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Nora Swango Stanger: Bonds between best friends

I recently saw a picture of my great-niece Kamryn with her miniature horse, John Wayne.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and I have to agree.

In the picture, six-year-old Kamryn has her arms around the neck of John Wayne, her head against his shoulders and a look of total contentment is seen on both their faces.

John Wayne is gentle and appears to understand Kamryn’s every need. The two are nearly inseparable. I believe Kamyrn would sleep in John Wayne’s stall, if allowed.

John Wayne came into Kamryn’s life four years ago. Her parents purchased three miniature horses, but, shortly afterwards, decided to sell them.

The tiny horses were loaded on a truck headed for their new home. Kamyrn’s older brother and sister began saying goodbye and waving to the horses.

As the truck pulled down their driveway, two-year-old Kamyrn said, “John Wayne be back.”

Her parents explained that, no, John Wayne was going to a new home. At that, Kamyrn had a complete meltdown and her dad went running down the lane, stopped the truck and that’s how John Wayne became an integral part of the Kerns family.

Two years ago, tragedy hit. While the family was away for the day, John Wayne was viciously attacked by dogs. He was mutilated to the point that death was pretty certain.

My niece Grace who is a veterinarian, came to the rescue. Grace worked through the night, desperately trying to stop the bleeding and patch up the muscles.

Even after hours of surgery, Grace was very doubtful John Wayne would pull through. Even if he was able to survive the surgery and infection didn’t set in, Grace wasn’t sure that his facial muscles would ever work again so that he could eat.

The entire extended family was devastated, not only for the needless suffering of an innocent animal, but the trauma this was causing Kamyrn.

As hours, then days, then weeks passed, Grace and Kamyrn didn’t give up hope. While Grace poured antibiotics into him, Kamyrn poured love into John Wayne and, today, the twosome are still able to cherish each other.

Kamyrn and John Wayne remind me of my baby sister, Terri, when she was the same age.

We had a Shetland pony named Windy. Terri and Windy were tied at the hip. Windy loved being with her as much as she longed for every minute with him.

It wasn’t unusual to see Windy lying in the field with Terri lying on him, her back snuggled between his shoulder and belly, her head resting on him like he was a huge pillow.

Windy would cradle her this way for as long as she needed. She would read a book or simply daydream about whatever little girls dream about when they are with their best friend.

At this time, Terri’s favorite TV show was a western called “Rawhide.” She was desperately in love with the character Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood).

Terri was the youngest of eight children and not often the focus of attention. In fact, she and Ella (number seven in the family) were not a year apart in age and we treated them more like one unit rather than typical sisters.

We older kids didn’t even use their names for years, calling them “the babies” and seldom referring to them as individuals.

Windy was the only one who understood Terri as a unique being. I also believe Terri was the only one who valued Windy as essential to the family.

It’s hard growing up with so many people in one family and even six-year-old little girls get frustrated.

One day, Terri must have been fed up with all of us. I don’t know how long it was before someone realized Terri was missing.

After searching, we found that she had put a simple rope halter on Windy and the two of them had left the hollow we lived in.

She was walking up Aaron’s Creek, leading Windy, with her things packed on his back. Terri and Windy were headed to Texas.

In her little adventurous mind, they were going to join Rowdy Yates and live a life where she would be appreciated.

We all need someone who understands us, someone that we can pour our dreams out to.

People are much more complicated than animals. Animals don’t judge us or have challenging expectations of us. I think God gave us animals as a gift to calm us, reassure us, and give us something/someone to keep trying for.

Our society has found that animals can play an important role in our mental health.
Emotional support animals of every variety are recognized as critical to many people in creating and maintaining emotional health. These are animals that provide comfort and companionship without judgment.

I recognize that not everyone is drawn to animals in the way Kamyrn is drawn to John Wayne, or how Terri and Windy were attached to each other.

Healthy human connections are vital. No pet can replace human relationships.
But the right animal with the right person can make human relationships much easier to maneuver.

Nora Swango Stanger, a Lawrence County native and Appalachian outreach coordinator for Sinclair Community College, can be reached at norastanger@gmail.com.