Be at Peace ~ Daughter of SkyeLandeSea
Last week, I said farewell to Darma, the beloved mare I have shared my life with for over twenty-five years. Her beautiful presence, intense personality, and the mix of her fiery nature with her vulnerability made her unpredictable and complex. Her loss is unfathomable, and yet was a profound and beautiful chapter in closing the book of her life with me.
I wish I could give her a wake, so we could all share stories of how she has informed and touched us. Some of you have met Darma, or known of her through my blogs and stories. Some from the painting and wisdom card I created of her beautiful eye reflecting her own image for the Way of the Horse Card deck. She was incredibly beautiful, a living sculpture. In motion she was an expression of flow and fire, and in stillness a living work of art. She was a profoundly gifted healer who had a soft spot for children. She brooked no delay when feeding time was concerned. Yet she would often share hay with her herd mates. As I begin to experience life without her, my body is releasing the stress of many years of caring for this beautiful, intense, enigmatic, vigilant, and powerful being.
Her powerful, palpable presence has been a part of my psyche since I met her at Churchill Downs racetrack in July 1996. It was love at first breath when she raised her nostrils to mine and greeted me, horse fashion, with her gentle warm breath. My life changed profoundly when I was able to offer her a home seven months later after her injuries ended her racing career. (See Blog Series Darma 1 - 6 )
Darma's one win running on a previously fractured knee 1993
"Darma Girl" ~ 1999
From the beginning, her sensitive nature made life with her challenging, especially since I was a novice horsewoman. Just leading her by a halter, or finding a way to address her fear in being kept away from her stall were harbingers of what was to come. Thus began my quest for the right path for her and I. This led to us finding our farm, to give her a place to be free to be herself, and for me to be able to choose her lifestyle. Within a short time, we began to rescue more horses and other animals. Her herd grew, and she was happiest when she was with her herd.
As my relationship with her and my other animals evolved, I continued the quest to learn all I could about the nature of healing, and horse and human consciousness. This seeking led to my meeting Linda Kohanov and many other enlightened practitioners of horse wisdom.
Darma and her herd 2003
These Last Few Years
Darma had many happy years here. But as the size of her herd dwindled, where and when she felt safe dwindled as well. In addition, these last few years have been hard on both of us as she began to struggle with health and aging issues. Her eyesight became compromised, she struggled with teeth that had fractious roots. Vet procedures were just another cause of anxiety.
Our neighborhood, which had been previously quiet, became busier and louder with more power equipment, demolition and construction, and more active neighbors and cars. Then there were the extreme fireworks twice a year. Almost everything triggered her, even someone walking down the street, or kids and dogs playing. Friend became foe. Events triggered her post-traumatic stress as her fragile nervous system tried to cope with what she couldn't accurately interpret.
These episodes became so pronounced that her fear often made her unpredictable and at times dangerous. She would trot and canter, sweating profusely. At times she was out of her mind, almost running into objects or me. Snow was the most challenging, perhaps affecting her eyesight even more and triggering her survival instincts. She would stop eating, and when she wasn't moving, she was standing guard.
Darma under stress
Then, the foundation of her human and remaining horse herd support began to crumble. In 2018 Rod was diagnosed with aggressive cancer, surviving a near-death experience, and undergoing two intense rounds of chemotherapy for over a year. My focus was split between his needs and those of our animal family. During this time our two remaining horses also had serious health challenges. Her first love, our miniature gelding Laddie, became ill with pneumonia and then contracted laminitis, and was in serious condition for a year. Then, just as he started to improve, her other bonded mate of 20 years, our gelding Mystico, had another serious bout of his chronic laminitis, requiring him to be put in a deeply bedded stall for a year now and counting. She could touch him and be near him in the adjacent stall, but not in the way horses should be together. Her herd was now almost immobilized, with her the only protector against the newly frightening world around her home.
Darma and Mystico 2022
The other behavior which had become ingrained in her was that she didn’t feel she could lay down to sleep. Despite being able to roll and get up with what appeared to be normal effort, she felt vulnerable on the ground. So, if she slept, she would only sleep standing. Her fused right knee joint couldn’t lock, which is necessary for horses to sleep, so her knees would buckle when she fell asleep for brief moments. For nearly a decade she had slept this way.
Darma sleeping while standing 2022
Due to all this stress Darma was prone to chronic ulcers and colic, and these episodes became more frequent. Often in caring for her with minor injuries, dosing medications, or trying to blanket her to keep her warm, she would resist and react. I often couldn’t do the simplest tasks that every horse owner needs to do to care for their horse, even though she’d known me most of her life. I tried everything I knew and most of what I didn't. In addition to allopathic vet care I sought the advice of practitioners of herbal, homeopathic and energy work, animal communicaters and behavioral trainers. I did private sessions with horse behavior specialists including Sharon Wilsie of Horse Speak. Darma responded to some of these approaches in whatever capacity she could and I learned much along the way about her nervous system. But it seemed that each time we began to have some progress, a health crisis, or big neighborhood event would set her back. Some of these helped a little, but nothing could solve the triggers. I never knew what the day would bring.
