Tales From The Picnic Basket

It’s the strangest damn thing. You never think about all of the little things you do in a day until the very first day you don’t have to do them. Yesterday, our retired police horse, Amigo, died. Today, when I went into the barn, I didn’t walk down to his stall first thing to check on him. I didn’t have to soak his two gallons of dry food in four gallons of water, then sprinkle all his supplements on top, Clovid last because he called it his “frosting,” and then feed it to him in his purple bucket. I didn’t have to pick out his feet and put on his “sneakers,” aka trail boots, to protect his fragile hooves before turning him out in the flattest, safest paddock. I didn’t have to kiss him on the nose and tell him he’s the best boy before I removed his halter.   

Then, I didn’t have to clean up all of Amigo’s “chewings,” the pile of wet balls of hay that he’d spent the night chewing up and spitting out . . . we called it his chewing tobacco . . . and I didn’t have to dump out his water bucket which was always filled with piles of hay balls. I didn’t refill his purple bucket with five large scoops of senior feed, topped with two scoops of timothy pellets, and I didn’t have to soak that at 1pm, then bring him in and feed it to him. And at 4pm, I didn’t have to give him a flake of hay (when he had finished his massive pile of mash) so he could spend the night making another big pile of chewings. 

I’d also never thought about how much extra work it was to take care of just one special needs horse (living in a barn filled with them,) whose remaining teeth weren’t sturdy enough to chew hay or grain, whose hooves were thin and who needed endless coddling to keep a decent-sized belly beneath his deeply swayed back. I never thought about how many times a day I checked on him until I didn’t have to. With well over a hundred other animals to take care of on our rescue/sanctuary, I probably should feel liberated, but I don’t. Really, I feel lost and a little forlorn, and my routine is muddled and I burst into tears when I see that lonely purple bucket in the wash stall. I really should put it away, but I can’t because that act would be too permanent, too final, too . . . gone . . .

The very precise routine, supplements, ratio of water to grain, timing his hay so he didn’t chaw and spit instead of eating his mash . . . all worked out over years of intercepting his decaying health, teeth, intestines . . . nursing him through his annual August colic (double up the chia seeds!) . . . keeping him alive with a dozen huge bags of IV fluids when he caught equine corona virus  . . . always double checking everything, and always walking into the barn in the morning and heading directly to his stall to make sure he’d done OK during the night. 

Until 12-21-2020, when he hadn’t.

In my living room I have a large picnic basket. It’s filled to almost bursting with plastic zip lock bags, each with a name and date recorded on the outside in permanent marker and containing a bit of fur or some feathers, and occasionally a frayed collar or halter. Every single bag is the story of a friend who has left us, some of them after sickness and a long decline, some suddenly and unexpectedly. I used to see it as a melancholy pile of mementos, and it reminded me of all the ways I could have done better for each of them  . . . if only this, or that, or the other thing . . . but since Amigo left I see it differently. 

While Amigo was lying down in his stall, unable to stand, I sat with him and waited for the vet to arrive. I’d already given him injections of steroids and Banamine for any pain he might have, although he showed no signs of discomfort. I had checked his heart rate, which, at 60, was high but not extraordinary. He wasn’t sweating, moaning or kicking. Really, he just wouldn’t stand up. I normally can get my animals to tell me what’s wrong with them. If I ask, they let me experience a milder version of the pain they are feeling so I can treat them appropriately. But not Amigo. He was the most stoic man ever born, refusing to allow me to feel any of whatever he was enduring. Not his Mama! Instead, one at a time, Amigo flashed through my mind scenes from 11 years on our farm, of him out grazing with friends, getting groomed and braided by little girls, gently taking bits of carrots and apples and other treats from loving hands that offered them, getting dressed in Halloween costumes with children visiting his stall to trick or treat, and most often, taking that walk up the hill to his paddock every morning, sun rising over our shoulders, me and my old man climbing side-by-side. Just as comfortable as a pair of feet in worn slippers, knowing each other inside out, backwards and upside down. And all he said was “thank you.” That’s when I knew he wasn’t going to survive whatever had happened early that morning, but it didn’t matter to him. He had already survived when I brought him home to Locket’s Meadow just a few days before he was scheduled to be euthanized as he was no longer able to work as a police horse. And whether it had been 11 days, weeks or hard-fought-for years, that time had been his and he was leaving on his own terms.

