Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Herd Bound

Rhonda and Sara
           Photo by Dory Touhey.
In July of 2012, I was captivated by a story on facebook about a herd of paints, mostly brood mares, who had been purchased by a kill buyer and needed re-homing fast.  Although, I tried to ignore the pleas from my friend who owned a Michigan horse rescue, something inside me would not allow it, and I launched myself head long into the cause.  The story struck a chord in me that was so deep that I was unable to stop following it and trying to help. The chronicles of the hopeless herd lead me on a journey that literally changed my life, and the way I will see horses forever. 
This story is dedicated to the 19 horses that were saved by many heroes, and especially to the beautiful souls in the world who have not been so fortunate.  You are loved. 
         by Rhonda Arza

Paint horses are mystical creatures who seem to embody ancient spirit, and each one has as much mystique as the divinely designed flawlessness in the markings that make them each so distinctive. I now own a Paint; she was one of a herd of nineteen others, mostly Paint brood mares like herself, that I played a part in rescuing one summer.  I witnessed proof of compassionate humanity existing among us as I felt the hearts of hundreds of friends viewing posts of pictures of the almost forgotten ill fated herd on Facebook. This group grew to become an unstoppable force of hopeful humanitarians that magically orchestrated a new and hopeful reality for these horses.

The herd, which had learned to move like an easy river over rock, and sludge, and any further difficult terrain put before them, was in trouble. There were nineteen horses all total, and each had been fattened up, and housed drug free for six months, the general waiting period needed for a kill buyer to ship them alive to Canada and then onward overseas to countries where eating horse meat was a popular delicacy enjoyed often by patrons of fancy European restaurants.
The herd’s original owner was a dying woman who was given an ultimatum by her husband. She had spent years laboriously developing this herd of beautiful breeding stock which she had enjoyed and loved like her very own children. They each had registration papers and pedigrees miles long that seemed to tell the story of a proud woman who could boastfully talk about the horses she owned and bred for pleasure. When she was weak and ailing, the resentment her husband felt from the time lost to her prized horses, coupled with the expense of taking care of an entire herd of horses, had overtaken him enough that he forced her to sell the last facade of joy in her life to a single buyer. Sadly, the rare buyer buys herds of beautiful horses, so they were sold to a horse dealer, a kill buyer we call them in the industry, who would prepare them to be sold for top dollar by the pound for overseas slaughter.
In our country, horses are a national treasure that have enriched our history so much that most of us can hardly even imagine the horrors that go on, and we often choose not to acknowledge these misfortunes as horses are shipped out of our country where they can be consumed in cultures that accept them as food. Sadly for this herd, the house of cards they had fallen victim to, had finally come down, and they were no longer safe from the harsh reality that life here can sometimes bring.
The herd knew nothing of their impending doom as they moved quietly through a simple life that had defined them for so long. They worked cooperatively as one pack and no horse among them was either the leader or the follower. They had learned to live together without competition, they were a team, and they had learned to move as one strong entity. They shared space, food, and water; they groomed each other, and slept outside together under trees or shelters that may or may not have been provided them by the humans who were to care for them. They had developed love and affection for one another over a lifetime of shared experiences, and each individual in no way felt that any of the others were separate from them. Bound for slaughter, though they had no way of knowing, they had formed a pact that together they were safe, but separate they were uncertain.
First Chance
The hired driver of the goose neck horse trailer pulled into the kill buyers’ driveway and loaded the first ones she could catch. She immediately took note as to how magnificent they were, and when she was handed the appropriate paperwork for slaughter bound horses, something in her drove her to plead with the kill buyer. Maybe it was the colorful herds’ uniqueness and oneness that had saved them, and somewhere buried just below the surface of the kill buyers own humanity was enough consideration to impel him to give her permission to sell them, if she did it quickly enough, and he received his money.
Facebook lit up as the message of desperation and hope was passed along from the shipper to her friend who runs a Michigan horse rescue who quickly moved and decided it was right, as animal rescuers know all too well, to get the word out about this herd and their dire story as this was their only and last hope.
I see countless horse’s faces every day on Facebook that need or are looking for homes, they all have a sad story in their eyes and it seems so hopeless. When the first post caught my eye, I admit that I glazed over it thinking that I would share it but it would end there. There are so many dismal pictures plastered over my wall of dogs, cats, horses, ferrets, and on and on and on, that I am overwhelmed by them all, thinking that I cannot possibly do anything to stop this madness of homeless animal after homeless animal. “Too many lost souls”, I thought with a head shake, but I passed the word along and hit the “share” button as I always do, and I felt at least for that moment, satisfied that I had done by part to help the herd. 
