Life delivers the most unexpected gifts

Life delivers the most unexpected gifts

Deep in my bones lives a passionate love for animals. My childhood was spent volunteering at vet clinics and rescue shelters, studying my World Wildlife Fund notebook, and raising my own herd of dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, parakeets, and fish. I’ve studied wildlife conservation abroad in Australia, worked aboard an education-based whale watch in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and achieved my lifelong dream of becoming a marine scientist.

The natural world captivates me, and second, to the ocean, a large part of my heart belongs to horses.

My parents supported (most of) my wild endeavors, but they weren’t quite willing to add a horse to our small zoo. Looking back, I completely understand why, but the desire remained to care for my own horse someday. Fast forward 25 years… here I am, living in Puerto Rico, healing and training a rescue horse!

Several days a week, I volunteer with an incredible non-profit, West Coast Ecuestre, dedicated to improving the lives of children and adults in western Puerto Rico through traditional riding classes and equine-assisted therapies for those with mental and physical disabilities. Additionally, they run a rescue program and educate the community about proper horse care.

Tula, days after her rescue

Days after Tula’s rescue by West Coast Ecuestre. Photo credit: Michelle Tinsen

One February morning, I arrived at the barn for my usual feeding shift to find that our herd had grown by one. Upon meeting our new rescue mare, who had been left abandoned in a nearby field, the connection was instant. Having faced serious neglect and abuse, she suffered from extreme emaciation, open and severely infected wounds, major hair loss, and intense lethargy. She was in dire straights but landed in the perfect hands, saved by West Coast Ecuestre co-director, Michelle Tinsen.

Her spirit was diminished. She was exhausted and living every moment in fear. It was difficult to settle on a name for a beautiful being who sorely lacked the energy of life, but she became Tula, meaning “gracious gift” in Greek. From the get-go, I was drawn to her, for reasons beyond explanation, but our paths were destined to cross.

During Tula’s first chapter under our care, we focused on wound healing, strength building, and weight gain. It took weeks for her to trust enough to eat from our hands. She was so terrified of people that the simple act of putting a halter gently over her head was a struggle. On countless days, my eyes welled up with tears after seeing the tremendous fear that consumed her.

“Give it time”, they say, and that’s exactly what Tula needed. After only a few months, Tula’s wounds were healed, her coat had recovered beautifully, and she was developing muscle. Her improvement was encouraging, so it was time to introduce some training!

Before my experience with Tula, I knew next to nothing about training and natural horsemanship, which is a philosophy of working with horses based on their natural instinct and methods of communication, with the understanding that horses do not learn through fear or pain, but rather from the idea of pressure and the release of pressure. I could ride and had the utmost respect for equines, but that is not the same thing.

Thankfully, Michelle, who first saved Tula, had the patience to teach us both simultaneously. We began with very basic groundwork exercises, where you stay on the ground and work with your horse on a lead rope. This creates leadership, trust, and respect between the horse and human. While certainly patience-testing at times, Tula was a quick learner, eager to please and quite clever.

On several occasions, however, I felt frustrated at the “slow pace” of her progression. A simple wave of my arm would still spook her, triggering a “fight or flight” response. So, every time we met for training, I acknowledged her past trauma (which will never be fully known) and reminded myself that my expectations are not necessarily the same as hers. There were two of us in this dance, and I would celebrate how far she had come and all the small victories along the way.

Over 15 months later, after healing from severe neglect, enduring an emergency vet visit, overcoming a tick-borne illness, surviving two hurricanes and coming back renewed after four months at pasture with no training, Tula is thriving. She is sassy, loves a challenge, and has been an incredible teacher and tremendous inspiration in my life. Together, we have conquered fears, opened hearts, embraced patience, and learned to live in the present.

Only one week after release from emergency vet care, enjoying pasture at sunset. Photo credit: Chase Walker

Our community rallied together to save this horse: from veterinarians to energy healers, families giving their time and resources to trailer Tula across the island, kind souls who donated for her care, and to everyone who has shared her story. Click here to help us continue to support Tula.

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