As I write this, yet another horse race has ended with a catastrophic breakdown. This time the Kentucky Derby. Horse lovers across the country are up in arms, as well they should be, making their case for sanity in this industry—a ban on racing babies whose bodies are not yet fully developed, improved track footing, barefoot racing. The Internet is awash with discussion, with pleas to sign petitions, pleas to write letters to those in charge.
It is a fight worth waging, an education campaign worthy of our best effort, even though the odds are that change will come about very slowly.
We act out of our love of horses. These high-profile cases outrage us and consequently energize us, but what about the daily abuses that just about every horse person has witnessed? Are we doing all that we can do?
Eight or nine years ago, I was riding with a group of women on the Barrington trails. Parts of the trail are on public property; parts of the trail cut across private properties, most of them horse properties. It was a cold day, but sunny and beautiful, the trees sparkling with snow. We were taking a route I hadn’t taken before, and as we passed by a pasture, several horses came up to the fence to greet us. They were not in good shape. Their hair coats were poor, and they were grossly underweight. There was no hay in sight.
The leader of our group, a woman who had recently bought a boarding facility on the trails, knew some of the people in the area, but she didn’t know whose property this was. I said what to me seemed obvious, that as soon as we got back to her barn, she should call the Hooved Animal Humane Society (the only equine humane society in the area at the time) and file a complaint. But when we got back to the barn, the barn owner wouldn’t make the call. I assured her that her identity would be protected, but she was afraid that the owners of these starving horses would make trouble for her. “What kind of trouble?” I asked. She didn’t know, but didn’t want to “rock the boat.” I finally convinced her to give me the location of the property, and I made the call myself.
I had known the barn owner for awhile, knew her to have a good and generous heart, knew her to be a lover of horses. I was, quite frankly, shocked by her behavior. But since that time, I have met many people who have witnessed neglect or abuse and do nothing, out of fear, our of a feeling of helplessness, out of a sense that horses are private property and owners can do as they choose.
Others just don’t see it. Several years ago, a client and student of mine, I’ll call her Rachel, wanted me to meet a barn owner and introduce her to my work. This barn owner was special to Rachel because she owned the barn where Rachel, as an adult, had learned to ride. Rachel thought very highly of this woman and was sure she would be excited about my work. And so she arranged for the three of us to meet.
When I arrived at the barn, the barn owner was teaching a lesson. She seemed to have forgotten about the meeting but said we could talk in an hour or so. Rachel, full of excitement, took me on a tour of the property.
The tiny, muddy paddocks were fenced with wire, some of it barbed. A few horses stood in the mud picking at moldy looking round bales. We walked around to the back of the property. Here lived the “pasture board” horses. Ten or twelve of them were packed into a two-acre lot stinking with mud and manure. I saw one grayish round bale. An industrious horse slowly made his way over to the gate through mud and muck up to his knees. His knees.
I commented on the condition of the paddock. Rachel listened as she fed the sweet horse a carrot. It obviously hadn’t occurred to her that anything was wrong.
Then we entered the main barn.
What I saw just about broke my heart. About thirty horses were lined up in small, dark stalls. One very thin stallion stood propped against his stall wall. Rachel hastily explained that the barn owner occasionally rescued horses, and tried to assure me that this must be one of those horses. But because of the general condition of the barn, I wasn’t reassured.
The water buckets were dirty, the stalls were dirty and dank, lacking light and fresh air. Most of the horses were so emotionally shut down that they didn’t even register our presence. Their eyes were blank, their gaze turned inward.
At the far end of the long aisle we reached a stall that at first appeared empty. But no, there was a baby in there! All by himself, lying in dirty shavings, unable to even see out the bars of his cell.
I had seen more than enough. My stomach was knotted, and I had a terrific headache. Although I could feel the sadness of each creature in that barn, although I wanted to scream with their pain, I knew there was no point in having a meltdown. I pointed out to Rachel, as gently as I could but definitely with an edge in my voice, that the conditions were pretty darned awful. Rachel seemed puzzled. This was the barn where she had touched a horse for the first time. This was the barn where she had learned to ride. To her, this was normal.
I asked Rachel to tell the barn owner that I was unable to stay, and I drove home, finally able to scream and cry, in anger and in grief.
Some days later, after I had calmed myself and found the words to say to Rachel, I called her and quietly explained my position. I told her that I knew I risked losing her friendship, risked offending her, but that the welfare of the horses we both loved was more important. I explained that Rachel was the one who needed to address the situation. Because she had a relationship with the woman, she was the one to tell the barn owner that all was not well. Clearly, the barn owner was in emotional trouble, had lost her capacity to care for others, had lost a sizeable portion of her common sense.
Somewhat to my surprise, Rachel thanked me for opening her eyes to issues she had not seen. She was a bit upset with herself, wondered why she had not seen these problems on her own. She was going to examine this more carefully. But, she said, the problem with speaking to the barn owner was that her husband was an employee of Rachel’s family’s business. She feared offending him and making the workplace uncomfortable. I asked her to consider what was most important.
While Rachel took the time she needed to think about her passive complicity in the conditions at that barn, thought about what she could do to help promote change, the barn owner’s husband was arrested for molesting a young girl who had come to his wife’s barn for riding lessons. Apparently, it had happened more than once.
We need to open our eyes. Open our hearts. Listen to the voice inside that says, “Something is not right here.” We need to speak up. We need to do this for the horses, and we need to do this for ourselves.
Until next month . . .
*This column originally appeared in From the Horse’s Mouth in June 2008.
© 2008 by Pamela Sourelis