Read Part 5 of Darma’s story here
When I met Darma at Churchill Downs and she became a part of my life in 1997, I had no way of knowing how profoundly she would affect me. By seeking the most natural life possible for her and for me, I was led to make choices that have changed my life forever. I knew that having a horse was a big responsibility. I learned that having a horse in my life became more profound when I was willing to accept and embrace the unknown. In my case, riding a horse wasn’t my quest. It took a few challenges for me to realize that. Riding Darma wasn’t the reason I had found her.
As I began to realize this, the next question became, “What do you do with a horse that you aren’t riding?” The boarding stable environment I had experienced had been stifling and rigid. I wanted to care for my horse and watch her be herself. So then we found our rental property, which we called Still Haven, where I learned to be a caregiver and friend to my horse. And where I learned what many horse owners know, to own a horse, you have to have SPACE.
So, I began looking for a farm. I didn’t have a clear idea what I wanted, only that I didn’t want to build and that I needed plenty of land. I started in a place that had lodged itself into the part of my brain labeled “someday”. I had found this neighborhood while hiring a glass worker to make a neon sign for my art gallery. This quiet hilltop community on Ohio Avenue held my attention as I drove through it. But when I drove up there a year later looking for property, there were no “For Sale” signs in sight.
Rod and I spent two months seriously looking at properties. We came very close to deciding on a couple, but there was always a feeling of “we could make it work, but…” While talking with a friend of mine, I described one of the properties we were considering, and he asked, “Do you love the land?” I considered, and had to answer, “No.” This barometer became the way I measured my dream.
The process of looking for houses wore me out emotionally, and I was about to give up and look for another rental when I saw a sign at a realty office saying “Thoreau would love this”. The sign caught my eye, so I inquired within. When I asked for horse property the realtor struggled to come up with a quick answer. As I was about to go back out the door he said, “We do have something on Ohio Avenue.” “Ohio Avenue!” I exclaimed, trying to contain my excitement. This was the very place I had looked before. I hadn’t looked far enough, however, for this farm was down the dirt road that I had determined was a private drive.
As we drove up, the farm wasn’t much to look at upon first glance. A tiny old ramshackle farmhouse perched on the corner of 4 acres of grass. On the backside was 4 acres of trees. There were no fences, barns or indications this was a farm. But the minute Rod and I stepped out of the car we could feel the spirit of the land, we could see the breadth of the pasture and the height of the old trees. We could see the Puget Sound blue in the distance and feel the sea fresh wind. We could see the charm of ancient lilacs and old windowpanes. We fell in love.
We heaved a sigh of relief when all of the stress of making offers and the fears of losing this special place were over. We began to dream of a life there with our animal family. I knew deeply that this life was my destiny, as did Rod. Darma had led us to a new way of life.
The day the farm became ours, Rod and I went to sit on the knoll overlooking the pasture. After awhile I got up and started walking, then jogging, then running across the pasture as I envisioned how Darma would feel when she could really run. I almost flung out my arms with the joy of it, and then I looked up and saw a young bald eagle flying over my head. She continued on the path I was running until she flew up high to perch on one of the majestic trees at the end of the property. I turned to look at Rod with tears in my eyes and said, “Now I really know we’re home.”
Back at our rental later that night as I scratched Darma and told her about our new home I heard a piercing cry and looking up to again see a young eagle flying overhead. I caught my breath at the deep recognition of the profound nature of the sightings. For, just like in my painting, “Spirits Take Flight”, which was created in 1995 when I was in a situation where I had felt restricted, I had come full circle and the eagle was showing me I was on the right path.
We got busy building stalls and cleaning house. We wouldn’t move in for another six months, but it was winter and we still had a rental lease to fulfill. Gradually we learned that the house was built in 1918. We found horse halters and saddle racks made from old milk cans in the shed. We found the collapsed barn ruins, which have given forth many antique treasures of old farm equipment. From the seller, a woman who had been a friend and caretaker for the previous owner, Commander Smiley, we learned the true history of the farm. It had been owned by Commander Smiley and his wife since the 1950’s. He had owned Tennessee Walking horses. She shared old photo albums with us, which contained pictures of the house when they were planting the first rhodedendrons and lilacs, and the old barn and the horses. Comm. Smiley had ridden his horses as the Grand Marshall of the Kingston 4th of July Parade. We know the horses are buried on the property. The memory of horses on the land whispered in the wind blown grass.
I prayed that Darma would be as delighted with the farm as we were. It would be a big change for her. She had seemed to enjoy the protective environment of the trees at Still Haven, would she feel exposed in the open bluff of the farm? Though I knew that open prairie was the most natural for a horse, but Darma had likely been raised in stalls and at racetracks. Would the wild blood in her veins sing again with wide open spaces?
Rod worked diligently to prepare a stall and paddock for her. The paddock was large enough for her to gallop but small enough to give us a head start on moving us all there as soon as possible. After having watched Darma’s large frame navigate a 10′ x 16′ stall, we designed the walk in shed to be a roomy 14′ x 16′ with two doors. We located the barn and paddock one hundred feet from our back door. Darma would never feel isolated.
Getting Darma in the trailer was time consuming and difficult. The short ride was stressful for her, but when she stepped off the trailer and I walked her into the paddock. She eagerly waited for me to remove the halter, and then she began to dance. All of us present could clearly see her joy as she pranced and whirled, then stopped suddenly to grab a few mouthfuls of lush grass. Darma was in heaven. Her companion, our goat, Tess, was more confused by the change, but she also participated, following her friend Darma up and down the fence line.
I had never seen Darma run with such joy. She put all her power into each stride – and as she skidded to a stop at the fence lines it was immediately apparent that the paddock we had built was just a beginning and we’d want to fence the entire four acre field as soon as we could!. We stood with our friends laughing and clapping while Darma charged around and took great delight in running in one door of her stall and out the other. Darma was finally in her true home.
I awoke at dawn the next morning to see a magnificent sunrise. I walked outside and Darma nickered softly from her paddock. The quiet was absolute. I stood in reverence as I beheld Darma’s eyes shining with contentment. The sun shone amber on her glistening coat. Each fence post and blade of grass reflected the golden light. We were truly in heaven.
Life gradually settled into a rhythm. Darma napped, galloped, grazed, and received her due of daily scratches and carrots. Her daily life was fascinating to behold and share. Our goat Tess munched on blackberries, and lounged in the sun. Our 12 year-old Finnish Spitz, Poika, roamed freely as a farm dog for the first time in his life.
Shortly after we moved in more animals came to join our family. Duke, the 16 year-old golden retriever next door adopted us so he could come in out of the rain. Casey, the frightened stray kitten that we found in the greenhouse purred happily on the bedspread as the sun shone like bright water through the old glass windows.
The sky is open, the old growth trees are magic, and the beauty of the land overlooks the water through the treetops. We call the farm SkyeLandeSea. It is a home that attracts wayward souls like us in need of healing. If not for Darma, we wouldn’t have found this special place. I will be forever indebted to her for leading us home.