“A horse is the projection of peoples’ dreams about themselves – strong, powerful, beautiful – and it has the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence,” writes Pam Brown.
Every morning at breakfast time, through our dining room window, down the hill and across the road, in fog or rain or snow or sunshine, we watch while six horses are turned out of their barn. Immediately after crowding through a narrow gate, they race across a tree-lined pasture, and it seems clear that these animals are well aware of their strength and power, perhaps even of their beauty, and that, once set free, they gallop joyfully simply because they can.
Brown is correct when she says horses have qualities many humans envy and that their mere presence can somehow offer us an escape from our everyday lives.
For decades, we have run and hiked along southern Oregon’s rural roads and seen ample evidence supporting Brown’s assertion. A remarkable number of the 21st century Americans who live in pastoral settings and can afford to build fences keep horses, often for no readily apparent reason.
Even though the iron horse began displacing the four-legged kind long ago and mounted cowboys have virtually disappeared, and despite the fact that industrialization has made working animals nearly obsolete, a lot of people still want to own their own horses.
Unfortunately, too many of those horse owners end up neglecting their responsibilities, resulting in the abuse and neglect of tens of thousands of strong, powerful, beautiful animals.
The half-dozen horses we love to watch from our breakfast table, along with dozens more, live at the Equamore Horse Sanctuary, a nonprofit a few miles east of Ashland, Oregon. Equamore, which is funded by donations, has a mission “to provide a safety net for unwanted, abused, abandoned, neglected and aged horses who are without alternatives for their care, while fostering compassion and responsibility for horses through education, outreach and intervention.”
In 2016, the county sheriff was called to a notorious southern Oregon property, where horses were kept in poorly fenced enclosures with no shelter, and often without food and water.
The owner was persuaded to relinquish a horse named Arlo to Equamore. Arlo was near death when he arrived at the sanctuary, at least 300 pounds underweight, with a concave rump, a visible spine and a coat falling out in patches.
But he survived to become what the Equamore newsletter, “NeighSaver,” described as “a magnificent black thoroughbred gelding with a regal bearing and a sweet personality.” Since 2016, four of the six horses that remained on the infamous southern Oregon property have died, and as yet the owner has suffered no consequences for his neglect.
Another horse, Gandalf, was named after the powerful wizard in “The Lord of the Rings.” As a young stallion, he joined an untrained and unmanageable herd of stallions and mares on private property in Northern California. By the time his owner agreed to turn him over to Equamore, Gandalf had lived his entire life doing his best to defend himself from the herd’s dominant stallion.
Once he was safe at the sanctuary and the severe wounds inflicted by the domineering stallion had healed, Gandalf was gelded, and became a healthy, happy animal.
The day we called to arrange a meeting with Linda Davis and Ruth Kennedy, Equamore’s executive director and president, they had just put down a horse named Sara. “She was literally starving when we took her in,” Davis said. “It’s always heartbreaking to see them go, they’re all like family, but we were glad to be able to give her 10 good years.”
“We have 56 horses here now,” Kennedy said. “We used to adopt some of our horses out, but the success rate was too low.” More often than not, “they ended up with owners at least as irresponsible as the ones they came from. The estimate is there are about 170,000 horses mistreated or neglected in America. Law enforcement agencies rarely offer much help. They have tight budgets and other priorities. One big problem is that horses are classified as livestock. Dogs and cats are so-called companion animals, so they get far more protection by the law.
“There’s no easy solution,” Davis said. “Our need to raise money is relentless. But we’ve been doing what we can here for 27 years.”
We took a slow walk through the barn before leaving for home. It was feeding time, and the only sound was satisfied horses chewing alfalfa hay.
Hilde and Michael Baughman are contributors to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). They live in Ashland, Oregon.