It was the perfect weather to fall in love. Sun shone from a deep blue sky, while the wind played gently with my hair. Sunflowers reached towards the light, wildflowers bloomed in the meadows, and there she was, standing before me.
Her chocolate eyes were soft and playful. Her red coat gleamed in the sun. Muscles rippled as she walked. Gently, the giant warmblood reached down to place her nose against my heart, resting there for several breaths.
I met Catera on early on the morning of September 11, 2001. By the time the planes had crashed into the buildings, I was already in love—and horrified to hear the news on the barn radio. How could anything so vicious happen on such a beautiful day?
People told me, repeatedly, that I was too inexperienced to adopt a “green” horse. At the time, I had not yet given up riding horses. I hired trainer after trainer, and gave all that I had to learn to ride this giant of a being, but instead I broke many bones.
The first time, she broke into a gallop in an open field. I lost my seat, catapulted over her head, and landed on my head in front of her. She tried so hard to avoid stepping on me that she injured herself. I broke my occipital bone, cracked a rib, broke my shoulder, and tore my rotator cuff. Another fall from her back fractured my neck.
There was not a single person in my life that did not advocate for me to either euthanize Catera or to return her to the rescue she had come from. But I couldn’t do it. I had given her “Indra’s Lifetime Guarantee”. From the time I was a child, this is what I called it when I committed to an animal. My lifetime guarantee was that I would never give up on them, that I would love them no matter what, and that I would lay down my life in defense of theirs. She had my word. If I lost every person in my life, or every bone in my body, so be it.
I did not do this to be a martyr. I did it because I believed that we can only be redeemed – I can only be redeemed– through a pure, selfless love. Catera was giving me the opportunity to redeem myself.
Over time, spending hours and hours with her, I began to understand her better, and learned to adjust my behavior to meet her needs. She did not like being ridden—especially in a ring.
On the other hand, she loved taking me for a ride in the woods—and by that I mean she made the choices about when and where we would go. We used to disappear together for hours. When I relaxed and gave up control about where we would go, and at what speed, she began to trust and take care of me.
On our adventures, we got close to many, many wild animals that never would have trusted me to approach them on foot.
Once, she stepped on a ground wasp nest, and we both were stung multiple times. Even then, she did not bolt or rear or throw me. She calmly walked away from the bees. We had twin swollen faces for weeks.
Another time, when crossing a creek, we wound up in a tar pit. Instead of moving forward with each stroke of her powerful legs, we were sinking downwards. I swam around to her face and asked her not to move, and to wait until I could get help. She stayed still, patiently waiting, and then allowed herself to be tied with ropes and pulled out.
She used to love to open gates and barn doors. One of her favorite activities was to roll in the mud and then let herself into the barn where she would roll in pine shavings. I would find her in the barn covered in pine shavings with a goofy grin on her face.
She used to put her head against my chest and fall asleep while I rubbed her ears and called her “pretty girl”. Her head was the size of my entire torso.
Almost 15 years went by, and our trust and friendship deepened. Catera grew into the role of benevolent alpha mare and gentle giant.
Early one morning just a few weeks ago, I saw that something was not right with Catera. Her heart was racing, she appeared weak and in tremendous pain. I called the vet and began to run a wash cloth soaked in cold water along her body, trying to soothe her and bring her temperature down. It was nearly 100 degrees that day, and her body temperature continued to rise dangerously, along with her heart rate.
I stood her, soaking wet, in front of a powerful fan and tried to keep her calm while we waited for the vet. After a thorough exam, he diagnosed an impaction of the large intestine. He gave her medication for the pain, and threaded a tube through her nose, pumping mineral oil and water through her GI tract, in the hopes that it would help resolve the impaction.
And then the waiting began. Either the impaction would resolve and she would get better, or she would need surgery to keep her alive. Until a few years ago, Catera experienced similar impactions at least once annually, and it always resolved on its own. So, the vet and I thought her chances were decent.
Per the doctor’s order, I left her in a stall with lots of water to drink, and instructions for everyone to check on her frequently, while I led a tour. The people were lovely, as they always are, and despite the heat, I hoped they and the animals enjoyed each other’s company.
As soon as they got in their cars, I was back in the barn to check on my girl. What I saw will never leave my mind. My beautiful, strong, kind girl was belly up, with her feet too close to the wall to be able to move, breathing rapidly. The whites of her eyes revealed the extent of her fear.
Even then, she trusted me enough to wait while I got help and materials to get her back on her feet. With our heroic team assembled, we tied ropes around her legs and rolled her over.
