Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Freedom Fighters

To be dragged in the wake of the passive flock and to pass a hundred and one times beneath the shears of the shepherd, or to die alone like a brave eagle on a rocky crag of a great mountain: that is the dilemma. ~Praxedis Guerrero, RegeneraciÓn, 18 February 1911

Last summer I was visiting a local riding school close to my family's summer home in Finland and hit it off with the owner/riding teacher, who readily showed me the horses in her barn. She was a lady looking for solutions for a pony who seemed to be afraid of the bit and she had heard of my affiliation with the bitless bridle. As we were talking and visiting the horses, she motioned me to a stall.

"This is Bira," she said. "She was a harness racing horse, but didn't do too well at that."

I looked into the stall and met eyes with a beautiful, chestnut mare. Her face were kind, but suspicious.

"Actually, she was already scheduled to go to slaughter and was practically on the truck with two other young horses, but then I was able to talk my husband (the harness racer) into breeding her. I just couldn't see her go."

Bira stuck her nose at me and touched my hand. I wondered if she knew how I was feeling when I heard her story. Probably. I stroked her neck.

"Why was she going to slaughter in the first place?"

"Oh, they just didn't have use for her anymore and she isn't much of a mount, although I do now ride her. But I can't have her in the riding lessons. She is quite nervous of people."

The lady was right: Bira was very nervous of people. She did, however, stand politely when you brushed her and tacked her up, but her unease in the situation was obvious. She stood still to let you on her back, but if you even remotely moved out of balance or grabbed onto the reins, she was gone. It didn't take too long for the lady to say the magic words so often spoken to me in situations like this:

"Could you ride her for me?"

In the next two weeks I came back and rode Bira a few times with the bitless bridle, which worked for her far better than any of the bitted bridles she had experienced in her life (dressage snaffles look like child's play compared to harness racing equipment for those who have never seen any...). I spent a significant amount of time focusing on grounding myself through a breathing routine I do and Bira did well, under the circumstances, but I felt a disconnect that made my heart ache. I was certain there was so much more to this little mare; deep down she was another Little Love, waiting to be discovered.

"She is having a baby next year, so she's safe for a while," the owner said wistfully one day. "I'm hoping she could learn to be a riding school horse, then we could keep her. You being able to ride her in the bitless gives me hope." The lady looked at me and it was obvious she loved this horse. I went home with a wish for her and Bira.

I was also shocked. I hadn't realized healthy and vibrant horses like Bira could end up in the slaughter house, but it made sense. Who would buy her? You couldn't sell her as a race horse or a riding horse. How many of these horses were sent yearly to their death just because they weren't "good" enough?

In Australia the Sydney Herald newspaper tried to do the math. In February 2008 they wrote: Of the 17,000 thoroughbreds born last year only about two-thirds will ever make it to the racetrack. Of those, most suffer injuries or do not run fast enough and only about 1 to 3 per cent make it to top events."

In Great Britain 4,000 foals never make it to training. The racing industry is brutal. They produce foal after foal, looking for the perfect runner, but at the same time discard the ones that don't seem to "have it". Being slow can be life-threatening.

I kept Bira in my heart, but it wasn't until I was reading the book Equitation Science by Paul McGreevy and Andrew McLean that I realized the enormity of the horse slaughter scene. According McGreevy and McLean "among non-racehorses, previous studies indicate that up to 66% of euthanasia in horses between 2 and 7 years of age was not because of health disorders." This is a staggering finding. The racing industry was one thing, but my image of permanently ill and old riding horses going to slaughter was instantly turned upside down. Young and healthy riding horses and ponies were being culled as well. And why? McGreevy and McLean continue, giving you the answer: "The implication is that they were culled for behavioral reasons."

McGreevy and McLean also state that "horses are being confused on a very regular basis by less-than-ideal handling and become unusable, or worse, dangerous as a result."

My friend Sam has a horse called Destiny, or should I say, Destiny has a owner called Sam. Destiny, or D as she is known to her friends, was once one of those horses McGreevy and McLean talk about. She could have easily become another statistic, had her path not crossed with that of Sam's. When they met, she was unrideable, uncooperative and her reputation preceded her. Her corkscrew bucks were impressive and had launched several trainers out of the saddle. She was known to attack people. Her owner could not even lead her out of her stall into the arena without an incident.

