Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chapter 2 -- Buddy

I met Darla by chance at a summer country music concert in Oregon sponsored by my great telephone company.  In the way things tumble out as they are supposed to, somehow I told her about my beloved Chelsea, and how she inspired me to love and to become a mother.  There in the warm night air, I watched Darla and her husband, Troy, exchange knowing glances.

“Buddy,” they said simultaneously, more to each other than to me.  I recognized a love, too perfect, immediately and asked how I could reach Darla to talk about Buddy.  By the way, what type of animal was he? 

“Buddy’s my horse, and I’d love to talk about him anytime,” she replied eagerly, handing me her business card.  Glancing at it, I read the words “Strawberry Mountain Mustangs, a 501©3 Non Profit organization.  Did she train mustangs? I wondered to myself. 

Troy and I rescue them,” she answered to my unspoken question. I stowed the card in my pocket and then filed it for safekeeping knowing that in the right time, I would be ready to hear this story about the love between a horse and his girl. 

Life being what it is, with a kidlet, a full-time career and all the stuff we juggle in between, I was well into the Christmas season before that time actually came.  On a quiet afternoon I finally dug through my “Too Perfect folder,” and with a sigh of gratitude came out of the morass of papers with Darla’s card in my hand. 

As I read it closely, this time I noticed these words:  Adopt ~ Foster ~ Donate ~ Volunteer.  Below that was their website:  Even though I was eager to talk to Darla, I decided to peruse her site and learn more about the organization, first.  Then, we could spend time talking specifically about Buddy and how he inspired her. 

As the site came up, I was humbled and dumbfounded.

There on the homepage was a photo and eulogy to Buddy, who died from colic at the end of August, just a short three weeks after my chance meeting with Darla. 

His was a story that needed to be told.  I read the eulogy, cried, slept on it overnight and then the next afternoon, I gave her a call.  Even though it had been quite some time, Darla remembered me and graciously accepted my request to hear her all-too-brief love story about Buddy.

“I’d always had horses growing up,” Darla explained, after I asked her how she had the courage to take on wild mustangs.  After graduating from college, working in the world, and then marrying Troy, some years had passed. 

“Then we bought 110 acres and I thought, maybe it was time to bring a horse back into my life.” 

Little did Darla know at the time what could come from owning just one horse. 

“My dad and I liked palominos, so he went to work scanning the want ads and Internet bulletin boards for one,” she explained.  “I wasn't really looking for a horse when I found Bud.  I kept bugging my dad, but we weren't really out "shopping" or anything.  It was a friend of his who had Bud.”

So, the trio decided to go out and take a look.  “At the time he was only a scraggly little yearling.  Still half wild...and a long ways from being the big "golden boy" he would turn into,” she remembered.

“I was trying to be level-headed before I got there,” she laughed, remembering.  “I said to myself, if this isn’t the right fit, I can walk away, I don’t have to go home with the first horse I see.  Now look at me, I have 28 of them.” 

When they got there, Darla found him to be a gentle giant, standing well over 16 hands.  The owner explained the big boy was an adoptee from a mustang herd and she was more than just a little surprised.  Mustangs, as many know, are thought to be descendents of the compact, nimble Spanish “Barb” horse breed.  These animals arrived on the continent several hundred years ago aboard explorer ships and took up residence in the open plains of North America.  To see this big beauty one would think ‘thoroughbred’ or ‘quarter-horse’ – definitely not ‘mustang.’  Darla was intrigued…and smitten.

They loaded him in the truck that afternoon and after he settled in at home, Darla got curious about his history. 

“You see, I knew right away that Buddy wasn’t a typical wild horse,” Darla said.

“How so?” I wondered.

“Well, horses that are rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management, the BLM, get a freeze-mark on their necks.”

“Why?” I asked, learning as I went and grateful that Darla was an eager teacher.

“That freeze mark is a series of numbers that identify it as a government animal and gives pertinent info on the history of the horse.  Buddy didn’t have that mark and I wanted to know why.” 

“What was important about the BLM freeze mark?  Why did they do it?” I asked, curious.  I’ve never seen a wild horse up close and personal much less see the freeze mark that Darla was referring to.”

“That freeze mark means the horse can’t just be sold at auction by the adoptee.  Whoever adopts a BLM horse must own it for at least a year.  It’s a better screening method for potential adoption and the person can’t sell the horse for slaughter, for example.”

“Horses are still slaughtered?” I was clearly naïve and uninformed. 

