By Laura Moretti,
The Animals Voice
The first night he was under my care, he repeatedly slammed himself against the stall walls and the half-door till I thought I’d made a grave mistake rescuing him from the kill pen. I thought it was he who was crazy. It took me two years to figure out it was me. Suffice it to say, for the last decade of his life, Shilo had wings.
When I travel the western U.S., I like to do it on board a train. I have ridden on more trains throughout California, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington in the past five years than I can count or remember. There’s something very relaxing about train travel. Perhaps it’s the no phones, no television, no Internet, nobody else experience it gives me. Not that you can’t use a phone or watch TV or get online on board a train; you can. I just figure, what’s the point? A day of travel should be about travel.
And writing. I do a lot of writing on trains. In fact, I’m dedicating my next novel to Amtrak. After the previous couple of years I’ve had, I couldn’t have written or finished my manuscript had a train not been involved. Sit back and watch the scenery and write. In the bend ahead, I can see the locomotive, snaking its way through a pristine mountain forest, hear its whistle several cars ahead. I have watched the sun set over the Pacific. I have seen turkey vultures glide the air of a deep canyon — at my eye-level. I have watched the blanketing snow fall in an otherwise untouched Oregon national forest.
Admittedly, not all of the scenery from a train is stunning and pristine. Some of it is downright disgusting: Poverty. Pollution. Devastation. That old adage about the “wrong side of the tracks” is more true than it isn’t. The dregs of society — and those quite unfortunate — are forced to live along the tracks. I can’t remember a single time the railroad passed any middle- to upper-class neighborhood.
Not from a train, but seemingly from a similar era, I’ve spent years studying the plight of America’s wild horses. That means I’ve spent countless hours in the western desert, researching wild horse behavior and herd management areas, documenting contradictions in the government claims of wild horse damage to public lands and other native wildlife, and using it to defend wild horses in their homelands. It also means I’ve seen wild horses in the wild. In fact, I spent two years helping to round up 236 wild horses — on horseback, mind you — from the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in southeastern Oregon, in order to save them from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s eradication program.
It was a grueling and often times frustrating job. Two long and hot summers, hours on horseback scouring the lava rock mountains, being hungry and uncertain about my purpose, I persevered on behalf of the hapless. But I saw enough on that roundup to know I’d never do anything like that again. I will never help the U.S. government remove wild horses from public lands, no matter the reason. Or from anywhere else, for that matter. If I had to make that choice today, I’d rather see those animals gunned down on the run than know what happened to many of them after they left the so-called refuge. But that’s another story for a different time; it simply means I believe horses would rather die running than not run at all.
I will hold forever in my memory the late afternoon chase we gave to a band of wild horses just south of Desert Lake. We had hunted the animals for days, using high-powered binoculars, hunters’ sightings, four-wheeled pickup trucks, and long-range walkie-talkies — and, finally, the band of horses was in our grasp. The trick to catching wild horses from horseback is to head where they want to go, so that they’ll go where you want them to head.
The mouth to our trap was wide. As they followed the eastern flank of our non-barbed wire wire fence, they couldn’t know it slowly funneled them into the boxed canyon — where we had Judas horses waiting inside and fence panels in place to close off the canyon entrance. By the time they’d reach the trap, they’d be well up its crevice before they realized there was no back door. And by the time they figured it out and double-backed to the mouth of the canyon, the now-closed gates will have sealed their fate. Forever.
That was the plan anyway. Wild horses had their own plans. On that particular afternoon, despite our previous successes catching horses and our successes that would follow, this particular band figured it out just feet from the trap entrance. They wheeled and bolted, all nine of them, and headed at a dead run out of the canyon and well away from our funneled fence. But the thing that impressed me the most was how they did it. In that vast desert wilderness, when they had miles of desert in any given direction around us in which to flee, they chose to blow right past us. I mean, right past us. If I had leaned off my horse and stretched out my arm, I probably could have tamed a wild mane in my fingers. There we were, the five of us, reining in our mounts when we realized the gig was up, and watching helplessly as free-roaming wild horses thundered past us, on either side, their dust cloud following them to the far-away horizon.
It was actually quite spellbinding to witness. And the message they sent home was clearly heard. Wild horses, or, rather, horses, period, are born to run. For fifty million years, those hooves have secured their evolutionary niche on the planet’s landscape. Fight or flight. Horses are flight. It is no mystery why we tell tales of winged horses. The power that exploded around us that afternoon was as much humbling as it was inspiring. Were it not for our weapons of mass destruction — the four-wheel-drive pickup trucks, the all-terrain vehicles, the wire fences and the walkie-talkies and the rock jacks and, in some cases, the helicopters — we could only touch wild horses in our dreams. Do not be fooled by what you see on television or read in books. No human being alive or dead, no heroic big-screen cowboy, can run down a wild horse in the wild — least of all on horseback (I’m sorry, Billy Crystal, but it’s true). The stories I grew up with wherein the hero lassoed the big black stallion and brought him home to tame him were just that: stories. The reality is very different. Coupled with their binocular vision, horses have wings — and they sure can fly.
