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I saved an abused, broken horse. Or did she save me?

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Show caption ‘Abuelita was so riddled with ulcers that she could tolerate grooming only with a wet washcloth.’ Photograph: Holly Lynton/The Guardian Life and style I saved an abused, broken horse. Or did she save me? Was my rescuing a starving racehorse an act of generosity, or a quid pro quo? Courtney Maum Wed 27 Apr 2022 11.00 BST Share on Facebook

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On a balmy day in early October, I found an aged polo pony named Abuelita panting in a locked stall, her matted hair bearing the mark of the saddle that had recently been on her, a gash across her cheek. Her legs were trembling from exhaustion, her eyes sunken from dehydration, her ribs pushing through her coat.

It was my third week riding at the private farm of a Connecticut-based polo player, a property I’d landed at when my arena polo club closed during the pandemic, leaving me without the hobby that had proved an unlikely medicine for my chronic insomnia.

Desperate to keep up the riding that tempered my anxiety, but operating on a freelance writer’s salary, a fellow rider cautiously suggested that I contact a man that we’ll call Roger, a horse flipper and polo professional who had more horses than he could ride.

Roger had a problem with the bottle, my friend warned, but a fantastic eye for horses. I called him and visited his property. It was storybook bucolic: stone walls, red oaks, and a pasture full of polo mounts. We worked out a deal where I’d pay a flat fee every month to ride as often as I liked.

Everything ran like clockwork for the first two weeks. My interactions with Roger, when they occurred, were brief and amicable. Though I often found airplane bottles of alcohol behind trees while I was tidying up, Roger was not the first functioning alcoholic that I’d come across in the horse world, nor would he be the last. As the daughter to a long line of alcoholics myself, I was preset with a patience for substance abuse that could sometimes shift to optimism. Polo was still in season and Roger was keeping it together; sober adjacent, the horses gaunt but fit, the farm ticking along.

When October hit and the east coast polo season ended, things started to unravel. By the time I found the injured mare locked up without food or water, Roger’s drinking had reached a Bacchanalian level and he was feeding the horses erratically in between blackouts.

‘As an amateur rider with more expertise in word processing than animal rescue, I wasn’t sure what to do.’ Photograph: Holly Lynton/The Guardian

The hay supply had dwindled to several dusty bales and the pipes froze after an early frost, making it impossible to get water to the animals. The farrier who was supposed to rid the horses of their summer shoes never materialized; neither did the groom that Roger claimed he’d hired to cover his increasingly long absences.

What was supposed to be a low-stakes place for me to blow off steam had become a boiler room of stress, but as a middle-aged, amateur rider with more expertise in word processing than animal rescue, I wasn’t sure what to do. I badgered Roger, begged and threatened, decreased what I was paying him. None of this convinced him to buy groceries for his animals.

I lost track of who needed saving. The horses? Roger? Me?

•••

Here is the thing about domesticated horses, and mares especially. They are universally valued for the potential of their bodies: their physical ability to go fast, turn quickly, haul things – and to reproduce.

The autumn I landed at Roger’s, I was a 43-year-old woman with a miscarriage behind me that an anesthesiologist had chided me for crying over, a lost period that my male gynecologist shrugged off as perimenopause. Male politicians were lobbying for womb control and incels were murdering women. This was not the year that I was going to watch mares suffer because a horse owner was “done” with them.

I started raising money behind Roger’s back through my newsletter and used those donations and my own savings on horse food, all the while searching for a longer-term solution. Calling animal control would seem the obvious answer, but friends warned that could land the horses in a slaughter pen: with winter knocking and hay prices sky-high, few people would be willing to take horses in.

Abuelita was not the obvious horse to save. She was pastured by herself in a back field and dangerous, Roger said, too quick to bite and kick.

‘Friends warned that calling animal control could land the horses in a slaughter pen.’ Photograph: Holly Lynton/The Guardian

I experienced this firsthand the day I found her injured. I led her outside with two flakes of precious hay, bandages, and antiseptic, determined to dress the gash I’d later find out she received from Roger trailering her to an off-season match, drunk. Although she pinned her ears when I first approached her face – a clear sign that her priority was calorie absorption – I went in for a second try. And then a naïve third. In a flash, she spun and kicked me hard in my right thigh. I was hurt and bruised, but also schooled.

That day, I recognized a survival instinct in Abuelita that both thrilled and scared me.

It didn’t make sense from an equestrian standpoint to go to bat for Abuelita, but in terms of rescue, it did. She was the oldest horse at Roger’s, the most violent and unpleasant. While the younger horses stood a chance at being sold, Abuelita had no value in the eyes of the buyers that Roger was in contact with.

