Posted on Jul 11, 2019
By Ellie Laks, Founder of The Gentle Barn
I loved her before I knew her. I would not actually meet her for almost a year, but I saw her in Blue’s eyes, and I got to know her through Blue’s heart. Blue was a pony at a sister horse rescue who was extremely depressed. When I went to visit, she would not take any treats from me like the other horses, and she stood in the corner with her back to us, head down, eyes closed, clearly suffering. When I asked what was wrong the answer broke my heart; Blue was sad because her best friend of ten years was just adopted without her. I brought Blue home to The Gentle Barn and it became my mission to find her friend. Several months later I finally got word that Blue’s friend, Sasha was being returned to the rescue and we could have her if we wanted. I hung up the phone and raced into the backyard to tell Blue that her love was coming home! In all those months that I knew her, that was the very first time that I saw light and hope in Blues soft brown eyes.
The reunion was amazing, way before the days of iPhones and instant videos, so sadly we didn’t film it, but suffice it to say there was not a dry eye in the house. Sasha and Blue reared up together, rubbed themselves against each other, nibbled on each other, and breathed each other in long and deep. They did everything in tandem; they ate together, slept side by side, and groomed each other for hours every day. They wanted nothing to do with anyone else, they were completely content in their private, reunited, happy bubble.
This reunion happened right as we were moving from our half acre in Tarzana where I had Founded The Gentle Barn, to our current five-acre property in Santa Clarita, so Blue and Sasha were in a foster home while we built barns and fences. The minute our pastures were ready we brought Blue and Sasha home. The plan was that they would be together for the rest of their lives. If you have read my book, My Gentle Barn, then you know the long and excruciating story of how Blue passed away the next day and left Sasha and me inconsolable. Blue had been ill for a long while, but horses are so stoic that no one knew until it was too late. It appears that Blue held on until she knew that her Sasha was safe and sound, then she let go and made her transition. But what Blue left me was the magical gift of knowing, healing, and loving Sasha and having her in my life for the last sixteen years. I am so grateful for that time with her!
Sasha was terribly afraid of humans. She had been started under saddle in a very cruel way and had lost all confidence in people, afraid that any mistake or hesitation would bring harsh retaliation. And I had an irrational fear of horses then. Sasha and I worked every day to heal each other. I would spend hours petting her and exploring her body with my fingers, uncovering all her sweet itchy spots. I would bury my face in her mane and her warmth and floral scent would fill me with pure joy. I would brush her tail for hours, feeling like a kid with a new doll. And we would take long walks on the trails, stopping to eat grass, smell the flowers, or just sit and talk for hours. We mourned Blue together, sharing memories and swapping stories. And we healed each other, gaining more and more confidence with each day together.
The pivotal moment when I completely gained Sasha’s trust was when we were out on the trail with her husband, Caesar, and my husband, Jay. It was our ritual double date and it was definitely the highlight of the week. The air was crisp and cool and the horses were feeling frisky. Approaching a hill, Caesar and Sasha both took off at a full gallop, kicking up their heels and celebrating life. Being eight months pregnant however, I had no stomach muscles to hold on and off I flew like a sack of potatoes. Jay came to see if I was ok, and the two horses fled the scene, taking off around the bend at a full run, fearing we would be angry. We were deep into the trails and hours on foot from the main road. With my head spinning, and my ribs throbbing, Jay supported me as I hobbled along the trail, unable to do anything else because we didn’t even have a cell signal to call for help. Much to our relief we saw a police car and flagged it down. When we were safely inside the car we asked the officer why he was driving on the horse trails, and how he had found us, and he said that he had seen two riderless horses running down Sierra Highway and once he had brought the horses to safety he came looking for us. We thanked him profusely! He drove us to retrieve our horses who were eating an all you can eat buffet at the feed store down the road. When Sasha saw us, she immediately started trembling thinking she would be in trouble. But I gently stroked her neck and talked softly to her. We walked them slowly home and once there took off their tack and gave them lunch. I stood beside Sasha as she ate and explained to her that she’ll always be safe, always have my gentle hand and understanding, and I'll love her for the rest of her life. I had said those words before, but in that moment, she returned my gaze and finally believed me. Sasha and I have been best friends ever since!
