The connection we as humans have with animals, is one of the most primal and spiritual that we will ever hope to know. As we grow, this unique connection changes based on our experiences and will either flourish or falter.
I’ve always embraced my connection (arachnids and most insects excluded) with a sense of tranquility and wonder. Horses, with their sheer grace and dominating power, quickly became my favorite of creatures. Once I started riding, I immediately felt a sense of deep trust and attachment.
As I continued to evolve my fascination, the unique personality of each equine taught me new things. It was apparent that my personality mirrored certain horses more than others. So, when I started volunteering at Maui Meadow Farm to help rehabilitate and retrain off-track Thoroughbreds (OTTB), I knew I would fall in love with some and eagerly re-home the rest.
In the three years I’ve been part of the Turning for Home program, there were two horses with which I really connected.
The first was three-year-old filly. She was a champion on trails, going over any hurdle I pointed her towards. Her sweet personality drew me in and for a full summer, she was my special bond. When she was adopted to a loving family with a young girl to love her unconditionally, I wasn’t certain I’d find another horse that stole my heart like she had.
Months passed as fall turned to winter and winter to early spring. New horses were coming into the program and life started sprouting at the farm. One horse, an 11-year-old, bay war horse with a beautiful star, sparked my interest. Call Tiger had a gentle eye and a regal presence about him that commanded admiration. As a descendent of Secretariat and Storm Cat, he started 114 races, earning over $267,000 and retired without injury.
Still unsettled from losing the filly, I was hesitant to allow another horse so deeply into my heart. Others at the farm joked that Tiger was her replacement. Clearly, they saw something spark between the two of us that I tried to deny. I didn’t want to get hurt again. After all, the goal of Turning for Home is to adopt out these wonderful companions, not hoard them to ourselves. I held strong to my perceived guard, unaware that I’d already lost the battle.
As we began to evaluate his future career, he proved to be as amicable under saddle as he was standing in a field. I rode him lazily around the ring for his first time off the track and I was hooked. Never once did he test the limits of his rider or attempt to pull a dirty stunt. I’d had a recent fall and my confidence was shaken, but with Tiger, I wasn’t afraid. Immediately, I felt him wholeheartedly trust me and I reciprocated the feeling.
As the weather grew nicer, I started taking Tiger on any adventure I could find. His first trail ride was on the farm with a group of six riders. His only hesitation was brief, at the edge of a stream where the muddy footing was deep and unsettling. With a little encouragement from a more seasoned horse, he walked right into the stream, and even pawed playfully at the water! While my heart jumped at his vivacious antics, more pieces of my wall floated away with the trickling hum of the water.
With his impressive disposition, we opted to take Tiger on a paper chase on April 2. He tolerated being moderately dressed to support Light It Up Blue for Autism Awareness. He loaded the trailer with bored interest and didn’t flinch at the saddle bags I introduced to him.
Having rained earlier in the morning, the woods were sloppy and I was unsure how he would handle the less-than-desirable footing. After briefly trying to walk along the edge of the pathway, he finally resigned to easily move through the mud. Pride rose through me as this stoic war horse trudged over rocks, through three rivers, and jumped any obstacle facing us. We encouraged each other as our confidence combined into one force of trust and respect.
By the end of the seven mile trek, I was hopelessly in love.
One of my favorite moments during the chase was when the owner of the farm looked at us and said, “We aren’t going to re-home this horse, are we?”
A second paper chase a few weeks later only increased my infatuation for my regal gelding. He once again faced multiple terrains and obstructions with grace, power, and elegance. The steep hillsides, larger downed trees, and rocky paths were no challenge.
Since the horses handled the chase with such valor, we decided to let them gallop the home stretch. Competing for first, Tiger flew up the hill with ease. I tentatively allowed him to set his own pace, unsure if the racehorse would be released. As the top of the hill rounded into view, I swept away my hesitation and gave him full permission to race the wind. Tears crept down my cheeks as the wind whipped past us and I felt the sensation of flying.
There are few moments in life when time seems to stop and you are truly living in that moment; this was one of them. My insecurities faded as ecstasy took hold, and my connection with Tiger was solidified.
On April 21, Tiger was found scrapped and shaking at the pasture gate. He was clearly distressed and appeared to be presenting strange signs of colic. The farm owners showered him with attention and tried to make him comfortable with a warm bath and a freshly fluffed stall.
I was notified immediately of his condition and felt a tinge of panic, knowing my sweet war horse was injured. The farm owner reassured me that he would be taken care of, but something nagged at me when I hung up the phone. I wanted to be by his side. Although I hadn’t officially adopted him, he was my horse and I felt a pull to be with him.
Before I could even think of telling my boss I was leaving work early, one phone call shattered my world. Through breathless sobs, I understood only three words: Tiger was gone. Only an hour and a half after finding him that morning, he collapsed in his stall.
I hadn’t realized how much I truly loved Tiger until I felt my heart shatter. Silent sobs thrust their way through my body. Denial flooded my mind as I recalled everything I’d done the day prior. Surely there was a mistake; he was happily grazing when I’d left. But alas, even as I drove to the farm to say my final goodbye, the truth remained as such—my sweet, majestic steed was gone.
Call Tiger left an impression with everyone he met. His unexpected death rippled through the racing community as the devastation hit his previous owners and trainers. Social media was flooded with condolences and words of intended healing. He had a nobility to his presence and such a kind eye that wasn’t easy to forget.
He was respectful and honest in everything he did. He truly loved trotting through woods, galloping across green fields, and playing in cool streams. He mirrored me in so many ways, and the only time he hesitated to do anything was when I was unsure. Tiger trusted unconditionally and, in return, earned the respect of all. He never once acted unruly. He was a gentleman.
I loved every moment I spent with him, and although I only knew him a short while, the devastation and ache I feel for him is hollowing. He was full of love and life and there will never be another like him.
Dearest Tiger, I know you are galloping in greener pastures and though I hurt deeply that you are no longer here, I know we will meet again. You gave me so much and I just pray that you know how loved you were by all of us. You will never be forgotten, my magnificent man. Thank you for everything. I love you, now and always.
About the Author
From a young age, Sarah Mills has been passionate about horses. During the day, she shares her knowledge as an elementary school teacher and spends evenings with her loving husband, dog, and cat when not at the farm helping rehabilitate, retrain, and re-home OTTBs.