We invite you to read Voice For The Horse Sponsor Tony Stombergs introduction to his book The Forgotten Horses. It is well worth the read and it is here you will learn why the Voice For The Horse exists today
The Beauty Of America's Unwanted Horses
the forgotten horses
By Tony Stromberg
I STARTED THIS WITH NO IDEA HOW IT WOULD TURN OUT. I simply wanted to continue doing what I love: photographing horses and spending time with them. I had thought that publishing my previous book, Spirit Horses, was one of those major life accomplishments that would allow me to coast for a while. I did not realize that, in my early fifties, I was just beginning my life’s true work. I now know that Spirit Horse, and this book, are steps on an ever-unfolding pilgrimage toward freedom for me.
A book like this can, and probably must, take on a life of its own. The Forgotten Horses certainly has. I feel like its midwife as much as its author or photographer, as I have watched it unfold from within and blossom. Once again, I have learned that it is usually best to simply clear my mind of preconceptions or agendas, get out of the way, and let what wants to happen simply happen. I realize that I have become, in some inexplicable way, a conduit for the voice of a very magnificent form of life. And I am deeply honored to help make that voice heard.
When I published Spirit Horses, I began to receive emails and letters from people telling me how much the book meant to them. Many of those people were not horse owners or horse aficionados. Rather, they worked in office building all day, on the phone or in front of computers. Many of them were not at all that happy and felt a distinct lack of meaning in their lives. The following excerpt, from a letter sent to me by a woman named Maria, exemplifies the hundreds I’ve received:
I would just like to let you know that your work has made quite an impact and impression on me emotionally…With every passing day my yearning to leave civilization and live closer to nature and horses gets stronger and stronger. I admire the move you made. Thank you for giving the world an opportunity to see the true spirit of the horse.
No matter where they were from or what they did for a living, those who wrote to me all shared the same underlying longing, the same quiet tone of restlessness, and the same desire to reconnect with something lost. These letters made me think more deeply about why horses speak to people so strongly, even people who have never been around them in person. Seem to be archetypal messengers, their essence somehow bridging the gap between the earth and that greater realm where we are all ultimately bound. They also embody qualities we have forgotten or given away ~ freedom, power, and integrity the foremost among them.
I don’t know when it all changed for me. But I remember feeling increasingly uncomfortable every time I drove by fenced-in horses. What once seemed completely normal somehow didn’t anymore. And these feelings stuck with me and forced me into deeper and deeper layers of personal inquiry. I started to realize that these feelings might reflect the journey my own life has taken since I left my job as a big-city commercial photographer and pursued a simpler life photographing horses. The more I freed myself from containment and structure, the more I found myself awakening to imprisonment in the world around me. The move I chose what to do with my life, and where and how to do it, the more aware I became of why I had felt so trapped in my old life. Like most people, I had done things the way I was supposed to rather than following a deeper inspiration. And the more I sought liberation. The more I noticed everyone else longing for the same liberation. I thought about how we live in our technologically driven culture and about what we truly value; eventually I came to wonder whether we even know what we truly value. I read recently that only about 5 percent of the U.S. population lives in a rural environment, in contrast to the 25 to 30 percent of us who lived there fifty years ago. We have made a huge migration toward urban life. As a consequence, we are that much farther removed from the natural world around us.
And then this epiphany suddenly dawned on me; we do to our animals what we do to ourselves. We assume they have no problem leading lives that mirror those we have created for ourselves ~ structured and contained, sterile and controlled, with increasingly small doses of true freedom and playful abandon.
Our urbanized lives have created an increasing hunger for connection to the wilderness. Yet we don’t recognize this hunger for what it is. Instead, we hold momentary fascination and provide fleeting satisfaction. But then there we are again, craving the latest gizmo to replace the last gizmo that doesn’t feel as fast or fancy anymore.
We have become a society whose mantra is disposability. In our misdirected quest for some elusive sense of perfection, we act like hungry ghosts, caught in an endless cycle of consumption. We tire quickly of our cars, our toy, our tools, our clothes ~ and nowadays even our animals and our loved ones ~ but no matter, we can simply toss them aside and replace them. The horses we have tossed aside are the subject of this book.
Nobody is to blame. We just forgot. We forgot the value the natural world can bring us. We are like abusive parents passing down what they themselves were taught. We have simply lost touch with what gives us peace and belonging, the feeling that we have enough and are an integral part of the world around us.
