Saturday, March 17, 2012

Adventures with Angels

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2 (NASB)

Ten years ago this month I was packing up my little house in Mill Valley, where I had lived for the previous twelve years, and getting ready to move to San Martin for the purpose of starting an as-yet-unnamed therapeutic horsemanship program. I moved with several pick-up truckloads of stuff, one horse, one dog and three cats.

During the past ten years, the horse, the dog and all three cats died of natural causes at the end of long and rich lives.

The horse, the dog and the cats were wonderful, kind, gentle creatures who graced my life and the lives of those who knew them. The horse and the dog were purebreds that were purchased with registration papers, decorated pedigrees and family histories of winning at shows. Their breeders were proud of them and only sold their animals to “good” homes where they would be cared for well. The cats all came with personal recommendations from friends or veterinarians.

Jump ahead ten years to today. As of ten days ago, I now once again own one horse, one dog and three cats. But the method of acquiring all of the current generation of animals was vastly different than the animals I moved with ten years ago.

The horse I own is named Angel and her story is well-documented earlier in this blog. She does look remarkably like Nick, my Arabian whose death prompted me to go to the San Martin Animal Shelter and ask the staff to give me any horse as a foster horse. I was so sad and distraught over Nick’s death I said, “Give me the one that needs to go the most.” Angel was one-third of a trio of starving horses found wandering loose on a road a few miles from my house. The shelter staff gave me a horse described as “young and grumpy,” who was thought to be pregnant, and who injured the veterinarian at her first vet check. She had a history of rearing and kicking and pulling back and you could see every bone in her skeleton.

The dog I now own (as of ten days ago) is a German shepherd re-named Sir Harold Rucker. I first met “Rucker” when I saw him leaning against the gate in our pasture, so terrified that he would not let a human near him. I moved toward him and he ran across the creek to the bank on the far side, sat down and looked at me with the saddest expression I think I have ever seen on an animal’s face. He was hungry, scared, lost, homeless and confused, but could not trust humans enough to let anyone help him.

More than two weeks later, Rucker was trapped by county Animal Control officers on the porch of a home his last family had left seven months earlier. The neighbors said his previous family called him “Hitler.”

Oh, and the cat who now lives in my house (despite how much I was enjoying momentarily having a pet-free home) was rescued from the jaws of my neighbor’s dogs, who were in the process of killing him. I intervened in the deadly assault, smacked the dogs on their heads until they opened their jaws and let go of the cat, and then spent half a day trying to find the injured feral cat. When I finally found him and took him to the vet two days later, he had a serious infection, high fever and the vet recommended I put him down at that moment, because his prognosis was so poor due to the nature of the injury.

What do I have now? I have a fat, healthy and hilariously funny cat known as “Gabe Ruth” grooming himself on my desk while I type this. Rucker is sleeping on the couch (covered, so it’s OK) and recovering from a day at obedience class and then working with me at DreamPower all day. Angel is standing in her paddock outside my window, fat, calm, happy and a sweetheart of a horse.

Adopting animals with an unknown history is not for the inexperienced nor for the faint of heart. More than once, with each of these animals, I have thought, “What have I done?! What was I thinking?!”

Never did I imagine myself adopting an extremely frightened 3-year-old male unneutered German shepherd with a talent for climbing walls and scaling fences and an unknown history. Nor did I see myself adopting a terrified, starving, possibly pregnant horse with a history of kicking so that I was afraid to touch her back end or brush her tail or clean her feet for many months.

I am a planner. I like to know what is going to happen next. I want an agenda, a plan, a roadmap. I also want to know the history – what happened that caused this to happen? Adopting animals with an unknown history takes me completely out of my comfort zone. What happened to them? Why was Angel walking down a country road with two other starving horses? What happened to her owner? Why does she have scars on her nose and her back?

Why was Rucker out in the fields and pastures for more than two weeks? How come no one within 60 miles of our shelter ever reported him missing?

