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Hoof Prints: More Stories from Proud Spirit

Hoof Prints: More Stories from Proud Spirit

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Hoof Prints: More Stories from Proud Spirit

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Dec 1, 2016


In more heartwarming stories from Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary, meet Jesse and her baby, Riley, the first of a whole barnful of foals! Learn the ways of horse friendships: Meet big old Ranger, who eases Rosie from her mourning for Cracker, though it is finally Rebel and Gambler who invite Rosie to make a threesome of their twosome. Then there's Indigo, a very wild Mustang who finally decides he can trust Melanie enough to greet her in the laundry room.

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Dec 1, 2016

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Hoof Prints - Melanie Sue Bowles

The View from the Tailgate

WHENEVER YOU HANDLE HAY, no matter how neat or tightly bound the bales are, little bits and pieces of straw seem to get everywhere. My husband Jim and I had just stacked fifteen heavy bales into the bed of his pickup and were getting ready to take them out to our horses. A gentle breeze was blowing the loose hay around, and somehow it all ended up in my direction. Jim managed to remain completely free of the itchy particles, but it was in my hair, down my britches, inside my shirt, under my collar, and stuck to my sweatshirt. Jim tossed the last bale into the bed of the pickup and jumped into the driver’s seat. I looked down at my clothes and thought it best if I—and all the clinging hay—stayed out of the cab. After all, the seats of his truck are upholstered.

We are a two-truck family. We use both of them around our ranch, but Jim and I have different opinions about the definition of a farm vehicle. He likes to keep them clean and looking as new as possible. Especially his. And he manages to do that … with his. My truck on the other hand … well, that’s a different story.

The ranch in Florida

So rather than getting in the cab and risking getting hay on his seats, I walked around to the back of the truck and hopped up on the lowered tailgate. I lifted my gloved hand in a wave, high enough for Jim to see in the rearview mirror that I was safely seated for the ride out to where the horses were grazing.

He put the truck in gear and headed down the driveway. I tucked my hands under my legs and lifted my shoulders up high as I breathed in the sweet smell of the hay that was stacked all around me. I smiled and looked out over the pastures at the horses.

A few of them lifted their heads. They knew the routine and stood waiting for us to drive through one of the gates to begin throwing hay off the back of the truck. We usually went to a different place each night to avoid one area of the property being overused and worn down by the horses. They had gotten in the habit of waiting to see which gate we drove though before coming to us. Tonight we were going to the west side of our fifty acres. A creek ran diagonally through our land. When the water was low we could cross it in the truck without a problem, but right now the water was too high, even for the four-wheel drive. To get to the other side we had to go out our front gate, drive a quarter-mile down the county road, and then come in through our neighbor’s driveway. There was a gate in our shared fence line that allowed easy access to each other’s ranches.

I was enjoying my perspective of the horses and our property from my seat on the tailgate. It was interesting to watch everything slowly recede. When you’re facing forward the landscape seems to flash by as you look out the window. But sitting backwards, you have more time to contemplate the scenery. For some reason, this quote ran through my mind: It’s not where you’ve been that matters, but rather where you’re going. I wasn’t sure who originally said it, and I wasn’t even really sure I had remembered it correctly, but I decided that I didn’t agree with it—where you’ve been matters very much.

I swung my dangling feet back and forth and watched as the dust swirled around my cowboy boots. A sense of peace washed over me. Jim was driving slowly—we used this opportunity every evening to check our fence lines—but I found myself wishing that it would take him a little longer to arrive at the neighbor’s gate.

Right at that moment I felt as though I could traverse the entire United States sitting this way. But I would want to stay along the small country roads as in William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways. And I would want my feet dangling off the back of a pickup truck, just the way they were then, as I watched farms and small towns slowly fade from view like the gentle serenity of dew disappearing before the sun.

When we reached the end of our driveway Jim turned right onto the county road. It was evening and the sun was just lowering in the sky. It hadn’t yet reached the horizon, but it was already turning into a huge red ball. I always thought that sunsets in Florida were nearly incomparable. There was a large stand of slash pines at the far end of our pasture. The waning light made the bark on the west side of each tree glow as if they were on fire. I marveled at the way their green boughs turned the same fiery red.

