Saturday, July 26, 2008

Do Horses Grieve?

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Pockets nuzzles Sunny's body as he says goodbye to his friend

Last Monday, I bid a teary farewell to our mare Sunny, a horse you have not heard about. Sunny was rescued from a feedlot in 2006 and brought to Watermark Farm to be rehabilitated and adopted. As many who've dabbled in feedlot rescue know, it's a crapshoot and you don't always know what you will get. In Sunny's case, what arrived was a motherly mare who loved children dearly, but who would never be sound.

Sunny, like so many racing Thoroughbreds, had become obsolete. Once raced at the famous Santa Anita track in California, she left behind an insignificant racing career to become a mother of three. During her time as a broodmare, Sunny was kept in a pasture with barbed wire fencing. One day, her foot became caught in the fence, and it "nearly tore it off," according to her breeder (whom I once spoke with). The damage to Sunny's foot was significant.

In 2006, with no baby at her side and a bum foot to boot, her breeder and life-long owner sold her to someone who, in turn, sent her to slaughter.

She was just 11 years old.

Sunny proved to be a wonderful companion horse, but people are afraid to adopt a chronically lame horse. After a year of looking for a home for her, I resigned myself to the fact that I was Sunny's permanent home, and retired her to a nearby farm, where the soft pasture footing would be kinder to her increasingly lame foot (for those horsey folks, her coffin joint was fused, she had massive low ringbone, and her navicular bone was lost in a mass of calcification; her xrays were so severe that even my seasoned vet sucked in a sharp breath when they appeared on his laptop screen).

Over the past 8 weeks, the pain in her foot became significant. The bad days outnumbered the good. More and more days came that Sunny's once happy brown eyes wore a cold, sad haze. She could no longer run with her companion, an elderly Thoroughbred named "Pockets." She spent most of her days curled up in her stall.

With a heavy heart, I made the decision to put Sunny down last Monday.

Sunny and Pockets loved each other. They were never out of each other's sight. The farm owner worried about how Pockets would do without her.

Sunny was sedated and peacefully put down on a cool Monday morning, Pockets standing nearby. He stood quietly, but worried when she went down. Afterward, I brought Pockets out to Sunny's body. He stood nuzzling her mouth, blowing gently into her nostrils. My daughter began to sob.

Pockets stood protectively over Sunny's body for an hour. Demi and I sat with him, brushing his mane and caressing him, watching his sad eyes. I began to worry that Pockets' grief would get the best of him. Just at that point, he turned and marched back toward the barn. I turned him out with another mare.

He bolted out in the pasture, inciting all the horses on the ranch to take one last victory gallop for Sunny.

In memory of Sunny ---- Jockey Club name "Wasp"
March 16, 1995 - July 21, 2008
13 years old

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Busy, Busy Month of July

The summer is whizzing by at Watermark Farm, and everyone, both two- and four-legged, is having adventures.

Katie, our newest foster horse brought to us by the Sonoma CHANGE Program (, has had some first rides and a trip to a local show. Katie is the friendliest, most level-headed horse! She looks more like a warmblood than a Thoroughbred. Although Katie is only track-broke, she rides reasonably well and has a soft mouth.

Katie's favorite pastime is to have little girls decorate her:

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

My first time on Katie's back. She's one mellow girl, so it was quite pleasant:
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Odie The Mule has had the busiest summer of all. Two weeks ago, Demi and I braved a full day of 102 degree heat to take Odie to a ranch where the Discovery Channel show "MythBusters" was filming a segment related to "horse myths." One was "If you lead a horse to water, you cannot make them drink." Watching them film this interesting show was quite humorous. They are earnest in their attempt to be as scientific as possible.

Their second experiment was to take both a horse and a mule and see if either would follow a carrot tied to a stick, the way you see in cartoons. Again, their efforts were both humorous as well as sweet. It was hard to stop laughing at times, which is difficult when the sound lady is giving you her death look.