The cats, I have more history on. Gabe Ruth (and his two sisters who now live in my hay barn) was born in the fields near my house to a feral mother. I’d been feeding them (and several of their feral cat friends) for more than two years before the dog attack occurred. But I could not handle or pet them. Gabe is now extremely affectionate and sleeps on the bed with me at night. His sisters are still living in the barn and I cannot yet pet them.

Why am I writing this? Really, it’s to encourage anyone who is considering adding a pet to their family to visit their local animal shelter or rescue organization and see if you can find an animal in need who will also meet your need. There are some real gems out there, waiting for a loving home to polish them up and help them show their potential.

It turned out that Angel, the scared and dangerous, starving horse had a good training foundation on her. Someone had spent a lot of time with her at some point in her life and taught her a lot. It took time and patience and food before she could show what she really knew. Rucker, the terribly frightened German shepherd, is the most naturally obedient dog I have ever owned. I know very little about the family that called him “Hitler.” But I know he is friendly, eager to please, and loves to shakes hands with everyone he meets. He is housebroken, walks on a leash and is kind to my cat with Post Traumatic Dog Disorder.

My current menagerie of animals all have “angel” names because I think they are angels, sent to me to grace my life. There is Angel the horse, Gabe (short for Gabriel) Ruth the cat and Sir Harold (“hark the herald angels sing”) Rucker the dog.

In the Bible, Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” If you are considering adding an animal to your family, please visit your local animal shelter first. There may be an angel there waiting for you!

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Angel - One Year Later

Angel's first blog was posted on Jan. 1, 2011. It is now one year later, Dec. 31, 2011. There is no better way to show you how far Angel has come this year than to share a few photos. All the photos in today's blog were taken and generously shared by Lorrine Carrara. These photos were taken on Dec. 29, 2011 as Angel had her feet trimmed by Denise Field of In Balance Equine ( Denise is a wonderful horsewoman and she is so quiet and patient with nervous horses. I am extremely grateful for her assistance with Angel this year, and for her helping Angel to have only positive experiences having her feet trimmed. Here Denise is getting reacquainted with Angel.
This was the first trim where Denise asked Angel to put all four feet on the Hoofjack (hoof stand). When they first started working together, Angel was very fearful of all farrier's tools. Here Denise lets Angel sniff and investigate the Hoofjack. Denise commented that Angel has become "very curious" as she has begun trusting people more.
Left front foot on the Hoofjack. So far, so good.
Right front is trimmed. Angel was not at all worried about the farrier's tools today, so Denise was able to use whatever tools she preferred (this was the first time Angel was relaxed and accepting of all the farrier's tools).
Angel is still curious about the Hoofjack and Denise gave her many opportunities to check it out.
Right front foot on the Hoofjack.
Now came the real test - the hind feet. Denise and I are both well aware of Angel's history of kicking and using her back feet defensively when she was frightened. Denise had not asked for her to rest her back feet on the Hoofjack before. In fact, today was the first substantial trim to her back feet in this first year. You can see in the photos how it went. Left hind foot - check!
Here we go - last hoof. Right hind on the Hoofjack. Lookin' good!
Congratulations, Denise and Angel, on a job very well done! Angel, you have come a long ways during our first year together. Can't wait to see what 2012 will bring!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Nine Month Photo Report - Angel's First Training Clinic

Angel came to live at my house nine months ago, on December 26, 2010. Just to keep it in perspective, this is Angel the day she arrived at the San Martin Animal Shelter on December 9, 2010.

Nine months later, on Sept. 30 and Oct. 2, 2011, Angel attended her first Jerry Tindell natural horsemanship clinic. This was her second trip across the tarp. At this clinic it became obvious that someone had spent some time with her and put a training foundation on her earlier in her life. Most horses do not look like this the first time they walk across a tarp!

For the first nine months, I had never cleaned Angel's back feet. With her history of kicking and defensive posturing at the beginning of our relationship, I was afraid of her back feet. So I had never cleaned them. My goal for the first day of the clinic was to successfully clean her back feet. Just for fun, I am including photos to show that cleaning her back feet is now easy to do. This is the right hind.

