I’ve not mentioned it before, but until recently, we owned a horse. Or, perhaps, Zephyr (meaning a gentle wind from the west) owned us. Either way, we were together for almost ten years.
We got her from a rescue farm that, in turn, bought horses from a premarin farm in Canada. Premarin farms are (or were) places where, as I understand it, some sort of product is/was derived from pregnant mare urine to supposedly help women who are going through menopause. The horses are treated as slaves and kept pregnant so as to keep the product coming. The practice is supposedly going away now that the supposed benefit of mare urine for menopause has been debunked.
Anyway, I had been reading about the treatment of premarin horses and other horse mistreatment, and since we loved horses, decided to buy one from a rescue operation. She was just a small girl at the time, a filly, around nine months old. In fact, I could pick her front half up then. Eventually, though, she grew to more than half a ton, and picking her up became out of the question.
Since I basically knew nothing about horses back then we had her at another place for a month while they trained us on how to handle her: put a halter on her, walk her, brush her etc. Then it was home.
Zephyr was born with a hernia. It happens. So the first thing I did was to order her a hernia belt. I was lucky that she took to it because, as prey animals, horses are innately afraid. Something attached to their bodies could be a predator. I had to put the belt on and take it off her every day for six months. Slowly over that time the hernia receded and, after the six months were up, her stomach muscles were strong enough that it never returned.
As a young girl she once had an accident of sorts with our fence and was injured after running through it afraid because she’d tried to eat a wind sock that had fallen onto the ground. I was outside at the time and faintly heard an unusual sound, so, knowing she was grazing there, I walked around to the other side of the house to investigate. I saw her far down a neighbor’s field, running. I called out to her and she stopped, then turned around and began slowly walking back while I headed toward her. She’d already learned her name and my voice. When I finally reached her I found that she had partially swallowed the sock but half was still hanging out of her mouth and banging on her chest. She looked in shock. Carefully I pulled it from her mouth then led her back to the yard. We both learned a lesson.
After that whenever I let her out to graze, I had her halter and lead rope on and would slowly walk with her as she meandered around nibbling the grass. As she walked (I let her choose her way) I’d talk quietly to her, pet her, put my arm around her. Months later, when I was comfortable that she was finally calm enough I’d let her out by herself, first for an hour, then a few hours at a time. Then it was all day again. I couldn’t keep her penned up when I heard her calling. She’s not a zoo animal.
Not being disposed to the usual human->horse style of thinking, namely, that horses have to be “broken” to get them to do what you want (kind of like recruits are broken and reformed in military boot camp) I always endeavored to treat her gently. I wanted her to love us, not do what we want out of fear. Not destroy her spirit and unique personality. To me human/animal relationships are give-and-take two-way streets. I didn’t expect her to do all of the adapting, but I also adapted to her, endeavored to understand her worldview, accorded her the dignity she deserved as living being. I allowed her to be herself. Because of that she kept her lively exuberance, and though she enjoyed pushing me around a bit, like when she wanted a treat, or if she was annoyed about something, I didn’t mind.
I’ve seen zombie horses who, though allowing a rider onto their backs and doing whatever that rider demands, have a vacant, almost dead look in their eyes. It’s very sad. Zephyr, though, runs, and kicks, and raced our dog, Mustard, whinnies, and pushed me around (she liked to rub her heavy head on my back if there’s an itch) and loved life. I’ve was told though, more than once, that I’d spoiled her and that made her a dangerous animal. Yet I noted that those who told me that were often themselves angry, impatient people. Aside from some rough play, she never hurt us, always aware of her strength. That’s not to say that I think horses should be raised without any discipline at all, especially around children. But discipline should not equal abuse or domination.
Zephyr loves carrots. And apples. And oranges. And bananas (with the peel on). And kiwis. And anything sweet. You shouldn’t, though, give a horse sugar cubes, or too much of any sweets since that can make them lame (a serious condition called Founder).
