August 2019 - A Damn Fine Hand
Written by by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018
Tuesday, 30 July 2019 22:03


Installment #14, Metta.

by Joell Dunlap - all rights reserved by the author 2018

Mary and Colette had three things in common. They were 14 years old, they were crazy about horses and both had attempted suicide in the last year.

The girls came together at the ranch. Mary was the tiny, quiet one with a calm exterior and an artist’s temperament. She had Mediterranean skin and short, thick course black curls. She was what the adults called “an old soul.” The kids called her “helpful” “sweet” or “too quiet, maybe she’s kinda stuck up.”

Colette, a performer by nature, basked in the limelight of attention always tossing her glossy blond ponytail to and fro and flashing a perfect white grin while breaking often into song and dance.  The adults called her “lovely” or “outgoing,” the kids called her “silly” or “goofy.” Both were in the throes and warmth of new-found friendship. They told each other everything and when they weren’t together, they sent text messages day and night.

“R U Ok?” was a favorite.

“I LUV Fanny/Fides/Eve” was a common reply.

The girls were Dee’s constant companions. They were schooled riders and adept young horsewomen. They had the knowledge to report a lameness observed in one of the pasture horses as well as a horse in the barn whose mealtime habits had changed just enough to raise concern flagging an impending infection or unhappiness caused from physical pain or unease. They could smell a horse with a tooth abscess, and they could pinpoint a loose shoe from the sound it made when the horse walked. They loved the ranch and all the animals in it as only 14-year-old girls can.

The Ranch was their touchstone – the place away from the pressures of school and home. The girls taught volunteers, often middle-aged women looking for exercise, how to clean stalls, turn the compost heap, feed the horses and keep track of their special diets, mend fences and scrub waterers. In exchange, Dee had them help to retrain the racehorses into trusty mounts in the arena and on the trail.

Each time a new horse arrived from the track, both girls could be found rushing to greet the trailer as if it were Santa’s sleigh bringing new toys. When shiny racehorses, rippled in muscle, descended from the trailer, each would fantasize about what the horse’s new career would be, and what part they would play in it. They would stand breathlessly while Dee ran her rough hands over the new horse’s knees, tendons and ankles assessing the extent of the damage and laying out a plan for rehabilitation.

“This girls, is a freshly bowed tendon,” Dee would tell them. “Put your hand here” she would place their fingers behind the horse’s knee and run it down the back of the leg. See how it bulges out and is warm and squishy? Now come around to the other side and do the same thing. It’s supposed to be cold and tight like this one. Feel the difference?” Both girls would do their best to touch and understand although the last thing either of them wanted to hear is that this magnificent animal would be un-rideable for months.

“What do we do for him?” the girls want to know.

“We keep him wrapped for now. He needs the support. Six weeks from now, we take his shoes off and put him in the big pasture and just feed him and pet him and let him forget about saddles and bridles and stalls and training. We let sunshine and hills and plain old hay and water do their magic. He’ll get shaggy and ugly all winter long, then, come spring, we bring him in the barn and see what he wants to do.”

This time was different. This time, an older truck and trailer rattled into the ranch. This time, Dee barely looked up from her lesson in the arena. Instead, she told the girls, just tell the driver to put the mare in the last stall on the right. Give her just one scoop of hay pellets and leave her alone.

The girls knew that Dee had agreed to take in a horse from another horse rescue that had become overloaded, but that’s all they knew. They had overheard Dee playing the message from the farm that told Dee that the horse would be arriving today and that the mare was sweet and “really hungry.” They looked nervously at each other when they noticed that Dee was uncharacteristically quiet after hearing the message. It was clear even to teen girls that Dee didn’t want to talk about it.

The girls ran to meet the truck, drunk with the power of being the first to see the newest arrival and to delegate to the driver where the mare should go. They giggled in anticipation and argued over who might be the first to ride her. Both harbored visions of blue ribbons and exhilarating gallops on the trail. When the driver led the mare from the van, both girls froze.
“Oh my Gawd” Colette gasped while leaning into Mary. “Who does this to a horse?”

Mary stood rooted to the ground, mouth open, taking in every inch of the mare’s condition. She couldn’t help but wonder “Why isn’t Dee over here to see this? How can she continue to teach in the arena? Why would she leave it to us to see her?”