This is the left hind. You can see she is calm (bored?) and doesn't seem bothered in the slightest. She has not threatened to kick in about six months. I am hoping she no longer feels the need to protect herself with her back feet. My initial goals for the clinic were low - I only wanted to feel safe enough to clean her back feet!

Jerry worked with her back feet first. He used the rope around her feet and legs, around her belly and girth and flank. She was not bothered by the rope at all. It seemed obvious to me that someone had worked with her before, getting her used to ropes all over the sensitive areas of her body. She was much more competent with the rope than I was.

Angel crossed the tarp both directions, stopped and turned on it, backed across it and did not seem to care. Having previously owned a horse who was terrified of tarps, I was amazed by her incredibly calm response. Again, I do not believe this was the first tarp she had walked across.

I was completely blown away by her non-response to the tarp. This is mostly because getting Nick across the tarp was such an ordeal and literally required hours of work. Looks to me like someone else did the work for me. I just don't know who it is or how to tell them thank you.

Angel shocked me and did so well at the first day of the clinic, I decided to bring her back for a second day and see what else she knew. On the second day, I worked with a plastic bag on the end of a lunge whip. Not her favorite thing in the world. But the worst thing that she did was to trot fast to get away from it.

It did not take her long to accept the plastic bag. She was not thrilled about it, but she did trust me enough to stand still and allow me to rub it on her.

I was truly shocked by how quiet and calm she was at this clinic. It made me wonder if she has been a ranch horse. She stood quietly and patiently while others worked with cattle. She seemed at home on the ranch and not at all concerned about all the other people, horses and cattle.

This is what she looked like for most of two days. Initially, I was afraid she was getting sick or something! But now I don't think so. I think she felt comfortable and at home on a ranch and was glad to have work to do.

In fact, she did so well, I've got a training program in mind to start getting her ready to ride! She needs to develop aerobic stamina and back muscles. And we will continue to work on helping her become quieter, softer and more trusting. But wow! Stay tuned - there's a new horse in town!

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Humbling Day for the Human

Sort of on a whim, I took Angel to her first Jerry Tindell clinic today. Hopefully this will be the first of many natural horsemanship clinics with Jerry. Angel had an awesome day and I (the human) was very humbled.

I was humbled because several things that I thought I "knew" are probably going to end up not being true. In other words, I thought I "knew" something and I am completely, dead wrong.

The most significant falsehood that may turn out to be not true is that I may have completely misjudged and misunderstood Angel's basic personality. The horse that participated in the groundwork clinic today was calm, quiet, content, cooperative and trusting. She was not at all the energetic, worried, fretting horse that I expected her to be. After today I am realizing that I may have been observing the negative effects of past trauma, abuse and neglect - and believing that those negative effects are Angel's true personality. But today, I saw a completely different horse. I saw a quiet, calm, trusting horse who tries very hard to please the humans. Angel was calmer in one day than Nick was in the entire first year (possibly two!) of clinics we attended. I have a strong feeling that the quiet, calm, trusting Angel may be the "real" Angel deep inside, underneath the layer of trauma and neglect.

Today was a real breakthrough for me, and probably for Angel as well. Angel had the opportunity to shine - to show what she is truly capable of in behaviors and in relationship. And I had the opportunity to take off the glasses that no longer fit and see Angel as the horse she is capable of becoming, not as the damaged, pathetic, worthless horse she used to be. The horse I saw today was cute, eager to please and on her way to becoming a horse of value, with something good to offer the world.

At the end of the day today, I looked at Angel and I thought, "Someday, someone is really going to want you. You will no longer be an abandoned, rejected throw-away horse. You are going to have value in someone else's eyes. But they won't be able to have you, because you will be mine!" This is another idea I need to let go of. Today Angel was not a "rescue/shelter" horse. She was not a pathetic, rejected, ugly, dangerous, worthless animal found wandering alone on a country road and sent to the county shelter because no one wanted her. She was a cute, quiet, well-behaved, cooperative horse. She trailered well and travelled well and behaved beautifully. That's just a nice horse!

