To hear “I love you” as your child’s first words is something most mothers could only dream of.
For Tracy Austwick, just to hear any words from her daughter—who doctors had predicted would never speak, following an emergency tracheostomy when born 14 weeks premature—was a miracle.
But even more arresting, was to whom—or what—those words were spoken: a gentle giant of a donkey named Shocks. Tracy only happened to overhear Amber’s whispered words of affection for the dear creature that had, in her third year of life, effected a miracle.
“Amber’s Donkey” tells the incredible tale of Amber, who was born a mere 1 pound and 9 ounces, and the unlikely friendship she forged with a beleaguered burro.
The tale of her furry friend, affectionately dubbed “Shocksy,” is equally remarkable. He had been saved from the brink of death himself, only a few years before meeting Amber, by the good souls at the Donkey Sanctuary in England.
Shocks had been found on an Irish farm with a rope so tightly tied around his neck it had dug into the flesh. His callous owner had taken to pouring bleach on the creature’s horrid wounds. Few expected him to survive.
While his flesh and fur did manage to slowly recover at the sanctuary and its plush paddocks, the donkey’s heart wasn’t so easily mended. The trauma left him timid and isolated. (Quick tidbit: Donkeys are surprisingly social creatures, capable of rowdy play, pranks, and deep and enduring friendships.)
But just as Shocks managed to bring about an awakening in Amber, so too did she in her four-legged friend.
How their lives came to be intertwined is told in remarkably suspenseful prose that had this reader repeatedly sneaking off to turn a few more pages and find out just what happened next. Particularly effective—and perhaps metaphorical—is how Shocks’s and Amber’s stories are woven together, beginning at first as two separate points of view, alternating chapter by chapter, before eventually merging, like their lives, into one beautiful whole.
What might be less apparent at first is how thoroughly “Amber’s Donkey” is also a tale of courage—not only on the part of Amber and her twin sister, Hope, but of her parents as well.
Their tenacity to do everything they can for their dear daughter, even in the face of the most daunting of medical prognoses, is at once humbling and inspiring. If we could all be half as caring, devoted, and selfless for the sake of others (or even our own children!), the world would be all the better for it.
Ultimately, Amber’s story is one of triumph, healing, and hope, and I suspect it would warm even the stoniest of hearts.
By Julian and Tracy Austwick
Ebury Press, 2016, 320 pages
To give a little context to the measly figure that “Snowman”—the greatest showjumper horse of his day—once fetched (you guessed it, $80), consider what the 2016 Olympic jumping champion MHS Going Global sold for in 2016: a reported 12 million euros (about $13.3 million).
Snowman’s lowly price tag indeed reflects his humble beginnings and sets up the extraordinary rags-to-riches tale that Elizabeth Letts so masterfully narrates. The gelding’s story is every bit as inspiring and heartwarming as “Amber’s Donkey,” but this time more in the mold of the American Dream.
(Both tales have in common an unspoken, though palpable, sense of a higher hand at work, so incredible are the friendships they tell of.)
Unlike his nimbler peers, Snowman was a once-muscular, full-framed former draft horse who had been abandoned to auction by an unnamed owner in the fall of 1956.
It was then that Harry de Leyer found him, arriving at the end of a three-hour auction, unwanted and packed with some 15 other steeds in a battered old trailer bound for the slaughterhouse.
De Leyer—who had developed a keen sense for horses in his native Holland just years before—noticed Snowman for his quiet demeanor. While the hoofs of the abandoned beasts clattered deafeningly on the trailer’s metal floor, fear pulsing in the air, the gray gelding paid no mind to the tension and quietly stuck his nose out from the slatted walls toward Harry.
Their eyes locked, and de Leyer felt a connection. There was a spark of life in the gray horse’s eyes, which belied his terrible appearance—a coat caked with mud and dung, open sores on both knees, and overgrown and cracked hooves.
De Leyer saw into the creature’s heart. He saw hope in its eyes. Courage. Trust. Spirit. Perhaps even a touch of humanity.
As Letts puts it so lyrically: “A horse for sale is more than a flesh-and-blood animal; he is also an embodiment of a promise. Along with his physical attributes—coat color, four legs, a strong back, a facial expression—he also carries hope: that he will be strong and brave, faithful and true.”
Whatever promise Snowman showed, it was enough for someone to give him a second chance at life.
De Leyer forked over 80 would-be eponymous dollars, and the rest, as they say, is history. A champion was, if not born that day, at least rescued.
De Leyer’s act of humanity wouldn’t pay off immediately, however. It would be three weeks before the horse’s mottled and marred coat was back to normal, and his malnourished frame filled out. All de Leyer had hoped for was a calm training horse he could use at the Knox School in Long Island, New York, where he served as a riding instructor.
But as fate would have it, Snowman—and his oversized heart—had more than a few surprises in store for de Leyer and company, the greatest being his prodigious leaping ability.
Within a few years, the pair would rise—or perhaps “vault,” more fittingly—to national prominence, with Snowman even winning the Triple Crown of horse show jumping in 1958, appearing on “The Johnny Carson Show,” gracing the cover of Life magazine, and garnering an international following.
It’s a tale almost too magical to be true, and a wonderful reminder that there’s something extraordinary in all of us. It might just take that someone special to see it.
“The Eighty-Dollar Champion”
by Elizabeth Letts
Ballantine Books, 2012, 368 pages