Here, Odie gets to meet one of the hosts, who is dressed for the occasion. Odie was VERY interested in such a large carrot:
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Two of the show hosts, along with the director and cameraman, prepare to film a segment where they ask Odie to follow a carrot on a stick:
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Did Odie follow the carrot on the stick? When the show airs in a few months (I will post a date), you will find out.
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Yesterday, Demi and Odie competed at the Sonoma County Fair horse show. They had a great day, placing 1st in Hunter Hack, 2nd in 2'6" Hunters, 2nd in Equitation Over Fences, and 5th in Jumpers, all against large classes of about 15 kids! Demi was elated at the end of the day to find out that she'd won Reserve High Point --- all on a mule!
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Argus is doing so well! He had his second appointment with Dr. Guyton, the chiropractor, who was all smiles when she discovered that he had IMPROVED chiropractically since her last visit, maintaining movement in his pelvis!! Argus cooperated nicely for the work (no small feat considering this horse was fearful of human touch eight months ago), and fell asleep after his adjustment. Later that evening, out in the dark, I heard muffled horsey footsteps. A big flashlight revealed their source: Argus was cantering beautiful, balanced circles out in the pasture, all by himself, like a hunter going through its paces.

Argus is finally gaining weight. I've figured out a routine: Bring everybody in from the pasture at night, put out 8 flakes of good hay, and let Argus eat all night. He's relaxed enough in the pasture to eat, and he free-feeds that way. I think he's gained about 50 pounds.

The feeling never gets old. I look out at Argus and watch him race through the pasture, and I am filled with emotion. I hug him while I give him his evening grain, and the look of gratitude in his eyes makes me cry. I comfort him while he bravely submits to farriers, vets, and chiropractors, despite some fear of it all, and I am overwhelmed by his continuing trust of people. To see and be with Argus is to experience a simple kind of joy that we often overlook in our complex lives.

Welcome to Cayenne!!

Cayenne is a 19-year-old Thoroughbred gelding who was sold at auction to a slaughter buyer and landed at a feedlot, awaiting his trip to a Canadian slaughterhouse. A friend saved his life and brought him to Watermark Farm last Monday. He's an ex-racehorse, and has the manners of a southern gentleman, but he's a sad soul who's not seen much care in recent years. Cayenne's tail was matted into one huge dreadlock that started at his tail bone and went to the ground. It could not be untangled, so his tail had to be cut off.

At age 19, it's amazing, but, we read his lip tattoo and were able to find out who he is. His Jockey Club name is "Mac Attack," and he is a former stakes racer. Where he has been between age 4 and 19 is anybody's guess. He's sound and rideable. Cayenne will be available for adoption once he's been fully assessed --- probably in about 6 weeks.

Poor Cayenne looks a bit dedraggled. His body has many scratches and scrapes from his precarious existence (auction yard, feedlot) over the last few weeks. His spirit is rather sad, so he is getting lots of love, treats and TLC.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting


Monday, July 7, 2008

It's Showtime!!

Odie the mule has been discovered by the Discovery Channel! Tomorrow we trailer him to Marin County for a taping for the show "Mythbusters." Story and photos to come!

July and August bring the wheels of justice to Argus and Katie. On August 12th, Argus' former owner will stand trial in Sonoma County on four counts of animal cruelty. If you live in the area and would like to attend the trial, please email me.

In addition, Katie's former owner will have a pre-trial hearing in late July. His case will not likely go to trial. I will be attending both events.


"Katie" is a super mare! Wow! She is mellow, kind and easy to work with, and she LOVES people. I have lunged her, tied her, and bathed her, and she accepts all with ease. She is a cute mover with metronome cadence and rhythm. She is going to be a fun partner for someone. Katie is incredibly well proportioned, with a huge heart girth and a big, powerful hind end. I could see her as an eventer, lower level dressage horse, hunter, and trail mount. Katie will be attending the Hoofbeats Park schooling show this weekend as an observer.

Once Katie has had some chiropractic work (she is "out" in her atlas and sacrum), I will start hopping on her and see just how green she is...

Argus had a visit from a friend of mine yesterday, a woman who is internationally known for her work with horses. She looked at Argus, said "He has a headache, and his close-up vision is poor." Very interesting, because Argus DOES have a headache a lot due to issues with his atlas (first certical vertebra) wanting to be out of alignment. It gets fixed periodically with chiropractic adjustment, and Argus feels better --- but he is definitely due for some work. I thought the vision comment was interesting ---- could Argus have overdeveloped his distance vision and lost some of his ability to focus on things up close? Is that a result of chronic spinal issues?

