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When All The World Was Asleep

By Denise May

The world went to sleep last night and never awakened. Sometime during the night, the dead of winter froze Oklahoma solid and covered it in a crust of white. The temperature was a killing 5 degrees. It would have been easy to curl up in the quilt and just lay there until spring, being comforted by the humming of the gas heater in my bedroom. But, there were the horses to consider - six of them that needed to reach the water buried beneath a thick barrier of ice on their trough. And so I stirred, drank two cups of coffee, and checked in with the local TV weatherman who simply predicted "more of the same." It was January in Oklahoma and you just needed to survive it.

I dressed for the occasion, layered from head to toe. Then, right before I opened the door, I looked out the large bay window, in which my horses were framed in the distance…standing in their shelter, all except Titan. As usual, he acted as the guardian for the rest, blocking wind, watching for danger. Titan is a massive, strikingly handsome black horse. Three quarters Shire, he already stands just short of 18 hands, weighing nearly 1700 pounds with at least one more year of growth left in him. When most people meet Titan, their first reaction has become fairly predictable. Their eyes slowly raise and  their head leans back until they are staring into his soft black/brown eyes. Then, quietly, as if speaking to themselves, they say, "Wow…now that is a big horse!" Soon after, Titan, just as predictably, will lower his head and gently blow breath upon their face in greeting, leaving even the most hardcore cowboy with an embarrassed smile on his face…like a teenager, kissed for the very first time. Satisfied that he has performed the customary welcome to his home, Titan usually trots off with high stepping front legs pounding the earth. After all, he has places to be and important work to do.

Startled from my reverie by a sense of duties undone, I left the warmth and safety of the house. Grabbing the heavy axe from its place by the door, I set off for the large trough closest to the horse shelter. It was about 600 feet away, a formidable distance when every inch is solid ice, so hard that it refuses to yield a single footprint.

Finally reaching the trough, I raised the axe striking the ice with all my strength, over and over until finally carving out six separate water holes. I called to Titan to lead the others to drink. He tried, but they were hesitant to leave the warmth of their shelter. He walked out a few steps, looked behind and when no one followed, he returned and tried again. For most horses, there would be two choices: stay behind with his herd or come to me. For Titan, there was ultimately only one choice, and with the ice breaking under the great weight of each plodding step, he joined me at the trough, and lowered his head to the water. Muzzling aside the small chunks of floating ice, he quietly drank, as I kept him company stroking his great neck.

Neither one of us could have stayed for long. The cold had penetrated my thick cloves and heavy boots. Titan was compelled to return to the other horses, now facing the Eastern warmth of a risen sun. I lead and he followed into a cutting north wind. My uncovered face was no match for the numbing cold, but both Titan and I needed to get to the horses

Once at the shelter, I checked to make sure the horses were not shivering and still dry beneath an insulating layer of ice stuck to their outer coats. Now, the cold on my face had turned to pain, but I still needed to check each horse carefully. It takes time…the kind of time that this weather does not allow. I was wondering if my skin would endure the trip back to the house, when I heard Titan approaching from behind. I turned and looked up. He lowered his head and blew his warm breath upon my face, as he had a thousand times before. Only this time, he stayed. With his muzzle barely touching my skin, he continued to take deep breaths, gently releasing the warmth and sweet smell of hay until, after about a minute, the feeling returned to my face.

Did Titan know? Is it possible for a horse's legendary ability for empathy to reach that far into the human heart and mind? There are those who would say no, but I have witnessed this gentle giant's intuitive kindness and protective nature other times before, not just with me, but with the other horses, as well. For me, there is no doubt as to the truth of it. Titan is a big horse with an even bigger heart - the kind of horse that brings you to tears, when you least suspect it.

I thanked my large friend, and started off across the ice for home. When I reached the door, I leaned the axe back against the wall. As I reached for the doorknob, I turned for one more glance back. And, there stood Titan, a picture of strength and dignity. With mane and tail blowing, he was an impressive silhouette against the ominous grey sky. With his herd behind him, he faced the North Wind head on, preferring to meet life on its own terms.