Don Torino’s Life in the Meadowlands: All Great Things Start With Something Small

My morning visits with Smalls continue to be one of my most cherished and special times of my life. I am not sure what I would do if I could not visit my old pal at least a few times a week. Life would be much less joyful and caring without that big, beautiful horse strolling over early in the morning just to say hello

As I was writing my last column about my mornings with Smalls, I talked with a great friend of mine and former employee of the Bergen Equestrian Center, April Neumann. We had often talked of Smalls over the years but I was not prepared for the “Smalls Story,” which is as big and emotional and as beautiful as the big guy himself.  ‘In 2014 I got a call from a man that had sold horses to the equestrian center in the past,’ April told me.

“He said he was driving back up north from a trip buying horses in Virginia. He thought he had horses that might work for our program, including a big black horse. He said he would be passing through the next day and he could stopover on his way back. I told him I would like to see this big black horse. He arrives the next day and unloads the horses he had bought in Virginia, including that big black horse. This horse ended up being the biggest horse I had ever seen. Twenty-five years in the horse business and literally THE BIGGEST HORSE. My first reaction? NO! What on earth were we going to do with a horse of that size? We had to put a lot of pieces of saddles and bridles together to make something fit so someone could try and see if you could even ride him.

He did everything we asked of him to see if he could have a job and was kind and gentle despite having no idea where he was or why he was there. My boss told me do not keep him; he’s too big, put him back on the trailer. But I couldn’t. He was at least 300 pounds underweight, his feet were overgrown and the look in his sad eyes was of someone that was nearly broken.

I decided he needed to stay for a few days to at least have some rest. We put him in a stall (we didn’t really have one big enough) and gave him a whole bale of hay and a giant tub of water. To this day, I’ve never seen anyone eat or drink so much. He didn’t seem to know what being outside with grass was. He had no idea what apples and carrots were about. He certainly had no idea why people wanted to touch him and give him affection. He did not understand how special he was or how many people he would impact.

Needless to say, those few days to rest turned into his staying forever. I don’t know his story before 2014, but I do know how much he changed my story since meeting him. His presence leaves a mark and his spirit is a gift.

He came with no name. I decided to call him Smalls and not to be silly or ironic. But because all great things start from something Small. And as it turns out, I am not the only person whose heart has been touch by Smalls. He has a much more important job, helping our veterans.   

April continued telling me about Smalls. ‘The equestrian center hosts various therapeutic groups using horses. People come to these sessions not to ride, but just to be. Be at the farm and with nature. Be with the horses and the quiet conversations they allow. Be able to think and breathe. We see school groups for children with disabilities, adults learning to fight substance abuse disorders and we also see veterans struggling with PTSD. One group of veterans has stayed in my memory a long time. They met a number of horses on their journey with us. But one man and one horse stand out.

Many people have never seen a horse in person let alone have actually touched one. Sometimes we share stories about the horses on the tour if people ask. On one particular day, some folks asked a few questions about Smalls. He happens to be our biggest resident so he’s hard to miss when walking through the barn. I shared a few details including that he happens to be afraid of thunderstorms and smoke. So though he is large, he too has things that he has to manage just like everyone else. We always end the tour with a question. Which horse did you meet today that you connected with the most?

Only one veteran raised his hand. He was a rather large man, needed a cane for mobility and moved slowly, but he had a very big smile when he spoke.’ He said that the ‘big black horse’ was the one he connected with the most. He said he could relate to how people might see him, judge him, or make assumptions because he was big, without knowing him. He said all his life people assumed because he was also big that people thought he was tough and brave because of his size, but he was just like the big black horse. He said things made him afraid too and he couldn’t share that with anyone. He said he could see that Smalls, the big black horse, knew exactly how he felt.

He wiped his eyes a little after sharing and thanked us for giving him the opportunity to share his evening with such wonderful horses and people. With a little salute and wave, he said, ‘see you next week.’

 I hope that everyone can find their very own Smalls, whether it is a horse, dog, cat or the wild birds all around you. The more we can connect to the nature around us, the healthier and better people we will be

See you in the Meadowlands.

Don Torino’s Life in the Meadowlands: Mornings With Smalls

 I leave my truck and begin my long walk to our butterfly garden in Overpeck Park and, as usual, I am overly focused on where I have to be, whom I have to call, text, email or actually meet with by the end of the day. There are pressing issues of the day to say the least, some that may bring a ray of hope; others will make me want to throw in the towel. However, as I round the corner to the Bergen Equestrian Center there he is, a large figure framed by a beautiful blue sky. A smile comes to my face; my good friend is here when I need to visit with him the most. My old pal Smalls.