In the introduction to his beautiful little book Kinship with All Life, J. Allen Boone prophetically writes:
Men and women everywhere are being made acutely aware of the fact that something essential to life and well-being is flickering very low in the human species and threatening to go out entirely. This “something” has to do with such values as love…sincerity…loyalty…honestly…enthusiasm…humility…goodness…happiness…fun. Practically every animal still has these assets in abundance and is eager to share them, given opportunity and encouragement.
Horses, and all animals, can bring to our lives a true gift ~ not just ribbons, trophies, or dollars. Through a marvelous co-creative process, horses are trying to show us a way back to a place they have never left.
MY VISION FOR THIS BOOK BEGAN TO CRYSTALLIZE when I started to notice that some of the horses I’ve had the pleasure to meet in the past, including some featured in my first book, were simply not around anymore. When I started investigating, I found that many of them had been “put down” (a euphemism for killed) because they had become lame, had fallen short of being championship material, had a deformity, or hadn’t been able to breed or carry foals anymore, thereby becoming unprofitable.
Around the same time, I started visiting horse shelters, sanctuaries, and rescue organizations while scouting new locations for my photography workshops. In the process, I met some unique and remarkable horses and began to photograph them for this book. My original plan was to tell each of those horses’ unique stories. Sadly, I came to learn that many of the stories were not so unique ~ their tragedies were so remarkably similar that they did not bear repeating. It also became apparent that in some cases no one knew their stories.
Many of these horses had been unloaded at livestock auction, which frequently lead to the slaughterhouses. Agents buy up horses at auction and then directly sell them directly to slaughterhouses, which pay for horses by the pound. Much of the money people donate to rescue organizations and sanctuaries is used to outbid these agents. Although the recent court-mandated closure of American slaughterhouses was welcome victory for horses, the lack of federal protection at our borders means that horses are now being shipped to Mexico or Canada, where their deaths are rendered even more cruelly.
Another common story is that of the rescued PMU mare. PMU stands for Pregnant Mare Urine which is what the brand-name pharmaceutical Premarin is named for. Developed and marketed as a hormone replacement therapy for women, the primary ingredient in the drug comes from the urine of pregnant mares. The mares are tied all day long wearing bags to collect their urine. After they give birth they spend the summer at pasture with their foals, an unwanted by-product of this industry, before starting another cycle. Each year around thirty thousand foals are born, although this number is dropping quickly as new research shows that Premarin is causing cancer in women. PMU mares have historically been very large draft horses, the kind used to plow fields and pull heavy wagons. Draft horses have the patience to stand tied all day, and they are so large that their foals typically weigh one thousand pounds at one year and so bring a good price at auction. PMU foals are weaned in the fall and then sold at auctions to the meat market, and the meat is typically sold overseas, where it is considered a delicacy. The decline of the PMU industry is both a blessing and a temporary curse ~ a blessing in that a very inhumane industry is quickly disappearing and a curse because thousands of draft horse mares and foals suddenly need homes.
Many of the horses who find their way directly to local horse shelters also share common stories. Some are horses who cannot be ridden competitively for one reason or another. Others are the horses of children who have grown up and moved on to college. Many are the results of experiments in cross-breeding that did not work out as hoped. Others were simply abandoned, usually because of financial hardship ~ left in a field or lot to slowly starve until someone notices them and calls the sheriff. I even heard about one pair of horses abandoned inside a closed wooden barn, forced by starvation to literally eat their way out. One survived; his companion did not.
An inordinate number of horses fall victim to a common pattern ~ one you hear about again and again around the stable. Someone buys a horse for pleasure and everything goes well until an unexpected behavioral issue arises. These issues often result from the old methods of training, which are often based on control and punishment, rather than true partnership. The issue gets worse, and the owner doesn’t know how to deal with the problematic horse. Ultimately, after trying a few different trainers, he or she ends up selling the horse, either privately or through the local auction.
The reasons horses are disposed of are almost endless; I learned about ex-racehorses who had earned their owners hundreds of thousands of dollars only to be disposed of just days after an injury precluded their competing anymore. I heard about one horse left as collateral at a convenience store while the owner went to get money to pay for gas and sodas; he never returned . Other horses are left behind after divorce. Many horses come from “ranch dispersal sales”. They are working ranch-horses who are getting old and tired and can’t really keep up with the younger horses anymore. They are frequently auctioned off, sometimes regardless of their health or disposition.
Finally, I’ve met a vast number of magnificent horses who have been rounded up and removed from open lands by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) through systematic gathers designed to control horse populations. These horses end up going through the BLM’s adoption program, where some are purchased into good homes. Sadly, many are not. And those who spend three or four years in a holding facility, becoming too old to be trained, are often labeled unadoptable. There is nothing more depressing than a wild stallion that once ran freely across the vast plains and mountains of the West living out the remainder of his life in a crowded holding pen in the suburbs.
