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A Powerful Lot of Love (True Horse Story)

A Memoir by Judee E. Jensen


It was a beautiful spring morning in 1954. My sister, Vella, and I were seated at the breakfast table when our mother announced in a calm voice, trying unsuccessfully to conceal a grin. “Girls, Trixie’s baby was born last night.” We both nearly choked on our food trying desperately to get out the words: “Can we go see it now?!” “Yes,” she answered, smiling openly now. “But only for a few minutes, or we’ll be late for school.” She herself had to be there on time, as she was our teacher, in one of the few one-room schools left in Northern California. We gobbled down the rest of our breakfast and ran up the long, steep hill to the barn. We entered, out of breath and hearts pounding. We tiptoed to Trixie’s stall, spellbound by the magic of what we were about to see. There she was, a perfect little miniature horse. Yesterday she was merely a huge bulge in her mother’s belly; today she was here to be seen and touched. She was a beautiful filly, a sorrel and white pinto like her mother. She was lying quietly in the hay, her head bobbing up and down as she looked back at us with big brown eyes. The morning sun streamed down on her delicate little body and I thought my heart would burst with happiness. Trixie stood close by, exhausted but proud. But as I looked at her, my thoughts went back to the same beauty, and tragedy, of a year ago.

This was Trixie’s second foal. Her first had been an exquisite colt, born the year before. We instantly named him Beauty, simply because he was. We first saw him running swiftly beside his mother in the pasture. Beauty also was a pinto, but with markings so perfect they seemed to have been painted by an artist’s hand. We couldn’t catch him; he ran unbelievably fast for a new-born foal. The next time we saw him, he was motionless…lifeless, his mother standing guard over his still body. We had seen death before but nothing could have prepared us for the loss of this beloved creature. He had lived for only 48 hours and not once during his short life were we able to touch him. We never found out why it had happened. The vet said Trixie might not have produced enough milk to sustain him. Mother soothed our broken hearts with the explanation that when God saw such a beautiful animal, he just had to have him up in heaven with him. But our grief was eclipsed by Trixie’s sorrow. When Beauty’s body was taken away, Trixie came out of her trance-like state of shock and began to run, in a thundering gallop around and around the perimeter of the pasture. We watched her spend her anguish with tears streaming down our faces. We stayed near her late into the night but she wouldn’t stop running. By the next morning she had slowed to a stumbling walk, head hanging almost to the ground, completely exhausted. She had worn a deep path all the way around the field, next to the fence. I knew then that the pain of losing a child is the same for all creatures, no matter the species.

As my thoughts returned from the cruel memory, I realized my sister was speaking to me in a whisper so low I had to strain my ears to hear her. “We better go now.” “Ok,” I whispered back. We were both afraid to speak normally, as if the sound of our voices would make our precious new arrival disappear in a puff of smoke. We backed out quietly and ran crazily down the hill, anxious now to get to school and tell our friends the exciting news.

Our news was received with nonchalance, however. The birth of any animal was common-place to these kids. Our little schoolhouse stood in the center of a large farming community known as Lime Kiln. Most of the pupils were the children of farmers and a new-born animal simply meant another chore, rather than a pleasure. But our little family was not raised on a farm. My mother, my sister and I had moved here only a couple of years before, when Mother was given her current teaching position. We rented a tiny cabin on the grounds of a small cattle farm. Vella, who was then 11, and I, a timid 8-year-old, immediately fell in love with all the animals we saw every day. On our long walk home from school, we would stop to pet and talk to every horse that grazed near the road. It wasn’t long before Vella and I began to pester Mother about a horse of our own. As a divorced school teacher, raising two children on her own, this was a very difficult financial endeavor. She could barely support the three of us, let alone a huge pet. Further, there was a bigger obstacle: the fact that none of us knew the first thing about caring for a horse. But at last Mother put aside practicality and gave in to our pleading, and her own irresistible love for animals.

Before Mother had a chance to change her mind, Vella and I dragged her around the countryside looking for a horse to buy. We bought Trixie, sight unseen for $100, on the owner’s word that she was a mature, child-loving, gentle pony. We drove out to the forested pasture to see our new pet. When we arrived at the place the farmer had directed us to, we got out of the car and began to call her name. After a few minutes of nervous waiting we heard a thunderous noise. Trixie came galloping out of the trees and skidded to a stop by the fence, nostrils flared. My breath caught in my throat and my heart began to pound with fear. This giant, powerful beast was to be our new pet? I glanced at Mother. She was staring at the horse, her eyes wide. I wonder now what thoughts of buyer’s remorse were going through her mind. Then I looked at Vella. Her face was full of pure love, eyes shining, with not a trace of the fright that I felt. This was her one and only dream come true. I had a new respect and awe for my older sister.

