The first time I laid eyes on Milagro, it was a beautiful summer day in 2008. I, my husband, and a friend were touring Whispering Hope Ranch in Payson, Arizona, an animal sanctuary and summer camp for children and adults with special needs. While on the tour, I noticed a striking, chestnut-colored horse with a handsome white blaze on his face standing quietly in a large enclosure, watching us closely.
When I asked about him, the Ranch’s equine caretaker, Richard, told us his story.
A Heartbreaking Beginning
Milagro (which means “miracle” in Spanish) had come to the Ranch after one of the employees rescued him from his previous owner, an emotionally unstable cowboy who was using horrifically brutal methods to break him. (Over the years, horse training verbiage has changed from “breaking” to “gentling”; “breaking” is an accurate description of the types of harsh techniques that were used for years to force a horse to submit to training.)
Old-school trainers still tie one leg up on horses for long periods of time, forcing them to stand on three legs in an effort to wear them down and make them easier to handle. Some also tie all four legs and pull the horse to the ground, where the horse is left for hours, bound and helpless.
Although no one is sure exactly what was done to Milagro, when he arrived at the Ranch, he had wounds on his legs consistent with being bound by either heavy rope or chains. The tissue on his legs where he had been tied was dying and literally sloughing off, and he had fresh scars over several areas of his body. He was both head-shy and afraid of the sound of splashing water, trembling at the sight of a garden hose. Most tellingly, he was blindly terrified of people and very difficult to handle.
The Slow Journey
When Milagro first arrived at the Ranch, any eye contact with a human sent him running to the other end of his enclosure. The Ranch’s founder began sitting inside his pen for hours, holding out carrots behind her back. Very slowly, over a period of several weeks, Milagro worked up the courage to begin grabbing the carrots out of her hand and then running to the back of his pen.
Richard quickly discovered that Milagro was especially frightened of men, so he began working over the next year to try to desensitize him. It was a painstakingly slow process. Anytime Richard tried to approach Milagro, he had to do so while walking backwards, since if he made eye contact, the game was over before it even started. Eventually, Richard was one of the only people who could get close enough to Milagro to put a halter on him.
And it was at this point, about two years after his arrival at the Ranch, that I was lucky enough to come into Milagro’s world.
How It Began
Richard offered to let us meet Milagro and his paddock mate, M&M, a retired thoroughbred with a good-natured personality whose presence seemed to both calm and embolden Milagro. When we entered the enclosure, M&M approached us immediately, while Milagro held back; we were careful not to look directly at him.
After about 15 minutes, I felt a soft puff of air behind my ear and the tickle of whiskers on the back of my neck. Curiosity had overcome Milagro, and he was standing behind me, sniffing my hair. I stood very still and let him sniff me from head to toe – the “CAT scan” that would soon become his interactive trademark with me.
I don’t know how else to describe it, except to say that I felt an immediate connection to this beautiful creature who had already endured so much in his young life. When our tour ended, I immediately spoke with the Executive Director of the Ranch, Mary Clark, and asked her if I could come back to visit Milagro on a regular basis. At that time, I really had no agenda other than to get to know this horse better.
I wanted to show him that not every human inflicts pain. That he deserved to be loved. That there was nothing he did to deserve the scars he now carried, like permanent tattoos, on his body.
Forging a Bond
For the next twelve months, I visited Milagro at least monthly, sometimes twice a month (I had hoped for more visits, but the Ranch is about a 90-minute drive from Phoenix, and my work schedule at the time was heavy). I spent hours with him, getting to know his mannerisms and letting him get used to mine.
Although I’d been in love with horses since I was 3 years old, I had little experience working with skittish horses, let alone ones with a history of abuse. Richard was invaluable in showing me the ropes, teaching me that when it came to working with nervous horses, the best rule was “Act like you only have 5 minutes, and it will take you all day; but act like you have all day, and it will only take you 5 minutes.”
