Worse Than Death
By April Horowitz
(The Heart of a Horse Story, part 7)
By now, we had reached the hills of Ojai and were getting close to the area where Jorge and Toby were waiting for us. Night was falling and Kevin put on his headlights and we pulled onto a bumpy dirt road that led us into the property where the mare was kept. It was a maze of pipe corrals that had been set up for twenty or thirty horses, with some half stall roofs but no real shelter. As we drove in, Kevin’s beams lit up the darkness, and in their arcs I saw a Hispanic man of medium height and build waiting to greet us. He was dressed in jeans and boots, and a flannel shirt, and was standing with the paint and his two children beside him. You could tell Toby was an older horse and not doing very well, and at a point in her life where she was just tired.
Jorge was standing there holding her lead rope, and looked so sad. Kevin stopped the truck and got out to greet him. In a plaintive voice, Jorge said, “Dr. Smith I love this horse. But I can tell it’s getting near the end for her. I just don’t want to think of her out here late at night dying a painful death alone. I couldn’t live with that.”
“I understand,” Kevin said. “I’m going to help you.”
All of sudden, while this sadness was in the air and these words were being said, another man appeared out of nowhere, running towards us. He was a tall, thin man in a T-shirt, and looked to me like a hippie. I noticed that he was wearing sandals, which is not normal wear around horses, where a single misstep could result in a crushed foot. Later Kevin told me he was a local hippie, who hung out in the area. As he ran up to us, he was yelling at Jorge: “You’re not going to kill that horse. She needs more time. Maybe something else can be done to save her.”
Jorge was shaken. He said, “I’ve done everything I can for this horse. She is very old and ill. She colics constantly and I don’t have the money to take her to a hospital. Every day when I come in the morning, I think to myself is she going to be dead? Did she die painfully? I can’t live with that. I can’t let her suffer anymore. I can’t let my family suffer anymore.”
The hippie was hardly listening. As soon as Jorge finished he started where he had left off, repeating himself in the process. “You’re not going to kill that horse. She needs to be given another chance.”
There were such high emotions in the air, I wasn’t sure whether the two men were going to go at each other and start exchanging blows. Jorge shot back angrily: “If you feel so strongly about it, you take her.” He handed the lead rope to the hippie. “You take her. But you pay all the bills and you take the responsibility.” The hippie was taken aback. Then he said: “No, no. What if we ask people to give money to take care of her?”
At this point, Kevin stepped in and said, “Listen, this horse is very old. If you are going to take responsibility for this horse, you need to get her to a hospital. I’ve treated Toby for years and Jorge is doing the right thing. This horse will die an ugly death if we do not take care of her now.” But the hippie was not listening. He said, “I’ll find something for her.”
The argument was over. Kevin said “It always pisses me off when somebody wants to play savior without regard for what the people who love the horse feel and know, and without really thinking about what that would involve and without making the commitment needed to carry it through. I guarantee that hippie won’t take the responsibility for that horse.”
All the while this argument was going on, I had very mixed feelings about it. The scene I had witnessed was so intense, and I didn’t know how it would end up. My heart was pounding because I was so conflicted. Part of me wanted to believe the hippie, because I still could not reconcile myself to the finality of death. But part of me knew Kevin was right.
A month passed before I heard the end of the story. The hippie had said he would take care of the horse and Jorge had let him take Toby to a local animal sanctuary, where he just dropped her off. The sanctuary put her in a small pipe corral. A few weeks later Toby colicked. Jorge had been visiting her regularly. When it happened, he called Kevin and said, “Toby is colicking. It’s pretty bad Dr. Smith. Please come and help.” When Kevin arrived, Toby was writhing on the ground in pain. Kevin could see that Toby had been suffering for a long time before Jorge got there. Without hesitating, he administered the euthanasia drug, while thinking to himself, “I didn’t want Toby to have to go through this. I didn’t want Jorge to have to see this. It could have been so different.”
When Kevin told me how Toby had died, I saw that everything that Kevin and Jorge did not want to happen had happened. And it was all because of someone who imagined he wanted to “save” a horse but who, in the end, didn’t really care about the horse herself.
After Kevin and I left the pipe corral and he dropped me off at my truck, I thanked him for letting me ride with him, and for everything he had taught me. I asked him if we could continue my “lessons” in the future. He smiled and said, “Sure. Anytime.” Then he said, “As you go along in your work with horses, remember to always make it about the horse, and not make the horse about you. Make the horse about the horse. Then and only then will you come to know how extraordinary these animals are, and then and only then will you be able to do them some good.”