My friend who owns the rescue did not share my languid attitude at all and instead stressed the urgency of the looming situation at every turn and enough times that I could no longer ignore her pleas. “These horses have until Friday to live, and there are many more where these came from.” the post read. There was a photo of a beautiful bay gelding that caught my eye immediately. He was a thick and sturdy looking quarter horse, who somehow was thrown into the mix of breeding mares. 
“How on earth did this guy get here?” I thought as I looked at his picture, which showed his confident demeanor and strong stance, “He looks like a nice riding horse, not a brood mare.” I thought out loud.
As a riding instructor I was in need of a lesson horse perhaps, or even a horse I can lease out to one of my clients, so I inquired. When I spoke to the driver who discovered the herd she spoke with a strong voice that had heart and mileage behind it. She was a trainer too and she informed me that this horse was very sensitive to leg aids and probably could not have a beginner rider on him.
 I really appreciated her honesty, and thought that even though she only had a few days to home this group, she was not going to sell him to the wrong home. So he was not to be my horse, but now the seed was planted that I should continue the search for the right horse. I watched facebook all night after that and noticed that there were some takers on this first group. “If we get this first group homes,” my friend from the rescue posted, “We can get the next group homes and keep on going.”
     The first group of four was sold before the Friday deadline. It seemed like a miracle as we all held our breath, checking the daily reminders, and the comments from onlookers. There were plenty of “I wish I had more room”ers  and “I wish I had the money”ers, and an abundance of oohers and aahers, but the actual buyers, those willing to listen to instinct and intuition from just a cell phone picture, those were the people we needed to find, and the rescue farm owner knew that the only way this herd would survive was to share, share, and share some more.
         Round Two
The next group of four was picked up by Monday and we were off to the races yet again to find the next batch of would be owners for them. There was a handsome chestnut gelding in this bunch that interested me but he was described as too green for my needs, and the others were not exactly right either. One by one we shared and shared the pictures of the innocent faces of these kind horses, and had to watch with our breath held as the owner of the Michigan rescue stuck the neck of her rescue efforts out to save them, pleading with the Facebook community to share and repost so everyone could see them. She actually had people asking her why they weren’t free horses, questioning her integrity, and the integrity of the rescue, leading her to pose the question “What is a horse rescue?” and “Who qualifies as a recue horse?” 
I watched in anguish as she fought for her cause, but I knew sadly that my horse was not in this second group. Some of my fellow trainer friends were getting agitated on my shared posts saying things like, “Come on people! These horses deserve homes, they deserve a chance.” Someone even reminded us all that the famous Snowman was once a rescue horse and he was bought for $200 and went on to become one of the greatest show jumping legends of all time.
“One of these could be the next Snowman”, she pleaded, which lead one of our peers, a professional horseman within the hunter jumper community to step up and become a Facebook hero when he bought the chestnut gelding who had such an innocence about him that we could hardly stand waiting to see if he had to be shipped to a deadly fate. All four were sold by Friday and the kill buyer got his cash in hand late that afternoon. I heard a collective cheer seemingly through the vibration of my laptop on Facebook that night, and I cried for the horses that had no idea they were in danger, no idea that tonight they had been saved.
Round Three
Pleased with his fast money, he told the shipper to take the last group of horses in their entirety and sell them. She was given two weeks this time. When she arrived there, she put as many in her trailer as she could catch and made a few trips. She had to leave two behind because one was a stallion who was too wild and unruly to load into the trailer, and the other one was so lame and elderly that she could hardly stand up any longer.
Her heart was broken as she drove away unable to keep her promise to the herd. When she got the horses to her farm she tied them all to a hitching post to bathe them and assess the situation. Most of the horses were very rarely handled by people and were frightened. One horse was so afraid that she tried to break loose from the holding area and tragically slipped, fell, and broke her neck. The horse had to be destroyed the old fashioned way with a bullet at the scene with the whole herd looking on. The kill buyer insisted that the shipper pay for the dead horse, so money had to be added to the prices of the last group in order to make up for the one that had died.
