In a clearing gnawed down by hungry horses trying to nourish themselves on the scrubland of the Cayman Islands, a Thoroughbred broodmare with an uncommonly gentle nature gave up on what life had handed her, and she lay down to die.
It was such a warm day as Star of Reality folded her knees beneath her thin body and lowered herself to the earth.
Her four years spent as an iron horse making full-tilt dashes toward the Finger Lakes finish line were long over, and her recently delivered chestnut-white Paint foal had been weaned and was in the bloom of health as she rested her head in the dirt, waiting.
How long she was like that is unclear to Tricia Sybersma, a Cayman Islands and Ontario resident who first met the startlingly pretty creature who arrived like an exotic hothouse flower in 2008 on an island populated with much stockier, hardier horses. “I think she might have been the only Thoroughbred on the whole island,” she says.
Star of Reality
New name: Phoenix
Sire: Slice of Reality
Dam: Water Star
Foal date: March 19, 1999
Sybersma noticed Star right away. The sleek animal was kept in a pasture near her own, where she boarded three horses, and from the first meeting, she felt a strong pull toward the remarkably trusting animal.
“She had a peacefulness and a gentleness about her that was uncommon,” she says. “She would make really good eye contact, and it was clear to me that someone had really cared for this horse, because she had so much trust in people, she was just like a lamb.”
About two years after the mare arrived, as her weight dropped, and she failed to thrive, she was moved to a further pasture. And then some time in 2010, the mare disappeared.
“I worried that when I couldn’t find her … that she was in trouble,” she says. “So I started to casually ask around to see if anyone knew where she was” until one day she got her answer.
Lying down among a small herd, the mare barely moved, but as Sybersma approached, her soft brown eyes seemed to flicker in recognition of her old friend.
“I knelt down next to her, patted her head, and told her everything would be OK,” she says. “I knew then that I had to take this into my own hands.”
She first called her husband Stu and explained the situation. “I told him this horse deserves to die peacefully and comfortably,” she says, noting that he readily agreed. Then she went to fetch the mare some carrots and apples, just a little something to perk her up and elevate her blood sugar.
After convincing the mare’s owner to let her assume care for the horse, Sybersma had the animal moved to her field, where she was immediately befriended by the resident herd. One mare with a nurturing personality seemed to stand guard over star, while a spunkier one seemed to tease and nudge to encourage her.
Working quickly to develop a dietary and nutritional regimen that would ease her back up to weight, Sybersma fed Star soaked hay cubes she shipped in from Tampa, grain, and plenty of water. She also treated her to apples and carrots.
Hoping at best that the lovely mare might at least feel comfortable and loved as she died, Sybersma kept up the regimen without the expectation of anything more. And with just that and maybe a prayer or two thrown in for good measure, Star of Reality did what no one ever expected: a recovery as surprising as it was complete.
“I got a feeling in my heart, like she was speaking directly from her heart to mine, and it warmed me to my core,” she says. “I think she knew she was safe.”
Today, three years later, Star lives at a six-horse facility at Cowboy Town Stables, which provides lessons to autistic children. Although Star does not give riding lessons to them, she is adored and fawned over by all.
And Sybersma, who travels frequently between Ontario and the Cayman Islands, sees her often and is making plans to move the horse to Ontario next spring.
“She showed such a strong will to live that I changed her name to Phoenix,” she says. “It has been about three years now, and she continues to teach me so much. I am blessed that she is in my life.”