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Not So Fast, My Friend: How A Rescued Race Horse Rescued Me

There was a time in my life where I felt incapable. I had been brutalized to the point of mental instability where I couldn't form a linear train of thought in my head. Not capable of a simple congruent thought, most people can't fathom that. I was coping, and not very well, with some of the most brutal PTSD my doctors had faced. At a time of my life where the presence of another human being terrified me, eye contact was impermissible, and touch was unfathomable..I met a horse.

I don't want to spend any more acknowledging what happened, but I do want to share with people what is happening to me and how I got there. Fate tends to be a good dice roller, and I still find it so arbitrary that of all the creature in the universe that we found each other. It's funny, looking back, I don't even remember how I got there. Sleepless, 3 am, wandering the internet one night, searching for something I couldn't put my name on; and I came across these eyes. Dead eyes, eyes that look forward, unblinking, staring an imaginary fixed object like their life depends on it. The body is breathing, but the life in the eyes has already left. I had seen the same look staring back at me in the mirror for days, months. Years?

It was a skinny brown thoroughbred. An american race horse, for those who don't know. Emaciated, possibly close to half the weight he should have been for his age. Every bone protruding and visible under a mud crusted coat, punctuated with open sores and bald patches. The color of a wet brown paper bag. The article I was reading cited the colt as a victim of an 'animal rescue' gone horribly wrong, an unstable hoarder who amassed 53 horses on a few pitiful muddy acres with no access to food or water. This colt was one of the lucky ones. Despite being one of the most critical cases on site, the colt was alive. He had been awarded by the ASPCA to a local farm, a 501(c)3 non profit farm known as Blue Skies. Seized by the moment, or sleep depravity, something, I emailed the director of this organization. Something in this horse deeply stirred me. Electrical activity was firing in the back of my brain, emotions I hadn't touched on or called to assembly in a long time. I told the CEO I didn't have much, but I was compelled to write her. I asked if there was anything I could do or any donation I could provide for this horse.

The next morning, to my surprise, I got an email back asking if I would like a job.

Working on the farm was very difficult for me at first. Shy isn't the word. Taciturn. I ducked away from clients, nodded when spoken to, careful to always avoid eye contact. But I enjoyed my work. There was something peaceful about cleaning stalls, working outside in the mild Georgia fall. I often fancied myself deconstructing a Jackson Polluck painting, sifting through the shavings, taking the time to mentally organize my thoughts and gather myself from events past that I was still reeling from. My manager knew I was totally odd, but seemed to have a superior sense of empathy and rolled with the strange tide. It was around this time I began to make my first 'friend' again.

The young colt had been at the rescue a week or two before I started my employment. Nameless for some time and only referred to as his registered American Jockey club name, he managed to produce himself a slew of medical expenses post arrival. Steep veterinary costs and a terrible hoof infection threatened his survival, complicated with the risk of intestinal failure as is often the case with recovering emaciated horses. An anonymous donor came to bat for this young horse, declaring she would cover his substantial medical expenses, providing one condition: the horse was to be named 'Sterling.'

Sterling, like myself, was not very popular as an arrival. Something like a concentration camp victim, if it's possible for a horse to experience survival guilt, I believe that would apply to him. Impossible to catch and difficult to handle, he often charged at the staff when they approached the entrance of his stall. Stranger still, when left with grain or hay he often resisted eating. Often dehydrated, I could tell he rarely drank water. I was probably overly anthroporphzing, but I had indescribable empathy for this horse. Sometimes after you survive an ordeal, the initial rush is over and the will to live passes, subsiding to the fear that the situation can occur again. The certainty of a peaceful death, quiet, can occasionally sound more appealing than the uncertainty of life ahead. Despite his flagrant difficulties and occasionally flailing hooves, I resolved I was going to protect this horse. This was my first step in recovering from PTSD.