As it turned out, Vella was indeed a born horsewoman. She saved us from what could have been a total disaster. She learned to ride bareback within a few days, remounting immediately after being thrown from our “gentle pony” and diligently commanding obedience from Trixie. We soon learned that Trixie was a very young, spirited mare which had never been properly trained. But it wasn’t long before Trixie accepted Vella as her loving master. Not so with me. Although I attempted to appear brave at all times, Trixie could sense my ever-present uncertainty. But my love for her never left me and eventually we formed a strange relationship of equality. Sometimes she would win out by nipping my foot or bucking me off her back. Other times I would rule the day and have a successful ride around the farm. My favorite pastime was to sit on her back while she grazed in her pasture. This way I could be close to the animal I adored and concoct fantasies about riding like the wind across the plains.

One day as I was lying on Trixie’s back, lost in a daydream, she wandered near to our home, which was not fenced in. Vella was inside listening to our favorite program on the radio, “The Lone Ranger.” Suddenly, from the radio came Silver’s loud whinny. Trixie’s head came up sharply, an answering whinny issuing from her throat. I sat up startled as she trotted quickly up to the house and went right in through the open front door, knocking me off her back. Vella jumped up from her chair in astonishment and began to push Trixie backward out of the house. We laughed about it for days, but Mother didn’t find the incident too amusing.

We named the new filly Misty, after our favorite storybook horse, “Misty of Chincoteague Island.” As soon as we got home from school on the afternoon of her birth, we raced up the hill to see her again. There was a sudden fear in our hearts as we remembered what we had found a year ago in this same way. Our anxious expressions were instantly replaced with happy smiles the moment we entered the barn and spied Misty’s big eyes peering through the stall door. She was still lying in the hay, the movements of her head steadier now, after a day’s practice. Trixie stood close by, nuzzling her baby protectively. Vella and I entered the stall and approached the little filly cautiously, not certain of Trixie’s reaction. After a moment or two she seemed to signal her consent and backed away trustingly to allow our inspection. We knelt down beside the new member of our family. Not able to contain our feelings any longer, we smothered her with hugs, kisses and caresses. We stayed in the barn all evening, getting acquainted, leaving only to eat dinner. Mother spent a considerable amount of time there also, though she just watched and didn’t say much.

The next evening at dinner we found out why. “Girls, I’m afraid there might be something wrong with Misty.” “Why?” We answered in unison, the same old fear rising within us. “I haven’t seen her on her feet since she was born, and she seems to be getting weaker all the time.” Tears sprang to my eyes and I couldn’t speak. Vella spoke aloud my thoughts. “Can’t we help her stand up and let her nurse?” To our relief, Mother replied. “Yes, I guess we’ll have to.” The three of us hurried up the hill in the dark to the barn. Mother carried a jar of water along. When we were in the horses’ stall she went right over to Trixie’s side and dipped her teats into the warm water. A cloudy substance dropped down into the water. “Those are plugs of wax, which means that Misty has never been up to nurse,” she explained. Her lips were set tight in an attempt to keep her concern from showing. In silence we went over to the filly and lifted her slowly to her feet. She was extremely unsteady, her ankles buckling under her weight. Holding her up, we ‘walked’ her to her mother and held her steady as she took the first nourishment of her life. It was then that I noticed the look on Trixie’s face. It was a combination of fear for her baby and of total trust in her owners. That may sound crazy, but over the past few years, I had learned to read her expressions as easily as those of a human being. When Misty had filled her starving belly, we eased her down again to the straw. Mother used our landlords’ telephone to call a veterinarian who said he would be out the next day. We were close friends with the elderly couple who owned the farm and our cabin. Mr. Praun didn’t have long to live and we had been secretly happy that he had been able to see Misty be born. Now we were afraid that he might also see her die.

The next morning we were late for school because we took the time to repeat Misty’s feeding procedure of the night before. But even Mother didn’t care that we were late. At this point, little Misty’s life was all that mattered to any of us. That afternoon, the vet arrived and examined Misty thoroughly, her legs in particular. He looked up at our three frightened faces and had to look away as he gave his diagnosis. “She has ‘Joint Evil’, a congenital condition. She will never be able to walk; her ankles are diseased and will never gain the strength necessary to support her weight. It would be best to destroy her before you grow attached to her. I will do it for you now if you wish.” We stood in a stunned silence. Then Vella and I burst into tears. “No, don’t kill her!” we both cried in agony. We looked beggingly at our mother who looked back at us for a long time, with tears in her eyes. Then she turned to the vet and replied in a husky voice. “Thank you, Doctor, I’ll have to think it over.”