Another idea I realized today that I will probably choose to let go of, is the idea that I will never ride Angel. Until today, the idea of getting on her back had the same appeal for me as taking up bull riding (and about the same chance of success!). I looked at her in the clinic today, trying so hard to please, trusting me to take care of her, and I thought, "I could ride this horse! I would trust this horse to do the right thing with me on her back!" This was also a very new idea, because until today, I could never imagine trusting her enough to want to get on her back. But after the clinic today, I am looking forward to riding her! I can even visualize myself riding her on trails and having a grand time, like Nick and I used to have. Except I think she has the potential to be a calmer trail horse than Nick ever was!

Angel and I came home from the clinic and I think we were both tired. After everything was put away, we hung out together in her stall for about an hour, just being quiet together and letting the success of the day soak in. This feels like the beginning of a new partnership.

Monday, August 29, 2011

She's a Keeper!

This week-end I decided to adopt Angel. Eight months ago she came to live at my house as a temporary guest, a foster horse from the county animal shelter. Nick (my personal Arabian) had died two days earlier, completely unexpectedly, and I was heartbroken. Angel was invited to live temporarily in his paddock, mostly to keep me from crying every time I looked at it. So she's been living there and we've had fun (well, at least I've had fun) getting to know each other.

But I wasn't sure if she was going to stay or not. I wasn't sure if she was ever going to be a safe horse around humans and I wasn't sure if she had other undiagnosed health problems, especially related to her breathing. She's not exactly an easy horse for a vet to examine! So even though it had been eight months, I was putting off thinking about whether or not she was going to stay. There was no pressure to make a decision and I really did not know what to do.

Well, this week-end, I decided to keep her. I don't know for how long. But at least for now. So today I signed the Adoption Agreement with the county shelter and now she is officially mine. I now own a second high-headed, overly-reactive, chestnut Arabian-type. After owning Nick, I said that I would never own another Arabian. Well, as of today, I do. My first Arabian had champion blood lines and fancy papers. This one was found walking down the middle of a road, starving, abused, abandoned and possibly pregnant.

"Why?" you might be asking yourself. "Why take on an abandoned, starving horse with a history of kicking at people?" That is a question I have been asking myself! The answer is, "Because I like her" and "Because she's fun." Angel is a very expressive, animated, people-oriented horse. I think she would have made a wonderful circus trick pony, because she is so expressive. Every thought that passes through her overly-active mind is expressed in her face or her body. She does not internalize her thoughts or her feelings - she expresses every one of them! She is a true extrovert.

And the other truth is, I enjoy a challenge, as long as I feel like I have a reasonable chance of being successful. I don't like challenges where I think I am doomed to failure. But I don't mind being stretched as long as there is some possibility of success. (I do, after all, run a non-profit therapeutic riding program during the worst economic climate of our lifetimes.)

So today, I invited Angel to stay and become a part of my family. I'm not making any promises except that I will feed her and take care of her and look after her to the best of my ability. I don't know if I or any one will ever ride her - too early to make that decision. I have lots of nice horses I can ride, when I want to ride. So it's not important to me that she be a riding horse. If she continues calming down as she has been, and if I think it can be safely done, I may find a trainer to work with her under saddle at some point in the future. But maybe not, it really doesn't matter at this point.

Here is the deal: I will work with Angel as long as she works with me (and any other humans I ask her to work with). She has to do her part and become a safe, responsible horse and be responsible for her own actions. As long as she does that, I will take care of her. If she ever stops cooperating and stops being a safe horse, I will put her down. No horse is worth a human getting hurt. But I believe she is only dangerous when she is frightened and panicked. I believe that when she feels safe and comfortable, she wants to be with people and would not intentionally hurt anyone.

