BY CARLY EASTERN
2018 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest Distinguished Entry
In my experience, there are three kinds of humans that attend a sale of horses: teachers buying for their students, families searching for a pet or riding companion, and the humans that buy a horse to sell it quickly afterwards. I have been bought by all these humans over the years, but I’ve never been to a sale like this one.
No sale is a particularly nice place for a horse. There is an air of uncertainty that hangs above you, no matter how well you jump or how well-groomed you are. The first time, you are scared and excited. The older horses warn you that you won’t see your old humans again, but you are proud to show off how nice you look and impress a new human. After a few times though, you realize that no matter what you look like or how much you love them and give them everything you have to make them happy, the humans are still going to send you away sooner or later. Sometimes they cry and hug you, telling you how amazing you are, but they always tell you that you’ll forget about them soon.
I never forgot my good humans.
This sale is dark and dirty. There are no stalls or pens for me to walk around in and greet the humans walking by. I am tied to a wall so I can’t lay down or turn around. There is no hay near me and I can’t reach the nearly empty water bucket on the floor. Other horses look like me; hungry and covered in cuts.
This is the sale where I learn the fourth kind of human that attends these events. He doesn’t take the time to talk to or even pet me. He pulls my lead off the wall, drags me in a small circle, pokes my stomach a few times, grunts his sour breath in my direction and then attaches me back to the wall even tighter than it had been before. He smells like hundreds of scared animals.
“What do you think he wants us for?” the young brown and white horse next to me asks. I can feel his fear.
“I don’t want to know,” I say wishing I could lower my head just a little.
A younger man wearing a large hat comes over to me and throws a large saddle onto my back. I have not been saddled in quite a while and never with such a big one. My legs give out and I am on my knees as soon as he tries to tighten the girth. The man immediately takes the saddle off, unties my lead from the wall and lets me stand back up.
“It’s okay, fella, I’ll run with you instead,” he says while patting my shoulder.
It’s the first act of kindness I’ve felt in a long time.
I want to close my eyes and rest now that my head isn’t tied so high, but he tugs on my lead.
“Come on, fella, it’s your turn.”
His eyes aren’t bright and his mouth doesn’t rise like some of the other men who have taken me into rings before. Rather, I feel this man’s sadness. I follow him down a narrow dirt hallway. The dust that our feet is kicking up stings my eyes and makes it hard to breathe. I start to cough, but my throat is so dry that it feels like something is cutting my insides every time I do. We reach the edge of the small ring and stop. My feet are hurting and I don’t have the energy to move my tail to beat off the flies biting my sides.
The man starts to run down the middle of the ring and I shuffle behind him. He pulls on my head as I get further behind, but I can’t go any faster. We trot down the ring, turn around and then, after a second, run back towards the entrance. He claps his hand on my neck two times.
“Good job, fella.”
With those words, he hands me to large man with a large hat and disappears down the dusty hallway. Eventually a woman with honey colored hair walks towards us, shows the man something and takes my lead.
“Hi, buddy. You’re going to come home with me, but we have to wait a little while for our ride, okay?”
I lift my head to get a better look at her. Her eyes sparkle and I can feel her kindness cover my body like a warm blanket on a cold day. She lifts her hand and I flinch.
“It’s okay, buddy. I won’t hurt you.” She raises her hand, slower this time, and wipes some of the crust from the corners of my eyes. “We’re going to have to clean you up when we get home, huh? You’ll be like a brand new horse.”
I hear a scream and turn my head to look behind me. There is a large trailer and I can see some horses are already on it. The man with sour breath is leading the panicking brown and white horse that had been tied next to me. They all start to scream- not words I can make out, but loud, long screams.
The girl and I stay silent for a while after that. There are other horses and animals being loaded into smaller trailers, but she and I don’t look at them. I keep shifting my weight to ease the pain of my feet. The small rocks on the road press into them. I wish I could lay down, but I’m not sure I’d be able to get back up.
A white truck and trailer pulls in that the girl seems to recognize. A man with short, snow colored hair steps out of the truck and stares at my body.
“Oh, Lily, what did you do?” He says slowly walking closer to me.
“Bought my first horse?” the girl says laughing lightly, but still strokes my withers. She has been careful this whole time not to touch any of my cuts or bare spots on my back.
The man makes a huffing noise through his nose. He quietly runs a hand over my stomach and back side.
“He’s really not in great shape, Lily. We’re going to have to call Dr. Scott and see when he can come check him out.” The girl nods next to me.
“Frank, I couldn’t let him go to slaughter. There is something about him, I can tell.” She looks into my left eye and I can see myself in hers. Her eyes are green and brown, like a muddy grass field, but they’re soft and kind.
