We have all read about how horse therapy has managed to treat those with physical and mental conditions. There is something magical about the bond between animals and humans. My wife is a certified equine therapist, and we have welcomed hundreds of challenged children to our ranch over the years. It has blessed us beyond measure. However, this story is not about a child.
Our horse ranch, settled in the wild prairies of Wyoming, has been in our family for five generations. We breed and sell horses, provide equine therapy for children, and run a horse rescue facility. Out of all the horses that we have rescued over the years, Van Gogh stands out in my mind.
Three years ago, our son Ralston (who is our vet) was called by our local authorities to check out a case of animal abuse. When he arrived in the abandoned field, a heart-wrenching sight awaited him. Tethered to a gnarled sycamore tree was an emaciated horse, ready to die.
This once-majestic animal had been starved to the point of being skeletal. What little food the animal had was mildewed, and his water trough was empty. He had open, infected wounds on his body from cruel beatings. His mane and tail were a tangled mess, and all he could do was shiver and pant for breath.
The sheriff never caught the monster who did this to a poor, defenseless animal. Ralston brought the horse to us, thinking that we could just make him comfortable before dying. To our amazement, the animal was still alive the next day. We treated and dressed his wounds the best we could, because he was so terrified of us. He nibbled some on the fresh hay and feed we brought him, and drank a lot of the cold water in his trough.
He had unusual coloring on his coat. Through the healing wounds, we saw that he was coal black with white and tan swirls. These swirls reminded my wife of the iconic painting “Starry Night,” by Vincent Van Gogh. So, we named the horse after the artist. Day by day, Van Gogh was healing and getting stronger. It took a long time for him to trust us enough to touch him.
Because of his extensive injuries and unspeakable history of abuse, we decided that no one should ride Van Gogh. However, he would still be fun for children to pet and offer apples and carrots to him. After months of recuperation, he was well enough to be led by a rope. Van Gogh proved to be a gentle, shy animal. He learned to trust all the little ones who wanted to pet him.
Words just cannot convey the miraculous recovery this beautiful creature had. Although he still had the scars and nervousness of past mistreatment, he overcame them with his zeal for life. He enjoyed socializing with the other horses, and would often run through the open pastures with them.
An even great wonder came when Ralston brought another rescue to our door—only this one was much smaller. When our son opened the warm blankets, my wife started to cry. It was a pitiful dog, beaten and starved to the point of death. Her bony body shivered in the blankets as she clung to life. Ralston wiped away a tear as he showed us cigarette burns all over the animal’s abused body. All we could do is say that we would try to help her.
Ralston believed that she was a border collie. Judging by her teeth and bone structure, he opined that she was between 2-3 years old. Someone had rescued her from a garbage dumpster. We gave her the meds that Ralston prescribed, and prayed that she would heal.
We were not able to save one of her back legs. It had taken gangrene, and Ralston had to amputate it. Through the horrible trauma and surgery, this critter was determined to live. My wife named her Co-Co, after the famous designer. It was quite a task to change Co-Co’s bandages, because she was so mistrusting of humans.
With intensive treatment, Co-Co got stronger and started venturing out of the barn. Her coat was still thin, and she limped on three legs. We could never get close enough to pet her because of her fear. While she hid, we put out food and water for her. Only when we left would she eat or drink.
Of all things, Van Gogh and Co-Co formed an unusual friendship. She would hobble around him and bark, while he would whinny and walk with her at his side. We were even more surprised when she took up residence in his stall at night. Wherever Van Gogh went, we would see Co-Co.
A month ago, we got to pet Co-Co for the first time. With Van Gogh by her side, she felt protected. It is going to take some time, but we think she will finally warm up to us. Was it a shared history of abuse and neglect that bonded these animals? Did Van Gogh somehow encourage Co-Co to enjoy her new life of freedom? We will never know. What we do know is that animals have an innate ability to promote healing—even when it is one of their own.