In late 2010, I began a lease on a 7/8th Quarter Horse gelding named Hank. (Barn name, not registered name.)
Hank was a 12 yr. old chestnut gelding. He had three white feet and one area of white hairs on his left loin. It wasn’t a spot, more a scattering of white hairs, about the length and width of my hand. That, I thought, was the 1/8th Appaloosa in him.
His owner, “Shelley”, a disaffected, 19 year old girl was rumored to have abandoned riding after discovering the dubious pleasures of methamphetamine. Her father kept paying the bills on Hank (board, vet and farrier bills), in the vain hope that his daughter would ‘eventually’ forsake meth. Hank was for sale for $10K so that Shelley could go to college.
I wasn’t interested in buying him. I merely wanted to get back into horses after a seven year ‘sabbatical’ from horses.
I met Shelley, once, when she ‘showed’ me how to handle Hank. She was extremely rough with him. Not knowing him at the time, I was a bit surprised to see him veer away from her when she tied him up prior to tacking up. Now I know why.
She ‘groomed’ him with a cursory pass with a hair brush. A dirty saddle pad was followed by her throwing her silver encrusted western saddle on his back. A tall, stout girl, she yanked the cinch tight with one mighty jerk. The bit was pulled into his mouth without so much as a ‘please?”
When I see people handle horses roughly, I believe it’s for one of two, or perhaps both reasons: the person is afraid of the horse or resents it. In Shelley’s case, I think it was the latter.
It got worse. She led him into the arena, got on his back and immediately put him into a canter. Well, no, not a canter, a ‘lope’. A lope is a very, very slow four beat canter. Hank was trained in Western Equitation and never, in the time I leased him, ever moved faster than that lope. It was only a little faster than his ‘jog’, which is a very slow trot.
After she was through with ‘showing’ him to me, Shelley passed the reins to me, got into her car, and left me to untack him. At first I was a bit afraid of him, after watching his reactions to Shelley’s handling, but with me he was quiet, and calm.
From then on, every transaction (lease payments,etc) was done over the phone with her father.
This was my first lease on a horse. I found Pete, Shelley’s father, to be a bit too glib, a bit too trusting in my handling of his horse. I had heard that Hank was for lease, so I had contacted HIM (after several failed attempts at reaching Shelley). I, a total stranger to them, could probably have told Pete I was thinking of putting Hank in a three day event and he would have said “fine”. I attributed this to Pete’s admission that he knew literally nothing about horses, but had a lot of friends, one of whom trained Hank, who did.
Now I know why.
Hank had egg butt shoes on his forefeet. Pete said he had some sort of problem with his feet, called ‘navicular’.
I had my vet out to check the horse. He didn’t find any signs of navicular, but because I wasn’t interested in paying for x-rays, he couldn’t rule it out. The egg butt shoes, though, are typical for a navicular horse, and he wasn’t lame. So he should be okay to ride, if gently. You’re not going to jump him, are you?
Me? Jump? I’d sooner run a marathon. No, I don’t jump, thank you very much. I’m too chicken.
Over the next few weeks, I rode Hank several times bareback. He was dead quiet in the arena. After one session with the bit, I put him in a hackamore. He’d never had one on before, so was a bit confused, but he took to it very nicely.
Hank was a nice horse, personality wise. Gentle, smart, and a bit of a practical joker, he was usually a happy horse. He would nicker when I came up to collect him up or just go into his stall to groom him.
I was unable to understand why Shelley had been so rough on him.
But things were going to go wrong very soon.
One day I was grooming him and he flinched when I curried his back. Sad to say, I didn’t pay attention to it. I took him into the arena, mounted and rode him around the arena. He didn’t want to move out. That I attributed to his Western Equitation training. He had been trained to carry his head down very low. Even without a bit, he would hang his head. I was incapable of collecting him. Apparently one rides Western Equitation with ones arms stuck straight out, the hands waving in the air a foot or more above the horse’s neck. That’s how Shelley had ridden him. I found it unnerving. I have very soft hands and am often admonished to shorten my reins (see “Transporter Interruptus” 27 Jan 2012, for WHY), but I do like some contact.
When I asked for a trot, he trotted for perhaps half a dozen steps, and then stopped. OK, something is up, what’s going on here? I got off, took him back to the barn to remove the bridle, and then put him back in his paddock. He broke into a gallop and bucked several times, just for fun. OK, Hank, I SAW that. I know what you’re up to! I yelled at him, laughing at having fallen (again) for the Poor Old Horse trick.
