Last Chance Corral: A Farm Fairytale

Photo by Ryan Liu

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:

I’m 26.

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 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.

‘Tis Still The Season



This is a story about a Christmas Miracle.

I don’t know if many people believe in Christmas Miracles.  But I’m writing to tell you that they exist.  Like all my stories, my Christmas Miracle is a long tale to tell—perhaps the longest yet.  I know it’s been almost a month since Christmas, but I read on my friend Sally Price’s Facebook wall that Episcopalians celebrate Christmas even after Christmas is over.  Since my Christmas Miracle didn’t happen exactly on Christmas, this made sense to me, and I wonder if God’s trying to tell me I should be Episcopalian.  I’ve been without a church for awhile.  Last year, I got kicked out of the one I grew up in.  They called me an idealist and said my ideas condone sin.

What does a Christian fight for if not for idealism?  I don’t know.

But I think that’s where I went “wrong.”  I fought.

There’s a kid’s church song that was always taught in Sunday school:

“Lord I want to be a sheep, bah bah bah bah….”

Sheep get lost a lot.  And they’re not very smart.  They never seem to know who they are or where they are going.  Their keepers are dogs.  DOGS.  Not even real shepherd men.  The shepherd men (and women) manage the dogs who manage the sheep.  Kimberlee Jacobs, one of the best people I know, she takes the most beautiful pictures of this life.

Sheep, as sheep, have their place, but I don’t think God wants for US to be sheep, too.  They seem like a real headache, but sheep are probably a lot easier for a church to handle than…I don’t know…a room full of idealists.  So I fought because I didn’t like being treated like I was lost and oblivious to what was going on, and they kicked me out.

Maybe I’m nothing more than the proverbial black sheep.

Anyway, I like the idea of being an Episcopalian, and I don’t think it’s too late to be telling this story because it’s still the Christmas season, in my opinion.  Plus, my grandfather says it’s never too late to tell a story especially if it’s true.


It all started a long time ago, when my parents decided I was old enough and serious enough about horses to have one of my own.  I imagined finding a beautifully colored paint or a pinto or a white horse with a black mane and tail (my dream horse), but as soon as I set my eyes on a gangly, awkward, unwanted gelding, I knew he was the one.

His name was Ozzie, but I had already decided that I was going to call him Oz-Man.  His coat was the color of the sweet potato casserole my grandmother made for Easter.  Ozzie was not a chestnut, but truly, almost orange, flecked with white.  Like a tabby cat or the inside of a pumpkin.  And he was so big.  Divinely big.  Almost 18 hands.  A giant.  He was so gentle and friendly, but he scared most people, just from his sheer size, and I think that’s what I loved most about him.

Oh, how I loved him.

I loved that he was different…because I was different.

I was in love with him after the first ride, but I rode him four or five more times before my trainer and my mom agreed that we could proceed with a vet check and finalize the sale.

I went to bed dreaming about him every night.  In school, I’d doodle his name all over my notebooks.  I could never decide if his name looked better in cursive or print.  If I closed my eyes, I could picture the two of us together and how it would feel galloping under his great stride into the show ring, as confident and regal as Alec and The Black Stallion.  I could even hear the announcer from the judges stand, “Ladies and Gentleman, in the grand prix ring, we are pleased to welcome Jennifer Sulkowski riding Oz-Man…”

Of course, Ozzie wasn’t a grand prix horse (he was barely a “C” circuit children’s hunter), and I wasn’t jumping more than 3 feet at the time, but hey, we had our whole lives ahead of us.

Or so I thought.  I never actually had the privilege of calling Ozzie my first horse.

A profound wave of sorrow washed over me when my mother told me the vet had found something wrong in Ozzie’s hip.  There was some sort of mass that had accumulated from a fever he had when he was a foal, and within a matter of months or a year, his working career would be over.

