Each morning for the past 10 years or so when I’d step out the back porch headed to my pickup, I’d be greeted by a soft nicker. When I’d turn on my headlights, there would be Captain Jack just a few feet away, standing by the gate to his own special pen “waiting for his breakfast.”
(On occasions when I was late leaving the house, he could be a bit of a “nag.”) Each morning my wife or daughter would bring him a bucket of horse feed for “senior citizens.” When Jack began losing his teeth, they would soak alfalfa cubes in warm water to form a soft mash for him to eat. He loved it. For hours afterward, he would walk around with his muzzle stained green from his alfalfa porridge.
Now, I don’t know for sure Captain Jack’s exact age, but we suspect he was between thirty and thirty-five. When he began to lose his eyesight, Mr. Shorty, another retiree in the TS Old Boys Cavvy, became his constant companion, never leaving Jack’s side. He would dutifully stand outside that special pen while Captain Jack ate his morning breakfast. (From Shorty’s body condition and the shine of his coat, I suspect he, too, was receiving a little breakfast on the side!) A couple of month’s ago, it became evident that it was time to put Captain Jack to rest. We had to put a halter on Mr. Shorty to prevent him from following as I led Captain Jack up the sagebrush-covered knoll where the backhoe was parked. The two old friends nickered to each other as we walked away. Somehow, my mornings are not the same. I miss that greeting nickered to me at the start of the day. (Mr. Shorty is working to fill that void, but it’s just not the same.) My story is not an unusual one. All of us ranchers have stories to tell about those special equine partners that have passed through our lives.
Yes, we ranchers, we care about our horses. But we are also practical livestock managers. We understand that it is not economically feasible to keep every old, lame or unusable horse we have ever owned.
Our ancestors rode them into battle. They hauled supplies and pulled artillery. They helped settle the West. Horses were used to trail cattle to the Kansas rail heads to be shipped back east to feed our growing population. They pulled the settlers’ covered wagons as they migrated westward. They delivered milk. They were our primary source of transportation until the automobile was invented. Those early-day automobiles were called “horseless carriages.” Even today, the size of an engine is measured in “horsepower.”
Horses still play an important role in the day-to-day operation of our western cattle and sheep ranches. We use them to gather our cattle and trail them from pasture to pasture. We brand calves and doctor sick cattle with them. We depend upon our horses to help us with our work. Yes, most of us ranchers think of horses as livestock—a tool of our trade. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t care about them! And like it or not, in some countries, horse meat has always been a major source of protein in the human diet, not to mention the diet of our domestic pets. When the animal activist groups finally succeeded in getting the last horse packing plant in the U.S. closed down, we got shot in the foot. (And so did our horses.) Now, instead of unwanted horses being humanely transported to the nearest USDA regulated and inspected packing plant, these horses are being hauled longer distances to Canadian and Mexican slaughter facilities. And, I don’t know about Canada, but I’m sure the conditions in Mexican horse slaughter facilities are well outside the regulations of our U.S. Humane Slaughter Act. (Somehow that doesn’t seem more humane to me.) So, what is the animal rights activists’ answer to this problem which they have created? Now they are pushing for legislation that would prohibit the “transporting” of horses to packing facilities! I don’t know what these animal rights folks are thinking, but it is not about the welfare of our horses. If this proposed legislation is passed, we will be shot in the other foot! (As will our horses.) Unwanted horses are already being dumped out in the country and on our public lands to fend for themselves, just as many unwanted pets have been in the past. How can we expect these domestic castaways, especially the aged and lame ones, to survive in an unknown and often hostile environment? Every rancher can tell stories of finding abandoned cats and dogs left to fend for themselves. Have you ever driven into a rancher’s yard and been greeted by two Border Collies and an Irish Setter/German Shepherd cross? Did you ever wonder where that strange mix came from? One morning, I found two Labrador retrievers chained to our ranch entrance gate. They had been left with dog food and a bucket of water. Now, is that a humane way to dispose of your pet? (Maybe, but it certainly isn’t responsible.)
Economic situations change in people’s lives. Dad may get laid off work. Mom may be in the hospital. Sis may be away at college. The burden of buying hay may become too much. The only option left to them may be abandonment.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to call the local horse buyer and have him dispose of the unwanted horse in a responsible and humane manner? One could even receive a little money for groceries or to pay the hospital bill. I don’t know which is worse: horse “dumping,” or seeing that horse languish in someone’s back lot, unkept, underfed and unwanted.
Yes, there are some horse sanctuaries out there. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has recently opened one near Eugene, OR. I think HSUS should be commended for this endeavor, but what about the other 90,000-plus unwanted horses risking abandonment annually? There has even been some talk of creating sanctuaries subsidized with our tax dollars. (It’s mind boggling.) I am not sure when it all transcended, this thinking of horses as pets rather than as the working animals that they have been for thousands of years. I’m sure it was sometime after the invention of the automobile and the advent of modern machinery. In any case, if you want to think of your horse as a pet, it should be your right to do so. Just as it should be my right to think of my horse as a working tool. As long as we both treat them responsibly and humanely! How we handle the disposal of aged, unsound or unwanted horses should be the choice of the horse owner.
Again, it must be done responsibly and humanely! It should not be legislated!!! When I decided to write on this topic, I knew it would be difficult. But, I really didn’t know how difficult it would be until I got into it. (Nor did I know how many exclamation marks I would use.) It’s a very emotional subject, one to be argued and discussed with lots of passion and compassion.
But it must be addressed. For only through constructive discussion and debate can we come up with sound, practical, responsible and humane solutions to this very real and emotional problem.
I hope I haven’t alienated too many. (Especially members of my own family!) — Dan L. Gralian (Dan Gralian manages the TS Ranch near Battle Mountain, NV, and is the current president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association.)