Just Charlie


I walked out of the farmhouse at midnight tonight, on my way to check the horses and thinking about how I had nothing to write. But then, an owl soulfully hooted from the barren winter trees as the starry sky illuminated the night, and I felt as though I might burst with words about what that moment felt like.

The pony whinnied shrilly—rudely disturbing the silence and threatening to wake the neighbors to let them know I was an hour late with his hay. The truth is, I’m almost always an hour late with his hay because I tend to lose track of time when it’s this late—when the world is quiet and anything is possible.

Regardless, ponies are pretty quick to let you (and the rest of the town) know when you’ve disappointed them. They may be short in stature, but they have very high standards.

Gabriel excitedly bounded off ahead of me, as he always does, for he is always sure that tonight will be the night he will finally catch a rabbit. There are several of them that linger along the shoreline of the meadows and the trees, night after night, waiting for us (I’m sure of it), if only to watch Gabriel, in his exuberant confidence—as though he has never failed—to chase the entire lot of them down from 40 yards away, only to wind up quickly and wildly disappointed in failing to snag one for the 984th time. In a row.

I checked on the blanketed horses and threw them some hay. I noticed Charlie—the Indian horse who needs no blanket—was beginning to shed (a sure sign of spring), and I wasn’t sure I could sleep knowing he could use the first of many spring groomings.

I grabbed the shedding blade, caked with dust from the winter, and made my way back to him.

“This is Charlie.”

That’s what I said to my very good friends and their cute little son today, when they came to talk about upcoming projects and we toured the horses while we did so. But now, looking at Charlie and thinking of all the springs we’ve had together, I wondered if maybe I’d been disrespectful.

Unlike the pony, Charlie is pretty forgiving, but I got that pang of ache you get between your eyes—the one that threatens to bring tears—and that corresponding heave that knots your chest.

“This isn’t ‘just’ Charlie,” I thought, because we have names or introductions for the meaningful people we introduce to other people. “Hey, this is my mom/the woman that raised me” or “I’d like you to meet my better half,” or “this is my best/lifelong/childhood friend.”

And I’m like, “Hey, this is just Charlie” even though he’s literally saved my life over fences countless times and I’ve known him longer than just about anyone besides my parents and my sister.

“This is only the horse that knew me before I knew myself.”

Maybe that’s a bit heavy for a Sunday night, and I’m the first to admit Charlie was probably too interested in getting treats to worry about the way in which he was being introduced, but I think about these things, and it bothered me that considering THIS particular horse, I’d been pretty nonchalant. Plus, I read somewhere that how we respect animals and nature is a good indication of how we respect each other as people.

I tried to put that thought out of my mind, as I began to groom Charlie, starting with his rump, which looked like it needed the most work, and then moving towards his neck. The curves of his back and the cowlicks of his coat are so familiar, I don’t even notice them anymore, which is perhaps why I take him for granted. Of all the horse and riding books and theories and videos and lectures I’ve come across, I wondered if they should all just be summed up with “know the backs of your horses like the backs of your hands. Or better, if you can.”

I hope one day I can say, “I do” to that.

As every horse person knows, there’s something about a barn that warps time, and before I knew it, the other horses were real quite, almost through with their hay, and although I was still grooming, I was somehow on the opposite side of Charlie from where I had started.

I felt a little guilty for drifting off on him, my mind swirling with trifling matters and life decisions—thoughts on spring cleaning projects, grocery lists, and Kenya, emails I need to return, books I want to read, what the next year will bring, and how I’ll know if any decision I ever make is the right one. But lately, if I stop and think for too long, I just get mad about something that’s virtually in my backyard.

Because a week ago, the church I grew up in justified the revoking of millions of dollars away from people (mostly children) on the other side of the world under World Vision because of a small internal agency change in hiring policy, which would allow World Vision to hire anyone who wanted to help change the world for the better. And by anyone, I mean it would not matter what your sexual orientation or gender identity is—World Vision would only hire you based on your desire and ability to contribute to the world. Which, if you think about it, makes sense. Because the last time I checked, whoever you love and whoever is sleeping in your bed really bears no weight on your capacity to do good in the world.

I’d be in trouble if it worked any other way because it’s a dog that I love and a dog that sleeps in my bed. And he lives to chase rabbits every night, all to no avail.

But World Vision was forced to re-change its policy after 2 days, and fire and not hire any employee with an alternative sexual orientation or gender identity solely BASED on alternative sexual orientation and/or gender identity because churches threatened to pull too much money, and World Vision would no longer be able to support the millions of people who depend on the agency and also have nothing to do with its hiring policies.

The churches argue that leaving millions of needy people in the lurch is justified because homosexuality is a sin. But even under that pretense, how can the church choose which sinners are allowed to help the world and which are not? Because let’s face it, we’re all sinners.

But I’m not just angry at church. I’m angry because those who do fight for equal rights (specifically in terms of employment and health insurance) haven’t been talking much or fighting on this and it makes me think they’ve just accepted that America is indeed as backwards on this as it once was about race and segregation and even women’s voting rights. I don’t think anyone is giving up, but they sure are a world more patient than I am, if they can just stop talking about it for now.

I don’t know a lot of things, but I do know that this world has a lot of horrific problems, and alternative sexual orientation and gender identity is not one of them.

So this really makes my blood boil, and I suddenly wake up, and here is Charlie, just standing next to me, on the opposite side from where I started, and his head is low, and he’s calm and quiet, even though I’m a world away wondering if there is any hope for humanity. All while grooming him on autopilot.