Dr. Cait diagnosed him with an epic colic that could only be survived with surgery . . . if only he were young and otherwise healthy . . . and minutes later she’d gently sent him to a better place while David and I hovered and told him how much we loved him and that he was a perfect angel. And then we got up and continued feeding the rest of the horses, cleaned 25 stalls, refilled water buckets and spread bedding. Because if we don’t do it, nobody else will so tears would have to wait. Later in the afternoon, before the backhoe arrived to bury him, I returned to Amigo’s stall and trimmed off some of his mane and tail and put it in a bag. 

Back in my living room, I opened the picnic basket and was barraged, as always, with story after story. This time, however, it felt different. This time I was met with a wave of gratitude from all of the animals who’d been rescued from abuse, neglect and imminent death and brought here to live out their lives on this little farm. Animals who, through the callousness and cruelty of humanity, had been injured and scarred, yet through a series of lucky events and twists of fate had found their way to us. They weren’t carrying any regrets, because they were the ones who had made it, had found their way home, and when they’d died, in their own good time, they were surrounded by love. 

That’s when I knew it was finally time to record all of the stories from the picnic basket, as each of these special beings deserved to be acknowledged and known. Many are already written because I try to eulogize them as they leave, but some are from so long ago I have nothing but memories. Thanks to Amigo, I won’t see them as a pile of regrets and sadness. Amigo taught me they are actually recollections of lives spared and lived in peace, in a world that is seldom kind to our animal compatriots. 

And so I begin Tales from the Picnic Basket. You may cry knowing these are lives that ended, but my hope is that you rejoice. These are the ones that made it home. Tears should be saved for those who did not.

We will start with Amigo, of course . . .

Amigo the Police Horse

Horses can read a human’s heart and mind. They are brilliant beings, completely connected to Spirit and to each other. Wild horses in a herd move as one because they are as one, psychically connected. When one horse sees danger, they all quickly “see” danger because they communicate with extrasensory visual information. A wolf creeping up on a herd is no secret once spotted because the rest will immediately “see” the danger in their mind’s eye and react. Birds in a flock? Same thing. Herds of elephants? Of course. Animals have more gifts than humans can possibly fathom, because we are isolated from them by our egos. You know, the ego that insists we are smarter, more sentient, better at communication, more spiritual, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah . . .

How do I know all this? Because they tell me. You can believe me or not, I don’t care. It won’t stop me from telling the stories of my sweet babies, as I know them.

Research has shown that horses are adept partners in psychotherapy because instead of reacting to a human’s feelings, they reflect them back to the patient, exposing their emotional state and bringing realizations that traditional therapies can’t provide. Clearly, horses can only do that if they can read right through to your heart and know what’s in your thoughts. So, when I say a horse knows what’s in your heart and mind, I mean it literally.

In 2009 I went to the Bridgeport police stable to meet a horse that was no longer useful for the work and was scheduled to be euthanized several days later. Three separate individuals had contacted me, each of whom had found our horse rescue online.  Each of them called on the same day and begged me to save Amigo’s life. Apparently, word had gotten out that a beloved Bridgeport horse personality had been given a death sentence and an imminent appointment with a veterinarian.

I called the stable and spoke with the manager who told me I could come to the Seaside Park location and meet Amigo that day. I had some time so I grabbed a few friends and drove the half hour to the barn. We arrived and approached the paddock fence where a small herd was grazing on the opposite side.

