From the journal January 3, 2009 – On the evening of December 20th, 2008, we arrived home with my Christmas gift from Kathleen, an untouched pregnant Mustang adopted from the BLM in Reno, a six-year-old buckskin lady who chose us – well, chose Kathleen. I had missed her completely in our survey of the 150 or so mares in the five-and-over pasture at the BLM facility the week before.
Just imagine being the very first person ever to be touched by a wild Mustang, and being the first person to touch her foal. Shivers skitter up my spine every time I think about it. Two horses who will begin their journey with humans… with us.
Adoptions Manager John Parsons had sent dozens of photos of several possibilities. We flew up from San Diego on December 10 th to make our selection and were driven around and around through the large herd, first isolating John’s photos, then trying to check out the other 145 or so. Around and around we’d go.
The black one was very pregnant but seemed a bit sluggish and not very curious. One of the grays was very dominant. Dr. Matt had warned against that. Another gray was being moved around by everyone in sight. And so far only one seemed really curious about us but she was almost certainly not pregnant. It was important that our choice be pregnant because the birth of her foal would be the first chapter of my next book. John kept driving.
Wait, can you back up a bit?
Whoa. What about her?
The buckskin? John asked.
Yes. She keeps looking at us. Doesn’t seem too dominant, but not wimpy. Alert. Very curious. Kind eyes. I like her. I like her a lot.
And Kathleen had wondered why I had insisted that she come along.
After another thirty minutes of driving around, always coming back to Kathleen’s buckskin, John and I agreed with her and we headed to the office, filled out the paperwork, and were off to the airport three hours earlier than expected. The plan was that we’d drive up three days later to pick her up. I couldn’t wait. My portable GPS said the drive from Valley Center would be between ten and eleven hours, much of it through the mountains with elevations up to 8100 feet. What none of us remembered to do when the plan was made was to check the weather. Weather systems seemed to be running rampant off the west coast, rolling in every few days. Our travel plans were scuttled by five days of snow, wind and rain. I studied the 10-day forecast at weather.com plus everything the California Highway Patrol site had to say. John at the BLM advised that from now through February or March things would only get worse. There appeared to be a 2-day window between storms the following Friday and Saturday (December 19-20) if the highways at upper elevations were clear. I told John this was our target and I began to monitor the CHP site several times a day.
The afternoon before we were to leave home the CHP still had two sections of highway closed due to snow from the last storm, but Friday morning they were both clear. One section well to the north was still showing wind warnings, but weather.com com predictions were 15mph by afternoon, so off we went, sandwiched between two bad weather systems, creating a serious need to have everything work right. Never the best strategy. This would be the longest trip I’d ever driven with a horse trailer and as we started out I was thankful that trucks don’t read nervousness like horses do.
The trip, mercifully, was on time and relatively uneventful. CHP was still predicting high winds over a twenty mile stretch of highway maybe 100 miles out of Reno but weather.com said no , so we bit our lips and ignored the brightly flashing wind-warning signs and kept going. Weather.com was right.
I had found a hotel with a big open parking lot that could take a horse trailer, a casino unfortunately right in the middle of downtown. We locked up the truck and trailer and ice-skated across the street to a very mediocre dinner but a very warm bed. The next morning we were at it early. The temperature was a frigid 15 degrees, a condition I had never experienced with a diesel truck. At first it wouldn’t start at all, which scared me to death. Finally it turned over, but the accelerator wasn’t working, had no effect at all. And an engine warning light was on… on a Saturday morning! And snow was due in Reno Saturday night.
I let the engine run for almost thirty minutes before the water temperature gauge finally reached into its working range. But the engine light was still on. While the engine was still warming up I unlocked all the trailer doors. Well, not all the trailer doors because the key would not turn at all in the lock of the tack room where all the feed and buckets were for the trip home. Kathleen returned to the hotel and called several 24-hours locksmiths, none of whom were answering their phones. She left a cell number. Once the water temperature gauge was in operating range everything seemed to be operating properly so I decided we should drive on out to the BLM, 15 miles north of town. Maybe the engine light would go out as the engine continued to warm up.
On the way out, Kathleen called both of Reno’s Dodge dealers. Again, no answers. Just great I was thinking. We simply could not take off through the mountains with an unhandled pregnant Mustang and an engine warning light on.
