During the past few years, several people have asked about the face that appears on the Traveller’s Rest Facebook profile and on the web site banners. Until now, other than saying that Mystic was one of two mares that inspired the founding of Traveller’s Rest Equine Elders Sanctuary, I’ve been hesitant to tell the story publicly. It felt deeply personal and maybe a little Twilight Zone-ish. Now, the time feels right.
Sometime in early 1999 – the exact date is not really important – I had a very colorful, very detailed dream. The dream was so unusual, I told Mike about it the next morning. I remember it vividly to this day.
The dream began in an unfamiliar setting, somewhat rural, but in a little community where houses sat close together near the road on long, narrow lots. Every lot was fenced, but with different types of fencing material. Mike and I were standing on the roadside, facing the houses when we noticed a commotion behind the homes. We ran to a small alley running between the lots in the middle of the row to get a better view of the yards behind the houses.
From our new vantage point we saw a small herd of panicked horses, frantically running through one narrow lot after another, jumping some fences, crashing through others with no regard to potential injury. As they reached the last yard before the alley in which we stood, the horses suddenly calmed, dropped their heads and began to graze.
After thinking the herd would run right through the last fence and over us, we heaved a big sigh of relief and leaned on the fence pondering – what had scared the horses so badly, and why did they stop their flight when and where they did?
As we stood trying to decipher what we had witnessed, I suddenly realized there was someone other than Mike standing next me. I turned slightly to see what looked like (an admittedly Hollywood sterotype) a Gypsy woman watching us. She was dressed in very colorful flowing skirts, peasant type blouse, and a shawl, but her most noticeable features were her dark piercing eyes and her long, thick, black hair, seemingly enough for two or three women.
The woman did not speak, but her eyes held mine for what seemed like hours. Very uncomfortable, I turned away for a few moments. When I once again looked up the woman was gone and, in her place, stood a mare. Since she was beside and somewhat behind me, I could only see her head, neck and shoulder, but noticed that she was a lilac roan with dark eyes and a very thick, long black mane.
The mare led us back up the hill to the top of the alley, where we faced a tall, stockade-like chain-link fence. The fence surrounded what looked like a car salvage yard, but when we looked more closely, we saw there were horses in the yard. Dozens of horses. Dozens of skinny, sick, depressed horses. Stunned, we looked around for a way in and saw that the gate was held closed by heavy chains and padlocks. Turning toward the homes behind us, we noticed a sort of workshop or garage. People lined the porch, sat in chairs, stood in the doorways, leaned on the posts. Covering the walls and a workbench on the porch were dozens of wrenches, hammers, saws, chisels, tools of all kinds. The people seemed aware of the plight of the horses across the road, yet nobody picked up the tools to come to their aid.
There the dream ended.
Fast forward a few months.
At that time, I was volunteering three days a week at the Equine Rescue League, then in Leesburg, VA. I’d been there for four years and had already developed a strong preference for working with the Elders in residence. One morning when I arrived, as they always did when a new senior came to the farm, Pat and Cheryl said “Come’ere, there’s someone we want you to meet.”
I looked in the stall and was sure the pony I saw would not live through the week. She was in her mid-30’s, suffering pneumonia, her “skin and bones” condition hidden under a ratty Cushings coat that was matted from withers to elbows, from chest to tail. I didn’t see the “Fight” in her that is so important to survival in many cases. My only thought at that time was to let this poor creature know that somebody loved her.
Day after day, I worked on her coat, trying to relieve her of the mats pulling and tugging at her skin with every movement. She didn’t seem to notice or care at first. Then, slowly, as antibiotics worked to defeat the infection in her lungs, the mare began to respond to people and things around her. Things were looking up. As the dreadful old coat fell away, a beautiful appaloosa with a spotted blanket began to emerge. She had a very thick tail and mane that would take a while to untangle, but that would come later.
After a short time, the little Appy was granted “hand-grazing” privileges. My two year old Australian Shepherd, JJ, accompanied us on these grazing outings. The first time out, as the mare grazed, JJ, who had grown up around horses, walked right up and stuck his nose in the pony’s big fuzzy ear. What!? He knew better than that. But, a friendship was born. Watching this, I began to feel the quiet determination and strength of spirit that the mare’s illness at first concealed. So much so, that I told Pat, and later Mike, that this horse scared me. Not in terms of physical danger, but because her spirit was almost overwhelming.
We decided to call her Mystic.
A few days later, Mike visited the farm for the first time since Mystic’s arrival, took one look at her, and said “That’s the horse from your dream.”
What? How could I have missed that? He was right. Yes, she had a stunning white blanket covered in dark red spots, but from the shoulder forward, she was a lilac roan with boatloads of flowing dark mane. Now she really scared me.
It didn’t take long to get over the hesitation about learning from Mystic. I spent as much time as I could with her. She taught me patience, determination, how to listen and not jump to conclusions. She taught me about compassion and giving and friendship. It became hard to tell where I ended and Mystic began.
In 1999, we didn’t know nearly as much about Cushings as we do now, and Mystic’s case was very advanced. We didn’t know the role diet played in managing symptoms, nor was pergolide available as a treatment. Cyproheptadine was the only medical option and it did not seem to help. About eight months after she arrived, Mystic entered a battle with laminitis. Pat and Cheryl would tell me how much pain she was in, but on the days I was at the farm, Mystic would prance and trot and disguise her discomfort. After two weeks of this, she could hide her pain no longer and I knew it was time to let her go.
On the day Mystic was to be euthanized, before the vet arrived, I gave her a big portion of cooked apples, brushed out her mane and tail and tried to hold myself together. The veterinarian, that day, was accompanied by a group of students. At first I resented the intrusion of this crowd on such a private moment. I said goodbye, then turned the lead over to one of the students as the vet prepared the injection.
JJ and I stood back, trying to stay in control. As everyone closed in around her to watch the procedure, Mystic looked though the crowd and locked eyes with me. A shaft of light glinted off of her right eye like a laser beam aimed directly at mine. JJ let out a heart-piercing wail as the light left Mystic’s eye, just as the injection was administered. JJ was devastated, as was I. She was gone.
Or so I thought.
Thirteen years later, I realize that only her body was gone. In spirit and in strength, that determined little mare is with me every day. She gave me the courage to dive head first into advocating for equine elders, to take on a group of horses that was not given much consideration in the world of veterinary research at that time. That last glint of light from her eye is something I will always remember as a directive. “I’ve taught you what I could in this short time. Now go put those lessons to good use.”