First thing, let’s get this straight. If horses can read our hearts and minds, which we believe when it’s convenient and we are using them to aid humans with equine assisted therapy programs, then Amigo knew what was coming. He had seen it in his officer/partner who had already purchased his next horse and couldn’t have him delivered until Amigo’s stall was empty. He had felt it from the stable manager who had called to make the appointment to have him euthanized. Every human around him knew it, so by the time I got to Amigo, he was well aware he had a very limited amount of time to live. Because of his intuition, he also instantly knew I was there as his possible salvation, so when I say he looked up, saw me, raced to the fence and said, “Get me the hell out of here,” I’m not kidding, and neither was he. There were three of us at the fence, spread out at least a dozen feet apart from each other. He could have raced to any one of us, but he chose me, the one who would make the decision. I had no apples or sugar cubes, but I did bring a ray of hope. He looked into my eyes, I gazed back, and I knew he was coming home with me; this boy had lots of living left to do. 

I found the stable manager and asked what the story was. He told me that the officers who are paired with the horses are in charge of deciding their fate. They could either find them a retirement home or have them put down. The manager told me there was limited room in the stable, the new horse was coming in a matter of days and the decision was made. 

It seems almost impossible that an animal who had done years of service keeping the citizens of Bridgeport safe could be so callously disposed of, but we humans are funny like that. Until 2000, most retired police and military dogs were euthanized upon retirement. FOR REAL! But in 2000 Bill Clinton signed Robby’s Law allowing them to be adopted out to their handlers or even a qualified member of the general public. It took a federal law to rescue animals who had dedicated themselves to keeping us save, often risking their lives for us. Common sense should have dictated reciprocal kindness, for heavens sake! But again, we humans are funny . . . sigh . . .

I promise you, it’s a lot easier to place a dog in a home than a horse, and it ain’t easy to place a dog. Amigo had been diagnosed with navicular, a painful hoof condition, and he was never going to be a riding horse again, making it even harder to find him a family. Unless it was with us, of course, because at Locket’s Meadow we don’t care if they can work. Amigo, with all the brilliant wisdom that comes with innate horse sense, had found his savior in me, and I’m a really easy target.

The stable manager told me I could come back with a trailer and pick him up, and by the end of that day Amigo was home.

 Often people resonate with some horses and not with others. Amigo, however, never met a human he didn’t love, and I can’t remember anyone not instantly falling in love with him. Something about his eyes, which were so kind and forgiving. I often say looking into an animal’s eyes is like looking into the eyes of God, because nothing comes between them and the Great Spirit, unlike humans and our pesky egos. Well, if looking into an animal’s eyes is like looking into the eyes of God, gazing into Amigo’s was looking into the eyes of the wisest old sage. He knew each of us for the flawed humans we were, loved us anyways and made us feel safe in his presence. 

Humans weren’t the only ones drawn to Amigo. Other horses adored him, and he was welcome in any paddock. The usual establishment of the pecking order was skipped over with him. He could be found nose-to-nose with barn cats and dogs, and the barn swallows and sparrows ate out of his feed pan right alongside him. I’d even seen them alight on his back, especially fledglings learning to fly. His kindness was known to all.

Sometimes, however, he was kind to a fault. For a while he had a career as an uncle horse, sharing a paddock with foals who had just been weaned from mother’s milk. It’s important to have an adult to teach the kids manners, and who had better manners than Amigo? Except Amigo was the too-kind uncle who let the babies get away with anything. His very last charge was Sammy, a wild-hearted colt born to Annie, a mustang rescued from slaughter only a few weeks before her son was born on our farm. Sammy inherited his mother’s mustang heart and he took terrible advantage of Amigo, running him ragged in their paddock. Amigo, for his part, adored the young reprobate and let him get away with everything. Eventually we had to end that scenario and put Sammy in with Captain, who ran his paddock like a boot camp for juvenile delinquents. Poor Amigo could barely stand it as Captain nipped and head banged and cow-kicked Sammy into a more reasonably behaved young man. You could see the old horse cringing and muttering from the next paddock, “He’s just a high-spirited child! Let him be!”