I stop and rest and put my arms on the white fence and cannot help but feel everything is as perfect as it should be. There in the distance is my close friend for many years, Smalls the horse. He picks his head up, I wave, and he begins his long meandering stroll over to greet me. He is in no rush, no reason to hurry, he purposely shows me that I should slow it down and take it easy. He will be there shortly.

Smalls is the most gentle of giants, a large Draft Horse that could be a bit intimidating if you did not know him better. His personality is even bigger than he is. He finally arrives at the fence, lifts his big head over, and with those beautiful dark eyes says, ‘Good Moring, it a beautiful day.’ I pet his nose; we look up quietly at each other and just rest.  ‘See any good birds today?’ He looks up in the air.  “Catch you on the way back,” I say as he nods his head and goes about his business.

 I am not sure when Smalls and I first met or what we said to each other. But I am sure it was how most best friends meet by enjoying some activity together. In this case, it was just being outside.

 Now sometimes, understandably, Smalls does not have the time to come over for a visit. Life is like that sometimes for all of us. Some mornings the grass might just be too sweet and lush to pass up and other times he just likes canoodling with his horse friends on the other side of the fences. S that is when I wave and move along.  However, like a good friend, he is always there when I really need him most.

Smalls is a very good listener. In fact one of the best listeners I know and after all that is the best thing a friend can do, just listen. I am not sure he takes my morning gripes and indignations seriously but his face does not give it away if he does not. He nods his head with a sympathetic expression, like he understands and looks me in the eye as if to say, ‘I hear you buddy.’

One thing Smalls does not tolerate is anyone feeling sorry for themselves. I can recall one warm spring morning when I thought my job was just getting too tough and I was the one who should really be put out to pasture. As Smalls walked up to me and put his big head over the fence he gave me a little nudge  ‘Hey,’  said, ‘what is up with you big guy ?’ Smalls answered with a stern look:  ‘Wake up and smell the flowers. ‘It’s a gorgeous day ! We are surrounded by friends who care about us, we are doing what we love and by the way, we have plenty of good snacks to eat too so get on with it. Do what you have to do. I am always here to talk.’ Did I mention Smalls is a great philosopher also?

 My mornings with Smalls are very special. It is one the great joys of my life to be able to stop even for a minute or two and share the news of the day or just rest silently along with him to enjoy the wonders of nature around us. Smalls does not have to talk. He does not have to come up with world shattering solutions or be wiser or smarter than anyone else. He just has to be himself and do what he has always done for me, just be there. Thanks Smalls! See you soon!

In my next column I will be telling more of the Smalls Story, how he came to the center of the Bergen Equestrian Center and the lives he has touched since being there. Stay tuned. It’s an amazing story.

See all of you in the Meadowlands !  

Native Plant Day and Butterfly Day dates announced!

The Bergen County Audubon Society and New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority’s Native Plant Day will take place on Sunday, May 21, 2023, and Butterfly Day is scheduled for Sunday, July 23, 2023. These programs are great days for all ages and take place in DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. We will post more information on each event closer to the dates.

Native Plant Day features walks and talks spotlighting native plants and explaining why they are critical to the environment. Butterfly Day includes walks, talks, and kid’s games and crafts. There’s also a scavenger hunt, costume contest, music and more.

Meadowlands Bald Eagle Festival a Rousing Success

Credit Joe Koscielny

Many thanks to the 250 plus people who came to River Barge Park for Sunday’s (Jan. 15) splendid, first-ever Meadowlands Eagle Festival, and thank you Bergen County Audubon Society for playing such a huge role in its success!

From our great exhibitors to kid’s activities, and, of course, our resident Bald Eagles, we could not have asked for a more wonderful day! Check out this photo gallery and be on the lookout for our next big event, Native Plant Day in April.

Credit BCAS
Credit Sandy Urato
Credit BCAS
Credit NJSEA
Credit Sandy Urato

Credit BCAS

Credit Sandy Urato
Credit BCAS

Tell Your Friends: First-Ever Meadowlands Eagle Festival Sunday Is This Sunday, Jan. 15, at River Barge Park in Carlstadt!!!

It’s just about time to make your way to River Barge Park in Carlstadt for the first-ever Meadowlands Eagle Festival. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., is co-sponsored by the Bergen County Audubon Society and New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, and is free to the public. In addition to Eagle walks and plenty of informational tables, BCAS President Don Torino will give a talk at noon: “Return of the Bald Eagle.” The talk and information tables will be inside, and there will be coffee and light refreshments. In addition, there will be prizes for kids up to age 12 who bring eagle artwork.