A Hug from Horse Heaven

I have never really been sure if animals have eternal souls or if our beloved pets will actually be with us in heaven.  As an animal lover, it’s something I’d like to believe is true.  The Bible doesn’t really say, as far as I can tell.  But last night I had the most wonderful dream, and I think it may have been a hug from beyond the (horsey) grave.

I’ll spare you all the crazy bizarro setup details of my dream, because they really aren’t that interesting.  The bottom line was that I was back at camp for a reunion, and I went with a group of people to help clean the stables.  In my dream, the camp had built a huge barn with dozens and dozens of stalls.  As I walked through an aisle, I spotted my most favorite horse ever: Whiskers.

“But they told me Whiskers was dead!” I exclaimed.  “Whiskers, is that you?”  I called to him.  His chestnut coat, the thin, crooked stripe down his face, and the white spots on his chest that made him look adorably freckled were unmistakable.  There were two doors in his stall, and he went out the back one, through an aisle, and cut through another horse’s stall (yeah, the dream barn was configured a bit oddly!) all to get to ME.  He walked up to me and I gave him a huge hug around the neck.  It seemed to last forever and I just kept saying, “I can’t believe you still remember me and you are alive!”  It was like hugging a cloud or the luck dragon from The Neverending Story — I thought I would get lost in the warmth and softness.  I woke up so happy from that dream.

See, the real Whiskers died about two years ago.  He would be 20 if he were alive today, so he didn’t get to be very old.  He had been gradually going blind for several years, and he got to a point where he was attacking his horsie friends out of frustration, so camp had to get rid of him.  I am sure the horse trader sold him at auction and he went to slaughter.  That is just what happens.  When I was visiting camp last year for a reunion, I walked into the tack room and saw Whiskers’ name placket from his saddle holder on the wall.  I knew in an instant that meant he was gone.

Back when my time working at camp was ending (the last time I worked there was a weekend in 2004), Whiskers was having some problems with his vision, but it wasn’t affecting him very much.  He was still spunky and fast and never liked to be caught.  He was always kind of flighty and a little bit wild.  He would never be 100% tame and docile.  It was a special treat for him to approach me in the pasture.  Usually it took some effort and coaxing to catch him.  He had a knack for knowing if I needed to tell him goodbye for a long time or a shoulder (a big, hairy shoulder) to cry on, though, and only on those special occasions would he really let me hug him for very long.

I guess he realized I never got a chance to say goodbye for real.

The last time I saw him was January of 2006.  I was in town for a quick visit and I got to take him for a short ride through the snowy woods.  He was more cautious than I remembered, but his spunk and smooth Tennessee Walking Horse gait was still there.  Though I didn’t know for sure, I suspected I was pregnant with my first child.  I was, and so I can always know that my daughter got her first horse ride on Whiskers.  He was eager to go back to pasture that day and only allowed a brief hug.  So maybe last night he decided I needed one.  Or maybe my subconscious just really misses horses right now.

Either way, it was good seeing you, Whiskers.

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The Saga of the Goat, Part 2: The Home Pregnancy Test

When the goats’ first summer at camp ended, Head Wrangler sent them off to stay at a nearby farm for the winter.  This would lighten the work load when the surplus of summer staff left for the winter.  Also,the hope was that the goats would get pregnant while they lived with a small herd all winter.  Unfortunately, one of the goats didn’t make it through the harsh winter.  When the surviving goat came back, she was very lonely in the goat pen.  Head Wrangler decided to let her roam free in the stable yard.

She became like a mascot and a menace rolled into one.  She would hang out with the wranglers while we worked.  She was fairly affectionate–probably because we all thought it was fun to share our snacks with her and find out if there way anything she WOULDN’T eat.  (There wasn’t.)  In that regard, she was like a loyal puppy dog following us around.   She would even follow us to dinner and wait outside the dining hall for us, and then follow us to our cabin!

