It’s been the fastest two weeks of my life, but I can barely remember who I was way back then.
For the last two weeks, I’ve been walking around covered in drooled foal milk and finding straw in places straw should not be. My hands are beaten and cracked—aged at least thirty years in two weeks—from mixing bucket after bucket after bucket of milk. The only way to get the lumps out of 5 gallons worth of dry milk powder mixed with water, Quaker oats, vanilla yogurt, pro-biotics, and a pro-gut are to use your hands. I can count the number of showers I’ve had in two weeks on just one of those hands, for there have been towels and foal blankets and Carhartts to wash on a daily basis and there isn’t always enough hot well water to go around. I’ve been soaked to the bone after falling asleep in the rain and the wet grass, because for the first week, I was too afraid to leave the foals outside alone.
It’s been two of the best weeks of my life.
Two weeks ago, my mom and I left early on Sunday morning to adopt two foals from Last Chance Corral in South Athens, Ohio. The name “Last Chance” is a humble one because the farm is truly a foal’s only chance.
The foals rescued by Last Chance are a by-product of the racehorse industry. When a racehorse mare gives birth, she’s separated from her racehorse foal so that she can be re-bred and give birth again the following year. This leaves her foal without a mother, so the racehorse farms keep pregnant stock horses on hand. When these stock horses give birth, or when they are induced, their babies are pulled away so that these mothers can nurse the well-bred racehorse foals. These stock mothers are called “nurse mares.” Their foals, called “nurse mare foals,” are typically destroyed on-site. They’re only born so that their mothers can produce milk to nurse racehorse foals. Not them.
But Last Chance Corral pays racehorse barns to keep the nurse mare foals alive long enough to be rescued. Some foals come to the farm sick and dying. Some haven’t even been allotted the critical “first milk” (or colostrum) from their mothers before being taken away. This is when the real life-saving begins. Last Chance volunteers work around the clock doctoring, mothering, and loving these tiny little foals, doing all they can to get them healthy and adopted as soon as possible, so that they can make room to rescue more. Foals may arrive physically ill, while others suffer emotionally. An old horsewoman once told me that the biggest part of a horse’s brain is emotion. The emotional part of the horse brain touches every other part, and so everything, from taste to smell to memory is associated with emotion. The first emotion these foals experience is the loss of the only world they have ever known—their mothers.
Last Chance rescues hundreds of foals every year, but they operate from donations, and because feed stores and vets all naturally require payment, every year, they are forced to turn foals away due to lack of space or funds.
Some nurse mare foals never get a first or a last chance.
It is important to note that not every racehorse barn operates in this way. Horseracing has its dark side just like every other equestrian discipline, and while horses do love to run and many jockeys and racehorse owners love their horses, some do not. For many, it is a business, just like any other sport.
So, when you watch the Kentucky Derby this year in May, maybe you’ll think of this story, and instead of placing a bet, maybe you could send your betting money to Last Chance Corral instead, because for every horse there in the starting gate for your entertainment, there are hundreds of nurse mare foals that didn’t live to see their first whole day. Unless they were lucky. If they were lucky, they were picked up by Last Chance Corral.
Well, when I first heard about all this, I was bound and determined to do something to help. Last Chance Corral posts pictures of available foals on their website, and for days, I waited for an update. The first foal I saw was a little chestnut filly that looked just like my mare, Safari, and I knew right away from the instant pang in my heart that we were meant for each other.
Safari is the greatest horse I have ever known. She’s also the stereotypical, fiery chestnut mare—except for wilder—and that might be what I love most about her. She’s a red beauty. She has big doe eyes and a shy demeanor, and she looks like a girl, and I love that. But when she trusts you enough, she’s shy no longer. She challenges everything, and nothing is ever easy. In fact, the worst moments of your life will occur either on her back or on the ground after she has just bucked you off into a thorn bush and bolted back to the barn.
Safari is strong. She is feisty, and she is occasionally ruthless.
But if you win her heart by actually learning how to ride, she will STILL challenge everything (to keep you fresh), but she will also jump the moon, save your life (time after time), and take you anywhere as fast as she can go. She’ll give you the rides of your life because you’re hers now, and nothing can change that.
So after she taught me something about tough love, I learned something about unconditional love.
