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A determined mare makes a plan to keep her foal by her side


“What now, little one?” I shifted my hooves, looking down at my young colt standing beside me. I could hardly believe fifteen sunrises had already passed since he was born.

He gazed up at me with large brown eyes, his short tail filled with pine shavings. “When are the humans going to feed us?” he inquired, flicking his small, fuzzy ears. “I’m tired of nursing, but I’m hungry!”

“Patience, Jay. They’ll come soon, don’t worry.” I nuzzled his little black flank with my pale pink nose.

Jay let out a dramatic whinny-whine and flopped to the floor, his beanpole legs bending in weird angles. I snorted.

The barn door rattled. My white ears perked, and I stepped over Jay to peer out beyond the bars on the stall window. Sure enough, a human dressed in grey fabric coverings made her way into the barn and walked toward my stall holding a green bucket. I could already smell the food in the bucket, and I stomped my hoof in eagerness. But part of me was puzzled. I’d never seen this human before. What was she doing with my food, and what was the thin white paper with mysterious black markings doing in her other hand? Humans rarely brought papers to the barn—I’d most frequently seen them when my riders took me out to shows.

The human reached my stall and wove her small fingers into the latch, unlocking it and sliding the door open. I sniffed her warily.

She slapped my nose and snapped a harsh word, shoving me away from the door. Shocked, I neighed, kicking out with my front legs, but she dodged my flying hooves and stepped to Jay’s side, picking him up roughly around the middle. I neighed again and shoved her away from him with a sharp thrust of my head.

She dropped Jay and flew backward into the pile of shavings.

Jay’s eyes were wild with fear, and he ran to cower in the corner of the stall. “Who is she?” he whinnied. “What’s she doing here? Why did she try to take me?” “I don’t know, darling. I’ll take care of this.” I stepped forward grimly toward the human, but before I could do anything to her, three more unfamiliar humans in grey clothes swarmed in and grabbed hold of me, forcing a halter around my head. I reared, screeching in outrage, but they dragged me out the stall door and into the crossties in the aisle. I managed to bite two of them on the way, but that only earned me more slaps.

Why had they made marks on the paper and attached it to my foal?

I tossed my head, my tail high in agitation as I stared helplessly through the bars. The four humans had lifted Jay up and tried to stand him on his feet. He was too terrified to support himself, so they were holding him up by his middle. His eyes pleaded with me to come save him.

“I can’t! I’m sorry! I can’t leave these crossties!” I tried to rear up out of the ropes restraining me by the halter, but I only succeeded in jerking my neck painfully. I whinnied again in distress. The other horses in the stalls were neighing and kicking their stall walls in panic, but there was nothing any of us could do.

The humans surrounded Jay, blocking my view, but he didn’t cry out. They seemed to be inspecting him, muttering to each other and adding more black scrawls on the paper periodically. After a few minutes, they pulled out a cord with another piece of paper attached to it and scribbled four black characters on it. I watched, scandalized, as they tied the string around my little colt’s pastern. I pawed the hard ground with a hoof, snorting out the unfamiliar scents that had flooded my nose.

To my surprise, the humans seemed satisfied, packing up their materials and pouring the food from the bucket into my trough in the corner. They made their way out again, and one came toward me. I pinned my ears, threatening a kick, and he shied away for a moment. But he was back again in an instant, grabbing the halter and unclipping me from the crossties, muttering anxiously. He frequently used the word that the humans called me—Sandpiper. I believe he thought it would calm me, but he was very wrong. My ears tilted backward, and my upper lip lifted in a flehmen from anger. I whipped toward him and bit his shoulder. He cried out in pain and jerked my halter towards the stall, dragging me inside. Jay got up to run to my side, but I gave him a warning look.

The human took off my halter and left the stall hurriedly.

I walked over to Jay, steadying my fast breathing. He was trembling, trying to bite off the piece of string on his pastern.

“Calm, little one. We’re safe now,” I told him, but my neigh was strained and quivery, and I hoped he trusted my words more than I did myself. I nuzzled him, and he stilled. I lay down on the shavings, inspecting the paper on the string. There were four symbols on it: One vertical curvy line, a spiral-like shape, and two vertical straight lines. I had never wished more that I could understand the scribbles that humans made with their strange, black-liquid stick devices. Why had they made marks on the paper and attached it to my foal?

A sudden sense of urgency followed that thought. I couldn’t stay somewhere my foal might be in danger. I didn’t know what the scribbles meant, but I’d seen other mares’ foals get tagged similarly, and the next day they were taken away and never seen again. I couldn’t bear to let that happen to Jay. I took a deep breath.