She was a big girl, well over 1500 pounds. Her powerful back legs were too heavy for me to roll, even using all of my body weight. However, I did not want to place anyone else in the corner of a stall rolling a big, potentially flailing horse. Finally, we decided to have someone else stand behind me. Between an intern at her front end, the two of us at the rear, and two more caregivers pushing from the other side, we were able to roll her over. As she attempted to get her feet back under her, our intern and I jumped out of the way as planned. However, the young man who was standing behind me was not quick enough. One of her back feet grazed his chest and slammed into his chin.
His t-shirt ripped, he stood panting beside the panting horse. I wasn’t sure who to take care of first. “Are you ok? Can you breathe? Do you need an ambulance?” Miraculously, he was ok, but we did arrange for him to rest for the remainder of the day and ice his injuries.
Catera, on the other hand, was no better. We took her into the paddock, thinking in the larger space she would be safer. Every 20 minutes, we hosed her down. She refused all offers of water, and food was out of the question.
At 5pm, she went down again, this time with her feet stuck in the gate.
All but one team member had left. I couldn’t imagine how the two of us alone would have the strength to roll her again, but we had to try. I tied the ropes around her legs, and miraculously, our strongest volunteer (who was not scheduled to be here) appeared. A power lifter with a deep love for all of the animals, she was easily able to roll Catera’s back end, while I rolled her front end. We called the vet again, and this time his examination revealed that her large intestine was displaced, a life threatening situation.
The vet called the hospital to provide background to the doctors and our heroic volunteer kindly agreed to come along with me. Catera was terrified, but once again, chose to trust me. She followed me into the trailer and we were off on the three-hour drive to save her life.
Forty-five minutes away from the hospital, Catera could be heard trembling and flailing in the trailer. We pulled over and found her shaking uncontrollably. A call to the vet confirmed the dire nature of her condition. We were instructed to give her more pain medication and get to the hospital as fast as we could. The valiant trailer driver drove the trailer safely and confidently, in a lightning storm, in the dark, on winding roads, faster than I dared drive in my little, easy to manage vehicle.
On arrival, a team of earnest and caring veterinary professionals was ready for her. She fell as she made her way off of the trailer. By then, she was clearly incoherent, and barely able to stand at all. They worked valiantly to keep her on her feet long enough to start her on IV fluids.
But it was too late.
Her huge body crashed to the ground as she began to seize right there in the hospital’s entrance hallway. The kind vet asked for permission to euthanize her. If we did not, she would die painfully. I agreed.
With my hands on her head, my beautiful girl’s huge spirit gathered into her eyes, and with a last look, she was gone.
“Satya can’t be ridden, so she was abandoned.
But she is welcome here.”
Snowflakes like diamonds glistened as they fell. The air itself, cold and clear, was electric with anticipation, celebrating with us. Something magical was happening. Another fate had been altered, another divine being was on her way to Indraloka.
There is nothing more beautiful than to watch hope rise out of despair. There is no greater blessing for us than to take the opportunity to stem cruelty with kindness, to tender love where once only fear resided. For as Rumi once wrote:
“The ocean takes care of each wave until it gets to shore.”
Satya must have sensed the love with which we awaited her arrival. She jumped lightly off the trailer, nose quivering at all the new smells, and pranced confidently into the pasture.
She was magnificent. Statuesque, with a soft coat of silvery-white. Her face looked sculpted, too perfect to be real. Her eyes, a deep liquid brown, were filled with soft light and kindness. It was clear that her outer beauty was merely a reflection of her angelic spirit. Her name came to us in a moment of utter truth: Satya.
Eagerly, Domino and Quicker strained across the fence to meet her, nostrils flaring. We watched, enraptured, as they danced their ancient equine greeting, a ritual rich with timeless grace and subtle meaning.
Satya’s club foot makes her unsuitable for riding or breeding. In most instances, horses like this would be auctioned off and then transported to Mexico or Canada to be slaughtered for human consumption. Satya, however, had the good fortune to find safe haven at Indraloka Animal Sanctuary.
Her pronounced limp means nothing to us. We are happy to give her the best care, to make sure she will always be comfortable and content. We consider it our honor to do so. She is safe now, and has a loving home here for the rest of this life.
I am often asked: Why bother to save just one, what difference does it make? Because we are each just one wave, yet we are also the ocean. One act of lovingkindness brings light to a world of darkness and us closer to Truth.
Welcome, beloved Satya. We will see you safely to the shore.
TO VIEW THE VIDEO OF SATYA’S ARRIVAL, CLICK BELOW:
It is completely dark. There is a new moon, and clouds are obscuring the starry night sky. Snow rains down. I am grateful for the warm, waterproof blanket under Judy. We are in the middle of the back pasture. It is sometime after midnight, though during sacred moments like this I lose all sense of time.
