Kate felt her muscles tense as she followed Lillian up the hill toward the barn. She tried very hard to be brave and calm, but the usually peaceful barn was in turmoil. Horses who had been brought in from the paddock called loudly to their friends who were still outside. Those who normally did not live in the barn at all were confined to stalls in the middle of the day. And there were extra people in the barn as well. Kate thought she’d seen these extra humans before. Were they good or bad? She couldn’t be sure.
All the commotion reminded her of that other barn. The big one with all the metal pens full of terrified horses. Some of those horses she had known from home – her old home, where she had been born. Others she’d never seen before. There were so many humans there, and so much noise. All the horses were crying for each other, looking for a bit of comfort from a horse or human they recognized, but getting none.
She kept hearing the word “auction,” but didn’t know what it meant. There had been so many horses there, so many people, and so much fear.
One by one the horses had been taken away. Little squares of paper with numbers on them were glued to each horse’s hips. Kate had them too. What did it all mean? After they were taken away, some of the horses came back to the same pen they’d started from. Some did not, but she could eventually see them in another part of the expansive building, in a huge pen, more scared than ever as they were crowded in with horses they had never met before. Some bit and kicked for fear and self-defense. Some tried to escape the crowding, cowering head down in corners. Sometimes one would slip and fall on the filthy floor.
No one seemed to care. Eventually they were loaded onto big trailers where the screaming and thrashing intensified as they were jammed in too close together. The sound of hooves and bodies slamming into the trailers’ metal sides could still be heard after they disappeared from view. Others, like Kate, left in smaller trailers that only held two horses. Her trailer even had a bag of hay to munch on.
The Sanctuary’s barn was usually a quiet place, and Kate had not minded living in it when she’d first arrived. The humans said she needed to stay inside until she put on weight and grew stronger. She tried to be calm and well-behaved, but it was better once she was allowed to go outside during the day. Now she lived outside all the time and she liked that best of all. Her big herd had lots of horses in it, some of whom she knew from her home farm; some she’d never met before. But they all got on well together and they always had enough to eat.
Usually Kate didn’t mind coming inside. Most of the time it meant a relaxing grooming session and some treats. But on days like this – when the noise and commotion seemed too much like that other place – Kate couldn’t help herself. She felt the fear in every muscle. Her heart beat fast. Her nostrils flared wide to suck in air as she prepared to run from danger.
But she was trying hard to be good. She followed at the end of her lead rope, through the double doors into the barn, then into one of the stalls. The extra people – the people she now recognized – had one of the big mares from Kate’s old farm tied in the aisle with her foot lifted up. They were using some kind of tool to cut away parts of the mare’s hoof. The big mare, Naomi, didn’t seem to care at all. Her eyes were half-closed and her ears flopped to the side as if she was asleep. Robert, the man who’d brought Kate to this place from the auction, was standing beside Naomi, chatting with the strangers.
Maybe this would be okay. Kate remembered now that this had been done to her a few times already since she’d come here. It didn’t hurt – not really – but it was very strange and a little scary.
She would try very hard to be good.
Kate didn’t know why they’d all been taken from their home farm and sent to that strange place before she and some friends ended up here at the Sanctuary. She remembered lots of things from her home farm, like the first summer of her life she’d spent lazing in the sunshine with her mother, who protected her and introduced her to the other mares and foals. Then she remembered being taken from her mother and locked in a pen with lots of other babies – ten or more, all running frantically, calling for their mothers. They could hear the mares’ voices somewhere too far away to see. After a while they got used to having only each other for company. There were cold days and warm ones, days when it rained, and days when the world turned white under a blanket of snow. The babies had grown thick winter coats and didn’t mind the cold. They had a big open shelter to hide inside when the wind blew and rain pelted sideways from the sky. Kate remembered that – but mostly she remembered hunger.
It hadn’t started right away. Kate and her young friends had lived together over a year before the hunger set in. Once there had been big bales of hay – enough for everyone – and buckets full of grain. But the grain stopped appearing, and then the hay began to run out. The youngsters were put into a large paddock with the older horses, and that made things worse. When hay was put out, the big horses rarely left until it was all gone. They were hungry, too. The youngsters could only pick at scraps and the dirty moldy bits the older horses left behind. They strained and stretched to reach into the big metal feeder the hay had been put into. After a few months Kate’s neck became sore where it rubbed against the feeder’s unforgiving metal edge, but she had no choice. She ignored the pain as she lipped up what little hay she could find in the bottom of that bin. The sore spot turned into a hard, ropy lump beneath her skin. Many of the Sanctuary humans found it, rubbed it, poked it, wondered what it was.
