Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas at Watermark Farm

By popular request, here is Argus' 2008 Christmas poem.
Merry Christmas to all!



'TWAS the night before Christmas
And all through the barn
Not a creature was stirring
Anywhere on the farm

The stockings were hung
On the stall doors with care
In hopes that Saint Nicholas
Soon would be there

The horses were all snuggled
Into straw-banked beds
While visions of sweet feed
Danced in their heads

And Argus was in his blanket
Chubby Half Pint going bare
Both hoping and wishing
Santa soon would be there

When out in the arena
There arose such a clatter!
They leapt into their paddocks
To see what was the matter!

The moon on the puddles
In the wet winter pasture
Made the night light so blinding
They breathed faster and faster!

When what to their
Brown horsey eyes should appear
But a jolly red sleigh
And eight hungry reindeer

In the driver's seat sat Santa
All dressed up in red
And he winked at the horses
As they spied from their beds

Then something odd happened
The horses grew brave
And Santa addressed them
Which made them quite grave:

"Now Argus! Now Half Pint!
Now Odie and Angel!
Now Ginger and Caleb!
And Ridge in the stable!"

"To your herd mates be kind
And don't waste your hay!
Take care of your riders
And love each new day!"

As dry shavings that before
The wild hurricane fly
When they meet with the winds
Mount to the sky

And suddenly the horses
Who before felt quite shy
Felt themselves flying around
With Santa in the sky!

So around the farm
The horses they flew
They looked down on the home
They loved and they knew

And then, on the house top
They thumped on the roof
And the family inside
Heard the pounding of hooves

"What's that?" they shouted
As they woke from their beds
"We thought we heard horses
Loose overhead!"

So out to the stables
The family they ran
Where they found it quite empty
Save for the horse goat, An'

They peered at the sky
For a sign of the equines
And for a moment, saw Santa
Riding Argus just fine

Then suddenly, and quietly
The horses were there
Munching hay and looking sleepy
As if they had no cares

So the lights were extinguished
The excitement went "poof"
And the family missed Santa
Spying down from the roof

To each horse, he gave a gift
And when he got to the last
It was Argus, the white one
He'd seen on many a Christmas past

"You're a good horse, dear Argus"
Santa said with a tear,
You have suffered so long
So many a year"

"I promise you will always
Have a loving, peaceful life
With pastures and buddies
An end of all strife"

Argus thought quietly
About all the nights
And the bleak Christmases of waiting
For the arrival of light

This, his second Christmas
Of freedom and cheer
He'd been a real horse, a free horse
For more than a year

Santa sprang to his sleigh
To his team gave a whistle
And winking once more at Argus
He flew away like a missile

The horses heard him exclaim
As he drove out of sight
"Merry Christmas, dear Argus!
And to all --- a good night!"

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Grateful Blanketing

It may sound silly, but I feel so happy when I blanket Argus.

As with any old horse, I casually throw the big green horse jacket up over his back, where I tug and slide it until it's in position. Argus eats his grain and regards me a bit warily, but stands. Alone in the barn, I am grinning.

Buckle the chest, buckle the belly straps. Pull Argus' unfairly enormously thick tail (I swear to God, this horse has the hair of 10 horses) out from behind the poop-encrusted elastic tail strap. Say "good boy!" in my most pleased tone, offer a grateful chest rub, and slip out the door.

Contrast this with two years ago.

Argus is standing, shaking with cold, in the dark, in a paddock. He has been out of prison only two weeks now. He is not sure if any of this is real. I death-grip the halter while carefully, carefully sliding the accordion-folded blanket over his withers. He is ready to explode, but you can tell he's trying to trust me. It takes 20 minutes of coaxing and crooning to the wild-eyed Argus to get the blanket on. Afterward, as he stands, warm at last, I swear he gets it. He gets what the blanket is for.

Or a year ago.

Blanketing had become a kind of dance. Haltered, Argus would now stand, quivering but calm in his own strange way, for the first part of blanketing, the blanket-over-the-withers part. Argus would stand for the chest buckling part. But the pulling-the-blanket-back-over-the-body part made him lurch forward. One hand on his lead rope, another on the blanket. We'd get the job done. But it wasn't always that much fun.

And this account doesn't even address the unblanketing part, which is to say it was only the aforementioned in reverse, only more exciting.

That is why, as I stood tonight under the stonewashed gray-black of a misty December sky, blanketing Argus as you would any old horse, I felt a wash of gratitude at this remarkable accomplishment. In saving Argus, I often think I've saved that part of myself that, child-like, finds meaning in everyday miracles. I smiled to myself, saying reverently "for this, I am grateful!"

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Two Years!