It was a long, rewarding process. It started with leaving a few apple slices in between the bars of his stall door as I passed by. I understood his desire for space, I felt that too often, sitting in a hospital being prodded with questions. "This happened to you?" "How did that make you feel?" Besides being a horse, I didn't have to ask him. If I kept walking and passed his stall, Sterling would nab his treat and retreat to the back of his stall to enjoy his spoils. If I stood at the stall and attempted interaction he would simply not go near the treat. I understood.

Weeks passed, and Sterling graduated from suspicious to tolerant. In my off hours I often sat in his stall reading. We neither communicated nor interacted, but merely absorbed the presence of each other. As the months went by Sterling slowly gained several hundred pounds. His recovery was complicated by an incessant urge to 'crib,' a stress behavior of horses where he would latch his teeth onto a surface and suck oxygen rapidly into his lungs, producing a dizzying effect to the horse, making them 'high.' In the professional world it's seen as undesirable, maybe even the reason he was passed along in horse sales. While not a dangerous habit in itself, Sterling cribbed so much so frequently he plagued himself with 'gas colic', causing his intestinal swell and become quiet painful. Horses often roll frantically in an attempt to alleviate these pains, which usually results in fatal intestinal knotting if there is not intervention. I lost count of how many nights I spent that winter, walking walking walking walking, till the dawn, doing everything in my power to keep this horse from hitting the ground and rolling to death. The nights he was ill, my manager often told me to go home.

For me, the frigid nights in the stall with a sick horse were the only course of action. For whatever reason, I felt bound to this horse. His life hinged on my life, and vise versa. We were brothers in the sense that we had seen dark, terrible things that many walking this earth can't fathom. I wanted to be a light in the darkness for him. Many nights that winter the last thing I remember seeing before drifting to a short sleep were those large liquid eyes. It might have been my imagination, but they looked brighter.

In late winter, early spring, Sterling was finally sound. I turned him out the field one day, and for a moment, he paused. "Go on" I shooed, with a large list of things to do. Staring blithely at me a moment longer, I shooed him again. This time, Sterling shook his head at me, flipping his hair, horse language for telling me it was time to play. With no cue He galloped and trotted around me in a perfect circle for several laps, tail in the air, then bolted off to the far reaches of the pasture. Upon reaching the opposite fence, he stopped, turning back and calling to me, then raced back to my side at blinding speed, snorting with anticipation.

I can't explain my emotions. I had never seen this horse walk sound. I was simultaneously crying tears of joy and laughing from sadness. For someone unable to properly communicate with people, the idea that a simple animal was communicating with me was overwhelming. The sound of the wind sailing off his back as he flew around the pasture echoed in my head. At that speed there are no problems, just a blissful existence. Lost in my own thoughts, standing at the gate, processing what I had seen, Sterling walked closer to me and pressed his head against my chest. I ran my hands over his cheeks and forelock, hugged him and kissed the star on his forehead. "I'll follow you wherever you go." I whispered. "Just not so fast, my friend."

Subsequent experiences with Sterling having just instilled with a sense of wonder in nature I don't think I've felt since childhood. They say you cannot choose a great horse, but great horses choose you. I had the unshakable feeling that I had been given a once in a lifetime gift, and I did not intend to drop the ball. I resigned shortly thereafter it was time to start my friend under saddle.

At first he was not too keen. A considerate gentleman now, he eyed me worriedly as I began to strap the hides of dead animals onto him and crawl onto his back like a predator. The first time I sat on him upright and placed my feet in the stirrups, he turned his head to look first at my boots against his elbow, then met my eyes, as if to ask 'what on earth are you doing up there?' I smiled ear to ear. The lack of depth in his eyes had gradually faded in months from the expression of fear to a wide look of wonder about the world. He tapped my foot with his nose, as if encouraging me. Gathering my nerves, I tapped my heels against his side and the little colt boldy walked forward.

Not having taken three steps, construction workers from the property next us fired up their heavy equipment. Underneath me, I felt Sterling's shoulder's brace, but he continued with his ears fixed forward, as though he was determined to ignore any outside influences interrupting his training. Thoroughbreds are famous for their love of their jobs.