None of it made sense.  I hated the vet for ruining my life.  I despised my mother.  I pleaded and cried for three straight weeks, offering to give up everything….showing, riding lessons, and even my life savings of $175.20 if only I could still call Ozzie mine.  I vowed to take care of him, even when he went lame, and I promised I’d never complain when I couldn’t ride him anymore.

But no one would listen.  My mother would not relent.  And I never saw Ozzie again.

I’ve never forgotten about him, though, and the older I get, the more I realize what a saint he was, packing me around over fences like that, with some poor mass on his hip, never complaining and always just happy to go and have a job and take care of some ten or eleven year old kid he only met four times.  He probably treated everyone like that.  But when I was little, I only knew him as the greatest horse in the world…and it only took a single ride before I was swept off my feet, certain that we were destined to be together forever.  I will never forget him as long as I live.  Nothing and no one has ever made such a profound impact on me as that poor, forgotten, gallant gelding.

I still kept up with my training after that, but it was awhile before I was ready to start looking at horses again.  I kept hoping that we’d get a phone call from the vet saying he’d mixed up the x-rays and that Ozzie was really as healthy as…a horse…should be…and then this nightmare would be over.  For a good few months, I always kept the house phone within an arm’s distance.  Eleven-year-olds didn’t have cell phones back then.

But that miracle, soap opera phone call never came.  And I was always riding an ornery old lesson horse that bolted during lead changes and bucked me off over fences and although that’s funny looking back and I sure did learn a lot (for both a good laugh and perspective, watch “Ed Being Naughty” on Youtube), it sure wasn’t much fun at the time.  After riding my Ozzie, who would walk through fire before letting harm come to me, I had finally had enough of riding an old sour grump.

On one very cold winter day in January, I remember driving for what seemed like a long, long time to a faraway barn made entirely of brick.  I was excited to meet new horses, but the sadness I experienced with Ozzie had turned me into a realist, and I told myself not to expect anything.  I remember standing in that cold barn, feeling a dark cloud hanging over me and being very uncomfortable with the harsh reality of the adult world.

The trainer of that barn brought me out of my gloom when she asked me, straight and square, as if I was an adult, which of two sale horses I wanted to see.

“Boomer or Phantom?”

Neither of those names sounded promising.

…But I did have to admit that it was pretty hard to beat a name like Ozzie, so I tried to keep an open mind.  I had read a lot of “Goosebumps” and watched plenty of episodes of “Are you Afraid of the Dark?” to know that phantoms were always personified as headless horsemen, and that just seemed like bad news.

“Boomer, please,” I said, feeling pretty proud of my rock-solid deduction regarding the unknown.  Maybe I’d be okay in the adult world, after all.

An older lady soon emerged from the cold barn shadows with the horse called Boomer.  I don’t remember much about our first encounter.  I don’t remember what he did while we were getting him ready, but I imagine he probably tried to get at the crossties with his lips.  When it was time to bridle him, he probably looked for a treat after dramatically taking the bit into his mouth, checking to see how pleased everyone was with him about that.

Because that’s what he’s done for as long as I can remember.

There was nothing push-button or fancy about him, but I knew from the second I got up onto his back that he wouldn’t buck or bolt or even refuse a fence, if he could help it.  And he didn’t.  He seemed to love to jump as much as I did, and when I made a mistake, he didn’t seem to mind, which was good, because I’d always beat myself up for a mistake over fences (sometimes, for days), and the fact that he wasn’t bothered made me a little less hard on myself.

I remember his owner looking a little sad when I got off.  She was one of the oldest riders I had ever seen—she was at least 50, which was pretty old to me then—and her wrinkles from years of riding in harsh weather really stood out as we put Boomer away.  She called her dog, a loyal golden retriever, and she handed him Boomer’s leadline, and that dog led Boomer to his stall.

As you can imagine…I was pretty impressed with that.

My mom and my trainer asked me what I thought, and before I could answer, his owner said, “You’re welcome to take him on trial for a week.”