It is hard to believe that now, two years later. You can see for yourself, she is the spotted mare in the photographs taken just two weeks ago when she was teaching young Maleah how to be with horses. And what a teacher she is! I would hope for everyone to meet a horse like Destiny at least once in their life; she brings such peace and grounded energy to the world. It is impossible to not feel good in her presence. Maybe that is why people who meet her often describe her as "Mother Earth".

And what made Destiny change her ways? I suppose it was a multitude of things. Sam said the first time he met her, he opted to take a different route than all the other trainers who had tried to "tame" her; he simply did nothing. He recalls taking his lunch to the barn and merely sitting on the fence watching her. It seemed like a good plan, so he showed up again the next day. And then the next. Eventually he became Dee's owner and took her to his place where she now lives and teaches children and other horses about the horse-human connection. She also no longer lives in a stall, is free fed, barefoot and gets to play with other horses, if she so chooses. Choice is a big part of her world; participation in any activity is always her choice. And most of the times she does choose to participate, as she loves hanging out with people, especially kids.

Despite Destiny's reputation Sam says he never really got into a fight with her, except once when he was trying to give her a shot. She bent the needle and attacked him. He said it took her a long time to forgive him for that one, but it took him a lot shorter time to realize what he had done wrong. He never tried to control her again and accepted her as who she was. And because of that, Dee can now respond to Sam's requests instead of reacting to his actions.

So many horses accept human training methods without much resistance; they suffer in silence because they know that fighting back will bring more pain. These are the horses people look for; the "keepers" that seemingly comply to our world. In their quiet, but unrelenting ways, these horses still seek to teach us about (in)humanity. But, if we let it happen, it is the Destinies and Biras of the world that truly have the potential to grab our attention, because they are screaming this message out loud. It is these horses, these freedom fighters, that really have the power to change a man.

According to the Animal Welfare Institute, over 100,000 horses went to slaughter in 2008 in the United States. The Daily Mail reports that roughly the same amount of horses are transported into and around the European Union for human consumption in countries such as Switzerland and France. Many of those horses are physically healthy, sound young animals - like Destiny and Bira. People rally against horse slaughter and I can see the point, but why not go to the root of the problem? Why not look at the current training methods used with horses and change the way we train horses? Why not put an effort into reducing the amount of horses going to slaughter?

Luckily the world is changing. People with real understanding for horses and animal behavior are emerging from the crowds. Books like Equitation Science, that explain horse behavior and learning theory, are being published and will hopefully change the way people look at training horses. More and more people are keen to give their horses natural living conditions. Every little step helps, even if it is a small and tentative step.

I think of Little Love and her painful journey to where she is at now. She is a horse with an opinion and she has held onto that opinion through thick and thin. Thanks to her owner's persistence (and some luck), she never became a statistic, but at times it was definitely a possibility. We have all known at least one horse like her; the ones that didn't "fit in", the ones everyone feared and nobody wanted to ride, the ones that didn't meet the potential humans had assigned to them - the 'crazy" ones. Sadly, I admit to knowing so many over the years that I have lost count.

There are no bad horses, there are just horses that have been misused, mistreated and misunderstood by humans. I used to think these horses needed to be fixed, as if they were merely a train that had veered slightly off track. But I can now see it was I who had derailed - big time. I hope others are faster to learn this lesson than I was. I try to forgive myself for my past, because it is more important that I am here now, holding my human heart close to the heart of a freedom fighter. Together we manifest for the ones out there that have not yet found a partner in heart of their own.

