“If they come for the innocent without stepping over your body, cursed be your religion and your life.” – Philip Berrigan
The orange barn cat is sitting on the ledge scrubbing his face with a licked paw. He’s not bad company. There’s a deep ache in my hips where pain was earlier. It takes my breath away if I move suddenly.
It’s quiet since the grooms turned off the crackling radio. I’m settling in for the evening in bed of sweet straw. There is full net of hay for me to munch whenever I like and my sore legs have been massaged and wrapped in soft cotton pillows supported by clean bandages. The bottoms of my feet are packed with cooling medicated mud. The knee is sore of course but the ache is bearable. I shift my weight to my stronger hip and doze. The horse on the other side of me paces, but he’s slowing down. He will be asleep soon.
The cat scurries away. What’s that?
It’s a person coming toward my stall. He’s in a hurry. I curl my nose toward my chest to get a better look at him. I snort, letting him know I need time and space. I know this man and I don’t like him. Expertly, he slips a halter over my nose. It doesn’t smell like the cleaned oiled leather halter hanging on my door, this halter smells of cold metal and dust. He tugs on the stinky rope and I follow, still sleepy. It’s dark out.
There’s another man waiting by the back of a small trailer, he’s also in a hurry. The one with the lead rope jerks me toward the rig. My knees are stiff and I struggle to keep up.
It’s a rope on my hips from the man in back. I pin my ears and kick out.
I am punched hard by the man with my lead-rope. Tired, sore and wanting more than anything to be alone, I load into the van and look for food in the feeder – there is nothing. The back of the trailer is slammed shut and the truck wrenches into motion. I stumble a bit, the floor of the trailer is slick and smells of fear and urine.
We’re stopped at the stable gate, words and slips of paper are exchanged and the trailer is tugged down a smooth highway. I place my nostril next to the broken window to get a stream of cool air and I rest.
Eventually, we pull into a bumpy yard. It’s hot here. I’m unloaded in a pen with three other horses. One is old and scared, another is young and curious and small, one is angry and wants us to know she’s boss. Thickly built and strong, she bristles, neck arched, nostrils flared,I can smell her estrus waning. I turn my back to her, I’m not interested in a fight. Quick as a snake, OUCH! She wheels and lands a vicious kick on the upper part of my hind leg.
Instantly, I’m screaming in fury and firing back at her. My legs are striking out at her and at the soreness in my knees and the exhaustion in my body, at the filth of this place and at the fact that my breakfast and soft clean stall are somewhere other than where I am now. She submits, licks her lips and lowers her head. She has conceded leadership. I glare at the others and they avert their eyes, the young and curious horse stands beside me, showing that he is my compadre – I pin my ears and whip my head toward him, showing teeth. I want nothing to do with him and I back up three steps to sulk in the corner of the pen. The older scared horse tries to scurry away. I position myself to show I mean him no harm. My flank is screaming with pain from the mare’s kick. I notice she’s limping and bleeding, there is no satisfaction in that.
The flies are hungry and thick. They probe my eyes and nose, crawl up my legs and under my belly. Their incessant hum is maddening. A single flake of hay is thrown into the pen, I know that it’s mine to eat and not one of these horses would challenge me, but I’m not hungry. The old horse and I just stand and watch the others tear it apart. I’m thirsty. The water trough has balls of manure floating in it. Undrinkable.
I lick the rusty fences for some moisture and find nothing. The harsh sun reflects off the packed clay ground and stings my eyes. I close them, shift my weight again, I dream of a soft straw bed to lay down in and I long for the smell of cooking oats or the crunch of a peppermint offered from a friendly hand. I miss the orange cat.
Horses come and go. The angry mare is replaced with a saucy pony who has it in for the old horse. I do my best to manage the terrible little beast, but he’s quick and lands vicious bites on the old horse who is now terrified and afraid to sleep. I resort to cornering the pony, peppering him with kicks and mustering my scariest screams, but in no time, he’s back to terrorizing. Like all of us, he’s confused too.
I’m tired. My stomach cramps with hunger. I think about daily baths and a soft space to lay down. I picture hay neatly tied in a hanging net. I dream of cooked oats with chunks of carrots laced with salt.
The top of the water trough is crusted with green slime that sticks inside my nose and lips. The mud around the leaking tank has pulled off one of my front shoes and the uneven standing makes my bad knee catch badly. I think about laying down but I don’t trust that the skinny dogs running the perimeter of the pens won’t attack me when I’m down. I stand and sulk.
I’ve gotten to know a bit about the old horse. I know that he loved living in a pasture with friends. I know he’s confused and scared. I know that he is dying.
Predictably, stupid young horse is friends with the terrorizing pony. They prowl the perimeter of the pen flicking their noses at the hungry dogs. They pace back and forth every time the old trailer pulls into the yard with another beast. They chase the old horse every time I doze off.
One of the men halters me and brings me into the yard. A snarling dog circles us and I snake my head with pinned ears until he tucks tail and runs away. The man holding my lead-rope shanks me hard and stomps toward me with teeth bared. I remember the heavy punch from our first meeting and step back submissively.
He presents me to two men, they have yellow eyes and smell like chewing gum and cologne.
“I thought you said this horse can race?”
“Hombre, this horse is fast – I tell you. Look at the muscles! He was at the Big Track!”