Then, a few months ago, she suffered the most severe colic and a displaced colon and had to endure being heavily sedated to trailer her to a local vet hospital. This was her worst nightmare. She couldn’t stand to be away from her paddock much less her home. She was frantic and had to be sedated. That experience nearly put her over the edge, but she is also a survivor.
During this time last year I reconnected with my friend Peggy, who had experienced a profound healing session a few years ago with Darma during one of the Vision Horse workshops I had co-hosted and facilitated here with my friend Sandra Wallin. Peggy had since radically changed her life to include rescued horses. In the process of trying to help them, she had learned the Trust Technique by James French. The profound mindfulness meditation techniques James teaches allows humans to help horses and other animals achieve a remarkably calm state of mind.
This miraculous tool became the missing piece to my ability to help Darma. I began to learn that Darma’s fears had also led to me to be hypervigilant. I felt powerless to help her and my fear for her well being contributed to her emotional state. I had to learn how to separate myself from her needs because there was only so much I could do to help her. With Trust, I learned to become the eye of her storm.
Darma running due to no apparent cause, while Rod tries to show her he's protecting the property at the gate
I must say, I have become resilient. The woman she has helped me become is not the same woman who had no idea what to do when as she would freeze in fear and plant her four hooves. Though I spent many nights crying out of frustration and my apparent inability to help her, she taught me resilience, patience, persistence, and faith. Her initiations gave me the strength to keep going through the losses of so many of our animal family, and to recover from my own near-death experience. The strength she taught me to wield has transcended into grace and surrender.
Kim doing Trust Technique with Darma
Kim and Darma ~ 2022
The Day Of
I had been watching her carefully in the months since her colic. I continued to offer her all the support I have learned to muster; physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual. Though she did have several other episodes of colic and anxiety, in the last few months for the first time in years, all the work we had done together had seemed to take hold and her vigilance was beginning to ease. To behold her beauty and apparent health, no one would know she was challenged. Each day when I saw her grazing or enjoying her life was a profound blessing and I hoped it would last.
Then, last Monday night October 10th though earlier she had seemed to be eating and acting normally, she appeared lethargic and didn’t want to eat her dinner. The emergency vet indicated she had contracted an inexplicable fever which added more stress to her body’s long list of health challenges. On Tuesday morning, she seemed interested in going out to her pasture. When she walked by the short elderberry trees, a falcon took flight and flew low, just over her back, landing in another nearby tree, and then flew off to the forest.
I remarked on the falcon’s flight, recalling that once some time ago, during a particularly difficult time of colic and anxiety, Darma and I had been standing sharing Trust meditation and a falcon landed on the wooden pallets we use as a fence, just ten feet from where we stood. I maintained my state of mind as I didn’t want to disturb the profound experience. The beautiful bird stood there, uncharacteristically flat footed, calmly appraising us as it communed with Darma. So I took this day's appearance as a sign that she was receiving support from the spirit realm.
By Wednesday afternoon, the medical support, energy work, and prayers seemed to be helping, and she had a brief respite. She grazed a little, and that night she ate her mash with a determination that nearly pushed the bowl out of my hands. She even gave me a head rub, which was always our mutual sign that she was ok on any given day.
But on Thursday morning, when I checked her temperature, the fever had returned. After resting, she followed me again to the gate. I hoped she would be willing to graze so I let her out. When she continued past her favorite grazing area and despite her weakness, made her way slowly and steadily to a part of the pasture she never sought, I watched with concern. Because of her anxious nature, and the fact that her herd mates couldn’t join her in the field, she never chose to go more than a close distance from her paddock, and always had to have the gate left open. But the beautiful autumn day, which was unusually warm and dry, lulled me into believing this was a walk for her well being. I had no way of knowing it would the last one she would ever take.
Darma's path ~ October 13, 2022
The field is overgrown, so she walked the mowed path slowly, carefully placing each hoof carefully as her swollen legs were clearly off balance. This was not a pace she had ever exhibited before no matter how sick she had been. She stopped when the path intersected another. She looked right and left, considering, then stepped into the long grass straight ahead. Thinking back, I now realize she was showing me she was ready to take the trail less traveled.
What transpired the rest of that morning and into the afternoon passed not in a blur, but in in many hours of clarity. I left her standing in the pasture and went to get her medication. My hands were full, so I left my cell phone in the barn. When I came back I found her laying on the ground but she wasn't resting, she was in distress. I immediately interpreted her struggles as death throes. Each moment required my entire being to make the best decisions for her. I felt like I entered an altered state as I held space for her potential death. I knelt and cradling her head and spoke to her lovingly as she blew anxious breaths and her unfocused eyes rolled as her back legs kicked. I told her if she was choosing to cross over, I was there with her, and she could go with a free spirit. After twenty agonizing minutes she calmed somewhat, so I ran to get my phone and called Rod who raced from the house. I contacted my vet who had already planned to come so was prepared and arrived shortly thereafter. While we waited, on the vets advised we try to help her become sternal and prop her up with a hay bale, as laying flat she could go into shock. So we tried to encourage Darma to raise her head and shoulders, but she couldn't. She made one attempt to get up on her own but quickly collapsed.
