by Ann Jamieson

A typical first reaction when meeting Straw is a gasp, or “Oh God, that poor horse!”

Straw should be dead. Any other horse in her condition would undoubtedly have been euthanized. Both of her front legs were fractured: her left knee was shattered, healing in a bowed position, while her right fetlock/ankle was broken, and healed completely fused. Two vertebrae in her neck are completely fused as well, suggesting that they also had been fractured.

None of her current caregivers knows how she survived, but clearly Straw knew that she had a mission to fulfill and was determined to see it through. Although clearly disfigured, Straw is not disabled.

Formerly a top American Quarter Horse broodmare, Straw produced more than seven elite foals. The rest of her history remains a question mark, but it is clear that she was the victim of a horrible accident, most probably in a trailer. When Christiana Capra, (CC) co-founder of Spring Reins of Life (a non-profit program offering Equine Assisted Psychotherapy services to military veterans, at risk youth, and grieving children) first met Straw, she thought that the mare must surely be in a lot of pain.

CC came to the central New Jersey farm where Straw was living to check it out as a possible site from which to run her program. She liked what she saw and moved her program into the farm in Pittstown, New Jersey, in 2010.

CC's program is an EAGALA Model Program (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, which now has certified programs in all 50 states and 45 countries). All therapeutic work is unmounted in these programs. For the basis of behavioral, mental and emotional health therapies, when the horse is under saddle it will respond the way it was trained to ride. When the horses are loose and interacting with clients on the ground, their gestures and reactions become like a mirror to what is going on internally with the client at that moment. These clues from the horses then become metaphors for the treatment team (EAGALA therapist and equine specialist) to explore with the client and help them relate it to real life.

CC was only too aware of Straw gimping around. The mare would often lose her balance and fall. CC noticed that when that happened, she could easily get up if she fell to her right, but if she fell to the left, she would get stuck and need assistance to get back on her feet.

CC uses a farrier team, Daisy Haven Farm, which specializes in laminitis/founder care, and other tough cases. She asked DHF's Daisy Bicking if they might be able to stabilize Straw. It was winter, and CC worried about what would happen if the mare went down in the cold mud, couldn't get back up, and died. Daisy responded that yes, she thought they could help.
One day CC arrived at the barn to find that precise scenario. Straw lay wedged under a fence, shivering, stuck in the mud. No one knew how long she had been there.

Fortunately, the Daisy Haven Farm team was there that day and helped CC disassemble the fence so that they could get Straw out and back on her feet. CC had had enough. She marched to the owner and said, “Either you have to put that mare down, or you need to let my farrier work on her to help her keep her balance.”

Luckily he chose the latter option.
Straw stopped falling and even began to trot around her paddock.

Since CC’s therapeutic approach does not involve riding, she began leasing Straw to work in her program and Straw proved a natural at it. Spending time with the mare allowed CC to see the wisdom inherent in the horse. Straw's background qualifies her particularly well to work with the groups at Spring Reins because she has suffered the loss of use of her limbs, and her neck has very limited mobility, so she understands loss.

Initially, CC treated her with pity. When she was leading her in or out, she would admonish her to “Be careful going over this bump,” or “Careful so you don’t slip on the hill.”

Straw wanted no part of the pity. She may have looked weak and crippled on the outside, but she was, says CC, “a tank! She would drag me when I offered pity.”

One day Straw became so angry at CC's pity that she broke away from her.
CC finally got the point. Changing her tune, CC would say, “Come on Straw, let’s go.” Straw would walk right next to her, neither dragging her nor lagging behind.

Attempting to find out just what did create Straw’s injured body, CC has had several animal communicators speak with her. Always they come away with a sense of agony, with two broken legs and a broken neck. Straw initially just wanted to die.

Straw's first session as a therapy horse was one for at-risk boys. Much of the equipment used in these sessions is unusual (such as cones, barrels, sponge noodles, and stuffed animals),and most horses need a chance to acquaint themselves with it. Not so with Straw, who immediately knew exactly what to do with the odd pieces of gear.

It was during this session that Straw inspired “Care for the Mare.” The attending youths came from a three strike program for gang youth in conjunction with the Brooklyn and Queens DA’s office called “Misunderstood Youth Development Center.” For their first session, they learn about cause and effect, responsibility, respect, and empathy.

The group was divided into teams of three. First they were asked to observe the mare. Then they went to a table where they found bows, food (hay and grain), a shower cap, brushes, a raincoat, band aids, and an assortment of frilly things (she is a mare after all). The guys were then asked to choose what, if anything, they might choose from the table to care for Straw and her needs. This is left quite ambiguous and open to allow the clients to decide if care is even needed, and, if so, what type of care.
CC says that, “If anyone approaches Straw with pity, (a 'you poor thing attitude,' even if meaning well), Straw has zero tolerance for it. Pity to her is a worthless emotion that serves no one. She very clearly and abruptly shows them how wrong they are by, for example, dragging them across the arena when they think she can't walk.

When clients get it, and start to think creatively about what she might really need, she is immediately on it, and makes it easy for them to apply their ideas and care. I think in her mind it's really very simple and quite clear as to what works, what doesn't and what she thinks about it.”

