June 2012

Ornamental livestock

By David Feela

I was sitting in a comfortable chair one evening, reading a chapter from a vintage Western, when I glanced out the window to see a horse cropping the grass along my driveway. I don’t own a horse. I don’t want a horse. Too many neighbors breed horses only to hang them like silhouettes against the horizon.

I went out to the porch for a better look, thinking I’d encounter a part-time cowboy wandering along the road. I called out to the empty horizon: Yoo-hoo! I thought I heard a snicker. It was only the nicker of a horse.

Acres of print have examined the plight of wild horses in the West, often referred to as mustangs, and I don’t mean to suggest the problem deserves any less attention. Finicky horse advocates will argue that the term “wild mustangs” is erroneous, because such horses aren’t wild, just feral, having been introduced by the Spanish centuries ago from domesticated stock.

But whether these horses fairly or unfairly compete for forage on public grazing lands or whether they are a native or invasive species is beside the point. The horse in my driveway had ribs I could have played like a xylophone and she was not wild, just worn out. A hungry horse should not have to canvas the neighborhood for a meal.

She politely glanced up, allowed me to approach, then went on with her business of cropping the grass. As I ran my hand along her neck and flanks, it was obvious my guest horse hadn’t missed just a meal or two. She’d been systematically ignored until her mere presence must have chided her owners into turning her out.

Wild horses may be scattered all across the West, but it’s the domestic stock being “set free” to find their destinies that worries me. Horse owners down on their economic luck think they can save bales of cash by letting their charges wander. The notion that horses, like feral dogs and cats, will find their own way is absurd. The notion that dogs and cats will find their own way is also absurd, but for now I’d like to discuss horses.

In the literature children are fed, the image of equine hug-ability is over-emphasized. “Black Beauty” and “My Friend Flicka,” to name a few, are stories that tug at the heartstrings and make every child want to hold a plastic replica of a dream they one day hope is transformed into flesh and blood. I don’t know how many youngsters actually receive ponies for their birthdays, but based on my own informal gallop poll, to many adults all across the West have not been able to rein in their urge to own a horse.

In Alice Walker’s book, the horses that are said to make the landscape more beautiful are not the ones strung for miles along our rural fence lines, pulling up the grass by the roots until paradise is reduced to an acre of bare dirt.

I found a plastic pail in the garage and filled it with oatmeal, then took a rope off a nail. One mouthful of oats and my mystery horse would have followed me anywhere. I followed the trail of horse apples along the road, all the way up to the highway and back again. Every neighbor’s horse rushed across their allotted pasture to shinny up to the wire, whinny and snort, as if gossiping about this stranger from the east side of oblivion.

We ended up back in my driveway, a poor excuse for a refuge, because my property is not fenced to contain a horse, not even a well-behaved one. Though my grass could have used a little more clipping, I remembered a neighbor who once visited my house to collect his truant bull. We get quite a parade of wandering livestock through our property for the simple reason that we don’t fence them out.

He said no, it wasn’t his horse. He offered to put her into a small pasture he’d loaned to his neighbor for quartering three of his horses until they’d cleaned up the grass. A sort of weed and feed negotiation.

As he worked at undoing the gate chain, I removed the rope from around my horse’s neck. I say “my horse,” but really she wasn’t anyone’s horse, not any more. She leaned her long head against my shoulder and held it there for a ponderous moment before I urged her into the company of strangers.

Back at home, I swore I’d get my gun if any pigs showed up. One week later — I swear it’s true — two young pigs hoofed it through our yard while I sat in the same chair reading a paperback novel.

I wouldn’t have believed it had there been three.

David Feela is a retired educator in rural Montezuma County, Colo.