A life in the balance – the background to “Scary tale”

Years ago, before we bought this land and built a house on it, we used to live in the north of the county and our next-door neighbour there bred Connemara ponies. His land was miles away on the other side of the mountain, but we had a half-acre field beside the house that we weren’t using and every now and then he would ask if he could put a couple of horses on it that he needed to keep an eye on. One day he asked us if he could bring a mare and foal. It was the mare’s first foal, and he would like the use of our field to make sure everything was going well. We agreed and the mare and foal arrived. It was obvious that the mare was a bit unsure, but the foal, only a few days old, was full of the joys of life. Born chocolate-brown, he quickly shed his coat and turned brilliantly white, with a few brown freckles in his face. My daughter and her friend, the neighbour’s daughter, called him Starburst.

We really enjoyed the company of Starburst and Daisy, his mother, that summer. Starburst was an exuberant and inquisitive youngster, bursting with curiosity about the world and it didn’t take him long to discover the weak spots in the hedge. We often found him dancing and doing caprioles on our lawn, while Daisy was anxiously whinnying at him from behind the fence. Starburst was unperturbed, he was brimming with confidence.

The first couple of years of his life, Starburst ran wild with a herd of horses. As his breeding was excellent our neighbour had high hopes of retaining him as a stallion, but he just didn’t make the grade and at 4 he was gelded. My daughter and her friend stayed by his side the whole afternoon, keeping the other horses away from him until he was ready to get up. I remember that he was easy to back. Although he could be cheeky and quite full of himself, he was friendly and he trusted people. He learned quickly. A week after he was first ridden, I was able to take him out on his own for a short hack down the road. That summer, my daughter and her friend, both 11 years old at the time, were able to ride him. Starburst, as always, was full of confidence and safe as a house with these young girls.

I really liked him, my daughter was in love with him, and so I approached my neighbour with an offer to buy Starburst. But this was the height of the Celtic Tiger years, Connemara ponies were making huge money and although my neighbour was willing to give us a discount, the price he asked was well above our budget and that was that. I swallowed my own disappointment and consoled my daughter, who was devastated. Shortly after that, we moved away and so I lost track of Starburst.

What are the chances that you meet a horse again, years later, in a country full of horses? Life can be funny sometimes, its’ path twists and turns and you meet people, you make new friends and you lose track of some because you’re on diverging paths, but sometimes, unexpectedly, your path crosses that of an old friend. Two years ago I met Starburst again. I had just bought Cassie, and because we were in the process of moving from rented accommodation to our newly built house, I urgently needed a place where I could leave her for a couple of weeks until we had settled in. I phoned a woman I knew slightly; I had met her through riding club activities and I knew that she had a yard with stables and plenty of land. She was friendly over the phone and she invited me over to view her yard.

The yard was beautiful and highly professional looking. 7 spacious stables and tack-room built-in a U-shape complete with arch and bell-tower. The tack-room was fully fitted with everything one could possibly need in any imaginable circumstances. Beside the yard there was a well maintained sand arena with freshly painted jump stands and trotting poles neatly stored at one side. The whole set-up was as far removed from my own yard as a castle is from a cottage. And she doesn’t run a livery or competition yard, this is all for her own use. It was absolutely beautiful. 

I have to admit I was completely taken in by the look of the yard and the woman’s BHS qualifications. I felt sure that this was a professional horse woman, vastly more experienced than myself and it seemed obvious that my new horse would be in excellent hands for a couple of weeks. I was so impressed that I didn’t even wonder why her own horses were inside, in spite of the fact that it was a beautiful day, one of those days in early February when you can smell spring on the breeze and the blood quickens. Anyway, the woman was introducing me to her horses, and when we got to the third stable the horse inside turned around and I was looking at Starburst.

There was no doubt about it; although he was covered in rugs and had a different name, I recognised him immediately, even if I hadn’t seen him for about 4 years. Did Starburst recognise me? It is so easy to interpret a horse’s reactions in a way that pleases us, but he came over and sniffed my hair, then breathed in my face. I felt touched. The woman was paying no attention and moved on and I didn’t say anything. We made arrangements for Cassie’s stay and then I left.