For weeks after Half Pint's death, Argus walked out into the pasture every night around 10:30 pm. He'd face east, whinny four or five times into the darkness, then turn around and walk back into the barn.

Was he calling for his lost friend?

The three remaining geldings are doing well, although they remain a little sad without their herd alpha. Ridge has filled in nicely, and even though he lacks front teeth (they were removed due to gum disease), he kindly makes his point with Argus and Odie by 'gumming' them a bit when they get out of line. All in all, it works, and the three boys are managing. I think Argus does miss Half Pint quite a lot, though.

It has now been two years since Argus escaped his hell, two long, wonderful years of learning what it is to be a "real" horse. When he arrived, he was 15 going on two. Now he's 17 going on four, with the body, sometimes, of a 30-year-old.

Argus can now do all these things:

He stands quietly, even gratefully, for blanketing --- no halter, no fearful shaking, nothing! I can flip the blanket up over his back with great flourish, straps and buckles clanking noisily, just like a normal horse.

Dr. Miller can give Argus an IV injection without Argus rearing and plunging all over the stall, me twitching him and hanging on for dear life, Dr. Miller skillfully dancing in mid air in order to get the needle in. The other day, Dr. Miller came to inject Argus' painful knee joints. He gave the IV sedation right in the aisleway of the barn, and Argus just stood there, blinking calmly. Just like any other horse. I felt so proud of Argus, and Dr. Miller did, too. We celebrated by giving Argus his first monthly Legend injection, an IV shot that is helping Argus' arthritic joints so much that he is dancing in pasture again. Soon, I will be the one administering this injection. I never thought I'd be able to give this horse an IV shot.

Argus can come into his stall and paddock for a short time without getting frantic and weaving. In fact, he even likes it. Every evening, he stands at the gate to his paddock, knowing that a big tub of fattening food awaits him inside.

Argus has a best friend. He and Ridge move together through the pasture in unison. They look so much alike in their matching green blankets that I can only tell them apart by looking at their tails --- Argus has a much thicker, longer tail. He and Ridge have an unusual bond for horses. They do everything literally attached at the hip, grazing cheek-to-cheek for hours on end.

He can stand quietly when the farrier trims him. He no longer jumps when the farrier drops his tools. Argus cooperates. Argus likes the farrier. When Argus came to us, he had never had his feet trimmed, or even picked up, before. Now Argus likes it when people handle his feet.

Argus no longer stands for hours and hours, staring at things far away. His eyes, which were flat and shark-like two years ago (my theory is that he developed great distance vision, and poor up-close vision from 15 years of staring at distant objects), are now warm and brown and they actually see you. Argus looks at me with happy eyes, and much is said in his gaze.

Even so, old habits die hard. We often say that Argus is like a little old man hermit who peers out at the busy world around him through a curtained window. When the vineyards next to us are full of workers, Argus stands for long minutes, quivering, head high, alert, shaking, watching, studying. If on a cold day, the geysers to the north of us send plumes of steam up from the hills, Argus watches them, frozen. He gets excited and takes a break from his staring by doing his "dressage workout." Last week I watched him canter perfect 20 meter circles in the front pasture, punctuated by long, straight lines where he perfected his tempi changes. At one point, he was cantering calmly along, changing his lead every third stride. Those dressage riders who have schooled this movement know how demanding it is to teach. For our athletic Argus, even riddled with arthritis, dressage comes surprisingly easy.

When I enter the stall, Argus used to walk into his paddock, standoffish and not wanting me in his space. Close contact with people was something to be avoided. Now he stands, calmly eating his grain, and doesn't leave. He likes it if I scratch his neck, speaking softly to him while he eats. He even comes to the fence to see people now.

He's interested in us now. He wants to be haltered. He loves to be groomed. He's happy to be led out of the pasture and into the barn for some "beauty parlor time."

Day after day, he makes progress in small ways. I am amazed that after two years, he's still changing, still learning new things, still trusting us more and more, still growing, still becoming a horse, and discovering more and more joy. Just seeing him out in the pasture gives me the greatest rush of pleasure.

I am proud of Argus, and I tell him so every night as I buckle his blanket on. He stands, calmly munching his beloved tub of food, and looks at me as if to say: I am proud of myself, too.

Please note: Due to adult-content spam showing up in the 'comments' section, I have disabled the ability to post anonymously. I am sorry for the inconvenience and hope you understand the need to keep the material on this blog safe and appropriate for all ages.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

And Then There Were Three


Our beautiful, mischievous half Percheron Half Pint went on his last adventure yesterday, leaving us for the Rainbow Bridge and heavenly pastures free from pain.

