The journey with rescuing horses began when I met with my thoroughbred mare Darma at Churchill Downs Racetrack in 1995. (see Darma’s Diary series). She led us to find our beautiful SkyeLandeSea Farm in 2000. We moved there with Darma and her goat friend Tess, our aging Finnish Spitz dog Poika, and Casey, the feral kitten we found on the farm. We didn’t foresee having a farm of rescued animals. We only knew that this wonderful piece of land had a potential for being the sanctuary we longed to give to those in our care, and the freedom to build or do whatever we wanted to create the environment we felt was happiest for them.
I should have known I was in trouble when six months after we moved to the farm, my friend Dottie invited me to go to see the miniature horse foals. In some ways I think I even mentally prepared myself for the day, giving myself a prep talk on not bringing home any more animals. But my prep talk was geared to prevent getting attached to any miniature horse foals. I hadn’t factored on falling in love with a stallion.
When my friends and I arrived at the miniature horse farm, the mares and foals were in the backyard grazing. The sight of so many small colorful horses milling around the trees was quite astounding. I felt I had landed in Lilliput. We sat on the early spring lawn and watched with amusement as the tiny foals tottered up to inspect us. They were no bigger than a small dog. The mares were more distant, preoccupied with their charges, no doubt. At first I thought their disinterest in people might be a trait inherent to their breed. I later realized that their reactions were perhaps those of horses at a breeding farm. They were well cared for but not individually loved and interacted with. The owners simply had too many horses.
The owner, Riley, took us to the backside of his property to show us his four miniature stallions and his one big horse, whom he doted on. As we walked he mentioned that he was selling many of his horses in preparation for a move to Kansas. So now I knew why he had suggested the spontaneous tour.
He led us into a good-sized dirt pen. At the bottom of the hill was a shaggy stallion named Eddie. Riley mentioned that he was the first foal born on the property seven years before. He was no longer being used for breeding as Riley wasn’t planning on offering his bloodlines anymore so he was selling him. Eddie stood in the corner and watched us, but he clearly wasn’t inclined to visit, so the owner went down and retrieved him by way of hauling on his mane until he walked up on his own. I knelt down to get a better look at him under his dense forelock. He stood very still. I started to scratch him. His lip quivered slightly, but he didn’t allow himself to indicate any pleasure. I looked into his eyes, and he looked back for an instant. He sniffed me, and leaned his nose on my knee. For a moment then, I felt it … that stillness, that silent connection. Everyone noticed how attentive he was. After a few moments I roused myself from reverie and asked my friend to take a picture of us, somehow thinking that in doing so I would look back someday and say – ‘Remember that miniature horse that was so sweet, I wonder where he is now?’ For I had so convinced myself that I wasn’t taking home any horses, that I almost missed his silent plea for help. I went as far as asking his price. And then I said to myself, ‘No.’
As I walked away from his paddock, I continued my little self-talk. ‘No, you can’t buy him, he’s a stallion; he needs to be at a big farm with a herd of mares. Someone will want him and he’ll be happier that way. If I got him he would have to be gelded. Wouldn’t that be traumatic? Could he even live safely with a big horse?’ The other voice in me was saying, ‘But maybe he’s lonely, you saw that look in his eyes, he’s probably been all alone in that dirt paddock. He can see other horses but not interact with them except at breeding time. These people have so many horses he probably has never had a devoted human or horse companion.
Finally, in an attempt to quiet these voices, I decided to go back to his paddock by myself, to see if I really had somehow connected with him. I let myself in the gate. He stood as before. I knelt down. He didn’t look at me. I scratched him. He sighed and looked away. No connection.