So, naturally, the most disturbing thing I’ve seen on my train travels throughout the western U.S. is: Horses in boxes.
Horses are often housed in stalls just big enough for them to turn around.
Invariably, on almost every trip, the train rolls past a horse boarding facility. Or a backyard ‘farm.’ Or a rodeo arena. And always there are horses in boxes. Before I had my five acres of land and the more than three dozen horses I rescued, I called those boxes ‘stalls.’ That’s their technical term. Go into any feed store or ranch supply or stop any cowboy or cattle rancher and ask about horse stalls and they’ll know what you mean.
The standard stall size for a horse is 12 feet by 12 feet. That’s enough room for a horse to turn around in without banging his head or his butt on the sides and enough room for a horse to lie down in if the horse so chooses. Twelve by twelve feet. But even that is risky. A horse who lies down too close to a stall wall or who lies down and rolls over too close to the edge of his stall can get ‘cast.’ A cast horse is a horse who doesn’t have enough room to get to his feet. More specifically, he is ‘cast’ against the stall wall; wedged, if you will. A wedged horse often panics and some horses literally kick themselves to death in a fatal struggle to extricate themselves from the deadly situation before help arrives. Horse stalls are, by their very nature, dangerous for horses.
Yet, that’s how we house millions of domesticated horses in the U.S.: in stalls. In boxes. Sometimes rows and rows of them in a single place. And there their captives mostly will stay throughout the vast majority of their lives, in a twelve-by-twelve foot stall or a twelve-by-twelve foot stall with an attached twelve-by-twelve foot ‘yard.’ They come out sometimes every day, sometimes twice or three times a week, sometimes every couple of weeks, for an hour, maybe a little longer, and then are locked up again. In the wild, horses walk for miles every day. In captivity, horses walk for miles every day, too, except they do it mostly in a tight circle inside a box. When they get out, it’s usually to be ridden around in a larger circle, under saddle (for training) or at the end of a long rope (for exercise). They’re used in competitions — usually transported to the competing rings by trailers (another box of sorts) — or on some leisurely ride, perhaps even through some scenic park. But most of the time, the vast majority of domesticated horses live their lives in boxes.
I will be the first person in line to tell you I am guilty of doing this to a horse. Like other well-intentioned horse lovers or even horse rescuers, I housed my horse Shilo the way I was taught to house horses: in boxes. I saved him literally off the slaughter-bound truck he was to board less than a day later and I put him in a twelve-by-twelve foot box, er, stall and called it his home for a couple of years. All three sides of his box were walled. He couldn’t see out but through the doorway that put him in the box — and even that came halfway up the fourth wall. He could see a horse across the aisle from him, but he couldn’t see any other. Nor could he touch another horse. But, oh, he had a cushion of fragrant pine shavings at his feet and fresh water at his disposal and he got fed the best hay twice a day. He was alive, after all, wasn’t he?
The first night he was under my care, he repeatedly slammed himself against the stall walls and the half-door till I thought I’d made a grave mistake rescuing him from the kill pen. I thought it was he who was crazy.
It took me two years to figure out it was me.
Suffice it to say, for the last decade of his life, Shilo had wings.
Five acres isn’t five hundred thousand, but it’s a good start. It beats 240 square feet of living space. Shilo would take dirt over shavings any day. And grass over hay. And a muddy watering hole over a freshly scrubbed trough, too. Horses just want to be horses. That means they want to roll in the dirt or the mud, graze all day under a hot sun, and run. The only thing that isn’t wrong with horse racing is the part where they run. My band of horses ran every day on that five acres of ground—just for the fun of it. And, oh, how they’d run! You would have thought they were reenacting the story about a band of wild horses who blew past their captors in the Oregon desert just yards from a carefully crafted trap.
If someone in your neighborhood keeps a horse in a box, encourage them to find a field instead. And if you keep your horse in a box, rethink it. If you truly love a horse, you know the importance of their freedom. Horses don’t belong in boxes any more than birds belong in cages. They both fly, after all.
Laura Moretti is the founder and president of The Animals Voice. She is also an author, animal rescuer, lobbyist, and other various titles of animal defense activism. Laura rescued Shilo when he was seven years old. He died in 2011 at the age of 28, 22 years after Laura found him. For a decade of that time, Shilo lived outside the box.