As we drove along the road, I instinctively turned my head to watch the thirty-plus horses who lived with us at Proud Spirit, the sanctuary Jim and I created back in the early ’90s for abused, neglected, and unwanted horses. My thoughts went back to the beginning and the horse who started it all. I easily spotted her now out in the herd. She was a tall bay Thoroughbred mare whom I had named Cody. Her lovely forelock reached all the way down to her eyes and the tips had turned golden from the sun. I watched as she ambled along, grazing by herself slightly away from the main herd. She was elderly now and no longer the alpha mare. I recalled a time when no other horse would cross her. But now she walked away when one of them challenged her. She preferred to keep her distance from the rowdiness of the younger ones.

I peered at her more closely. She suddenly looked so old to me. I was, of course, aware of the passing of time. But when did this happen? The muscles along her back were no longer toned and her spine was beginning to show. There was gray around her muzzle and she had developed the deep hollows above her eyes that older horses get. I had noticed lately that she was standing with her head hanging low more often than I saw her grazing, and she was losing weight.

I squeezed my eyes shut for just a second as I shook my head to displace the image. The inevitable loomed in my mind and I couldn’t stand the thought of her not being a part of my life. A sad smile crossed my face as I looked back in her direction and recalled the astonishing journey she and I had taken together.

Cody was my first horse. I brought her home back in the early ’90s. Jim and I were earning our living as firefighters. We worked twenty-four-hour shifts and routinely saw drownings, heart attacks, vehicle accidents, house fires, and suicides. The job was stressful and exhausting. At that time we lived in town, near our jobs. In an attempt to simplify our lives, we decided to move away from the heavy congestion of the city and buy a small place on five acres out in the country. At least our time away from work would be peaceful.

Our new home was located in an equestrian community and we were surrounded by horses. I had never spent much time around horses. I was never horse-crazy as a kid, and really had no desire to ride as an adult. But for some reason—a reason which was undetermined at the time—I decided that I had to have one. It was a fateful decision that would change our lives and ultimately the lives of numerous horses in need who would find their way to our sanctuary.

Cody was a middle-aged Thoroughbred mare who had been neglected, malnourished, and mistreated. The day I entered her life, she had reached a pinnacle and was fed up with the entire human race. But I was a novice, and all I saw when I looked at her was a tall bay mare with beautiful eyes who needed to be brushed and maybe gain a few pounds. I thought she was perfect and ignorantly paid much more for her than someone with any amount of horse knowledge would have paid. As her health improved under my care, dangerous problems and a difficult personality emerged, which I was ill-equipped to handle. Unfortunately, because of my inexperience, I didn’t realize that her dull coat and bad feet were the result of years of neglect. She had also been handled roughly her entire life, which was the reason she viewed humans as the enemy. When I got on her back she was ready to explode. Others advised that Cody could not have been a worse choice for me. I was told over and over to sell her.

But I determined that this mare was not at fault—the humans in her life were the ones who had failed. And her mistreatment would end with me. After months of being unable to ride her, struggling to handle her on the ground, and receiving lots of unsavory advice, I finally realized that I needed to educate myself about communicating with horses. I made a commitment to Cody and she helped me understand that this is a partnership. She showed me how to help her trust again and she is the reason I am dedicated to never stop learning their language. She changed my life and essentially the life of every hurting equine who ever found its way to us in the subsequent years to come.

At the start of this journey, I barely knew how to put a halter on a horse. As my experience and knowledge evolved I was able to confidently and safely work with difficult horses that others had given up on, ultimately giving them back their lives.

In the beginning I was in awe of an entire list of nationally known trainers, clinicians, and gurus. Over the years I have even met several of them in person. They are all good horsemen and -women; some impressed me more than others, however, as a few are clearly driven by their egos. Regardless, they all are imparting valuable natural training techniques from their instruction, without a doubt, and all of them are good at what they do. But I eventually realized that what they were really great at was marketing their training DVDs, along with the specialized equipment stamped with their names and logos. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this, in my opinion. They deserve their success; hundreds of people, and horses, have benefited from their programs and have better relationships. The limit, for me, was when I came to understand that these clinicians do not deserve star-quality reverence from their fans. Since beginning my dedication to horses, over 150 have come through Proud Spirit. They have been the genuine teachers.