I felt my maternal hackles pop up just a bit, though. At times, I feel very defensive of Argus because people tend to point out all the things that are "wrong" with him --- right in front of him. I find myself wanting to clutch Argus to my chest, like a protective mama bear, all the while growling "Don't you say anything critical about my Argus. He's PERFECT!"

I like to think that Argus understands words, energy and gestures, and needs, like any creature, to feel accepted. So I stand alone out in the pasture and tell him how fine he is. Feeling good about who we are is all any of us want, whether we are close to perfect --- or not.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

* ~ * ~ * Happy 4th Of July, Argus!!! * ~ * ~ *

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

ARGUS stood in the center of a tight semi-circle of horses, flanked supportively by Ridge, Half Pint, and Odie the Mule. He faced west, and a little bit north, his head raised appreciatively, his eyes merry. Not-so-far-off, in the distance, twinkling fountains of lights spewed over the horizon, sending off a delayed "BOOM," and repeating themselves again. Red, blue, white, green, fat, thin, round, flat; Argus' first Fourth of July fireworks show played on, much to the obvious delight of this yearling in a horse's body. He was not afraid, only fascinated. No shaking, just brown eyes like big, shiny buttons, taking in his first real Fourth of July.

Here on the farm, with our glorious 360-degree vistas, a clear-skied July 4th presents us -- and the horses --- with an array of subtle fireworks samples, small and far away. To the southeast, Santa Rosa shows it colors. To the west, we can catch a glimpse of the tiny Sebastopol celebration. Northwest of us, the town of Windsor gives the best show for our farm-view money.

In all my years of watching distant fireworks from the perimeters of the paddocks (and comforting nervous horses), I have never seen a show so bright, so seemingly close up, as I did this year. I was late in bringing the horses in to their comforting enclosures, and so, in the dark, alone, at 9:30 pm, I began my task. Ken had taken the children to Windsor to lay underneath the spectacular show; I stayed home to tend to our dog Snoopy, recovering from surgery, and two horses who hadn't spent a fourth in our care --- Argus and Katie. We never know what horses will do on this holiday.

Back to the semi-circle of horses.

All four quietly watched the 40-minute show, and I, in turn, watched them. The faint flicker of lights from the fireworks lit Ridge and Argus' white faces with an eerie glow. Black Half Pint kind of faded into the dark, only his eyes flashing on occasion, while Odie's white face stood out, his cookie-colored body mixing warmly with the blanket of night. I watched them as a mother watches her children, delighting not in the events themselves but the way it pleases those she loves; the irony was not lost on me. Most times, I am watching the happy faces of four human children, but tonight, I watched the smiling faces of my four equine children as they stared at the beautiful show.

What astounded me was that not one was nervous. They were clearly enjoying the mystery that appeared before them on the horizon. They stood within inches of each other, gently pressing against their neighbor for security. Here in the inky darkness, I stood quietly, watching the fireworks, just me and my horses. In a life full of memories, I was keenly aware that this one in particular would rise to the top, like rich, sweet cream, to be enjoyed over and over in my mind.

It was a reminder of how far Argus has come. Liberation is both physical and mental. Argus' body was freed seven months ago, but his mind has taken some time to catch up. Watching him enjoy the fireworks on Independence Day made me realize that Argus has turned the corner and is free, at long last.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Smoky Skies, A Visit From Dr. Miller, Upcoming Trials, and a Plug For "Katie"

For a week, the skies of Northern California were choked with the smoke of hundreds of wildfires. Although our county was spared (for now), the counties to the north (Mendocino) and east (Napa/Solano) waged their own tough war against flames that licked their way up steep, wooded slopes and through fields of brittle grass. It's summer, and California's fire season has arrived early.

Here at Watermark Farm, the horses stumbled about through the haze. The beautiful Sonoma County hills that surround our farm were obscured by smoke, making it look like we were sitting in the middle of a vast, polluted valley. My hair smelled like campfire 10 minutes after showering. I could barely make out jewel-like vineyards around us.

All in all, Argus and friends survived the week well. Those few residents sound enough to be called riding horses took the week off, and the rest lived life as usual, roaming the pasture in search of a tasty weed.

