I Could Not Save Him
By April Horowitz
It was not until I had a family of my own and moved to a town nestled in the coastal mountains north of Los Angeles that horses first came into my life. Until then I had lived with my family in urban settings with no space for horses, and our pets had been mainly cats and dogs. Now, my son was grown and out of the house, and I suddenly had time on my hands. I had also moved to a city that was more rural, and I found myself with a horse living across the street. The horse’s name was Clifton and he was a noble-looking stallion.
Clifton was a quarter horse, satin black with a blaze of white on his forehead, and the softest brown eyes you can ever imagine. He was kept in a corral on a hillside, which is not a good footing for horses, but I was too inexperienced to know it at the time. With him in the corral was a companion named Robin, an aging Shetland pony with matted hair hanging from his flanks. She was so old she barely moved. Every day I brought two carrots, one for each, and in the process became attached to both of them.
My new friendship with Clifton and Robin had the effect of inspiring me to begin riding again. I located a ranch that provided riding lessons, and began regular sessions with a trainer. I also began photographing the animals residing there. These included zebras, llamas and camels along with the horses. I had taken up photography some years before, concentrating on portraits of children and adults, and had enough of a talent that one of my portraits of the attorney Vincent Bugliosi who had prosecuted the Manson Family, was bought by the publisher of his latest book. Photographing horses came naturally to me, and I began to focus more and more on them as subjects.
One day I made my usual visit across the street to give Clifton and Robin their carrots. As was my custom, I called out to them when I reached the post at the corner of the corral. Normally Clifton would run straight towards me, but that day he just stood there. I called to him again and when he started to move forward I realized something was terribly wrong. He was obviously in great pain and wasn’t walking at all right. I immediately went over to the house of the neighbor who owned Clifton and told her that he had been injured and needed attention. She said she was aware of the problem and assured me there would be a vet coming out to see him.
Days went by and the vet didn’t come. Meanwhile Clifton’s condition grew visibly worse. On about the fourth day when I went out to look, Clifton was lying on the ground and could barely raise his head. His body had changed. He was carrying a lot of tension and he had dropped so much weight that it was hard to recognize him. As I saw the damage the illness had done to him, my heart began pounding. I bent over and stepped through the pipes of the corral and climbed the hill to where he was lying to try to comfort him. He was shaking and shivering from his head to his hooves, in obvious agony. Yet there was no one looking after him.
As I was to learn later, Clifton had contracted laminitas, which is an inflammation of the lamina that connect the hoof to the bone. It was a common cause of mortality in horses and had taken the life of the famous Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. If not treated in time, the hoof separates from the bone and the crippled horse has to be put down. At the time I didn’t know what laminitis was, but when I looked into Clifton’s eyes and saw his terror, I became very scared.
It was the height of the summer and a brutal heat wave had settled over the hills. There was no shade in the corral and the sun overhead beat mercilessly on the suffering horse. I went back to my house and filled a bucket with water to bring Clifton a drink and cool him down. Then I went to the neighbor and knocked on her door. When she opened it I said, “I’ve just looked at Clifton. He’s in terrible shape and so much pain. I can’t bear to see him suffering like this. You said the vet was coming. That was days ago. Where is the vet?” The woman glared at me impatiently and said, “It takes two weeks for the vet to come, but I am trying. What do you want from me?” Her excuses and self-pity made me even angrier. “I want you to get this horse some help,” I said coldly. “He doesn’t deserve this.”
But still nobody came, and another day passed. The following morning I looked out my front window and saw Clifton down on the ground, shaking, and barely able to lift his head. I climbed into the corral and went over to him. Even though it was early, the temperature was already in the 90s. Clifton looked thinner than ever. His head had shrunk and when I touched his face, it felt like leather.
Tears welled inside me. I said to myself, Clifton is dying and nobody cares. I went back to the house to get my camera, then climbed through the pipe fence again and began taking pictures. I was going to log his suffering and send the pictures to the authorities or whoever would listen. I had no idea where to turn. I realized I needed to find out what a horse’s rights were. I needed to learn what one could do for a horse when his owners were so callous and cruel. As I was photographing Clifton I began crying so hard it soaked my lens.
Just then, the owner came out and said, “What in the hell are you doing?” Her tone startled me. I said, “I’m giving Clifton a voice. I’m going to tell Clifton’s story.”
She said, “I told you the vet’s on the way.”
“I don’t believe you.”
This put her on the defensive. “I have bills to pay,” she said. “I don’t have the means.”
Now my tears turned into rage. I said, “What are you saying? That you’re just going to let him die, because you can’t pay his bill? This horse needs a vet and he needs one now. If you don’t do it, I’m going to make the calls.”
She yelled back at me, “The vet’s coming today, so don’t get involved.”
“If I don’t see a vet here today,” I warned her, “I will get involved. I don’t care what you think.”
For the next few hours, I kept a vigilant watch from my front window waiting for someone to come. Eventually a woman appeared wearing a vet’s smock. She bent over Clifton and ran an IV into his neck. While she was doing this, I looked towards Robin, the pony who had been Clifton’s companion for so many years. He was standing at the far side of the turnout with a puzzled look that seemed to say, “What is happening to my best friend?” The people working on Clifton got him up. He was so thin and weak. I saw that they were walking him up the hill towards the gate to take him away. But before they got there Clifton collapsed. As he lay in a heap on the ground, the vet reached into her pocket for a syringe and put him down.
It was over quickly. The once powerful beast lay lifeless and still. They wrapped his massive frame in a sheet and pulled him the rest of the way up the hill, and put him in a truck and hauled him off. When they were gone, little Robin who had barely moved all this time, started calling out and circling the spot where Clifton had lain. Her screams went on for quite a while. Then a man came down the hillside, and tied a rope around her neck and led her up the hill. After that I never saw her again.
It was in those awful moments of witnessing Clifton’s agony and suffering that I decided I was going to dedicate my life to doing something about the abuse and neglect of horses like him. His painful, needless death had put a fire in me that would never go out. I wanted to understand how to help horses like Clifton and how to raise people’s awareness about horses in need. I wanted to open their eyes to the miraculous gift these beautiful creatures offer us, how they serve and love us, and depend on us for their wellbeing, and how we owe them our love in return.