I have a hidden talent—finding stray animals.
I’ve yet to find a stray horse (despite being a good Pony Club graduate and keeping a spare halter and lead rope in my car at all times), but I’ve found dogs and cats by the dozens. So by necessity, because I certainly can’t keep them all, I’ve rehomed dozens of them too. I also volunteer with my local open-admission animal shelter and have fostered and adopted out cats and dogs through various rescues.
Horse people are, by far, my favorite potential adopters for the wayward felines and canines I find on the streets of my urban neighborhood in Baltimore. They’ve usually got great animal sense and are better able to read body language than your average pet owner. And they’re also patient, all the better to help draw a traumatized stray critter out of its defensive shell.
Perhaps this is why so many horse people I know are also caretakers for, as we say in the pet rescue community, “less adoptable” animals. Whether it’s semi-feral cats in the barn, a horse in the back field who’s only pasture sound, or a dog who goes everywhere with its person because of extreme separation anxiety, horse people always seem to be able to make room for one more furry body that needs a safe place.
Your animals may mean the world to you, even with all their lovable quirks. But they may not mean anything to anyone else, and never is that more apparent than when an owner dies, and their beloved animals are at the mercy of someone else, who may not have any attachment to them at all.
If you’re plugged in to your local animal rescue community, whether large or small animals, you’ve certainly seen the sad pleas on social media for animals needing homes when their owners pass away. “Owner died, family will take to shelter on Monday!” screams the text accompanying the picture of a sad-eyed dog or cat that’s about to lose its home, right after losing its person.
Remember the 52 Thoroughbreds of internet infamy? That was real; their owner really did die, and those horses really did need homes. They found them, fortunately. But can you imagine being the person tasked with rehoming 52 horses?! No wonder they resorted to a fire sale.
There weren’t 52 of them, thankfully, but three years ago I found myself in the position of helping to place two horses (one rideable, one a pasture puff), along with a donkey, a turkey, six chickens, a feral barn cat and five house cats. They belonged to my friend Ellen, who had been diagnosed with colon cancer in the summer of 2015. Surgeries and chemotherapy followed, but unfortunately she was gone by January 2017.
Ellen was a foxhunter-slash-DQ and racetrack veterinarian turned agent for The Man (she worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture). I actually first “met” her online, when I was the moderator for the Chronicle’s online discussion forums way back at their inception; she lived within hacking distance of the farm where I boarded my horse at the time, so we had the same farrier and vet and knew lots of the same people. We were part of a larger circle of forum members in the mid-Atlantic who moved from online to real-life friendships that have now been going on 20 years or more.
When Ellen was first diagnosed, there were reasons to be hopeful—her cancer didn’t appear to have progressed too much, and there were viable treatment options. She had a wonderfully dark sense of humor and made lots of jokes about the importance of keeping her hair, and the weirdness of people she barely knew offering to knit her hats in case she lost it after all. (She was not a fan of knit hats.) She made light of her digestive issues post-surgery by talking about her “colic” episodes in veterinary terms, because of course that’s what horse people can relate to.
Things took a turn about a year after her diagnosis. Although her friends tried to be optimistic on her behalf, Ellen was a realist. She talked to an attorney about setting up a will. She started fretting about leaving her just-out-of-college niece, who’d agreed to be her executor, with an 18-acre farmette full of the stuff people accumulate over a lifetime with horses. And most of all, she worried about her animals.
Watching someone you love struggle with illness and mortality leaves you feeling pretty helpless. There’s nothing you can do to change their situation; all you can do is support them the best you can. I couldn’t do anything about Ellen’s cancer, but I could at least alleviate her worry about her motley crew of animals. (Some of those animals were even my “fault”; she fostered some kittens for me a few times and ended up keeping three of them, and her barn cat came from a rescuer friend of mine.)
“Don’t worry about the animals,” I said. “Write down all their important information, put it in a folder with my name on it, and forget about it. I’ll take care of it.”
Groups of us would occasionally intrude upon Ellen’s little farm to wrangle her stuff into submission, mow and pull weeds, level the floors in the stalls, and generally attempt to keep entropy at bay. Thankfully Ellen had planned her farm to be easily managed by a single person (she lived there alone), with the horses only coming in from the pasture once a day to eat their grain. Ellen was undergoing more chemotherapy, still working and generally chugging along, seeming to be doing OK as summer turned to fall. She hadn’t yet arranged for a hay delivery to get her through the winter, so I got my hay supplier to deliver 200 bales.
One morning in early December 2016, I got a call from Ellen’s cell phone. It wasn’t her; it was her boss at the USDA (and also her good friend) calling from a hospital to tell me Ellen had had emergency surgery, and things were looking bleak.
What I learned over the next two months, while Ellen returned home for hospice care, is that when you need to move mountains and get things done, horse people have got your back. There’s no drama, no histrionics. There’s a whole lot of practicality and selflessness and “What can I do to help?”
