Updated: Apr 26, 2022
When I have important decisions to make, or I am about to experience a profound change, I will often receive signs that tell me to pay attention. Sometimes I welcome these signs, if I need encouragement and the path is one I am undertaking willingly. Other times, if the signs tell me of a direction that I anticipate is going to be difficult, I have to trust that there is a deeper reason than I can fathom from my limited viewpoint.
One of these signs appeared when my mother’s health was failing. In a meditation, I saw the image of a Canadian Goose. This bird was one of my mother’s favorite animals. I knew then that she would soon be transcending into spirit. The day I went to the funeral home, a flock of geese flew over my farm. They have appeared many times since, always at times when their appearance has some great significance. I have learned to pay attention to the honking of geese.
After only three years of owning our farm, we had optimistically taken on adopting and caring for a total of four horses, four goats, three llamas; two pot bellied pigs, four dogs, two guinea pigs, and a cat. We were struggling to keep up with the rapid changes. Building projects and improvements were put on the back burner as our money and time and energy were taken up by constant animal care. As much as we loved all our animals, we realized that we had reached our limit. Of course it was at this time, that another animal in need presented himself.
In September of 2002, I traveled from my home in Washington State to exhibit my artwork at the Paso Fino Nationals Horse Show in Georgia. If you had told me at that point that I would be buying a Paso Fino Stallion a few days later, I would have said you were crazy.
I had traveled to the show with my friend Cora. She was competing in the show with her mare and her three year old filly. I flew to her home in Tennessee, and the next day she and her husband John loaded up the horses in their tiny two horse open-backed trailer, packed the suburban with my artwork and booth supplies, and headed out for the long eight hour drive to Georgia. The horses were nervous loading into the trailer, and as we tied their halters to the rings mounted into the walls, I couldn’t help but think of what a frightening experience this must be for them.
What was supposed to be an adventure, turned out to be one of the most difficult road trips I’ve ever known. I had only known one or two experiences of hauling horses in luxury horse trailers, smooth walls, cushioned shocks and lots of room for the horses to move about. But this trailer was a tiny aluminum cart, exposed to the wind and noise. All I could think about was how horrible it was for the horses to be torn from their home, put into a loud metal box they couldn’t see out of, and transported to an entirely different place not of their choosing. In addition, it poured rain the entire time, making the trip all the more dangerous for all of us, and I began to think this whole idea was insane.
We finally arrived at the show grounds and unloaded the nervous horses. Mother and daughter were to be stalled separately in different areas of the barn. This further confounded my concern for them, for now in addition to being in an unfamiliar place they were to be separated. Cora blithely ran around making arrangements, and all I could think about was, “why do people put horses through all this stress?”
Cora tried to convince me that the horses would settle down. And I suppose they did in a manner of speaking. To her mind, it was just a matter of them adjusting; she didn’t believe that horses had the feelings that I did. I had always known that Cora was more “practical” when it came to her thoughts about the emotional and spiritual intelligence of horses. I had managed to convince myself that she was becoming more sensitive to the emotional needs of her horses. But during the show I began to realize that her desire to compete with her horses overrode any concern she had about their emotional stresses. She fed them and brushed them, but she didn’t spend a lot of time comforting them in other, subtler ways. She ignored their pacing and calling, and said they’d “settle down”.
A few days later, Cora mentioned she had seen a stallion in the barn that was baring his teeth and rushing at people who passed by his stall. She said she had talked to him and was surprised when he seemed to calm down. I nodded sadly, feeling sorry for him and any of the horses that didn’t choose to be here.
That night, as we walked through the barn on the way to the car, we happened to walk down the aisle where she had seen the stallion. At the end of the line of stalls, she pointed him out. I stopped in my tracks. There, standing despondently in the farthest corner of the tiny stall was a beautiful, dark gray stallion. His beauty shone despite his crude and barbaric surroundings.
When he realized I was standing near his stall, he swung and came at me with his teeth bared. I raised my hand slowly and put my open palm against the bars and talked to him, telling him I wasn’t a threat. He relaxed slightly but kept his ears pinned in anticipation should his curiosity prove him wrong. The sign on his stall said “Horse for Auction”. All I could think of was that he reminded me of a tiger in a cage.
