I made my way to Our Mims on the first truly warm day central Kentucky experienced in quite a while. Two huge snowfalls within three weeks had made the tail end of winter range from unpleasant, to “car-stuck-in-the-snow” inconvenient. One thing I’ve learned from my years of living in Kentucky is that you can never quite say winter is fully over just because March arrives. I’ve seen blizzards hit at the Keeneland meet in April, but it almost seemed safe to say we’d seen the last of the huge snowfalls for this winter.
As I drove to Paris, one town over from Lexington for my appointment at Old Mims, I quickly left urban sprawl behind. There are some beautiful historic homes and areas in Lexington, but the whole reason I moved here was due to falling under the spell of the wide open spaces that horses inhabit here; that and the almost cathedral or canopy-like effect of the trees’ branches spread across many of the roads dotted with horse farms.
While working on my degree, I became a very infrequent visitor to area farms. It was often necessary to have tunnel vision during a semester, to manage a heavy school workload and my job as well. After the semester was ample time to once again do more fun activities. So I had not fully realized how much I needed to take a little time to get back in touch with going out and doing those things I enjoy. That sounds like an obvious statement, but when I started this degree nearly five years ago, I had a completely different mentality than I do now. This was my third attempt to get a college degree and move up a career ladder, and I kept that laser-like focus through probably well over half of my time at the University of Kentucky. When I hit burn-out over a year ago, I became less inclined to drop everything in life to work on school. I still had to spend the majority of my time on it, of course, but I needed a little more life/work balance.
Fast-forward to now. Though I’d tried to align life and work a little better, I still didn’t feel like I could afford the “luxury” of taking the time required for long drives through the countryside. I knew I really didn’t have time on a peaceful Sunday at the end of the first week of March, but I took it anyway. I had wanted to visit Our Mims for so long, and when Jeanne Mirabito, who owns and runs the farm, told me that it would have been Our Mims’ birthday the day of my visit and was another current resident’s birthday, that almost seemed too fortuitous not to go. The day I finally cleared my calendar to go to her farm was the day the horse this was all in honor of had been foaled? I had to go.
That was an excellent decision. I was doing it for a photo assignment, or otherwise even then I may never have taken the time to go. But just as with my visit to Old Friends recently, it did me a tremendous amount of good. The drive alone was soothing: miles of driving past black fences, coralling pastures blanketed with pure white snow. The contrast in colors and the wide open spaces had a calming effect. And it was wonderful to get back to basics almost, to doing the things I loved doing when I first moved here.
It got slightly better day by day, but I still had moments of struggling with the sudden loss of my cat. I was coming to the point where having known him and his sweet nature and cuddly ways was outweighing having lost him. I had realized a few days ago the futility of wishing he was back to have more of that love. I’ve spent so much of the past five years, the time I’ve taken for this degree, to push forward, to make progress. There was no looking back. To want to go back now, even to have more days with him, was as counterproductive as it was impossible. That’s not to say I hardened my heart to having to lose him. I can’t do that.
Realizing you’ve been the recipient of deep, unconditional love makes it harder to have the absence of that love in the here and now. But oh, how lucky I was to have him give me that gift, and help me be the kind of person who could return that to him in full measure. Animals can teach us so much about love, life, and even death. I still remember how bold and adventurous Choobie was right before we went to the vet on that final ride. He was a cat on a mission, to live fully in spite of illness. I knew he still was not feeling very well, but he didn’t let that stop him from exploring his world. And when he really wasn’t feeling well enough to do much at all, there was a stillness, a calm about him. I know he was suffering at those times, most likely, and I couldn’t sit there and watch that go on. But in those moments, he also showed me how to die with grace. He didn’t, of course, understand he was dying. But he knew he wasn’t himself, and he did what he had to do to handle that. He rested for long periods, he ate when he could, and when he needed comfort or felt well enough to snuggle as he usually would, he sought out my company.
I would sit near him in those last days and just read, or sing along to music I put on to try to diminish the stress I was feeling at knowing our time together was growing short, and that he may be suffering more than he’d let on. Some websites suggested just letting a dying cat know you were near was enough, especially if they didn’t feel like socialization or being touched. And he did respond to me being near, in his usual endearing ways of rolling on to his back or stretching his legs out in contentment. His last days were as peaceful and full of love as I could make them, and I have no doubt he knew until the end he was loved.
But I digress. Going to Our Mims was one more opportunity to find solace in the company of horses. I was going that day primarily to gather photos more than for my own personal agenda, yet it turned out being there did me a world of good.