“Are you sure you don’t want to wait for a paint or a palomino?”
That was a fair question from my mom, after I told her about this little chestnut filly I KNEW I had to rescue because she looked just like Safari. I also knew no one would want her because she was a stereotypical chestnut filly and would act JUST like Safari. But my mom, knowing my wildest dreams, knows I’ve always dreamed of paints and palominos.
But this time was different. I wanted to rescue the foals no one else would readily want to rescue. The paints and palominos and mule foals would easily find homes.
When I called Last Chance and asked what other foals in addition to the chestnut filly were available—because they like to send foals in pairs—they said the filly had paired up with a plain black colt. They asked if I’d be willing to take him as the second foal because it would be a shame to split them up after they’d just been split up from their mothers. And that’s when I knew with every fiber of my being that this colt was THE second horse because chestnut fillies don’t just choose anyone. If this filly saw something in this colt, then he, too, was something special. I didn’t have to know her to trust her, and the fact that he was regular colored, too, well, that was just fine with me.
Color doesn’t make a horse any more than it makes a man. I’ve been surrounded by regular colored horses my whole life, and by regular colored, I mean that their coats are considered boring by show judges, and they match the colors of the earth. Browns and blacks and reds. Nothing exciting. But I like these horses because the colors of their manes match the colors of my hair. Because sometimes when I’m galloping, I can’t tell where I stop and my horse begins. We feel the same, and I like to imagine my horse’s mane long and flowing behind us in the wind with my hair streaming behind us too, all of it intertwined with my horse. From our hearts to our hair, we are one.
And maybe that sounds just as superficial as wanting a flashy, eye-catching paint or palomino, and here I am, trying to write this blog while getting ready for a photoshoot tomorrow because the foals take up all my time, and so, I have to multi-task. I’ve also had to stop writing this half-a-dozen times over multiple days to check on the foals or go make them more milk or get an hour of sleep.
I’m not used to having to stop anything I’m doing until I’m ready to do it—writing, especially—which will probably ultimately show for whoever is trying to navigate through this story.
But I digress.
I haven’t had a photoshoot for months, after being so sick with mono. And I can’t help but think this:
One day soon, I’m going to be too old for this because I’m going to look too old for this. And I know there are things I could do to fix that. To ward of time and age and wrinkles, if only temporarily, but the will to fight that battle is not in me. So—now that I’m entering old age and gray hair is only a matter of time—every shoot could be my last.
I’ve worked with this photographer before (he is always an honor to work with), and because we’ll be shooting on Easter morning, and we can’t get an MUA, he’s letting me decide how to look and what to wear. I have a few pretty dresses, which I actually rarely wear, because rarely do I have any place to go where I can wear one of those dresses with cowboy boots or bare feet, so I’m just as happy to be in my Carhartt’s. In the barn. On the farm. Yes, I have heels, but I wear those in the barn, too. I walk the long narrow cement path, kissing the noses of the horses as I go (and trying not to fall), in order to brush up for the occasional runway show. But I would have no idea how to walk in heels at a party or a wedding or wherever it is you’re supposed to wear heels in real life. Plus, they hurt worse than getting stepped on by a horse.
Dressing myself for the photoshoot also feels like a challenge because I don’t like showing skin. I like to feel covered. Clothes. I like being clothed. It’s not a body-image situation, it’s a work ethic situation. You try riding horses, throwing hay, teaching kids math in a slum, hiking mountains, sailing boats, working in labs, or navigating the Kenyan bush on safari, in minimal, impractical clothing and let me know how that works out for you. Sturdy, practical clothing and dry socks are your best friends in all of those situations, and I like being ready for anything.
And I’m uncomfortable in makeup (when someone else does it, of course, because Heaven knows I don’t know how to put it on) because I like feeling the sun and the wind on my skin. I need to taste the air and feel its chill at night, and I can’t do that if I’ve got cling wrap stuck to my face, which is how makeup feels to me.
Even mascara gets in the way. I tend to get wide-eyes looking up at the stars, as does everyone, so mascara is like dipping your eyelashes in honey and then they get clumped together, and then they stick to your face, obstructing your view and pulling at your eyelids. Maybe I just don’t put it on right, but it’s a problem when I need to close my eyes and wish on a star or kneel down to pray. There can be so many wishes in a night.