“Well, I found out that Buddy came from Sheldon Wildlife refuge and at the time, a person could just drive there with a big rig, load up as many horses as possible, and then drive straight to the rendering plant.”

“Buddy was part of a large group that somehow got to Oregon and he was adopted as a colt and he had just one owner before me.  He was very lucky.  But so was I,” Darla observed. 

After adopting Buddy Darla found he was an easy keeper.  “He was so gentle, so big and so beautiful people just couldn’t believe he was not only a wild horse, but an adoptee as well.”

“Buddy was willing to do anything I asked,” Darla told me with as much pride in her voice as we mothers have for our children.  “He was just a big, golden horse that could carry a two-year-old as well as a three-hundred pound man who had never ridden a horse.  And, so after a while he just became an ambassador not only for wild horses but for animal adoption in general.” 

Darla began rotating through her ranch a small handful of other horses that were, for lack of a better word, projects.  She would get a horse, rehab it then find it a home.  “In one case, I bought a horse from a gal who needed bail money,” she laughed. 

The horses came to Darla in a myriad of ways.  Some came free, given by people who lost interest or had a problem horse.  Others she had to buy.  As the horse angels do, I suppose, once those in her care found better lives, the word seemed to spread around the universe and the ones needing her most found their way to Darla. 

“Did Buddy help the new horses adjust to their life at the ranch?” I asked

“Oh no,” laughed Darla.  I was surprised and she sensed the question.  “I know I said he was an ambassador, but that was for humans not for other horses.”  Buddy, she explained, was very mischievous and especially picked on the newest horses to the herd. So, he had to be kept only with those who wouldn’t put up with his hi-jinx. 

In researching Buddy’s history, Darla made a connection with the woman who ran Sheldon’s adoption program.  By then, she knew of Darla’s budding interest in horse rescue and rehab and in trying to do the best thing for the program, one day she called Darla in desperation.

“I know you have land and you’ve got the experience,” said the woman with near-panic in her voice that afternoon.  “Darla, I have a round-up of wild horses standing outside my window in holding pens and the wild horse sanctuaries they were supposed to go to just backed out. Can you take fifty of them?”

After Darla picked herself up off the floor, she replied with the appropriately dumbfounded response of “huh?”

These horses were so wild that they were almost like deer. “They were feral,” was Darla’s simple explanation. It was such an overwhelming thought:  Fifty wild horses? How in the world could she do that?  What would Troy say? 

The woman understood.  “If you can take a dozen,” she offered, “I’ll have them trucked to your ranch in Oregon.”

So, in the fall of 2004, Darla and Troy received their first load from Nevada’s Sheldon Wildlife Refuge.  Soon it became apparent that with all the costs for feed, farriers, veterinarians and the general upkeep around the corrals, they needed to become a full-fledged non-profit organization, with all the rights and responsibilities therein. 

With Buddy by her side all the way, Darla grew her rescue and rehab herd to hover around the thirty-head mark.  “But Buddy was my star,” Darla said.  “Everywhere I took him, he taught people about Strawberry Mountain Mustangs and dispelled negative notions about adopting and owning a wild horse. He was an easy keeper and such a gentle giant.” 

Buddy’s story has touched hundreds, if not thousands in the region and made a major impact on the practice of selling truckloads of wild horses for slaughter.  A local newspaper article said it all when it quoted Darla, “Buddy would make horse-people out of anyone.”  Currently, Sheldon Wildlife refuge can not operate its horse sales program. 

That summer seemed too perfect.  Income met expenses most of the time, enough to ensure feed, and all the other necessities.  Buddy, who had visited a nursing home and had no problems around the many wheelchairs and other equipment, was being prepped for more community outreach visits. 

Then it happened.  Buddy was hit with a terrible case of colic and died suddenly, leaving Darla too soon. 

On the jacket cover of his book, True Love, my favorite author Robert Fulghum wrote “every love story has an unhappy ending, sooner or later.” To expound upon that notion in his introduction, Fulghum explained “love is the grand prize and the garbage heap.  Love is a spiritual root canal and the only thing that makes life worth living.  Love is a little taste of always and a big bite of nothing…The love we really live is all the love we really have.  And the love we really have is the love that’s true.” 

Some animals come into our lives to open our hearts to love, to help us become better people.  These stories are important, so that we appreciate the role of animals in connecting us to the divine, to help us become closer to God and to trust that we can love and be loved unconditionally. 

