Without [farm], where would we be? Tied in barns, tied to trees, left inside or outside to starve, injured, lame and in pain, blind, or standing in the kill pen waiting for our death sentence. Waiting for our final ride to the agony of a cruel and undeserved end.
What did we do to deserve these fates? We didn’t run fast enough, jump high enough or last a hundred years. We didn’t stay healthy despite our age; we didn’t make `someone’ money or `someone’ happy. We once were young and bright and special, and held hope for `someone’. But we weren’t perfect, and ‘someone’ no longer cared.
I wince. I glance at photos of my horses on my phone again. I close my browser window, shutting down the equine rescue page.
The sound is something between a ‘clank’ and a ‘chomp’ as Yale keeps mouthing the speculum holding his mouth open. He’s quiet now, but it took two doses of tranquilizer to get him to be still, and even now he’s still feebly trying to toss his head as the vet inserts a hand into his mouth to explore his teeth.
“Strong-willed,” the technician says, nodding. “He’s still got a lot of energy for an old boy.” I nod, a bead of sweat on my nose.
The vet is here to investigate a bony mass under Yale’s chin. It has been the first thing you notice about his head for four years or longer now, and has caused no issues beyond the cosmetic over that time. He could eat, carry a bit in his mouth, run away at the canter, rest his head on my shoulder, and almost knock me down with a headbutt, until about two weeks ago – when it seemed that some sort of infection flared up while I was out of the country.
Over an anxious app-based text conversation at an Irish pub with free wifi, my friend filled me in on his condition from an ocean away. Fever. Lethargic. Some sort of foul smell coming from his mouth. Seemed like the mass had grown, but she couldn’t really be sure. The vet was almost certain it was an infected tooth, and wanted to run x-rays to be sure.
Backtracking to one week before I left for Ireland. Very early on a rainy Thursday morning, after I’d stayed up far too late watching political convention coverage, the owner of the property where we’d spent the last five years called to ask me to come catch loose horses. This call had come several times in the last few months. His fences were more than twenty years old, weathered and warping, and he was making no effort to keep them in condition to contain three large geldings. At 6 a.m., I was shivering in my pajamas, and he was a magazine page in a perfectly-oiled raincoat and hat, as he told me I needed to find new homes for the horses.
I never planned on owning two horses. Ten years ago, I never planned to even own one again. I burned out of horses and riding as a teenager – showing, competing, grooming others’ horses, learning about my own hyper-competitive streak, resisting my family’s insistence that I try other activities. In college, I joined the equestrian team because it seemed like something I should do. I don’t remember much about that time, which tells me that my efforts must have been halfhearted. I’d discovered art, and men, and politics, and freedom. Horses seemed like one interest too many, and an awfully expensive one at that.
Grad school and a few jobs later, I somehow landed in a live-in caretaker situation when I moved for my current job. My rent included a stall for my own horse, and my responsibilities included taking care of my landlord’s two horses. It felt like a fading dream that refocused sharply. Without the pressure of competition, I started to fall in love with horses again. What brought me back to the reasons I’d been a horse-crazy girl in the first place was all sensory: the smells, the sounds, the sharpness of early morning cold and the softness of the horses’ skin. My bedroom opened into the hayloft, and I could climb down into the barn without going outdoors.
When my landlord passed away, his children sold me one of his two horses – Nelson – for a dollar, replacing the security deposit on my apartment. The owners of the leased horse – Yale – responded that they were not able to bring him home, so his ownership also transferred to me. This is how, in my early thirties, I became a homeless horse owner for a time. It’s a point of reflection, when I have had tough days since, to consider that it could always be worse.
Nelson, Yale and I have been lucky. Blessed, maybe. We’ve moved twice since then, both times to affordable barns where we have been part of small and kind co-ops of horse care. I’ve always completed the morning work. I’ve reflected recently on the fact that I’ve cared for horses every morning for nearly the last ten years, except for when I’ve traveled for summer jobs. Going to the barn at 5:30 a.m. in the dead of winter is part of what’s kept me human when things at work have been crazy, or whenever my depression has kicked in. Again, it’s all sensory: regaining touch in frostbitten fingers by resting them under Nelson’s mane, sledgehammering ice in a frozen trough, tossing sweet-scented hay bales through a rickety loft door. Riding is an occasional lovely afterthought – the real substance of owning horses happens in the barn on icy mornings. Reconnecting with horses – and especially these two boys – has been a grounding and meaningful time in my life. I’m grateful.