The man retrieves a bucket from the side of the trailer. “Let’s see if he wants some water before we load him up.” I lift him my head quickly when I hear the hose filling up a bucket.
As soon as he puts it down in front of me, I shove my mouth into it and suck the water down as fast as I can. The cold water feels amazing sliding down my throat, and the bucket is empty before I know it.
“Does he have a Coggins?” the man says as he refills the bucket for me.
“Yeah, but it says Chestnut Horse as his name and the pictures are drawn, not digital,” the girl says.
“I wish I was surprised.”
I slurp down the whole second bucket and finally feel satisfied. The man offers me a third bucket, but I rest my nose gently on his arm so he knows I am both grateful and finished.
“Feel a little better now?” he says and gently strokes my forehead. I close my eyes at the light touch. “There’s some nice hay inside waiting for you and we’ll make you a bran mash when we get home. How’s that sound?” I sigh and open my eyes. He holds my gaze for a few seconds before nodding his head and stepping back.
The girl leads me towards the trailer and I step in quietly like I was taught many years ago. When I was young, I was very fearful towards the small, dark enclosure, but a patient human let me understand that trailers shouldn’t be feared. I really loved when trailers brought me to competitions where I was able to show off how good my human and I worked together.
I wait for the girl to finish attaching me to the side of the trailer before I rip into the bag of hay next to me. As the trailer rattles along, I don’t bother looking out the window. Instead, I just brace myself and eat as much hay as I can. I’ve learned the past couple of years that hay isn’t as constant as it was when I was younger.
When I’m almost finished with the bag of hay, the trailer comes to a stop and the truck shuts off. The man and the girl open the big doors and back me down the trailer. I look around the stable and see the sun is going down over some fields of grass to my left. There is a big brown barn to my right, which the girl leads me towards.
“We’ll keep him on the very end, across from Randall, for now. It’s the closest to isolation I have right now,” the man says. As he slides open the barn doors, a few horses inside nicker a greeting to him.
The girl leads me down the dirt aisle and into a warm, roomy stall at the end of the barn. As soon as the girl takes off my halter in the stall, I lay down next to my hay pile, thankful the weight is being taken off my sore feet and nibble at my hay.
The man comes to the stall a moment later and sets a pan full of warm mash down in front of my nose. The sweet smell fills my nose and the humans watch as I eat the mash quickly. Once I finish my food, I stretch down onto my side and close my eyes. It’s a great feeling and a loud relaxed sigh escapes me.
“He ate almost the whole hay net in the trailer,” I hear the man say. “I’m guessing he hasn’t had a good meal in a while.”
“Should I make him a grain bucket?” the girl asks quietly.
“Nah. We’ll wait until Dr. Scott comes tomorrow morning and see what he says.”
I fall asleep listening to them talk about what their plans are for me. Their voices are low and I find the girl’s especially relaxing. When I wake up a little while later, things are quiet in the barn. The empty pan has been taken from my stall and it’s dark. I pull myself up a little, stretch out my front legs and with one grunt, push on my hind legs and stand up. I shake off the shavings and stretch my neck forwards. I can’t remember the last time I had such a comfortable nap. Even my feet are feeling better.
I take another gulp of water from one of my buckets, walk to the front of my stall and look through the bars. The girl is sitting in a chair in the aisle reading a magazine.
“You’re up,” she says smiling at me and puts the magazine on the ground. I prick my ears at her, but I also look around at the other horses. There is a big bay horse across from me staring at the girl and a black and white pony looking at her from two stalls down. Everyone can put their heads over the door except me.
“So, I’ve been thinking about things while you were sleeping. I think I’m going to call you Mikey. I don’t know why, but you look like a Mikey to me. That okay with you?”
She tilts her head sideways and I let out a little nicker so she knows I’m paying attention. She laughs and claps her hands together softly.
“Perfect,” she says still smiling. She puts the chair in the corner and comes to my stall. She reaches out to touch my nose through the bars, but I take a step back. “We’ll be friends soon enough.” She turns and starts walking down the aisle.
“She should have named you Lucky,” the large bay horse in the stall across from mine says after the girl leaves. The pony nods his head.
“Honey is a good human. You’re lucky she brought you here,” he says. “I’m Randall and that’s Skunk. I wouldn’t say Honey works here, but she rides both of us a lot. My human isn’t a great rider, nice lady, but not a great rider, so Honey rides me and lets me have some fun.”
“Honey rides me too, because my kid is stupid,” Skunk pipes in.