Cassie stayed in that yard for a couple of weeks, and it was not ideal. I quickly discovered that the woman’s ideas on stable management were very different from my own and they were non-negotiable. Her own horses only got turned-out in fine weather and for no more than an hour. No horse was allowed out unless they were fully booted up in tendon boots and over-reach boots and that included Cassie, even though I’m not fond of boots because it is easy for a horse’s legs to overheat in them. On the whole I didn’t really mind the list of do’s and don’t’s too much; Cassie was there for a few weeks only so it was just a case of grin and bear it, but what really stayed in my mind was the atmosphere in the yard. I felt uncomfortable. And my new horse wouldn’t eat. At the time, I put it down to the changes in her life, but when I got her home I discovered that Cassie could eat for Ireland and was most definitely a good-doer.

There are lots of people like this woman. They want the best for their horses but they treat them as if they are humans; they keep them inside in stables, smother them in rugs regardless of the weather or the temperature and feed them at meal times only, two or three times a day. That is because they themselves feel most comfortable inside their homes and they don’t stop to consider what the horse would choose for itself. Horses of course are herd animals who need the company of other horses, they need to be able to move and they need to be able to feed ad lib. If you take that away, their physical and mental health suffers. 

And Starburst?  Starburst had changed. I was surprised to hear him referred to as a green horse and that he was prone to show “airs above the ground” and was difficult to manage.  Watching him being led out was not a pretty sight. I only saw the woman ride him once and that was in walk in her arena on a very tight rein. The horse looked ready to explode and the woman looked scared. Not a happy combination. The thing is, it shouldn’t have been like that. Starburst should have been ideal for what she wanted him for; riding club activities and hacking. He was so full of confidence and promise when he was young, but he just couldn’t cope with being locked up.

For the last 8 months or so Starburst has been intermittently lame and he has been subjected to a whole range of tests and treatments. The vet couldn’t find anything wrong and all x-rays and scans came up clean. So he was taken to a sports injury therapist, who diagnosed deep muscle trauma (from what, standing in a stable?) and subjected Starburst to a series of injections of some muscle relaxant. The injections didn’t seem to do anything, the vet recommended the horse to be taken out and put back to work. The woman said she couldn’t, because the horse was still intermittently lame when she took him out of the stable.

A few days ago she phoned me to tell me she had finally found the cause of his lameness. She had diagnosed that he must have a low lesion to the distal ligament in his hind leg. She said it hadn’t shown up on the scan because it was an old injury, but she had decided on a course of treatment. First of all, to stimulate extra blood supply the leg needed to be re-inflamed. She has been doing this by putting some heating ointment on the leg, wrapping it in cling film and brown paper and bandaging the leg up to be left on overnight and to repeat for a week. Then she is going to have blood extracted and prepared for this new treatment she found on the internet, in which the leg will be injected with a high dose of platelets.  Then he will get 8 weeks box rest! She hoped that would improve him, but she was aware that this type of injury only had a small chance of healing, so if it didn’t help it was curtains for him. She told me she was devastated and what did I think?

I am quite proud of myself that I didn’t scream at her, but replied (icily, I have to admit) that she could start by turning him out 24/7, that he had already been on box rest for the last 8 months to no avail and that she could increase the blood supply in his legs by taking his shoes off. She said that was impossible because her farrier had told her he needs the shoes for support for contracted heels.  I coldly replied: “And how do you think he got those contracted heels in the first place?” And then she hung up and I haven’t heard since.

There are two kinds of abuse. Physical abuse when a horse is beaten and starved is easy to recognise. Psychological abuse is far more insidious. Nobody who would visit this woman in her yard would recognise that here is a situation where the horses’ welfare is not properly taken care of. But if you would test this situation against the Five Freedoms of the Animal Welfare Act, I think it should be clear that all is not well. Not if you think that a horse should be entitled to live life as a horse. If you ask the average horse lover what they like about horses, the answer is usually something along the lines of their beauty, power, spirit and freedom. Why then do we so often try to take from them the very qualities we so admire, why do we feel the need to control their power and limit their freedom?