The next time I rode him (as a reminder, I rode bareback) he moved away from the mounting block while I had one leg in the air over his back. Only because I was still balanced on my left leg did I not fall off the block. I tried again. This time he moved further away. I took up as much rein as I could, made him STAND, and this time got aboard. He acquiesced, but again, wasn’t happy with carrying me about. We did a few rounds of the arena. Again, he was slow and unwilling to do anything more than a slow walk. His body language was that of sullenness and unhappiness.
When I got him in the barn, I felt him all over. I could find nothing wrong. This time he didn’t buck and gallop, but he moved out quite happily once I let him go in his paddock.
Two days later, I entered his stall and his expression was that of resentment. This was odd, Hank had always been glad to see me before. But…horses can be moody, just like humans. In the aisle, we had walked perhaps ten steps when he went lame on one forefoot.
Oh my gosh, did I hurt him? I didn’t think so; I knew he’d been trimmed and reshod the day before. Had he been quicked? I decided immediately that I wasn’t going to ride him while he was lame.
As I was walking him out of the barn, a veterinarian came up to me. The vet asked me if I was so and so, whose horse he was there to see? No, I said, I was not that person. She’s not here. (She showed up later).
What was wrong with my horse?
I have no idea. I rode him the other day and he was fine. But he was just trimmed yesterday.
Did I mind, then, if he had his brand new vet tech try to diagnose Hanks’ problem? (Not for free, either, but at a pretty decent price).
I said, sure, I’d like to know, too.
After a few minutes of examination, she (correctly) deduced that Hank had been trimmed badly. The farrier had cut away so much sole on the lame foot that it looked pink rather than white. He asked me who the farrier was. When I told him, (this vet has never been known to be tactful) he told me I was a fool for allowing the man to touch my horse. I told him I wasn’t the owner.
“Well, tell the owner his farrier is a butcher. I get a lot of foot business because of his mangling horse’s feet.”
I put Hank in his paddock, where he walked gingerly. Poor horse.
I called Pete to tell him, not to chastise him on his choice of farriers, but to let him know Hank was lame.
He said he’d call the farrier about it. Later that evening he called me back. His farrier said Hank was fine, it was the VET who was wrong. Everyone knew that vet hated everyone who wasn’t a veterinarian. The farrier was not only a good friend of his, but was the husband of Tonia, the woman who’d broken and trained Hank. The farrier wouldn’t have intentionally cut Hank too thin. No, it was probably because “I didn’t get his prescriptions renewed. He’s been out of them for a week, I think.”
“Yes,” he said, “Hank’s on medication for his navicular. He has to have pain meds every day.”
This was unsettling. No one had told me he was on pain meds. I don’t like riding a horse that cannot function without medications.
I then told him about Hank moving away from the mounting block. “I don’t know anything about riding them, I just pay for the horse. Call Tonia.”
I wasn’t interested in talking to the trainer, but okay, I’ll give it a whirl. Maybe she’ll help me break the habit before it becomes ingrained.
I called Tonia and told her I wanted her help with Hank. “He’s started moving away from the mounting block and I’d like you to come to the barn and work with him and me on standing at the mounting block.”
I expected her to say she’d be glad to teach me to ride Western Equitation in ten years of lessons from her. Instead, to my surprise, I got an ass chewing.
“Why don’t you just mount him from the ground?”
“I have to use a mounting block. I ride him bareback.”
“BAREBACK?? WHY are you riding bareback? You’re supposed to ride in a saddle!”
“I don’t have a saddle. I don’t want to ride Western, either. ”
Ohmygod, it was as if I’d called her baby ugly. Didn’t I know that Hank was a Professionally Trained and Very Successful Western Equitation Horse? Western Horses are ridden in SADDLES. He’s Spur Stop trained (that, I learned later, is the most stupid way of training any horse that I’ve ever heard of. You spur him to STOP.) He’s won tons of blue ribbons. Tonia had spent many hours training Hank and riding him bareback was going to ruin him. She demanded that I ride him in a western saddle for a month, and maybe she’ll come out and give me an hour lesson on how to ride him, at $65 an hour.
It’s the first time I’ve ever had a trainer NOT want my money.