When I wear makeup, I feel like I’m lying to the world.
And when I show too much skin just because I can, I feel like I’m lying to myself.
So I think we’re just going natural for this shoot. No makeup. Ranch clothes. Horses.
Because that’s what I know. Just like I knew these foals and their earth-toned coats, even before I’ve met them. It’s all instinct.
I know nothing about raising foals, but it’s amazing how instinct just kicks in, if you let it. It’s been that way for two weeks.
Paradise, the filly, is wild and pretty and thoroughly excited by the world. She’s just delighted by everything she comes across and she takes charge of each day she’s given. She’s a mini Safari. She prances and dances and jumps and she’s just pure beauty and spunk.
Diesel is an old soul with deep blue-gray eyes and little curls in his mane. He’s not in a rush to discover the world. He’s careful, he’s sensitive, and he’s still grappling with the loss of his mother, and I have no idea how to help him through that besides loving on him all I can, even when he pulls away. He moves and explores with slow purpose; he does not like to be rushed. His Tennessee Walker gait takes him through the world in the same way an old Texan sounds when he speaks low and smooth in his deep southern drawl.
He’s also incredibly mysterious, and I’m as drawn to that as Paradise.
The two of them are like peas and carrots.
I can cuddle and squeeze them and almost pick them up. It’s hard for me to grasp that one day, I’ll be looking up at them, as they do now to me. One day, our roles and our perspectives will be reversed.
I’ll be an old woman by the time I can sit on these foals. I’ll be about 30. But it’ll probably be more like 31 because I’d like them to be as wild as possible for as long as possible, even after I sit on their backs. They don’t have mothers, so right now, they’re going purely off of instinct, as am I, and I want to preserve that instinct in them.
The ancient, wild, raw instinct God first breathed into the horses He shaped from His hands.
It’s the one gift I can give them that domesticated mares can’t.
Sometimes, at night, during the last check before I sleep, Paradise will look up at me and she’ll stretch her neck out as far as she can, as if trying to reach for me. So, I’ll kneel before her or bed down next to her from where she’s lying in the straw. And she’ll reach for my shoulder and gently bring her muzzle to my ear, and I’ll sit there in the stillness, wondering if she’s trying to whisper something I cannot hear. And in between her silent whispers, she’ll often sigh. A sweet, wistful sigh. We tend to think of angels as people in Heaven with wings, but Paradise sighs into my ear every night, and it sounds just like an angel sings. It sounds like whispers from Heaven.
First-time moments with these foals often feel like a dire crisis. The first time I saw Diesel shivering. The first time I realized he’d soaked his blanket by laying in wet shavings. The first time Paradise got a scrape on her nose. The first time I heard Paradise cough. The next day, when she purposely galloped directly into the fence to test out its hold.
Holy Heart Attack is all I can say about that last one.
Maybe this is what my parents felt like when my sister was diagnosed with Crohn’s or I fell ill with mono or announced I was leaving for college—out of state—or traveling to Africa or when I call crying because my feelings are hurt or I broke up with my boyfriend or I’m angry because the world is cruel.
Sometimes, it seems like it’s such a challenge raising parents, but up until two weeks ago, I didn’t realize how hard it was to be one.
Maybe I understand them just a little bit better now.
I look at everything differently. I go into the grocery store and buy every single tub of vanilla yogurt that’s stocked on the shelf for the foal milk. It took me days to get over the fact that regular-fat yogurt does NOT exist. Everyone wants to lose weight, so we only buy low-fat yogurt.
60 calories a serving.
Sweetened with aspartame.
But I have two foals that need to GAIN weight. I need them to be getting 660 calories a serving. But it’s not going to happen through grocery store yogurt, that’s for sure. And I don’t think aspartame exists in the wild, so I’m hoping that it doesn’t affect their growth. How does always wanting to lose wait and consuming food with zero calories affect OUR growth?
I have these terrible dreams at night, where I wake up thinking the foals are in my room, maybe even right next to me. But when I get up, I can only find one foal, and then I panic. Paradise, she’s right there on the bed next to me, but where’s Diesel? WHERE IS DIESEL?
