There is a horse standing in a paddock beside our barn who is beautiful beyond reason. Her hips are large and firm, her markings lead the mind to the words 'exotic' and 'native', and her mind clicks away almost audibly as she captures with more savvy than most every smell, sight and sound that wanders her way.
She has been abused. Horribly. Where her mouth comes together on each side she carries small, black scars that are evidence of being yanked and pulled by hands that should never have been allowed to hold a pair of reins. On her back side just below the place that her thick tail joins the rest of her lovely body there are scars on either side; the result whippings that no horse would stand for unless it has been tied to an unmovable object with equipment from which it cannot break free.
She's been with us for four months. She spent the first one standing in the corner of her paddock trembling until we were far enough away that she felt she could safely eat the hay and grain we had quietly placed in her feeders. Gradually she began quickly walking or trotting past us as we placed her hay and grain. Eventually we could reach through the corral panel and she would quickly smell our hands and then run back to the opposite corner of her paddock.
After several weeks of having been allowed to pet, scratch and rub her through the corral panel I eventually opened the gate to her paddock and stood just inside her territory. Saying she was unnerved is a gross understatement. One thousand pounds of fear is nothing short of astounding. She trembled with such force that I could literally hear it from 30 feet away, her nostrils spread to an alarming diameter to accommodate her feverish breathing, and she remained frozen in place until more than 15 minutes after I had quietly exited her paddock.
We finally played enough mind games with her that we've garnered her trust. Being as horses are naturally inclined to be in an almost constant state of picking their way around in the social order of a herd, we never allowed her to be turned out with the rest of our horses. Thus, we became her only choices when it came to herd mates - herd mates by default, if you will.
Today she can be haltered, led, groomed, saddled and provided with gentle, consistent, firm and honest ground training (training without a rider on her back). She is practicing following voice commands of walk, trot, canter and lope and woah, but always in very brief training sessions and never without several moments of being startled and breathing heavily. Even still, she occasionally becomes so full of fear that she is simply rendered stuck in place.
Will anyone ever ride her again? We have a video of her being ridden by the 13-year-old daughter of her original owner. What happened between then and now is anybody's guess. Given a year or 18 months of consistent attention she may eventually learn that having a bit in her mouth and a rider on her back means nothing will come of it other than following simple commands and then having all of the equipment removed. Maybe. One of the keys of training horses is always ending on a good note - even if it takes an extra hour of your time to get to one. Maybe one day she will realize that training sessions with us always end with music she can relax to.
Almost every moment I spend with this lovely creature reminds me of the time I was standing ankle deep in piss and shit covered straw that had been lain in the stall so long before that I couldn't even remember when I'd done it. My care and feeding of the horse that belonged in that stall had been one of the first things to fall as my entire family tipped over an edge from which it has not yet fully returned all these 31 years later. That horse was alone. I was indeed his herd mate by default. There were no other horses on the property and I was the only one who would come visit. But what a neglectful herd mate I had become.
Once a day I would walk into the barn, fill his water bucket, dump a scoop of feed into his feeder, walk out of the barn and not return until the same time the next day. His stall progressively filled with piss and shit; becoming a wall-to-wall cesspool of filth. Without proper amounts of feed or hay he was slowly but surely loosing weight. He had also picked up the habits of stall walking (walking around and around in a circle in his stall until he became dizzy) and cribbing (biting down on a board of his wooden stall and then sucking air so hard that it has an affect similar to that of hyperventilation in humans).
By the time I got him out of his stall he had become almost completely insane. Not violent. Insane. Insane in the way of children who are found shut in the back room of some filthy house and have had so little stimuli that they are simply overwhelmed by almost anything. I haltered him in his stall and led him to the grooming station. His walking was that of a frightful horse - start and stop and start and stop. I put him in the cross ties at the grooming station, something he had not been exposed to for longer than I could remember, and he simply could not stand it. There he found himself in a familiar but not familiar space with pressure coming at both sides of his halter. He began to jockey around, tried to throw his head back several times, and his eyes became wider and wider until I could see the whites of them almost completely. I released one of the cross ties in an attempt to lessen the points of pressure he had to pay attention to, but his fear had already snowballed and the release simply pushed him completely over the edge. In his attempt to run away he lost his footing, fell onto the floor of the grooming station, and managed to get one of the ropes of the cross tie looped around his neck. His legs kicked against air, he continued to throw his head back, and his eyes eventually rolled up into his head as the rope cut off his air supply.
