I recently made a huge mistake. I started following a Facebook page dedicated to highlighting local horses in danger of being shipped to slaughter houses in Mexico.
Huge mistake. Their faces call out to me from my computer screen daily. What was I thinking?
And they are all in danger. If the trucks come, there is a certain weight they will want to load. It’s not about individual animals, it’s about price per pound. It’s that simple and to a horse lover, it’s that ugly.
How did these horses get there? They are horses consigned to auction by their owners for whatever reason. Maybe they can’t afford them any longer, or the kids lost interest. Maybe it’s time for a bigger, better, faster, flashier horse. Maybe the horse is lame or injured and no longer useful. Maybe it’s time to reduce the herd number. Maybe the owner passed away and there were no provisions for the horses.
And maybe the previous owners believe their horses will go to great new homes. Perhaps they convince themselves that their old horse will be some young girl’s dream come true. Maybe…but in the fast, get-them-in-get-them-sold environment of a horse auction, it’s very hard to be sure who had the winning bid, who will determine each horse’s future.
If a horse doesn’t catch the eye of a responsible new owner before the gavel falls, then the “kill buyers”- the middlemen between horse auctions and slaughter facilities – will put in that final bid. At the end of the sale, some of the horses head off with individuals or families to personal trailers. They will leave the confusion of the auction grounds to go to new homes where they will hopefully receive good and responsible care.
The other horses are loaded into big stock trailers where multiple horses jostle for space, often injuring each other, their stress and confusion anything but over. Their future filled with nothing but uncertainty and a potentially tragic end.
Do people realize that many of our once-loved, once-valued horses end up in a battle for the right to life and dignity? Or is it really just an ugly, little-known fact? For most people, it likely is. I also suspect that a lot of people really don’t want to know the truth.
But here is the truth.
The kill buyer feedlots are filled with riding horses – good strong horses with many years left. You’ll find pregnant mares in the pens. You’ll find frantic mothers protecting beautiful young foals. You’ll find yearling colts and fillies, lost and confused in the shuffle. You’ll find horses, donkeys, and mules that have learned to trust humans, now facing the ultimate betrayal.
And for the horses who truly don’t find their savior, the future is grim. You see, we don’t slaughter horses in the United States. It’s not legal here. Nope, our castaway horses go to slaughter houses in Canada or Mexico, the latter the most common destination for horses in my immediate area.
From there, I don’t really want to discuss what happens. I know enough. I know it’s not well regulated; I know humane treatment of the horses is not a priority. Handling methods and killing methods are not gentle, not reliable. I can’t bear to actually see the images, or to dwell on the full truth.
It’s enough to just see photos of the horses that people are desperately trying to save from the feedlots. Photo after photo. Horse after horse. The plea goes out every single day for people to step forward, pay the fee that the kill buyer will accept to release a horse, to save a life.
Many are saved. Their photos are labeled “Safe/sold.”
Many are not. Their photos are labeled with one simple word. “Shipped.”
I don’t want to keep looking at the photos, but as the saying goes, it’s like a terrible car accident and, try as I may, I can’t seem to look away.
Two days ago, I saw Asher and I truly couldn’t look away.
Asher is the name a big Belgian draft horse was quickly given by the women racing against an unknown deadline in an attempt to find buyers for several horses labeled “urgent” on the Facebook timeline. Photos of Asher showed a big, sturdy, mature horse, perhaps in need of a little weight, with strong legs and a blonde coat that begged for a good brushing.
Asher appeared to be an older horse and marks on his chest indicated that he had likely been used to pull, as many horses of his breed are. I was told he was tired and stressed at the feedlot. You could see it in his stance, in the blank expression on his face. Though my heart ached for every one of the horses pictured that day, Asher had a special hold on me. It’s as if I already knew him, already loved him.
I know my attraction to him is in no small part due to the loss of my beloved spotted draft horse, Scout. Scout had lived a wonderful life with us on our farm. Scout also had a terrible, fluke accident that ended his life far too soon. I could not save Scout.
But could I save Asher?
My life is busy and full, and so is my pasture. My partner Jim and I have a herd that consists of five horses, a mule, a standard donkey, a miniature horse, and five miniature donkeys. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, hooves to trim, shots to give, teeth to care for, and necks to hug. Many of our animals are with us because they, like Asher, were no longer wanted.
Did we have room for one more? It really didn’t make sense. Life is quite busy enough and beyond our barn animals, we actively participate in fostering and placing homeless dogs and have a houseful. But even with logic trying to take control of my brain, I still could not shake the image of Asher. The big horse who was described as gentle and quiet. The big horse who watched other horses leave and just stood with his head hanging in a corner of the feedlot pen.
Then I talked it over with some amazing friends. Renown author Jon Katz (www.bedlamfarm.com) and Pamela Rickenback, the co-founder and driving force behind Blue Star Equiculture (www.equiculture.org), learned of my concern for Asher and I shared my internal debate with them. They each listened so patiently, they responded so wisely.
The reality that kept playing over and over in my mind was that saving one horse doesn’t put much of a dent in the big-picture problem. One horse saved, but thousands more in danger. Asher was just one horse.
Then a funny thing happened. Both Jon and Pamela, in separate conversations, told me that they both felt this horse would somehow make a difference. They both felt that Asher was speaking to me for a reason beyond just saving one horse. In fact, they both felt he might be reaching across the miles to them as well.
“Save the horse,” Jon said. It was really just that simple. Save Asher and the rest of the puzzle pieces would come together.
And so, racing time as the trucks arrived at the feedlot, I sent the online funds that would save Asher’s life.