Rescuing her required UN-level negotiations. Roger wanted me to buy her for four digits when the appropriate price for a severely underfed and violent senior horse was zero. He insisted on $1,000; I fought him to $500. Then he went on a drinking binge, forgot our agreed-on price, and negotiations started again.

When he sent a text through in a moment of weakness saying “just take her, we’ll work out details later,” I did just that, re-homing her to a barn across state lines in Massachusetts. I still needed a bill-of-sale to legitimize the ownership transfer, lest Roger allow me to nurse Abuelita back to health on my own dime before sweeping in to reclaim his fattened-up pony for the summer polo season. I secured it before the winter holidays, making me a horse owner for the first time in my life.

With Abuelita in a safe place, I set about answering her question marks, starting with her age. Roger had told me that Abuelita was 14, which I’d naturally rounded up given his penchant for mendacity and the fact her name means “little grandma” in Spanish.

‘While the younger horses stood a chance at being sold, Abuelita had no value in the eyes of most buyers.’ Photograph: Holly Lynton/The Guardian

For the first few weeks, Abuelita made it clear she wanted to stay in the paddock with the other horses. Photograph: Holly Lynton/The Guardian

Olivia Johnson, a Florida-based friend and horse trainer, helped me look up Abuelita’s racing records even though the first letter and last number of the thoroughbred tattoo on her upper gumline were impossible to read. Using the partial tattoo and photographs of her markings, we found two horses that matched her: one was 10 and had been a disappointing racehorse; the other was 26 and had been a champion.

While I waited for the dentist to come and date her teeth, I silently hoped that Abuelita was the losing racehorse so that I’d have more time with her.

But more time for what? Far from the daydreams I’d had of Abuelita trotting to the gate to meet the person who had saved her now that she had food, water, and pasture-mates, she was loathe to leave any of them. She had taken to “balking,” or planting her feet firmly and refusing to budge when I tried to lead her from her paddock. I wasn’t riding Abuelita during the first months that I owned her so she could regain weight and muscle, but grooming her was harder than any riding I could have got up to. Putting her on the cross ties riders traditionally use to keep a horse securely positioned in a barn aisle was akin to a suicide mission and in the stall, she’d swing her rump toward me: the ultimate affront from a horse to a human.

Due to her irregular feedings, Abuelita was so riddled with ulcers that she could tolerate grooming only with a wet washcloth – it was in my best interest to have a last will and testament at the ready when approaching her stomach area. I’d find out later that Roger used to drug her before playing polo so that she’d be manageable to girth.

As the weeks passed, I started to realize that the bonding I’d been hoping for might not come at all. A farrier showed me the spot on her hoof where Abuelita had blown an abscess out of her corona months earlier, suggesting that Roger had played polo on her despite her painful injury, which would have felt – for humans – like having one sole covered in open blisters and having to run barefoot through gravel. A chiropractor pointed to trauma she was holding in her pelvis and back from being roughly mounted and handled. And then the dentist came and aged her: 26 years old.

Through my polo network, I found out that Abuelita’s former owners had been even less scrupulous than Roger. How many years had this mare known of abuse? And if she had no reason to trust humans, what right did I have to expect her to trust me?

Abuelita’s former owner had forced her on the polo field even though she had a painful foot injury. Photograph: Holly Lynton/The Guardian

In her poetry collection, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, the Somali British writer Warsan Shire writes, “You think I’ll be the dark sky so you’ll be the star? / I’ll swallow you whole,” a sentiment that sums up the shift in my attitude toward Abuelita after I learned about her past. I’d thought I was being generous by rescuing this mare, but my generosity had come with expectations that she would become “nice”. What reason did this poor horse have to be nice? And what kind of generosity comes with expectations? If generosity comes with an agenda, isn’t it a bribe?

Four months into our partnership, Abuelita has put on hundreds of pounds. She’s barefoot (which means she has no horseshoes on) and her improved circulation has her coat shining a fiery red instead of the dull, doorknob-brown she was when I first found her. Though I can’t speak for her, she expresses the running and bucking and playing and whinnying of a happy horse.

I look back now and cheer for the old lady mare ready to defend her access to food and water with her life, who kicked me when I tried to dress her facial wound because she thought that I was coming for her hay.

At a healthy weight now with her energy restored, Abuelita is more than rideable –she’s a pleasure under saddle if you survive tacking her up. But I don’t feel comfortable imposing my desires on her. It feels like an act of sisterhood to just let her be a horse.

Courtney Maum is the author of five books, most recently The Year of the Horses