Surprisingly, the thought of getting to ride Boomer again made me pretty happy, and I told his owner so.  She had raised him from a baby, so I understood why she said what she said, and that it was important for her to know I’d look out for him.

A few days later, Boomer arrived, and I rode him for as long as I was allowed to stay at the barn after school.  A week after that, Boomer had passed the vet check and he was officially mine.  It only took a couple rides before I realized that I could love another horse besides Ozzie.  Boomer and Ozzie were nothing alike, so I think that’s why.

I was over the moon to finally have a horse, and it’s something I had been waiting for my whole life.  Having your own horse does something to you…it makes you…stronger and braver and bolder in all aspects of your life.  Life suddenly has meaning and purpose.  Home becomes the barn because that’s where your horse lives.

Truth be told, Boomer was a half-breed.  Half thoroughbred, half appaloosa.  Given the world we were headed into, that’s like going to the shelter, picking out a mutt, and parading him around Westminster, certain you’re best in show.

But for me, the appaloosa in Boomer is where all the magic was.  Appaloosas originated from the Indians, and that breed is not common in the English world (ironic, I know).  My grandmother (my mom’s mom) was an Indian, so I was virtually half Indian, too.  For Boomer and I…it was like fate.  I imagined that my great-great-grandfather was a chief and Boomer’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great grand sire was his horse…and here were our spirits….reunited once again.

Like me, though, Boomer didn’t look much like an appaloosa.  He was a dark bay, with a full mane and an uncharacteristically long, thick tail.  He had strong hooves, and only a few white spots (three of which I think originated from an ill-fitting saddle before I got him).  What I mean is, I don’t look much like an Indian.

But our Indian blood ran through both of us hot and strong.  And that’s how we found each other.  Plus, he could jump anything.  He could gallop fast.  He was incredibly friendly and personable.  He was handsome.  He was young.  He didn’t crib.  There was a striking resemblance to The Black Stallion and the Piebald from National Velvet.  And he was half Indian pony.

So basically, I thought he was the $***.

I don’t normally swear, but I can’t think of a better word or way to describe the way I felt about him.  I do know there wasn’t anything I was more sure about in my entire life, and that was my new horse.

But there was just one problem.

The name Boomer just didn’t fit him.  His sire was called “Barn Burner,” which to me, was just asking for bad things to happen, so I wasn’t about to follow tradition and re-name Boomer after his sire.  Slightly less appalling was Boomer’s show name: “Roll The Dice.”

Being a very solemn student at Plymouth Christian Academy (a Baptist school) where gambling, dancing, and Harry Potter were strictly forbidden, “Roll The Dice” wasn’t going to be something I could bring up in my “What I did over winter break” essay, so that was out, too.

I have no idea why I settled on the name “Charlie,” but that’s what I named him, and I remember it coming to me pretty quickly.  And because Charlie had a white spot on the end of his nose, which very much resembled a fingerprint (even to this day), I just KNEW his show name had to be “Private Eye.”  Like, I thought that was SO brilliant.

And THEN, as if the stars didn’t line up straight enough, during an indoor winter show, my mother forced me to read my social studies book because I had a test coming up, and there was a section on the magnificent leader named Charlemagne.  According to the book, “Charlemagne” means “Charles the Great” and that was just fate all over again.  I knew, right then and there, that when I grew up, my farm would be called, “Charlemagne Farm.”  After my Charlie.  Because he was a GREAT horse.

Charlie.  Private Eye.  Charlemagne Farm.

I was just like, “OMG, we ARE the $***.”

Thankfully, I was SO awkwardly different I didn’t know it and everyone was nice enough not to tell me, because in the horse show world, kids under twelve are supposed to ride horses or ponies called “Daddy Said No” or “My First Smooch” or “Yum Yum Bubblegum” because judges like cute, corny names like that.  Judges especially like cute, naughty ponies because I guess it’s funny to see ponies go around—with cutsy names and cutsy kids on their back—while they have their ears pinned the whole time.  Truth be told, it IS pretty funny (seriously, watch “Ed Being Naughty” on Youtube) so long as you’re not the kid trying to keep your naughty pony from bolting out of the arena before he tricks you and slides to a purposeful stop in an attempt to throw you off.