However, she also left little piles of pebble turds everywhere she went.  She discovered that the door to the office and lounge area didn’t close properly, and we would return from trail rides to find that she had eaten pages out of Bibles and peed on the floor.  She even chewed up my straw hat!  This behavior led to much controversy over choosing a name for her.  Some of us called her Jezebel or Delilah; some called her Stupid or Idiot.  No one could really agree, and poor Goat never had an official name.

As  summer wore on, Goat’s belly grew.  We were all expecting her to give birth at any moment.  We were checking her udder for milk and palpating her belly to see if we could feel a kid or two in there.  We were certain we could feel various body parts of baby goats.  It had to be any day now!  Camp authorities didn’t care much either way if Goat was actually pregnant; it didn’t really matter either way, so there was no point in having the vet come out to check her.  However, all of us wranglers were insatiably curious as to whether or not we were going to get to pet newborn baby goats that summer.

There wasn’t a whole lot to do during our time off around camp, so many times we drove to town wandered the aisles of Kmart and FleetFarm.  On one of these excursions, we got the idea to buy a home pregnancy test for Goat.  One wrangler  was not too embarrassed to actually purchase it, so we chipped in a couple dollars each and all of us “good Christian girls” giggled our way through the check out line, out of the store, and all the way home to camp.  Of course, we had no idea if a human pregnancy test would work on a goat, but it was a fun experiment as far as we were concerned!

During that week we had 12 wranglers, all ready and willing to do the work that 4 would normally do during the off-season.  The result was that the barn had never been so clean before, and probably hasn’t been that clean since then.  The second a horse pooped, an eager wrangler was there to clean it up.  We raked the barnyard several times a day, leaving tidy rows of lines and bits of hay glistening in the sun.  I did not feel any compunction about assigning two of the wranglers who had chipped in for the pregnancy test to follow Goat around with the stick, hoping to catch some urine.

After half an hour or so, they started to get bored.  “I don’t get it!  She is ALWAYS going to the bathroom!  Why won’t she pee?  Is there something we can do to make her pee?”

“I don’t know.  Feed her some Coke?”  I joked.

Five minutes later they came back, holding out a dollar.  “Is it okay if we run to the canteen to get a Coke?”  I looked at the tidy stable porch and the rows of horses hitched to the post, tacked up and waiting for the trail rides to begin.

“Sure, why not?” I laughed.

Goat truly appreciated the bottle of Cherry Coke the wrangler girls poured into a bucket for her.  She licked the bucket dry, and showed her appreciation 10 minutes later by peeing a fountain for the girls.  I don’t think anyone has ever been so excited about a goat peeing–not in the history of all mankind.

We gathered around the test stick and watched the control line appear.  Not many women learn how to use a home pregnancy test this way!  This was one special goat, to get her very own crowd of ladies clustered around her pregnancy test.  I would remember that moment many years later when I started using the tests myself, hoping for my first baby.

Anyway, we watched and waited, checking the clock, until we were sure the second line was not going to appear.

With this anticlimactic result, we shrugged our shoulders and went back to work–still unsure if Goat was indeed not pregnant, and just fat, or if she was pregnant, but the test didn’t work because she was a Goat.

One of my favorite sayings is “Time reveals all truth.”  As the summer wore on and Goat never went into labor, the truth became obvious: her burgeoning belly was merely attributable to the snacks that we so willingly (and sometimes unwillingly–DARN THAT LITTLE BANDIT!) shared with her.  Too many Jolly Ranchers, Twizzlers, leftover milkshakes, soda, chips, and other junk that hard-working teenagers are sure to have on hand.  Not to mention my hat that she ate, the Bibles she destroyed, kid’s homework and tests for horsemanship class–that stuff all had to have calories, right?  Let’s not forget about the pretzels in the bathroom!  But that’s a story for another day.

The Saga of the Goat, Part 1: Speaking “Goat”

The horse stables at camp had a revolving menagerie of random animals people donated.  The two white pygmy goats were my favorite.

