At the horse auction near our farm, there is a row I call ‘the dark aisle’. For some reason the burnt bulbs are not replaced and the horses in that aisle are usually jammed together, tied close to strangers with no owners present to protect or introduce them. Fights break out, horses break free, kicks need to be avoided, and meeting the horses in this aisle can therefore be a difficult and dangerous undertaking. But some of my favorite friends have been spied in this aisle, the aisle of throwaway horses, the aisle that the kill buyers shop in. I spend time in this space, not because it is easy or pleasant but because it’s most likely where there will be a horse with a soft eye and yearning nicker who needs our help.
The auction in early March was no different, with the dark aisle filling up steadily as the time grew near, and anxiety filled the horses breathes and bodies. Many horses were tied and being casually evaluated. But on the end of the dark aisle, tied a bit apart from any others, was a small pony mare that no one was looking at. When their eye passed in her direction, they would flick momentarily and then continue, like getting stuck for a second on an eyelash or a shadow. No one paid the slightest interest in the petite mare with the white blaze, even as the mare noticed all of them.
She was a small thing to me sure, only 11 or 12 hands, but with the proportions of a horse; or she should have had those proportions, if age and neglect hadn’t distorted her. Her belly was large, a product of too many worms and several foalings. Her legs were thin and without muscle, and her hooves had long forgotten a farrier’s touch. Her shaggy coat was thick with rainrot on her skin, and faded in color, an indication of lack of nutrients. Everything about this mare spoke volumes about her lack of care and love. And yet, her intelligent expression, as she sought connection in the faces of strangers, spoke about her resolute will to live.
The little girl made direct eye contact with me over the rail, where I was cooing over a baby belgian that I so wanted to take home. She continued to follow me until it would have been impolite not to respond. Her ears were pricked to me and she welcomed my touch. I did what horse people do and what horses tolerate, I opened her mouth to look at her age. Her small teeth confused me a bit and I did wonder whether perhaps she was young, like Finn had been, and just as massively neglected. I guess I sort of hoped that was the case, because I know how hard it is to place older horses. In an effort to invite interest and discussion about her, I asked a passerby to ‘age’ her for me; he looked askance and tolerated my request with a single hand taking her muzzle and raising her lip. “She’s not got her main teeth in yet, she’s young”, but then he walked away. I asked another, two men who appreciated that I thought they knew something. They took her head and pulled up her lips and laughed, “She’s older then you sweetheart!” and then sighed like people do at auction looking at a dead horse, “too bad”, and they also turned and walked away. There was to be no other help for the little mare.
I reached down and picked up her front ho0f, to see if she would cooperate, and she obliged. She clearly had been handled and trained at some point. I continued along her side and went to pick up her rear hoof and she shot out a kick, clean and with intent. Ah, so the little one had some baggage as well. She had a long life of human experience behind her and evidence pointed to a mixed journey that was only getting worse. But her long ears stayed pricked towards me and her eyes met mine as she clearly asked for help, from the only person who saw her at auction.
I hardly need to tell you that no one was interested in her when her turn for sale came up and she was walked quietly on the auction floor. The kill buyer bid a small amount for the small horse and I waited for a beat and looked. This is the moment when I hope someone else takes an interest, but the moment is brief before they call sold. Silence. Tick. Tick. Tick. My eyes scanned the crowd. Her life at a crossroads. The auctioneer glanced my direction. My hand shot up, $50. A brief beat while the auctioneer checked with the kill buyer who barely flicked his head sideways, no. Sold. The little mare would be coming to Rosemary Farm.
It was a hectic night that night, as it was the night we saved Jedi and Dusty from kill as well. Both of those big neglected boys have taken much of the focus in the past three weeks. That night, the little mare was was waiting for me at the end of the dark aisle, quick to un-tie and lead out. She was patient while we spent over an hour caring for the emergency needs of Jed, and when we were ready she loaded willingly next to the huge thoroughbred; it was a comical sight really, and a perfect cross-section of the horses we see at auction; The lame OTTB who failed at his human’s goals and was thrown away, the overworked Amish belgian, and the little pony mare that no one saw. All loaded and going home to Rosemary Farm.
In the two weeks since, I’ve gotten to know the girl. I got to see her trepidation when I first came to handle her, and her frank astonishment when I brought her grain. She is indeed close to 20, and she has had a variety of handling, including some rough and painful treatment that has her on edge. We’re pretty sure she was a child’s pony in her past and we’re pretty sure she was pushed and pulled and shoved and hurt the way that many ponies are. But she also has a wonderful intelligent brain and the most beautiful melodic voice. So she became Melody here, and I have had to slow down a bit with my ‘expectations’ of touch, and allow us to become friends. I need to be the friend in charge and she has tried a few tricks to avoid me, but she is a quick study of the human, and has learned that respectful treatment is mutual here. She’s really a lovely personality, one it seems, no one ever saw.
Melody had her feet done yesterday, her front hooves anyway. It’s going to take more then one trim to get them back to the shape they should be. The time I’ve spent with her recently, brushing her and working on her rainrot, helped us get thru her first trim. But her back feet are still tricky. We are blessed to have a very patient hoof care specialist, and she understood, and we did what we have done now for so many; take our time. “She’s going to need time”, Geri observed, “She’s had some rough treatment”. Geri stayed at the mares’ head while I worked down her leg, gently, and lifted her rear hoof, and was able to get her to relax long enough to clean it out, but that was it. Melody snatched it back, pulled away and tensed, and I swung quickly out range. What was sadder really was her tension and anxiety just following, as she expected a painful reprimand. The mare doesn’t have high expectations of humans. Since that couldn’t be how we ended our session, I started over, went in again slowly and went down and petted her leg and her hoof, and then we ended there, quietly and on a positive note. We were all relieved by this. And then Melody was released out.
Melody doesn’t have the size of Jed, or the trackable history of Dusty, or the flash of Violet or the pathos of Aggie. Melody does, however, have the same size heart and horse spirit. Many ponies are treated as expendable toys and easily forgotten, and many end ignominiously at auction and slaughter. Not Melody. I see her, I see that little face still with hope and life, I see her fine mind stuck in her neglected body, and her beautiful straight white blaze, and I hear her voice. She will have all the time she needs. Melody, you are not invisible here.