Christine: When is it too late for a horse to find their forever home? As we learn in this episode of Barn Stories, that depends on the horse, and the home.
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Laurie: Welcome to the Barn Stories podcast. I'm Laurie Prinz, editor of EQUUS magazine.
Christine: And I'm managing editor, Christine Barakat.
Laurie: This podcast features our favorite essays and articles published in EQUUS over the past 40 years. Although EQUUS is known for articles on horse care and veterinary research, our editorial mission has always been guided by the bond that exists between horses and people. And each issue has featured a real-life story that celebrates how horses enrich our lives and touch our hearts.
Christine: We've searched our archives, chosen the stories that resonated with our readers and given them new life in this audio format. Longtime subscribers may recognize some of their favorite pieces. And if you're new to the EQUUS community, these stories will confirm that no matter what sort of saddle you sit in, a deep emotional connection to horses is something we all share.
Laurie: The story we’ve chosen for this episode is a bittersweet reminder that the horses don’t need to be our lives long to touch our hearts. When Virginia—the mare in our story—retires after decades as a lesson and competition horse, the people in her life rally to find her a secure place to spend her retirement years. These are people who never owned her, mind you, but were touched enough by her generous spirit to want to ensure her safety and happiness as she grew old.
CB: Virginia’s retirement didn’t unfold as planned, though, leaving the mare in a potentially perilous situation. Her new caretaker hadn’t intended to take on a horse in full retirement, nor had she known the mare long. I know we all like to think that we’d keep the horse if we found ourselves in that situation, but the reality is that’s not easy, practical or even possible sometimes. So at a time in her life when Virginia needed the most tender and loyal care, would she find it?
Laurie: Grab a tissue and let’s find out by listening to "The Golden Year," written by Mary Alexander and read by Taylor Autumn.
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Taylor Autumn, reader: Virginia had had it all—good looks, a successful career, beautiful babies. In fact, there was only one thing the 20-year-old Dutch Warmblood lacked: a home to retire to when her productive days were over.
She’d spent her life in boarding barns, working as a hunter/jumper, a broodmare and finally a school horse—until her career ended with a fall over a 3’6” fence. Neither Virginia nor her rider was seriously hurt. Nevertheless, the old mare was advertised for sale “as is.”
Worried about her fate, a group of Virginia’s former students got together to discuss her prospects. They knew her age and limited ability to work and put her in danger of being sold “by the pound.” They weren’t about to let that happen. Their first step was to chip in $800 and buy Virginia, even though they didn’t have a barn among them.
Their second step brought Virginia to me. I owned four rescued horses I was rehabilitating myself. But I had never reached the level of training with them that would enable me to take them off the farm. So I thought about getting a schoolmaster: a mature horse who could load quietly in a trailer and act as a mentor to my other four. I also wanted a calm, reliable mount for my husband to ride.
I learned about Virginia through White Bird Appaloosa Rescue in Burkeville, Virginia. I had done volunteer work there, and the staff knew me and what kind of horse I was looking for, so when one of the mare’s students called to ask for help with finding her a home, they thought of me.
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Taylor Autumn, reader: Virginia turned out to be perfect for me in every way except one. All of the injuries she’d sustained over her long career had taken their toll: Riding her felt like running barefoot over rocky terrain, she was so unstable. So although she was all heart and soul and enthusiasm, she was no longer safe to ride, especially not for a beginner like my husband.
The aged mare officially retired on my farm. Her red coat became dappled with golden highlights from days spent in the fields. Her whimsical blaze cut a jagged path down her nose as it appeared and disappeared through the tall fescue. Her forelock gathered burrs and gave her a youthful look that belied her sagging belly and drooping chin.
As I stood and watched her, my arms loaded with tack to ride another horse, she spotted me, and her ears pricked forward in anticipation. “Not this time, girl” I said, slipping her a peppermint. While her jaw worked the mint back and forth, I stroked her neck. Her mouth got all foamy, and her eyes narrowed with pleasure as she savored her favorite treat.
For a year and a half she grazed the hills and relaxed in the sunshine. However, the new year of 2007 was enveloped in a white bitterness. Even wearing two blankets, Virginia weakened. Over a few weeks she became so neurologically impaired in her hind end that one morning she crab-walked up to her feed bucket. She was dull, listless and although she ate, her enthusiasm was gone.
My heart could no longer make excuses for what my eyes were clearly seeing. I leaned against the barn door. The dread that crept through me was like the wind tickling the tin roof, lifting and rattling the metal against hand-hewn beams. I shivered with resolve. My oath to Virginia was about quality. I thought about what that meant and called my veterinarian. We released Virginia from her worn-out body that afternoon.
Her short stay with me was humbling. Years ago, my goal had been to own one horse, go to some shows and live happily ever after—a vision that now seems mundane compared to the joy of saving lives and providing a permanent home for horses who truly deserve it. Since Virginia has left, my commitment to other rescued horses has been renewed. As my original goal changed shape, I found that the rewards far surpassed my expectations. That’s what 10 years of working with rescued horses has taught me.
As for Virginia, she found a permanent home, probably for the first time in her life, at the age of 20, with the help of some dedicated people who loved her. I have nothing but thanks for all of Virginia’s “champions,” wherever they are. Virginia really did have it all—peppermints included.
Christine: If you're a fan of Barn Stories, you'll want to check out the newest ad from EQUUS magazine. It's called 3 Things from EQUUS and focuses on practical and timely horsekeeping tips. You can find it right now on SoundCloud.com and soon on iTunes and other podcasting platforms.
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Christine: Thanks for listening to Barn Stories. We hope you enjoyed this episode. If you have a favorite article or essay from the EQUUS archives that you'd like us to feature in a future podcast, let us know. You can reach us at EQUUSBarnStories@gmail.com.
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The Barn Stories podcast is a production of the Equine Podcast Network, an entity of The Equine Network, LLC.
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