But I also realized that having that larger supportive community of horse people around you is worthless in an emergency if the people closest to you don’t know they exist or aren’t willing or able to trust them. How many of us have completely non-horsey family members who wouldn’t know a currycomb from a cucumber? Who among us hasn’t seen families torn apart in the aftermath of a death, when siblings end up never speaking again because of a fight over who gets Grandma’s lamp? The process of dying and the aftermath of a death are just a tinderbox of emotions waiting for a match.
Fortunately, in Ellen’s case, her family members were somewhat surprised and relieved to learn that this fiercely independent and sometimes curmudgeonly woman had a large circle of weird friends who not only understood farms and tractors and horses and everything that goes along with them, but were also willing to take that whole part of Ellen’s life mostly off her family’s plate. Because the last thing you need to be worrying about when your loved one is in the hospital is whether or not her horses have been fed.
By virtue of living the closest, I became the point person for coordinating animal and farm care. Fortunately, Ellen had a kick-ass farm sitter named Fran, who had been pitching in from time to time when Ellen had bad days, and she was able to come by once a day to feed horses and scoop litter boxes. The rest of us who lived locally filled in when necessary.
While her family was dealing with the logistics of getting home health care aides lined up and a hospital bed delivered, Ellen’s horsey friends contributed to a slush fund to cover things like farrier visits, updated vaccinations for the cats, and renewed Coggins for the horses. The expenses weren’t huge by any means, but doing routine vet care for so many animals at once did add up. Sharing the expenses among our group meant we didn’t have to bother her family to cover those expenses.
Ellen was able to return home and spend her last few weeks overlooking the farm she loved so much. Although she had done some planning for her animals—she set aside money in her will to go to whoever adopted her cats—she hadn’t actually decided where she wanted any of her animals to go.
Once again… horse people rock. There were multiple options for all of the creatures, both furred and feathered, all from within her group of friends, and Ellen got to select who went where. I was somewhat surprised that she wanted her horses and donkey to be moved right away, but I think it offered her a sense of relief to know that they were already secure in their new homes. The cats stayed with her until she was gone, and then they went to live with various friends who have given them fabulous homes and still share pictures with Ellen’s family. Even her barn cat, who was barely pet-able, found a new loving home.
In sum, everything worked out perfectly; every animal ended up in a home and cherished, and even her truck and trailer were sold to her friends. We also took on the task of rehoming all of her horse and barn stuff—tack, blankets, buckets, show clothes, saddle pads… oh my, SO MANY saddle pads. (Take it from me, you have enough; you don’t need to buy “just one more.” We all have more saddle pads than we’ll ever need in our lifetimes!)
As her family members sorted through things in the house, they threw anything that looked vaguely horsey into a pile for us to deal with. Ellen’s friends divvied up the responsibility for cleaning tack and washing blankets. We rehomed much of the small stuff among ourselves, and the rest went to a consignment shop, a local horse rescue, or got sold on eBay, and we gave the proceeds back to her family. I can’t imagine how overwhelming it would have been for a non-horsey family member to look at a tack room jam-packed with horse stuff that you couldn’t even identify and try to figure out how to deal with it, so I’m glad we were able to relieve that burden somewhat.
But I came away from the experience thinking how easily it could have gone the other way. What if her family thought her “friends” were trying to pull a fast one and secure a fancy horse for cheap? What if they thought we were pilfering expensive tack or tools from the barn? What if they’d thought it best to just advertise the cats as “free to a good home” on Craigslist? They didn’t know any of us, at all, but yet they trusted us to decide where Ellen’s animals should go, even though we had no legal authority to do so. It could have gone so horribly, terribly wrong. But it didn’t, and for that I’m thankful, and I hope it made things easier on Ellen and her family.
When I wrote the article on estate planning for horse owners in our May 18 & 25 Horse Care Issue, one thing that experts stressed to me again and again is the importance of getting your wishes in writing. Otherwise, you have no assurances that they’ll actually be fulfilled. And this is exponentially more important if you have “special needs” animals, like that semi-feral barn cat, or an elderly horse that’s only pasture sound.
The good news is, by virtue of being part of the amazing horse community, you’ve got a built-in network of people who can probably find a soft landing spot for nearly any animal, but only if your family knows where to turn.
So during “these uncertain times,” as all the television ads like to say, take some time to think about what you want for your animals if something happens to you, and, most importantly, talk about it with your family. Make sure they know how to get in touch with the people in your life who can arrange feed deliveries and farrier visits, get tractors serviced, trap feral barn cats, and know how to reach out to the wider community to find placement for those “less adoptable” animals.
We horse people need to have each others’ backs to make sure our most treasured possessions, our horses and their other furry friends, stay safe.