It was to her the worst most heartless experience of her life, and although she was doing the best she could and felt called to do the work, she could not help but feel the enormity of the tragedy which had unfolded before her. Unfortunately, she was not a Facebook user, and she had no idea of the rally that was going on behalf of the herd.  She had no idea that people across nations were now rooting for them, and the driving force behind finding the members each homes had become virtually unstoppable.
The powerful determination of Facebookians far and wide would see nothing but a happy ending to this story. With the rescue owner at the helm of the motion to push through, the wall post read, “Slaughter Bound herd in Michigan in need of homes now!” We all shared, and shared again the message of impending doom each day, posting the album of the individual pictures of each horse like “wanted” signs all over our walls and the walls of our friends, and pretty soon we had roughly a thousand onlookers behind us.
Final Round
The final and largest batch was posted on a Friday. I remember getting very restless to see them and knowing that my horse was probably among this last group of horses. I recall checking my facebook page, my friends’ personal page, and her rescue’s page several times that day, and when the pictures finally came out I saw my Sara. She was called “Honey” because her papers said “Honey Dus Print”. I looked at her photo for a long, long time. People were making comments beside her picture saying things like, “This is my pick.” “Save this one for me.”, and, “This is my dream horse can I have her?”

I said nothing, made not one comment or even a “like”, as I did not want to bring any more attention to the photographs of the horse I knew would be my own. I remember calling my husband on the phone at work and asking him to look at her photo. “She’s nice.” he said with indifference behind his tone, quickly changing the subject.
Saturday and Sunday, I looked at the photo dozens of times, and looked deeply into the one showing eye of the horse I had already named Sara after my guardian angel. Her eyes had bold expression in them and though you could see the white, like so many paints, it was not a mistrusting eye that makes a person leery of a horse; it seemed more like an intelligent soulful eye that could see right through into your heart. Her eye was the type that could soften you, understand your fears, your pain, or anything that deep kind eye needed to teach you at the exact moment you needed to learn. That eye could demonstrate kindness, bring you warmth, and an eye like hers could even heal you. I saw in her something that I desired, and although initially I thought that I would be rescuing her, I also knew with great faith and clarity that she would come into my life to salvage me, to awaken me, to heal me, but most importantly to teach me.  On a soul level I knew that she was meant to be a part of my life, and that I had much to learn from her. 
 I could not stop thinking about her. “She is not a beginner horse you know.” my pragmatic husband said with a coolness in his voice. “If we are going to buy a horse Rhonda,” he said sensibly, “We really need a horse that is useful to us right away.” I stayed quiet because I knew he was not wrong about any of it, his reasons were realistic, and practical, but I couldn’t stop staring at her photograph. More and more comments were lining up underneath her photo as the hours went on.
“SLAUGHTER BOUND HERD IN DANGER AND IN NO WAY SAFE!!!” The haunting description read, “We have only two weeks to sell the rest of them or they WILL get shipped.” The photo share caption threatened and I shuddered to imagine that beautiful, perfect mare on a trailer heading to a holding pen, and eventually on to an airplane, and then perhaps countless more frightening holding pens preparing her for a devastating fate. It was not her actual death that I thought about, but it was her journey toward a slaughter death which concerned me the most, and I thought about the immeasurable number of other beautiful horses who never even get the chance to be seen on facebook, who must face such a journey. 
I stared at her photograph all night until it seemed that I knew her. The vibrant colors on her sides seemed to blend now, morphing into one large painting of another perfect horse losing hope.
No one had taken any of them in yet and it was Monday morning. “Two weeks from last Friday comes so fast.” I thought out loud. “Someone else would have bought her already if she was not meant to be ours.” I convinced myself. I was folding laundry and feeling so anxious about her and in a moment of hopeful panic I picked up the phone and dialed the number of the shipper who had stumbled upon the ill fated herd. I felt I could trust her because she had been so very forthright with me when I called about the bay gelding from the first group.
If she hadn’t have answered the phone I would have questioned myself and might not have attempted another call. She told me that she had never seen such a horrible scene, and that she would never do anything like this again, as she was affected so profoundly that she would never be the same. I remember thinking with great clarity and conviction that she was being utilized as an angel, and how through the wreckage and the heartache she could not see this yet.  I felt a deep sense of peace within me, knowing that all of us were being asked to do the same thing, and that we were each being utilized in the same way.  
I remember trying to comfort her in vane as she shared with me the story about the dying woman who had owned this herd, and how she could never forgive herself if she didn’t see this herd through, and finally she told me quietly about the two whom she had to leave behind. Tears streamed down my face as I listened and empathically felt her pain, noticing the words weakening as they came from her once strong voice which now cracked as she spoke to me.
