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Reaction to "un-sellable horse"

From: Ally

Dear Jessica, I know you don't usually do followup letters, but I hope that you will make an exception. I feel that I have something important to say to Kimberly, the girl with the out of control horse that attacks other horses and rears and falls over backward with its rider.

I am thirty-seven years old now. Twenty-five years ago, I was just like Kimberly. I loved horses so much, I was twelve and I had read "The Black Stallion" until the pages fell out, and I thought I knew a lot about horses. I begged for a horse, and we started looking at the classified ads. We found a really beautiful horse named Star, and the man told us that the horse had Olympic jumping potential but his little daughter just wasn't a very good or brave rider, and she needed a real quiet, pony-ride kind of horse and they couldn't afford to keep two horses. We were getting a wonderful horse and a wonderful deal.

I'm sure you are shaking your head right now reading this, but we didn't know that anyone would lie about a horse. So when the man told us that I was such a talented rider I needed a horse with that kind of talent and potential, we weren't suspicious, my parents were just very proud of my talent, and I was too.

At first I thought that Star was hard for me to ride because he was missing the little girl who used to own him, so I spent a lot of time feeding him sugar and carrots and petting him. Some days he would try to bite me or try to chase and bite the other horses, in turnout or even through the stall walls, other days he was nice. When he would bolt, or spin and duck and run away from something that hadn't bothered him the day before, I thought he was just being high-spirited. When he reared, I sort of liked it at first. I tried to hold on to his mane and wait for him to come down. Some days he would rear up so high he would fall over backwards, and I got hurt a few times when I couldn't get out of the way fast enough. One day my ankle broke when he landed on my foot.

I told my parents that Star was sensitive and spirited and that he hardly ever did things like that. After they saw it happen enough to know that "hardly ever" wasn't really true, I told them that horses did stuff like that sometimes, it was normal. Then one day he flipped over and I broke my pelvis.

I had to go to the hospital in an ambulance and then I had to tell my parents everything. They said they didn't want me to ride Star any more. They called my trainer and told him about all the rearing and falling over, and asked what to do. He said nobody should ride the horse and told them "Call the vet." Doc came over and looked at Star and did some tests, then he said he thought Star should go to the big vet hospital for more tests, so that they could try to figure out what his problem was and if it was something that could be fixed.

We weren't rich people, but my parents agreed to pay for all the tests and sent Star to the clinic. I couldn't go and see Star because I was in the hospital and then in a hospital bed in my own room at home because of the broken pelvis, and it was a long time before I could walk at all. After two weeks, Doc (my vet) came over to our house and sat down and talked to my parents in my room so I could hear. He said that Star had bone injuries in his spine that were causing nerve pain. His wife is a chiropractor and she said he had a lot of problems that were beyond anything she could help with. Doc said it wouldn't be right to sell Star, he was too dangerous from hurting all the time, and somebody would get hurt the way I did, or killed. My parents said to put him down, and Doc said he would do an autopsy and tell us what he found.

A couple of days later Doc came back and said that we did the right thing. Star had damage in his neck and in his withers and in his back just behind his withers, and Doc said that the rearing and flipping happened because something put pressure on the nerves, either from the rider moving in a certain way or the saddle shifting or just a movement that Star might make like rounding up his back to jump or go into a canter (which was one of the times he would bolt or rear). He said that Star was probably in pain every single minute of every day, and that the "crazy fits" happened whenever the pain got to the point where Star couldn't stand it.

I felt glad that it wasn't anything I had done, but I felt terrible that for three years, every time I rode Star I was causing him so much pain. Doc said that I was lucky not to have been killed, that riders did get killed when horses go over backwards like that. He also said that going over backwards is probably what caused the damage to Star's spine in the first place, maybe he had fallen in a trailer or reared and fallen on a rock or just hit his withers too hard on hard ground. He said that horses aren't meant to go over backwards like that but some trainers pull them over backwards on purpose to punish them, and he'd seen other horses that were permanently ruined because of that.

After Star died, we heard some stories about him with his previous owners, and it sounded as if he'd had the problem for some time before we got him. One of his other owners was in a body cast for a year, and he had a bad reputation for rearing and generally going nuts in the middle of a ride. We didn't know any of these people had ever owned Star. The guy who sold him to us had left the area, but we did eventually find out that he was a horse dealer and didn't even have a daughter, so the story he told us about how Star was just too talented for his little girl was a complete lie. We guessed that Star had once belonged to one of the "pull the horse over backwards" trainers, and then got sold when it was obvious he was wrecked, but we'll never really know about the cause, only the effect. Poor Star was probably in pain for years before I got him, and I just made it worse.