The first summer they were there, we had them in an enclosure right by the area where we would line up with the horses about to go on a trail ride.  There was an electric fence, and when they touched it, they would sound like this: “Maa. Meh.  Meh.  Ma–MEEEH!”   By the time I got there for the summer, the goats never even touched the fence anymore.  But someone had discovered if you “talked” to the goats, they would answer you.  And if you made their “goat-touching-the-electric-fence” noise at them, they would make it back.

All summer long, the wranglers kept campers entertained by talking to the goats and getting the goats to holler.  At first it would freak them out, because the goat pen was hard to see through the trees and the campers would wonder what was making those awful sounds!  The trail rides didn’t always leave on time, for a variety of reasons, such as:

“I need to take my ponytail out!  It doesn’t fit under my helmet and it hurts!”

“My stirrups are uneven!”

“I think I’m going a little crooked.”  (Usually said by a rider leaning off at a 45 degree angle.)

“I changed my mind.  I’m too scared.  I don’t want to go.”

“My horse is hungry.  He wants a snack before we go.”

“But I don’t want to kick him too hard and hurt him!”

So, while waiting to go, I would look at this…

…and I’d talk to the goats.

Wrangler Challenges

Now that I can look at some of the stupid things I used to do with horses from the vantage point of a professional riding instructor, all I can say is…  Well, I can’t really come up with anything to justify these things!  Here are some of the “wrangler challenges” I took part in when I was a teenage wrangler working at summer camp.

Wrangler Challenge #1: After letting the horses out at the end of the day, they would run, buck, and roll around in the dirt.  The challenge was to wait for a horse to roll and then jump on its back when it was done rolling but before it stood up.  The last time I took part in this challenge, my friend Emily and I synchronized our efforts.  We had not done this for quite awhile.  We were standing on the bottom rung of the fence, watching the horses roll, when we looked at each other with half-crazed looks  in our eyes.  No words were necessary as stupid grins took over our faces, and we leaped over the fence.  We each jumped on dirt-covered horse as they stood up without incident.  Just as we were ready to declare victory, another horse bolted between our horses, startling them and setting off a ping-pong-like effect.  Our horses collided and we both fell off, nearly getting trampled.  As we sprang to our feet and escaped from the skittering mass of horses, our boss stood outside the pasture with his mouth hanging open.  He said, “I thought I lost two wranglers!  Are you okay?”  I complained, “I’m fine, but my sunglasses are broken!”  Emily was also unscathed, but she would not be so lucky when it came to the next challenge.

Wrangler Challenge #2:  When we released the horses at the end of the work day, we would simply go down the hitching post and let them go.  The horses wanted their dinner, so they would generally make a beeline for their pasture.  Generally.  Sometimes they would take detours through the nearby soccer field or even up on the barn porch to terrorize spectators.  Some of the lazier or older horses would need a little encouragement to get moving in the right direction.  However, horses are creatures of habit and slaves to their stomachs, so most of the time they would gallop through the arena straight for the pasture gate,  careen around the barn, and come to a screeching halt where the piles of hay awaited.  The challenge?   Climb aboard the horse before it was released, grab some mane, and go along for the ride.  Extra points if you leaned forward and unhitched the horse yourself.  Wheeeeeee!  There was nothing quite as exhilarating as flying through the humid summer air at the mercy of the horse, with my hair streaming behind me and the horse’s mane whipping in my face, the cool wind drying the sweat on the back of my neck.  This challenge was banned after Emily fell and ended up getting a hip x-ray in the ER.   Fortunately Emily did not suffer more than a bruised bone.

Wrangler Challenge #3:  I came up with this one after the first two challenges became forbidden.  I don’t really consider it to be dangerous.  Challenge #3 was to untack (take off the saddle and bridle) your horse WHILE YOU WERE STILL ON IT and hand the equipment to another wrangler.  I was pretty good at this one.  Which is why I promoted it as a challenge to the other wranglers.  If we did this as a race, I always won.

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