I could not have slept tonight if I had left that helpless little creature to perish on the ground.
~ Abraham Lincoln, after stopping to return a fledgling to the nest
My mother was long dead when she finally got her horse. Though she lived on a farm the last 20 years of her life—a farm with an enormous red barn and a fenced pasture for cattle and acres of hills and woods to ride in—her husband stood firm on the word no. Horses, he said, were nothing but a cash drain. Yet inexplicably, two years after my mother died, I came home for a visit to find Tess, an elegant chestnut brown mare, living alone in a stall in my mother’s old red barn.
This week I went to the Kentucky Horse Park to see my first Hunter Jumper competition. Having never been to a horse show, or a horse park for that matter, I had no idea what to expect and stood mouth-agape at every turn. Majestic athletic horses of all sizes and colors circling the course and jumping rails with seeming ease. Long-legged women in fitted white riding attire, black helmets with chinstraps, and sleek leather boots. More grooms than you could count leading horses from stall to the ring to stall again, brushing and petting and gently bathing their charges. Horses surrounded with love and adoration and care; horses treated like royalty.
I could not help but think of Tess. Months after meeting her, I heard the vet had come to treat her and found her in horrific shape. Alone, and lonely, in a sweltering stall; hooves diseased and rotted through from standing too long in mud; depressed, to which my mother’s husband allegedly replied, “Depressed?! She’s a goddamned horse!” The vet, thankfully, insisted on taking her and giving her to someone who could care for her. I imagine my mother and how sickened, how heartbroken she would be to know that Tess, the horse she yearned for so long and never met, suffered this way. Such a stark contrast with the horses surrounding me at the Kentucky Horse Park on a spectacular summer day, each led by a gentle hand into the cool shade to graze, fussed over and adored by all.
In a tent on the Horse Park grounds, I found myself next to a woman telling an incredible story about horses. She used to work at the park, she was saying, but now works for The Brooke, an organization based in the U.K. that provides care for working animals—horses, mules, donkeys—in some of the poorest regions of the world. I listened as she told the story of Dorothy Brooke, the wife of a British Cavalry officer who, upon accompanying her husband to Cairo many years after World War I, discovered that thousands of British warhorses had been left behind and were now elderly and suffering horrifically, being worked to the bone by locals who had no resources or training to care for them. Ms. Brooke raised enough money in 1931 to buy back 5,000 horses and see to their proper care, only to realize that most were so old and in the final stages of collapse, they had to be humanely and peacefully euthanized.
Knowing there was still work to do, Ms. Brooke founded the OLD WAR HORSE MEMORIAL HOSPITAL in Cairo to provide veterinary care to working horses, donkeys and mules, an organization that continues today, decades after her death, training vets and owners in the poorest parts of the world to care for, and to love, their working animals.
I listened to the story and thought about Tess. How trusting and gentle she was. How unloved. The day we met I remember cupping my hand under her soft nose and pulling her head down to touch my forehead with hers. Exactly as I imagine my mother would have done every day of both of their lives. I had never thought to worry about Tess. I figured she was in good hands. And I was wrong.
Here’s to the veterinarian who saved her. I hope my mother’s horse, the horse she longed for and never met, left our farm and went on to the find the peace and comfort and joy and companionship she deserved. I hope a gentle hand is leading her to a cool spot to graze in the shade.
I hope Tess, finally, received love.
To learn more about Dorothy Brooke and helping working animals around the world, click here.