Cody was the reason that Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary existed and the genesis of my lifelong commitment to taking in horses that no one else wanted. For the journey of lessons and learning that she took me on, knowing what I know now, I would pay ten times what I paid for her back then. Even more. To me, she was priceless. She deserved our awe for what she had survived before she came to Proud Spirit, and for the way she eventually learned to trust again and how she fully gave me her heart. All the horses who endure abuse and neglect, but continue to trust, are the ones who deserve our reverence.

• • •

Jim turned into our neighbor’s driveway and pulled up to the gate in our shared fence line. I slid off the back of the truck and went to unlatch the chain. I scrambled back up into the bed, and as we drove out to our own pasture I took out my pocket knife and started cutting the twine off each bale. The horses had been keeping their eyes on us. Most of them had stopped grazing and had lifted their heads, waiting and watching for the hay to start hitting the ground. Jim steered the truck in a widening circle while I tossed flakes of hay over the side of the bed. Suddenly, as though they were one, the entire herd began moving in our direction, first at a walk and then they came galloping across the field and crashing through the creek. It was a ritual they were used to, and it was also my favorite time of the day.

I stopped tossing the hay for just a moment to watch them running. It was a breathtaking sight, and even after living with thirty-plus horses for over twelve years, it still gave me chills. Their flashing hooves and dancing manes reflected the pride in my heart over the life Jim and I were able to give these horses—a life free from being locked in stalls and small dirt paddocks. They are allowed the freedom of movement which horses desperately need to thrive. They have natural manes and tails, whiskers on their muzzles, and hair in their ears, and their hooves are given natural trims and left bare without the restriction of detrimental shoes. But most importantly, they function as a herd, safe in the companionship of other horses.

Once the hay had been distributed and the entire herd was munching their dinner, Jim pulled his truck over to the side and shut the engine down. He got out of the cab and took a spot on the dropped tailgate while I went out to walk among the horses. I liked to check them several times a day to make sure no one had any cuts or wounds, and to simply give everyone a gentle rub and say hello. I navigated among the herd and everyone was doing fine.

I lingered with Cody for several minutes. She stopped mid-chew and lifted her head up to rest against my chest. I pulled her to me and spoke quietly, How’s my beautiful girl?

She resumed grinding the hay in her mouth but didn’t move away. I leaned down and kissed her eye, and then I made a circle around her and gently brushed her coat with my bare hand. I returned to her head and she had once more buried her nose in the hay. I leaned down and cupped my hand over her eye. She didn’t stop eating as she let me close her soft lid.

Finally, I began walking back to Jim. He saw me heading in his direction and slid off the tailgate to go start the truck.

Hang on a second, I called out. Can we sit out here for a minute?

Sure, he said, and repositioned himself on the tailgate. I jumped up beside him.

What’s up? he asked.

Nothin’, I said. I just wanted to sit for a minute. Watch the horses.

Jim nodded and looked out in the direction of the pasture. The horses were standing in the same circular pattern of the hay that we had just put out for them. I looked down at my feet swinging back and forth.

Well, I said after a moment, there is something I think we need to talk about. I was still contemplating my boots. I smartly tapped my toes together a few times before I glanced up at him. He remained quiet and continued watching the horses. Do you ever think about all this? I asked, squinting up at him.

Think about all what?

The horses … the responsibility of this many horses. The amount of money we spend. The time and energy we devote to all this. Do you ever think about it all?

Jim lifted his shoulders just slightly and tipped his head to the side. He screwed up his mouth just a little and narrowed his eyes. Not really, he said and let his shoulders fall back into place.

He was definitely a man of few words. We rarely had deep or lengthy conversations. I was used to it. For Jim, things simply are what they are. And he isn’t one to ponder a situation or fret about the way something is going to work out. Fretting and pondering is my department.

It was winter of 2004. We had been earning our living as firefighters since the ’80s and we were nearing retirement now. Jim and I would both still be in our forties. I knew that he and I wanted the same things when we were finally able to leave the fire department. We had always talked about moving out of Florida. It was getting too crowded and too expensive, and we were tired of the heat. We wanted four distinct seasons. I longed for autumn and we both dreamed about living in the mountains.

