What was I thinking? I wasn’t ready to have a horse. My life wasn’t on track the way I’d planned. I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my career, my marriage wasn’t holding up well… but this horse I’d tried so hard not to fall for wound up forty-five minutes from where I lived, suddenly needing a new home just days after being transported over 800 miles… so I said “yes.”
Taj was riddled with ticks, underweight and unhappy when she arrived in Snohomish County, Washington that December, 2011. At first she seemed a bit shut down, but as she opened up, she enthusiastically kicked me, bit me and put me through the emotional wringer as I struggled to understand what she needed. People saw her behavior and her often grumpy expressions and assumed she must have been abused.
I didn’t know what her life had been like. I only knew that for some truly inexplicable reason, I knew she was meant for me. I had met her in Sonoma County, California the month prior, when I had been asked to assess her for a youth program in Washington. I went into that assessment trying to put up a steel wall around my heart. “I will not like this horse,” I told myself. “I will only see what this horse is like and I will give a professional opinion. I will not like this horse,” I repeated over and over again.
My wall-building efforts were ineffective. I loved the horse almost immediately, pinned ears, distrusting demeanor, cribbing habit, stocked up hind legs and all. I could tell she wanted to connect, she wanted a person. She was left by her last owner to roam this 200-acre ranch with a herd of some sixteen other horses. I’m sure the owner thought it would be a happy life, an easy retirement. But Taj didn’t want retirement; she had plenty she still wanted to contribute to others, so to her, this retirement felt like abandonment. She began to crib more and eat less. She isolated herself from the herd in many ways, not bonding with anyone. When I met her, she was being kept in a stall much of the time and fed alfalfa to try to fatten her up.
I recommended against shipping her to Washington for the youth program – primarily because I knew she needed a lot of attention and extra care to get her healthy and happy first. “But do you think she has potential if she gets the care she needs?” The program director asked. “With extra time and effort, yes,” I replied, feeling my heart bounce in my chest as I realized she might somehow stay in my life.
And so it was that Taj was shipped up to Washington. In a bizarre twist of fate, three days later, the program director had a serious accident and had to postpone her plans and re-home her horses… which is how I got Taj even though I wasn’t ready.
For all the difficult and painful moments we had, there were other moments of unmistakable connection, of appreciation, of gratitude for each other. She had her ears pinned a lot, and she didn’t trust much, but there was a light in her eye that kept searching for something different, something better, something more.
In March of 2012, I received an email from a woman named Darlene, who’d been looking for Taj to make sure she was all right. Darlene had been forced to part with Taj when she had gone away to college, and had lost track of her over the past two years. She wanted to make sure I knew a few key things about Taj’s physical health, and she wrote, “I don’t know where to start with the story of Taj. Other than her outer beauty, she has incredible talent. However, her sassy attitude gets in the way sometimes.” She also said she just wanted to know how and where she was, and that if at all possible, she’d like to see her again someday.
The email from Darlene brought tears to my eyes. I could feel the love and concern pouring through the words on the screen. If this horse had been abused, it certainly wasn’t by this person. What on earth was Taj’s story really like?
I got on the phone with Darlene just as soon as I could. She was happy to share every detail she could recall about Taj, and about the people who owned her before and after she did, as she had traced Taj’s path through life as much as she could. From what she could tell, young girls had always been Taj’s owners, and she had had fairly rigorous training for competitive jumping and eventing. She would bond deeply with her girl, and then life would throw her a curve ball, and she would have to move on and begin again.
We became long distance friends, and I would write Darlene with questions like, “What do you do when she has PMS pain so bad that she looks like she’s going to break the fence leaning into it it?” Darlene would always crack up at the things that hadn’t changed, and she’d share with me remedies that had worked for her in the past.
As the months passed, Taj relaxed into her life with me and her new “sister,” a young quarter horse named Daisy. The lashing out at me subsided, and she seemed to enjoy Daisy’s company, though she made it very clear that she was in charge of the both of them, often suddenly lunging at Daisy when she invaded Taj’s personal space. Taj has never had a problem speaking her mind or setting her boundaries.