I called out the cavalry earlier this evening. Still, no amount of muscle, ingenuity, or effort can make a horse stand if she’s not trying.
Judy wasn’t trying.
We rolled her onto a horse blanket and covered her with another. She sat up to eat warm bran mash and apples, and drank some warm water. It seemed as if the danger had passed. Later, she even stood up, albeit briefly.
Judy has what you might call asthma and she had an attack. That’s why she was down to begin with, plus she’s old and frail. So she’s just worn out. If she would only stand up, I think I could get her better…
By now the calvary has gone back to their lives. Even the chickens have gone to sleep. Domino and Quicker, Judy’s adoring elderly companions are standing quietly nearby. Her head is in my lap.
Judy has been here at Indraloka Animal Sanctuary for a few years now. I suspect she was a lesson horse for much of her life. She is small, but more importantly, she is patient and kind. Very good with children.
Judy is a bit slower to open up than the others. When visitors come to the sanctuary, other horses eagerly come forward for scratches and treats, but Judy stays back. She loves a long grooming session from someone she knows and trusts. And she appreciates my silliness. I often see a glimmer in her eyes when I sing one of my made-up songs.
She’s not flashy, and doesn’t have the dishy head or athletic build that horse people generally deem beautiful. She is not a pure breed. She’s just a broken down horse enjoying her last days quietly. I think she is lovely.
In fact, I am wild about her.
I admit, this has been a good winter with few losses. At Indraloka, we purposefully take in old, injured, and sickly animals knowing they will end their earthly lives in our care. Having as many chronically ill and elderly animals as we do, we lose a lot. Especially in winter. We view caring for them through the end as a sacred act. How we face loss, how we face death, is critical to how we live and how we love. And if we truly want to help animals in need, we must be willing to be with them through the end.
For me, the first sensation is usually, “No, please. No.”
With focus and intention, I push away the fear and invite love in. As it does in the moment you accept you have a painful wound, the healing process begins.
I breathe slowly and deeply.
I have learned the hard way that if I remain mired in heaviness, trying to grasp at my loved ones to keep them with me, it always makes their death experience more difficult. Staying peaceful and light-filled is better for me and the animals.
I know I have to be clear and focused, not just for my own mental health, but because staying in the ordinary grasping mindset would cause Judy a more difficult death. It is important to provide a peaceful, gentle, loving environment to die in. So, repeatedly, I have to push back the accusing thought that I should have spared her and had her euthanized sooner. I remind myself that I am doing the best I can. I truly believed it was not time yet. I believed she had a chance, and I wanted to give it to her.
Light, loving humor tends to put the dying animal at ease. It helps to clarify that there is nothing to be afraid of. Judy is facing this impending loss bravely. She is calm, for the most part. Every few moments she cranes her neck to kiss me, looking straight into my eyes.
So here I am, spending the dark, winter night in the pasture, singing to my horse while she dies.
You are the horsey that I’ve always dreamed of,
I knew it from the start.
I saw your face and that’s the last I’ve seen of my heart…
At some point, Judy’s smell changes very slightly, and her eyes cloud over. She is beginning her transition. I tell her how much I love her, and how happy I am that she is at the threshold of a wonderful new beginning.
I exhale a cleansing breath of love.
A herd of deer has gathered at the edges of the pasture, compassionately joining our vigil.
Finally, it is four am. In a farming community like ours, people start their days before sunrise. I get back on the phone to find help: a vet to euthanize her, a back hoe to bury her, and a friend to keep me grounded as she lets her spirit fly free.
The kind young farm vet jumps in his car the instant he gets the call, nothing but compassion in his voice. My next call wakes my friend from a sound sleep, yet he too comes right away. We won’t need the back hoe until later.
Judy listens quietly as I make the calls. Fear and grief creep back in, and together we banish them with love.
My friend arrives. His deep, even breath and strong presence deepens our calm. He begins to gently massage Judy’s painful legs.
The vet comes next and after examining her says quietly, “For everything there is a time.” His words fall like icicles breaking in the silent moment before dawn.
The vet is kneeling in front of her now, with the shots drawn up and in his shirt pocket. Judy looks up at me as I cradle her head. My friend keeps his loving, healing hands on her. The other two horses walk over and kiss her good-bye while Wax On, the cat, dances one last pirouette on Judy’s ribs.
Her body begins to convulse; her spirit is taking wing.
As night dissolves into day, light slowly rises from Judy’s body. It remains just above us, and then melts into the morning sun.
The circle is complete.