It’s a panic worse than any other I have ever known.
As I get up to look around my room to really actually physically clumsily LOOK, my consciousness drags heavy with drowsiness and clouded confusion, teetering between the interface of awake and sleep. Then the fog shakes free and I eventually find that Paradise is nothing but a blanket and the tangle of sheets next to me. That’s when I realize Diesel isn’t missing at all.
The two of them are safe and down in the barn. Warm and asleep in their blankets and the soft straw.
But sometimes, it’s Diesel who’s right there with me in my dreams. I can just make out the shadows of his bulky frame on the floor below my bed in the darkness, and I frantically leap down to check on him because I have no idea where Paradise is and HE doesn’t look right, and then I realize it’s Gabriel instead, who has just now been startled awake after I’ve just jumped on top of him for the third night in a row.
Although embarrassed, relief washes over my body all over again, and I usually remember to apologize to Gabriel as I untangle myself from the sheets that spilled over the bed along with me. Shivering, I settle back under the down comforter.
It was all just a dream. Again.
But as I drift back to sleep to the cascading rhythm of my thumping heart, it doesn’t feel like some harmless dream. Although a muffled, dying panic now, the ache of missing or losing one of my foals is still there. I can feel it. It’s heavy. And it hurts.
Oh, how it hurts.
And though sleep begins to come, I can feel tears spill from my closed eyes and fall to my pillow because I know…
…this is how their mothers felt.
I wonder about their mothers. A mare carries her foal for 11 months before she delivers. 11 months. Almost a year.
I’ve heard so many horror stories about what the birthing process is like for mares. And foals. Mares often die during delivery. So do the foals. Sometimes, the mothers have to be killed in order for the foals to be delivered, but then the foals are missing body parts or their tendons aren’t attached to their bones or their legs have formed backwards.
I’ve always joked with my horse friends that I’ll be ready to have a baby before I’ll be ready for Safari to have a baby because pregnancy is such a dangerous thing for a mare to endure. But the joke isn’t funny anymore.
Every foal is a miracle. I don’t understand how racehorse barns see it so differently.
“Orphaned foals grow up to be like big dogs.”
That’s what everyone keeps telling me in a disdainful, lip curling voice.
“This one’s oral.” (Paradise)
“This one’s real hesitant.” (Diesel)
Well, they just lost their mothers, so let’s give them all a break.
Every foal is a miracle.
And I know plenty of horses that grew up with mares for mothers, but they crib and pace and kick and bite because their owners are like that, so I’m not too worried.
Mine are all wild and unruly (and even incredibly mis-behaved sometimes). And they definitely get that from me, which I also got from them.
I don’t know what these foals will grow up to be. They were bred to be nothing, but from the moment I first saw them, and for the last two weeks, as I’ve watched them discover the world through their brand new unaffected eyes, I realized that they already ARE something. I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, and no one said orphaned foals would be easy or turn out perfect. But you know what? They are. They’re easy. And miraculously, they were born perfect. All they needed is a chance to live and grow, and they have one now. And it all began with Last Chance Corral.
The truth is these foals are my chance, too. Life is a mess, and you can’t count on much. You can’t count on people. You can’t take anything for granted, but these foals can take me for granted because I’m all they have. No matter what happens, I’ve got to be someone for them. They are peace and chaos and uncertainty and worry and happiness and love and awe and nature and Heaven and earth. All together.
They are Paradise. And Diesel. Two miracles sleeping down in the barn.
And I wish more than anything I could just tell their mothers thank you.
I don’t know what horses dream about, and I don’t know if a mare looks ahead and wonders what type of life her foal might have, but I wish I could rest my head on their foreheads while I stroke their manes and press into their necks and whisper,
“I promise they’ll get to be horses. I promise I’ll take good care of them. And I promise they won’t ever know they were born unwanted.”
“You and I have that in common, old girl.” I’d say. “We both wanted them.”
I wish I could explain what it’s really like having these foals. But maybe you already know.
(Photo by Ryan Liu)
***If you want to help save a horse life, please check out http://www.lastchancecorral.org to learn more about nurse mare foal adoption and donation. You can also help spread the word by liking Last Chance Corral on Facebook and sharing their status updates with your friends and family. Everything helps.