I thought, screw you, you stupid woman, obviously I’ve insulted you by asking you a perfectly legitimate request. Spur stop my ass. It’s just a way to fleece a novice horseman. I’m no novice, thank you very much. I’ll stop riding before I take a lesson from you.
I didn’t ride until one of the barn hands told me that Hank’s prescriptions had been refilled.
I don’t know much about them, but I saw the bottle the medications were in. It wasn’t bute. It was something far more powerful.
Hank was no longer lame. I decided to ride him, bareback.
I led him into the arena. Two women were riding their horses in the arena. I didn’t know their names at the time, but knew that they were nice people and good horsemen.
I walked Hank around the arena several times, looking for lameness. He was sound on all four feet. I then led him up to the mounting block. He sidled away from it. I tried to get him to stand by treating him when he stopped moving. He would not obey. One of the women rode up and asked, do you want me to hold him? I said, yes, please, that would be nice. She dismounted, handed her reins to the other woman, and held Hank by the reins.
I got aboard, immediately gave Hank a carrot, and thanked the woman very much. She remounted and rode a distance away.
I like to sit on a horse for a while before moving away from the mounting block. It dissociates movement from mounting.
After several moments, I asked for a walk.
The next few moments constituted what is perhaps the most intense, violent and explosive ride I’ve ever had in my life.
Hank exploded. He was doing three things all at once: bucking violently, running backwards and spinning in circles. I fell forward, grabbed his mane with both hands and knew I didn’t dare jump off, as I’d be hurt. His bucks seemed designed to send me to the moon.
Finally after what seemed an hour (but probably was no more than ten or fifteen seconds) he stopped moving and I jumped off. My heart pounding and my legs like rubber, I faced Hank and looked into his staring eyes. His expression was unreadable. What the hell had happened? Was this outright mutiny, like the appaloosa I’d owned, or was this pain, or terror?
The women came riding back up to me. “Are you alright?” she asked.
“I think so” I said, my heart still pounding. “What the heck happened?”
“You tell me! I’m amazed you stayed aboard!”
“So am I! I asked for a walk and he blew up.”
My heart rate began to slow. I was trembling. Hank looked at me with suspicion.
“I think his back is sore. That’s what it looks like to me.” she said, in a tone of voice that was slightly accusatory. I guess I had that coming.
I remember Hank flinching when I curried his back-but that had been a couple weeks ago, and I’d not thought anything of it.
Oh my gosh. She had to be right. He had a sore back-but why? I’m not a heavy person. I ride gently. Nevertheless, unintentionally but undeniably, I had been hurting him. Poor horse, I’d been hurting him. By riding bareback????? How could that be? Damn her eyes, was Her Highness Tonia the trainer right?
No. No. Riding bareback doesn’t hurt a horse, especially one as flat and wide as Hank. He’s like an old couch.
I had no intentions of getting back on. But I am too good a horseman to allow a horse to ‘get away’ with something. I did that with my very first horse and never was able to break the bad habit he’d learned from someone else. I wasn’t sure, really, if Hank’s rodeo moments weren’t just bad manners.
Once I stopped shaking, I walked him over to the block and stepped up, ordering him to stand. He moved away. I did it again, getting down, walking him around in a circle, and then re-approached the mounting block. Finally after several tries, he stood and allowed me to put an arm on his back. I put no weight on his back whatsoever, just touched it. He quivered, but stood like a gentleman. At that, I stopped, gave him all the carrots in my pocket, and called it a day.
Hank was not upset, or angry. He looked at me with what could only be described as sorrow.
“I’m sorry, Hank. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” I told him. Poor horse. I felt so bad for him.
In the barn, while I was grooming Hank, Jorge, one of the barn hands, came up to me and asked how I was. Jorge is perhaps the best barn hand in the world, and even though he has never ridden a horse, he’s a good horseman. He’s tuned up my Spanish. He’s a good man.
I told him what had happened.
He got angry. No one had told me?
Told me what?
He reached up and touched the white spots on Hank’s loin.
The year before, Pete, and Shelley, as well as Tonia and her husband, had trailered their horses to the mountains for a weeklong trail ride. They’d taken Hank, an arena horse so afraid of the big outdoors that he couldn’t even tolerate being hand walked in the jumping paddock.
While on the trail, Hank panicked. (I don’t know if he was saddled or being ridden at the time). He bolted, flipped over backwards and fell down the mountainside, rolling over and over before ending up at the bottom of a ravine. It took them several hours to pull him out of the ravine. I remember hearing about it on the news, but never made the connection.
