|Prince, formerly used in pulling contests, was rescued by Bruce (right) and now lives the good life with a family of horses on the farm of Jay (left) and Suzanne Philoon. Photo by Suzanne Philoon.|
by Suzanne Philoon
This is the story of a Prince, perhaps more than one; and like many good stories this one started with an enormous and endlessly growing pile of manure, thanks to a man who repeatedly never comes to take it away. So I did the obvious thing finally, and put a “wanted – manure spreader” ad in Uncle Henry’s.
Not much happened for a while, until I nearly forgot about the ad, and then someone called. His name was Bruce, and he did indeed have an older but functioning manure spreader that he would sell for a reasonable price. He sounded really nice, my husband said, and, even better, he was just up the road, not on the other side of the state. He would be away for a while, so we were to call back in a week or so.
We did, and spoke to his wife, who said Bruce was out but of course we could stop by and she would point out the spreader. We drove over and met Mrs. B., who walked us to a shed. All I could see were a couple of well used but comfortable looking recliners on top of a tarp. “Oh,” said Mrs. B.,” he is going to take those to the camp. They’re for the dogs.” At this point I was quite sure that Bruce was indeed really nice.
Under the recliners, under the tarp, was the manure spreader. It looked good to us, what one might expect, in fact – older but well cared for, oiled and stored out of the weather. We said we would love to buy it and would return when Bruce was home.
Meanwhile I had noticed livestock fencing and asked if they kept or had kept cattle. They had, but not since the market had dropped out from under them. More recently the fencing served to contain a couple of workhorses. A couple, until a short while ago, when one had died.
Mrs. B. said that Bruce was concerned now about the lonely horse. Horses are herd animals and suffer if isolated, finding security and comfort in each other’s company. She said Bruce was thinking of finding a good home for the horse where he would not be alone. Would we like to see the horse?
Well, yes, I can never resist meeting any horse, and my husband seemed just as eager this time as I was. Mrs. B. led the way through a shed full of interesting old things – bits of machinery, tools, projects, spare parts, you name it, and on into the main barn. When our eyes adjusted, it was hard to believe what we saw. Both sides of the center aisle were neatly lined with tractors, old tractors. There must have been at least 15, and all looked in fine shape and cared for. There were other things too – balers, tedders and a row of single blade plows, horsedrawn, with rebuilt wooden handles.
“My husband likes to rebuild things,” said Mrs. B., not without pride.
I guess he does. Rebuild things, care for things. Considering we had yet to meet Bruce, we liked him more and more by the minute, and Mrs. B was delightful.
As we looked past the tractors, we became aware of a large, pale presence, standing at attention with ears pricked, at the far end of the barn. The horse.
He waited patiently, expectantly, for us to approach, and greeted us with gentle reserve and curiosity. He seemed pleased with our visit, somehow not doubting we had come to see him. I fell in love instantly, and just as instantly forced a lid on my delight, knowing that no way could yet another horse follow me home. We had only recently managed to get our horse family down from seven to four, and four was a very good number we found. My husband, however, was just as delighted, bless him, to meet this new horse, and together we visited with the 17-hand Belgian, marveling that something so massive could be so gentle and careful, and how sweet and polite he was.
Mrs. B said she was waiting for her daughter to come and help her take the horse to water and feed him more hay. Needless to say, we volunteered. The water was by the door we had come in, so we needed to negotiate a very narrow path through all the machinery to get there. I looked at the bulk of the horse, and wondered, but I took his leadline and he followed me carefully, placing each foot with care, managing his body within the space allowed. I was amazed. He was so light and graceful that I had the impression that he floated behind me.
He was a little anxious at the water tub, did not drink much, and wanted to return to his end of the barn. We took a bucket to him instead, which he was happy with, gave him hay, said farewell and left.
He must have followed us in spirit. I thought of him so often; my husband spoke of him even more often; we agreed we should not take on another horse; we thought of him some more and spoke of him now and again.
We called Bruce and agreed on a day to pick up the spreader. When we met him I recognized the man I felt I liked so much.
We loaded the spreader on our trailer, then he said, “My wife tells me you might be interested in the horse.” Well, he was right, she was right, but the only conclusion we had come to so far, my husband and I, was that this was his decision this time, not mine; his horse, his responsibility, his project, if indeed this horse was to come home with us.
“Yes, we are interested,” said my husband.
“Well then,” said Bruce, “let me tell you about him. I have had this horse for five years now; I called him Prince. He had another name before, but not a good one – Dan or Bob or something – so I called him Prince. Once upon a time, he was a valuable horse. They say he fetched $5000 or so. He was a pulling horse, you know, at the fairs, when they hitch them to heavy weights to see who can pull the heaviest load the furthest and win the competition. Well, apparently he did very well at first, and won all over the place. Then they decided to up his weight load in a harder class, and he did not do so well. A hired hand at the time decided he would show the horse how he could pull more weight and started to use an electric prod on him. Eventually the horse turned on the man and kicked him a few times.” (“Good for him,” was my heartfelt comment.)
