I was doing what I do when I lay down at night; mentally taking the late night walk-through, tossing hay for overnight, checking horses one last time. I’m in New Zealand now, one of the most beautiful places in the world, and missing my little farm on the flat, windy, treeless prairie of Colorado. It’s the first place that ever felt like home. Some of you know what I mean.
I’m thinking about an old horse on my farm. He doesn’t even belong to me.
Roo is a lost horse. That’s what his “owner” calls him. She had no intention of owning him and as for him, well, he has low expectations at this point in his life. He failed at his last position, and most likely, a few before that. His history is lost, too.
His name is Rooster, maybe he was that cocky when he was a colt. Now, he’s Roo, a chestnut with enough gray hairs that his color looks flat and rough. His withers poke up high and his spine is exposed. In his later teen years, he seems much older. An enlarged arthritic knee slows him up. On a bad day, he can’t always lay down and get up.
That’s the problem right now. It’s bitter cold in Colorado and he’s struggling. He’s on my mind, not that he likes me much.
That’s the other thing about Roo. He isn’t all that friendly. He defends his food aggressively, although he’s alone in a pen. His eyes are sunken. He doesn’t ask for much and he doesn’t say thank you. It’s okay. I keep a place for an elder in my barn, in the name of a useless old horse that I loved. I think we all should.
When my friend took Roo on, she thought he was not long for this world. He was in a therapeutic program and when she resigned, she brought him with her. He’d been lame and a bit unpredictable, so, he is useless now. Dangerous territory for a horse like him.
Her plan for Roo was kind. She would let him graze a couple of months, and then, in his sad and painfully diminished state, she’d euthanize him in the fall.
Naturally, he rallied. Of his list of issues, it wasn’t easy to tell what was mental and what was physical. Sometimes I wish horses were as simple as some think; that they were only beasts of burden, here for our use. There’s that word again.
My grandmother, a farm woman in the late 1800s, used to say that life was hard if you were useless. She’s right still.
Roo rallied, not that his topline is stronger or that his knee is any better. He gained some weight but still had the look of a scraggly old stray dog. Then, in the first few weeks here, he got hung up, hind leg caught through the top of a panel. He was fence-fighting with a mare. Who knew he could kick that high? By the time I got him free, it looked like a truck had crashed the fence but miraculously, he limped away not much worse than before. Lame but indestructible.
It isn’t that his life on my farm is all that great. I have no green meadow. He’s in a dry lot pen with four meals a day, he poops in his water, and doesn’t care much for the donkey.
Naturally, we hoped he’d have a more romantic outcome than just being a horse. Don’t we hope that old horses will all be saved by a little girl’s love? Not happening for Roo. He still stumbles, he still has anxiety, and he isn’t all that charming. He used to be a bit of a trial to catch. He doesn’t really like being petted. You get the feeling he just doesn’t care much for people. I’m sure he came to the opinion honestly.
So, we just let him be a horse. We didn’t think he needed a faith healing. We didn’t think he was a lost soul, only that he was due a safe retirement. One that he didn’t have to pay for by pleasing humans.
Sometimes the best advice I give is that we have to let a horse be a horse. It’s up to him to find himself. Rescue is all fine and good, if we don’t take ourselves too seriously. But sometimes we think being with humans is the healing for every horse. To be blunt, horses need horses more than humans. But Roo didn’t want to be with horses and he didn’t like us much either. He needed an unconditional place to be.
Roo has been with us a little over a year now, just being a horse. He’s got some supplements, not that they help, but his weight is good. It’s still heart-stopping to watch him lay down. Winter hurts him.
Eventually, there has been one small change. He stands closer to the gate when we muck out his pen now. Not offering anything, but not moving away. One day I had to shoosh him out of the way and it dawned on me he was passively blocking the gate. Quietly standing in my way. His eye was a bit softer, too. Not because he owes us a thing. It’s because he’s just being a horse. It’s what they do.
All horse stories end the exact same way. Roo’s will be no different. He’ll get to have a home between now and then. Most of us have some room in the barn. A place where it’s safe to be useless.