~ K

Human consciousness arose but a minute before midnight on the geological clock. Yet we mayflies try to bend an ancient world to our purposes, ignorant perhaps of the messages buried in its long history. Let us hope that we are still in the early morning of our April day. ~Stephen Jay Gould, "Our Allotted Lifetimes," The Panda's Thumb, 1980


  1. Immensely sad/horrific/disgusting but true - it didn't take me long to realise the enormity of the problem in NZ. Its not uncommon if one in the bloodline doesn't work out to send the rest of the line to slaughter including any foals!! Makes my stomach turn! Where I keep my horse there are about 30-40 horses and a high percentage of them which were intercepted before going to slaughter or were actually rescued while at dog tucker. They are now all valued and valuable healthy and thriving horses! It breaks my heart for the few that are saved so many others aren't! It's disgusting how disposable the horses are to these people. Admittedly not everyone does this but far to many rather than try to rehome them so many chuck them on the truck getting only around $150 NZ dollars. Often at the equestrian centre where my horse is we get "problem horses" inparticular race horses - its amazing to see their transformation with a bit of love/understanding! If only I had more land, more money.....

  2. I hear you Sonya, don't you just wish you could somehow save them all... which of course is an impossibility, knowing how many there are. Sending an entire bloodline to slaughter is just insane! The racing industry is just that, an industry. And on top of that there are the riding horses with (human made) behavioral problems also going to slaughter. Gives me anxiety to even think of the numbers. All we can do is try to help horses, even if it happens one horse at a time.

  3. My mare is one of these, an incredibly sensitive horse that I got as an unhandled 5 year old. I've made a ton of progress with her by using clicker training, any other method just plain wouldn't work with her.

    She's a lovely horse, very affectionate and interested in learning new things so long as she is not pushed or treated roughly. I'm very worried about something happening to me because I know that she'd be one of those healthy horses killed or sent to slaughter.

  4. Shelby in CaliforniaJanuary 6, 2011 at 9:35 PM

    If we can tell stories like this to as many people as possible, there will be changes in the horse industry. It's appalling, the lack of emotional disconnect it takes to keep horses as a commodity, to be used and discarded at will. To be thrown away like garbage... Thank you Katariina for telling this story! Destiny is one less horse in the slaughterhouse, but also one horse closer to helping that change happen in the industry. Awareness of the wasteage of horses is what can help empower people to make this change.

  5. Agreed K! I would love to more just how.... I had a run in with our local wildlife park a few weeks back. I know many don't agree with zoos etc but this one has no old style cages they have big open areas/paddocks to roam etc. Well anyway took my son there we saw the lions & tigers being fed. I thought they were feeding out cow (as the meat had black and white fur on it) then they announced over the load speaker they feed them horse. I almost threw up - not to mention my sons horrified reaction! Firstly I own a beautiful black and white gielding myself, secondly because I am aware that a very high percentage of healthy horses are sent to slaughter. Thirdly - because i think it is COMPLETELY unnecessary information to announce esp infront of kids and horse lovers. Don't get me wrong if I had my way they would never feed them horse again but if I couldn't stop them from doing it I was at least going to stop them announcing it at the feedtimes. It may sound hypocritical but I was okay with it being cow but my heart broke into a million pieces when they said horse. Call me a hypocrite and I am okay with this title in this situation. In NZ horse isn't eaten for human comsumption like in europe - the idea is foreign opposed to people eating beef. I just thought of how many healthy horses were ending up in there bellys! So I took to emailing them. Long story short they told me in NZ horse is supposedly their only option to feed them (nutritionally speaking) aussie uses kanagaroo and many overseas zoos use game bird but in NZ we don't have either of those options. Then said human grade beef was okay but price was the issue. There was a lot of other rubbish in their but they agreed to no longer announce they were feeding horse at feed times. I also clearly stated my issues with it and admit it is only my personal opinion but I think it crosses moral and ethical lines for a park that is about preserving animals to be supporting a pet food industry that regularly slaughters perfectly healthy horses! I suggested that if they honestly couldn't source other suitable meat then at a bare minimum i would like to think that they had an agreement with their supplier to only take injured and older horse (even though that still makes my stomach churn). They have agreed to follow up on this so will see what happens.....

  6. I was recently in a similar situation to your friend in Finland. Over this past summer, I saw a sign while out driving advertising a 4y/o TB mare for $400. I wasn't on the market for a horse, but big surprise, a few days later I found myself face to face with a cute 4y/o 16.1h chestnut OTTB. Her name was One for Barb, and her owner had bred her as one of his racehorses and named her after his wife. She was good looking, healthy considering she'd only been off the track for about a month, but sadly I wasn't on the market for a horse, and really not on the market for a 4 y/o OTTB. I left the little farm, but from then on that mare had captured a place in my heart, and I thought of her often.