We needed no discussion about where we would spend our retirement, but we needed to talk about how. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, how I wanted to spend the rest of my life—running this horse sanctuary. But Proud Spirit began as my dream. Even though Jim was just as committed as I was to these horses that no one else wanted, did he want to spend the next half of his life tied to this unyielding responsibility?

So, what are you getting at? he asked. He picked up a piece of straw from the bed of the truck and twirled it between his thumb and forefinger.

Well, I began as I looked out over the horses. And as though he needed a visual aid, I waved my hand in their direction and continued, We’ve been taking care of almost forty horses on a daily basis for over twelve years. He nodded in confirmation, but remained quiet. We’ve made a lot of sacrifices, I said. This has been a lot of work. If we ever manage to go on vacation, we can’t even go at the same time. We never go out to dinner. And you, I paused for just a second and stopped swinging my feet back and forth, you gave up your Harley, I said quietly and looked up at him.

For years, Jim had dreamed of owning a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. After a few promotions and a couple pay raises at the fire department, he finally bought the bike of his dreams: a black-and-white Heritage Special. A short time later we were given an opportunity to purchase the fifty acres we now owned. It was our chance to expand the sanctuary and continue our rescue work. But the only way we could make it happen was if he let his bike, and the monthly payment, go. I cried for him the day he sold it, but he consoled me by saying, It’s only a chunk of metal. These horses are more important. That was back in 1996.

Today Jim looked down at the piece of straw he was holding and then stuck it in his mouth. He pursed his lips around it and nodded thoughtfully when I reminded him of that sacrifice he made. He cocked an eyebrow and looked down at me sitting beside him. What are you getting at? he asked again.

I smacked him on the arm with the back of my hand. You dope. I laughed. You know what I’m getting at. We’re about to retire. I think we need to make absolutely sure that we are on the same page about these horses. Should we just make a final commitment to the ones we have and stop taking in any more? Eventually we’d be down to only a few horses. We would have the freedom to do some things, travel or whatever. Or are we going to make this sanctuary, and possibly even more horses, something we are committed to for the rest of our lives?

Jim nodded slowly as he rolled the piece of straw from the left side of his mouth to the right, but again he remained quiet.

When we retire and sell this place, I went on, the decision we make about the sanctuary is going to affect everything we do from here on out. It’ll determine what kind of property we buy, how much land … everything.

Jim nodded once again and returned the piece of straw to the left side of his mouth. I resumed swinging my feet back and forth. We both looked over at the horses.

Well, I finally said.

Well, what? he answered.

I smacked him on the arm again. He quickly snatched my hand in his before I could pull it back. What do you think I’m going to say? He laughed while he tugged on my arm. This is our life. These horses are our life. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Are you sure? I said with my eyes filling up with tears.

He released my hand and put his arms around me. We leaned against each other and I waited for his answer. I’m sure, he said quietly. I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. I turned my face into his chest and started sobbing joyful tears.

Why are you crying?

I didn’t answer him, but thought to myself, geez, men are so stupid. I also thought that I could not love him any more than I did right then. And so I wept harder. My face remained smashed against him as I sniffled and snorted. After a few moments he withdrew his arms from around me, gripped both my shoulders in his big hands, and gently moved me away from him. He looked down unhappily at the mess my leaking eyes and dripping nose had made on his sweatshirt.

Sorry, I said with a shrug as I wiped my nose with the sleeve of my own sweatshirt.

He just nodded as we stared at each other in silence. And then we both began to smile. I kept my eyes on his and put my head down demurely as I envisioned a romantic moment between us.

Can we get back to the house now? he asked. And then he stole a quick glance at his watch. "StarGate SG-1 starts in fifteen minutes."

Jiggy and the Junk Shops

THE TELEPHONE CONVERSATION STARTED OUT just a little odd. Name’s Jiggy, said the voice on the other end when I answered the phone. There was no greeting in response to my hello when I picked up, no inquiry about who was speaking or whether or not he had reached Proud Spirit. Just the firm pronouncement of, Name’s Jiggy.

Jiggy? I repeated.

Mmm-hmm, the man said. Tha’s right.

Okay, I smiled. What can I do for ya, Jiggy?

"They’s a horse here, he cain’t work no more. Boss sez I’m to

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