“He can barely walk, he’s done. I need something to run now. ”
“All this horse needs is a little magic dust and he can fly for half a mile. He knows how to win.”
“You want $2,000 for a cripple. No way.”
“A cripple who can fly. Look at him. He’s got a good family too. And he’s mean, you saw him go after my dog. Mean horses run. You know that.”
“Show me something else – I don’t want a horse this old.”
“Gimme $1200 for him. He’ll run I swear.”
“I’ll give you $600 for him.”
“I can do better than that for meat.”
“Liar. I know what meat prices are.”
“$600 is the best I can do.”
“I’ll show you this other horse I got, maybe you take two?”
There is a clump of grass just out of reach. My belly is screaming for moist food, I reach hard for it and get a good mouthful before a swift kick to my chin makes me lift my head. I’m torn between gratitude for the morsel of green food and an urge to stomp all three men into the ground. I keep myself out of trouble by munching hard on the grass in my mouth.
In the pen, saucy pony and his side-kick are cornering my elderly friend and closing in fast. He’d made the mistake of helping himself to some of the hay left by the water trough. I don’t want to care, I want to brood in what’s left of the shade in the opposite corner of the paddock but I can smell the cancer that bubbles up underneath the skin of the old horse’s belly and I know that he won’t be able to defend himself. I charge in, head lowered and tail raised, put myself between my cowered friend and the marauders and glower and paw. Stupid young horse scurries away and saucy pony turns his back nonchalantly. I know I can’t protect my old friend for long, but for now, he’s safe to cower in the corner. I glare at both the pirates and lower my head to take a large bite of the hay on the ground. It’s bitter and dry and I eat every bite and dare that saucy pony to come and take any of it from me. I can’t eat for my friend, but I can keep my strength up to protect us both. Behind me, I hear the old guy nibbling at dried manure.
In the early morning a giant truck pulls in. It’s loud and smells dangerous. I stomp, too tired to care. The dogs circle the vehicle pissing on the tires. The rig backs up to a ramp and the pens begin to clear out. There are four men pushing horses through a chute and into the trailer. Hooves clatter on the thin wooden floor, cries echo off the aluminum walls. The belly of the rig shudders with it’s growing load. Our pen is the last to be emptied.
I put my body next to my old friend to shield him from the threats that lurk everywhere. Stupid young horse tries to stay with saucy pony but he’s lost in the fray. As we are loaded into the trailer, we realize that the pony has eluded the handlers and he’s running frantically around the pen. Terrified of being alone and even more scared of being touched by these men, he ducks and dives and spins away. His eyes roll in fright and in anger. His coat is flecked with foam and rivers of sweat run from behind his small ears, around his wide eyes and drip from his quivering chin. We watch through the slats of the trailer as the men shout and try to corner him. When they have the pony cornered, he charges past them, knocking the big one over.
The big man picks himself up off the ground, storms across the yard into a shed; the pony panting and watching. The man squints and aims and we all jump when we hear the report of the rifle. The pony crumples on the spot. As the truck starts up and the trailer pulls away, we shudder at the sound of starving dogs feasting.
Twenty or so of us are standing as still as we can, trying to stay upright on the slippery floor smeared with nervous excrement. We sway against each other as the vehicle lurches down the road. We are so packed in we can’t turn our heads to see where we begin and another horse ends, so we collectively muster our senses of smell, taste and sound to gain awareness.
A slamming thud behind me and a shift of bodies into mine tells me that a horse is down. A smell of fear and sickness reaches my nose. I know it’s my old friend.
Another horse reacts to the crush of his falling body on her legs. She squeals and lashes out creating a chain reaction of panic and kicking and thrashing that doesn’t stop until a hard left turn of the truck makes us all regroup to remain upright. The fray has us re-ordered and I can see the old horse down and battered. His head is jammed at a horrible angle against the metal wall and the damage to his body is grave. Blood trickles from one nostril and his breathing is labored. He sighs and does his best to stop moving but he’s constantly stepped on by horses doing their best to remain standing on the moving space.
I lean my head into the strong back of the horse next to me. This horse shudders and I sigh to show him I am neither trying to dominate him nor be protected by him. He echoes my sigh and I close my eyes and dream of sweet straw beds, of rich alfalfa hay, of immaculate white bandages caressing and supporting my massaged legs, of her singing off key while rubbing my coat with a soft rag. She’s patting me with her small hands and offering my favorite peppermints.
I’m awakened from my sweet dream by a scream of brakes and a crush of bodies. The van swings hard to the left then back to the right. Tires and horses scream and acrid smoke billows from the wheels. Something big slams into the side of the trailer.
The violence of the impact causes two horses to flip into the air. The floor is a frenzied mess of wailing. Blood and urine pepper the walls as a score of horses try to flee the aluminum cage. Legs are tangled with tails and throats. I struggle to find the sky to figure out which way is up. I fail again and again as I duck the hooves and the bellies that keep me from remaining on my feet.
After an eternity of exhausted thrashing, daylight and air cascade over when the rear doors of the trailer are jimmied open with iron bars. Two uniformed men stand sweating between us and clean air and solid ground. One frantic mare jumps over the near corpse that was my old friend, pushes past the humans and bolts into oblivion.
The other officer radios for backup help, closes the hellish door, sinks to the ground and repeats “Jeezus!”