By Madeline Kurz
In the equestrian community, perhaps one of the most controversial topics that exists today is that of horse slaughter. Whether one is for it or against it, the welfare of the horses is something that has stirred emotions among horse owners, and is something that personally struck me to take action.
In October of 2016, I met my horse Atlas, or as the feedlot referred to him, number 200. I saw his picture before I knew anything about him. He was a Thoroughbred, with legs that were covered in mud, a long and tangled man, and a thin tail that was chewed off in places. His feet were long, and well overdue for a trim, and his eyes had a defeated and sad look to them. He was thin and his coat was dirty. It was one of those pictures that could turn the pit of your stomach. I asked for more information on him, even though I wasn’t in the position to purchase a second horse. I found out that he had his papers with him and that his registered name was Foolish Chopper. He had been a direct sale to the feedlot. I looked him up on Equibase, a website where Thoroughbreds with a racing career can be researched, and found out that he was born in Washington, on March 17, 2009. He was a raced Thoroughbred, winning a total of $15,924 over the course of 30 starts. I stared at his picture for a few minutes. That’s all it took for me to fall in love. Shortly after, I bought him for $500.
My drive to the feedlot took over eight hours, all of which I spent preparing myself for what I might see. I thought I would be able to handle it, but nothing could have prepared me for what I would soon see. For those who have never been to a feedlot, it is nearly indescribable. The pens are crowded, the babies have wild, scared eyes, and older horses have a haunted, exhausted demeanor. Some can hardly walk because their feet are so damaged. Cuts aren’t taken care of because medical care isn’t given. When I went into the pen to catch Atlas, they all ran because they were scared; scared of people. Despite the fact that I moved slowly, some of the horses still wanted nothing to do with me. My horse though, let me slowly walk up to him, with my hand outstretched. Once I got up to him, I could see the whites of his eyes. He let me put a lead rope around his neck and slide a halter onto his face.
I led him out of the pen, talking to him in a soft voice. Being an ex-racehorse, he loaded into the trailer nicely, for the drive home. It took a long time to get over the heartbreak of leaving horses in that place, to this day I still feel some guilt because I could not take them all. It was after midnight when I got him unloaded and turned out into the pen that was being used for quarantine. Because it was October, there was still grass on the ground and, even in the dark, I could see him running and playing in between bites. I remember crying as I watched him by the light of the moon.
In the morning, I flew out the door to go see him. I bought a bag of carrots and a couple of apples on the way. I spent that entire first day with him. He was scared still, and it took a while just to pet him. One of the saddest things I remember was that he seemed to not know what carrots or apples were, like he had never been fed treats before. To this day, he takes them so daintily. Th at day was spent getting to know each other. I talked to him while he grazed, I fed him carrots and apples, I didn’t even try to halter him, I just hung out with him. I knew that we would become friends, it was just going to take time.
That week, I went to see him every day, after riding my other horse, Vinny. I would feed him grain and carrots, and groom him. Towards the end of his first week with me, I noticed that his hind legs were really swollen. My vet came out and took a nasal swab, and he was diagnosed with Equine Distemper and EVH-4, or Strangles and Rhino. Strangles is a highly contagious upper respiratory tract infection and Rhino is another contagious respiratory disease. It was not surprising that he got sick after being in a feedlot, where germs run wild. Atlas was fortunate enough to have a decent immune system, which allowed for him to fight his sickness well. I spent every night taking care of him, telling him he was going to be okay. He started to trust me. He would meet me at the gate of his pen, nickering softly. It took until January, but when the last nasal swab was taken, it came back clean.
Now out of quarantine, he lives in a pen right next to Vinny, his ‘adoptive brother’. I have put about thirty rides on him, and started his dressage training. He always aims to please, and is such a fun horse to work with. He now has a shiny black coat, shoes on his feet, his own tack, and a home where he will be loved for the rest of his life. I will never be able to thank my amazing trainer, her daughter/my best friend, and my extraordinary veterinarian enough, for all the help they gave me. He will be showing Training Level this summer, alongside Vinny, hopefully qualifying to go to the regional championships, and participating in the USDF International Rescue Horse All Breeds Division.
I was lucky enough to rescue a horse that was able to have a job and a future. So, if you ever have the opportunity to rescue a horse, I say do it. Give a horse your patience, put in the time it takes to let them trust again. Rescue a baby that has years of life ahead of him. Rescue an old gelding, who can pack your kids around the yard. Rescue a mare that is ready to have her baby, and needs a soft place to land. Rescue a Thoroughbred who just isn’t quite fast enough. Take a chance on one of the thousands of horses that may not be bred with the perfect bloodlines, but will still make the perfect best friend.