A former PMU foal who had a rough start in life, Half Pint struggled with many health issues during his short eight years of life. From colic surgery to chronic lameness to his final bout of illness, Half Pint was a frequent flyer at UC Davis and Pioneer Equine Hospital, earning from us the begrudging nickname "our $18,000 free horse."

Of course, the $18,000 free horse won our hearts a long, long time ago.

Half Pint had been sick over the past month, but in his usual stoic way, he was brave to the end, fooling us into thinking he was not very sick. It is suspected that he had lymphoma, abdominal cancer that filled his abdomen with fluid and exhausted his heart. He was, as the vet so bluntly put it, "trying very hard to die." We, of course, helped him out, and he crumpled to the ground with the greatest of relief, free at last.

His passing leaves a huge void here at Watermark Farm, for he was more like a person than a horse with his sense of humor (stealing tools and sweatshirts), destructive ways (his record being two 2x6s in a weekend) and larger-than-life personality (visitors always wanted to meet him). Half Pint was also the head of his little herd of four, which are now a sad-eyed white trio who are lost and adrift tonight without their 'brother.'

Argus, Ridge and Odie stood nearby in their paddocks, watching everything. Knowing. Half Pint, his heart raging at 90 beats per minute, lumbered slowly into the pasture with me. I cried and told him what would happen, and how much I loved him. Then the vet came to give Half Pint his gift of a humane death. Half Pint slipped away peacefully. Then I turned Argus, Odie and Ridge out with Half Pint for a final goodbye.

The pictures say it all.












Half Pint
2001 - October 9, 2009

Saturday, August 29, 2009



Happy Argus, who now ambles through life, and his pasture, without a care in the world. It's a far cry from the long days stuck in a pen, where weaving and staring at things in the distance whiled away an endless sentence.

Sure, shadows of the Old Life are not far away. Argus, who has the mind of a four-year-old and the body of a 30-year-old (even though he's only 17) stands on knees so arthritic he cannot straighten them fully. Regular joint injections and 24/7 movement keep the pain at bay, but it's still hard to watch Argus lay down. He bends his knees as far as they will go (which isn't far enough!), and kind of shakes all over as he flops down, hard, on his side.

Occasionally, Argus experiences being "out" in his upper neck, where some upper cervical vertebrae form a logjam, an event so profoundly painful that he cannot lower his head, eat or drink or be touched, even to be haltered. It lasts for a day or two, me plying him with raised buckets and feed bags to no avail. The vet comes out and stands, worried. His best drugs seem no match for the ghost of Argus' past.

So occasionally, Argus sees the chiropractor. In this case, it's Dr. Suzanne Guyton, who cheerfully comes to the farm every 8 weeks or so to work on the horses (and one dog). I met Dr. Guyton six years ago, and have been amazed by her work ever since.


When she first met Argus, her face was troubled as she examined him. I was not disillusioned about her ability to help him. After all, he'd lived in a pen since he was a weanling, living on stale french bread and passing the years of his growth and development without enough movement to accomplish these things normally.

His entire pelvis and sacrum were a mess, so badly fixated and jammed that not one joint in the structure functioned normally. Dr. Guyton was amazed he could walk at all. His back nearly as bad, and his neck....she let out a gasp, and looked at me sadly. "Well," she said quietly, looking at me as if she were telling me I had only weeks to live, "we'll do whatever we can."

A few days ago, Dr. Guyton worked on Argus. As usual, his neck was a mess, the first three vertebrae, including the giant C-1 (aka, "the Atlas") all rotated and jammed against each other, functioning not as several distinct joints but one. Dr. Guyton freed them up, then asked me to do daily "carrot stretches" with Argus. He nodded his head in agreement!



When Dr. Guyton worked on Argus' hind end, she beamed at me with joy! After a few quick adjustments, she proudly pronounced his sacrum to be in fully-functioning condition, the joints moving nicely and in a healthy way. This horse, whom we never thought could be normal behind, was now normal behind! Hooray for Argus!



Argus loves seeing the chiropractor or the farrier, because he knows he will be plied with a soothing bucket of alfalfa-molasses. Afterward, he strolled calmly back out to pasture, where Ridge, Half Pint, and Odie waited eagerly for him.


At the water tub, Ridge and Argus compared their reports cards from the chiropractor, Ridge characteristically boasting to Argus about his A+ verus Argus' B. Ridge is like Argus' big brother, bossy at times but very protective of him. During Ridge's entire 9 month period of confinement for his pelvic fracture, he saw the chiropractor and bodyworker on a monthly basis. It paid off, keeping the rest of his body functioning as well as possible while his bone healed. Now Ridge and I are embarking on a 30 day groundwork period; by October, I hope to sit on him for the first time in more than a year. He is doing well --- and 23 years old! (That's Argus on the left).