After that, I decided that it had all been my imagination. In fact I so convinced myself of this that even when I got the photos from the farm developed I didn’t feel anything other than vague sadness. Several months passed. One day, I was putting away the photos, and a strong sensation of urgency came over me. I visualized the little stallion – and in my mind he was saying, “You have to come get me now!” That’s all it took. I didn’t need any more confirmation. I ran outside and told my husband Rod. He smiled and shook his head, he knew there would be no dissuading me. I ran back inside, found the farm’s phone number and dialed. When I asked Riley if he still had Eddie for sale, he said. “Yeah, it’s a good thing you called, we’re leaving for Kansas this weekend.”
When Riley unloaded the stallion from the trailer, I tried to pretend this was business as usual, but I don’t take on new animals lightly. Would he be happy here? Riley handed me the lead rope and explained a little about his personality. He started grazing hungrily on the lush, green lawn. I wondered if we would become friends.
Darma had watched him unload. She didn’t exhibit any undue excitement, but she was definitely very interested in meeting him. We led him over to her fence. She craned her neck over to greet him. He looked up from the grass long enough to realize there was a mare standing there. He nickered to her softly and they touched noses. Then she whirled abruptly, kicked her back feet on the top rail of the fence, and danced away. No sooner had she left than she returned with her tail raised and her eyes sparkling. Darma was in heat.
Riley smiled, knowing we would have our hands full. He gave Eddie a pat, and drove away, leaving me standing there with a miniature horse I knew nothing about, and a thoroughbred mare ready to have his children.
We put the horses in adjacent paddocks, but after watching them struggle to interact and seeing how the effort frustrated them both, we set up a makeshift barrier between the two paddocks so the horses couldn’t touch noses. Eddie was understandably restless. He kept calling and pacing. I knew that gelding him would be best, and that it would take time for him body and mind to adjust. It was going to be a long summer.
As I got to know this little horse, I began to sense more about him. He was sweet and debonair. He blossomed under my attentive scratches. He would lean his nose heavily on my leg or shoulder and breathe the tiniest of sighs. It took awhile to get accustomed to such a small horse. His hooves were so tiny I could fit them in the palm of my hand. His head wasn’t much bigger than mine. I had to get used to looking down at a horse.
There were some advantages to having a miniature horse. It was easy to put up temporary fencing because he wasn’t strong enough to crash through it. He didn’t eat much. He was easy to lead and didn’t require much training. I could let him loose outside the paddock knowing he wouldn’t go far. He was fearless and funny. I became quite convinced that everyone should have a miniature horse!
I couldn’t get used to the name Eddie. It wasn’t even short for Edward, but was an abbreviation of his paper name “First Edition”. I contemplated for several days until the right name came to me. He should be called Laddie, as in a Scottish lad. The name said everything about him, and fit with our Celtic inspired farm name, SkyeLandeSea.
The gelding operation the vet performed was shocking. I never knew that such proceedures were done under anesthesia while lying on the floor of a stall. I grieved for how awful it would be for Laddie to wake up in such a condition. But when he awoke, after wobbling a little, he began to eat some grass, and seemed none the worse for wear.
We were instructed to exercise him twice a day for twenty minutes. This was quite a stretch for me, as jogging is not one of my favorite activities. I did discover how easy it was to walk him, as his trot was about the same as my fast walk. So we took a jaunt each day down the road from my farm. It was amazing to notice how few people stopped their cars when they saw us. You would think such a sight would warrant pause.
Despite our walks and the company of Darma in the next paddock. Laddie still seemed lonely. He would hang his head between the fence rails and look longingly at us. We tried moving his paddock to within the confines of Darma’s own, so he could be closer to the house. This caused tension between him and Darma when Darma’s corner was no longer accessible to her. This left us no choice but to put him back in his original paddock and pay as much attention to him as we could.