This week-end I saw her inter-acting with new people, and seeking out attention from people. (OK, I know she was really seeking out cookies, but she does think that people bring cookies, which is better than thinking that people beat you.) She is still very reactive and has obviously been hit on her head. This week-end I was affectionately rubbing her forehead with her head relaxed and down. When I was finished rubbing her, I patted her gently on the forehead and that caused her to rear in fear. I made a note to self to never pat her on the forehead again!

I did see a gait this week-end I had not seen before. It's called a trot. I've seen other horses do it, and even ridden it myself, but I had never seen Angel do it. Before this week-end I had only seen two gaits: panic/bunny-hop/run-for-your-life-crazed-adrenaline-bolt and stop. This week-end I saw a nice, relaxed trot - two days in a row! That showed me she is calming down. After she trotted like a relaxed "normal" horse (that has not been abused), she also breathed like a normal horse (without the strange wheezing strangulation sound after she had almost run herself to death).

She has now had all four feet successfully trimmed (thank you, Denise!). She will stand still for fly spray without holding the lead. I have combed her tail and can handle her back legs. (Huge accomplishments from my point of view!) She will lower her head upon request. I know she likes baths. She is now able to trot in the arena and walk around the ranch without panicking. When she's upset, she generally bobs her head up and down very vigorously, but her front feet rarely leave the ground any more. She's come quite a ways from when she arrived eight months ago. So, Angel, welcome to the family! "The future's so bright we gotta wear shades!"

Monday, August 1, 2011


This past week-end I went to see the movie "Buck" - a documentary about a horse trainer named Buck Brannaman. I loved the movie and plan to see it again. The movie got me thinking about quite a few things and about some horses. One of the horses it got me thinking about is Angel.

Angel has now been living at my house for seven months. As you might be able to see in these photos, she is now fat. Even though she has only been eating one flake of grass hay in the morning and one flake at night, she is now, officially, fat. I gave her the bad news yesterday that I am cutting back on her food even more.

I am so pleased how she completely shedded out her weird, wiry, ugly winter coat. She is now sleek and shiny and dappled and her coat is soft and silky. It's amazing what a little hay will do for a horse! I'm still waiting for her mane and tail to improve a little, but that will take more time.

Angel has a new fly mask with faux fur trim and she now wears a fly mask and fly spray like any other civilized, respectable horse. She is learning that ripping open the velcro while the fly mask is on her face will not hurt her, even though I admit, the sound is a little weird. She has met goals #1 (wear a fly mask) and #2 (accept fly spray) from the last blog. During August, we are going to work on the bath and feet trim goals. Stay tuned for more progress!

By my records, Angel has not kicked at any persons since the end of January. That makes it six months since she has kicked at a person (that I am aware of). Way to go, Angel!

It was her habit of kicking and my concerns about my safety and the safety of other people that got me thinking about her during the movie "Buck." There is a dangerous horse featured in the movie. A very dangerous, aggressive horse that is brought to a Buck Brannaman clinic for training. The horse is removed from the clinic and a participant asks Buck, "What were you thinking?" when he was working with this very dangerous horse.

I am going to see the movie again, mostly so I can get this quote right. But what I remember is Buck said something like, "It would never cross my mind to think about a horse with contempt." That really stuck with me. He went on and said something like, "That horse has a man-made problem. That is not a horse problem. That problem was created by humans." And that reminded me of Angel.

The movie was also interesting to see a truly dangerous horse on the other end of the continuum. Angel may be fearful and nervous, but she so wants to relate and she wants to be friends and she wants to please. I believe that somewhere in her past, someone loved her and treated her well. Then she fell on hard times and almost starved to death and was found, abandoned, walking down a busy road.

Stay tuned: if the weather cooperates, we are going to try the first bath this week-end! I can't wait to see how that is going to go. And any DreamPower volunteers who read this, we are going to have a "movie night" and show "Buck" for all our volunteers, as soon as it is out on DVD.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I Wish She Could Talk

I wish Angel could talk and tell us her story. I wish she could tell us where she has been and what happened to her, so that we could understand her and help her to feel safe more quickly.