Little girls are also supposed to wear their hair in long braids tied with oversized bows and little cutie riding jackets and little jodpurs with garter straps.

But not me.  My mom sewed my show coat from a pattern from 1972 and I insisted on wearing traditional riding boots, with my hair hidden in my helmet.  Basically, I looked like a boy, but that is exactly what I was going for because I wasn’t riding a pony or any old horse.  I was riding my bad-@$$ Indian pony, named “Private Eye”…all because he had a spot on his nose that looked like a fingerprint…and also I was totally into Sherlock Holmes (the books…not the show), and as we all know, Sherlock Holmes is BAD-@$$.

We stuck out like a sore thumb.

But you know what?  Judges like underdogs, too.  Because we won.  A lot.

But Charlie helped me with a lot of other things.  He saved my life on countless occasions.  He saved me over so many fences, and when other horses would have thrown their riders right off, Charlie nobly and gracefully did the best he could to save the fence and my pride, too.

Charlie helped me make friends.  Human friends.  Keriann Griffin was one of the first.  Our moms were the best horse show moms there ever were.  Keriann and I both had dark bay horses, and it rained a lot in the Midwest, especially on horse show weekends, so we called ourselves, “Bays in the Mist.”  And Keriann’s mom would take off our martingales for the flat classes and put them back on for over fences and my mom would wipe the slobber from our horses’ mouths and check our boots for splattered mud.

I wore a bikini for the first time riding Charlie, which was (and still is) very risqué for me, and I put a beach towel over his back, which I just thought was so clever because we were competing in a fun “beach” themed bareback class at the end of a show.  Charlie also got a snorkel and mask stuck to his head.  He tolerated that like a champ.  I still have the towel, and I think of him every time I pull it out.

Charlie and I didn’t win that class.  We didn’t even place.  Because the cutie thing to do was to put floaties on your horse’s legs and buy buoys to swing over your horse’s back and get a custom life ring made to fit around your horse’s neck, complete with a horse sized lifeguard whistle and a bubble machine which spat out real bubbles, while you held a squirt gun so you could playfully squirt the judge every time you passed by at the sitting trot.

Pony kids go all out.  You have to when your pony’s show name is “Yum Yum Bubblegum.”

Charlie was my whole world, though, and if it wasn’t for him, I think I would have turned out a lot differently.  I got pushed around a lot in school, and I never knew what to do about it, so I just waited for the bullies to show up and then I cried.  I hated school.  I dreaded going, but I always knew I had a horse to come home to, and that made all the difference.  I belonged to a horse and a horse belonged to me, and that’s all I needed to be okay.  I know a lot of kids don’t have that, and I can understand why things turn out very sadly and very differently, and that’s not fair.  It’s a tough, lonely world out there, in school, and I think it’s even harder now than it was then.  I can see it when I visit schools to read the book.  You can see it on every kid’s face, even the bullies.  It’s not easy being a kid.  I worry I’ll forget that one day.

Eventually, I began to outgrow Charlie.  I had another horse at that point, and I was learning how to jump bigger, more complicated courses.  I was ready to start showing more seriously…more professionally, and Charlie didn’t have the ability to come with me and do that.

My mom sat me down and laid out the options.  1)  Sell Charlie.  2) Find someone to lease him and pay his bills.

I hated both options, but I chose the latter because I could not bear to let Charlie go and I DID understand horses were expensive and money was tight.

Beyond obvious twelve-year-old reasons, I did not like the family that leased him.  The little girls were silly and immature, and their step-mother introduced them to riding for looks, and not for sport or passion.  I didn’t trust their trainer, and I had no say in any of it.  As we packed up the trailer and prepared for five months of straight showing across the United States, I said goodbye to my beloved Charlie knowing something was very amiss…and knowing no matter what I said (and did say), I’d be treated very much like a twelve year old and told to be quiet because I didn’t pay the bills and I was not a horse expert.

