Sunday, August 29, 2010

Levels of Imprisonment

A picture is worth a thousand words. Look at the above picture closely. What are the first words that come to your mind?

A horse is an animal that is by nature social and lives in herds, an animal to which movement and continuous grazing is compulsory for good health. We have managed to take this animal and force it to live in a 12x12 stall separated from its family, unable to move or graze all day. And this is the norm.

Some lucky horses get to go out for three hours in the morning to stand individually in their stamp sized paddocks and stare at each other over the electric fence in silence. Some, slightly luckier ones might go out in bigger pastures, still separated by the fence but at least there is a short stretch where you can run side by side and perhaps touch over the fence if you are taller than 16 hands. The luckiest of them all get to go outside together and if you live in a stall such as the one pictured above, it might be your life savior, because despite being imprisoned for life, at least you have each other, another horse to touch, a companion to share your miserable life with.

In other words, there are levels of imprisonment. Some more severe than others.

The more I think about this, the more it makes me sick. It seems so easy to forget that while you are not at the barn that the horse is just standing there, surrounded by four walls, unable to move more than a few feet to the left or right. Out of sight, out of mind. Tucked safely in his jail, so the owner doesn’t have to worry he is outside cantering around, possibly getting hurt.

Some people actually think the horse is happy this way. Just last spring I ran into a woman whose older gelding I used to ride over a year ago. She is now at another stable and since I haven’t seen the horse for quite some time, I asked how he was doing.

“Oh, he’s great. The barn is fantastic. The only down side is that he doesn’t get to go out at all, they don’t have pastures. But he has a really, really big box and straw up to his knees - so he’s happy.”

Really? Don’t you think he’d rather be outside? Knowing the facility, I can see how one can be fooled. Beautiful, vaulted ceilings, large indoor arena, wide barn aisles, state of the art wash racks, gorgeous tack room. Sounds fabulous, but unfortunately all that means nothing to the horse, absolutely nothing.

And then there is Little Love. There are days when I can’t stop thinking about her in her stall. Usually those are the days it rains so heavily, the barn owner doesn’t want the horses outside “ruining the pastures”. My heart is a little fist in my chest as I rush through my work, I speed on the freeway, I will the people in the grocery store to move a little faster just to save some time to go there, to have an extra moment to take my friend out of her prison. Even if it just for 15minutes, it is better than nothing.

Last week it was a day like that, a rainy day when I had thirty minutes to spare that I witnessed something that made me swallow back tears. I was taking Lilo’s halter off when I noticed the horse across the aisle moving restlessly in his stall. I peered at him through the metal bars that separate the horses from each other and seem to reiterate the real function of this barn. The horses are able to see each other, smell each other, but not quite touch each other.

The horse’s eye caught mine and for a moment we stared at each other. Then he turned and tried to lift his nose over the metal bars to touch his neighbor, a very friendly gelding. They could not quite reach; the bars were too high. The friendly gelding shook his head and went to his window, which opened up into the aisle. He pushed his head through and looked at his neighbor, as if to say “come on, come to your window.”

At this barn, each horse has a window which enables them to look out of their stall into the aisle. It also enables them, if they want, to stretch out and touch each other. We can’t talk about full body contact that would allow grooming, but just enough distance for noses to touch.

The horse pushed against his window and the bars rattled in the silent barn. His window was closed. Sometimes, if a horse is really interested in other horses, his window will not be opened. Some people believe that encouraging contact between horses is like encouraging mutiny. Others keep their horse’s windows closed for other reasons, such as fear of injury.

But if there is a will, there is a way. The only opening to this horse’s box stall is a small gap above his feeder through which the barn worker delivers the daily grain portions. It is just big enough to fit a human hand and a scoop. And a horse’s muzzle.

When I saw the horse push his nose out through the opening over his feeder, I couldn’t believe my eyes. To be able to do this he had to twist his neck to an unconceivable angle. But it worked. On the other side was the friendly gelding in the stall next door, waiting with his head out of his window. With tears welling up in my eyes I watched the two horses “play” in this manner, the other with his head through his window and the other with merely his mouth and nostrils fitting through the small hole above his feeder. Gently they touched each other, like two long lost relatives.

I realized that whatever I was doing, trying to provide companionship and momentary relief to one single horse, was just a mere drop in the ocean, a barely noticeable speck of kindness in a sea of injustice. All those horses, all of them, and the ones at the neighboring barns, neighboring countries and many all over the world, are horses just like Little Love and her friends. Horses craving for peer friendship and freedom. Horses craving to be touched by another horse.

Look at the picture in the beginning of this post again. What do you see? Do you see a happy horse living in this stall? Or do you see…

loneliness desperation anguish oppression prisoner breaking out lock up isolation torture life time of misery separation from peers boredom boredom boredom let me out yearning for freedom outdoors suffocating claustrophobia sad horse


Often we own horses and we expect them to perform for us the moment we enter in their presence. We think: “What can this horse do for me, how can I make it do what I want?” But after everything we have taken away from them; locking them in stalls, denying them a normal family life, withholding movement, continuous grazing. Not to mention nailing shoes to their hooves, putting bits in their mouths, saddles on their backs and riding them whichever way we please.

After all we have done perhaps the right question to ask would be: “What can I do for this horse to make his life better?”


PS. After I wrote this blog, I found out that this horse’s window is closed because people don’t like walking their horses past him as he is so keen to touch them. I talked to the horse owner and we agreed that perhaps it would be alright to open the second window this horse has which does not enable him to touch other horses, but does give him a look at the yard and everything that happens there. So, when the weather is sunny and warm, I have permission to open that window.
PS2. The pictures in this blog were not taken at Lilo's barn, but a barn I visited this summer for a day.

"The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference."   — Elie Wiesel

1 comment:

  1. The picture reminds me the movie about the mummy who had scratched the last words in his coffin...