“Jay, listen,” I nickered quietly. “We’re going to go on an adventure.” “Huh?” His ears perked, and his shaking calmed a bit. “Fun?”

I paused. “Hopefully,” I conceded. I couldn’t make any promises. “What kind of adventure? Are we going to sneak out of the stall?”

“We’re going to have even more fun than that. We’re going to sneak out of the pasture when they let us out later.” I tried to make my neigh sound lighthearted, but I couldn’t hide the terrified squeak at the end. What am I doing? How are we going to live in the wild? We can’t stay here, but I don’t know how to be a wild horse! What am I thinking? I suddenly remembered something my mother had told me as a filly, before I was moved to this barn without her: Think, ponder, then decide, she’d said.

But there was no time to think. I’d made my decision, and I wasn’t going to go back.

I fought to keep my creamy-white tail at a calm level and my ears in a relaxed position. I didn’t want to alarm Jay. But I could tell he was still worried.

“Let’s eat.” I nosed him over to the trough, and he stuck his small dark nose in, snuffling the grain around with his upper lip.

We ate together, and he perked up a little when his belly was full. My own stomach was twisted in knots, and they tightened as I went over my plan in my head, questioning myself over and over. I could hardly eat more than a few bites, and eventually I left Jay to stuff himself and walked into the corner of the stall, resisting the urge to pace. I knew my nostrils and eyes were wide with tension, but I no longer cared. Jay couldn’t see.

I let out a long sigh and stared off into space, trying to relax.

*          *          *

A while had passed. The sun had risen high in the sky, and its light was streaming in through the outside window. Jay had cheered up again and was gaily chasing a moth around the stall. I waited anxiously.

The barn door creaked open, and a human popped her head in. I sighed with relief seeing her familiar form: It was my usual caretaker. I’d given her the name Dove, after the gentle gray birds that occasionally perched on the barn rafters. She walked in with two halters, one for me and the other for Jay. Speaking gently and kindly, she stepped into the stall, tenderly brushing my nose with her fingers, her gray eyes sparkling. She looked at Jay, and her eyes went straight to his pastern and the paper on the string. Her face fell, and she wrapped her arms around his small neck and hugged him tightly, murmuring to him in a soft tone. Eventually she let go of him, tucked her shoulder-length dark hair behind her ears, and turned to me again, whispering quietly and stroking my neck. I heard my name again. Sandpiper. This time, it did not make me angry. My eyes softened when I looked at Dove. She’d cared for me for years, ever since I was brought to this stable as a filly. I knew she’d be upset when I left. A pang of longing shook me. I would miss the barn and its warm luxuries. I turned my head, my stomach squirming.

To the Wild
To the Wild

She slipped my purple halter over my head with gentle fingers, buckling it before moving on to Jay’s sky-blue halter. Holding one lead rope in each hand, she opened the wooden stall door again and led us out through the concrete, stall-lined aisle. I nickered at the other horses in the barn as I passed them. They’d calmed down since the incident, but some of them backed as far away from me as they could, worried by my presence, their scleras showing and their faces tense. They’re scared of me, I realized. I stretched my speckled-white neck, trying to see my best friend in her stall by the door. The humans called her Feather. She was standing with her nose pressed against her window, staring at me in dismay. She always knew when something was wrong, and her blue eyes followed my every move. As we passed her, my heart wrenched. I stopped in my tracks, resisting Dove’s urging. “Goodbye, Feather. I’ll always love you. I’ll think of you every day, I promise.”

“What’s going on?” the tall, fine-boned cremello whinnied, her tail high and her nostrils flaring. “You’re leaving? Where are you going? Why? Explain!”

“I have to go. I don’t know where. Away.” Dove pulled harder, and I leaned back against her weight. “I’m sorry. I can’t let them take Jay.”

Her eyes shifted to my black colt and the paper on his pastern, and understanding dawned.

“I’m so sorry. I wish you could stay. I’ll miss you more than anything.” I heard her pale hooves shuffle. “I want you to stay—you have to stay! But you also have to go . . .” Conflict raged in her face, and she forced out the next words. “Have a good life, Sandpiper. Try to visit sometime. Oh, this is awful!” She kicked the stall door ferociously.

I noticed Dove had stopped pulling, and I glanced over to her. To my amazement, Feather’s human had come in the door and was now communicating with Dove. Feather’s pale pink halter rested on her shoulder. Feather’s eyes widened. “Pasture time already?”

