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.

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