Later, when we were able to talk about it , we found we could not accept the vet’s ultimatum. We finally decided in desperation that we would get another doctor’s opinion. Another sleepless night went by, each of us praying in our own way that the second vet would give us the words of hope we wanted so badly to hear. But we were not to hear them. The doctor had traveled far and when he finished his exam of Misty, he wearily echoed the first doctor’s words. “She will have to be put down, now, before she dies of starvation.” This time Vella and I kept quiet, waiting, shoulders slumped, for our mother’s decision. After a long agonizing moment, she straightened her back and spoke clearly to the doctor. “We won’t do that. I have had nurses’ training. If there is anything that might possibly help her, I would be able to administer it.” The vet looked with disbelief at this stubborn woman. “Very well,” he sighed. “I don’t offer any hope whatsoever, but you can try a daily injection of penicillin and dihydrostreptomycin. I will give you a two-week supply. After that you’ll have to give up.” He showed Mother how to give a shot to a horse, then left, doubtfully wishing us luck. After he had gone we stood there, not able to look at each other, knowing we were grasping at straws but not about to give up hope. Finally Mother spoke in a determined voice. “I’m going to sleep in the barn so I can get Misty up in the night to nurse. Come help me set up the cot.”

The following two weeks were endless rounds of work and discouragement. Every day either Vella or I stayed home from school to care for Misty. We stayed at the Praun’s house, which was at the top of the hill, close to the barn.. Every four hours we would raise Misty up to nurse. We also gave her a supplementary bottle of cow’s milk with Karo syrup. We brought alfalfa, oats and water for Trixie and kept the stall clean. The rest of the day was spent in the Praun’s dining room doing the school work that was required. Each day, after school, Mother would prepare Misty’s injection and administer it, following the doctor’s instructions. It was given in her thin little chest which became lumpy and painful from the repeated doses of drugs. Mother always cried when the daily ordeal was over. But she wouldn’t give up, even though it caused her anguish to hurt the little horse. Each night she slept on the cot in the barn, getting up by an alarm clock every four hours to feed Misty. Every afternoon, Vella and I would walk her around the barn, supporting her under the belly, trying to bring strength to her crippled ankles. And every night we slept fitfully, dreaming of a miracle.

Only one time during those anxious days did I have cause to smile. It was my turn to stay home with Misty. It was a nice day so I had walked her outside to lay in the sun. Then I went inside to do my homework. After an hour or so, I was startled from my studies by a loud, constant whinnying. I rushed to the window and looked out. There was Trixie at the fence looking straight at me, almost screaming, her eyes wide with fear. I ran outside and climbed through the fence. Instantly, Trixie took off at a gallop down the hill. I ran after her, filled with panic at what she was trying to tell me. As we rounded the corner of the house, I saw what had frightened the mare. There was Misty at the bottom of the pasture, sitting on her rump, her back lodged firmly against the fence, with all four hooves pointing uphill. She was nickering pitifully, unable to get up or down. Apparently after I had left her that morning, she had begun to thrash around and had rolled down the hill. I raced down the hill to her, Trixie leading the way. I then approached slowly, trying to calm her with my familiar voice. I pushed Misty over onto her side, then lifted her to her feet and began to help her walk slowly up the hill to the barn. It took all my strength; to a child my size she was a heavy burden. Trixie followed us up the hill, nudging her baby anxiously every few steps. As soon as we got to the barn, Trixie calmed down completely. It was only later, when I was telling my family the story, did the realization hit me. “Mother,” I said in astonishment. “Trixie came to me for help!” I was humbled to know that I had earned such a high level of her trust.

The two-week period was coming to an end. Our days of hope were almost over. Misty had become an extraordinarily affectionate little animal, receiving our attentions with obvious pleasure. But there was absolutely no change in her condition. She lay always on the floor of her stall. It was crushing to watch her: head up, alert, trying to be playful, but not able to command her legs to lift her body out of its prison in the straw.

As Mother trudged up the hill for her twelfth night in the barn, she was certain we would soon have to succumb to the veterinarian’s earlier prediction. She felt beaten as she crawled into her chilly bed and fell into a restless slumber. At two o’clock she was awakened by the alarm and got up wearily to help Misty nurse. When she went back to bed she began to weep with defeat. “Why did I think we could out-smart nature and let the girls live a dream that couldn’t come true? Why won’t I face reality?” She soon cried herself into a deep, exhausted sleep. A few hours later she awakened suddenly in the dark. But the alarm wasn’t ringing. Frightened, she wondered what had aroused her. Then she heard the sound, a tremendous thudding noise like something pounding on the ground. She leaped out of bed and turned on the flashlight with shaking hands. She whirled around quickly, then froze, staring in disbelief. There was Misty, standing on wobbling, widespread legs. She had struggled to her feet by herself!

Later, the vet said that to his knowledge such a recovery was medically impossible. “It could only have come from a powerful lot of love.”

Misty grew up to be a big lovable pet, much like an overgrown dog; also the result of a powerful lot of love. She not only learned to walk, she eventually learned to run like the wind, with me on her back.

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