Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Unlucky Horses--Francesca Prescott

It's with great pleasure that we add Francesca to our list of regular contributors. Francesca will be posting on this blog once a month. Welcome, Francesca.

The Unlucky Horses
There’s a little black stallion at my stables. His name is McKenzie, he’s a Shetland pony, and he needs a friend. Not a girlfriend, mind you; we don’t want any hanky-panky going on up there, at least, not for the moment. We don’t want any fighting, either, so another stallion is out of the question. What McKenzie needs is a nice little, even tempered, sexually-snipped companion to help him keep the daisies and dandelions under control. He needs someone other than Chelsea, the fluffy white Swiss sheepdog, to play with him and race him up and down one of the vast, lush, impeccably fenced paddocks. Yes, McKenzie needs a friend, and yesterday, when my friend Steph (who owns the stables) and I hopped into the lorry and set off for a small village in Burgundy, about two hours from home, we thought we’d found him one.

It was while browsing a local equestrian website about a week that I came across a cute little blond guy named Rusty. A six-year-old Shetland pony gelding, Rusty was - according to the blurb - friendly, schooled in the basics, and easy to handle. Pretty photographs portrayed a happy, cheeky little fellow who looked like he’d be perfect company for McKenzie. What could go wrong? How could we be disappointed? It wasn’t as though we were expecting to be presented with an exceptional, elegant, riding pony. We were expecting…well, a Shetland. They’re small and stocky and rugged.

There was a funny moment as we neared our destination. Stephanie frowned, drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, then turned to me wondering whether there was something specific we should request when they showed us the pony. Should we ask to see it trotted up? Giggling, I suggested flexion tests (tests performed on horses by vets to evaluate soundness), and for a couple of kilometers we laughingly extrapolated on ways of ensuring Rusty came with a relatively clean bill of health. But it wasn’t an issue we were particularly worried about; what could go wrong with a Shetland pony?

Oh dear.

Our jaws dropped and our stomachs lurched when we arrived at the so-called “centre” and discovered a spectacle of equine desolation. Trotting anything up was out of the question; apart from one healthy looking little mare being saddled up for a prospective client (this horse clearly didn’t “live” there), the forty horses and ponies on that godforsaken property looked as though they could barely muster enough energy to plod across the field to their water trough. Toast rack ribs poked through pock marked, scabby coats. Long, cracked feet stumbled through thick, oozy mud. Heads drooped, flies swarmed, and desperate noses nuzzled the earth in the hope of finding a clump of decent grass.

We were introduced to Rusty. Maybe he wasn’t toast-rack thin, but he was heartbreakingly apathetic, and the state of his coat made us cringe. He was clearly suffering from some sort of skin disease as vast areas of his body were balding and rubbed raw. When we asked what was wrong with him, we were told the pony had recently been examined by a vet who had been unable to figure out what the problem was, and that therefore it wasn’t anything serious. But wasn’t it contagious? we wondered. Oh, no! Look at all the others; they’re perfectly fine!

Perfectly fine. Yeah, right.

Admittedly, at Steph’s stables, the horses lead extremely pampered lives. Their stables are impeccable, they receive top quality food, are groomed daily from head to toe, their bodies regularly scrutinized for the slightest booboo, their demeanor constantly observed for any sign of distress. They spend a couple of hours every day grazing in individual, regularly rotated, juicy green pastures. They’re shod every five weeks, and wear leg protections when out in the field or being exercised. They’re spritzed with fly-spray, with mane and tail detangling spray, or with whatever kind of spray their wellbeing requires at any given moment. Yes, they’re extremely lucky horses. They’re also happy horses; those expressive eyes and shiny coats don’t lie. Nor do those welcoming whinnies!

Of course, horses and ponies can do perfectly well without all the trimmings ours are fortunate enough to enjoy. The crazy thing is that the young lady who greeted us at the “centre” yesterday is probably a horse lover brimming with good intentions; she was clearly devastated when we regretfully informed her that we wouldn’t be buying Rusty because we couldn’t risk infecting our own horses with some obscure skin disease. I felt terrible, because chances are she was counting on that money to buy a few bales of hay, or a couple of bags of food for her skinny animals. But even if we’d bought that poor pony, the money we’d have paid her would have been spread far too thinly on the remaining forty horses. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and a part of me feels sorry for that misguided young lady, but, seriously, what is she thinking? As we stood there, stroking sad faces, she solemnly told us she’d recently bought nine young horses from Romania.

Does she honestly think she’s doing those Romanian horses a favour? Are they really better off semi-starved and practically crippled in a muddy field hidden away down a dirt track somewhere in the hills of Burgundy? It's not like she’s running a horse rescue centre; she's running a business, buying young horses, breaking them in, and selling them on. But what kind of future will these malnourished, physiologically doomed young horses have? Who will buy them? How long will they suffer?