I ran in and out of the grooming station several times before running out of the barn completely and standing in the hot sun on the gravel drive and screaming at the top of my lungs,
"Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelp! Oh God! Oh Gooooooooooooooood! Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeelp!"
There was no answer. No one to hear me. No one could.
I leaned over myself and slammed my fists into my thighs over and over until I was grunting and crying and had begun to visualize taking the crude end of the hay hook and shoving it into the veins of my wrists so hard that I would die by way of causing myself nearly unbearable pain and bleeding out. I wanted everything to end. Disappear. Go away. Leave. Stop. Anything. I wanted to discover I was actually an alien and this was simply a horrid end to prove I was failing as a human on earth.
As I walked back into the barn I landed in the middle of a pocket of complete silence other than a pair of barn swallows angrily chattering about as they tended to their nest. Humiliation, disgust and shame had embraced me so completely that the entrance to the grooming station appeared to be tilted sideways.
My horse lay on his side on the floor no longer kicking or throwing his head. He was as silent as a day with no wind. He was still. He was breathing. He was alive. Somehow his struggle had caused the rope to loosen enough to stop choking him, but not enough to loosen completely. Thus, he had simply decided his place on the floor was what was intended for the moment.
I removed the rope then backed into the entrance and made kissing sounds to encourage him to raise his head and discover the rope was gone and he could now get up. Minutes later he heaved himself from the floor, turned and looked at me. I walked to his side, clipped a lead rope to his halter, and led him out the door of the barn and to the pasture. There I removed his halter and kissed at him again to remind him he was free to move as he wished. Once he realized the situation he was in he broke into a run and kept running until he disappeared over the small hill out of my view.
Back in the barn I grabbed a pitch fork and a shovel and then stood in the filthy stall I had let that horse stand in and began stripping it bare. When done, I walked out of the barn, closed the door, walked back to my family home and announced,
"I don't want that horse. Call those people from St. Louis who want him so bad."
The protests of,
"But you love him!"
wandered their way to my ears as I turned my back and walked out of the room. In my bedroom I sat on my bed and turned against myself even further than I already had. The hay hook kept crudely carving itself across my mind and I sat at the edge of my bed thinking of it, desiring it, until the sun was down, my room was dark, and the next thing I knew my mother was waking me up for school the next morning.
Within days the people from St. Louis were pulling a trailer away from our house that contained my horse.
"We'll take good care of him," the woman said from the passenger seat of their truck.
I couldn't even look her in the eye but said, "I'll get the gate," and ran to the gate as I watched my feet run along the gravel drive.
I've talked with myself about this a million times. It comes up every time I make a mistake. Every time I do something that inadvertently frightens one of our horses. Every time I realize we are late to do something or forgot to do it until the next day. Every time I try to remind myself that I was 13 when everything happened. I try to remember how many times my mentor has asked me who was truly meant to be checking that the horse was being well cared for. A 13-year-old girl with very little knowledge of horses? Or her parents?
I try to remember the amazement everyone has at how well my husband and I care for our horses. I've stood in the middle of our training pen and asked myself to remember all of the lessons, triumphs and moments I've had with every horse we own in that place. I think about how funny it is to watch our mares (female horses) every time I go into the pasture - how they immediately turn to me, the being they consider the leader of their herd, and follow me wherever I go. I try to hug myself, soothe myself with knowing this is a different day, a different person, different circumstance.
But it comes up. It disrupts my sleep. It grabs me up with shame, embarrassment and humiliation as if it happened yesterday. It shakes me by the shoulders and says,
"Piece. Of. Shit."
I want it gone. I want to walk into a room and speak of it as I did that poor horse,
"I don't want it."
Please, if you don't mind, let me speak of this here. Let me speak of it and be rid of it from this day forward. It is as if it is that hay hook, and I don't want it anymore.