Writers on the Range: There are too many unwanted backyard horses
January 1, 2013
I was sitting in a comfortable chair one evening, reading a vintage book about the Old West, when I happened to glance out the window to see a horse cropping the grass along my driveway. I don’t own a horse. I don’t want a horse. Too many of my neighbors own horses, only to let them hang around doing nothing, like silhouettes against the horizon.
I went out to the porch for a better look, thinking I’d encounter a part-time cowboy. I called out to the empty horizon: “Yoo-hoo?” Nothing but a nicker from the horse.
Acres of print examine the plight of wild horses in the West, often referred to as mustangs, and I’m not suggesting that the problem deserves any less attention than my problem – the neglected domestic horse situation. Finicky horse advocates will argue that the term “wild mustangs” is erroneous; such horses aren’t wild, just feral, having been introduced by the Spanish centuries ago from their own domesticated stock.
But whether such free-roaming horses fairly or unfairly compete for forage on public grazing lands and whether they are native or invasive species is beside the point. The horse in my driveway had a ribcage distinct as a xylophone, and she didn’t look wild at all, just worn out.
She politely glanced up, allowed me to approach her, then went on cropping the grass. As I ran my hand along her neck and flanks, it became obvious my guest hadn’t just missed a meal or two. She’d been systematically ignored until her presence probably got on her owners’ nerves. Then they turned her loose.
Wild horses may be scattered all across the West, but it’s the domestic stock being “set free” to find their own, usually unfortunate destinies that worries me. Horse owners down on their economic luck think they’ll save bales of cash by letting their charges wander. The notion that horses will find their own way – the way many people believe feral dogs and cats do – is absurd. In fact, it’s equally absurd even for dogs and cats.
In the literature that children grow up on, equines are adorable, utterly huggable and just too precious. “Black Beauty” and “My Friend Flicka,” to name just a few, are stories that tug at the heartstrings, prompting children to stroke a plastic replica of a dream they long to transform into flesh someday. I don’t know how many youngsters receive ponies for their birthdays, but based on my own informal gallop poll, grownups all across the West lack the self-control necessary to rein in their urge to own a horse.
In Alice Walker’s book, “Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful,” the horses that are supposed to be making the landscape more beautiful are not the same ones strung for miles along our rural Western fence lines, pulling up the grass by the roots until a piece of paradise is reduced to an acre of bare dirt.
I found a plastic pail in the garage and filled it with oatmeal, then pulled a rope off a nail. One taste of oats, and my mystery horse would have followed me anywhere. I followed the trail of horse apples along the road, all the way up to the highway and back again. Along the way, every neighbor’s horse rushed across its allotted pasture to shinny up to the wire, whinny and snort, as if gossiping about this stranger.
We ended up back in my driveway, which is a poor excuse for a horse refuge, because my property is not fenced, but I have a good-fences-make-good-neighbors neighbor who once visited my property to collect his truant bull. We get quite a parade of livestock wandering across our land for the simple reason that we don’t fence them out.
He said no, it wasn’t his horse, but offered to put her up in a small pasture where he’d quartered three of another neighbor’s horses to clean up his weedy grass – a sort of weed-and-feed negotiation.
As he worked at undoing the gate chain, I removed the rope from around my horse’s neck. I say “my horse” but really she wasn’t anyone’s horse, not any more. She leaned her long head against my shoulder and held it there for a ponderous moment before I urged her into the company of more strangers.
Later, I found a man who provides rescue services for animals, but he had no room for a horse. He suggested I check with the brand inspector, which sounded like a great idea, until I learned that the horse would likely end up at the sale barn, which might mean a future as horse meat rather than adoption.
One evening as I returned from town, I noticed that my horse and in fact all the horses were gone, probably for another job of weed eradication, or so I hoped. I thought about stopping, about asking someone, but maybe because I’d read and watched too many Westerns, I had the notion that every horse eventually heads off into the sunset – and better that than painful neglect.
David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in western Colorado.