Just a day or so ago, I was up early. Argus stood alone out in the front pasture, and as happens so often these days, I was thinking about how beautiful he is as he stopped to stare at something in the vineyard



It lasted only a moment, as Argus rarely finds the need to stare off into the distance for very long these days. Soon, his head drifted back to earth as Argus marched off in search of another tasty blade of grass.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Long, Dry Spell


"No pressure," starts one e-mail, "but it's been a long time, and we'd really like to know what is happening with Argus."

So begins one of the many e-mails that have started coming in of late, making me feel sheepish and guilty. Busy with family, work and life, with little energy for creativity, I have been hiding from myself, bled dry by a strange run of bad luck at Watermark Farm.

The gray cloud that began with the death of our sweet old horse, Deema, and continued with Argus' illness and a string of troublesome events at Watermark Farm, ended one day in July, as strangely and suddenly as it began. I stepped on a board long lurking in some tall weeds, its principal thorn a three inch nail that plunged through my shoe, shock and foot. Screaming in pain and sobbing for my mother (in the end, only the bashful but sweet house painters working nearby would do), I thought, with an odd kind of relief: "It's over! My run of bad luck is over!"

And it was. It is.

What I've realized lately is that not only does the world need good news in the form of stories about Argus and his friends, but I need that good news, too. I've missed reading about Argus, too.

It's ironic that, in the midst of all my troubles, Argus, who has needed so much for so long, remained steadfast, a brave little white knight living quietly out in pasture, when everything else around me seemed to be coming unglued.

The whole gang is back together again --- Argus, Half Pint the Percheron, Odie the Mule and (Yes!) Ridge of the Broken Pelvis. The book-ends are together once again, Ridge having healed enough to be transitioned back into turnout (You can insert Ridge's emphatic "Hallelujah!" here) over the course of the summer. Argus was thrilled to be back with his soul-mate. It's harder than ever to tell the two apart when they are grazing far away out in pasture. This year, however, Argus' tail is LONGER than Ridge's. In fact, he's got the most amazing, thick, wavy, wonderful tail of any horse on the ranch.


Last night my daughter, Demi, came in from feeding. "Mom," she said proudly, "Argus has become a real love bug. He actually wanted to come in to a paddock tonight, and he wanted me to pet him!" She gave me a big, wide grin while we discussed plans for a weekend "Beauty Treatment" for Argus (a fancy way of saying we will groom him, bang his tail, and trim his mane and whiskers).

Sometimes it's hard for me to believe that, after all this time (It's been nearly 21 months since Argus escaped from prison), this sweet old soul is still making progress. They are little things, new things, that no one would think twice about, like Argus 'asking' to come into a paddock for a few hours in the evening, or trotting across an entire pasture just to greet me at the fence. He's not a demonstrative horse, or a "pocket pony" in any way. He's just Argus, quiet, somewhat aloof, but tender and deep.

Argus loves our horse trailer, and associates it with excitement: the arrival or departure of a horse, mostly Odie, as he travels to and from Pony Club meetings, lessons and horse shows. Our driveway runs along one side of the pasture, and every time I come home, horse trailer in tow, Argus is there, head raised, body quivering with a nervous pleasure, leading the procession of equine greeters that stand along the pasture fence. He gives a shrill call, "Helloooo!" and then is the first to gallop back to the barn, where he will greet his long-lost (or so he thinks) pasture-mate with glee.

Odie has been coming and going a lot this summer, his horse show schedule keeping him busier than ever. He and Demi did well at the county fair this year, coming home with reserve high point and a ticket to the State Fair "Best of Show" horse show at Cal Expo in Sacramento. (They will compete in the English Equitation division there on September 3rd) They also competed in the "Fun in the Sun" Pony Club rally in Elk Grove, near Sacramento, braving 110-degree heat and coming away with Demi's highest Training Level, Test 1 score ever, 66% (pretty good for a mule who doesn't really go on the bit).




If you've stayed awake long enough to make it through the photos of my kid and her mule, then I've got a wonderful surprise for you! I am pleased to introduce the NEW Sonoma CHANGE Program blog. The CHANGE Program is the organization that helped Animal Control take Argus and Bobby out of their lifelong prison. It was a fledgling non-profit in 2007, and Argus was their first official foster horse. Since then, I've become a volunteer and supporter of their efforts.

I hope you'll enjoy this new weekly blog, edited by yours truly! (And check back here for more updates on Argus and friends. We're back on a weekly basis)

~Katie, Argus and the entire gang at Watermark Farm

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Real Hero to Argus........ Dr. Grant Miller

In 2007, large animal veterinarian Dr. Grant Miller and three friends formed the non-profit organization CHANGE, or, Coins to Help Abandoned and NeGlected Equines. Their mission was simple: to create a network of support for Sonoma County Animal Care & Control to call on in equine cruelty cases. Since then, CHANGE has helped the Sonoma County District Attorney's office pursue rigorous prosecution of horse abuse cases that previously would never have made it to the courtroom at all.

