There is a taboo against eating horsemeat here in North America (as well as many other places in the world). As a horse lover and owner, I can understand this shrinking away from eating such a beautiful, useful animal. However, as a farmer, I think to myself, it’s a large grass-eating creature, why shouldn’t we eat it? I guess it boils down to the fact that as cute or friendly as a cow may be, majestic animal it is not. A horse is nature, perfected. Grace and power embodied in sweetly scented flesh. Add to that the fact that humanity’s history of civilization has been built upon the animal’s back and it gets harder to justify eating it. A horse is your friend (my cows are friendly, but I don’t know that I’d count any as my friends). They enjoy spending time with their humans and (mostly) obey because they want to please them, despite the fact that they outweigh our puny species by a ton.
Here in Manitoba, Canada we have the dubious distinction of being one of the largest auction sites for unwanted horses destined for the kill-buyer and inevitable slaughter. The meat man buys them up and they are shipped to various provincial abattoirs where they will ultimately end up on the plates of Belgians, the French, and Japanese, to name the most common consumers of horseflesh.
I have been riding on and off for 30 years now and it’s strange that I chose this year of drought we’ve had to add a beautiful, bay hayburner, by the name of “Astrid”, to our farm. Before looking into equine rescue I spent a couple of months surfing the net and checking out horses which were invariably disappointing. In my latest experience it seems when someone says, “needs a few more miles on him” they really mean, “he’ll take off beyond your aids and plunge into the bush trying to wipe you off on every large tree he passes”, or “a little bit pushy on the ground, but fine under saddle” means, “he can’t bite you anymore once you’re in the saddle because you’re out of reach”. As you can see, my budget for horseflesh was a little on the lower side. I had a horse try to lay down on me when I picked up his front hoof, another dance circles around me in a pasture when I went to catch it, and finally a “very friendly mare” who pinned her ears and bared her teeth in an ugly smile as if to say, “right, try it then”.
It was after this inauspicious beginning that I received an email from a friend of mine informing me about a horse rescue operating seven miles from me, as the crow flies, and of which I had never heard. A large cattle farmer and cutting enthusiast was appalled at all the excellent horses being bought up by the meat man at auction and had begun bidding against him with the organizational help of a dedicated horse lover from the city, and had amassed a significant herd of rescued horses. A motley crew of dead broke oldsters, weanlings, and everything in between, the idea was to offer them a safe haven where they could be assessed and offered for sale at very reasonable prices based on their levels of training (or lack thereof). The website, for those of you interested, is www.savinghorses.weebly.com
With an open mind, I drove down there on a sunny Saturday morning in July. I walked about amongst all the beautiful horses marveling at the variety and numbers. One has to wonder about the supposed intelligence of our species when a person can’t do better for an old companion that taught them how to ride or babysat their kids than to dump them off for slaughter. It was shameful how many good horses were cast aside without a backward glance, and yet these particular horses had been blessed with a second chance.
I was lost in thought when I found her. Or more truthfully, she found me. I noticed I had a little bay mare following me. I stopped and stroked her beautifully curving neck and tiny dished face. She stared at me with frank eyes and gave a friendly snort as she sniffed my face. She was a deep ruby color in the strong summer sun with mane and tail so black as to appear blue. I turned and continued my walk and the whole time as I wove through the herd, she followed me. When I stopped to touch other horses she, too, would stop behind me, respectful and non-insistent. I would finish by touching her again and speaking a few soft words and continue on. When I reached the pasture gate to leave, a very strong opinion already formed in my heart, she was right behind me and put her head over as I left as if imploring me to take her. So I did.
Astrid (the name she came with, lucky for her, otherwise she would have been “Ruby Beauty” according to my youngest son) was an approximately two- or three-year-old Quarter Horse, blood bay, and very tiny (14.3 hands, just high enough to be a horse and not a pony). When I first brought her home to our farm she chased the cows mercilessly but became fast friends with our donkey, Poppy, who followed her around adoringly as she was the first equine to be seen since we sold her mother, Clara. If Astrid would stand for it, Poppy (a long yearling by this point in time, and long ago weaned) would gently dip her head and nuzzle under her flank looking for milk or comfort. Astrid usually bore these uber-personal grooming sessions with good graces and puzzled expressions. After one month training it was obvious she’d make a great cutting horse eventually since her best-executed command was “whoa” and she was nimble and small. Along with her penchant for chasing cattle, which was still well developed despite all my best efforts to eradicate it, I envisioned us rodeo-bound in the future.
I started riding her around the farmyard first as she was fairly uncertain in new situations. She was very green with only about twenty rides on her, but there was no malice in Astrid. She would never try to dump me (on purpose). Emboldened by our successes, I merrily headed off down our road. I did take some precautions. I wore a helmet (something that would have been anathema to my younger, and not so brittle, self) and in my right pocket I carried a cell phone and a note listing my husband’s contact numbers in case of emergency. Astrid herself had a similar note attached to the saddle a la Paddington Bear (if found, please return to…) I was prepared for all eventualities. That is till we trotted around the bend.