My parents spent a lot of money on those medical tests for Star, and they paid Doc to put him down. I admire them for that. Once they knew that Star was dangerous, before they even knew why he was dangerous, they said they wouldn't sell him unless his problem could be fixed. There is no way they would have handed him over to another young girl, or anybody else, to ride, even if they could have saved money or even made some money if they'd done that. They were the most honorable people in the world, and even though they didn't know anything much about horses, they knew about ethics and honor and responsibility and doing the right thing. The right thing for Star was to put him out of his pain. They did that, and they never mentioned anything about the money to me, not ever. They died in an accident five years ago and I never had a chance to tell them how great they were and how much I loved and respected them always. I guess that's what I'm doing now, in this letter.

Anyway, I just wanted to tell you and Kimberly how things went for another horse with a similar problem. Kimberly, if you're reading this, please don't try to get rid of your problem by selling the horse to someone who doesn't know his history. And don't give up on horses, you just need a different horse that can be your friend. Your horse is probably in pain all the time just like my horse was, so please, please, don't sell him and let him go on suffering and maybe injure or even kill a rider when he is hurting so much he is out of control. It may not be illegal to sell him, but it's wrong. And don't try to ride him again yourself, please, or you might not even get to choose whether you're going to stop riding. My broken pelvis hurt for a long time, and it will never be normal. I'm not even forty yet, and I already have arthritis in my pelvis because of the accident. I've heard of people who were killed in similar accidents so I guess I shouldn't complain, but please don't take any more chances and don't let anyone else take those chances either.

I know that your original question was basically just "would it be okay to sell my horse and not tell buyers about him rearing and flipping over, or should we put him down?", and if those are your only choices, then putting him down IS the answer, but if you're a regular HORSE-SENSE subscriber and if you've read Jessica's HORSE-SENSE archives, you know about the different things you could try, if your parents were willing to put some money into the horse. But since they aren't, you just don't have a lot of choices. Please don't let your parents sell your horse to someone who doesn't know about it. Even if they don't care anything about the horse, and even if they never got sued, or if they got sued and won the lawsuit, how could they live with themselves if somebody else's daughter got badly hurt or killed? Your parents may not have considered that even though they are really the ones making the decision, you will live with the consequences for a long time, a lot longer than they will. Thanks for reading all this, if you did. And Jessica, thank you for printing this, because I just kept reading the letter and saying "I'm Kimberly, I'm Kimberly". I don't want her to go through what I went through, and I don't want her horse to go on suffering the way Star would have gone on suffering if we hadn't put him down. Ally

Hi Ally - you're right, I don't usually publish follow-up letters or comments, but the original letter provoked a flurry of responses, and yes, I'm making an exception for yours. Sometimes it's important to hear the words of someone who has "been there, done that". I'll include my "combined" response - to your letter and to all the other letters about Kimberly's horse.

Your parents must have been wonderful people, and I don't think it matters one bit that you didn't have a last chance to tell them how much you loved and respected them. They must have known. I'm SURE they knew.

They made a mistake initially, in buying that horse for you, and they paid a high price for the mistake, but the price could have been much higher. By "price" I don't mean the money that went into the horse and his upkeep and diagnostics and euthanasia, although it may have been a large sum. I'm talking about the price they paid in terms of knowing that they had put you at risk and almost lost you - a broken pelvis is a major injury, but you're right, riders DO get killed when horses fall on them.

Based on Kimberly's letter, I strongly suspect that her horse may be suffering from back injuries , very possibly the same sort of injuries that your vet found in your horse, Star. But in the absence of diagnostics, or suspicions confirmed (or not) by necropsy, there's no way to be certain.

You're right about the HORSE-SENSE archives - thank you for pointing that out. OF COURSE putting a horse down is not the first option, nor is it ever an easy, casual choice. There are many, many options, in terms of both diagnostics and treatment modalities, available to horse-owners who are willing and able to spend the money. These things ARE discussed, at length, throughout the HORSE-SENSE archives. Various forms of medical diagnosis and treatment, farriery, dentistry, chiropractic, massage, and acupuncture, together with tack fitting and adjustment analysis, improvement of the rider's skills, quite possibly a change of trainer.... the options and possibilities are extensive - IF the horse-owner is willing and able to investigate them. That's "willing" - AND "able". BOTH.

