Thursday, April 9, 2009

What About the Horses?

Do you know what the economy is doing to the horses? If you live in the western states of the US, perhaps you do. Until today, I didn't.

Rich Gold, a trainer who has worked with some of the biggest names in the business, says "people around the country are just abandoning their horses". An equine vet who deals with thoroughbred racehorses, says it's a major problem as the cost of keeping horses goes up and income goes down.

Horse shelters have waiting lists. People who'd love to have a horse don't have the facilities to keep them and can't afford the exorbitant prices barns charge for boarding. There are hundreds of horses that are losing their homes and some people are just opening the barn door and yelling, "Git!"

What's the solution? According to many veterinarians, people who spend their career caring for horses, turning a domesticated horse loose is cruel...a death sentence. But their answer is also death - they're calling for more slaughterhouses. They say because of environmental laws, euthanasia by injection isn't practical for a big horse population. They say if humane conditions are insured as the animals are transported, slaughterhouses are a viable solution.

The vet I spoke with said a bolt is shot into the horses' heads, killing them instantly.

But a horse sanctuary operator I spoke to said that's simplistic. "It's not humane," according to Chris Dodge at "Healthy, young horses are taken to slaughter where they're shot but often don't die. They're strung up and cut open while they're still alive. And their meat is sold to Canadian and European markets, where it's a delicacy that goes for as much as $30 a pound."

I grew up with horses. My dad was a gentleman farmer wannabe who chose to buy Arabian horses rather than go on vacations. Our horses were pets that went to a few shows on the East Coast, won a few ribbons, and mostly spent their time eating grass and getting petted. None of us rode them. They were as smart as dogs, kind, gentle and lovable with their own individual quirks.

Arabs, Gold tells me, have gotten a bad name. They were the investment of choice of wealthy hobbyists in the 70s and 80s, who took their animals to prestigious horse shows, dressed them up like desert steeds and hobnobbed with their wealthy friends as champagne fountains flowed in the barn aisles. Then they sold them for the price of a Lamborghini. Those days, according to Gold, are over thanks to changes in tax law. And Arabs, the border collies of the horse world, are now seen as difficult and mean.

Velvet Rae, our first Arab, was a quiet, gentle soul who used to let me sleep with my head on her shoulder as she laid down in her stall. Her barn mate, Amy, was a nervous girl who weaved in her stall and stole carrots from my pocket.

My dad studied bloodlines and tried to become a breeder. Velvet's first foal died within a few hours. I threw my arms around her neck and cried as she dropped her head over my back and let all her weight rest on me. She had three other foals, Opal, Nick and Tars. Opal was a grey beauty like her mother. Nick and Tars were bays, but physically the equivalents of Fred Astaire versus Gene Kelly. Nick was lean and long, an elegant boy with a floating gait. Tars, named after my father's favorite warrior from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, was a huge hunk of horse who pounded his way into the show ring and refused to be ignored.

I was no rider and I couldn't bring myself to put saddles on their backs or bits in their mouths. They were my friends. But I sometimes hooked leads to Velvet's halter, jumped on her back and trotted her a few steps in the fenced field. Tars was a different story - he was downright intimidating, despite the fact that he was a total love. He was a snuzzler, but it was like being snuzzled by a bodybuilder.

I got brave once - I hooked up the leads and climbed on his back in his turnout - a smaller area than the big field which was a good place for the horses to stretch their legs when the field was too muddy. I sat there, my stomach churning, waiting to see what he'd do. He was motionless for a moment, then as I tapped his side with my sneaker I felt his muscles begin to bunch up beneath me. It was like sitting astride pure coiled power...exhilarating and terrifying.

Tars began to trot and for a moment I understood why these horses were so beloved of the Bedouin that they slept in the tent with their families. This animal was a powerful engine that could go for miles without tiring, yet with every step he was aware that I was there, and was flicking his ears to let me know he was paying attention to me.

As I said, I'm no rider and never was. Within a few steps I began to slide off, my shaky balance no match for Tar's pounding gait. As I fell, I pictured the pain as he accidentally stepped on me, the broken bones, the months of rehab. I hit the ground and tried to roll out of the way. I needn't have bothered. As soon as Tars felt me slip, he stopped. It probably ensured my fall, but it also ensured my safety. He leaned his massive head down and snuffled at me - pushing to see if I was going to move. He didn't lift a foot until I stood back up.

These are the animals that are being sent to slaughter.

It makes me ashamed to be human.

Want to do your homework? is trying to present both sides of the issue.

1 comment:

Mr. Mack said...

I didn't grow up with horses, in fact, came to appreciate them well into middle age. One mare I became caretaker of used to scare the hell out of me. Huge, wild, afraid of everything. She would charge me and raise up, kick her legs, and generally just intimidate me all she could. The years past, and spending everyday with her, little by little, i earned her trust, and she'll take a saddle.

The day I knew she respected me happened when we were both caught in a small space between a fence and gate. A wasp stung her, and rather than climb over me, or knock me down, in a split second, she had calculated that she had nowhere to go but straight up, which she did.

I'll eat beans and rice for a year before I'd let anything happen to her.