He edged toward me in response to my gentle tone, and sniffed my hand. Then he stuck out his tongue in what seemed a very childlike gesture, as if to say, “Help me, I’m lost.” He leaned against the bars, and I tentatively reached to scratch his neck. As he looked at me out of the corner of his eye, I paused in sudden recognition, for he looked just like a painting I had created sixteen years before of an imaginary horse I had called “Mystic”.
“Mystic” by Kim McElroy 1987
The nature of this realization was still forming as I continued to talk to him. He sighed and leaned against the contact, and my heart did a familiar little skip. Inwardly I groaned, for my heart often gets me into trouble.
Under the “Horse for Auction” sign the name on his stall said “Rivers Bend Novilunio”. He was a four-year old stallion to be sold at the auction in a few days. I felt sorry for him, knowing he was facing an unknown fate. But I said goodnight to him, and walked away, taking my heart on a tight leash with me.
Later that night, Cora teased me at dinner, saying she knew I was going to try to buy him, given my soft heart and tendency to rescue animals in need. I took her teasing personally, thinking she was implying that I was overly sensitive and impractical. I insisted I was going to do no such thing, while inwardly I became irritated that she could make light of the situation. It wasn’t like I blithely set out to collect needy animals, and even if I considered rescuing him, I couldn’t just make a decision to buy him on the spot. There was too much involved. I wasn’t going to allow my thoughts to go any further. But of course they did.
I visited him again the next morning, telling myself I was just offering him comfort, and I wouldn’t get attached. He checked his defensive reaction a moment sooner, and then relaxed and sought out my touch. I felt guilty for offering him hope when I really couldn’t face the idea of buying him. I already had four other horses and sixteen other rescued animals. He was an unpredictable and potentially dangerous stallion at a horse show several thousand miles from my Seattle home. I instinctively knew I could help him heal in time, but the anticipation of the daunting nature of the task, much less the predicament of even how to get him safely home, kept my emotions in a whirlwind.
I tried to understand his personality. Each time I saw him he greeted me more and more eagerly, and his defensive attitude began to ebb. I could still see signs that he was quick to react if he felt threatened, but it seemed he had begun to trust me. The design and position of his stall made his attitude all the worse, because the walls were open bars and he couldn’t retreat to a safe corner to feel more secure. Because he was a stallion, they had placed him away from any comforting contact with other horses.
That evening I stopped by his stall on my way to the car. Due to the intense heat and humidity, he was leaning against a tiny fan tied to the outside of his stall. I assumed his owners had placed it there, though this small gesture seemed to conflict with the horrible condition of his stall. His shavings were soiled and his sweet grain lay untouched and covered with flies. The water in his bucket was low and dirty. There was no a sign of any hay.
This time he greeted me eagerly. I still had my inner guard up around my heart, for I was determined not to fall in love with him, but I tried to give him what comfort I could. Again, he stuck out his tongue and seemed to plead for my touch and presence. His response to me quickened my heart, and in my inner thoughts I named him after my painting, “Mystic”.
I stole some hay from my friend’s tack room, and told him I would see him again in the morning, and walked away knowing he had another long, lonely, hot, and miserable night ahead of him.
As we drove back to hotel, I sat in the darkness of the car, lost in thought. When we entered the onramp of the freeway, a semi truck went past us on the left, and I looked up to read the word, “Mistic”, as big as a billboard on the side of the truck. Time stood still for a moment as I realized the prophetic nature of this sign. Then I shook my head ruefully. I still could not allow myself to dream of owning him.
The next morning, I asked a Columbian man who admired my artwork what the word for “Mystic” was in Spanish. He replied, “Mystico”.
I suppose it was in choosing his name that I made that next step, though at the time I convinced myself it was only a way to remember him. I went as far as to rationalize that if I didn’t at least find out more about him, I would never forgive myself.
I made some inquiries. His name was “Novilunio”, meaning “new moon”. His owners were Paso Fino breeders, selling him “due to owner’s illness”. A note on the stall named a trainer at the show through whom the horse’s owners could be contacted. When I located the trainer, he was busy getting ready for a class. I told him I wanted to find out more about this horse and I understood I could reach the owners through him. He looked at me, distracted, and claimed not to know the horse, but he did remember the owners and said he would pass along my note if he happened to see them. He clearly was not in contact with them on a regular basis. I had done all I could. It would remain to be seen what would happen next.