I first had to approach Milagro by walking backwards and avoiding eye contact, and I learned to keep my voice low and quiet to draw him in, so he would have to move closer to hear me. Initially we spent hours just standing together, me talking to him while he studied me, curiously, with big, expressive eyes.
After several weeks, I was able to walk straight up to him, and was elated to see that he also seemed happy to see me (I’m sure the carrots in my pockets helped). He began greeting me with soft nickers, followed by his trademark “CAT scan”, and started following closely behind me as I walked around the large paddock. After a few months, he allowed me to groom him without being tied. He stood still as a statue while I brushed him from head to tail, letting out his breath in long, deep sighs, his head hanging relaxed and his eyes half closed.
I was increasingly amazed at how kind, gentle, and good-natured Milagro was. He was especially gentle with his mouth, taking food carefully from my hands, nibbling affectionately with soft lips on my ears and the back of my neck. I later told Mary that he always seemed to be trying so hard to be good, which given the circumstances of his prior experience with humans, was nothing short of incredible.
Personality in Spades
It was fascinating to see Milagro’s personality begin to emerge like a long-dormant butterfly. It soon became apparent that he possessed a hilariously goofy sense of humor. One of his favorite jokes was to stealthily grab hold of the bottom of my jacket while I groomed him, and when I went to move and was promptly yanked backwards like a character in an old “I Love Lucy” episode, I swear the horse actually appeared to be laughing.
He also loved to grab the grooming brush from the tack box and gleefully fling it around his enclosure. Each time I retrieved it and put it back, he attempted a nonchalant look as he sauntered (all 1,000 pounds of him, like I couldn’t see him) back to the box, only to send it airborne once again.
But his true personality came through one day in what is perhaps my favorite story. That day in the middle of his grooming session, he suddenly walked several yards away and stood there, his back to me. Since he’d never walked away in the middle of his “spa treatment” before, I asked him where he was going.
Suddenly he began to empty his bladder with the force of Niagara Falls. Now, speaking from experience, most horses will let loose with bodily functions wherever they happen to be standing, and if you’re not paying attention and your pants and boots are anywhere in the vicinity, they immediately become collateral damage. Not so with Milagro. When he finally finished his business, I watched in amazement as he slowly walked back towards me, circled around, and took his place exactly where he was previously standing so I could finish brushing him. A true gentleman with impeccable manners, through and through.
Mutual Love and Trust
After several months, Milagro rewarded me with one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received from any living creature – his unequivocal love and trust. One day while I was in his enclosure talking to him, he walked straight towards me and didn’t stop. At first, I wasn’t sure what he was doing, so I kept backing up, until I finally stopped to see what he was actually trying to do. He then gently pressed the entire front of his body into my chest and stomach, laid his head on my shoulder, and sighed.
We stood there for at least 2 minutes, his chest against mine, his soft horsey-breath blowing through my hair, until he finally moved away. This horse, who had every right to hate every human being he encountered, had demonstrated unbelievable courage and overcome his fear, letting himself trust, love, and be loved.
Eventually, Milagro expanded that trust from just me to other people. Although he still prefers women to men, he is now much easier for Ranch employees to handle (although he still has to be sedated to have his feet worked on, perhaps a holdover from having his legs tied up), and sometimes he even approaches the fence to greet Ranch campers as they walk by.
What I learned from Milagro I will carry with me for the rest of my days. I learned that trust can’t be forced. Nor can it be rushed. Trust has its own timeline, unfolds in its own way, and what it looks like is different for every creature. Trust is a gift, one of the most precious we can ever give or hope to receive.
Almost 7 years later, I am still a volunteer for Whispering Hope Ranch. I assist with summer camps, and visit the animal residents during the winter months to keep them from becoming lonely until the summer camps begin again.
And every time I’m there, I continue to spend precious time with the amazing horse who taught me, above all else, that no one, animal or human, is ever a “hopeless case.”
If you would like to learn more about Whispering Hope Ranch, the programs and services it offers, and how you can support this wonderful organization, please visit their website at www.whisperinghoperanch.org.