He’d almost broken his back. He’d been badly injured, though.
The white hairs on his loin covered scars. He’d been incapacitated for weeks.
I was furious. I was so beside myself with anger that I was speechless.
“Please”, Jorge begged me, “do not tell anyone I told you, I could lose my job.”
“Oh, Jorge, trust me, your secret is safe with me. I’m not angry with you, I THANK you for telling me. I will never tell anyone you told me, but muchas gracias, senor, for telling me.”
“Of course, senora, you have been good to me, how could I not?” (I’d helped translate some paperwork for him.).
I was furious because I could have been hurt. I HAD hurt Hank. I was so mad at Pete and anyone else…Tonia, the farrier, Shelley, for knowing the truth and not telling me. I wouldn’t have leased Hank had I known he’d had such a bad wreck-and that was the reason Hanks’ people hadn’t told me. The money was more important to all of them than the welfare of the horse. Pete was possibly hoping I’d eventually pay him $10,000 for a horse that is literally unrideable. All he was interested in was getting out from under a broken down horse without losing the money he’d invested in it. Tonia wasn’t interested in the welfare of the horse, her reputation as a trainer was riding on Hank and some bareback riding bozo like me was a threat. If Pete could get rid of Hank, he figured he’d be ten grand richer, and eff the person who’d bought a cold backed horse.
When I got home, I wrote out a termination of the lease. It was the end of the month anyway, I would be out no money, but I was seething when I wrote it.
He received it a couple of days later and called me, wanting to know “why?” I said, “He’s got navicular and his back hurts. I don’t want to hurt him. He is unrideable.”
He didn’t contest it, he just said, “Okay.”
Now you wonder why I titled this post as I did.
This all happened in January 2011. Since that time, Hank has lived at the barn, with food, stabling, regular shoeing, and, I assume, his pain medications. But no one has had anything to do with him. He’d watch as I, and others, walk their horses past his paddock or his stall, heading for the arena. I watched him lose weight and seemingly get old, but whether it was from his back or his navicular, or boredom, I don’t know. I truly don’t believe that a horse misses being worked or ridden. They’re couch potatoes given half a chance. So I believe that his decline was due to the high powered pain meds they have him on.
But he was, as I said, warm, fed, cared for. He’d not been dumped in the forest, like so many unrideable, unsellable horses have been since the Recession (actually, we’re in a depression) began.
So I was astonished when, last month, Sue, my friend who owns Raven, told me she saw a ‘very lame’ Hank being loaded on a horse trailer by ‘two women”. Sue has no reason to lie about Hank. She was the one who told me he was up for lease in the first place. She liked Hank and felt sorry for him that he was not being handled.
I asked Rae, the manager of the stable, what had happened to Hank? I heard he was lame? Were they taking him to the vets?
“Lame? He was fine. They sold him. He’s being shown. He’s a very well trained Western Equitation horse, you know, Tonia trained him. He’s doing very well, I hear.”
I am utterly flabbergasted. Another liar, covering up the agony of a horse, a horse that must suffer because it’s received a lot of high cost training, and must continue to suffer because a man is greedy.
And I am utterly helpless. There is nothing I can do. There is no way I can track down the buyers and tell them about Hank’s back.
I have no legal proof other than my own experience and hearsay from a Mexican barn hand.
I think it’s reprehensible of Pete to sell a horse, of Tonia, a ‘professional’ ‘horse trainer’ and “riding instructor’ to misrepresent a horse as being anything but what Hank was: unrideable.
It’s called Lying. It’s called Cheating. It’s called a callous disregard for an animal that has no choice or say in how he’s used or treated. It’s utterly barbaric.
It’s also, sad to say, called “caveat emptor”-let the buyer beware.
I’m sorry, Hank, for hurting you. I didn’t mean it. I never rode you again after you so clearly told me what was wrong. I can’t blame you if you didn’t like me afterwards. But I hope, too, that you understand that I didn’t know.
I’m ashamed of my species, too.
Tonia was in the arena the other day, ‘teaching’ spur stop, I assume, to a new boarder at the barn.
I wanted to go and tell her off, but I didn’t.
There’s nothing I can do.
Except hope that karma has its way with these people. Somehow, someday, they will reap what they’ve sown.