Another thing that domesticated horses need is to have their hooves periodically trimmed. Like fingernails on humans, horses hooves are made of keratin, and they continually grow. In the wild, horses wear their hooves down by constantly being on the move, but in domestic situations they end up standing for long periods. Thus, if allowed, their hooves can grow to harmful lengths. So most people hire farriers. These are people who come out and trim a horse’s hooves for a fee.
For the first year I had to search for farriers myself, but it was always hard to find someone who wanted to drive out to our place (we were about 18 miles from the nearest real town). Finally I found someone who was willing to come out. I won’t mention his name, but his motto was “problem horses no problem”. A large guy, the first thing he did when he came out was to tell us that you have to show the horse who’s boss. Then he opened his shirt to reveal a long scar on his chest where he said a horse had once grabbed and tossed him. That sent up a red flag. This was clearly a guy with an anger issue toward horses. Since I was desperate to get the trim I allowed him to do it. Needless to say the experience was traumatic both for her and I. We never had him back.
So I learned how to trim myself. It can be tricky because you can mess up a horses feet if not done right, but I was always careful, and with time my expertise improved. It took her years, however, to recover from her treatment by that first guy and sometimes in the middle of a trimming she’d suddenly remember that day and fight to get away (once, she knocked me to the ground). These bad times would usually only last a moment, then she’d snap out of it and see me calmly standing there, and she’d be back.
Whenever I trimmed her hooves I always had carrots for her and talked quietly to her. I didn’t care if people thought I was spoiling her. Having your hooves trimmed is a big thing if you’re a horse. Anyway, the first thing you have to do is clean the dirt out around the “frog”. Next you clip with a big cutter that is akin to a fingernail clipper. Then you finish off with filing the hoof edges smoothly to a “Mustang Roll”. In a month or two you do it all over again.
There are a lot of chores horse-wise. I’ve probably pitch-forked-up a mountain of horse manure. But after decomposition it’s good in the garden. And while I was doing it, Zephyr often came over and gently nudged me from behind to let me know she was glad to see me. Sometimes while I’d be shoveling she would furtively take a part of my shirt in her mouth and sample it. Later, I’d discover that she’d nibbled holes in it. She was also fond of licking the back of my neck with that big, warm tongue of hers. Maybe it’s the salt she’s tasting. Or maybe it’s just love. She’d also liked to rest her head on my shoulder and drowse.
She loves our dog Mustard. Together they’d romp and ham it up.
We lived there for almost 14 years but then we decided we needed to move back to town. Sadly, much as I wanted to, Zephyr wasn’t able to come with us. So I began to search in earnest for someone who wanted a horse. But not just anyone. Most people sell their horses as commodities, like a used car. I decided I’d give her away if I could find the right person/people. But again I had to be selective. There are bad people out there. You don’t want to know the things that people who don’t care, people with no souls, do to horses for money or fun. One of the saddest things I ever saw was, one day as I was driving on the freeway, a small, junky old pickup truck drove by. Then suddenly, from the tiny bed of this truck, a dirty white horse’s head began shakily to rise, and I noticed it. A thick, heavy chain around his neck. In his eyes was a look of utter sadness, hopeless resignation. On the door of the truck was a sign that said so-and-so tallow company. That horse was going to it’s death, its hooves to be turned into gelatin and glue.
Plenty of people offered to “take her off your hands”. People who work in rodeo, dressage and horse racing, or who wanted her for export horse meat (yes, it’s common). I realize that there are people in the first businesses who care for horses beyond just what money they can make from her or medals and adulation they can earn, but that seems to be the exception. I wanted someone who would just let Zephyr be a horse, not a slave. More than once I was told that this or that party wasn’t interested in “just a lawn ornament”.
Finally after talking to many, many people, and with our house in escrow and only days to go, and my desperation high, we were referred to one woman who has 80 acres and two other horses for companionship. She offered to home Zephy and promised us that she won’t be exploited for entertainment purposes but will just be a trail horse. Thank you. May that be so and may Zephyr have a long, happy and healthy life there.
To us, though, she will always be family.
Incidentally, the prehistoric Miocene hypohippus in my novel, Opalescence, a primitive three-toed horse, is named after her.
Zephyr, a gentle wind from the west.