“Well then they labeled him a killer and shipped him off for meat. I saw him up at the dealers, skinny and sorry, so I bought him and brought him home, and that was five years ago. I’ve twitched a little wood with him, and he was good once he realized what I wanted him to do; and I rode him a little bareback. Fell off him once when he stepped on some electric fence that was hidden in the snow …
“I spent time with him, and little by little he became less afraid and more trusting and happier. But now the other horse has died, I want Prince to have a good home. I don’t think I will get another horse again.”
We could see that the thought of parting with the horse made him sad. We told him of our horses, our farm. We were horrified at the abuse the horse had suffered, especially because of the sweetness of this particular horse. How could anyone resort to such pointless cruelty? How could one blame the horse for defending himself? A sign of intelligence, I thought; good for him. Bruce’s eyes smiled when I said this.
“The price is right if you want him and will care for him well,” he said.
“We do, and we will,” said my husband without hesitation. I guess that decision wasn’t so hard after all.
Needless to say I was thrilled. We picked Prince up the following day. He walked onto our trailer with the same careful deliberation with which he seemed to do everything. Bruce followed us home and approved of the new accommodations.
Prince fit into the herd as if he had always been here. My husband loves him, spends time in the barn doing things with him, climbs on and off him and has taken him for trail rides, which both of them enjoy. Soon we will get a harness and set about retraining for pulling a cart and for light woods work.
Prince is 20-something but in fine health, and his body is in remarkably good shape. I work with restoring his muscles to full function and ability, as that is what I do. His demeanor changes daily as he worries less about what we are going to do to him and finds himself enjoying the rides and bodywork. The bodywork, frankly, amazed him; I could tell as he turned his great head and watched as I worked on his belly muscles. What a lovely, intelligent and willing animal he is.
The question remains: How could anyone use an electrical prod to terrify this horse, any horse, into greater performance? I am told that this practice is not uncommon. To counter this problem, the public should be educated about signs of distress, anxiety and sheer terror that horses display after abusive training methods have been used, and how to report animal abuse.
The saddest thing is that an abused horse will never forget what has been done to him, will always expect it to happen again, no matter how much kindness and good handling has replaced the bad. The fear has been programmed and can never be erased
Bruce gave us a demonstration of exactly that. He wanted to make sure we knew what we were dealing with before we took Prince home. Bruce and my husband were standing with Prince, and I was by the barn some 25 feet away when Bruce said to me, “I want you to see something. Just pick up that piece of old rebar over there by the barn.” I did as I was told. The rebar was about 2 feet long. I turned to look at Bruce and Jay and found Prince’s eyes fixed on me. They widened and his nostrils flared as he started blowing and huffing, his body tensed and quivering. He was terrified, his huge bulk panicked and ready for flight.
Horrified, I dropped the rebar, then slowly approached the poor horse, who remained suspicious until I could touch him. Then he investigated me, accepting that I was not going to hurt him after all. I was crying.
“Sad isn’t it?” Bruce said. “I just wanted you to know, to see that before you took him.”
So even after five years of kindness from Bruce and now with another loving home, hopefully to the end of his days, Prince will still always expect the electric prod to be not far away. He will not dwell on it as we do, for that is not in his nature, but his terror lies just below the surface, waiting to be triggered by an action, object or circumstance, and nothing can change that. That is one ignorant and cruel man’s legacy in the life of a horse. How many other such humans are out there?
About the author: Suzanne Philoon lives in Lincolnville with her husband Jay and daughter Christina, five horses, three dogs and three cats. She was born with a passion for horses. Seventeen years of investigating musculature in “problem” horses while rehabilitating and retraining them has led to a keen insight into cause and effect. “Horses never lie, they never invent things and they always have a reason. Find it and you can solve the problem.”
To make an animal cruelty or neglect complaint, contact Maine’s Animal Welfare Program from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at 1-877-269-9200 (toll-free) or (207) 287-3846; or email [email protected]. Outside of business hours, call the Orono Barracks of the Maine State Police at (207) 866-2121 and they will contact an Animal Welfare Program representative. Source: Maine Dept. of Agriculture, www.maine.gov/agriculture/aw/faq.html#report
Renewing Traditional Skills
Most of the livestock at the Common Ground Country Fair are what we call ‘working animals.’ We bring animals to the Fair so that the general public can see what the farmers see all year – animals that are productive, healthy, and filling their roles on the farm.
Our livestock barns house many draft horses and oxen, and these animals might look at their time at the Fair as a working vacation. Most are an integral part of the activities on their home farms throughout the year.
From the first Fair in Litchfield in 1977, MOFGA decided to emphasize the working component of these animals. When we were limited by space, the animals spent a lot of time standing around, with Fair visitors stopping by and asking questions. Since we’ve been in Unity, we’ve really tried to emphasize the skilled partnership between the teamsters and their animals.
Our contests, particularly our oxen-driving contest, are contests of skill that attempt to replicate situations that a farmer might encounter while using animals on the farm. Yes, they pull a log for hundreds of feet, but they are pulling it through an obstacle course, around corners and through tight passages, as a way to replicate what might happen in the woods.
We look at the Common Ground Country Fair as a place to demonstrate skill, and a place for participants to learn. That’s why we place such an emphasis on trying to show how working animals fit in the farms of today.