When we arrived at the BLM John Parsons and several bright-eyed, eager volunteers were happily awaiting the loading of another Mustang saved.
“Welcome,” John said. “Let’s get to it.”
“Sorry John,” I said meekly, “We have a couple of problems we need to deal with before we can load up.” I explained the problems. John felt that he could find us a diesel mechanic who could look at the problem… and maybe WD40 would take care of the lock. His diesel mechanic was not answering the phone at 7:30 am so he headed out to attack the lock on the trailer tack room. As he strolled past the truck – I’ve never been able to “stroll” at 15 degrees – he asked casually, “Are you sure your gas cap is screwed down good and tight? Sometimes a loose cap can cause the engine light to come on.”
Kathleen whipped open the flap and turned the cap. “Nope,” she said. “It was not screwed down to the click.”
I raced to the truck cab and turned the key. The engine light was gone. I felt like a ton of bricks had been lifted off my heart.
John then tried WD40 on the lock, but that yielded nothing. He studied it for a moment, and said, “Let me try something.” Soon he returned with a small blow torch. He ignited it and aimed it right at the culprit lock. Thirty seconds later we were inside the tack room. I asked him if he could ride back to Valley Center with us. “What’s the temperature down there,” he grinned.
The loading went very smoothly. The BLM’s elaborate system of stalls and aisles with closing and opening doors made it very simple. I walked down to look in on her before they started. She was standing all alone in a very large stall. She turned and looked at me with that quizzical cock of a head that is often offered up by my Cash. I couldn’t help but smile.
“Hello Miss Noelle,” I said.
Noelle would be her name. She was, after all, Kathleen’s Christmas gift to me.
“We’re off on an adventure, you and I,” I said to her. “A new journey for both of us. I will love you. And I believe you will love me.” I then turned and walked back down the long aisle to the squeeze chute positioned just before the trailer. One of the volunteers opened a gate to let me out of the maze and I grabbed my camera out of the truck and climbed onto the platform over the squeeze chute. I cannot fathom why we had not brought the video camera but we hadn’t so Kathleen was going to shoot video with her tiny digital still camera and I’d shoot stills with the Nikon.
All went perfectly. She trotted down the hallway system, urged on quietly by John and the volunteers. Doors shut behind her at every 20 to 30 feet until she was in the squeeze chute where John tied on a rope halter I had given him. Just in case.
They opened the squeeze chute and she trotted straight into the trailer without urging.
I had wanted to be on the road by 8:30, and even with all the issues, we were. We said our thank yous and goodbyes and left them three copies of The Soul of a Horse. Then we were off. The trip home was thankfully uneventful. The CHP was still predicting high winds in the same area as before but weather.com said light and variable. Once again, weather.com was right.
At home it took a bit of urging to get Noelle to leave the security of the trailer, but she finally did, and trotted right into her new temporary home, one of our original natural paddocks before we opened the bigger pasture on the other side of the hill.
As I write this, today is Day 15, the two week anniversary of Noelle’s arrival. She has yet to touch me, but she is eating hay out of my hand, she trots up to the fence whenever I or Kathleen show up, she’s very comfortable chomping away as little as three or four feet from us when we’re sitting in the pasture with her, but that’s her bubble of safety.
And whereas that bubble is getting smaller everyday, at the moment that’s about as close as her comfort level will allow. I believe it’s an unconscious thing. Horses are hardwired to react first and ask questions later, to be freaky about everything, and I believe in my heart that she simply cannot help herself. That’s as close as she can get at the moment without reacting. I can see her wanting to be closer, but after reaching, trying, you can see it in her eyes. I just can’t. I can’t help it. It’s just too much. And I must wait. After all, she has never seen a human who wasn’t trying to round her up and take her away from her family, out of the wild, or squeeze her into a chute to stick her with needles, or check out her feet. Or chase her from one place to another.
Patience is not my strong suit. Our horses have all taught me to do better in that department. But I’m going to have to do even better with Noelle. She has already taught me that, much to my embarrassment. But that’s another story and I’ve run on way longer than I intended.
I hope you’ll stick with our gentling of this sweet mare and the birth of her foal. Two fewer wild Mustangs under the government’s pending death threat.
I want to thank each of you who have caused our year to be so incredibly special by helping to push The Soul of a Horse into its third printing and make it an official best seller. We are indebted to you all and appreciate you very much.