We drove away thoroughly depressed. I couldn’t help thinking of those sordid stories you read in the newspapers once in a while about animal protection services discovering cat-crazed individuals sharing tiny living conditions with hundreds of felines. Is Rusty’s “home” in Burgandy a case for the animal protection services? Probably. But there’s only so much the animal protection services can do, and most horse rescues are already overcrowded.

Should we have bought Rusty? Should we have taken on this sad, mangy looking Shetland pony, diving head first into mountains of vet bills in an attempt to nurse him back to health? Should we have risked infecting our healthy horses with some obscure skin disease? The passionate, idealistic, thoroughly incensed horse lover in me is jumping up and down screaming “yes”. But common sense and years of experience as a horse owner insist we were right to walk away from what was bound to become an emotionally draining, financially taxing, long term problem.

Lovely little McKenzie still needs a friend to help him keep the daisies and the dandelions under control. And one of these days we’ll find him one, through word of mouth, or via a reputable breeder.

xx Francesca


Linda Benson said...

Francesca - first of all, welcome to Equestrian Ink! We are thrilled to have another horse lover writing with us.

Secondly, I totally understand your dilemma. I, too, have seen cases of (supposedly) well meaning people collecting too many animals, and not having the means to care for them properly, so they all suffer.

On a recent visit to our vet's office, the receptionist shared that they've seen more cases of starved and neglected horses this year than in any they can remember. I will write more on this in a later post, but for those of us who love all animals, it does tear at your heartstrings.

Then of course, it leaves the question of whether you could convince the owners of poor lonely McKenzie to geld the poor guy, so that he could be turned out with anyone, and not live a life of isolation.

Thank you for a thoughtful post. I look forward to reading more from you.

Laura Crum said...

Francesca--its great to have you with us. I've very much enjoyed your guest posts. The situation you describe is so frustrating and unfortunately not uncommon. In my previous post "Too Many Horses"--I wrote about the frustration we can feel when we don't quite have enough time for riding. But the next step, as we all know, is not having enough time or resources to properly care for our horses--and this is a line that it is important not to cross. I can't count the times I've been touched by the plight of a rescue horse in need (frequently on Joe's TBfriends blog), just as you were touched by Rusty. What stops me is the simple truth that I have all I can care for properly. Every horse I have needs to be in good health, a good weight and content, and taking on too many would make this impossible. It is very sad when people don't realize this--and, as you say, frequently they appear to be well-intentioned. I can't say I know the answers--certainly many people would say to call animal control. Its a tough one.

Laura Crum said...

Francesca--I am totally not trying to talk you into taking on "Rusty", but I did want to mention that I have seen this sort of obscure scabby skin thing before in horses that are underweight and malnourished and it frequently just goes away when the horse is back at a decent weight. My old horse, ET, looked like this when I took him away from a home where he had been neglected. I did not treat the skin condition, just fed the horse an appropriate diet, and when he was a healthy weight (a couple of months later), the skin issues had completely disappeared. It was not contagious to the other horses who were able to socialize with him (or at least they did not come down with it). I am sure not saying this is always the case, or that I know what is wrong with Rusty, but just that I have noticed this sort of problem before. I believe it to be the result of a weakened immune system.

Shanster said...

Oh what a sad post. What a disappointment in so many ways... what should have been a fun afternoon turned very sober and somber. It's hard to understand people like that... I really don't get it...

Francesca Prescott said...

Hello! Thank you for reading my sad story, and for your comments. Also, thank you for taking me onto Equestrian Ink on a regular basis; horses have always occupied such a large part of my heart and my life.

Yes, making the decision to leave that little pony behind was tough, especially for my friend as she owns the stables where I keep my horse. She also owns the little black stallion - whom she took in when he followed her home one day during a ride! He'd apparently escaped from his field, or stable, or something, and although she posted flyers all over the place trying to find his owner, nobody ever surfaced, so she kept him. Apparently, he was rather skinny, too, at the time...

Apart from worrying about Rusty's skin condition, the main reason my friend decided not to bring him home was because by buying a horse or pony from a place like this, she'd have been fuelling this sordid type of market. Walking away was awful; our heartstrings wrapped themselves around a fence and stretched out behind us all the way back home.

Laura: thank you for your insight into the skin condition issue. What you say makes perfect sense. My horse could never have been described as being in bad condition when he moved into Stephanie's stables almost two months ago, but with the exceptional food she offers, he's looking better than ever. Last time we checked he'd gained 4 kilos, but I'm doing up the girth higher up, evidence he's lost fat and gained muscle. He's also super shiny! Nutrition plays such an important role in a horse's health (and in ours, too!).

I hope my next contribution to the blog will be a little more uplifting!