How Heart of a Horse Began
By April Horowitz
Just before Clifton’s illness I bought a young paint named Alvin, and was learning to ride under the supervision of the trainer who owned him. My house didn’t have space to stable a horse so I had to board Alvin at a ranch situated in the mountains north of where I lived. It was a beautiful spread with zebras and donkeys, where some famous people like the actor Kurt Russell stabled their horses.
One day I took my mother up to the ranch to see Alvin. While we were standing by the corral, she said to me, “You know not to stand by the side of the head.” I said, “Of course I know. I’m not a dummy.” It was then that she told me about Brownie for the first time, and the accident, and how my grandfather had killed her.
The ranch was twenty miles or so from my home and stabling Alvin so far away was not a situation I was comfortable with, or wanted to continue for long. So I put my house on the market and began looking for a property that would accommodate horses. It was not long before I located a one-and-a-half acre ranch about thirty miles to the north. It was situated in a charming community of horse properties, with two stables and two turnouts, and a large exercise arena. I had the stables painted, and a fence built around the arena along with two wash racks and settled in.
While moving into the new place, I boarded Alvin at a nearby ranch, and began looking for a companion for him. Horses are pack animals, and do not do well when they are by themselves, so it is always important to have at least two. I planned to keep Alvin at the equestrian center until I found another horse to put in our stables beside him. I soon located a ranch that had a lot of horses for sale. I called the owner and drove out to see what she had to offer. She showed us several horses and then said she one named P. Diddy, who was out in the pasture. When I got to the area and saw the horse I immediately took a liking to him. He was an Austrian Haflinger about fourteen-and-a-half hands with a caramel coat, big brown eyes and a gorgeous blond mane. As we came up to him,he was being chased and bitten by a pack of six mini-horses, who wouldn’t let him alone. I felt so sorry for him, and then there were those big brown eyes, and of course I said, “I’ll take him.”
While I was settling into the new house, I had begun to photograph the horses at a large ranch nearby. The California winter was setting in, and I would get up in the dark hours of the morning before dawn, put on my barn jacket and boots, gather up my 35mm Nikon and go to the stalls to wait for the shot I wanted. There were over eighty horses at the ranch and they were housed in stalls that ranged from spacious quarters to half stalls, to stalls that were little more than a piece of tin to keep off the rain in a pipe corral.
I arrived before the morning hay was laid out in the stalls and waited with the horses for the ranch hands to make their rounds. Some of the stalls were very cramped and the owners often didn’t come to look in on them for weeks, leaving the horses cooped up with no opportunity to exercise. One of these horses was a Cremello, blue-eyed and cream-colored. One of the ranch hands told me that in Mexico they call the Cremellos “devils” because of their blue eyes. The Cremello had a baby with her in the stall, and was constantly pacing anxiously as though she was needing to get out. Whenever there was a sound outside she would move over to the small window to look for its source, then come around to look at me. In her distress she would begin chewing on the window sill and the walls, something I learned later is common in caged in horses and is called “cribbing.” Some people look on cribbing as a horse’s effort to comfort itself, others as the result of boredom. But I had a strong intuition that for this horse and for others I had observed it was distress at being pent up in tight quarters and having to stand in its own urine and excrement. I took a photo of the Cremello at her window (shown above), in which I tried to express her longing to be somewhere else.
The Cremello and about twenty-five other horses were owned by a woman named Gretchen. Later, after I had had a lot more experience with owners like Gretchen, I realized she was a hoarder. Gretchen had received a handsome divorce settlement to finance her habit and some of her horses were very expensive, including a spectacular Friesian stallion, with champion pedigrees. Among the barn women it was rumored that the stallion cost her $100,000. He was stabled in the best stalls, whose floors were covered in fresh shavings and were cleaned twice a day. I took a portrait of him, which I framed.
Several of Gretchen’s horses were stabled in the poorer stalls. The pictures I took of the horses in these stalls were very sad. One was of a pregnant brood mare. She was a grey and brown Quarter Horse and had been put in an end stall. I would bring her carrots and brush her hair, and sit with her for a long time waiting for the right moment to take her photograph. One of the pictures I took was very dark. It showed the broad back of the mare and above her the window where a small bird had alighted and seemed to be saying come with me into the clean air. I wanted to let her out but I knew I would get in trouble with the ranch owner if I did, and so I had to sit with my frustration and put my feelings into the photographs I took.
For a week when I was attending to family matters and the new house, I did not visit the stables, and when I came back the mare was gone. I wondered what had happened and when her trainer came by I asked her what had become of Gretchen’s mare. She told me that the mare had had a foal, and that Gretchen had refused to order the proper vaccines. These were routinely administered to pregnant mares to avoid premature deliveries that can result in damage to mother and baby. But even though she was wealthy Gretchen didn’t want to spend the money on this horse.
The mare became ill and when her foal was born it died a day after the birth. One of the ranch hands told me that she had to go into the stall to pick the dead baby up out of the manure and filth, while the distressed mother looked on. She then put it in trash bags and loaded it onto a truck to take it to a remote area where she dug a hole and threw dirt over it. The mare was traumatized by the death of her foal and was so ill herself that two days later, having received no attention from a vet, she died in her stall.
I was heartbroken. I will never understand how people into whose care these beautiful and feeling creatures come can be so cold. The mare and her foal suffered and died because Gretchen had been too stingy to take care of them. What I was already beginning to see clearly was the role that humans had played in the tragedies I witnessed, and I resolved to do something about it.
One thing that made a deep impression on me, as I photographed the horses and observed them, was how they tried to cope with their situation and how they were affected by it. I saw how they responded when I came to sit with them, and how comforted they were when I touched them, and how they wanted to be comforted. Their expressions told me what I had already come to know, that horses have hearts and souls. They are not just dumb animals, as some people regarded them, objects to be placed in miserable conditions if that was convenient to their owners, and discarded when they became a burden to them. I found myself wanting to convey that to others and persuade them to open their own hearts to the horses that came into their control. If they did, maybe they would be more caring and less cruel, and maybe that would help to alleviate the terrible suffering I had witnessed.
I was also convinced that a great deal of misunderstanding resulted when people failed to take into account that horses are different in the way they think and feel, not only from us but from other domesticated animals like dogs and cats. They are flight animals, closer to their origins in the wild, and to their primal experience as prey. Consequently they have fear issues even when they have not been abused. But if you win their trust, which can be especially difficult with horses who have suffered mistreatment and abuse, they will respond to you in ways that would have seemed impossible, and give you rich rewards in return. Horses are also pack animals and will seek to dominate you if you do not show them who is master, which complicates the relationship. In short, in order to do right by them, you have to first be prepared to know and understand them. I have heard people say that horses are stupid, but they are not. I have also heard people say that horses cannot love you, but they can.
As I became more and more familiar with horses, and more aware of their needs, I found myself falling in love with them. Within months of photographing the animals at the Equine Performance Center, I decided to put the portraits I had taken on a website and to call it: Heart of a Horse.