We waited the three prescribed months the vet had suggested after gelding Laddie to attempt to introduce him into Darma’s paddock. We dreamed that they could live in harmony and graze the fields together. When he finally exhibited no interest in Darma, even when they could touch noses, I finally decided to try. We opened the gate between the two paddocks. At first, things went smoothly. In fact they ignored each other and went into their respective stalls. When Darma finally came back into her own paddock. Laddie ran to greet her. She took off; tail high, and they did a few circles. At first they were playing, but this mood changed when Laddie wouldn’t stop chasing Darma. She started kicking at him and lunging with her teeth. We interceded, separating them. We put Laddie back into his paddock. I calmed both the horses down and apologized to Laddie, attempting to explain the inexpiable reason why it had all seemed to go wrong. He hung his head. I tried to talk him for a walk to cheer him up. He wouldn’t budge. I pulled on his halter and dragged him over to some grass. He nibbled half-heartedly. What had I done wrong?
Many people thought I was crazy considering the prospect of keeping Laddie in the same paddock as a big horse at all, especially one as volatile as a young thoroughbred mare. An animal communicator told me that Laddie couldn’t hear Darma saying “no” because the only interaction he had with other horses were mares that were brought to him already likely in heat. She suggested that next time I try to introduce them again when Darma was in heat. I did feel that horses should be able to be together naturally but I had no experience in how to accomplish that. I didn’t know if Darma had ever lived with other horses, much less male horses. All the voices in my head said, “She’ll hurt him”. But I wanted them to be able to live together. So I took another chance.
I let Laddie into Darma’s paddock. He whinnied and trotted over to her. She arched her neck and greeted him. Despite his technical lack of hormones he was instantly aroused, and then they were off. They spun and wheeled, raced and danced. Now the dance was mutual. Darma was the leader, and Laddie followed. If he got too assertive, she objected, and he slowed. It was like watching a flamenco dance. Darma pranced in place. When Laddie advanced toward her, neck outstretched, she backed slowly. Then she danced towards him, and he retreated, conceding the ground. She turned and stood, presenting herself. He reared and attempted to mount her. I winced as his frantic front hooves pawed at her backside as he tried to reach her. She stood patiently. After a few moments she spun away, and the dance began again. I started to relax and realized how rare and beautiful this experience was. We were watching the natural interactions of two free horses. For a time I forgot that they were domestic horses, or that she was large and he small. This was the way it was meant to be.
After awhile, I started to worry that Laddie’s inability to reach Darma would be frustrating for them both. But the dance seemed to be as satisfying as the desire to mate. Finally, when they were coated in sweat from their love play, I got the water hose out and gave them both a cool shower. They were exhausted and satisfied. It had been enough. We put Laddie back into his own stall to rest. This time, he wasn’t sad.
The next day, I held my breath when I let Laddie out into the field with Darma. Would we go through this intense experience every day while Darma was in heat? They gently touched noses, and then quietly walked off together to graze. If they were human, they would have been holding hands.
Laddie began living with Darma as if he always had. They foraged the four-acre pasture together. They galloped and played. Darma would rear and spin, and Laddie would perform his own version of airs above the ground. Darma became bolder in going to sections of the pasture that she wouldn’t go to alone. The next time she came into heat, the only way I could tell was they stood a little closer to each other. They often would share a pile of hay nose to nose. Darma continued to be the lead mare, though she generously shared her stall with Laddie. I became used to seeing him, twenty-nine inches high, next to her almost six foot frame.
Laddie changed our lives. He showed me how horses can be together in harmony. I began to understand more about horse behaviors and dynamics. When I would pay attention to Darma if he tried to approach, if she went after him with her teeth bared I knew it was all for show, because he didn’t even budge. Therefore I became more relaxed around Darma when she was irritable, because I knew if she wouldn’t hurt a miniature horse, she didn’t intend to hurt me. I watched their interactions, and they taught me to trust.
Laddie has now lived with us for the last seventeen years. He has had many adventures with his herd which encompassed seven horses at its peak. He was our first miniature and our love for his spunky personality led us to rescue two other miniatures so he had a herd of his own size. As I look down at Laddie, I realize that sometimes, big things come in small packages.