But really, that’s how it’s always been with this horse, from the beginning, which is why I’d felt guilty for casually writing him off earlier in the day. Because back when I was little and I couldn’t see over his back or reach his mane, I’d stand on a bucket to brush his head, and I’d desperately wonder why the boy I like in school wouldn’t talk to me or I’d go over and over a terrible riding lesson with missed distances and late changes, or worse, both, or I’d think about the terrible things I’d overhear people say about each other and I’d wonder if they were true.

Those problems once seemed as big as these now, and regardless of what’s important and what’s not, Charlie confronts them all in the same dignified, soothing way: He just listens.

This is what horses do best. They listen. And you don’t even have to talk, which is good, because sometimes I can’t. Horses understand silence better than anything. They feel if you let yourself be felt. If you just let yourself BE, which I eventually discovered is terribly easy around horses and horrifically difficult around people (and also cats, but that’s another story).

Well, I kissed Charlie on the nose to say “thank you,” and after promising never to introduce him as “just” Charlie again, I flipped the barn lights off and closed the doors.

That pony was still at the gate, and although he finally had his hay, he made it a point to glare at me just to say he had not yet forgotten what I’d done to him for the 31st time this month. I realized I still had the grooming blade in my hand, so I thought maybe, as dark as it was from inside his pasture, I could make it up to him.

As snow white ponies tend to do, Napoleon had covered himself thoroughly in mud, so even though I couldn’t see the mud (and therefore, him, either), I knew that once his white coat began to glisten in the darkness—as only whiteness does—I would know I’d made leeway. That pony stood proud and steadfast, as if he’d been patiently waiting for me all night, and without really thinking or trying, the shedding blade went gliding over him while we both took great big gulps of the lingering wintery air and looked up into the stars as they sparkled and shimmered, and it seemed as if those shimmering stars produced an inaudible music of infiniteness, quiet, and the angels flying far overhead. Because something that looks so pretty must sound that way, too.

Our reverie was occasionally interrupted by the zebra, who circled us impatiently and snorted to let us know it, for zebras move with effortless stealth, and he otherwise would have gone undetected. Here, before the zebra, was an extremely painful display of domestication, not just by the pony, but by Elvis, too, who was standing nearby and patiently waiting his turn for a grooming. For Sura, this behavior was virtually insufferable for a zebra of his caliber and wildness, and he desperately tried to look like he was up to exciting and interesting things among the mud pools of the pasture, in an attempt to lure his herd back to him. But no one budged a hoof, although Napoleon licked his lips as we both listened with amusement to the sounds annoyed zebras make.

When I could finally see Napoleon’s white form in front of me, along with great torrents of loose hair at our feet, I moved to Elvis. Sura attempted to intervene, and tried to push Elvis away from me. I went to head him off, but Elvis was already on it and gave Sura a warning nip, his teeth clacking together for emphasis and in preview of what would be to come should the zebra try to press him again. I had stopped grooming briefly while I watched this, and no sooner has Elvis swung away from nipping at the zebra did he swing the other direction, towards me, to gently wrap his lips around the edges of my fingers, which I couldn’t actually even see myself. He nudged my elbow holding the shedding blade, as if to say, “Carry on.”

So I went back to work. Every once in awhile, he’d paw the ground or stretch out his neck to say that, indeed, right “there” was the right spot.

Beyond the fence, I heard a rustle off in the brush and from it, I felt bright friendly eyes emerge and bed down along the fence, which was the quiet, trained, and respectful distance in which to join our company. Besides perked ears, none of the horses appeared particularly alarmed, and I called out to Gabriel, telling him he was a “good boy” and that I hoped he had stayed out of the thawing swamp.

But when I finished Elvis’ grooming and excused myself to bed, I was surprised to find Gabriel lying on the dirt floor of the barn, waiting outside the stalls, right where I’d left him long before. I wondered if the shy companion outside the fence had actually been the lone gray wolf that came the summer I got Gabriel, which was two years ago. She rarely made an appearance last year, but the occasional and exceptionally large dead rabbit always laid fully intact and perfectly centered upon my doorstep—as if to say I needn’t worry about the horses (or maybe to try to show Gabriel it could be done)—let me know she was still around, though why she had suddenly turned cautious last year, I didn’t know.

But I was glad to assume she fared the winter, and seeing as how the rabbits are as plentiful as ever, she won’t go hungry this summer.

I walked back to the farmhouse with Gabriel at my side.

The owl hooted again and the stars shifted, with Orion sinking to the west and the tip of the summer triangle pushing up like an arrow against the northeasterly horizon.

Once I was inside, I peeled off my heavy layers, as I’ve seemingly had to do for endless months of brutal winter. But instead of running to make tea and warm my hands, I walked back outside, thankful to the stars for pressing in and making the big world with even bigger problems feel small and simple—full of nothing but horses and the promise of spring—if only for one night.

God Made A Horse

Away in Canada and missing my horses. Longing for big sky, mono to be over with (it almost is), and the long, warm days of summer.

Melancholy is in the air, and then I am reminded that

God Made A Horse: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Fk1pgkEwyY

I have five of them waiting on me back at home (plus a pony and a zebra). And that is solace enough.

Every horse is an extraordinary spirit…a living gift…a soul set free and wild with strength, bravery, gentleness, and heart. God made a horse.



‘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.