I’ve wracked my brains thinking of stories about Amigo, but in the end, it boils down to one thing. We had 11 years of charm, graciousness and a sly sense of humor that permeated the very air around him. The most timid humans could handle Amigo with just a rope around his neck. The vet tech students who come to our farm to practice their skills could draw his blood, give him injections, check his every bodily function and he stood like a rock. When I would put his special trail boots on every morning before turning him out, he would lift each foot before I even asked, being as accommodating as possible while I adjusted them. Perhaps his only flaw, and it wasn’t much of one, was that I couldn’t let him be free range with the other old horses because, having been a police horse, the lure of the open road was too great. If I turned him loose he trotted straight down the driveway to the street and stood there looking around, perhaps imagining crowded city avenues and small children oohing and aahing at his feet. He never went any further than that, but really, we couldn’t let him stand in the road . . . 

I’ve already written some about his final hour, but there’s more, and I didn’t understand it until a day later. While I sat with Amigo, I kept envisioning one of our other horses, Benny, in his stall. Benny had been in a back stall for a few years and he hated it. I apologized to him all the time, but the downside to being a very good boy, which he is, is that the horses who complain always get the stalls they ask for (and we learned that the hard way with a few broken doors.) I had finally been able to rearrange the residents so Benny could be in a stall at the end of the aisle next to the office, and he was thrilled. Every afternoon I let him out of his paddock and he trotted right down and put himself in. 

Well, there I was, envisioning Benny in Amigo’s premier stall, and beating myself up for already replacing him. How could I even think about that, when I was waiting for the vet to come and, well, the chances of a horse Amigo’s age surviving being down were poor . . . what kind of crappy mama was I? And the vision kept popping up and I kept beating it down and beating myself up for being a terrible human being. But  . . .

The next day, a long hard day, I decided that Benny would get Amigo’s stall, first door on the right. I led his paddock mate, Bingo, down to his own stall and propped their gate shut without locking it because I was going to be right back. I got partway down the hill when Benny, who never did anything wrong, pulled the gate open, let himself out and trotted directly down to Amigo’s stall. When I got there he planted his feet, looked me in the eye and said, “Mine.” His stall was 20 feet away, but he wasn’t budging.

“OK,” I said, holding back tears at seeing someone else in Amigo’s stall. “I guess it’s yours, then.”

The next afternoon I decided to test it, so I let Benny run down to the barn alone. One of our volunteers, Liz, was waiting to close his stall door, but when I got there she’d just finished an argument with him as she’d forgotten he had a new stall. He’d entered Amigo’s stall and stood his ground until Liz finally remembered that we’d changed his location. 

“How does he know?” Liz asked. “Because he’s always gone to his own stall.”

That’s when I realized I should just ask him (sometimes I’m not as clever as I’d like to be.)

“Amigo gave it to me,” Benny replied. “He said it’s the ‘good boy’ stall.” 

Holy crap. 

There I was, envisioning Benny in that stall and being upset about it, but the entire time it was Amigo, knowing he was going to cross the Rainbow Bridge, trying to tell me he was passing his prime digs on to his younger brother. Wow. What a dope. And what a way to keep this psychic/animal communicator completely humbled and in her place! Doh! So while I was utterly lost on his intent, that old horse made it perfectly clear to his buddy Benny what his final wish was. I’m thankful that horses can communicate with each other so fluidly; as a human, all my “junk” was in the way.

One last thing. Whenever I lose a friend, after I collect up the fur, feathers, mane or whatever and bring it into the house, I set it in front of the fireplace and light a candle. Then, I shuffle my worn deck of tarot cards and pull one for my newest angel so for the rest of my life whenever I come across that card I think of them. Amigo’s card was Medicine Wheel in my herbal tarot deck, which correlates to Wheel of Fortune in the standard deck. 

I asked him why that card, and he replied, “Because it was only a spin on the wheel of fortune that brought me to you. It could just as easily have landed on euthanasia.” 

I thought about all of the animals whose spin had ended sadly, and how easily it could have been Amigo. There are so many limits on rescue, such as space, funding, time, energy, volunteers . . . and I found myself obsessing, briefly, about how incredibly tragic it would have been if I hadn’t found room to squeeze Amigo into our barn. 

My old pony friend stopped me before I got myself worked up.

“But I got here, Mama,” he said. “My spin was good.”

Yeah is was, Amigo. Thank you my friend. Your good fortune was also ours. 

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