Last week I went to my mother's house in Texas for a a few days. I got to hang out with family and enjoy time with my mom and my siblings. I also slept in my childhood bed, surrounded by books from my childhood. One of the books on the shelf was a children's pictorial version of Anna Sewell's classic "Black Beauty." Inside the cover was carefully printed in my childish printing, "This Book Belongs to Martha McNiel."

I pulled that book off the shelf and the cover came apart in my hands. But I sat on the bed and read the children's version of "Black Beauty" in one hour. It made me cry, and it reminded me so much of Angel. How Black Beauty went from home to home and owner to owner. Some good, some bad. Some kind and some harsh. I believe Angel's story is like Black Beauty's. I think she has had one or more owners who loved her and cared for her. And I know she has had at least one owner who beat her and did not feed her. It really made me wish our horses could talk and tell us where they have been and what has made them into the creatures we care for today.

Angel is about 70% shedded out. What is most striking to me - besides the interesting color she is right now and how different parts of her body are different colors - are the markings that appear to be scars. With a short and sleek summer coat growing in, the scars are more visible than when she had a woolly winter coat.

I do not know what has caused these marks, whether injury, accident, illness, or what. But everyone who has looked at them in person seems to agree - they are scars, and very possibly from human abuse. Today I took photos of the three most noticeably scarred areas: her nose, under her eye and her back.

Debbie Krimsley was out today for Angel's craniosacral body work treatment. While she was working around Angel's face, Debbie noticed a scar I had not seen before. This could definitely explain one of the reasons that Angel is so head-shy. Under her left eye you can clearly see the lines of a jagged scar and the face bone is indented more than on the right side.

Since we do not know what happened, it is impossible to know if she was hit in the face intentionally and that is why she is so head-shy, or if she ran into something and injured her face and the pain of that injury made her head-shy. But you can clearly see the lines of a jagged scar and the bone is shaped differently on the left side of her face. It is very fortunate that whatever cut her pretty face missed her eye, although you can see that it came very close.

There are actually quite a few possible old injury scars on her face. On the bridge of her nose are white hairs and an indentation that looks like a halter was left on her face for months or years and it created an indentation on the bridge of her nose. The white hairs and the indentation are permanent. She also looks to have a scar on the right jaw. In the photo you can also see two white dots on her face where white hairs have grown in.

But the most noticeable scars, now that she has shed most of her winter coat, are along her spine. Because of the lighting in the photos, the white scars may be difficult to see. But in person, they stand out on her dark chestnut back. She has ragged, uneven white scarring along her spine from her withers to the tailhead. I wish she could talk and tell us what happened! We will probably never know if she scraped her back going under a trailer door or under a fence or if she was whipped or if she had a skin condition or if she got into some other predicament only a horse could come up with and humans wrongly imagine could never happen.

I must tell you, I do fantasize that some day a stranger will be passing down the street where Angel lives, and they will stop and tell me that they recognize that horse and they will tell me her story. I have a creative imagination!

So while I do not know Angel's past, I can tell you how things are going in the present. Her udder is still bagged up and now she is dripping milk. It appears that the symptoms of ulcers are all gone. I can now brush her sides without a problem. Today Debbie was able to touch her belly and abdomen for the first time. Angel is becoming very expressive and curious.
She is calmer and more trusting, though she is still very wary of people she does not know and she over-reacts to a hand raised around her head. I've had to cut her back to two flakes of hay per day, because she is such an easy keeper. Which makes me realize how long she was under-fed, to end up in the condition she was in when she came to the shelter. Based on her reaction today, it appears that she has never been introduced to fly spray.
So here are Angel's next goals:
1. To become comfortable with fly spray.
2. To agree to wear a fly mask calmly.
3. To become comfortable getting a bath.
4. To get her feet trimmed calmly.

I don't know her history, but those are my goals for Angel's immediate future. And if you haven't read "Black Beauty" recently, it's worth a re-read!