The next pivotal moment was eight years ago. Once Sasha had recovered under saddle from her past abuse, I explained to her that now riding was only if she wanted to do it, and we could stop at any time. I had already begun feeling uneasy about riding horses. Here I was rehabilitating horses from being ridden with their sway backs, sore shoulders, scar tissue, and arthritic legs, and I was participating in the very thing that caused those injuries. The more horses we rescued, and the more acupuncture, massage therapy, ultrasound, and energy work we were using to heal the horses, it was becoming clear to me that a horse’s spine is not designed to carry weight, even though they allow us to ride them. So when I brought out the saddle one day and Sasha laid back her ears and attacked the saddle with her teeth, I heard her loud and clear and retired her right away. I have not ridden a horse since that day. I used to think that the most intimate thing I could do to bond with a horse was to ride them, moving together as if one body. But Sasha and I started taking long hard walks out on the trail together, and walking beside her, exploring the world together was far more intimate and connecting than riding ever was!
Over the last decade and a half Sasha has worked with me and Jay to host groups of children who were at risk, from the inner city, or differently abled. She reached out to pat quadriplegic kids who could not pat her. She walked carefully beside children with disabilities giving them confidence. She stood still for children to brush her. She gently took carrots from guests being tender with the tiniest fingers. And she even walked up into the school buses with her front legs to say goodbye to the children when they were leaving. Sasha was married to Caesar but had a very special connection with Magic as well. She was the matriarch of our horse herd, keeping everyone in line and well behaved, while at the same time making sure they all felt loved and treasured. She was fuzzy, soft, kind, and affectionate, and I’ll remember the smell of her velvet nose forever.
This week Sasha had trouble getting up. We quickly helped her stand and saw that she was trembling. We called our veterinarian right away who did everything he could do for her in the field and then recommended that we bring her to the hospital. After doing tests the doctors at the hospital said she had an impaction that caused low calcium blood numbers and needed IV fluids with meds and calcium. By the next day, her shaking had stopped, and she was responding to the treatments beautifully. By the second day, Sasha was back on feed and progressing nicely. The doctors saw her on rounds and were pleased with her progress and blood levels. And thirty minutes later Sasha laid down and transitioned. Just like that, she was gone.
Because Sasha was doing so well in the hospital, and we had already booked a vacation after not having one in ten years, Sasha passed away while we were gone. We had seen her the day before and figured because she was doing great, we’d see her when we got back to bring her home. I certainly didn't think that I would never see her again. As you can imagine the start of our vacation was fraught with anguish. Of course, there was the excruciating loss, but the regret and guilt were killing me. Then one of our board members, Wendy, reached out to me. She shared with me that she believed that we all choose when to go, it is not random. We are all born at the exact right time, and we all transition when it is the perfect time. She advised that there was probably a gift for me in there somewhere. It was so hard to consider because it felt much more like a curse than a gift, but over the first few days, I tried very hard to see if there was truth to what Wendy had said. And then suddenly I realized that had Sasha passed away while I was home, I would have been knocked to my knees with the pain, but would have had to get right back up and keep working, because so many more animals still depended on me. I had not really yet processed the many losses we have had before Sasha over the last couple of months, like Lucy, Rama, Adeline, Freddy, or Truffles. And I realized that because it happened while on vacation, I had so much time to grieve, cry, and remember that I would never have had before. And all of a sudden I felt grateful instead of guilty. I could take an entire week to mourn, what a gift! I sat by the pool and went over so many memories in my head of being with Sasha. I was kind to myself and ate and drank a little more than I probably should have. I rested, slept, and cried a lot. And by the end of the vacation, I had said a proper farewell to my girl, a farewell fitting for the queen, best friend, and partner that Sasha was to me. After sixteen years of loving her, Sasha deserved a full week of remembering, and so did I.
We have had a tremendous amount of loss lately. And after twenty years of loving and losing animals, it never gets easier. But I am now able to go from grief to gratitude faster, and that helps. The truth is that Sasha, Lucy, Truffles, Rama, and Freddy could have been in any barnyard, in any city, state, and country in the world, but they chose The Gentle Barn! It is us who got to love them, serve them, care for them, hear them, see them, pat them, smell them, be inspired by them, and learn from them. How lucky were we?! And no matter how much losing them hurts, I would not trade loving them for anything! The real loss would have been to not know them at all! If you knew my Sasha, thanks for loving her with me. And if you never knew her, I am so sorry for your loss, she was AMAZING!