I wasn’t planning on buying a horse at all.
It was August of 2018 and I was working two jobs – one at a seasonal background check company that slowed down to part-time twice a year, and the other mucking stalls at an Arabian show barn with my friend and fellow co-worker, Simone. We were both horse crazy and had each moved to the Pacific Northwest a few years back and met while working for the background check company. We’d owned horses in the past, but were both horseless at the moment. And when horses are as essential to the soul as they are for us, not having your own horse is like having a hole in your heart.
While working at the Arabian barn, I fell in love with what I called a “Guinness-colored” mare; she was a black-bay Arabian with tan coloring on her belly and the insides of her legs. She was left neglected in a paddock out back of the main barns, was wary of people, and since she wasn’t a money-making show horse, she was pretty much left alone. She tugged at my heart – her hooves were overgrown and her shelter hadn’t been mucked out in so long that the mountain of manure made her have to duck down to walk under its roof.
With the trainer’s permission, I started giving her some attention – grooming her coat and cleaning her feet, grabbing handfuls of grass from outside her pen to offer her as a treat, and slowly gaining her trust. She was quiet and sweet, and I advocated for the trainer to get a farrier out to do her feet. I wished I could have worked with her more, but my main job rolled into its busy season and I had to end my work at the barn. Trying to give this neglected mare some love and care opened my heart to that need for a horse of my own again.
My last horse was an old Thoroughbred gelding who I had given away to a good home to be a pasture pet and light trail horse when I was in upstate New York and starting grad school. Years had passed since then, and now I was in the PNW and only got my horse fix when I could get to my former boss’s property up the mountain to ride some of his horses for fun. He’d given me and Simone permission to catch any of his polo ponies out of the field and take them for trail rides, and it was a wonderful link to being around horses again. But it wasn’t the same as having my own horse. Even in my thirties, I’m still just a little kid who loves ponies.
I had been following a feedlot page on Facebook, one where they posted pictures of horses that had been bought for slaughter and would be shipped to Mexico on a meat truck if they weren’t purchased by the public. It’s a bit of a racket; feedlot owners can make a good profit off of pulling the heartstrings of horse lovers by getting the unwanted horses cheap at auction, then posting them on their social media pages, advertising the poor horses with the clock running out on their lives, and getting much more than they paid for them. I suppose that even though it’s profitable for them, at least they are giving those horses a last chance to find a home when they have nowhere to go but to a slaughterhouse.
I think it’s important to mention – I’ve always been spellbound by black horses. As a kid, I loved (and still have) an old illustrated Black Beauty book, had figurines and posters of black horses, and loved all the horse movies centered around black horses like The Black Stallion and The Man from Snowy River. I was so horse crazy as a tiny kid, drawing and painting them obsessively, that by age six my parents surprised me with a horseback ride at a rental barn in the area, where I found a little black pony to fawn over. My dad, filming the day at the farm with his handheld camcorder (this was the eighties), commented, “Yeah, Sasha loves black horses.”
So when I saw two black Arabian mares posted on the feedlot site, I was primed to fall in love again.
In the back of my mind, I’d always wanted to try endurance riding, and many of those who competed in endurance chose Arabian horses for their stamina and athleticism. My first horse had been a little dapple gray Quarter Horse/Arabian cross gelding in high school, and especially after working with the intelligent, dynamic spiritedness of the Arabians at the show barn, I was interested in an Arabian as my next horse. When I saw the pictures of these two mares, who were not only black but Arabian, I couldn’t just scroll past. The first one was a little older, and seemed quieter and more experienced. The second one was a spunky, compact little thing that motored around the tiny pen where they had filmed a feedlot volunteer riding her to advertise that she was trained to ride. My interest was certainly piqued, but I lived in an apartment, had a minimum wage job, paltry savings, and was in no position to buy a horse…was I?
I kind of let it go for a few days, wishing I could buy one of those horses but not even thinking seriously about it. Then one day I was at work, sitting in the lunch room taking a break and scrolling through Facebook on my phone. The feedlot picture of the spunky little black mare popped back up in my feed with recent comments on her post.
The feedlot had named her “Arlie” – all of the horses for sale had a new name with the same first letter as the month they were brought in (this was August). She was aged at approximately 12 years old and stood 14.1 hands high at the withers. She had a string around the top of her neck with a plastic tag attached: #5042. She had no registration papers to go with her, which would show where she was bred and who owned her previously, so she essentially came without a history. She must have been ridden at the auction where the lot owner bought her, because this particular owner would not resell a horse as ridable if he knew they weren’t. Otherwise, she was a mystery.