“It seems so.” I stepped away so Feather’s human could get to the door latch, and I stood patiently while she put the halter on my best friend. The human led Feather out into the aisle with me, and I nuzzled Feather’s cream-colored flank. She nickered.

Dove and the other human led us out the door, our hooves clacking on the hard concrete. The sun shone brightly, and my eyes took a moment to adjust to the glare. It had snowed overnight, and a frosty breeze rattled the bare branches of the wiry trees. Jay squeaked, slipping on the ice, his tiny dark-brown hooves skittering. Dove stretched out a strong arm and lifted him back to his feet with a grunt. He stayed close to my side after that.

Dove took us to our normal pasture. The snow rested in half-melted patches on the wet grass, and icicles dripped from the wooden fences. Feather’s human opened up the gate, and we were released inside. Jay immediately pranced to the other side of the field, tossing his half-grown coal-black mane. Feather stood elegantly with me, giving me a melancholy look.

“You have to leave now, don’t you?” she neighed reluctantly when the humans had retreated back into the warmth of their buildings. Her beautiful cream mane whipped around her neck and head, and her blue eyes gave her a wild appearance. But she looked heartbroken.

I stepped back, took a deep breath, and took a flying leap over the fence, landing with a thud on the other side.

“I’m sorry. If I could stay, I would.” I nosed her withers for what I feared would be the last time. “Goodbye, Feather.”

“Farewell, Sandpiper.” She moved away, giving me free access to the fence. Her posture clearly showed how wretched and grief-stricken she felt. I suddenly felt very sick. Why was I doing this to my best friend? Why had I decided to do such an inconsiderate thing?

Feather jerked her head toward the wooden barrier, her tail fluttering in the icy breeze. Her gaze was resolute.

In a daze of grief, I called Jay over with a whinny, and he cantered immediately to my side.

I took a shaky breath. “It’s time, Jay. We’re going to have our adventure.” I flicked my ear at the fence. “I’m going to jump over first, okay? And then you can wiggle your way under.”

“Okay!” He bounced eagerly, the paper flapping on his pastern giving me a firmer sense of resolve. The poor colt doesn’t know what’s happening. I can’t tell him we’re not going to come back. But this is the right thing for us.

I stepped back, took a deep breath, and took a flying leap over the fence, landing with a thud on the other side. The seriousness of my situation suddenly dawned on me, and I turned my attention to my small inky-black colt standing on the other side of the wooden posts. I nickered words of encouragement as he leaned down and wriggled out with some effort. He stood next to me, nostrils flared with excitement. A flash of pity came over me, but I didn’t show it. I glanced back at Feather. The tall cremello stood inside the pasture, so close and yet so far. I nuzzled her nose again, then turned away, my heart breaking. I kept my eyes fixed on her beautiful, familiar form as I started walking away from my old life, Jay bouncing at my side, blissfully oblivious. Feather’s face overflowed with anguish, her long forelock streaming in the cold wind. Eventually I wrenched my gaze from hers and faced toward the trees before me.

“WAIT!” A wild neigh came from behind me, and I whirled around. To my astonishment, Feather was suspended in the air above the fence, and landed elegantly on the other side—my side.

The side of freedom, I thought. A chill rippled down my back. Feather galloped to me in an instant. “I’m coming with you!”

“What? When are we going back?” Jay asked curiously, peering up at me and Feather.

I braced myself to tell him, and I opened my mouth to spill the news. No words came.

Feather glanced at me. “We’re not going back, Jay,” she told my colt gently, but her expression was hard and determined. “We’re going to be free.”

“Huh?” Jay’s tail flicked in confusion. “What do you mean? What about Dove?” “We’d have lost Dove anyway. This is better. It’ll be fun, little one.” I fought to keep my neigh steady.

Once again, Feather had my back. “Let’s run, Jay! We can run for ages and ages. We’re not trapped by fences anymore!”

He perked up at that. Feather flashed me an encouraging look. “Let’s go,” she said to Jay, and we all picked up a trot. Feather came up to my side, our heads level. “We can do this. We’ll figure it out. We’re together, and that’s all that matters.”

We picked up a canter and then a gallop, and soon we were flying through the trees, our hooves hardly touching the mossy, snow-patched ground. The scent of pine trees overtook the smells of the hay and shavings from the barn. An overwhelming sense of freedom and determination poured into my heart like a flood, drowning any trace of trepidation. I put my head down and plunged headfirst into my new life, my dearest friend and my child at my side.