My visit began in the cemetery, as Jeanne narrated a little about the lives of the horses buried there. However, just beyond the cemetery, the living residents inhabited one huge pasture and they were the focus at that time. I hadn’t realized the visit would involve walking right among them, and getting so much one-on-one time. That was wonderful.
We saw Elmhurst, a Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner, and he is stunning. Jeanne hopes to take him to Breakfast with the Works at Keeneland’s fall meet, to honor his own Breeders’ Cup triumph at the same time Keeneland hosts the championship series for the first time.
We also saw birthday girl Trail Guide, and wandered around to see a few others. All the horses were curious – a few followed behind us for a time, and all of them were so well-mannered; that day, at least. Jeanne showed me little pens in the huge pasture and explained they were for people in case the horses got too fractious. I loved her approach already. The horses here got to be horses more than anything else, and it was the people who would get corralled if the horses needed space.
All the horses I saw looked at ease (except one who was dealing with cancer, but even she leaned in for head rubs, mostly from Jeanne, but I couldn’t resist the chance to love on her as well), and they all seemed quite content. I’ve heard it said horses like to have jobs – and apparently some of the Our Mims residents are ridden or otherwise part of therapy. But who knows? After the regimented life at racetracks, they may very well have enjoyed the time to just stand in a field and follow their own agenda.
Jeanne told me about one horse that had been part of a group of starved horses, and showed me the photo of her on her phone, pretty much just skin and bones. Then she pointed her out now, her bay coat gleaming in the sun and her healthy weight a stark lovely contrast to the way she’d been before.
It was being reaffirmed to me that even while the animals people rescue have found a world of good, they quite often reflect that same good back to the people around them.
I hadn’t realized Our Mims also hosts therapy programs involving the horses, for disadvantaged teens and other people, as well. But it made a tremendous amount of sense. I hadn’t even been on the property twenty minutes and I could feel a sense of well-being coming over me. I couldn’t deny I had been in need of some type of therapy to cope with loss, and I continued to choose the animal sort. How incredibly fitting then, that these horses are part of a formal therapy program as well. The more time that the visit took, and the further we got into the property, the more I gained from being here. There is just a sense I felt there of all the well-being and contentment the horses reflected.
I thought back to what Michael Blowen said about all he could tell from a horse based on who handled them before he arrived at the farm. They pick up on what the people around them feel, no doubt. And here, I could just feel the peace ripple across the farm, through the horses, and to me. It was a quiet sensation but almost palpable. We paused to greet a chestnut pony whose head almost reached past my torso. He was still winter shaggy, and he felt so soft that I buried my hands in the thick hair along his neck and just happened to inhale that sweet horsy scent I’d not thought of in so long, but that I loved. I could have stayed there just petting him all day, a tactile therapy.
From there, we moved on to the barn, and Jeanne explained how everyone who comes to the farm and participates in its programs leaves something painted on the barn. It can be a quote, a painting, something that reflects what the time here meant to them… It seemed fitting this was the first quote I saw, on the outside of the barn.
I hadn’t ridden during my time here, but I still felt as if I’d found a respite like this quote indicated was found on horseback.
All the stalls are painted with something that represents the horse who resides there, and when a horse passes, their panels are moved higher up the barn walls. The result was a colorful ode to all the residents, past and present, and one more way Our Mims is for the horse first and then the people. I loved the concept of making it so horse-centric, and in the process could see how much even the people who come here gain as well.
Jeanne also described with amusement how Elmhurst is a master at shredding blankets, losing halters, and breaking or opening stall door latches. She said they may just start to keep a tally of how many times he does those things or how long it takes him. One thing she said then that resonated with me a lot was that when the horses are here they are in retirement. If they really want to get out they can. They are just free to be themselves.
A cat was sunbathing in a patch of dirt underneath a stall panel of multicolored, painted squares, and it was then Jeanne began to tell me of a horse named Hana Bride. She said she is used to getting calls about famous residents she has or had there. Hana Bride, however, was not famous for any racing exploits, but she still got a call one day from a woman who said she can’t believe Our Mims has Hana Bride. Jeanne noted that is a failing of the racing world, to not explore what value a horse may have beyond the racetrack. It seems to me there are some organizations out there that try to do that, but as far as most horse owners, I suppose if they are heavily invested in racing, they may not be that interested in taking the time to find out where else a horse may excel. I’m not saying they don’t provide for or try to rehome these horses, but a great incentive to find their value in other areas is probably not as important if racing is where their interest lies, and if that’s the sports endeavor they want to fund.