But all of this is changing since that rainy Thursday morning in early August, and very fast. The hard facts: I cannot find a barn as affordable as where we’ve been. I can no longer afford two horses at standard Chester County rates. I’m not even completely sure that I can afford one, but I’m determined to make it work. As I write, my web browser has five tabs open for maybe-affordable boarding farms, three open for equine rescues – make that two, and four for part-time jobs.
I feel a headache twinge when I see entry-level jobs in other professions starting at more than I make after more than a decade of teaching. But that’s for another post.
More hard facts – it’s not easy to find a loving home for an elderly horse. When people decide to buy a horse, they do so with the goal of sharing a long and active life, so horses in their twenties are not on the sales list. One respected sanctuary charges $8500 to take your horse in. Friends warn me about posting ‘free to a good home,’ citing how meat buyers work this system. Auction seems horrifically out of the question.
When I read the text on some rescue sites, I feel angry. I am not the ‘someone’ that rescues might accuse of ‘no longer caring’ for these two horses who have accompanied me through some of the most challenging and rewarding years of my life. I never expected either of them (or me) to be ‘perfect,’ and I sacrificed a lot along the way to make sure they were comfortable and loved. My life has revolved around these horses for almost a decade. The decision to give one of them up feels impossible. And then, once that decision is made, the logistics of doing so are even more impossible. It doesn’t help to feel like the resources are judging me without any sense of a complex story.
I started this blog with the intention of writing about experiences connected to teaching. But the only connection I can rally in this post is that although it is time to start a new school year, this problem is all I can think about until I solve it. Syllabi and studio prep be damned. I’m going to have to rely on experience, this time around, and I hope that thirteen years of it amounts to something.
So when I’m standing in the stall with Yale and the vet, listening to him clank and chomp on the speculum, I’m secretly hoping that the mass has become life-threatening. She might tell me that painlessly ending his life today would make the most sense. That it would be the best way to offer a respected companion some dignity and peace. Then I’d be down to figuring out the complexities of moving only one horse, while also rearranging my budget, finding a part-time job, and adjusting to a new situation.
Of course, this hope isn’t secret anymore. I’m publishing it here, and I’m running the risk of judgement. I wonder if I’m being selfish, or irresponsible, or irrational, or unfair, and a reader might confirm all of these shortcomings and more. Then again, I also wonder how often we share only our glowing moments. Maybe when we share the hard days and the hard decisions, we make it just a little easier for someone else to do the same. I haven’t really been able to talk about one of the hardest months of my life with many people. (Thanks for listening, mom, and for handing me kleenex through the phone.) If sharing this story makes it more okay for even one person to talk or write about something this challenging, then I am okay with sharing the secret. Even if not – it somehow feels just a little better to write about it honestly. I suppose there’s another connection to teaching in this concept, but I’ll save that analysis for once I’ve sorted this mess all out.
The vet takes her hand out of Yale’s mouth. “He’s okay,” she says. “He’s healthy.” I let out the breath I’ve been holding. Yale sways on his feet, slowly returning to full alertness.
She says she’s sensitive to my budget, and recommends against x-rays. “If an infection happens again, that’s your cue. But this is anything but life-and-death.” She smiles as Yale head-butts her when she removes the speculum from his mouth. “This handsome boy has a lot of life left in him.”
It’s a point of reflection to consider that things could always be worse. Yet some problems don’t seem solvable, no matter how much we care. We all face these unsolvable times – read a newspaper to put everything I’ve just described into its small-potatoes perspective, or talk with any friend honestly to hear the unpublished complexities. I suppose that it’s part of being human.
It’s time for me, like Yale, to rely on some strong will. (We’d take some good karma, too, if you have any to spare. Or maybe just a reasonable barn.)