The comments on the mare’s post were from some members of a fundraising social media group called the Arabian 300 Club that raised money to help people “bail out” Arabian horses found at feedlots around the country. They sounded concerned, stating that there was a woman in California who was interested in buying “Arlie”, but the woman had waited a week for the club to raise 35% of the bail – long enough for her bank account to be hacked at the last minute, and her bank had frozen her account, so she couldn’t produce the money to pay for her. Another lady who had been to the feedlot shared that a volunteer had asked specifically if there was any interest in this mare as they were shipping out horses soon. Someone commented, “This mare may be small but her heart is big. Was told she is [a] super sweetheart and stunning in person. These pictures do not do her justice. Please someone step up for this girl.” She mentioned that other black mare that had been advertised at the same time had been paid for and saved and said, “Now it’s her turn.” The club members asked desperately, “Is there anyone who can give this mare a home?”
My heart said, Me. I could. I commented on the post that I was interested in her but needed to figure out logistics. After I hit send, I went into hyper-anxiety mode. What was I thinking?? I went back to my desk and started instant-messaging my three best fellow introvert work friends on the company chat platform, including my fellow horse nut, Simone: “I’m thinking about buying a horse from a feedlot” – and the conversation went crazy from there. Could I do it? I was a planner, someone who had to process and think things through thoroughly before taking action, but I felt the urgency of the moment – this little horse was running out of time and she was just what I had been looking for. My friends were amazingly supportive and asked me questions like, Do you have the time to commit to taking care of her? Does your budget allow for her care? Where would you keep her? How much would it cost to feed her? I had thought about all of it and had answers for all of the questions, and one wise friend said, “You already know the answer.” It was true; I never trusted my own brain or heart. Speaking with my friends gave me the clarity I needed to figure out what I had to do before I just randomly purchased a horse without having anything set up to take her – yet.
So I went into logistics mode. I contacted the landowner whose fields my former boss kept his horses on and asked if I could board a horse there if I bought one. It was a beautiful place and was the first place I thought of that could be a possibility. She replied that she didn’t want the liability; she still worked for my former boss and trusted having his horses there, but that didn’t extend to me. Well, strike one.
I would figure something else out – at the top of the feedlot page was a pinned post that gave tips on what to do when you bought a feedlot horse. The horses came from all over the place and were thrown together, so the horse you bought would need to undergo quarantine for a month after leaving the lot to ensure they wouldn’t pass on any contagious illnesses they picked up there. If I bought this mare, she would need to be quarantined before going to a place to board anyway, so that would give be time to find a place to board her later. I contacted a few of the people in the post with quarantine services and left messages. I then called the feedlot owner to ask if I could come up on the weekend to the lot and see her in person before I committed to buying her; in the horse world, it’s considered distinctly insane not to meet the horse, much less test ride them, and have a vet do a pre-purchase exam to determine any lameness or illness issues. He told me the lot had very restricted hours and was not open on the weekend to outside visitors. It was the middle of the workweek and the feedlot was over three hours’ drive from where I lived. There was no way I could check her out before her time was up. Strike two.
I finished my workday and went home. I was still surfing the adrenaline of getting things in order to buy the little black mare. I had been messaging with the ladies at the Arabian 300 Club, who had pledged to provide me with $300 to help bail out “Arlie”. I made the decision and jumped in with my whole heart. I opened up PayPal, specified in the “Send Money” note that it was payment for “Tag #5042, ‘Arlie’, Black Arab mare,” and sent $675 to the email address of the lot owner.
He immediately refunded it with a note that said, “Call me.”
My stomach dropped. Had the lady from California or someone else bought her before I could because I took all day agonizing about the details? I called the lot owner.
“I’m surprised she’s still listed on the page; I put her in quarantine today for a snotty nose, and I’m not going to sell you a sick horse.”
He had said she had a “snotty nose” – he didn’t specify what caused it, but I later learned from the Arabian 300 Club admin that what he said was pretty much code for strangles.
It’s as horrible as it sounds.
If you’ve been lucky enough to avoid the trauma of reading the John Steinbeck short story The Red Pony, here’s a brief summary – the pony contracts strangles, which is the equine version of strep throat. It causes swellings full of pus under the jaw of the horse that, if not lanced and drained, can eventually grow large enough to close their windpipe. In the story, which I had read in school, the horse dies from it. I’d never seen it in any of my 20 years working with horses, just in that heart-crushing horse story.
And now the horse that I had been ready to save was sick and not for sale. Strike three.
Continued in Chapter 2