Her head was high but she was going well despite her nerves. I am forcibly reminded “Pride goeth before a fall” as I congratulated myself for being a confident enough leader for her to follow so willingly.
We went past a neighbor’s littered driveway. She is a hoarder, plain and simple, there is no pleasant label that can be attached to that yard of flotsam and jetsam that spills out up to the road in ever-widening junk-belts. Astrid stopped and did a little crow hop at the sight of menacing horse-eating junk poking out from the long grasses of the driveway’s edges. Still calm I nudged her towards some of the detritus to investigate and that’s when a dog (who had obviously been hiding in the grass, in an example taken from feline nemeses, and weighing the situation) exploded from the green with a volley of barks. Astrid jumped about four feet straight in the air, whirled and ran about ten feet before whirling to face the dog.
Caught by surprise, I nonetheless had kept my seat, and as the dog barked in her face and she blew nervously, I had time to resettle myself. I was happy she was holding her ground and the dog didn’t seem bent on attack, only noise, so we stood in tableau for a minute or so.
Living at the end of a dead-end road has its advantages, but also its drawbacks. To continue my ride, I had no choice but to pass this dog and this driveway. I coaxed her past easily enough, but as the dog followed still barking, Astrid was just about falling over trying to see behind her. We started up into a trot again to put some distance between us and yet the dog still followed, barking ceaselessly.
Finally, tired of fighting me and her mounting fear, Astrid lost it. She came unglued and went plunging off into the ditch where she did a very passable bronc imitation. I’m ashamed to admit it, but the cinch had loosened sufficiently with all the whirling from before that, as she hopped around, my stirrups were momentarily weighted unevenly and that’s when the saddle started to twist. I half-bailed, half-fell off her near side before the saddle went all the way around, and managed to keep hold of a rein.
Anyone who has walked a large dog that pulls can imagine what its like to hold onto a frantic horse with a narrow strip of leather.
After calming her down sufficiently and fixing her saddle (all the while the dog was at the top of the road hurling canine insults down upon us), I remounted and we headed off for home. Before mounting, I grabbed a small handful of rocks which I now used to try to pelt the dog with. I missed him (unfortunately) but he finally got the message a retreated, slinking, down the road to the homestead. I was thankful I had come off in the ditch where my landing had been very soft, and because it had been a drought year I didn’t get muddy. I was even more thankful she didn’t go completely ballistic with the twisted saddle.
By this point, poor Astrid had had enough and it was all I could do to contain her headlong dash for home as we passed an open-mouthed neighbor (who, much to my chagrin, had most certainly seen my graceful dismount) on the way. As infrequently as these things happen, combined with the population density of the deep country, it’s amazing how often embarrassing things are witnessed by your neighbors. Murphy (of “Murphy’s Law” fame) was undoubtedly a country boy.
We arrived back at the hitching post blown and sweating. As I untacked her she looked at me as if to say, “Thank God, we don’t have to do that again, do we, Mom?” I brushed her thoroughly and gave her a carrot and turned her loose in the pasture where Poppy came over to sniff Astrid thoroughly and learn what she could about her adventures in her absence.
The next day I debated nervously about my course of action. I had tried calling the owner of the dog to ask that it be tied up if it was going to be chasing me down the road, but no one had answered, and there was no machine to leave a message. The incident had grown in my mind overnight to where I felt nervous trying again, but as they say, “get right back on” so that was what I intended to do. Astrid came along willingly enough, and when she saw the saddle there was no appreciable change in her demeanor. My idea was to just ride around the yard again to instill some confidence in us both but once aboard I decided we’d just go up our driveway to the road and then back. There was obviously nothing wrong with Astrid’s memory and apparently her confidence in my leadership abilities had been eroded, because she danced and danced, but wouldn’t go near the road. In the end, I had to admit defeat, but cleverly disguised it as making her circle and serpentine her way back to the yard.
So now I have to work hard to regain my status as “worthy leader whom I will follow unquestioningly and without fear” as a horse can’t be asked to do frightening things if she doesn’t have the confidence you can pull it off. We work together everyday, just around the yard, and she is very kind and willing (if not occasionally, irrationally fearful). I shake my head in amazement as I see my beautiful, willing little mare and think how close she came to a very ugly death and the added insult of being consumed by a gourmand half a world away. I think of all the other horses it does happen to, and all those waiting for homes. I look forward to growing with Astrid, and one day (in some misty, rosy point in the future) my children riding our placid old mare. She has a forever home here, and even though she eats a lot, she’s worth it, and many others like her.