This woman will tell you how much she loves her horses, but at the same time she won’t hesitate to dispose of a horse that is useless and they are all insured. And I worry about Starburst, who was a lovely horse and deserves better.


8 thoughts on “A life in the balance – the background to “Scary tale”

  1. I don’t know how you’ve kept your temper in check with this idiot. I so wish Starburst could come home with you, maybe if she decides to put him down she will give him to you. How can people who profess to love their horses be so ignorant. She needs to stop listening to her farrier and others and do what is right for the horse. You’d think she would know better how to treat a horse.

    The platelet thing isn’t going to work. They wanted to do that with Dusty and I researched and said no, it only will work within 2 – 3 weeks of the original injury. What did work for her suspensories was shock wave therapy. It sounds to me like Starburst and all her horses need to be out with each other interacting and getting exercise and free grazing daily. I’m so sorry to hear about this exuberant little guy and how he wound up being psychologically abused. Very disheartening.

    • I looked into the platelet thing as well and the way it was worded was all very careful, as in that it might help to speed up recovery in recent injuries. There was a huge emphasis on the fact that the most important factor to a horse coming back to full health was time.

      I think the only reason Starburst is intermittently lame is that he is always stabled. All the x-rays and scans came out clear, so there doesn’t seem to be a medical reason. If you stay in one position for too long you get cramp. If he was turned out with the other horses and they could move freely, I’m sure she’d find almost all the problems she is experiencing with her horses at the moment would disappear,

  2. This was a very sad story, but unfortunately not unique. I see owners where I board do the exact same thing to their horse; shoed, covered and allowed out in the paddock alone (because they are shoed and might hurt another horse if out together) for only an hour or two a day as per the owner’s instructions – wouldn’t want the blanket damaged or the horse to get dirty. Sigh. There is a fine line between caring to much from a human perspective and abuse by not caring enough from a horse perspective. I hope that Starburst finds someone who can care for him from a horse perspective.

    • The most dangerous people from the horse’s point of view are people who think they are doing everything right, but don’t listen to what their horse is trying to tell them. Why do people do that to their horses? I don’t understand it. It makes you wonder why some people actually have a horse.

  3. I agree, this story almost made me cry. How heartbreaking to see something like this happen to a horse you saw grow from a foal.

    I totally understand why you reacted to her the way you did, but do you think some gentle education could work to let her see that her horses could be so much happier? Of course I don’t know her, she could be completely dense and hopeless.

    • The funny thing about this woman is that she actually has an incredible amount of theoretical knowledge, but she doesn’t put it into practise. She knows for instance exactly how hooves work, but that doesn’t stop her from shoeing all her horses, wether they are ridden or not, because that’s the way it has always been done. She knows a horse’s anatomy inside out and can name every bone in their body, but doesn’t stop to consider that a horse is built for movement. She will take tradition over common sense.

      I have tried. She knows how I keep my horses and that the fact that they live out keeps my two hotheads calm. But it makes her shudder. And it is true, mine are often filthy and Cassie, who is not clever with her legs, often turns up with cuts and grazes and her legs are full of (tiny) scars. So she only sees what she wants to see; my horses may be happy out, but her horses are much happier inside in their nice, warm stables.

  4. You’ve got to let her know that you’ll take him if she ever decides to give up on him. Or if you and she are on the outs, you could send someone else on your behalf. Poor pony. It’s funny how people get all up in arms now about the way zoo animals used to be kept, and yet many horses are still kept this way.

  5. June, I have said to her that I’ll take him if he’s no good to her on several occasions. This case truly breaks my heart.

    That’s a good point about the zoo animals, I just read a brilliant book by Mark Hanson called “Revealing your hidden horse” in which he makes the same point. In fact, I visited Dublin Zoo a few years ago, and the snow leopards had such a big, natural space that we never even saw them! But somehow it still seems acceptable to lock a horse up in a 12 by 12′ stable for most of its life.

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