Sandy Gilbert was in the driveway greeting volunteers with smiles and hugs as they arrived. It was a beautiful early spring day in western Wisconsin, not a cloud in the sky, the warm glow of the sun taking the chill off the breeze that always seems to blow up on the hill—sometimes fiercely, Sandy said.
“Be sure to dress in layers,” she told me earlier that week, adding that the wind can cut through you.
Not on that picture-perfect Saturday afternoon, however. From the moment I stepped out of my car onto the gravel drive until I said my goodbyes several hours later, I basked in the warmth of not only the sunny day, but also the warmth and caring that seemed to seep out of Sandy’s pores—especially when she’s around the horses.
I Went for the Horses
The horses. That’s why I was there, to spend time with the horses. In fact, horses are why I pulled up stakes, packed my car, and made the journey from Chicago to these beautiful rolling hills. I hope to someday buy a little piece of land with a house, barn, and fenced pastures where I can stable a couple of horses, adopt rescue dogs and tend a little organic garden.
But that’s down the road a ways. In the meantime, when I heard about Refuge Farms, I knew it was a program I wanted to be involved in. Sandy rescues horses from any manner of neglect and abuse, trailers them to Refuge Farms, provides them a safe haven while healing their hurts, and helps to restore their trust in humans while giving them back their dignity. In some cases, she adopts them out to forever homes; in other cases, she promises them a safe place to live out the rest of their days. She adopted her first horse in 1978 and set up the sanctuary in 1993.
The day I visited, Refuge Farms was home to 18 horses, a friendly chocolate lab rescue dog named Little Man, and at least three cats. After attending a volunteer meeting, I high-tailed it to the barn and helped Sandy bring in a quiet sorrel gelding from the paddock so another volunteer and I could brush out his winter coat and de-tangle his tail, which was a solid mass of burrs from end to end.
One Sad Story Among Many
It was love at first sight. The Old Coot, as he is affectionately called, was a fairly recent rescue. The story I heard from Pam Wiltz, one of the volunteers I worked with, was that The Coot and another old horse had been left behind last August when the family moved away. They were abandoned in a barren pasture with no access to water. Sandy found out about him and picked him up in February. Left to forage on their own for almost 6 months and during an especially brutal winter, The Old Coot’s pasture-mate had succumbed to the harsh conditions and lack of food and adequate water by the time Sandy got there.
The Old Coot was underweight when he arrived at the farm, Sandy said. As with all her rescues, a vet came out to the farm to give him a physical, de-worm him, and fix whatever might have been physically wrong with him. Pam told me his teeth were floated, which, for non-horse people, means they are filed down so the animal can chew comfortably and to prevent the horse from getting sores inside of its mouth. It was during this procedure that the vet estimated The Old Coot to be between 25 and 30 years old. (Sandy found out later from the owner that he was actually 32!)
Then the farrier came to trim his overgrown hooves. There’s a story on the Refuge Farms Web site about a horse named Sweet Lady Grey who was brought in totally mistrustful of people and with feet so neglected, the poor animal’s hooves had grown over and around the horseshoes on her front feet. The farrier discovered them after carefully whittling away at one of her grossly overgrown front hooves with a hoof knife, because he couldn’t cut them with the clippers. The Old Coot’s feet were in fairly bad shape, but not nearly as bad as Lady Grey’s.
A Day at ‘The Spa’ for The Old Coot
By the time I showed up on horse-brushing day, The Old Coot had put on weight and lost the distended malnourishment belly. He was a perfect gentleman the entire time we worked on him. We spent a good couple of hours brushing, stroking and talking to The Coot. You could tell he reveled in the attention—even though someone was pulling at his tail almost the entire time to get the burrs out.