Cora was excited that I was thinking of purchasing a Paso Fino. She encouraged me to pursue the idea and was supportive in finding ways to make it happen. She loved the idea of taking credit for introducing me to the breed. She thought that my standing as a celebrity artist would be of great promotional benefit.
Of course all of that was the furthest from my mind. I wasn’t thinking of obtaining Mystico because he was a Paso Fino, or a stallion, or a son of Classico de Plebeyo. I was responding to a cry for help. In my heart, I knew that Cora didn’t hear the cry, and didn’t even think horses were capable of crying.
That afternoon I walked out into the sweltering heat after a downpour, and found him leaning against his fan. The condition of his stall was unchanged and now his water bucket was completely empty. This, at least, I could do something about. The thought of going in his stall was daunting, but he needed my help. I took a deep breath, opened his stall door, and gently walked in to retrieve his bucket. I talked to him and scratched him for a moment to try to read how he might react. He was curious and attentive, responding with such enthusiasm when I scratched his sweaty coat that he pushed me into the metal wall in his eagerness. I fumbled with the baling twine that tied the bucket to the stall bars and squeezed out of the door. I filled the bucket and went back in again. He nuzzled my shoulder as retied the twine. I was amazed at how gentle he was. My heart began to open to him.
Later that same day I felt compelled to leave my booth to go visit him. As I stood admiring him, a lady named Jo walked up. I had seen Jo earlier at my booth, and she was the only person in the entire show who was familiar with my artwork. She looked at the “Horse for Auction” sign and said, “Nice horse. Thinking of buying him?” “Well,” I said, “I’m falling in love with him, but it’s not a reality. Besides, how would I possibly get him home?” She said, “We could haul him to our place if you like and then you could find a transport.” My heart skipped a beat, “You mean it is actually possible? Wow, I have to really think about this.” “Yep, you’re in trouble now,” she said with a smile.”
At that moment her trainer drove up and Jo went out into the parking lot to ask how much this horse might be worth. Suddenly she called excitedly, “Kim, come here!” I ran out from under the barn roof, and looked up where she indicated. There, revealed in the shapes of the clouds, was the most beautiful horse head I had ever seen. The horse’s face was upturned with the mane flying back, the mouth open in a silent whinny. The sunlit eyes were looking down directly at me.
“Drinkers of the Wind” detail
It was another sign. The enormity of the meaning was clear to me. My artwork often depicts images of horses in clouds, and here – of all times, of all places, was a horse in the clouds looking down at me and telling me that I must follow this guidance. It was Jo, of all people who had seen the cloud, and pointed it out to me in her innocent awareness of my artistic inspirations. She had no idea of the enormity of the sign for me, nor of the importance of the timing being after her offer to help transport him. My intuition said, follow the guidance. But my emotions were a mix of welcoming the vision, while at the same time wanting to resist the daunting nature of the task it was asking me to undertake.
Her trainer approached and the moment shifted as I tried to explain why tears were rolling down my face. She clearly couldn’t comprehend my sudden emotion, so I gave up, and wiped my eyes as I asked her to look at Mystico’s value. She approached his stall and looked at his pedigree. She said, “Oh, he’s got “Plebeyo” in his bloodline, he may sell for $15,000 – $20,000.” I stood in shock, as all my former elation vanished. I couldn’t fathom that kind of expense. I guess we’ll see, I thought.
That evening, I again received a strong impulse to go see Mystico. I walked out to visit him, noting he hadn’t been fed. At that moment, a man walked up to his stall with a flake of hay. I said, “Are you the owner of this horse?” He replied, a tad suspiciously, “Yes.” I introduced myself, saying I had left a note inquiring about the horse. He relaxed and said he recalled receiving the note but didn’t explain why he hadn’t responded to it. He opened the stall door and threw the hay onto the floor of Mystico’s urine soaked shavings. I cringed, restraining a comment. Mystico spooked and jumped back. He didn’t approach the hay.
I told the owner I was interested in his horse. He closed the door and began espousing about Mystico’s bloodlines. He said he hadn’t worked with him much because he had been ill, they have too many horses, they decided to sell him. I got up the courage to ask if he had set a reserve for the auction. Surprisingly, he told me, “Our reserve is $3,500.00. Getting braver at pretending I knew what I was doing, I told him I was possibly interested in buying his horse but that I wanted to discuss making an offer before the auction, as I understood that it is possible to work out such arrangements. He said he would find his wife and they would come to my booth to discuss it.
