Just ask the animals and they will tell you. Job 12:7a
Rusty the True, my horse, and I found each other in late October 2014. Up to that point in his life, Rusty’s story was one chocked full of much suffering, abuse, abandonment, and betrayal…all by human hands. Rusty, however, has shown me how an incredibly wounded soul can still find absolute trust.
We’d been riding out on a 2,000 acre farm with our puppy running wildly under our feet, cutting through occasional herds of cattle, jumping over logs, tearing through wooly bush, and swimming through swollen creeks for nearly two hours. Aside from our trio, there was not a soul in sight, only frogs and crickets sounding off as we found a picnic site alongside a creek, rolling feverishly from heavy winter rains.
I climbed down from Rusty’s back. We hadn’t been using a bit that day, only riding with a rope halter, so I easily fastened a lead rope to his bright purple halter and tied him to a tree so he could free graze. I sat next to him on a picnic table drinking the black coffee Rusty had carried on the back of his saddle for me.
I ate my protein bar and tossed our puppy handfuls of snacks. She was ravenous. For every mile Rusty and I rode, she ran at least two as she did circles around us. This period was a particularly dark time in my life, and I marveled at how God had brought the three of us together just before it all broke loose. I thanked Him for the comfort and companionship they offered me.
Even though I was looking directly at Rusty, in a flash so fast that my eyes didn’t register exactly how it happened, suddenly Rusty’s back left leg got bound in the lead rope. He pulled sharply against it, tangling it tighter about his foot. He reared up with full terror filling his eyes. Then, before I could even think of what to do, he folded himself to the ground in a fetal position; head bent toward his back left hoof, trapped in the rope, and buried his nose under his left front hoof. He closed his eyes and didn’t move a muscle—complete rest.
I took it all in from my perch on the picnic table, afraid to even breathe. My mind raced, fighting off the images of him suddenly jumping up, thereby breaking his leg. We’d ridden out many miles, and there was no one—and nothing anyone could have done anyway.
For a thousand-pound creature, who cannot survive without his feet, to be bound in this way is a plane of vulnerability that few humans can grasp. And, since horses are prey animals—not hunters—when fear sets in they naturally run. I feared if I approached Rusty he’d panic, and strike out seeking freedom—possibly killing me and breaking his leg, a death sentence for us both. Yet, the clock raced and I knew there was only so long that he could remain saddled and in that state.
Slowly, calmly, I knelt down, praying, “Sweet Jesus, deliver us in our hour of need”. Reaching down, I loosened the rope. Rusty didn’t budge as I pulled the rope all the way through its knot. He barely breathed until I had his leg completely free and took a step back from him. Then, with grace and eloquence, he erected himself.
Rusty shook and inhaled deeply, finally snorting—a beautiful sign of release in a horse.
He let me rub his head, and I cried some more. I offered him all the love within me and I thanked the angels for saving him, and me, and mostly for bringing us together. We walked around the grounds for a while, with me closely watching his movements, checking for injuries. He did not seem to be hurt. After a few minutes, he began to graze again as if nothing had happened, and his whole body seemed to melt with relaxation.
After he ate a while, it occurred to me that he might be thirsty after such a long ride followed by a traumatic episode. I led him to the rolling creek behind the picnic table.
We’d crossed this very creek—with me on his back—at least two dozen times throughout the day—at different points along the creek—as we snaked our way through the hillside. At one point, the trail is aptly named “Haunted Swamp” as you traverse through a mile or so of lowland marsh with varying depths of water. Rusty the True had picked his way through without missing a step.
When he reached the edge of the water, he paused, put his head low, gauged the depth, and proceeded with confidence. Only this time, his whole body immediately sank in mud to his knees. He panicked, did a powerful 180-degree turn, trying to make his way out of the miry bog. I instinctively moved, making a clear path whereby he could plow out, but his efforts to jump free only served to plunge him deeper. The black cotton mud sucked at him, swallowing him to his chest.
He struggled for freedom once, discerned it was impossible, and again laid stock still. Rusty bowed his head as if in prayer.
This time, he could not turn fetal, but his eyes shut in complete surrender. Images of Christ walking to Golgotha flooded my mind. Rusty’s eyes were not vacant, but at peace with his lot…waiting, trusting. I swear, I saw—and more so—felt, and could even taste, trust. It broke my heart.
I’d never known, experienced, or witnessed such complete trust and surrender to whatever life—or death—has to offer.
Again, I called out, “Sweet Jesus! Save us!”
Again, my eyes darted about. No one, anywhere. I waited with Rusty, taking in the pitiful scene. It cost me something to witness it, but I dared not turn away. A huge and sacred creature of God, rendered helpless. I begged for mercy on his behalf.
I’m not sure how much time passed without either of us budging before I decided—with a groaning prayer—to gently pull on the lead rope which I still held the end of in my hand. There is no physical way a horse could free himself from such a thick bog if he has sunk deeper than the power of his hind quarters and chest muscles.
Still, as I pulled encouragingly at the end of his lead rope, Rusty was inexplicably lifted from his miry bog as if by an unbeknownst formidable force—the wings of an unseen mighty mare.
Again, I wept.
Mud oozed as if from his pores. I moved quietly toward this same gentle horse of surrender that before he found me would not let any human touch him—and not me, at first. He lowered his head into my body, near my heart, asking me to rub his nuzzle. I joyfully gave it, with a humility that has racked me ever since. We took comfort in one another’s presence.
After some time, he shook his whole body from head to tail once again, shaking off all the trauma and painful memories. I led him on a long walk, thinking surely he’d be too weak for me to mount him again. I assumed we’d walk the long journey home, side-by-side.
To my surprise, within thirty minutes, he pushed his nose against me as if to say, “Come on. Get on. Let’s go.” I checked his legs and muscles carefully. All seemed okay. He breathed normally. His walk was a perfect little Paso Fino gate, and he was super engaged with both Pepper and me. I prayed a prayer of wisdom and protection as I climbed aboard; and waited to make sure my weight didn’t cause him pain. He turned his nose back to caress my calf, and I knew we were good to go.
The first time we approached the same creek—a few miles down—he hesitated, and kicked at the water. I checked it out myself, and assured him that we both needed to make this scary crossing. Not just to get home, but so that we didn’t live the rest of our days in fear of the miry bog. I talked to him as any of us would talk to one another—starting again at Day One Owning fears, not letting them own us. Rusty took the first step. Ankle deep, he stopped. I said, “We’re in now. You can finish it.” And on we rode.
The ropes and thick miry bog bound Rusty, sucked him down, and tried to keep him. He surrendered to what life offered him, finding his peace in that state of trust rather than fight or flight.
May we all be as brave and equally accepting as Rusty the True—neither letting the fear of abandonment keep us from giving everything nor the chase of love drive us to the shallows.
Love, your sister along the journey,