The name would have held special resonance, and not a little irony, for a foal that was conceived by two wild mustangs from the Spring Creek Herd in western San Miguel County. Freedom’s sire died in the controversial BLM round-up at Disappointment Valley last fall. Freedom’s mother had lately been adopted by Alice Billings, the “Horse Lady” of Ridgway.
When the foal arrived as a stillborn, in the dark early hours of the morning last Thursday, March 8, the name took on a whole new meaning.
Now, Freedom’s mother, a two-year-old mustang named Liberty (Libby for short), would be free to bond with Alice Billings and her herd of seven mature horses at Thunder Heart Haven, a 10-acre spread tucked alongside County Road 5 as it strikes out of Ridgway toward Elk Meadows.
Libby, one of 40 horses culled, or gathered, from the 82 horses in the Spring Creek herd last September, had been impregnated by the dominant stallion of her band – named Cinch by the wild horse advocates who watch over the herd – when she was still practically a foal herself. Now, she would be free to grow up.
“Not that I wanted Libby to lose her baby,” reflected Billings, standing in the warm, late-afternoon sunshine, the day after the stillbirth had occurred. Billings was wearing a scruffy cowboy hat as usual, faded Levis that matched the color of her eyes, and on this day, mud boots to withstand the boggy muck of the pasture where Libby now stood watching quietly with big brown eyes.
“I didn’t. But she’s pretty young to be a mother. This will give her a chance to mature. And I also worried about, what if the baby had grown bigger? Would that injure her in birth? I don’t know. It happened for a reason. I’m grateful in one way for the lesson.”
It’s the latest lesson of many that Billings’ beloved horses have delivered to her since she established Thunder Hart Haven as a sanctuary for senior horses several years ago. Here, Billings has filled her life with caring for seven older horses, and, in her free time, painting them.
Her color-drenched, whimsical paintings inspired by her friends in the paddock are well-known around town, and featured on the pages of her recently released children’s book, “Hooey” (San Juan Publishing, 2011). The book tells the heart-warming story of a year in the life of a special horse named Hooey, Billings’ first senior horse who died at the age of 30.
She’s also got a new collection of paintings, inspired by Libby, and horses from the Spring Creek herd who perished in last fall’s round-up.
“Horses can’t talk – but they can speak, if you listen,” Billings insists. Certainly, the horses she paints have plenty to say through their colorful impressionistic renderings that seem to whinny, snort, neigh and guffaw through the canvas.
The new collection, called "Liberty and her Family and Friends" has several renderings of her beloved Libby, of course, a pretty bay standing 13 hands high, with a sweetly scruffy chin and muley points.
Then there’s that painting of Cinch, the father of Libby’s stillborn filly, swiftly rendered in unleashed fury. You can clearly see in this painting that, had he survived, Cinch would never have allowed himself to relax into captivity. His neck was broken in a stampede during the BLM round-up last fall, and he had to be put down. Of the painting, Billings said: “One night it just fell out of me. Cinch was really flowing through me. I was channeling Cinch. I wanted to document the horses that didn’t make it.”
The painting has already been making ripples in the community. “I had one person who knew the story, when she saw the painting, she just burst into tears,” Billings said.
Billings buried Freedom away over a hillock at Thunder Heart Haven, under a clump of trees down by the creek, next to Shelly Belle, her Arabian who died several years ago.
Libby, meanwhile, is learning about being a kept horse, well tended, well loved. She laps up the attention lavished upon her, enjoys having her hooves trimmed and her picture taken, and is adapting well to captivity. Soon she will be ready for saddle-training.
“She’s just beautiful,” Billings said, standing in Libby’s sunshiny paddock, her face lit from within as Libby nosed into the curve of her neck with a velvet nuzzle. “She’s a beautiful girl. I tell you, my bond with her.... I didn’t like losing a foal. But, if something had happened to her.... She has brought me so much joy.”