Without warning, only a few hundred feet away, one of the heavy machines knocked down a massive oak tree that was encumbering their clearing efforts. Hundreds of years of lumber came crashing down in slow motion, the tips of the branches slamming down yards from the arena fenceline where Sterling and I stood. I gasped and hunkered in my saddle, bracing every muscle in my body for a NASA like launch into oblivion, as Sterling rocked back on his haunches, ready to flee for his as he knew it.

But...He shuddered, and stood very still. Froze even, all four feet splayed. I was frozen too, afraid I was going to break some spell. He rolled one eye back at me nervously. Flitting his gaze back and forth between his rider and the spectacle in front of him, eventually he exhaled. I exhaled. I couldn't believe it. Any normal horse would have bolted and launched me like a trebuchet; flight is their biological response. Yet he looked to me first, for assurance. Believing this great danger to be passed, Sterling turned his head back around to face me, still meekly trembling in place. He nudged my boot with his nose again. "Let's go," he was saying. And we did.

Clearly, I had something remarkable on my hands.

While I can't claim beacoups of experience, starting Sterling under saddle was perhaps one of the most rewarding endeavors of my life. There was no such thing as a bad day with Sterling. Long, lean, and narrow, his build reminded me something of Olive Oil from the Popeye cartoons. He often struggled keeping his long gangly body traveling in a straight line, cross crossing his legs, backend going one way and a different way than the front end. I loved his baby stages, laughing the whole way through. Even the times when he shyed at shadows and tripped over his front feet, crashing onto his own face with me landing on his neck. I grew confident because of him, a simple horse. Girls at the farm asked me questions about this unusual little horse, I could smile and talk about him easily. Despite my inabilities and lack of balance, coming back into horseback riding after years and year of hiatus, I felt safe with him. I cannot tell you the last point my life that I felt 'safe.' It began to effect me in ways outside of the barn. I enrolled back in college, emboldened by the idea that if I could gallop and jump an off the track race horse, then surely I too to could walk into a classroom of people, get a college degree, and be a productive member of society. How I trained this horse became how I interacted with people and society at large. What I did with Sterling became a way of life; patience, acceptance, and the unconditional appreciation.

As we worked together through the years, our connection intensified. Through I believe this can all be scientifically explained, sometimes I lay awake at night and wonder if this borders on the supernatural. I have pin pointed pains in his hooves and muscles for veterinarians based on the pain I have felt surge through my own body. When Sterling is traveling, I am frequently besieged with calls from overly frustrated co workers. Sterling is infamous for holding up the entire caravan, unwilling to load and will even sit down like a dog, refusing to load onto the trailer. If he is convinced that I am riding in the cab of the truck towing the trailer, he is once again the gentleman happy to oblige my request. He is keen to make sure I know where he is going, and I'll be there when he arrives. Reins, bits, and bridles are formalities for us. Sterling feels the shift in my legs and weight, the turn in my shoulders, and follows my gaze, taking the two of us to wherever I turn my head. He can tell from my breathing and subtle pressure how fast or slow I would care to go, and he is happy to oblige, though I don't think anything can personally thrill him more than our gallops through the valleys and woods between the rolling foothills of north georgia. In those moments we are both free, there are no inhibitions or expectations, it is perfect synergy.

This goes beyond love. This is intuitive. This is a connection you cannot fabricate, replicate, or explain. It's only to be understood, and at that, very privately. It's something that I wish for everyone in some way at some point. Without this horse I'm not sure I would have a reason for being. Perhaps without me, it's the same for him. He is my first thought when I wake and my last thought before I sleep, and I feel so blessed to have my heart guarded by something so pure. While I'm not completely 'cured,' I am more healed than I ever expected to be, and still healing. Every day there is something about Sterling that makes me a little more brave.

And well.. when I signed his adoption papers this christmas, a gift from my beloved co workers, ... well I don't have to say it. You can imagine :)
FewWords FewWords 22-25, F Jan 12, 2013

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