“FOR SALE: 18-year-old papered Missouri Fox Trotter. Fancy broke! Anyone can ride, neck reins, quiet on trails.”
The Facebook ad caught my attention. I was casually looking for a babysitter horse for light trail riding. I love geriatric animals, and something about this horse grabbed me. A cheaply priced, hairy, flea-bitten gray, he stoically gaited and cantered barefoot up and down an asphalt road in his video.
Not sure why, but he lodged in my brain, and I decided to purchase him. Sight unseen. (BAD IDEA!) Off the internet from a dealer I’d never met. (VERY BAD IDEA!!) With no pre-purchase exam. (VERY VERY BAD IDEA!!!)
My feeling was that, as a vet (who ironically specializes in pre-purchase exams), I could deal with whatever he turned out to be. He was sound in the video, and I wanted to trust the seller. He assured me that the horse hadn’t come from a sale, wasn’t sick and would suit my needs. I paid for the horse and then had him shipped to me, which cost half again as much as the horse did!
He arrived after quite a long trailer ride. Forlorn and cranky, with NO interest in interacting with me, he was otherwise in good shape. Decent weight, feet trimmed. He had some nasal discharge but had just shipped a distance, so I wasn’t too excited.
As I let him settle in, I looked over his papers and saw that there were two recorded owners: one from five years ago and one from 16 years ago. I idly searched Facebook for his last owner and found someone who matched the name and state. I sent her a message that I wasn’t confident would ever be read. “Hi!” I wrote. “Just bought a horse that I think you used to own and was hoping you could tell me about him!”
I spent the next 36 hours letting him get used to his new home. He seemed to hate me, pinning his ears every time he caught sight of me. My sister named him Lenny, which just fit. His snotty nose turned into a snotty and bloody nose, so the poor guy got scoped, radiographed and worked up just 1 1/2 days after arrival. I was hanging out at the barn when my phone notified me that I had a message from the previous owner on Facebook.
What I read was first puzzling then heartbreaking. Initially, she seemed confused. