Alice and Petey
By April Horowitz
(The Heart of a Horse Story, part 12)
Rarely do events turn out to be all positive or all negative in their consequences. They usually combine elements of both, sometimes in a chain reaction. So it was with the Caring Crew garage sale. Not long after I had delivered a thousand dollars worth of the hay money we had raised to a local horse rescue and filled up its barn, I began hearing through the grapevine negative stories about me that were coming from the woman who ran the rescue. I understood that envy and resentment were often powerful factors in human behavior, but I was still unprepared for the comments that were being made behind my back.
I would have been even more upset if it were not for the fact that Kevin was a target of this sniping as well. According to the gossip we didn’t know what we were doing, or didn’t understand horse rescue as some did. I realized that they might be harboring ill feelings because we were relative newcomers and were getting a lot of attention in the community, and because we had celebrities supporting our efforts. But I was still taken aback when they came to ask for more hay donations and money from the very people they were attacking.
Some of my reaction to these attacks came from my feelings of vulnerability, and emotions stored from a childhood in which I often felt alone and unprotected. I had never been a public figure before and I was only beginning to learn the ambivalent consequences of being one. But the more I worked with the horses, and the more I was able to help them, the thicker my skin became. I was encouraged too by the fact that more and more people were appreciating the good work that Heart of a Horse was able to accomplish.
In addition to the animals we served, my own horses needed attention. Alvin, in particular, needed more training, as he was young and spirited and would run away with you if you let him. I stabled him on a ranch in Somis for a few months, where the trainer I had hired worked her horses. There were fifty other animals on the ranch, among them a chestnut colt named Rascal to whom I immediately grew attached.
Rascal had big brown eyes and a diamond forehead, and hadn’t quite made it to six months of life. Colts are always irresistible, but I quickly fell in love with this one, and would visit him whenever I came by to see Alvin, which was pretty much every day. One of those days, I arrived just after a horrible accident had taken place. Rascal’s mother had kicked him, snapping his front leg. When I got to his turnout, I saw that the leg was dangling from a little piece of skin, and my heart sank because I knew what that meant.
Rascal’s mother was beside herself. She looked at her colt in distress and then looked at me as if to say, “Is there anything you can do for my baby?” I wished there were. I felt so helpless watching them both suffer. In the few months I had gotten to know them, Rascal was such a playful horse. It made me think of the life he should have had in front of him, and now wouldn’t. It was terribly sad.
I phoned Kevin, and prayed that he would come soon. When he finally arrived and took in the situation, he went over to his medical kit and pulled out a syringe. He filled the syringe and then he turned to the mother and said, “I’m so sorry your baby is hurt. I’m going to help him now. This is all that I can do.” Then he gave Rascal the injection to end his suffering. It was over in a matter of seconds.
When the mare saw her colt dead she became very emotional, crying internally the way horses do, the pain registering in her eyes. Kevin sedated her, and I found myself wishing he had a drug for me as well. I couldn’t stop thinking how unfair life could be. Rascal’s mother was herself a rescue horse who had survived a situation in which her owner was starving her. When she was brought to the ranch, her new owners discovered that she was trained and talented. When she was fully recovered they put her in horse shows and she was able to win ribbons.
Because of her achievements, there was great hope around the ranch for her foal, Rascal, that he would follow in her footsteps, and maybe become a champion. Now those dreams were gone, and there was only the pain of the loss, and grief for the possibilities that would never be realized. I was sad to think about it, and it made me aware once again of how fragile life is and how Mother Nature can be as cruel as she is wonderful.
As if the tragedy that had befallen Rascal were not enough, the very next day Kevin had to be called back to put another horse down. This one was also a rescue, and his story was equally heart-rending. His name was Flash and he was a 22-year-old quarter horse who had lived a life of pain about which there was nothing natural. Over the years, Flash had been moved from one owner and one ranch to the next. One owner was so cruel he had beaten Flash with a metal hoof cleaner, leaving scars all over his face and body. When I heard stories like this, I had a hard time holding back the rage I felt at people who were capable of unleashing such brutality and inflicting so much pain on the helpless.