By September of 2012, Taj, Daisy and I were a tightly bound trio, and that’s when I left my job, my marriage, my house and the state of Washington, bound for California with the mares in the trailer, and whatever belongings I could fit in the Ford F350. Darlene met us at our new home just north of Petaluma within a week or so of our arrival – she could hardly wait to see Taj again.
Darlene and I entered the paddock together, and Taj strode right up to us. My heart skipped a beat, as some part of me suddenly panicked, “What if she wants to be with Darlene and not me?” I held my breath. That mare, in her very purposeful way, reached her nose out to both of us and proceeded to let out a deep sigh, then lay down at our feet. The tears flowed freely, and Darlene left me with a bag of carrots and a bag of Skittles – apparently an old favorite of Taj’s – and her most heartfelt blessings for my life with Taj.
Four years later, almost to the day, Darlene again drove several hours to see us. We were about to move again, this time from Petaluma across country to my home state of Maryland. I was a mess. Emotionally and physically, I was falling apart and so was Taj. She had developed chronic diarrhea, and my own digestive system was completely dysfunctional. Despite visits from a chiropractor and a massage therapist, she was not moving well, and she was more reactive than usual at the sight of a saddle. She was in pain, especially in her sacroiliac joints. I was experiencing so much low back pain that I couldn’t even lift the boxes I was packing. I was having my own flare-up of a past sacroiliac problem that led to my whole lower back seizing up.
How on earth was I going to pick up our life and make this move?
When Darlene arrived, I blurted out that I was afraid the trip would be too much for Taj. I was scared that I would put her in worse pain and be stuck somewhere in the middle of the country with a horse who could no longer travel. Darlene listened and spent some quality time with Taj. She was saying good-by but before she left, she said, “I want you to know that I support whatever decision you make. Also know that if you decide Taj is not well enough for the trip, she has a home with me – be it temporary, until she’s well enough to travel east, or permanent if that’s what you want for her. She will always be loved and cared for.”
That night I went to bed with thoughts swirling. I got back up somewhere around midnight and went out to stand with Taj as she foraged around in the field. “What do you want?” I asked Taj, wishing she could speak, or at least wishing she could send me some kind of clear message to help me decide. She just kept on nosing about in the weeds, and lifting her head every so often to check in with me and look around the moonlit field.
I returned to my bed, sleeping off and on until sunrise. When I focused my eyes on the small room around me that had been my “tiny house” home these last few years, with the horses right outside, I felt a deep appreciation and gratitude for the life I’d been living. I was doing the work that I felt called to do with the horses, and I’d witnessed Taj evolve from a horse that was unpredictable, sometimes dangerous and often shut down into an outstanding equine guide and engaged teacher of life lessons. She was proud and she was thriving in the work.
What if everything I was seeing in her was a manifestation of the fear and the worry in me? She and I lived in very close quarters and our lives were now intertwined. I was as scared for myself as I was for Taj. Picking up and moving didn’t seem to be getting easier.
All I knew for sure was that the equine guided work had changed us both, and that if I left her in California, I’d be taking away something that had given her a chance to contribute value and to thrive again… just as it had for me.
So that was it… I made myself some coffee and sent Darlene a message that Taj was going to make the trip to Maryland. Within a day I received some special oil blends in the mail, just in time for our departure. One was a rub for soothing physical pain, and one was a blend for soothing emotional/mental anxiousness and turmoil. I slathered that stuff all over myself and remembered that I needed to save some for Taj…
We were as ready as we’d ever be for the next chapter.
Darlene has been visiting us in Maryland and we’ve been building a body of work based on blending the healing properties of oils & horses. She’ll be with us in April to celebrate Taj’s 25th birthday and to co-host a special event April 13th to introduce our horses & oils work here at the farm. Details for April 13th HERE.