By the time the vet arrived she was calmer, and the vet determined that her weakness could hopefully be remedied with fluids and glucose. Over the next two hours we offered these emergency measures. During this time, Darma went into the same frightening pattern of movement and the vet immediately said, “I think she is in REM sleep!” I realized this was likely the case since she never could sleep. This gave me hope that she just needed deep rest because of her illness.
After time for her to rest, with the help from the vet, her assistants, Rod, and our farrier Lisa, we tried to help Darma stand up. It was unsafe for her to remain prone, as her muscles were compressed and compromised. We rolled her over, and she tried several times, but the repeated attempts just made her weaker. It was frightening and exhausting trying to help lift a 1,0000 pound horse but we were filled with adrenaline and hope.
We paused for her to rest again and after some time passed, and her sleep patterns subsided, she began to get anxious. She could no longer raise her head and her breathing and demeanor changed from acceptance to anxiety. It was then, that I knew my beloved girl had given her all, and it was time to set her free.
We all have ways of responding to the dying process and to the heart wrenching decision to help an animal cross over. I have been on this journey with more animals than I can count. It seems we have had every range of death, from gradual aging to sudden traumas, with both our beloved domestic animal family, and our wild birds and tame deer. But this time, it was Darma, my beloved first horse, my soul sister and guide, who lay on the ground. I knew I had left no stone unturned, yet my mind fluttered like a wild bird to find a way out of its cage. My hands stroked her repeatedly of their own accord. I was simultaneously giving and seeking comfort, and most especially, desperately wanting to absorb those last moments of her warm, beautiful, soft body in repose. To be able to touch her without her restlessness and resistance was something I had craved for so very long, and now I only had a few short moments to experience it for the last time. Even though she was in distress, the touching connected me with the deeper part of her and myself that allowed me to transcend the doubts.
I had already reached out and thankfully connected by phone with my friends, and my trusted clairvoyants assured me that Darma was reconciled, and that the struggles I was witnessing were her survival instincts. I knew now there was no coming back for her body, and that to prolong the decision would cause her to suffer. In many ways it was a blessing that she was so weak because her fear could have made her impossible to help. When the vet approached, she became calm, and I knew she knew, and I knew she trusted me, as she always had, even when it didn’t seem so.
That evening, Mystico called to her a few times from his stall. I was saddened that he couldn’t walk well enough to enable him to touch her for the last time. But he was surprisingly calm, as was Laddie, and their security and receptiveness to our communication and care was a balm to our heavy hearts. I brought some of her beautiful tail hair for them, and they both inhaled her scent with contemplative and deep breaths.
Laddie - age 30, and Mystico - age 24, 2022
The quiet that has settled here has been a profound contrast to the years of strife. Knowing that her spirit is at peace has given me a peace I never thought was possible after the loss of a beloved.
My grief seems to be simultaneously a process of recovery. We catch ourselves looking out the window, as we always did to check on her, and are oddly comforted that her restless form is at last able to be still. Her absence is a presence. Instead of the expected emptiness of the space, her memory seems to infuse every leaf and every stone. The farm is an aspect of her, and the peace is the way it should have felt, if it hadn’t been for her early traumas as a sensitive horse in the human world.
We buried her in the paddock we build for her in 1999, where she felt safest, and where Mystico and Laddie will be able to be closest to her. That night, as I took a bath, I asked for her spirit to reveal itself to me, and in the water's reflection, I beheld her eyes gazing at me through double visions of reflected candle flames. I knew it was her, because she has always shown herself to me in reflections, often appearing unexpectedly in windows and mirrors, and in her own eyes.
The next morning, I looked out of the kitchen window to our small side yard, and saw a flash of wings as the falcon flew by. I walked outside in the cool morning air, and standing there, I began to hear the sound of geese miles up in the atmosphere, and I beheld two V’s heading south. Geese are the sign from my mother’s spirit. Darma was her only granddaughter. The geese, and my mother's spirit, were present every day during Darma’s last journey.
I am just the beginning of get to know the spirit of Darma, the being that I fell in love with that day so long ago. I wasn’t looking for a horse the day we met, but I recognized her. She was my chosen path. The connection between her soul and mine is a beautiful, neverending story.
"when we say, “All dharmas are marked with emptiness,” we are saying, "Everything has emptiness as its own nature."' And that is why everything can be. There is a lot of joy in this statement. It means nothing can be born, nothing can die."
~Thich Nhat Hanh
Showing Darma a sketch I created of her
All the animal angels that found a loving home since Darma led us to SkyeLandeSea Farm
Darma's first day at SkyeLandeSea ~ running free
Darma's heart stone under the ground of her paddock all these years, found near her resting place