bucket of warm water, hydrogen peroxide, and Epsom salts. Then I put a step stool in the stall, told Slim what I needed to do and began trying to rinse his mouth - using a turkey baster, by the way! - with the warm water solution.
Well, that first red bucket of solution ended up everywhere except in his mouth! I was drenched. Slim was drenched. The walls were drenched. But that horse never once pushed me off the step stool! He was only reacting to the pain of my touching his lips and trying to get past his broken and mutilated jaw! The word "gentle" does not even begin to describe his demeanor.
After the first bucket, I spent the next 30 minutes cleaning his chest and his legs. The flies had eaten him raw and were actually nesting and hatching in his gummy and stinking hide. A good cleaning and some salve and he felt the blessed relief from the constant itching and biting. Slim dropped his head a bit to look me in the eye. Square in the eye. And so I restated to him the first promise, this time using his new name: "You are safe here, Slim. No one will ever hurt you again, Slim. I will care for you and do everything I can to help you heal, Slim. You are safe here, Slim."
Thirty minutes later and I was back in his stall again with another red bucket of solution. And this time what did Slim do? He looked at me. He looked at the bucket. I filled the baster with solution and stepped up on the step stool. Then that Gentle Giant trusted me enough to drop his head and crack open his painful, broken jaw just enough for me to get solution up in his mouth. With his jaw slightly opened, I emptied the entire first bucket that way, very slowly. My solution poured out over his broken bones and teeth and the worst smelling, looking, and infectious matter came flowing out of him. Big clumps of stuff. Ick! My mouth still puckers up at the memory of what was piling up on the floor. Dear heavens, it was rotten meat and the blood and pus of a raging infection. No wonder he stunk!
We continued this solution routine every hour on the hour for the first 24 hours. Then we went to every two hours. Then to every three hours. And finally, through the end of the healing process, we stayed at every four hours. We did the rinse outside in the driveway after that first time - easier to clean up afterward! We did the rinse in the heat, in the rain, in the dark of night, and in the 100 degrees of hot summer as well as the first frost of fall in Wisconsin. Slim never once gave me cause to be startled or worried about my safety. He did exactly as he had pleaded back in that trailer - he helped and he cooperated.
After the worst of the goop was out of his mouth, I would use the baster method to get water in to his belly. I gave him buckets full. Baster by baster…warm water…bucket after bucket. Slim didn't pee for 3 days. But, finally, his body was able to pass some of the water! Hurray! For the first time since Slim's arrival, I felt he had a chance at life!!! I was never so thrilled to see pee on the floor as I was that day!
Three days in to the process and I tried warm, wet, feed mash. He tried. He tried so hard! Oh, Slim was so hungry! But I had made the mixture too thin! So I thickened up the formula and he literally licked the meal like a dog licks a bowl. My tears flowed as this skinny, broken, giant licked his first food in a long, long time. Slim showed me that day that he had the will and the strength to continue and to live! That show of courage only refreshed and revived me!
Solution rinses, water by baster, and mash meals continued for about another four weeks. Finally, I gave him some regular feed. And Slim, bless his heart, "ate" it! Meaning he had to fling it up - against gravity!- to the back of his mouth and hopefully get some up far enough that he could chew it with his back molars and then swallow it. I soon joked with this monster horse that he ate every meal twice - once from the feeder and once from the floor! You see, just about half of what he put in his mouth fell out again through the huge gaps in his jaw - only to land on the floor. Dessert is what the floor pickings were to Slim! He seldom left a morsel behind, though, even if it took him an hour to eat what most horses could eat in ten minutes!
A little while later, I decided that Slim needed to be a horse and try his hand at running and playing with Jerry and Ruby. On a particularly beautiful fall morning, in the bright sunshine, I lead Slim to the pasture. I pointed at his new pasture mates and reminded Slim that he was a horse! And, taking his halter off of his head, I encouraged him to "Go and be a horse!" He stood right next to me. Nuzzled my body with his head, and then trotted off to meet his soon-to-be-best-friends. I smiled as I said, out loud, "Wonder if I should have done that?"
Really! Should I have taken his halter off? When Slim stood up, I could just reach his withers at six feet. When he put his head up he towered at nine feet! How would I ever halter him again? Did he know to drop his head to halter? Uh-oh! Should I have taken his halter off? Should I have done that?
Slim learned many things that first winter. He learned he was safe. Safe enough to come in to the barn and be collared for feed. He learned that feed came every day. And he learned that he was free to be a horse here at his new home. And he learned that the cow collar I used for feeding was close enough. No halter for Slim - too close to his face - too close, period! Slim learned to lift his head whenever I went too close to his face! Quick learner, that Slim!
Two years. It took me two years to gain his confidence and for Slim to trust me enough to allow me to halter him again. Two years of wondering if it would ever happen! Two years of moving slowly and never, ever touching his head. Two years of loving him and wanting nothing more than to hug that enormous head, but resisting. Until one day, it happened. I came toward Slim with the cow collar and he dropped his head. He was ready. He could be haltered now. Two years. It took two years.
Slim became a favorite for many reasons - his demeanor, his size, and his story. I took Slim with me on many outings. There were times when I stopped for fuel and would just open the back doors of the trailer - not because I needed to but just to show off the size of the horse in my trailer! And Slim never failed to get a reaction! Families would come walking over. Truckers would stop and look and shake their heads. And the clerks in the stores would ask, "What kind of horse is that?"
I remember leading Slim and walking - no, running! - next to him as he strolled along covering yards with his long legged step! But more than anything, I remember just walking next to him and having that saggy bottom lip brush the top of my head and some of his drool would be in my hair. My smile was as big as I could make it as I would just about explode with joy at just being so close to him. And Slim remaining calm after such a close brush to his face!
Slim had learned many things in his time here at Refuge Farms. Slim learned to trust again. Slim learned that he was safe here. The Gentle Giant. Slim. Who learned to trust Human Beings again and learned to allow those Humans to touch his face! Slim, the Gentle Giant. A lesson in survival. But most of all, a lesson in forgiveness.