Payment made, I still had to hold my breath for a few hours until I received confirmation that Asher had escaped the feedlot and was safely moved to his new temporary “horse hotel.”
Then something truly incredible happened. Thanks to a touching blog post by Jon (read it here), people from across the country started offering financial support for this one horse. Five dollars here…ten there…even donations of $50 and $100 started coming in.
This amazing support will help cover the fee I paid to secure Asher’s safety. It will help cover the expense of his 30 day quarantine, necessary because feedlot horses are often exposed to illness. It will help cover his veterinary expenses and hoof care. This outpouring of kindness will prepare Asher for a new, secure life. Any funds donated beyond what we need to for Asher’s initial care will be donated to Blue Star Equiculture where it will be put to very good use.
Now that the dust has settled, I’m not really sure what will come next, but I know it will be good. I now have 30 days to figure it out. Whatever next is, Jon, Pamela, and other friends have all said the same thing: “I have a really good feeling about this.”
I do too.
Jim and I will talk. I have to admit that I may have purchased Asher without exactly consulting him. Oh I may have mentioned it…I may have showed him a photo or two. In fact, I did say, “I might rescue a horse today” as I ran out of the house yesterday morning. I doubt he is surprised. Actually, I know he’s not. This is not the first time I’ve pulled a stunt like this. Jerry Swinefeld, the giant hog living in our barn that I took in “temporarily” from a rescue group comes to mind. And Delta Donkey who popped in one weekend and never left. Oh, and Bob the sheep…I can’t remember. Did we discuss that one?
Thankfully, Jim is a good, good man with a huge, compassionate heart. (Did you read that sweetie? Jim?) I think this idea will grow on him.
My hope is that we can keep Asher ourselves, as a new family member at Tails You Win Farm. (Picture Jim shaking his head, sighing, and saying “I knew it.”)
But to be fair, if Jim and I don’t feel we can keep Asher here, he is a much larger horse than we have ever cared for before, then Pamela has said she will help us find him a good sanctuary where he can live his life with security, good care, and in peace. By buying Asher from the feed lot, I made a promise to him that he will never again face the uncertain future that comes with the bang of an auctioneer’s gavel. I fully intend to keep that promise.
And maybe this is the start of something bigger. Maybe Asher is the horse that will get some great and compassionate minds thinking about ways to make humane, compassionate treatment of horses a priority in our world – especially for the horses that are seemingly cast aside so easily. Pamela has already dedicated her life to that very mission through her work at Blue Star Equiculture. I urge everyone to go to their website to read their mission statement. It is truly inspiring.
Asher’s plight, along with that of the other horses at the feed lot, makes me determined to spread the word about the right of all horses to receive humane treatment. This is not about vilifying the “kill buyers.” While I do condemn the way some of them treat the horses in their care, the reality is that they are doing a job. They are in a supply and demand business. I may not agree with their chosen profession, but this is a bigger issue than just pointing a finger and placing blame on the middleman.
The issue goes much deeper. It speaks to the flawed way some people perceive horses and their role in our lives. Horses are not a throw-away commodity. They are our partners in work and in pleasure. Treated properly, they thrive in our care and in the jobs we have for them, whether it’s to give a little girl a dream come true, to proudly carry a police officer, to work in partnership with a rancher, or to take tourists on a carriage ride through the park in the heart of New York City. They deserve our protection, our respect, and the right to dignity in life, and in death.
Jim and I are no strangers to caring for special horses who might have otherwise been throw-away horses. Leo came here as a five month old colt. He has a congenital neurological disorder that results in a lack of coordination in his rear legs. He is what horse fanciers would call a “pasture pet” or “pasture ornament.” He is exceptionally good at that job.
Our mule, Ferris Muler, was bred to be a pack mule, but suffered a compression fraction to his pelvis as a youngster, so instead of sending him to that big pasture in the sky, his owner asked if Jim and I would take him. He cannot be ridden, he will always have a limp, but he is happy and healthy none-the-less and quite a fun character here on the farm.
Cheyenne, our paint mare, came to Tails You Win farm when she was just a few weeks old – a tiny orphaned foal. We raised her on buckets of formula and with our miniature donkeys taking turns keeping her company. She is now a beautiful, healthy girl.
GoGo and Patty, a mom and daughter pair, came to us from a friend who needed to find her girls a new home. Gogo is now about 30 years old and has lost her vision. She gets around just fine with a little help from her friends.
These animals are our companions. Jim and I are very devoted to their care. Their value is in nuzzles, in welcoming nickers, and in seeing them lope carefree across our pasture.
I think Asher would make a fine addition to our family if that is right for him and for us. I have a bit of back-peddling to do with Jim on that topic (insert sheepish smile here). But I do promise this horse safety for the rest of his life. I am committed to him now. I love him dearly and I’ve not even had the chance to stroke his handsome face yet.
So maybe my huge mistake, wasn’t really a mistake at all. Maybe I was supposed to find Asher. If his story touches a few hearts and opens a few eyes, who knows what might come next. If people are willing to pull together to help just one horse, maybe there’s a way to pull together to try to help them all. Maybe that’s what is supposed to happen next.
First mouthful of hay after arriving at the horse hotel where he will stay until we know he is healthy and able to safely be around other horses.
For Asher, the definition of next is good food, good care, and a new name. It’s time to abandon the memories that come with his feedlot name and focus on his future. “Next” for this horse is bright and now filled with people all over the country who know him and care about him. I am so grateful, and somehow I think he is too.
Every horse should be so lucky. Every horse deserves to live in a world where he can be “safe/sold.”