    Around two months later, a friend of mine, my father, my younger brother and I headed up to a local auction with a relatively good rep. We arrived well before it was due to start in order to scope out the joint. Lone behold, who do I find there? One other than the little mare of my dreams, One for Barb. I was impressed that I recognized her immediately, and a quick check @ the registration desk proved me correct. In the time since I'd last seen her, Barb had gone from a recently off the track 4y/o to a calm little mare who could walk and trot (and apparently canter) calmly under saddle in the crowded auction house arena. Needles to say, I was amazed! She had been through at least two new owners since I'd seen her as well.
    The auction was dead that night, and by the time they got around to Barb, it was probably 10:00 at night. One for Barb, this amazing little mare was sold for $350 to the meat man.
    I was heartbroken. How could this happen? She was totally healthy, talented, and super willing. Not to mention young! Why then was she sold for meat? You couldn't even buy a saddle for the money she cost, but you could buy this talented young horse. I stood by her pen trying to hold the tears back, and failing. I'd promised myself that no matter what I wouldn't cry, but somehow this little mare seemed to have done me in. I felt sick, and absolutely terrible. That's when two ladies who I will be beyond grateful to for ever asked me what was wrong. I don't know what possessed me to, but I told them everything. They then told me that they rescued horses, and said that they'd do their best to save her. One for barb was later, through these two wonderful ladies, sold to another lady (also named Barb) who runs a barn in the area. She recognized this mare for what she was worth, and gave her a chance.
    I don't tell this story often, for it still hurts me to do so. But, if it'll bring the terrible situation (in Canada for me) to light, then I say its worth it.

  7. Kate, your story made me cry. I can't tell you how good it felt to hear that One for Barb didn't get on that meat truck because of YOU! I almost called this post "To Save a Life" but decided on "Freedom Fighters" instead. But your story could have been under the first title. Wow. Keep telling the story, no matter how much it hurts, it's important.

    All of the stories here are amazing and it seems like everyone has at least one to tell of a wonderful horse that was once on its way to slaughter for no apparent reason.

    And Sonya, good for you for talking to the Wildlife park people!!! I definitely think it was the right thing to do.

  8. Just a short time ago one family friend (who breeds racing horses) told me about one 2y old mare that they "had to" put down because their trainer told them that this little fighter had kicked twice. So no good for a racing horse... And he was really sorry for this in his own mind, maybe only counting how much money this mare had already spent but he even could not see any other option.

    I couldn't even begin to tell him how it made me feel, we where so far apart with our views.

  9. kicked twice what a joke - they should be ashamed of themselves. Maybe they hadn't spent enough on it to realise the value of that poor precious horse! Seriously some people need to get a reality check! We had a horse come to our stables it was from aussie and had great breeding but no one could control it. It had smashed up stable block, a horse truck, a round yard, no one could get on it blah blah. It was really head shy and showed clear signs of abuse. Within a week it was no longer head shy, could be ridden and was a completely different horses. It still ended up staying for about 8 weeks the owners didn't believe the progress so came out to watch and were astounded. Amazing what a bit of time and patience does! I think this is also the issue with lots of racing stables they have no time and patience and there seems to be no tolerance for late bloomers. That want results promptly and are not prepared to give the horse time to grow and mature really really sad!

  10. I think that is the main problem of our current society: people want everything NOW, or preferably yesterday! (and people want a lot of things, they sort of think they are entitled that way) So, if the horse doesn't comply immdediately, there is something wrong with it (like Jenny said: Then they "have to" put the horse down, as if it weren't a choice?).
    What happened to the concept of patience, it's like it never existed! Horse isn't "good" enough = let's get rid of it and get a "better" one. It's amazing how people see horses so differently than for example dogs. Most people wouldn't sell their dog, no matter what kind of problems they had with it, but when it comes to horses, they are ready to give up without second thought. The racing world in particular is, of course, very impatient, because of all the money involved. I don't think people working in that field truly ever connect with the animal.