Angry wind burned my cheeks and stung my eyes as the Harley engine’s raucous song filled my ears. I hid my face behind the back of the driver, trying to protect it from the air we viciously cut through in our headlong tumble down the country road.
I was accustomed to travel by horseback, to feeling my warm horse beneath me, anticipating my requests and changing pace or direction before I even shifted my weight or squeezed a finger to ask her. Together we explored the woods and rivers of the surrounding countryside. We travelled so silently, and in such harmony, that we were often able to observe deer and other wildlife up close.
So this other mode of transport was utterly foreign to me. And whilst I admit that the danger and speed of it gave my younger self a thrill, I think even then I knew this wasn’t really who I was.
He turned halfway around and yelled something to me.
“Pardon?” I yelled awkwardly, straining to be heard.
“How much time do you have?” It was so much easier for him to trumpet his big voice over the engine’s grinding chorus.
“I’m in no hurry,” came my naive reply.
Off we plunged, down winding roads and around sharp turns. Trees, pastures and farmhouses contorted into Dali-esque shapes as we whizzed by, too fast for me to surmise or even wonder at our intended destination.
We slowed, and the world we passed took on more definite shapes as we turned onto a gravel lane cutting down the center of two empty pastures. Rounding a curve, a centuries old stone farmhouse gracefully came into focus. Daringly, I lifted myself up a bit to speak into my companion’s ear.
“Who lives here?”
“Someone I want you to meet.”
That someone was Anne Nicodemus Carpenter, horsewoman, poet, dog trainer, and since that day one of my closest friends.
The house had big rooms and windows, unusual for such an old home. Anne sat in the living room, surrounded by paintings of children and animals. Horses, dogs, cats and chickens gazed out at me from silver frames scattered across every surface, frozen in posterity.
Her lively eyes sparkled as she took me in. “Do you write?” she wanted to know first.
“Do you ride?” was her next query, which she clarified with a pointed gaze in my companion’s direction while chuckling at her own double entendre, “I can see that you ride, but do you ride horses?”
Satisfied that I was a bona fide word and animal person, she dismissed my friend and took me outside to meet her familiars. We continued our conversation from that day to this, sometimes with long pauses in between, but always great energy to resume.
Perhaps once or twice in a lifetime, you meet someone you can really relate to. Someone who understands why you do the things you do, because they do them, too. Anne was one of those for me.
When I met her, she was in her 90’s and I was in my 30’s, and yet the 60 year age difference never hindered us. Anne was living alone on her beautiful old farm with her horses, chickens, guinea hens, dogs, and cats. I was wishing I lived alone on my farm with my animal companions.
She spent her days spiritedly observing the life teeming around her and reporting her astute findings in cleverly rendered verbal portraits. I spent my days getting lost on horseback, and my evenings recounting the infinitesimal drama of barn life for my dogs, whom I had banned from the barnyard after one too many chickens were lost.
Anne and I used to spend hours together, discussing minute details of animal behavior, positing ideas on how to help them, sharing notes on our interactions with all forms of life. She showed just as much interest in and compassion for the raccoons who stole birdseed from the bird feeder strategically placed by her window as for the powerful, pedigreed stallion in her pasture.
She used to get so excited every time she learned about a new insect! Her eyes would light up and she’d laugh in delight as she told me little known facts about potato bugs. The last time I saw her, which was just last week, she spent nearly an hour regaling me on stick bugs, ancient and clever creatures that shed light on Earth’s mysteries.
“I think that’s why we live,” Anne confided once, “It’s our job to learn. Once we stop learning, there’s nothing more for us.”
Anne was the only person I have ever known who truly understood my certitude that it is perfectly reasonable to give over one’s attic as a winter home for squirrels or rodents, and that to live fully and completely with a pack of dogs, herd of horses or a flock of chickens is more fulfilling and engrossing than any other lifestyle.
She never questioned my frequent practice of going days on end without leaving my farm or speaking to another human. To her, this was not an unhealthy or lonely life, but one replete with intellectual stimulation, excitement, and emotional fulfillment.
She never questioned the wisdom or expense of trying to build a brace for a turkey with a deformed leg; she simply offered ideas from her own vast experience. She never second guessed that I would know whether to keep trying to help my foundered mare and when to let her go. She appreciated that because I was living as one with the animals, I understood and respected their wishes.
I remember visiting her one day after she lost a hen to a red-tailed hawk. She poured her grief into a poem filled with elegance and reverence for the drama and glory of life. Oh, how I loved to sit on her sofa with her and read her latest poems! Her handwriting was atrocious, and arthritis didn’t help, but Anne had a rare command of words and I was intensely affected by her work.
