My 42nd birthday was unforgettable. Not the actual turning of 42—seriously what could be more forgettable than that? But the activities that accompanied the birthday changed my life.
Four out of my five siblings traveled to spend the day with me and I took off from work. We were finishing lunch out when my phone rang and I saw it was my office. They knew I was off, so I figured it was important. I picked up and my assistant told me that a lawyer had just called my office looking for me with extremely urgent business.
I had no idea what it was about but was curious! I left a message on the number they gave me and resumed chatting with my sibs. Then the phone rang. If this was a movie, this is where the music would start…
It was the lawyer. She gave me her name, informed me that a former client of mine had passed away unexpectedly, told me that he had willed me his two elderly horses (ages 20 and 24) as well as his beauty salon, and when could I come pick up the horses?
I am never at a loss for words but I was dumbfounded. Literally unable to respond! I hung up and looked at my siblings who were all staring at me, having heard my end of the conversation. “You are never going to believe this,” I said.
Before I go further, let me tell you a little bit about the client. I will call him Sam. Sam was a force of nature. He was big in every sense of the word—big physically, big emotionally, and the biggest in personality.
He was hilarious, a very outgoing hair stylist with a huge sense of humor and a manner of speaking that could make a sailor blush. I didn’t know him all that well; I generally only saw him twice a year, but I always left some extra time for our inevitable great (loud) debates that he would win, sometimes just through force of will and shockingness of language.
Over my 12 years in that practice, I grew to know him and his two beloved Appaloosa mares well. The horses were a mare and daughter who lived alone on his farm and who were truly his best friends. He spent a lot of time just sitting in a chair outside the barn, chain-smoking and chatting with his “girls” as he called them. They were his life and he took immaculate care of them.
At one point many years ago he casually asked if he could leave me the girls in his will. I had my own farm at that time and we sort of rushed the conversation, me saying something along the lines of “Well, sure, but it will never happen.” Five minutes later, he was going on about something else. A few years down the road he told me he had to go to his cardiologist and I teased him, saying “Listen, take care of yourself, I don’t want your horses!” He said something along the lines of, “Oh no, we’re not doing that anymore,” so I assumed he had decided to leave the girls to a closer friend.
Apparently not! Much had changed in my life since I had last seen Sam, about five years prior. I left that private practice and sold my farm when I moved to work at New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania. I was financially squeaking by, boarding one horse that I really couldn’t afford, so of course my first response was panic. How could I afford this? In what spare time would I care for them? What would happen to them if I refused? WHERE WOULD I PUT THEM?!
I briefly considered a career change into cosmetology/hair which sounds lovely and much less physically dangerous than my current gig, but my ever helpful friends and family pointed out that I couldn’t even blow out my own hair let alone cut and style someone else. Refusing to take the mares was certainly an option but I couldn’t get past the idea that he chose me. I have a house full of elderly dogs and I had to think about what could happen to them if the people who promised to care for them ultimately refused when the time arrived. I knew I couldn’t live with myself, and believe me, I tried to talk myself out of it.
Today, a year later, I’m still the proud owner of his girls—now ages 25 and 21. The mom is 95 percent blind and the daughter has multiple health issues, but we’re doing fine! The reality of their move and introduction to a new farm is a whole other story, but we’ve all survived.
While I really didn’t think I had room in my life for one more thing, you make room when you have to and I got incredibly lucky in finding the barn that I did. The hair-cutting jokes at New Bolton Center have gradually ceased and we’ve all fallen into a great routine.
I’ve learned a lot through this experience, about myself and about other people. And my best advice to all of you is that if someone jokingly tells you that they’re leaving you their animals in their will, CALL ME! We’ll talk.
Liz Arbittier, VMD, CVA, is an equine field service veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. She blogged for COTH about Ephriam, her rescued former Amish driving horse, and she also enjoys rescuing elderly shelter dogs. She grew up riding hunters and breaking babies, rode IHSA in college, and got her start in show jumping before vet school when she took a job riding with and managing Kevin Babington’s team.