Five months later, I came home to a horse that was so lame he could barely stand on his own.  I didn’t recognize him.  Charlie looked completely broken.  After a series of vets and a dreadful trip to Michigan State, we found out Charlie had EPM, which is a neurological disease caused by a protozoa that slowly eats away at the nerves in a horse’s spinal cord.  The disease can be terminated with treatment, but the damage cannot be undone once incurred.  With clueless leasers who took no interest in the horse they were riding and a trainer that did not want to lose money on a horse that was laid up for treatment, no one said a word or bothered to call.  So Charlie continued to deteriorate until he couldn’t be ridden by the girls anymore, and he got to the point where he could barely walk.  He was then left in his stall to rot until we returned, and by that time, he didn’t know where all his legs were.

We started treatment immediately, but the vet wasn’t sure if it was too late.  He wanted to do a spinal tap to confirm his assessment, but he said there was a chance Charlie might not be able to get up after the anesthesia.  However, if he was able to rise, then he would be coordinated enough to roll in the pasture and lay down like a normal horse, which meant he would still have a quality of life, and he could live humanely.

I think my mother felt her own share of guilt for what happened, but she also knew I would not make it through the loss of a horse.  At least, not under those circumstances.  She agreed we would keep Charlie if he could get up, even though the vet still recommended putting him down because he wasn’t of any use.  He said he’d never be able to be ridden again.  He didn’t even know if it was safe for a farrier to trim his feet.

Being sent to school on the day Charlie was taken off the anesthesia and offered the chance to get up was the worst day of my life.  Thirteen year olds did not have cell phones back then, either, so I had to wait until 2:30pm to find out the fate of my horse.

My mom pulled up in our red minivan…twenty agonizing minutes late… and as I ran to her, she rolled down the window and yelled that he was standing in his stall and we could bring him home that weekend.

When I knew Charlie was safe and that his life would be preserved, I couldn’t bear to be near him.

To this day, I will never forgive myself for just abandoning him.  For years, I just left him alone at the farm with his pasture buddies.  I never knew that the worst things can happen to the most giving, honest, kindest, innocent creatures, even when they are wholly, fully loved.  I thought bad things only happened to the people and creatures that were bad or were forgotten about.  It seemed like that’s how it should have been.  I thought loving something was enough to keep it alive and well and perfect.

It was my first encounter with injustice.  And every time I looked at my dear Charlie, I was reminded of it.  I was reminded that I was just a powerless, insignificant kid that was not able to keep the most precious thing in her world safe.  I felt like I let him down.

And so, I left him to his pasture and our life together.  I tried to forget about it.  All of it.  And in many ways, I did.  I grew up on the show circuit and my life was consumed with training and competing and trying hard not to make my trainer angry because he had an awful temper.  I learned that most girls just sell/give-away/put down their horses for reasons way less significant that what happened to Charlie.  I knew Charlie was living a good life…a retired life.  I was lucky enough to have other horses to ride, so the fact that he could never be ridden again…well, I just tried to forget.  And I assumed he’d forget me.

Many, many years passed.  Twelve, in fact.  Twelve years passed.

At twenty-five years old, I reclaimed the family farm with my other horses and the zebra.  And I was in charge of them, plus Elvis (my mom’s horse), Charlie, and the pony, all on my own.  This meant I was around Charlie again.  Every day.  I fed him and watered him and groomed him and led him to and from his pasture.  He was as wobbly as I remembered, and it was hard to remember.  But, of course, he captured my heart all over again.

Twelve years is a long time for a horse.  It’s a long time for a 13 year old girl, too.  But it was like nothing had changed, at least, not for Charlie.  He’d walk me to and from the barn every morning and every night, for as far as his pasture would allow him to go.