There was something wrong I felt with the word “brutality” itself, whose root refers to animals. Animals are incapable of that kind of intentional cruelty that only human beings can commit. There was nothing Flash could have done to deserve the treatment he had received. When the authorities were finally notified, they came to take Flash to a rescue facility where he was able to recover and lead a more normal life. But the memory of the cruelty he had suffered never left him. He remained forever wary of people, suspicious that they might turn on him.
Days before Rascal’s accident, Flash had become seriously ill. When I got there, Flash was lying on the ground. I had spent time previously with him when I made my visits and when he saw me now he struggled to his feet to come over to where I was standing. He wanted to be comforted. Then he lay down again and was on the ground when Kevin arrived. After examining him, concluded that it was Flash’s heart that was failing and that there was no alternative but to put him down. Looking at Flash you could see that he was weary of life and of the pain he was suffering, and was ready to die. I was glad I had been there because it was clear that he wanted to be touched and comforted before the end.
This is the hardest part of having and loving horses: the leaving of them when it is time for them to go. Sad as it is, this is another way horses teach us about life, about the importance of caring for those we love while we still have them around.
Sometimes if you are there when an owner has to part with her animal, you learn other lessons as well. One such given to me came by way of a donkey named Petey and his owner Alice. Because Heart of a Horse was becoming known throughout the local horse communities, I began receiving calls from people who needed me to be there with them when they went through difficult partings. This was how I came to meet them both.
Petey was in his 30s and was at the end of his life. His owner was a woman named Alice who had rescued him many years before when he was abandoned and left on his own. Alice was a client of Kevin’s and it was he who called me with her request that I would come to be with her when she said goodbye to this sweet creature. I got the call late at night and left the house immediately. When I pulled up onto the property where Alice and Petey were, the night was full of stars and I could see the avocado trees of the ranch silhouetted against the blue black sky.
I parked at the end of the dirt road in front of a one-story ranch house. Through the darkness, I could make out Petey on the ground and Alice sitting beside him. I went to sit down with them and saw that she had been crying. We sat there in silence for awhile, waiting for Kevin to come, and then she began telling me Petey’s story.
When Alice first encountered and rescued him, he was very thin and neglected. She told me she could see in his eyes that he badly wanted to be loved. She said to me, “April, look at his eyes. His eyes are the most sweet, loving eyes I have ever seen.”
I looked over at Petey who was in a poor state, breathing heavily and obviously entering the last moments he would spend with us. But his eyes were still soft. He was so scared and he wanted Alice so much to be there by him. Alice went on with her story. When she rescued Petey her first thought was “Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into? How am I going to care for a donkey?” The questions took on a greater urgency because she had been through a divorce, and soon after was diagnosed with breast cancer.
But difficult as her situation was, she kept Petey, and the longer he was with her the more she grew to love him.
After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Alice went into a deep depression and was ready to give up. What kept her going was that she knew she had to take care of this donkey who had become her friend. When she went to feed him and comfort him, she felt a comfort being in his presence too. He depended on her and, as she soon began to realize, she depended on him. Slowly, the bond that was growing between them began to brighten her days.
When she became very ill from the chemotherapy treatments, she would go out to the barn to sit next to Petey, and the closeness she felt to him and the need they had for each other shored up her spirits and made her want to fight. One day it came to her that it was not she who was saving Petey, but Petey who was saving her.
Then another day came and she lost her job and with it her income. Now she needed money for both of them, and was at a loss as to what to do. What could she do? Then a neighbor suggested to her that she take Petey around the neighborhood and offer to give rides to the local children and charge for the ride. And that’s what she did. It began with a couple of kids but then there were more and soon she and Petey were able to raise enough money to get by on. Alice turned to me as she told me this and said: “All Petey ever asked for in return was hay and hugs and kisses.”
When Kevin arrived, Alice knew it was time to say goodbye. I moved back from them to give them some privacy and watched her kiss Petey’s face, and rub his back in the spot where he liked it. He lifted his head at one point to reach out to her and give her a kiss in return. Then Kevin administered the final shot and Petey was released from his old sick body and was able to go on.
It was such a blessing for me to see the love between Petey and Alice and to share in their goodbyes. When it was all over, Alice said, “You know April, I did rescue Petey, but he saved my life. He truly rescued me.” Petey was a simple creature but he brought love into this woman’s life and made a better world for her while he was here.