Anne’s home, aptly dubbed Halcyon Farm, became a refuge to me when life’s challenges knocked me flat. She listened as avidly as I spilled my heart about my failures with human love as she did when I plied her with anecdotes on my successes with animal love (and no, that was not another double entendre).
I can never list the things I learned from her. I can never express the satisfaction found in such a true and profound friendship.
I love her deeply, respect her fully, and miss her mightily. That motorcycle ride was one of the most important journeys of my life.
Last night, Anne crossed over. She still lived at home with her horses, cats, and hens, and was surrounded by her children, grandchildren, friends and admirers. She remained cognizant until the last.
I know she hasn’t gone far. I feel her in the wind. I hear her in the birdsong. She lives on in her poems and in every ant, butterfly, and stick bug that captured her imagination.
“They are not dead, who live in the hearts they leave behind.” – Tuscarora
The horses are brought in early in the summer,
Too many green heads when the sun is up.
I move from one dream
To the front steps of another.
The flute that played me awake in tears
Is still crying in the wild cherry,
And some mouse must shudder too loud to live.
Two great blue herons come in sight,
Strung out against the setting moon,
A cliche of a Chinese painting,
Their legs stretched long behind.
They cry hoarsely as they reach the river,
A sound I never knew was theirs.
The unknown artist had been up early,
Not swirling in the vapors of an opium dream
Where a star can cradle impossibly
In the bosom of the crescent moon.
A scuffle in the multiflora. The shriek stops all our blood.
A rooster’s crow is cut in two.
The shock waves gradually fade out.
The air is loud with relief and night business is winding up.
The worst has happened, and it was none of us.
The rooster starts again. Another answers.
Together, they will bring in the sun.
A bat flashes by my head and slips behind the shutter
In a blink of time, two more, there is squeaking
As they hang up for the day like clothes in a closet.
Now there is some light at the edge of the world.
The picture of mares and foals in the meadow
Is developing– so far just black and white silhouettes–
The Welsh filly sees me and calls out in a toy horse’s voice.
Heads lift up from the grass and turn towards the big mare,
She and the young prince move off slowly,
The others follow in close order.
By the time they reach the barnyard
Day is there ahead of them.
Night has gone to fragments of a half-remembered dream.
—by Anne Nicodemus Carpenter from Ma’s Ram and Other Poems
After writing this, I went outside to seek comfort in the arms of a large mare and found a new cat in my barn. Young and lithe, she happens to be long-haired and all black, a cat I know Anne would have found especially beautiful. Remembering that Anne once remarked that, should she be reincarnated, she wouldn’t mind life in my barn where she could enjoy the animals without figuring out how to pay for them, I named the new cat Halcyon, Hally for short. While I don’t think Hally is Anne, I rather think they both might admire the symmetry of it.
I’m dying, and I’m at peace. It is a good day to die.
I’m dying, and it is beautiful.
I am dying, and I am asking you to honor me by learning to live, and preparing to die.
I am asking you to understand that these are the same things.
You’re dying, too. Everyone– everything dies. I don’t know when that will be for me or for you, but I know as surely as I breathe that the day will come when we both must move on. I mean it when I say that Death is my old friend. My good friend. Make Death your friend, too.
The death of a life well lived is not reason for tears, but celebration!
So live your life well.
Ask yourself in every moment, could I cross over right now, peacefully and joyfully? If the answer is no, well then get to work! Don’t you see that your job here on this earth is to learn how to die? Live in beauty. Spread peace and light, and die in that same peace and light.
Let go of your pain. Let go of your fears. Grief needn’t consume us.
I know you hurt. I know you have lost loved ones. You have been invisible to people you care about. You have been overlooked, forgotten, taken advantage of, and used. I know. You’ve suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of people who were charged with protecting and caring for you. I know. You have lost the only ones who really knew, understood, accepted, and loved you. I know. I see you. I understand your pain. And I am telling you that this does not define you.
This is not who you are. Let it go. What defines you is what you make of yourself, and how you contribute to the world, within whatever context you are in. I am asking you to honor yourself and your loved ones by Being, really being who YOU ARE. Let go of the pain and take your power back.
Our loved ones live eternally in our hearts and beyond. Channel your grief into prayers and works towards the peace of all souls– including your own! Don’t tell me you are sorry for my loss. I appreciate the sentiment, but would find greater comfort in seeing you joyously honor our lost loved ones through bringing more peace, joy, kindness and love to our world and beyond.
“My death will be the life of another– I swear that to you. And you watch, you come find me. Because I’ll be standing again in these grasses, and you’ll see me looking through the eyes of a fox, and taking the air with the eagle, and running in the tracks of the deer.” (from The Story of B by Daniel Quinn, page 188)