It turns out, Hana Bride had progeny that made her a legend in the dressage world. If I remember correctly, Jeanne said she had been very close to being slaughtered, and yet she had offspring doing so well in the dressage ring that Hana Bride could have easily been worth $200,000.
As we left the barn, and went back towards the cemetery to conclude my visit, Jeanne began talking about how she found Our Mims and why the mare meant so much to her. She said she’d seen her race on TV when she was growing up, and the horse just captivated her. More than that, she said she was going to own her someday. And wouldn’t you know, fate did end up bringing Jeanne and Our Mims together. She heard about her being turned out to fend for herself, and was able to care for her in the last years of her life. I could tell as she spoke how that time she had with Old Mims still lingered with her. It is just like I thought when my cat died. He is not with me physically, but the love never dies. Deep bonds always stay with us.
As Jeanne told me about finding Old Mims, taking care of her, and then how she was buried at Calumet when her time came, to be among generations of her ancestors and on a land that had seen so many great horses born, raised, and live, had me reflecting on the continuity of Thoroughbred breeding. All the generations and planning that go into each horse’s life is an interesting path through history, from three foundation stallions to the present day, from when horses may be out of mares that only had the names of their owners, yet it produced an alchemy that is the modern breed, that roared through the years and centuries to give us Secretariat… Seattle Slew…. Cigar… Barbaro…. And to give Jeanne Mirabito Our Mims, the horse she dreamed of as a girl.
A reverence came over me when I heard her talk about Our Mims. It was more than what she said. The story was straightforward, but between the lines was all that she had meant to Jeanne and how blessed she felt to get to bring the mare into into her life. She told me Our Mims had died in late 2003, and I thought that I wish I could have met her. I had been living in Lexington for most of that year, and it would have been possible but she wasn’t on my radar at the time, even as I had gone to every horse farm in the area that allowed visitors. In a sense, it was enough to hear her story, to know what she had meant. She was even why we were standing here, on what would have been the champion mare’s forty-first birthday, on this farm that bore her name.
That is why I know, besides telling me about finding her and caring for her, that Our Mims lingers with Jeanne to this day. I felt she would have understood my grief for Choobie, too, had I told her. Animals give so much unconditionally. Losing that unconditional love cuts deep, but having had it at all can move us forward to help other animals know that same love. It was moving that she had launched Our Mims in the beloved mare’s name to help other horses in similar situations. I had a similar thought to wanting to send that same positive energy out into the world in Choobie’s memory too, and that came to me as Jeanne said she had vowed she wouldn’t let Our Mims’ name be forgotten. I don’t expect Choobie (or Alix, to give him his more “dignified” given name, though it’s not the one he responded to or was called often), to have his name known widely, but I still want to make a difference to keep the effect of the difference he made in my life rippling through this world, too.
And because Our Mims’ horses helped me start to feel more whole again, and because Old Friends’ horses also helped me find solace, they will be two of the first recipients of donations in Choobie’s name. I like too that they are organizations that rescue animals, since Choobie also came from a rescue situation when I got him as a kitten at the animal shelter. We think we are rescuing these animals, and we are, but then they go on to do so much for us, on the most fundamental level.
As we came back to the cemetery again, and the story of Our Mims came to a conclusion, Jeanne started speaking of what happens to the horses here when their time comes. They are here for the rest of their days when they arrive, and when they go, they are buried whole with their heads facing east, towards new beginnings. And in the end, that’s all death is… just transition from one form to another. We do get sad about it, but it is a new beginning. Sometimes it is a needed new beginning, if the animal is suffering, and the final, most loving thing we can do for them.
Jeanne also said that each horse is buried with a bucket of favorite treats under their chins. It was such a loving, reverent burial. I still get a little emotional now and then, and it did bring tears to my eyes. Doing what we can for the animals in our care, with love, compassion, and ultimately a dignified death and a respectful and meaningful burial is what they all are worthy of, for all the ways they enrich our lives. The rituals are for us almost more than them, but there is still a lot to be said for a lovingly planned final ceremony to honor their lives.
So I left Our Mims feeling much better for having gone through its gates and having met Jeanne and some of the horses in her care. I imagine they feel the same way when they arrive and realize what a good place they have to live now.
A few more scenes from Our Mims and the painted areas of the barn