“She’s not stupid, Skunk, she’s just young. And so are you for that matter,” Randall says shaking his head.
“Yeah, whatever. I like Honey so much better. She’s nice to me, pets me a lot and when she tells me stuff, I actually understand her. Not like when my stupid kid tells me stuff. I want Honey to be my human instead.” He’s talking whiles he’s eating hay and pieces are falling out with every word.
“That’s not how it works, kid,” Randall says.
“Got that right,” I say quietly. Randall nods once silently at me.
After another look around the barn, I step back to my hay pile and have a snack before falling back to sleep.
I wake up the next morning to Honey’s voice.
“Hey Mikey, did you have a good sleep last night? The vet is going to be here soon and then we can clean you up.”
My first impression when the vet arrives is that he genuinely likes animals. He’s an older man and his hair reminds me of grass in the winter, but he has kind eyes and soft hands. He rubs my forehead as he talks to Honey and Frank, the man from yesterday. I close my eyes and just listen.
“I’m going to take some blood, do another Coggins, run a few other tests and then run a wand over him to check for an implant. I doubt he has one, but it’s standard. I’m guessing money is a little tight?”
“Do what you have to do. I can cover whatever she can’t,” Frank’s voice says.
“You don’t have to do that, Frank.” Honey’s voice is a higher pitch than the other two but not displeasing.
“Don’t worry, I’ll make you work for it,” Frank says and laughter follows.
“Well, he has quite a few abrasions, some fungus on his legs and some rain rot on his back and sides. Use some of this when you give him a bath and put this cream on his legs twice a day if he’ll let you. Make sure you don’t pull the scabs off, they’ll come off on their own as he heals. Make sure anything you use on him is only his, wash your hands before you touch other horses and cleaning his brushes in alcohol between uses couldn’t hurt. Keep him inside for now. Once we get back the bloodwork, we can discuss starting to get him used to turn out.”
“What about grain? He got a bran mash last night and this morning,” Honey says.
“That’s fine. He’s extremely underweight and I don’t want to overwhelm his system. You’ll keep him on hay for now, as much as he wants, and then start adding a bit of grain. I’ll write down a little schedule for you.”
I felt him poke my neck, but I concentrated on Honey’s hands rubbing my withers instead of what the vet was doing. I love feeling her fingers kneed into my back and shoulders, sometimes scratching, sometimes rubbing, but always gentle.
The next few months fly by in a bit of a blur. Honey constantly brushes me and keeps me clean. I don’t itch anymore, and can go outside. At first, I only went out for short times, but now I can spend the whole day outside with Skunk and Randall. Honey started riding me and I immediately knew why Randall and Skunk liked her. We started easily, but now I kind of like to show her all the tricks I know. She’s always telling me how amazing I am, even when we are doing things that aren’t very hard. I especially like when we go out on the trails around the barn. Honey found out from a chip in my neck that I used to travel around and go to lots of competitions and she tells me if I keep getting better, then we can go to some together.
I like her a lot, but I keep reminding myself that I’ve liked a lot of my humans in the past. She tells me a lot that I’m safe now and she won’t ever sell me, but I’ve heard all that before. I used to believe it when a human said that to me, but not anymore. Humans can’t be trusted like that.
One day, after about a year of being with Honey, I come back from a long trail ride to see Skunk being led into a trailer.
“Where’s Skunk going?” I ask Randall as Honey puts me back in my stall.
“I heard Frank tell him he’s going to a new home. I guess his kid didn’t want him anymore,” Randall says.
Randall looks over his door and down the aisle at the trailer. I can’t. Skunk leaving is just another reminder that humans change their minds. Skunk’s kid was loud and annoying, but over the past year, they had started to understand each other. They came with us to some small competitions and I taught Skunk how to make his kid happy. He really thought if his kid was happy then he could stay with her forever. Randall and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that had never been our experience.
Randall doesn’t have the same human that he did when I first arrived either. Once his lady got better at riding, she wanted a younger horse. Randall lucked out because Frank kept him for lessons. Now Randall has to pack all sorts of humans around every day, but at least he gets stay at the barn.
I sulk for the next few weeks after Skunk leaves. Honey does too. She seems genuinely sad that he left our barn. She keeps telling me he got sold to a show barn and he’ll be happy, but humans always say that stuff.
When a new horse comes in, I am one of the first horses that will talk to them. I like hearing their stories. But after Skunk leaves, I can’t bring myself to talk to the new horse in the end stall. He is very nervous and young; I can tell that just by looking at him. Honey tells me his name is Griff.
