In Sickness and In Health: When Saving Wild Horses Becomes a Long-Term Commitment
25 August 2018
When saving the life of wild horses there is always the risk you’ll be assigned a horse that has injuries sustained in the wild, or one that is never able to fully embrace domesticated life. In these instances, often the horses aren’t ever suitable to rehome and become a long-term commitment to help them have any quality of life in domestication. For me, a horse I have had to committ to for life is Elder, and at times I worry that Concord (a stallion I saved from the June 2018 muster) is uncannily like him.
Even for those that know Elder’s story, it would be impossible to truly understand just how difficult his journey has been so far, nor how challenging he still is. Elder was mustered from the Kaimanawa Ranges in 2014 and due to most of his teeth being broken off we have never been able to get an accurate age; at the time he was estimated to be about 14 – 18 years, which would make him between 18 – 22 years now.
On top of that, he was lame when he was mustered, suffering from a mild case of mechanical laminitis from the concussion of being herded by helicopter for about 18 kilometers, some of which was down gravel roads. Because of his inability to be safely handled and his hooves needing care, for the first couple of years he had to be sedated in a crush, then led out to a yard to have a second injection to lay him down so he could have his hooves done. At this point it was costing about $400 - $600 every time his hooves were done, not including the farrier work as my sister Vicki was able to trim and shoe him. About 18 months after being mustered, even fully sedated, Elder launched at our vet and pulled the glasses off his head with his teeth. When that vet retired from practice, his replacement refused to work with Elder; understandably so.
Because of poor hoof condition, which he still struggles from today, Elder’s hooves have to be done every 6 – 8 weeks to maintain soundness. So with our options of sedating him limited, since he was also impossible to get anything in his mouth and it was a struggle to orally sedate him as well, I persevered with being able to handle him sufficiently to deal with his hooves. It took 1154 days to be able to touch every inch of his body and pick up his back hooves to be trimmed for the first time.
(These photos were taken 3 1/2 years into his training and show how much I could safely touch)
Still, to this day I am the only one who can safely catch him, touch him, or pick up his feet. Over the years my sisters, who both shoe the ir own team of showjumpers, have taught me the basics of trimming so he doesn’t have to risk injury to either them or a stranger again. Even then I have to be careful not to accidentally touch his legs or sides for risk of him panicking or trying to kick me.
For me, knowing his routine, I am able to achieve things with him that no one else can, yet in most regards, he’s more difficult after four years than most of my wild horses are after one month. Yes, I can catch him in the paddock with no halter on and ride him (which he loves), but he is a one-person horse and one I could never safely rehome or trust with other people.
Every time I travel I know there is a very real risk he could injure himself and if so, it would be unlikely anyone would be able to catch or treat him. If that happened he’d have to be euthanised, from a distance, as catching him without me there would be near impossible. Once, when I was in Auckland for a meeting, he got his leg caught and was basically hobbled and unable to move, yet no one could get near enough to help him. Dropping everything I was doing, I had to drive three hours’ home to sort him out; within minutes he was caught, untangled and happily grazing.
To date, Elder’s cost me about $10,000, yet even with that financial investment, he’s worth nothing. In fact, the amount he’s cost me is irrelevant because I’d never be able to part with him, even if I wanted to. For me, this once-wild stallion is a long-term commitment, in sickness and in health. And the question remains, knowing everything now would I save his life again?
I honestly can’t answer that question; apart from perhaps Concord, he’s the only horse who I think might have preferred a few hours of trauma at the slaughter yards. Because, for these stallions – no matter how patient and gentle I have been – they have found most aspects of the domestication process stressful. So with all our good intentions to save them, they have actually suffered mentally and emotionally far longer than they would have if they’d gone straight to the abattoir.
Although Elder how enjoys many aspects of this life, and I’m hopeful Concord will get to that point too, there is no doubt that the dream outcome for these horses would have been to live out their days in the wild. Many times over the years I wished Elder had never been mustered, or that I could have released him back into the Kaimanawa Ranges, and now with Concord, my feelings remain the same. For both of these Kaimanawas, the best quality of life would have been to remain wild.