My biggest concern, returning to the sanctuary, was not the winter weather in Canada the day I left. It was not the 10-hour flight or the logistics of international travel. No, my biggest concern was whether Canela, my golden mare, would remember me.
Every Christmas as a child, I wished for a horse, and every Christmas morning I was disappointed. But my optimism lasted for years. When I became old enough to understand that one has to fulfill one’s own wishes, I started making plans for my horse. Of course I would need a farm. But my dream would have to wait until I retired. I needed a place I could support on my small pension, preferably in a warm climate. And so, I finally found a farm in Chile, where I established an animal sanctuary.
I met Canela, a 12-year-old mare, in 2012 at an animal auction. She was alone in a metal enclosure looking scared, skinny and lost. All around were the cries of animals in distress, cowering in fear. Men with no souls placed money on the meat value of these animals. Terror and sadness permeated the air. When Canela went on the auction block, I was bidding against a butcher, and because she was so malnourished, my bid was higher than the price per pound for horse meat.
I took her home that night in a dilapidated truck with a large enclosed box, which held eight cows, three calves and Canela. When we got to the farm it was already twilight. The truck box was backed up to a high part of the land where Canela could jump off without danger. As soon as her hooves landed on the soft grass she began to eat. The driver then took the cows and calves on to their destinations.
Over the next 12 months I gradually got to know Canela. She had survived a hard life as a delivery horse, pulling a heavy wagon every day along cobblestone streets, breathing gasoline and diesel fumes. On each of her sides was a circular mark that looked like a smiley face. These were the burn marks from the hot metal buckles of the harness, which slowly branded her skin as she stood in the relentless sun. She had no reason to trust humans.
I learned that she loved carrots and was terrified of water. She weighed over a thousand pounds but could be frightened by a grasshopper. Her skin was very sensitive, quivering with the slightest touch. During her first 12 months at the sanctuary she made friends with her neighbors. A hawk would sit on her back and wile away the hours with her in the scented shade of a eucalyptus tree. A small, yappy white dog named Xena would try to herd her, and Canela would pretend to be herded. The neighbor’s horses met her at the fence line every dusk. For an hour every afternoon she would stand at the edge of the forest and gaze into the pine glade where the rabbits and foxes lived. And then there was me, her human.
At first she seemed to regard me as an annoying creature, like a mosquito who bore gifts of carrots and apples. She would endure my long conversations just for the sake of whatever treat I brought, and when the treat was finished she would walk away without a backward glance.
One day after many, many months, she did not walk away. She stood by me quietly, thinking her horse thoughts, softly swishing her tail and gazing off into the distance. I was transfixed: She liked me … she really liked me.
From then on, as much as she pretended otherwise, I knew better. She would return to the aloof look, barely glancing at me, and then she would eat and leave like a very rude guest—but I knew in my heart that she liked me. And then sometimes she would bend her long graceful head down to me and blow in my ear; a soft whooshing sound would come out of her nose and she would nibble at my clothes with her lips. She was talking to me as if I were another horse.
She began to respond when I called her. Slowly walking toward me, in her own time, but she would come. Then one day she began to run to me when I called her. Having a 1,500-pound horse galloping toward you at a high speed can be very unnerving. How could she stop at that speed? But she would screech to a halt right in front of me. Then I saw she was just playing chicken with the human.
When I last saw her in the Chilean autumn, we spent some time in the meadow just hanging out. She was munching the grasses; I was loving the moment and yet feeling the sadness of knowing that I had to leave the next day for six long months. How could I tell her that I was not abandoning her? I knew her life would continue to be good, and her routine would not change. A con- scientious, on-site caretaker would watch over her and make sure she got her food and apples. The only difference would be the loss of one human. Would she notice? More important, would she care?
I told her with words that I was leaving for a while. I imagined the plane going to the other continent, the fall and winter months going by. And then I envisioned the plane returning to this continent and the human finally arriving at this very spot beside her. She kept on eating the grasses but I like to imagine that she understood me. I said goodbye to Canela as tears filled my eyes.
So, after six long months, I approached the back meadow quietly. The golden mare was out by the farthest fence, eating grasses. I whistled. She stopped eating and lifted her head, wondering where the sound came from. I whistled again and called her name. She looked straight at me and bolted toward me. She was like a locomotive, churning powerfully across the two meadows and up the hill. She thundered straight to me and stopped on a dime, inches in front of me, her sides heaving, her nostrils flared. She put her head down to my face and smiled. She remembered.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sharyl Thompson grew up in Northern Ontario in a small town surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness. Animals and nature nurtured her soul, and after a career in real estate, she used her savings to buy a farm in Chile to open a sanctuary for rescued horses and unwanted dogs and cats. It is not large and not famous, but the animals there have a home that they love.
This article was originally published the March 2016 issue, Volume #474 of EQUUS magazine