I Get To Know My Most Important Friend in Horse Rescue
By April Horowitz
If I was going to help horses, I had to know as much about them as I could. I turned to the new trainer I had hired for Alvin for advice. She suggested that it might be a good idea to ask a vet to take me on his rounds. Then I would get to see horses in many different situations, and also learn a lot more about the people who were responsible for them. She suggested Dr. Kevin Smith as a good man for the job. Dr. Smith lived in Ventura and covered the entire area from Beverly Hills to Santa Barbara.
I had already met Dr. Smith and had several conversations with him when he was making his rounds at the boarding ranch. I found him an amiable and informative fellow, and talkative as well. So I called him and told him I was a photographer and wanted to understand the horse community more. I said, “I’m making a series of portraits which I want to call ‘The Heart of a Horse’ to bring attention to horses and help people to understand them. I want to photograph the entire community — vets, farriers, trainers, owners and horses. I’m thinking of doing something for horses in need.” Then I asked him if I could ride with him on his rounds. He said, “Oh, sure. But I’ve got business I have to take care of for the next few days. Why don’t you go with Tom Fowler, who is also a mobile vet, this week and I’ll take you when I get back.”
Dr. Tom Fowler was something of a legend among the local horse owners. Dr. Smith told me he had watched Fowler open up a horse who was suffering from severe colic in a field, and sew him up again. When I called Fowler, he told me to meet him by the post-office in Somis, a town in Ventura. When I arrived it looked like Mayberry RFD. There was a little fire station and about three stores to the whole town and no one in sight. I parked my car and waited.
Ten minutes passed before Dr. Fowler’s vet truck pulled up, and a big man, about 6’2, with a big belly and sunglasses and a soiled yellow rain jacket emerged. His Dodge truck was covered with the dirt of all the ranches he had worked on. I climbed into the cab of his truck, which papers, cans, remnants of food, x-rays, medical reports and other stuff spread across the dashboard, and a banana. Two dogs were sitting in the back of the cab, both with the smell of unwashed ranch hounds. When we had said our hellos, and settled ourselves in the cab, we drove off, and I began to tell him what I wanted to do, as I had Dr. Smith before. I said I had photographed the horses of some of his clients including Gretchen. I did not go into any details or mention the dead mare and her foal, as I did not know how he might react. He talked to me about the horse community, praising certain ranch people who were nice and complaining about others. One of his clients had several dozen racehorses. As we pulled up to his ranch, Fowler said, “I’m here to give vaccines to a horse that belongs to another client who boards him here. This guy has a nice ranch but he doesn’t pay his bills.”
I told him about my desire to do something to promote the rights of horses, and the plan I had to accomplish that. He suggested that I do something to shock people: “Why don’t you show a picture of a new baby horse and then pictures of slaughtered horses? That will get their attention.” This advice stirred mixed feelings in me. Do you educate people by terrorizing them? Or do you educate them by showing them who these animals really are? Here was an experienced horse vet advising me to show slaughter and gore to make people feel guilty, with the idea that if they were hit over the head with such images they would help.
At first his words confused me, and I asked myself if he was right. Was this the way to do it? But the more I thought about it the more I was convinced that he was not right. If I tried to educate people by showing horse carcasses, all I would be showing was the horror, not the life, the breathing feeling animal I wanted people to care about, and to love. I would lose the horse entirely and that was what it was all about. If I gave people a reason to love horses and care about them, they would react the right way when horses were abused. If I hit them over the head with a sledgehammer so to speak they would just turn away. Listening to Fowler, made me even more determined to follow the path I had chosen and do portraits that would show people the beauty of horses, and convey the fact that they were feeling creatures with hearts that could be hurt.
These were the thoughts that stayed with me for the rest of the ride. A few days after I got back, Dr. Smith called.
“How did it go?”
“Well, it was interesting,” I replied, dodging the question for the moment. “But I still have a lot to learn. I would like to ride with you and get your point of view too.”
A week later we met up in the morning to go on his rounds. In contrast to Fowler’s Dodge, the vet truck Dr. Smith pulled up in was immaculate both inside and out. He was also a big man like Fowler, with a long ponytail and a dimpled chin. But except for a neatly clipped mustache, he was clean-shaven and his hair and person were well kept.
“Hello Dr. Smith,” I said.
“Don’t worry about calling me ‘Dr. Smith,’” he replied. “Since we’re going to have a drive along and be together all day, just call me Kevin.”
Kevin turned out to be as voluble and lighthearted as my first impressions of him indicated, full of things to say and opinions to give, and jokes to crack. From the very outset I knew this was going to be a very different ride from the previous one with Fowler. At the same time, I had no idea as we started out how different, or that this was going to be a day of high drama that would conclude with a close encounter with death – an encounter that would teach me about the relationship of horses to the people who owned them and on whom their lives depended.
Kevin and I drove east from Ventura on route 126, passing through the agricultural plains of Somis and Santa Paula, where teams of migrant workers their heads covered in colorful scarves and straw hats dotted the planted fields. As we drove past them, Kevin talked in a steady stream, telling me about himself and his work. Then he asked me about my trip with Fowler.
I framed my answer cautiously keeping many of my impressions to myself. But I did raise the one issue that had troubled me about my plans. “Dr. Fowler gave me a lot of a information and insight,” I said. “But I have one thing I want to ask you about. When I told him about my Heart of a Horse project, he said I should photograph a baby horse and then go to a slaughterhouse to take pictures of the corpses to put up alongside it.” When Kevin heard this, I could see that he was visibly disturbed, and when he responded there was a bitter edge in his tone. “Is that what he said? Horses are more than just that. If you do something like that, people will never know horses. They will just feel repelled.” It was the same reaction I had had. And it continued that way as he went on: “Don’t you think you should first show people what a horse is, the important roles they play in our lives and in our history? Then they can feel for them and have a reason to respond to them in their times of need. What are you doing if you just show them with their heads cut off? What about their personalities? Some horses are nice and some are not. They’re individuals, just like we are. Corpses are bodies without souls.”
I was greatly relieved, and was about to tell him so, when his phone rang. There was an emergency in Ojai, which was just to the north of where we were, and we had to go there immediately.