My reply felt cold but I was honest. “I don’t think I can do it because she is not exactly what we need.” Then with a softening voice I told the truth, “There is something about her picture that I just can’t shake.” I spoke with hope in my voice, “I promise you,” I said with sincerity, “I will call my husband and call you right back if I can take her.” As I hung up the phone, I was confident that she would never expect a call back from me, and I also knew for certain that I had only a moment to get my husband.
I contemplated the uncertainty of his answer and knew that I had to be careful. But I also knew that my husband understands how fate and intuition play a large role in our lives way more than I ever give him credit for, so I spoke from my heart. I spoke of my experience on the phone with the woman and told him the story she had shared with me. He was quiet but he knew that we had to do what was right by this mare. He too had gone back to her picture several times, though he had been much more discreet about it. “Let’s get her.” He said in a calm strong voice.  I sat stunned for a moment, “Go ahead and call her back.” He repeated, noting my breathless silence. 
I am not sure if I even said goodbye to him, but I do remember that I couldn’t hang up the phone and redial fast enough. My hand fumbled recklessly on the keys once or twice.  I then had to concentrate and redial the number more slowly as I was not going to make an untimely mistake in dialing it again when I had only moments to spare.
I anxiously asked how to pay for her.  I could feel my heart beating strongly against my chest as I momentarily assessed the impulsivity of the act I was about to embark on. Nevertheless, when she sent me to her PayPal account, I spared not even a minute before making the transfer, and within moments she was ours.
I pensively sat on the bed where I had made the calls, sitting precisely where I had spent hours looking at her photo and the photo of the herd together so many times, and recognized that I had just made a profound and significant decision for all of us. Chills blew through me as I connected gratefully with the guidance that I had listened to, and I knew, without any evidence of remorse, that I had done the right thing and that Sara, a soul that I had perhaps known forever, was coming home.

Sara. Photo by Dory Touhey
I proudly posted a comment under the beautiful photo showing our Honey, my Sara, declaring that she was sold and confirming to all of the onlookers that we had bought her. A sudden and immediate barrage of posts flooded the photograph. There were now 30 or 40 comments underneath her picture congratulating me on our new horse. I felt completely uncertain of what journey lay before me, but I knew one thing, at that instant I knew that I could breathe again because she was safe. I had never felt so much relief, and now I could wait for her safe arrival, and deal with the next chapter of our journey as it came, knowing with great faith that I had listened to the right voice this time. I was now able to continue to help find homes for the others, as I was able to begin to lead by example. 
         All of the horses found homes and followed suit after Sara was sold. No horse that was taken to the shelter of the kind shippers’ barn would have to endure a grueling slaughter journey. The final horse that remained from the herd did not find a home within the strict time frame. She was an older mare who was plainer looking than the others, but she was easy going and kind. An anonymous donor from our group of faithful Facebook friends, found it in their heart to pay for the last and final horse so that the shipper could put the payments behind her, on time, and begin to heal herself as she now had the occasion to find the perfect home for this final mare, which she did just a couple of weeks after the deadline.
The more time I spend learning from Sara, the more that I appreciate how the herd acted as one. I think about the parallels of the work we all did together that was much like the work of the herd, and how really simple our place and purpose is as individuals. We are here to learn that we are all more the same than we are different; That when the universe asks us to step up, we can either choose to disregard the call, or we can become a powerful force that rallies around each other sharing the simple message before us, because after all we do recognize the idea that as one we are just one, but as a working herd we are the sum of our whole.
Together, we witnessed all of the posting and sharing that began with one and multiplied into a flock of many who had just one goal in mind. The goal, though it seemed to be as simple as the saving of some horses, was about the humanity that binds us together and the hope of people who proudly want to proclaim that love always wins. The herd was nothing but a reminder of the lesson, and living with the blessing that is Sara in my everyday life, I am reminded of the power of all of us together for one purpose, as we are as strong or as weak as the herd that was built out of a dream of one, which went on to become a vision of hope for so many.
When we glance back at the tragedy of the misbegotten herd, separated but bound as a whole, living forever within each of us who were lucky enough to be touched by this story that we all chose generously and collectively to share, we can hear a quiet undertone that reminds each of us that wherever we look, we will always find love seamlessly within one great herd moving together steadily throughout our lives.