CHANGE's first case involved two Thoroughbred geldings who had spent the better part of 15 years living confined to 12 x 16 mare motel pens and surviving on stale bread and lettuce. Argus (memorialized here on this blog) and his companion, Bobby, were the first horses to enter foster care under the CHANGE Program. Dr. Miller recalls the December day in 2007 when he and Animal Control were finally empowered to remove the horses from their Penngrove home. It took an hour for Dr. Miller to simply catch and halter the semi-wild Argus in his small pen.

Dr. Miller has recently been honored by the American Red Cross for being a "Hometown Hero." Enjoy this YouTube video interview with Dr. Miller --- a truly special veterinarian and human being.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Jungle

Late spring rains spawn a jungle, a pasture eye-deep in silvery spent oats and scraggly wild mustard. White feverfew blossoms--they are everywhere this year--brush the horses' knees, their chrysanthemum-like scent wafting upward. The leader for the moment, Odie winds his way through the tangled plants, following, like an explorer, the trace of a path worn into the grass last summer. It's barely visible, but Odie presses on, his eyes blinking protectively as the plants gently slap his sides. Behind him, nose pressed tightly into the mule's scrawny tail, Argus follows along, his expression merry. Rounding out the trio of adventurers is Caleb, who uncharacteristically walks last in line. On occasion, Argus glances nervously at the alpha horse fast on his tail.

They emerge from the thick part of the pasture and hit an open stretch of shorter grass, breaking into a ground covering trot as they push onward toward Neighbor Jim's gate. It's summer, after all, and that means that Neighbor Jim has once again gifted his three acres of nirvana to the Watermark Farm horses for a season of eating pleasure.

Odie explodes through the gate, crossing the line as if he's a man on the run. Behind him Argus and Caleb float along effortlessly in their ground-covering trot. They look left and right, brown eyes big and wide. The three horses stop suddenly and snort loudly, heads suddenly shot up high. They remind me of a trio of little boys, hard at work pretending.

Suddenly, the predator is visible. The horses stop, stiffen, tremble.

Argus becomes the leader, bravely stepping out in front of the others. Watching them, you get the feeling that this is all just an elaborate game, an adventure of three horse friends.

Ahead of the brave explorers, in Neighbor Jim's front pasture (which adjoins the one our horses enjoy), the interlopers stand at the fenceline, staring. They are Neighbor Tony's unusual band of family pets: two Brahma bulls, a mother goat, and her little white kid.

The adult bull is enormous, and fearsome-looking, with a huge hump that sways when he walks, and a dewlap of loose skin that flops downward from his chest, drifting past his knees like a giant lap blanket. He's accompanied by his constant companion, a smaller yearling bull rescued as a newborn from an auction last year. Standing on top of the bigger bull's back is the tiny white baby goat, who uses him as a moving mountain. We have watched in absolutely amazement as the papa bull lets this baby play all over him. He moves carefully around her.

I trudge through the drying grass, annoyed at the millions of foxtail stickers that are filling my paddock boots and attaching themselves greedily to my wool socks. I am the fourth horse, trailing the herd silently, watching this showdown between two neighboring gangs unfold.

I smile, knowing the horses and the bulls and the goats all know -- and like -- each other, and the posturing is simply for fun and effect.

Argus stops just short of the common fence, coming to an elegant and controlled halt just ten feet away from the bulls, who regard him with a bored expression as they chew the summer grass. I'm pleased and happy that Argus gets to be an adventurous boy, enjoying pasture games with his companions and developing friendships with Brahma bulls and tiny goats. How far we've come, I think.

At the fence, I perform the now familiar task of scratching the big bull's head, ignoring the gamey intact-male perfume that I know will permeate my skin. I weave my hand through a square in the fence, finding an expectant bovine on the other side. Papa bull sighs gently as I massage his ears and forehead. It took me a few weeks to work up the courage to do this, even knowing that these bulls were pets, and friendly (although I would never walk through their pasture). Occasionally, the big bull runs his rough tongue appreciatively across my salty arm, seemingly trying to return the favor in his graceful gesture. I chatter away at him, with my free hand poking stems laden with oats through the fence. He takes them politely and chews thoughtfully. We regard one another with great admiration. He's my very first bovine friend ever.

From behind me, the three horses watch, their game of jungle explorer over.