With the zebra to account for, I had to switch up the herd, and I ended up putting most of the horses together because the zebra did better in a bigger group.  I noticed that Charlie seemed happier and livelier after that.  He’d canter around sometimes…and even buck and play, but I tried not to notice.  Without really deliberately realizing it, I still kept my emotional distance.

But one day last summer, a family friend came out to fix the drain in my bath tub which is actually a horse trough, and he brought his twenty-two year old son with him.  Twenty-two year old boys are an interesting sort, I have found—very cocky, even when they are self-proclaimed gentlemen (never a good sign) and they often mistake wit for stupid in an attempt to impress girls.

As he was looking out the farmhouse window, this chap’s line was, “I see you have a pasture ornament out there.”

“What?  Where?” I asked, frantically looking for a rusty bird feeder or some other piece of junk hanging from a tree that perhaps I had missed, for the previous owners of the farm were peddlers, and trinkets often annoyingly appear after a good rain or seemingly out of thin air, in the garden or sticking out of a bush.

“That black horse out there.  It doesn’t really look like he does anything.”

He was referring to Charlie.

“Well, he’s retired,” I said.  “He got hurt a long time ago.”

“So basically he’s useless,” this boy replied, with a smirk on his ugly face, and clearly feeling ridiculously proud of himself for such a keen observation.

I thought about punching him (I’m not proud of that).

“Useless?  No.  He’s not useless,” I said (hollered).  The anger I had for this ignorant punk just filled me right up.  “First of all, that horse took VERY good care of me when I was little.  Second, he HAS a job…it’s…babysitting.  He babysits the zebra and the other horses.  THIRD, it’s not his fault he got hurt.  It doesn’t mean he’s useless.  He’s happy.  He lives a very happy life.  He makes other people happy.”

I always feel better when I count during an argument, but I was surprised at how quickly I had become defensive.  And yes, I WAS aware at how *slightly* irrational I was being.

I ignored that kid for the rest of the day (and every day since), even though he did fix my drain…and the washing machine.  And the porch light.  But he called my horse useless, so I’m not sorry.

But he did make me realize what a horse Charlie truly was…and still is.  Charlie IS the $***.  He’s still got it.  And I started spending a lot more time with him after that.  I guess my heart could finally accept what happened.  Besides my parents and the farrier, hardly anyone I know has known me since eleven years old.  And here I am, now twenty-six, lucky enough to still have my first horse.  He probably knows me better than anyone, and when we are together, it is as if no time has passed at all.  We forgot nothing about each other, and I was relieved to discover nothing had changed.  He even accompanied me on a few photo shoots when I needed a dependable horse I didn’t have to worry about keeping tame or stampeding the photographer.

But that not the Christmas Miracle.  That’s just the back-story.

Christmas really brings out the dysfunction in the Sulkowski household, so Christmas never feels like Christmas, unless Christmas is supposed to feel like a disaster and all the black-and-white Christmas movies just play it up.  This past Christmas was also around the time I started to feel a bit unsteady (mono hit 10 days later), but I was still okay.  As I trudged through the snow banks and down to the barn on the next dark cold night to look in on the horses, it started to snow again.  It was just a little bit before midnight on the night after Christmas.

“I need to ride,” I thought to myself.  “This is too beautiful.  I need to ride.”

I walked into the barn and tossed hay to the horses in a hurry.  I HAD to ride.  I quickly went through the string: “Le isn’t into rule breaking, Safari doesn’t like snow, Rivaldo’s hungry, Elvis is keeping the zebra company, my feet will drag in the snow if I ride the pony…so… I guess I can’t….”



I whirled around and looked at Charlie, who was completely ignoring his hay (unusual) and looking at me straight in the eye.  His head titled again as if to say, “yes, you got it.”

I quickly calculated my options.  Either I don’t ride…or I take Charlie.  Nevermind that he hasn’t been ridden in over twelve years and I would be taking him out on a cold, dark night…bareback…but is he really coordinated enough for that?  Can he hold my weight?  What if I hurt him?  Am I pushing him?  I looked outside as the snow continued to fall.