After he left I stood for a moment looking at Mystico. My heart was pounding, I had set things in motion. “Well, Mystico,” I said, “Now I must follow this path where it is leading me.”
As I turned to leave, I noticed a woman across the barn aisle cleaning her horse’s stall. She saw me watching, and asked if I was going to buy him. I mentioned I was considering the possibility. She said, “I was here when they brought him in. He scared me something awful, he tried to climb out of the stall. Ever since he’s been lunging at the bars and frightening people… until you started coming. Now he’s calm and doesn’t seem to be so angry.” Her observation left me speechless. I was amazed that my small efforts could make such a difference in his behavior. At the same time I became even more aware of his potential to be dangerous if he felt threatened.
The owner and his wife arrived at my booth later that evening. It was clear to me that she was the decision maker. I told her I was an artist that had taken a liking to her horse, and that I wasn’t a Paso Fino breeder and in fact didn’t even ride horses. I explained that against all practicality I wanted to make an offer to buy Novilunio for their reserve price. She looked me over appraisingly and said they would think about it that night and would meet me at my booth at 10:00 am the next morning. I couldn’t believe that I had actually taken the step towards buying him.
That night I called my husband Rod, as I had every night. I updated him on all that had happened, including the sign in the clouds and meeting Mystico’s owners. He knew that this was becoming very important to me, and he was supportive of my decision whatever it turned out to be.
We both knew that adding another horse, much less a young gelded stallion to our existing herd of four was going to involve much difficulty. We were already overstretching our budget, our energy, and our time with twenty animals. We knew that our horses invariably got along in the natural herd lifestyle we gave them, but there would be a certain difficulty in segregating him for a short time after he was gelded. In addition, the prospect of transporting this unknown and unpredictable horse home was overwhelming. There was entirely a sense of unreality about everything.
I did not doubt that the life I would give him would be much preferable to what his would likely be like if he was bought at the auction. Even if he was bought by the most caring of people, with his bloodlines, they would likely keep him as a breeding stallion, and I knew that would only compound his obvious problems. People would normally want to train such a horse for performance, to promote his potential as a stallion. Given Mystico’s defensive attitude, most people would consider him a “dangerous stallion” and that definition would condone all sorts of abusive handling, and label him for the rest of his life, further separating him from the help and loving care that he obviously needed.
In the morning we parked the car in the parking lot by the barns. As I got out of the car I happened to glance at the car next to me and I noticed a sticker on the rear window that looked like it had been haphazardly stuck there by a child. On the sticker was a flock of Canadian Geese. I shook my head smiling, recognizing it as a sign from my mother, and hoping that it meant what I thought it meant. I remember thinking, I guess this is the only way my mom could send me geese, perhaps there aren’t any geese in Georgia this time of year.
I waited in my booth with anticipation until 10:30 a.m. when the owner’s wife finally appeared. She said brusquely they would sell him to me for $5,000. I nodded, not surprised. Somehow I knew this was the price. I asked her if she would give me an hour to think about it. She said she would return for my decision.
Rod was awaiting my call. He shared my concerns and tried to offer his support while not influencing my decision. I told him I just didn’t know what to do.
From the very first moment years before when I had bought my first mare, Darma as a racehorse in Kentucky, to the more recent additions of three other horses, I had gone through this process of decision making each time I had rescued a new horse. Usually there was a moment when I finally reached that point where I just somehow, knew. Yet this time, despite signs and opportunity. I didn’t know. I said, “I just can’t feel anything… if I could just feel some emotion, I would know…”
As I struggled to make the decision, standing at the Georgia Fairgrounds on my cell phone in the sweltering heat, I heard the honking of geese. The honking grew louder as a low flying formation of geese passed 40 feet over my head. It was a sign from my mom. There were geese in Georgia after all.
In between my sobs I told my husband what was occurring. I knew my mother was giving me the most irrefutable sign, because it was her inheritance to me that enabled me to purchase our farm and care for all our animals. Rod then knew as well as I did, what my decision must be.
Read Part 2 of Mystico’s story here