Wild horses have roamed the American West for centuries. It is estimated that there were once two million American wild horses in the West. This number is now estimated to be about twenty-seven thousand. The sad truth is that wild horses exist only for themselves and do not generate income for the BLM. They’re beautiful but not profitable, and they must compete with large cattle interests and encroaching oil and gas drilling. The American wild horse may soon be a fading memory, as the number of horses living in certain “herd management areas” falls well below the population threshold necessary for the herd to survive. This is not accidental.
The horse is a cultural icon of the American West and also plays a powerful archetypal role in people’s lives. As the American wild horse is slowly and systematically being removed from public lands to make way for more hamburgers and gasoline, it saddens me deeply. I don’t want to see us become like a virus, consuming and consuming until we literally die in our own waste.
THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LEARNING of the tragic fates of these horses was to discover the remarkable people who work to change them. Those who organize and run horse shelters and rescue organizations have a deep understanding of horses and devote their lives to reversing some very dysfunctional trends. Many of these facilities provide forgotten horses a life of dignity, one befitting the horses’ innate design. Some horses find a permanent sanctuary there, a safe haven where they can live out the rest of their lives in peace and tranquility. They have room to roam, graze, and play ~ to be as nature intended horses to be. Thanks to these facilities, other horses find loving and supportive homes, where they live out the remainder of their lives as friends, companions, teachers, and healers.
Probably the most amazing and touching thing I observed at these facilities ~ I photographed at twenty, although there are hundreds throughout the country ~ is the love, compassion, and unconditional acceptance the staff members bring to the horses. In their own way, these people are helping to show us a say back to the values we have forgotten or discounted. They have learned to value caregiving over competition. They have learned that an authentic and mutually respectful relationship is far more important than cosmetic appearance or more money. They are learning and teaching that the connection between human and animal can be just as deep and profound as the connection between humans, oftentimes more so.
Many of the organizations do not stop at rescuing and placing horses. They also put tremendous effort into training, education, and outreach. Some are directly involved with Equine Assisted Therapy programs, in which wounded horses help to heal wounded people, forming deep relationships across the fences. Some sanctuaries are also devoted to the conservation and preservation of rare or endangered breeds of wild horses. One in particular, Return To Freedom has been instrumental in creating the nation’s first wild horse conservancy and land trust, where family herds are allowed to live without separation or segregation, under the protection of national law.
Another organization, Rolling Dog Ranch has devoted itself to the care and rehabilitation of blind horses, considered to be the most unwanted and useless of them all. While photographing these horses, the depth of connection touched me to the core. A quote on Rolling Dog’s website embodies the essence of most of the shelters I have visited: “Each and every one of the horses loves being alive. That’s really the ultimate inspiration for us. Despite their disabilities, they want nothing more than a chance to enjoy life. And that’s what they get to do here”. Isn’t that what we all want?
ULTIMATELY, CREATING THIS BOOK has been amazingly rewarding for me. Sharing the beauty of these forgotten horses has been a much more satisfying challenge than doing another horse book on flashy, expensive breeds. I hope it further validates the remarkable work of these sanctuary heroes. Many nights I would find myself in a hotel room somewhere, reviewing images through a veil of tears. Through the photos, I felt the outpouring of love and care between the horses and people, and it touched me deeply. Never before have I felt so aligned with my life’s purpose, and never before have I felt so moved by what I have experienced. The horses in this book have literally offered themselves to me, as they have offered themselves to humanity for thousands of years, and I am honored by their trust.
Our refusal to treat these horses ~ and other animals ~ as living breathing equals has isolated us from the organism that supports and sustains our very lives. Our work, as many shelters and rescue organizations are showing us, is to begin to see ourselves as integral and equal parts of a complex and interdependent system of life, as illustrated by Chief Seattle’s timeless words: “We did not create the web of life, we are merely a strand in it. What we do to the web, we do to ourselves”.
The horses in this book are my heroes. They are the unwanted horses ~ the discarded, rejected horses who nobody cared about or could see any value in…They are crooked, lame, ordinary, old, blind, uncontrollable, disrespectful, or unattractive. Many of them are just plain wild, a dirty work in this modern culture. I see tremendous beauty in them, and I want to share that beauty.
My hope with this book is to help redirect our collective perception, to help redefine how we see beauty, and thereby help to restore balance to our world. May the horses in this book reveal their soul to you, as they have to me. May they show us a way back to a deep appreciation both of the world around us, and of each other.
| Autumn Light
| Bad Girls