Mornings in Michigan: Back to the barn
The thing about being on a farm is it’s really hard to be in your own head. The sounds, sights, and smells of a farm are all consuming in the morning.
It’s impossible to worry about a global pandemic, or work, or anything, really, when the rooster is crowing, eggs need collecting, the horses need feeding, and the stalls need mucking.
I really missed that inundation.
I rode horses as a kid and into high school. I never owned one; it was a classic case of girl-begging-resistant-parents-for-pony. But as an adult I craved the barn things, and the immersion of working with horses.
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That’s what brought me to Starry Skies.
Tricia Terry founded Starry Skies Equine Rescue and Sanctuary on the border of Dexter and Ann Arbor more than a decade ago at her farm.
"We had people starting to just stop by because we had so many horses here that we were just taking care of privately," says Terry. "That's when we decided to go ahead and kind of open up as a [non-profit] and take volunteers and turn it into something formal."
Terry has rehabilitated and adopted out hundreds of horses since then.
The horses come in from a wide variety of sources. They're surrendered by owners who can't care for them. They come from hoarding cases through sheriff departments. They come off the race track, and auction block. Some are destined for the slaughter house. Some are pregnant. Many of them are injured, sometimes permanently. Some come in blind, or sick, or starving. Some horses become permanent residents; sanctuary horses that are very old, or have deformities or injuries that will keep them at Starry Skies for the rest of their lives.
The endless combination of injuries – physical and emotional – sustained by these animals is incredible. Almost as incredible as how far most of them come through rehabilitation at the rescue.
Horses, like people, are unique. It’s what makes them interesting to me, and to the dozens of volunteers that come every week to Starry Skies.
"It just takes a lot of TLC, a lot of tender loving care, to bring [the horses] back to where they once again can trust a human being," says longtime volunteer Jackie Stickney. Stickney also manages memberships at Michigan Radio, which is how I know her and how I first heard about Starry Skies. She helps guide new volunteers at the horse rescue, which can sometimes be a challenge.
"They come out thinking that they're going to have a lot of hands-on experience," she says. "They don't realize that there is so much more to keeping a barn than just grooming a horse or riding a horse."
Mucking stalls and scraping them clean, putting down fresh bedding, replenishing hay, buckets of grain, fresh water. It’s hard work. But you’re caring for these magnificent 1,000-pound creatures that decide to trust you.
You – tiny human.
And successful rehabilitation can look different for every horse.
Such as Tanto.
"Tanto is a terrible horse," says barn manager Bridget Long. "He's awful. He destroys stuff."
Tanto is a stocky chestnut Paint they found on Craigslist. He was being sold as a young stud. Starry Skies gelds every stallion that comes to the rescue. Tanto is beautiful, but sassy. He's a bit of a bully in the herd.
The folks at Starry Skies worked with him and found him a good home last year.
"The last update we got, they were doing lessons with him and the grandson really loves him," says Bridget. "And that's phenomenal."
There's always a chance the new home won't work out for Tanto, or any tricky horse that comes through the rescue. But that’s okay, because any horse adopted out of Starry Skies is welcome back.
Many of these horses would be undesirable to the average horse buyer. They require patience, and often expensive veterinary care. But you spend weeks, months, and sometimes years working to rehabilitate these horses, and then a person comes along who doesn’t just see a one-eyed pony, or bad legs, or a hot temperament, but rather a great companion.
And you, the volunteer, have to say goodbye.
"When you've been doing it as long as I have, it's not as emotional as it used to be," says Tricia Terry. "I mean, that's the ultimate goal, right? Is to bring them in, get them to the place where they don't need to be at the rescue and then find them their home."
There’s at least one horse I was unwilling to say goodbye to. Rosie is a young Appaloosa born at the rescue, whose mother came from a big hoarding and neglect case out of Lenawee County. I adopted Rosie, and now I get to spend time taking care of her, too.
These horses deserve my time. Because in the morning they let me be with them, and leave my human worries behind – all a million miles away from the farm.