The mare’s brittle skin barely covered her gaunt haunches and sharp ribs. Her coat was covered with scabs and scars and filth. Her withers stuck out from her emaciated back like a shark’s dorsal fin. Her tail had been eaten away by other hungry horses and her sparse tangled mane hung limp and dull on her scrawny neck.

The driver led the mare to the stall and the girls fetched her food. After a couple of stumbling steps around her new surroundings, the mare gently nibbled her food and regarded the children with polite curiosity as if to say “is all this food for me?” The girls stood and watched the mare daintily eat and mused on what they might call her.

“How about Cindy?” said Mary.

“I know a girl named Cindy at my old school, she was super mean,” said Colette.

“Okay then, how about Star?

“Too ordinary.”



“Okay then, your turn to pick something,” said Mary.

“I think we need Dee to see her first.”

“Yeah, is she being weird or what? It’s like she doesn’t even care or something. She hasn’t even come over yet.”

“I think she’s just sad, or busy or something. I dunno. Hey look, she’s already done with her pellets, do you think we can give her some more?” asked Colette.

“Give her one more scoop but soak it in water first and then wait at least an hour before you give her anything else.” Dee was behind them and neither of them knew how long she’d been there. They were both thinking sheepish thoughts about how much she may have overheard. The girls stepped back as Dee approached the stall and slipped in quietly. The mare regarded her warily but continued to sniff her feeder for more food.

“Easy old gal,” Dee crooned in a low voice as she ran her hands over the filthy and battered coat. She firmly but quietly grasped the mare’s nose and turned up the upper lip to find a faded and unreadable identification tattoo, proving that she was a pedigreed Thoroughbred that had raced in the US. She briefly inspected the mare’s teeth to try and determine an approximate age.

When the mare began to fuss, Dee released her head and went back to physically inspecting the mare’s body. The mare held her breath, holding the exhale and standing frozen until Dee’s hands ran down the bones of her hind legs towards the deep cuts and scars, oozing with dirt and blood and pus. The mare lifted her leg and shyly waved it, less of a threatening kick than a plea to be left alone. Dee patted her flank and stepped back. The mare let out her breath in a giant sigh. It was then that the girls noticed the tears streaming down Dee’s face. Focusing her eyes on the mare’s battered legs Dee kept her back to the girls as she announced: “This poor beast and six of her friends were found abandoned in an orchard with nothing to eat or drink. They had been used for a sport they call ‘horse tripping.‘”

“What’s that?,” asked Colette.

“It’s where horses are run out of a chute and roped by their legs.”

“Who does stuff like that?” demanded Mary.

“I think we should track those people down and rope them by the legs!,” said Colette with a red face and balled up fists.

Dee let herself out of the stall and sent the girls out to fetch another scoop of the hay pellets. When they came back, they found Dee sitting on a tack box in the shed-row of the barn looking sad and old and for the first time for either of them, small and defeated.

“Are you okay?” They asked her in unison sitting down on either side of her. Colette wrapped her arms around Dee’s shoulders. Mary, the more reserved of the two, stared forward watching the mare eat.

Dee looked up, took a long breath and exhaled loudly. “Sh*t. Sorry girls, I don’t like to cuss in front of you. But I just can’t handle thinking that someone raced this animal, someone used her body as a broodmare, someone sold her at auction, someone used her as entertainment to run and to trip and then someone turned her out into an orchard to fend for herself with no food or water. Who does this? Who uses an animal and just discards a life when it’s not useful to you anymore? And here we are, struggling to pay the phone bill and we have to feed her until it’s time to put her to sleep? It’s enough to make you just hate people.”

All three were quiet then and spent some moments in their own thoughts while watching the hungry horse eat her food. When the mare was done, she lifted her head and looked expectantly at Mary, Dee and Colette as if to say “got any more food for me?” A giggle welled up from Dee and within moments all three were laughing heartily. “How about we call her Piglet?,” exclaimed Mary. The laughter intensified and the tears dried up.

Dee straightened her shoulders and became serious. “Can we call her Metta?”

“Metta?” the girls asked. “Why.”

“It’s a Buddhist term that means – well it means a whole lot of things, but mostly it means forgiveness.”

Author Joell Dunlap lives in Half Moon Bay with her husband, some smelly old hound dogs and 19 rescued and donated horses - most of them OTTBs. She is the founder and executive director of The Square Peg Foundation ( You can subscribe to read weekly installments of A Damn Fine Hand here:, or follow along in upcoming issues of CRM as we serialize her compelling novel.