To be fair to Kimberly, there are many horse-owners who would be willing to spend the money IF THEY HAD IT, but who simply don't have the funds. And even if someone is able to pay for extensive tests, there are times when - as you learned with Star - even costly, complex diagnostic tests won't tell you everything you need to know, or provide a positive prognosis. When that's the case, euthanasia is a better answer than trying to sell the horse. That doesn't mean that you can count on the results of a necropsy to clear all confusion and let you know that you made exactly the right decision - the results may NOT provide a definitive reason for the horse's problems. Sometimes you can't KNOW, you just have to do the very best you can based on the incomplete information that you have.

Also, don't forget that Kimberly is a minor. She wasn't the one who determined that the only two options were to sell the horse or put it down, and she won't be the one making the final decision. Her parents made that determination, and her parents will make the final decision, which is why much of my answer to her included information that her parents need to know.

There have been quite a number of recent letters to HORSE-SENSE on this subject, as you can imagine. Many are like yours - although yours was the most detailed and specific - and consist of personal accounts by riders who have been injured, or whose family members or friends have been injured or killed in similar situations. One woman wrote about a friend of hers who had taken on a "problem horse" for training - and who is still alive, but ended up spending a year in a body cast and has now given up horses entirely. These are very sad stories, and there are two elements that appear in all of them: a horse in pain, and a rider in danger through ignorance about the amount, type, or degree of the horse's pain.

"Unethical sellers" and "horse dealers" are used as synonyms in many of the letters, but I'd like to take just a moment to say that it's unfair to brand all horse dealers as unethical and unscrupulous. I've known a number of horse dealers who were very honest and straightforward.

I think it's more useful to remind horse-buyers that whether they are buying from a dealer or trainer or next-door neighbour or best friend, they should always be careful. This includes getting good advice and help during the search and purchase, including their instructor's or trainer's approval of the potential purchase, and their vet's positive assessment of the horse's soundness and suitablility for their purpose. They should also be reasonably aware of the market, so that they can distinguish facts from hype, and recognize unrealistic claims. (Hint: sound young horses that have demonstrated genuine Olympic potential are not likely to be sold at bargain-basement rates - nor are they usually listed in the classified ad section of the local newspaper.)

Be aware, be informed, be careful. Just because someone is a horse dealer doesn't mean that he is dishonest. Just because someone is selling his own horse out of his own little barn at home doesn't mean he is honest. Just because someone is honest doesn't mean he can't be misinformed, insufficiently informed, or just plain wrong.

Now, let's go back to the specific problem of Kimberly's horse, with its explosive fits of aggression, rearing, and flipping over backward. Ally has provided the "been there, done that" viewpoint based on her own experience with Star. Some other HORSE-SENSE readers have made suggestions - well-meant, all of them, I'm sure - about how the horse should be sold as a "companion animal", or given to a professional trainer who could "fix its attitude", or sent to a rescue organization or retirement home. There are actual or potential problems with all of these options - each one needs to be thought through, in the context of what the situation would mean for this particular horse.

A horse that attacks other horses is not likely to be a suitable companion animal. Think about this.

Good professional trainers have full schedules and waiting lists. They don't have the time, energy, and barn space to take on additional horses, much less horses like this, much less for free - and they certainly aren't eager to invest their money and time in such horses. A "problem horse" that is sound and healthy but has been mishandled is one thing - eminently re-trainable, and thus probably worth the effort involved in retraining it. A horse that is a proven danger to itself, its rider, and other horses, and that would certainly need extensive and costly medical tests before any responsible trainer could even hope to begin to work with it.. is another matter.

Rescue societies are set up to save horses that are abused and/or neglected, and this horse simply would not meet the qualifications for impoundment. I've seen the photos of Kimberly's horse, and I can assure you that it does not appear abused or neglected in any way. There are no prominent hip-bones visible, and no overgrown hooves - nothing that would justify a rescue investigator's attempt to have it impounded.