Soon, it's time to return to the house, and the mundane tasks of life: starting dinner; pleading with children to complete their chores; feeding dogs, cats, chickens and horses. I bid my four-legged neighbors goodbye, and slowly trudge through the scratchy pasture, lost in thought. Ahead of me, my house and barn are warmed by soft pink and yellow evening light. I think about my love for my family and my gratitude at my good fortune, the luck I have to be healthy and able to enjoy this all. To be here on this farm, surrounded by people and animals and the always changing dance of nature, is a dream come true. And then there's Argus.

As if on cue, I feel a warm breath on my elbow. The normally shy and reclusive (even with me) Argus is walking alongside me. "Hi buddy," I say softly as I reach out and touch his neck. He sighs once, his eyes peaceful and content, as we purposefully follow the path that leads us home.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Phoenix Rising


ALL BOY, with impish dark brown eyes and a sharp wit, my son Ethan ambled dreamily through eye-high grass in the big front pasture, singing.

Spring is coming!
Spring is coming!
All around is fair
Shimmer, glimmer, on the river
Joy is everywhere!
Joy is everywhere!

Spring is coming!
Spring is coming!
Flowers waking too
Daisies, lillies, daffodillies
Now are coming through!
Now are coming through!

Eight years old and usually focused on building spaceships or digging giant holes in the yard, Ethan wandered the grassy field, lost in dreams of Spring. His sweet melody floated out across the yard, where it delighted my ears as I quietly stepped from the house to listen. My lower eyelids filled with plump, warm tears, blurring my vision pleasantly as I stood there leaning against the door frame, listening, smiling and feeling like the luckiest woman on Earth.

I tucked this moment away; it will make for pleasant recollection when I am a crusty old woman someday, the sweet remembrance of the spring day when I was a youthful 40, and my happy little boy stood singing in the pasture. Then I noticed that a few feet away, on the other side of the fence, Argus stood quietly in the winter dry lot, his head cocked, his eyes far away, listening reverently.


Spring has come to Watermark Farm, splashing wildflower pastels---mustard, lupine, daisies---across our fields as though Monet himself made a guest visit from Heaven and consented to decorate. The lone old flowering pear tree that stands sentinel at the farm's entrance, marking each season with her mood, erupted into a 30-foot-high mass of white flowers last month. On a windy day at the end of March, the loose blossoms tumbled across the front yard, like lazy drifts of snow.

Now, shiny emerald leaves signal the true arrival of Spring, promising shade and comfort for the dry, silvery California summer months ahead. The rainy season over for the most part (what little we did get), and the pasture ground firm enough to withstand the exuberant traffic of equine feet, it's time for the annual tradition of transitioning the winter-weary horses to pasture.

Argus, fresh from his most recent round of "perfect" blood-work (one last test to make sure he is truly beyond the grips of Pigeon Fever), is a changed horse. Something has happened over the last few weeks, something wonderful. His body has developed a kind of substance that I never thought I'd see, as if his muscles needed yet another spring in freedom to come to life. (Or, as a friend more bluntly put it: "Wow! Look at his ASS! He's RIPPED!" Secretly, I think Argus liked hearing that.)

Spring 2009:


Compared to Spring 2008. Argus' "knocked down hip," an old, healed fracture, is plainly visible, as is the top of his sacrum, which lacks surrounding muscle and shows, in its unevenness, its "hunter bump" which indicate past strain or injury to the area. This is quite common in working horses.


Seemingly overnight, Argus has turned into a big, strong horse, no longer pitifully waifish and wasp-waisted in stature, but solid, powerful, opinionated. He's feeling so good that I've taken to leaving a safety halter on him in turnout because he's naughty at times and refuses to let me catch him.


Ethan and his dad finished repairing the summer pasture gate, torn loose from its hinges by the lions of March. Argus, Odie and Half Pint, as if sensing (and savoring) my intentions for the afternoon, stood eagerly at the gate to freedom --- the gate between the winter dry lot and the 6 acres of barrel-deep grass beyond. Half Pint twitched with excitement, holding his breath as he does sometimes. Argus weaved madly, something he never does in pasture. Odie paced forward and back in his odd mule way, grunting softly.

(You may notice Caleb missing from the pictures. No, he's not been adopted yet. He's gone into full training at a hunter/jumper barn nearby. Ridge, of course, is sadly left behind in the barn, still recovering from a fractured pelvis.)

The sing-songy little voice reached me again, as I unlatched the gate.

"....Joy is everywhere!"

Like three Thoroughbreds bursting from the starting gate, Argus, Odie and Half Pint lunged for the summer pasture, barely getting through the gate before the urge to stick their nose in the tall grass overcame them, and they began to eat. "Only one hour today, you three," I reminded them sternly, but my words only fell on happy, deaf ears.












