Karen Sussman, the director for INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY for the PROTECTION of MUSTANGS and BURROS sends a request that you sponsor a Wild Horse for your Valentine. Go to ISPMB.org to learn how.
Because Paha Sapha is a Lakota word for heart shaped sacred place that is the Black Hills it seems like many of cupids arrows should go to Karen’s horses this Feb. Since my Mother’s family came from the Black Hills I know these lands well. I’ve always loved the pristine smell of the pines, soft air, sweet water lakes and crackle of pine needles under my feet as I’d walk the shadowy forests. of the Black Hills.
It wasn’t until this trip to Reservation land that I was awed by the spirit of it’s surrounding badlands and plains. It was June of 2009 when I first met Karen Sussman, who I came to call The Woman Who Walks with Horses. The flit of June-bugs and twitter of crickets sang out from the luxurious carpet of green plains in northwestern South Dakota this spring. I drove with my windows down over the the back roads of the Cheyenne River Reservation where the glimmer of green plains glimmered like fields of Irish shamrocks. Scents of alfalfa and sweet grass wafted n the air, carrying with them what seemd like echoes of Lakota Prayers. “mi-takuyae Oyasin” We are related. We… all beings are part of the great mystery”. My welcome to ISPMB was far from a professional stage of perfect sound and light. It was a stunning display of the forces of nature and it’s equine creatures at play in the fields of a primal force. A perfect storm – rain drops on my lens, light too low for photography, lightning striking an arms length away from me, terrain travel that shook and confused my video camera but – there was a silent awe that fell over me, a quiet watching of natural beauty.
One hundred horses ran from side to side of a large paddock within five hundred acres designated as their home. Winds to their backs, thunder in the strength of their heart and lightening steering the direction they moved in unison trying to outrun the storm. They acknowledged the presence of me and my big orange poncho yet steered clear, because they’re wild and they were in flight from the storm.
Seeing these free spirited horses running, prancing, kicking up their heels, sparring, teasing, chasing tails, drinking and splashing in abundant ponds, made my heart sing. In the sound of their beating hooves I heard the drum of the earth.
That night Karen took me into her home, along with her twelve reservations cats she’s rescued over time. In my vagabond days I’ve sometimes felt like a stray cat, licking up sips of milk and taking shelter in the kindness of strangers, so here I was surrounded by my kind.
Karen isn’t the stranger type though. Her home is a revolving door with a large welcome mat for humans and creatures alike. She’s even bottle-fed and nursed back to health – horse babies – foals who nearly froze to death in ice storms, or had Mother’s who did, leaving them orphaned.
“Foals need to eat every hour. It’s just too cold to go outside to feed them, especially all night long. “she explains.
Graveyard shifts are a familiar clock to Karen, who works part time as a trauma nurse at the local Indian Health Service hospital. By day she has several hundred horses to care for. Hired help comes and goes, but Karen never stops helping. Even when we were in the pasture for an interview, she was interrupted by cell phone calls. Once she encouraged the caller to seek medical attention, like a doting mother and as an experienced nurse she explained the risks of high blood pressure.
Several other calls come in about a new land purchase where she plans to grow her horse rescue into an eco-tourism center. She wants to share her discoveries over the past twenty years with the world. “It’s eminent and in all our prayers,” Karen assures everyone. After all the years and hardship it’s taken to get to where they are today, Karen knows the path of purpose is often fraught with obstacles. She understands being patient and positive and remains dedicated to her mission.
A whiff of sage permeates the air as I follow one woman with an extraordinary cause around to her various rescued wild horse herds. She mentions the differences in behavior of those whose herds were not manipulated in the wild, with those who have been continually rounded up, family units disturbed and leadership confused.
This woman of many horses, is called crazy by some. “How can she take care of all of them and how will they all survive?” I’ve been asked. Some have said what she does is unreasonable because horses are seen by many as an animal that eats too much if it’s not making money to pay it’s way. A horse should be moving cows, pulling a cart, packed for the hunt or at least it should be good for pleasure riding or rodeo entertainment.
Karen’s love affair with them began with her first horse when she was four .
Now she has hundreds to care for, but never to many to love.
Amber light glows as lightening bolts across the vast low sky. Karen walks toward a grown horse she bottle fed and nurtured from the time of it’s birth. This horse and the others that gather on the western hillside at sunset carry a history of love and loss, tragedy and redemption. As she reaches toward the mare in the last light of day, I see the flicker of promise she’s been able to restore to a few hundred horses.
It’s often this shadowy twilight that answers are found as visions turn into reality.
Watch for more from Karen Sussman and ISPMB.ORG. Learn more, offer a gift and sponsor a horse’s hay for the winter.