What the boys did with the exercise nearly made CC burst into tears. Band aids were applied to Straw’s knees; a towel placed on her back to keep her warm. Her mane was brushed and bows were tied in it. One of the guys walked her, explaining that his grandfather has arthritis and it gets better with use, so he felt that walking would be beneficial for Straw.

Straw quickly proved her effectiveness with at-risk youth. All the techniques which they use on the outside, such as lying and manipulation, don't work with horses. And in this program they get to be kids, playing with animals, laughing. No one is telling them what to do; there are no authority figures. They're expecting to be told “You’re wrong” or “You’re stupid,” and no one says anything. They are expected to find their own answers and solutions, and the only one to tell them anything (whether it works or not) is the horses.

Two weeks after the group left, a letter arrived. They all wanted to know how Straw was doing.

CC says that “Every time we do 'Care for the Mare', I am always surprised. Straw never fails to illustrate or teach poignant lessons. She teaches gang youth the meaning of empathy in minutes, she allows veterans to discover that even though you may look or feel broken, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are broken, and she reciprocates nurturing and love to young children and those who are suffering, all without saying a single word.”

Veterans quickly discover that Straw knows just what they need. They find it inspiring when they see how much she can do. One man with such incredibly high anxiety that he would get “the shakes” every 20 minutes or so, chose Straw for a leading exercise. In this exercise, on the first half of the circle the idea is to match your pace, rhythm, and body language to the horse. In the second half of the circle the participants are instructed to change the pace or rhythm in some way and ask the horse to match that. Because of his intense, “I can't handle this” state, the man proceeded very slowly. Straw slowed her pace, realizing that because of his sheer anxiety, the man needed her to go slow to calm him.
In the second half of the circle, the man panicked and stopped. Straw stopped too. He then said, “There is no way I am asking this horse to go any faster.”

CC then asked if he chose to stop, and if so was that a change from what they had been doing before. As he said “Yes,” the panic left his face.

Another man in the group asked Straw to go faster. “C’mon, you can do this, we can do this,” he said. And they easily trotted off together.

At the end of the session, CC asked “Is there anyone who wants to share/celebrate anything they saw, noticed, or felt today?”

The first man said, “I want to celebrate that I have not had the shakes once since we've been here today. And that horse, with the legs, she really, really is all right, isn’t she?”

CC nearly cried, but, managing a smile said,. “Yes, I do believe she is.” CC knows the man will never forget Straw for the rest of his life. Straw refuses to live broken. As far as she is concerned, she is just fine.

Straw's frequent falls ended when Daisy started doing her feet. When CC employed PJ Murphy Equine Dentistry to use equilibrium dentistry on Straw, the mare began cantering in her paddock, something CC had not seen her do before. And while it is not your average canter, the look on Straw's face is one of pure triumph and joy.

Running a non-profit is hard work and stressful, and there are always surprise obstacles to overcome. Unbeknownst to CC, the farm where she was conducting her program was in the process of foreclosure. The property owner, who was Straw's owner as well, left, and CC became responsible for Straw’s bills. To add to that, someone called the ASPCA and said that Straw “was being tortured.”

CC could understand this, since her own initial judgment had been that the horse was in pain. But she knew that Straw was not hurting; instead she was healthy and relishing her new career.

Straw's pain management specialist, Dr. Shari Silverman of Simply Sound Horse in Flemington, New Jersey, stepped up to the plate. Dr. Silverman does cold laser therapy on Straw’s knee, in addition to thumper massage and electrostim. She wrote a glowing letter to the ASPCA (which remains on file there in case of any further challenges) assessing that the only pain Straw suffered from was probably low grade due to arthritis.

Straw's wisdom extends beyond at risk youth and veterans. With grieving kids, she is also brilliant. The kids only know they are in pain and suffering. “Where is my mom? My dog?” Straw understands loss and knows how to help them cope. When children see her limping around, they want to hug her. Straw becomes mom, pouring love into them. She brings her head down so they can hug and kiss her face, allowing them to feel comfort for their grief. She understands that kids more than anything need a hug, or simply the freedom to feel whatever they are feeling without any judgment. The kids leave with a comforting sense of being nurtured.

Straw is so extraordinary, so skilled at helping people no matter what they are going through, that she has also earned herself some extraordinary fans, such as Vigo Mortensen, Jewel, Betty White, and Robert Dover. All donated funds to her care via The Straw Fund last year.

Demand for EAP services has far outstripped CC’s expectations. A waiting list means that funding needs to be stepped up in order to meet the needs of all who seek solace from horses.

Straw has also outstripped all of CC's expectations. The mare that CC thought should be put down has proved invaluable in the program, transforming lives. Her ability to heal and amazing spirit have become so well-known that she will be featured in the upcoming February edition of “Chicken Soup for the Soul's Miracles Happen” under the title “Straw the Miracle Mare”

And to top it all off the crippled mare, the mare who should have been dead, won the 2013 New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association Animal Service Hall of Fame award for her work with veterans and youth.

(Straw has since passed, but the lessons she taught will never be forgotten)

Spring Reins of LIFE is a 501c3 public charity with tax exempt status founded in 2012. Donations of any amount are always needed and welcomed for programming costs (currently there is a waiting list for veterans and at risk youth, which only funding can alleviate). See website for details about how you can help. Do you have gently used tack/apparel? These donations are always accepted to help cover costs of care and upkeep for the horses at SRoLife as they can be traded for feed, supplements and supplies."

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