It’s loud here. I can hear dogs barking from all directions and that scares me. The gates are shiny metal and the ground is hard. The smell of disinfectant is powerful. It’s very clean, but not soft. Sounds, smells, and light are all sharp.
There is something safe here. Anything is safe compared to the twisted metal box laying on the side of the highway.
I’m tired. At least I’m alone. There are other horses in similar cages around me. I can see them, but I can’t touch them, nor can they touch me. That is good, I won’t be kicked but a little company would go a long way right now. I can’t lay down on this hard dirt. My hip is sore and I worry that I won’t be able to get back up. I can smell blood, I have some gashes but none are too bad. I’m thirsty, but the water tastes like the disinfectant I can smell all around me. I dip my lips but my body tells me not to drink.
A woman in a brown shirt smelling of both blood and chemicals approaches. Her hands are jerky around my face and I want to back away, but my hip, and now my neck are too sore. I look away from her quick eyes and I exhale showing her that I will submit, but not happily. She comes into my pen and pats me hard on my sore neck. I flinch but she doesn’t notice.
“Easy big guy” she tells me. I steel my muscles against her firm pats. My tail swishes angrily. I exhale again, loudly – to tell her to back away. She does not listen. She touches the wounds on my legs and I stomp. I wish desperately to be alone.
“Knock it off dude.” Her touch, if not gentle is expert. I’m wary.
“C’mon with me fella, I think I’ve got a good spot for you.” She slips a halter over my nose and buckles it just behind my left ear.
“Relax, this is a good thing.”
I’m leery as she leads me out of the pen and closer to the barking dogs.
A gray haired man is standing by a horse trailer, it’s old and I’m instantly on edge. My guts turn and I lift my tail and expel hot runny manure. My eyes roll until they fix on this man and his big hands that hang loosely from his broad shoulders. He is safe. He is soft. His eyes don’t challenge, they listen and they re-assure. He approaches me and I smell something curious, something familiar, something kind on him. He reaches into his pocket and I’m filled with hope as I hear the crinkle of cellophane and smell my favorite peppermints. His hand cups my lips and he touches my neck gently. I crunch the sweet mint in my mouth. I lean into him and half close my eyes. I can feel soft bandages on my legs and smell oats cooking. I inhale the scent of the peppermints in his pockets while his hand searches and finds the itchy spot on my shoulder.
“He sure likes you.” The woman with the hard fast hands says.
“He sure looks like a racehorse.” The man continues to scratch my shoulders and my head bobs in bliss.
“Let’s look at his tattoo.” She grabs nervously for my muzzle and flips my upper lip up. I pop out of my reverie to squeal and jerk my head away from her grip. “He’s kind of an asshole.” She barks as she yanks the rope on my halter.
“It’s okay Sue, just put him on the trailer, he’ll go home with me and mother.”
“Are you sure you want this one? He’s a handful.”
We walk up to his old trailer in the parking lot. It’s rusty, but it’s spotlessly clean inside. I hesitate for a moment and put my head inside to look around. I think briefly about the horror of the twisted trailer full of dying and thrashing horses, but this trailer feels like hope and I step in. I only hesitate to brace my good knee before I step up onto the sore one. I expect to be thumped or pulled when I hesitate, but the man just waits for me and when I go in, he produces another peppermint from his pocket. He strokes my hip and whispers something soft. The feeder is full of rich and delicious hay. Another horse is loaded beside me but I’m too busy eating the alfalfa to care to investigate.
Before I can finish the hearty meal we pull into a yard with yapping dogs and scurrying chickens. They make me nervous but the man with the big quiet hands is there and I see that the dogs are happy, not hungry. The place doesn’t smell like the track, there’s not liniment smells or smells of laundry soap but the sounds coming from the other horses tell me that there is peace and food here and I’m curious to have a look around. A chicken goes scurrying behind me where I can’t see her and I wheel half way around to see what is happening. The big handed man doesn’t jerk or pull, he lets me look and he strokes the long and sore muscles in my throat.
“They’re just silly chickens fella. They can’t hurt a champion like you. I’m going to have to put you in the barn until we can get you some shoes and clear up that cough and figure out what’s going on with that big knee. But you’re going to love the pasture once we get you right. There’s a bunch of pretty old girls out there that need a handsome boyfriend like yourself. Whaddya say big guy? Should we take a walk around and show you your new life? It’s not Kentucky Bluegrass but it’s home.”
Like magic, he produces another peppermint. I’m chewing it heartily when another man, this one much smaller and faster than my friend approaches. I’m worried, there’s something familiar about his gait and seeing his walk makes my knee ache. I stomp and swirl my head to see him more clearly from each eye. My association with him is loose and fuzzy. I know something about him and I’m deciding whether it’s a dangerous thing, or a comforting thing and my thoughts are jumbled.
“Hey boss, I put that young horse in the round pen like you wanted me to and I gave him some water, he was really thirsty. Your wife said that some polo players were coming to look at him later today, I’ll hose him off after he’s had a little time to settle in. Who’s this?”
“I’m a sucker for an old campaigner Paul. This guy looks like he’s had a hard time. He’s one of the ones from that trailer wreck on the highway yesterday. He’s in bad shape and he looked like he needed a friend.”
“He looks like he raced pretty recently, he’s still got one shoe on and it looks like an aluminum race plate.”
“I don’t suppose you have an experience as a farrier of sorts? This guy would be a lot more comfortable with some steel on those soft feet.”
“Sorry boss, I can pull a shoe off if I have to, but I’ve never learned anything about nailing on shoes.”
“A fat lot of good you’re doing this guy then.” Nate was half laughing but it was clear that he was disappointed. “I’ll find my tools then, I don’t want this horse to go another night without some protection for his feet. He’s been through enough already. Let’s get him in a stall for an hour or two and I’ll shoe him later when it cools off. I just can’t take the heat when I’m shoeing – too old I guess.”
“If you will hold him and coach me, I’ll do my best to learn.” Paul’s voice was eager. He surprised himself wanting to impress the old man and to help the horse.
“I’ll teach you on a horse that doesn’t hurt like this one does if you stick around.”
“He seems like a good guy. Even if he doesn’t like your chickens much.”
It’s true, the feathery lumps run in bizarre circles and their jerky movements make me nervous. Just when I have my eye on one of them, another darts from a dark place into the light and back into the dark again. The strange creatures worry me even as the people and the surrounding horses show clearly that they are not to be feared.
The old man with the big soft hands leads me to an old barn and places me in a stall, it’s bedded in slightly musty but deep straw. My legs fold and a giant groan escapes as I lie down to roll and rest. I lie there after a few back and forth scratches and exhale loudly.
There is peace here.