Lillian slid a stall door open and led Kate inside to wait her turn to have her feet trimmed. There was hay on the ground and a couple of carrots in the rubber feed tub. Kate loved carrots. But besides the welcome smell of food, she smelled something else. Something much less pleasant. It was the scent of old, dried blood – the smell still trapped in the wood although it had been scrubbed so you could no longer see it. It was Kate’s own blood, and the sharp coppery scent of it unsettled her.
A young colt from her home farm had been put in the stall next to hers that day they came to the Sanctuary. But he was sick and she could sense his suffering the whole first night. Even at the auction barn the colt had been sick, throwing himself to the ground and thrashing, his belly terribly big and hard-looking, with a strange bulge at the bottom. Someone had forced him to his feet and looked him over, shoved a plastic tube into his mouth with what he said was medicine. It was an umbilical hernia, the man had said about the bulge, and colic, too. The medication helped the little colt for a time and he stayed on his feet long enough to be led away as all the other horses were, and then come back again.
He’d shared the trailer with Kate on the way from the auction. But the next morning he’d been taken away again, this time by Lillian and Robert and someone who smelled of medicine. The colt never came back. Kate didn’t know what had happened to him, but heard the word “euthanasia.” She’d wondered what it meant. The Sanctuary humans seemed very sad and angry after that. Kate wondered if the little colt had done something wrong.
Kate’s first few days in the Sanctuary stall had been quite pleasant, especially once more of the horses from her old farm arrived and filled the stalls around her. Kate was given small feedings of hay all day long, but never enough to make her sick. There was lots of water to drink and the bedding was soft and inviting. After a few days she felt confident enough to lie down in it to rest, but then found she could not get up again. Where strong muscles had once rippled beneath her skin, now there were hollows. Her once-round rump was now caved in and skeletal, her hip bones clearly visible under her shaggy winter coat.
She’d used up her muscles trying to stay alive. Now, when she needed them to hoist herself to her feet, she found herself helpless. She could get her front legs straight out in front and lift her chest off the ground, but the hindquarters just could not follow. She’d push and thrust and get her back feet underneath her, then wobble and fall sideways, crashing against the wall. Again and again she tried, what little strength she’d had ebbing away with every new effort. And as she thrashed, she opened bloody cuts above her eyes, her gums bleeding where her soft muzzle hit the wall.
Robert found her that first time and ran to get help, returning with Lillian and their son, Christopher. They quieted Kate, urging her to lie still so she could gain some strength back, stroking her neck and speaking to her quietly. When it was time to try again, they rolled Kate onto her belly and her chest, propping her up with a bale of hay, and stretching her long front legs in front of her. Lillian took hold of Kate’s halter, urging her up and forward, while Christopher and Robert pushed and heaved and lifted, then steadied her rear end as she wobbled to her feet. It took a few tries, but then she was standing, while the humans leaned against the wall panting for breath.
“She looks like Rocky,” Robert said. Kate didn’t know who that was, but she remembered how gently they’d cleaned and treated her cuts.
It happened again and again. Kate would lie down to rest, then find she could not get up. For three weeks the humans had to come and lift her to her feet. After a day or two, they’d dressed her in a warm blanket and moved her to the indoor riding arena with food and water. When she thrashed there, trying to stand on her own and failing, she had more room and no longer smashed her head into the walls.
But the smell of blood from those early efforts still lingered in the stall. Kate buried her nose in the fragrant hay. She didn’t want to be afraid.
When it was her turn with the farrier, Kate stood quietly in the aisle. When the woman lifted up her foot, Kate pulled it back and slammed it to the ground. She couldn’t help herself. It was hard to stay calm while a human trapped her leg so she couldn’t get away. The first time this had happened, she remembered now, she’d flown backwards and away from the confinement, her mind blank with fear. All the way down the aisle she’d scrambled, crashing open the double doors to the indoor arena with her butt, the humans struggling to keep some semblance of control on the lead rope. As the memory flashed through her mind Kate felt the urge to run again, but she resisted. The woman stroked her neck and spoke quiet words, waiting until Kate’s heart slowed and she relaxed a little. Then she lifted the foot again and trimmed it. Kate tried so hard to be good.
Once the ordeal was over, the humans fed Kate more carrots and Lillian led her back to the paddock. One by one the horses were led from the barn and turned out with their friends. Life at the Sanctuary settled back into its normal routine. Kate felt the sunshine warm on her back as she cropped green grass.
Editor’s Note: The Story of Kate is the 2018 winner of The Canadian Horse Defence Coalition (CHDC) short story contest. Equine Wellness would like to thank the CHDC and the winning writer, Lillian Tepera, for sharing this beautiful tale of equine rescue.