I decided that if we fell, we’d just be falling into the snow, so we’d be fine.

But did I even have a bridle for Charlie?  I took a mental tally of all my tack and where it was.  Charlie’s petite Indian pony head was not going to fit in the huge warmblood bridles….BUT I did have an old hackamore (a basic and bitless bridle) that was too small for everyone. I’d only kept it because it was $5 and it would’ve cost double just to send it back.

So basically, I was planning to get on Charlie bareback and without a bit.  I’d never ever advise anyone to do something like this.  It wasn’t smart.  Or safe.

I literally feel like I need to say: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME OR WITH AN EPM HORSE.

But I could feel the Christmas spirit, so I felt this was an exception.

I excitedly grabbed the hackamore and it fit him with just a few slight adjustments.  It was impossible to ignore his ever-brightening eyes, and it just sent me into a bigger hurry.

I put on my helmet (always wear a helmet), and out the barn doors we went.  I brought him up to the mounting block and heard my mother’s voice telling me I was crazy for getting on a horse bareback that hasn’t been ridden in twelve years, but I wasn’t scared, I was just trying to figure out how I’d get on him and compensate for the fact that he’d probably bolt from excitement but potentially be very unsteady, and therefore, unable to keep his balance.

I decided I’d just go for it.  I swung on his back, and like the olden days, I could not have been any more awkward because Charlie did not bolt, but instead, just stood there, as patient as if I was eleven, and waited for me to sit on him like a normal person.  I had severely overcompensated my swing.

And then…oh my goodness….I was sitting on him.  Like a normal person.

I hesitantly allowed him to walk forward, still completely unsure as to whether or not he could bear my weight and still feel his legs.

But he navigated through the deep snow just fine.  His footsteps were as sure and steady as could be.


He felt exactly as I remembered…and before I knew it….we were trotting.  Charlie was TROTTING.  Gliding, really.   He felt perfect.  So smooth.  My body just wrapped around him instinctively.  Muscle memory, even after twelve years, is extraordinary.

Those moments on his back, riding through the snow, soaked into my soul, and I thought my heart might burst.  Gabriel trotted faithfully behind us, just happy to see me happy, and I couldn’t be sure if I’d ever been happier.

Then, Gabriel decided the snow was a little too exciting and he started hopping and jumping all around.  He was being completely naughty, darting in and out of the woods, and I was afraid to wake the neighbors calling for him like a banshee because at that point, it was almost 2am.  With a zebra virtually in their backyards, we tend to cause enough commotion as it is.

Charlie would have had every right to bolt/spook/rear and this story would have a very different and probably tragic ending….but no.  He just kept right along, as steady and careful and right as rain.  I could feel his heart beating, and I could feel that this meant as much to him as it did to me.  I could tell he’d been waiting on this for twelve years.  Just patiently waiting.  Never once feeling sorry for himself.  And knowing that one day, I’d come back to him.

Because Charlie is the $***.

After a few times around the track, I decided that we’d better head back in.  He was starting to get a bit wobbly, and I knew it was because he was getting tired.

I’ve had a lot of amazing rides in my life.  Fast and furious jumping courses, long gallops in the field, cattle drives, deep river crossings, and quiet trails through the mountains and the woods, but this ride on Charlie was one of the most glorious moments of my life.  And all we did was trot in the backyard.

Looking back, it’s interesting that I never questioned the vet, but I guess I was better behaved back then.  Or, perhaps, I figured retirement was a small price to pay for my horse’s life.  Maybe it takes twelve years for spinal cord nerves to restore themselves, but perhaps EPM horses are never given the chance to live that long to find out.  I’m not sure.

But that ride was truly a Christmas Miracle.  And sometimes, dreams come true before you even dream about them.

I just thought more people should know about that.

Christmas Miracles do exist.  And magic is still alive and well.