I have volunteered at Glen Ellen Vocational Academy (GEVA), an Equine Sanctuary for Retirement and Rehabilitation in Glen Ellen, CA, for almost 9 years now, and during that entire time, whenever I’ve told someone I volunteer at a horse rescue/sanctuary, the first thing they inevitably ask—inevitably—is, “Do you ride the horses?”
“No,” I say.
“Then what do you do with them?” they say.
“Well,” I say, “mostly I love them. I just love them.”
This is true.
However, someone watching me go through one of my days at GEVA—where 33 horses live outdoors in herds of varying size from 2 to 10, depending on the capacity of the paddock they live in—might put it a bit differently: “What she does is shovel manure and clean water tanks; after that she prepares buckets of mash for each horse and helps with the evening feeding.”
This, too, is true.
But the love comes first. Always the love comes first. It is the great motivator, the great Why behind the What. I think anyone who volunteers to care for or work with animals in rescues, shelters, or sanctuaries will tell you this. Will tell you that whatever work they do, no matter how humble or tedious or back-breaking it may be, they do because, first and foremost, they have a deep and abiding love for the animals they have come to serve.
And sometimes the love that is returned is so extraordinary, and so unexpected, it takes your breath away.
Which brings me to Wheatly, or as she was known in her racing days, Wheatly Hill.
Wheatly’s racing career, such as it was, began on April 23, 2000 and ended 5 months later on August 21. During that time, she ran in 5 races, all of which she seriously lost, and the last of which she didn’t finish due to a nasty suspensory injury to her right front leg.
Exactly one month after her last race, Wheatly arrived at GEVA. Her leg was still in the process of healing, and, as GEVA’s founder and president, Pam Berg, noted, she had a “strange tilt to her head/neck.” When Pam eventually turned Wheatly out into a paddock that already had 4 or 5 other horses in residence, Wheatly got along with everyone OK, but mostly she chose to stand by herself, her neck and head atilt, asking nothing more than to be left alone.
She was 3 ½ years old.
By the time I met Wheatly, she was 10. She still shared a paddock with those 4 or 5 horses, and was very good friends with 2 of them; her neck muscles had long ago relaxed, so her head and neck were not at all atilt; and although still a quiet and reserved creature, she was very friendly, and was quite pleased when someone chose to spend time with her. And I loved spending time with her. But in all honestly, I didn’t spend more time with her than I did with any of the other horses, which makes what she did one grey, autumn day all the more extraordinary.
It was the middle of the afternoon, and my fellow volunteer, Christine, and I had just finished cleaning the paddock and run-in sheds where Wheatly and her friends lived. For some reason, Christine and I had been exceptionally industrious and efficient that day, and as a result, we were ahead of schedule—and I was tired. So when Christine said she had to go up to the barn to get something, I told her I’d stay where I was to wait for her return before moving on to the next paddock. Accordingly, I propped my shovel against the fence, myself against the front corner of the shed, and settled in to enjoy listening to the silence.
It was then that Wheatly appeared from around the corner at the other end of the shed. Without a moment’s hesitation, she slowly and deliberately walked over to me, slipped her long nose all the way under my right arm, and leaned her head against my ribs. Stunned, I returned her leaning, my ribs rising and falling against her beautiful head, my eyes filled with tears.
We stood like that for what seemed forever, but was probably only 3 or 4 minutes. And it was I who broke the spell, not Wheatly, because Christine had returned and there was work to be done. To this day, some 6 or 7 years later, it is one of my deepest regrets that I did that; that I broke the spell. How long, I have wondered, would we have stood there, Wheatly and I, sharing breath and silence and love.
The love comes first.
Always the love comes first.
It is the great Why behind the What.