You only have to look in a horse’s eyes once to know they have a soul. When The Coot and I gazed at each other, I saw a creature that had finally come home after a long, rough journey. Hearing his story reminded me of the childhood classic Black Beauty. After bouncing around from owner to owner, enduring abuse and neglect from careless, ignorant, and sometimes mean, people for many years, Beauty found his way back into the life of a man who knew Beauty when the horse was young and vigorous. He was a good, kind man who put the old horse out to pasture to spend his remaining days in peace, cared for and knowing he was loved.
Sandy’s Promises to Her ‘Kids’
That’s what The Old Coot reminded me of. It made me tear up to think of this calm, beautiful animal with deep brown eyes left to starve to death in the cold. Spending the afternoon with Sandy’s animals really brought it home for me how important her work is. She provides the space, care, time and love for the lost, abandoned, often less-than-perfect animals that find their way ‘home’ to Refuge Farms. Before leaving that afternoon, I told Sandy repeatedly I wanted to help in any way I could to realize Refuge Farms’ mission, three promises she makes to every animal that comes under her care.
- There will be no more beatings, electricity, use of performance enhancing drugs, hollering, or any other type of inhumane treatment. There will be plenty of respect.
- There will be no more hunger. There will always be food and water available.
- There will be no more moving to another farm, fighting for a place in a new herd, or getting used to another routine or the taste of other water. This is home. Forever. Even in death you will not leave THE FARM.
For more than 15 years Sandy has dedicated her life to helping those who cannot help themselves.
The Old Coot Feels Like a New Horse!
I could tell The Coot was tired of being groomed and wanted to return to the paddock and to his buddy, Angel, a beautiful Arab mare given up by her humans to make room for younger horses. So, I unhooked The Old Coot and led him outside; one of the other volunteers opened the gate and kept the other horse from getting out of the paddock.
After I took off The Coot’s halter inside the paddock, the most amazing thing happened. That Old Coot literally kicked up his heels and started tearing around the corral like a colt! I was safely outside the gate when he came to a screeching halt right in front of me. He looked at me with a knowing eye and, like a horse half his age, spun around, did a little half kick with his rear legs and took off again at a dead gallop around the paddock, once again careening to a stop within 10 feet from where we were standing.
Everyday Miracles at Refuge Farms
While The Coot was displaying his hard-won exuberance, I heard a whoop from near the house. Sandy was chatting with a group of visitors and saw the whole thing. The Old Coot was recovered. Yet again, Sandy had taken an animal near death and nursed him back to health to where he could love life again! I was laughing while tears streaked down my cheeks, watching The Old Coot come to realize he was feeling like himself again. Sandy writes on her Web site about the magic that happens at Refuge Farms and I knew in that moment I had the privilege of getting a little glimpse of just what she was talking about.
I walked back to the barn with a warm glow and helped brush a couple of other horses and talked to some of the volunteers. I heard horrific stories about where some of these animals had come from. I found it hard to believe that these calm, quiet, majestic beasts that were the picture of good health had come from such horrible places and circumstances. Some were more damaged than others and it is clear from the stories on the Refuge Farms’ Web site that it took some members of the herd longer than others to heal. But in the end, they healed as best they could and had Sandy – and the generous donations of others – to thank for it.
All in all, it was an amazing afternoon. I knew I would be back. I suspect Refuge Farms will become my new church; I could definitely feel a strong Presence the entire time I was there.
With the calamity going on in the world today, if you ever lose faith or begin to doubt that miracles happen, spend an afternoon at Refuge Farms in Spring Valley, WI, and I guarantee any doubt will be removed forever.
Note: For more information about the amazing work Sandy Gilbert and an army of volunteers do at Refuge Farms, go to their Web site: refugefarms.org. You can help too! See the “Calling All Gardeners” sidebar at the top of this page. If you buy spring bulbs before April 30, 45 percent to 50 percent of your purchase goes directly to Refuge Farms! They’ve made it as easy as possible to purchase beautiful flowers for your garden while helping a great organization do good work. Download the flyers and order forms and get them in to Refuge Farms before April 30. On behalf of Sandy and the Herd, thank you for your support.