There are some well-known, good-quality retirement homes where horses that cannot be ridden can live out their lives in grass fields with safe fencing, good companions, and a caring staff to look after them, but these are like good nursing homes for humans - they, too, have waiting lists, and... they aren't free. It's true that there are some facilities run by organizations or individuals that advertise that they will accept any and all horses, at no charge, but before sending a horse to such a place, the owner would be well-advised to investigate the conditions thoroughly. Some such "homes" are thinly-disguised dealerships; others are feedlot waystations on the way to the slaughter house. Are there any genuine homes where all horses are accepted? Yes, a few. But before you send a horse to spend many years at ANY facility, investigate the facility thoroughly. And before you send a horse anywhere at all, think about the condition and comfort of the horse. It may put the owner's mind at ease to think that the horse is "safe" somewhere and will never be ridden again, but is this enough to ensure a happy, comfortable retirement for the horse? Can the horse ENJOY its life? Some medical conditions are compatible with a happy life in a pasture, but some are not.

Quality of life is all-important. When a horse is in constant pain and has regular bouts of excruciating pain that causes it to explode out of control, what will be that horse's quality of life, even in the kind hands of an affectionate owner?

Kimberly, the young girl who wrote the initial letter is an affectionate owner - not a vicious or unkind or abusive rider, as some readers wrongly assumed. She's obviously young and inexperienced, but it's equally obvious that she means well, tries hard, and is genuinely perplexed about what to do with this horse. She knows that she can't compete it and can't control it, doesn't really want to ride it, is afraid of it, and is so unhappy that she is beginning to wonder whether she wants to ride AT ALL. Her instructor hasn't been able to help her or her horse, and the free advice she's had so far has all consisted of variations on "shoot the horse".

She knows that there will be no money spent on the horse, so professional evaluations, diagnostics and treatments, even if any treatments were possible, simply aren't in the cards. Her choices, as set down by her parents, are very limited: She can keep the horse, sell the horse, or have the horse put down. In other words, she has one impractical, dangerous option, one unethical, dangerous (to others) option, and one sad (but compassionate) option.

Keeping the horse won't make its problems go away, and in any case she doesn't want to keep it. Remember, this is a teenaged girl who loves horses, but is so frightened and frustrated that she is thinking of giving up horses. That is NOT a good situation for the horse, and it's not a good situation for the teenager.

If the horse is out of control because of injuries to its back, selling the horse to a new owner is unlikely to help it, unless the purchaser is a wealthy philanthropist veterinarian who happens to be a brilliant diagnostician, and what are the odds of that? Selling the horse could make the horse's life even worse than it is, possibly much worse, and would be very likely to endanger the buyer or another human - or another horse.

Putting the horse down isn't an easy or casual choice, but in this case, it may be the best of the available options.

The problem, like so many other horse problems, comes down, in the end, to two things: money, and quality of life. Money is a very real problem, since the decision has already been made that there will be no money spent on diagnostic work, and no money for therapy, even assuming that a thorough diagnosis would reveal conditions for which therapy is possible. Not every horse owner can afford to investigate every possible therapeutic option, and an owner's financial limitations are NOT a reflection of the owner's affection for the animal. Some of you have said "If she really cared, she'd spend the money" - well, NO. It's not always that easy, and "caring" and "money" are not synonyms.

That leaves the question of quality of life. Is there any way to justify keeping any animal alive and in perpetual pain, continuing to live but unable to enjoy life? Every horse-owner, every pet-owner, is faced with a question like this sooner or later. When we take on animals, we take on the full responsibility for those animals, their lives, and the quality of those lives. At some point, all of us are faced with a difficult decision - perhaps not so dramatic as Kimberly's decision, but difficult just the same. And at that point, the welfare of the animal has to be what drives the decision. It's not a question of how fond the owner is of the animal, it's a question of what the animal needs. Sometimes, love means doing whatever you have to do to hold on. Sometimes, it means letting go.

Like most HORSE-SENSE readers, I am luckier than Kimberly - I'm an adult, I can make my own decisions about my horses, and my decisions are based on what I think is best for the horses. If something is wrong with one of my horses, I have choices - I can choose to call the vet, send the horse to the clinic, take the horse to another trainer, try a different saddle... or retire the horse in a pleasant grass pasture with safe fencing. It's unlikely that I will ever be in Kimberly's position, faced with a difficult and depressing choice between only two options, both of them unpleasant.

Ally, thank you for writing - in fact, THANK YOU to everyone who has "checked in" on this subject. It's not an easy or comfortable topic, but if reading about this situation has caused other horse-owners to think about their own horses, choices, decisions, and responsibilities, then some greater good may come out of Kimberly's difficulties. We'll leave the subject alone now, but I'm sure that I can speak for the entire HORSE-SENSE membership when I say: Kimberly, we sympathize with your situation. Stay safe, and we wish you well.


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