Tuesday, March 24, 2009

From Hell To Heaven: Starmaker's Journey


All good stories have a happy ending:
Today, Starmaker lives at a beautiful private farm, where he spends his days in pasture and his nights in a warm barn where the door to the outside world is always open.

ONCE UPON A TIME, more than 20 years ago, a horse named Starmaker was born on a hobby ranch in Sonoma County, California. The much anticipated result of a union between two Polish Arabians, Starmaker was a handsome foal.

As Starmaker grew, his owner made sure he received a solid education. He spent some time in training with a local cowboy named Dennis Reis. Starmaker learned to carry pack equipment. He became a wonderful riding horse. Sturdy and gentle, he proudly carried children on their first ride.

Starmaker's owner liked to boast about her fine horses and their fine breeding, but she had strange ideas about what made for good horse husbandry. A local oddity on the horse scene, she had a reputation for being hostile and mean-tempered to both horses and humans. As the years ticked by, Starmaker noticed that his shabby home was even shabbier. The barns, the fencing, even Starmaker himself looked shabby. He looked around at his companions and realized that it had been a long, long time since any of them had been cared for. His owner mostly sat in the old house now, trash piled high against its walls. When she came out to feed him, her eyes sparkled with a strange combination of love and disgust.


Convicted of two counts of felony animal cruelty, Pat Tremaine Clivio watches as her horse, Athena, is seized by authorities. Blind, confused, and in pain as a result of untreated uveitis, Athena was put to sleep a few days later.



The owner had strange ideas about each of the horses. She was proud of their breeding and backgrounds, but refused to give them even the most basic of care. Starmaker was most worried about the two Thoroughbreds, for Argus and Bobby had been locked in their pens for many years. Poor Argus rocked back and forth madly, staring off into space and wearing a deep rut in the ground. Starmaker could only look on, his desperation growing.

Athena, Sammy and Destiny lived in the pasture with Starmaker most of the time, but they never knew when their owner would come and put them in the stalls or pens and leave them there for months on end. Starmaker and his companions grew to fear going inside a building.

They longed for hay, and good pasture grass, but the two acres they inhabited was grazed down quickly. Their owner fed them stale french bread and old produce. She kept tons of hay neatly stacked and tarped, but Starmaker knew the hay was just for looks. It had sat there for years and had never been used.

Unlike some of the horses, Starmaker was old enough that he remembered what it was like to have his feet trimmed. That hadn't happened for many years. Sometimes, his hooves seemed to ache, they were so long. Not long enough to draw attention, but long enough to hurt.


What Starmaker could not know is how many times the neighbors called for help for him and his friends, and how many people pleaded with his owner to give the horses better care. He could not know that more than 20 years of worry and anguish were about to come to an end. That people could no longer stand to drive by and see the six horses rotting away slowly, day by long day.

One cold December day, as Starmaker watched the rats scamper across the stale bread loaves piled high in the mare motel, the farm became a hive of activity. Pickup trucks pulled in, and people gathered. They murmured amongst themselves. Starmaker was hopeful: Could they be bringing hay? Brushes? Might they trim his aching feet?

Gently, the people tended to the two horses locked in the pens: Argus and Bobby. Starmaker could not remember the last time he had seen either of them leave the mare motel. It took 45 minutes for the veterinarian to catch Argus in a 12 x 24 pen. Starmaker ached for Argus, who, not being used to human touch, was terribly frightened. Two nice ladies took them away in a trailer, promising him they would have happy new homes. It would be the last time Starmaker would ever see them.

The veterinarian looked at Starmaker, Sammy, Athena and Destiny. He quietly wormed them, and held them while a farrier trimmed their feet. The veterinarian looked sad, too. He knew he could not take them out of this place today. He wished he could.


Life went on as usual for Starmaker and his friends. He assumed it would always be like this, a dismal symphony of stomping and swishing at flies, the sting in his eyes as they swelled in the summer heat, the lack of real food, his ribs showing some, but not enough. He watched as their feet became long and painful again. And he watched as sweet Athena lost her sight, first in one eye, then in another. Her eyes bulged painfully after that, red and angry. She stood with her ear cocked curiously toward the world, relying on her companions to guide her. Only strong Sammmy (or Samantha as she was called) seemed to fluorish, a half-wild, unhandled and unbroken spirit. Starmaker attributed this to Sammy's royal Trakehner breeding.

Starmaker could not know that people at the District Attorney's office and Animal Services were working very hard on his behalf. He also did not know that the veterinarian was a volunteer with an organization called the Sonoma County CHANGE Program, which helped horses in his situation. He could not know that every two weeks, the vet himself or the lady that had adopted Argus drove by his pasture, just to check on him. The lady would stop her white Suburban in the road outside his paddock and talk to him over the fence. She whispered urgent promises to him, but always drove away crying.