The warm weather finally brought the first real crop of flies, although thanks to the tiny, stingless wasps called "fly predators" (we release them every three weeks), our farm has a blessedly low fly population. Even so, it was time to introduce Argus to the joys of a fly mask. He surprised me, as always, by complying quietly while I slipped it over his ears, no halter, right out in the middle of the pasture, with a look as if to say "Oh, OK, I have no idea what this is, but if you want me to wear it, I will!" I may be anthropomorphizing, but I swear he looked quite proud of himself while he wore that fly mask all day. It bears the name of much-loved boarder, who died a few months ago: DANCER

Yesterday, a frazzled Dr. Miller made a visit to Watermark Farm, a victim of a long pleasant vacation and a hit-the-ground-running start back into the Real World. It was, he said, his first real vacation since graduating from vet school. "I've had my hands inside a cow all morning," he said, "and horses don't like the smell." I winced. He went on to tell me about the cow surgery, all the while washing his hands with something flowery.

We walked out into the pasture, where Argus' eyes grew big and wide at the sight of Dr. Miller. I haltered him. He began to shake. The protective mother part of me wanted to whisper to Argus: "Stop shaking! Knock it off! Get a hold of yourself! You are making this man who saved you feel BAD!" Dr. Miller smiled ruefully. "It's Okay," he said, "I represent the worst day of his life."

Dr. Miller edged toward the quaking Argus. I'd asked him to stop by to evaluate Argus' weight, which he deemed "thin, but Throughbred thin." He told me that Bobby, the other horse rescued from 16 years in the mare motel, was the same way: the foster home could not make him fat. He explained further that in cases of chronic malnutrition, when the body realizes that it does not receive various vitamins and nutrients, it "turns off" its ability to receive and utilize those nutrients. So for Argus, he may always struggle with weight and a certain level of malnutrition because he may have permanently lost the ability to metabolize some things. The thought of it made me sad. And angry.

Overall, Dr. Miller was pleased with Argus' progress. When I finally turned Argus loose back into the pasture, he cantered away with a sassy air. To see this horse trot and canter still brings tears to my eyes. Argus is so very happy, you can see it in his eyes. A look of absolute contentment, of soaking up every single moment life brings, smoke and pasture, scary vets and evening grain. Argus has started being ever so slightly obnoxious as he waits for his evening 6 flakes of hay (!) and his little bucket of supplements. He weaves a bit, and stamps the ground, and nickers at me! How can I not enjoy every moment of his anticipation, however silly, for it's so rich with joy and expectation.

My conversation with Dr. Miller moves to the side of his truck, where he gingerly pulls out a folder and shows me the stack of court documents he pores over in his spare time. "This is all volunteer work," he says, "it's a lot." I can hear in his voice a mixture of pride and exhaustion. Dr. Miller helps the Animal Control departments of two counties, Sonoma and Marin, by testifying at pre-trial hearings and trials of those accused of animal abuse. He does this in addition to responding to calls to inspect neglect/abuse cases. It's heartwrenching work, and scary too. People who abuse animals are not nice people. Dr. Miller has one trial coming up this month. He shows me a photo of a horse laying down, its head the only thing visible through a slightly open stall door. The horse is dead, locked inside a stall without food and water. This case comes up soon. Two other horses survived that hell. One comes to me today for training. Her name is Katie, and she is a rideable, athletic, gorgeous 9-year-old Thoroughbred mare. Stay tuned for updates. Katie is available for adoption. She has "sporthorse" written all over her! Katie must find a lifetime home with someone who will cherish and enjoy her:

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Dr. Miller asks me to keep a date in August open for yet another trial. It's for Argus' former owner, the hoarder who kept Argus and Bobby penned up in 12 x 16 mare motel pens for nearly 16 years. She has four other horses still in her possession. She has pushed her case all the way to a jury trial. Dr. Miller says that hoarders tend to do that.

So there's a lot going on, and in the middle of it, horses are in need of permanent homes:

Argus (companion horse only; must stay in the Bay Area)
Bobby (Argus' friend in hell; sweet older TB; companion only)
Katie (rescued 9-year TB mare; sound, athletic well built, good mover, great sporthorse propect!)

Please feel free to email me (, or contact the Sonoma CHANGE Program ( for adoption information on any of these wonderful horses.

Thank you for all your support!