A week after Griff arrives at the barn, Honey takes me out for our very first bareback trail ride. She has ridden me without a saddle in the ring and I love it so I was very happy to learn we were trying it on the trail. We spent our time wandering around the woods, walking through a river and then finished it off by galloping in an empty field. These are my favorite kinds of trail rides. As we walk leisurely back to the barn, I can sense something is happening at home. I lift my head up and prick my ears, trying to hear what it is. Honey notices too.
“Frank, what happened?” Honey says still on my back when we get back to the barn.
“The new horse got loose. He jumped the wheelbarrow while Stan was cleaning his stall. Now he won’t let anyone near him.” Frank is shaking his head.
“Give me a halter and lead, I can try to get close to him with Mikey,” Honey says reaching out to grab the ones in Frank’s hand.
“It’s worth a shot, but don’t get hurt. He’s more fearful than we initially thought and I don’t want you or Mikey getting kicked.” Frank hands her the halter and lead and I trot towards the far paddocks.
I can see Griff pacing near the back fences, but I can also smell his fear. I’m happy to feel Honey leave me alone when we start to get closer to him.
“Hey,” I yell to him.
“Don’t come near me. You have a human with you,” he yells back. His voice is shaky and his dark grey coat is drenched in sweat. I stop.
“I do, but she’s okay.”
“No, no, no. All humans are bad.” I try to take a couple of steps towards him. “Stop coming closer,” he yells again and backs up further. There is a fence behind him and he hits it with his butt. It surprises him and he jumps sideways.
“We aren’t going to hurt you, stop backing up.” I take a few steps closer. Honey is speaking softly to him, but I can tell he’s not listening to her; his ears are going in every direction.
“She has a rope. Humans hit with ropes,” he says as he starts pacing the fence line again.
“Not all humans hit with ropes.”
“Wrong. Ropes are bad. Ropes hit me. All ropes hit me.”
“Not all ropes hit. Not all humans are bad. You can trust me, I’ve had a lot of humans.”
“No, no, no, ropes hurt.” He’s shaking his head as he walks. “No ropes. No humans.” I take a few steps closer to him.
“Come on, kid. This human is good.” He is still pacing, but it’s a little slower now.
“No humans are good. Humans are bad.”
“I used to think that way. I told you, I’ve had a lot of humans. But now I have a good one.”
“Humans hit me. Humans are bad.”
“Some humans hit horses, but not here. They might want us to do things right, but they’re not mean and they won’t hit you here.”
“I can’t trust you. I don’t know you.” His body is still shaking, but he stops pacing, even as I walk a bit closer.
I shake my head a little as Honey scratches my withers and tells me I’m doing a good job. “You need to come back with us. I promise, she’s not a bad human. They are good humans here, but you’re going to hurt yourself out here. I used to think all humans were bad, just like you. I used to think no human could be trusted.” I’m much closer to him now.
“What changed your mind?” he asks slowly, breathing heavy. He must be exhausted.
“Honey did. She saved me. She’s shown me not all humans are like the ones I used to know or the ones you used to know. Some humans are like Honey.” I get up next to him and I feel Honey shift on my back.
“I know, but I’ll help you.” Honey reaches down and slowly wraps the lead rope around his neck. She ties it together and keeps the halter on her arm.
Griff’s whole body tenses. “She has me. What do I do?” I push my shoulder onto his gently.
“Stick with me, I’ll help you. Stay close.”
I start to walk back towards the barn. Griff hesitates, but when Honey’s rope tugs on his neck gently, he starts to walk with me. Honey alternates between crooning to him and telling me what a good boy I am. Griff sticks very close and eventually stops flinching when he bumps against Honey’s leg. He even lets her lean over and rub his withers before we get back to the barn.
The little hairs above Frank’s eyes are raised high when we get back to the barn. Griff’s sweat is drying and he is no longer breathing heavy. Honey stops us, slides down off my back and leads us inside. She puts Griff back in his stall first. When she shuts his door, she rubs my head and walks me back the couple of stalls towards mine. Before she can grab my halter off my door, I press my head into her chest. She wraps her arms around my head and rests her head on top of mine.
“You did amazing, boy. I’ll never let you go, I promise,” she whispers in my ear.
For the first time in a very long time, I choose to believe her. Because some humans are like Honey.
Carly Eastern studied Creative Writing at Franklin and Marshall College. She has been riding horses for over twenty years. She currently teaches horseback riding full time and spends her free time with her retired, thirty-one year old pony, Whisper.
The inaugural $2500 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest celebrated stories written by and for horse lovers from all over the world. We were inundated with amazing narratives about triumph, loss and the deep emotional experience that is being with an amazing horse. To learn more about the 2019 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.