One Fall day, while Starmaker and his friends were munching on bread and lettuce, life as he knew it changed forever. His owner, Pat Tremaine Clivio, who had been charged with felony animal cruelty for her confinement and treatment of Argus and Bobby, was found guilty of her crime. Part of her punishment would be losing the rest of her horses. At long last, Starmaker, Sammy, Athena and Destiny would be safe.

Or so they thought.

Faced with the imminent loss of her "beloved" horses, the guilty owner quickly moved Starmaker, Destiny and Sammy to a hiding place across town. The people who had worked so hard to get Starmaker to safety were outraged! How could this happen? Where were the horses? Where had she taken them?

Two former law enforcement officers who liked to sneak around offered to help, their eyes glinting with determination. They asked around, they slithered through the tall dry grass. They held cameras with telephoto lenses until at last, in a pasture on the east side of Santa Rosa, they found the horses! They found Starmaker, Sammy and Destiny alive and well.


The blind Athena was left behind, all alone in her home of many years.


The move, and all the hiding, had been hard on Starmaker. Under his winter coat, he was thin and tired.


A flurry of urgent meetings and phone calls ended with a judge's seizure order. Forces mobilized. The white trucks and the trailers came again. The same veterinarian who had come before was there, which made Starmaker feel better. All around them were smiles and kind hands, catching them, leading them into trailers. Sammy happily climbed into a trailer to be taken to a foster barn. Starmaker and Destiny were taken together to another foster barn where they had their feet trimmed, their teeth floated, and were treated to the best hay they had ever eaten. But best of all, people came every day to brush Starmaker and clean his eyes, and help him feel presentable again.

Starmaker, knowing that he was now tattered and old beyond his years, wondered if anyone would ever ride him again. He suppposed not, him being so thin and bedraggled and worn out now. He even had cancer on his penis, something called squamous cell carcinoma. Starmaker knew he was no longer beautiful.

Once again, Starmaker could not know that the wheels of fortune were in motion yet again. The lady in the white Suburban, the one who had talked to him so many times over the fence, was determined to find him a wonderful home. She knew this would not be easy, for most people don't want to adopt a horse with cancer. Even though the veterinarian had promised to try treating Starmaker's tumors, the reality was that Starmaker might not be long for this world.

One day, a mother of young children called her. "I want to help a rescue horse," she said. The Suburban lady felt the words escape her lips: "If you want to help, would you consider adopting a horse with cancer?" She could hardly believe she'd said it.

The next day, the mother of young children called her back. She had discussed it with her family, and they had all agreed: Starmaker would have his final home with them.

That was in December, not so long ago for us, but a lifetime to Starmaker. Neglected for so many years, Starmaker's health has improved beyond any expectation. His tumors are being treated, and everyone has high hopes for him. By night, he lives in a beautiful barn; by day he roams a large green pasture with his fancy warmblood girlfriend. He loves his family, including his devoted groom and the two young children who see not an old horse, but a gallant steed. But he mostly loves their mother, the one who wanted to help, and who smiled and said "yes" to being the last stop on Starmaker's journey.


From Starmaker's New Mom:

Last night we had a party....During the party the guests wandered into the barn to give carrots, and I told Star's story. The best part is that they were all oogling him, and going on and on about how beautiful he was, and how fancy. It was amazing!!
Star actually came to the front of the stall, and all the guests fed him carrots. He ate it up (literally) and he even tried to get closer and come out into the aisle. I stood with my back to his chest, nestled under his neck, to keep him in while all the guest greeted him. He felt so special, and you could tell for the first time, he really believed he was deserving of the admiring glances. It struck me that something transformed in him. Like he was now living the life that he could have only dreamed of. That people didn't look past him or pass by, but that they saw beauty in him and stopped to appreciate him. I was stunned how relaxed he was with the crowd. He just seemed to say, yes...this is the attention and love I have looked for my whole life. This is good.

What a moment. Of all our darling and beautiful horses, he got the most attention. He had a look in his eye like "I have arrived. I am as special, beautiful and fancy as the rest. I deserve this attention." And he IS and he DOES!

Thank you for asking us to take Starmaker, it has been a gift to my soul. It is far more rewarding and touching than I could have imagined. It feels so good to give a second chance to a helpless creature that is so deserving. And how rewarding to see him thrive!!!




Starmaker's happy ending is the result of years of hard work by so many determined people: Pat Tremaine's long-suffering neighbors; the determined volunteers of the Sonoma County CHANGE Program; Grant Miller, DVM; the Sonoma County District Attorney's office; Sonoma County Animal Care & Control; and the wonderful family who opened their hearts to Starmaker.