However, some animals come into our lives to do more.  They inspire us to accomplish great works of service and fulfill an important mission here on earth.  Buddy inspired Darla to do just that.  In his brief time with her, he not only nickered his way into her heart, he drew her to help many, many other horses and their people.  Darla, along with her husband Troy, is now an ambassador like Buddy was.  She is also an advocate; a protector and healer for those equine friends in her care. 

She observed with a rueful chuckle at the end of our conversation that afternoon, “after all I’ve seen through the rescue group, I’ve come to believe that you should have to get a license to reproduce – anything:  kids or animals.” 

With that hudspa, I know Darla will find peace and understanding at Buddy’s too-soon passing.  Much of that will be due in large part to the mission she now fills in his memory. 

I wrote her the other day, to let her know I would be publishing Buddy’ story.  Here’s her update: 

Things continue on here @ Strawberry Mountain. We focus more on programs now than ever, knowing that there are just too many who need rescue, maintaining right at about 15 horses on site, with almost that many in foster homes around the state.  Our continual goal is quality over quantity. We work closely with local law enforcement, taking in all breeds of horses, even the occasional llama, stray dog or cat...but deep in my heart I still have a love for the wild ones…especially those on Sheldon.

One of our most recent cases is Grace - the most emaciated case the county - and most of the country has ever seen.  I started a Facebook page to chronicle her recovery.  It now has nearly 6000 (yes, SIX THOUSAND) fans from around the world. 

Buddy's legacy lives on through horses like Grace. Because of him, I've been able to communicate with people as far away as Bulgaria about rehabbing a starved horse there.  I've been able to educate people that "old does not equal skinny” and share information on the best way to rehab and feed emaciated or older animals.  Here’s Grace’s FB site:   As you’ll read…she’s Grace:  the little horse with the big spirit.  Make sure to click on albums and look at the very first pictures.

Please also read on to see Darla’s tribute to her beloved Buddy.

On August 28, 2007 we lost a legend. 

Born in the Nevada desert with a pedigree written in the sands, he was as pure as the air he breathed.

From the inside out, he was pure gold; soft and gentle, yet tough enough to survive the brutality that would have faced him in the wild.  He belonged to Mother Nature and no one else, but he CHOSE me.

His amber eyes shone and melted the toughest of souls.  If the eyes didn’t do the trick, a persistent lick would.  He won over the heart of even the toughest cowboy.

Towering at 16.2 hands, some would call him a giant.  I called him my friend.

He won no races, no ribbons, no trophies.  Instead he won hearts.  He never competed in a halter class.  Instead he spent his time visiting elderly at assisted living centers.  That was where he chose to stand at attention, perfectly still, for those in the wheelchairs to judge him.  

He wasn’t a reining champion.  He did no fancy rollbacks, sliding stops or quick turn-arounds.  Instead he chose to move carefully, cautiously and slowly so that he didn’t dislodge the rider from his back.  Whether they were two or 62, Buddy took care of them.  I think he earned more “high points” this way than any other national champion ever could have.

Saddles and bridles didn’t fit.  Maybe they were never meant to?  After all, he had much more important things to do in his short life.  Instead we went bareback and with a halter and lead.  We didn’t need anything more.  We had each other.

Buddy was a wild horse from the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada.  His heritage was cavalry, old stock run by ranchers for our military.  It was in his blood to serve, to protect.  He did just that.

The lives he saved are countless.  Mine was just the first.  He showed me what true passion is, that there was more to life than a paycheck and that even a small town girl could make a difference.

Buddy went on to save hundreds of equine lives as well, many of them the wild horses on Sheldon.  Lawmakers and the media have learned about the inadequacies of a poorly run adoption program there and the danger our wild horses are in.  He also brought us the quiet survivors of abuse and neglect cases.  The malnourished, the broken, the beaten and the forgotten.  He stood back and watched them all come in, for us to care for and mend, and he waited patiently for his turn to shine.

Webster’s dictionary defines legend as:  a person or thing that inspires.  I struggled with the term I wanted to use when writing this.  Was Buddy an icon?  An idol?  A legend?  After reading the definition, it became clear.  He was my dream, my hope, my love, my reason and my inspiration.  He is, and will forever be, my legend.

Darla Clark, September 8, 2007

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Jacqui, for telling Buddy's story.

    As an update - the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge is once again gathering the wild horses there. At this time, all animals are shipped to one adoption agent located in TN. They still have no federal protection and many still fall through the cracks.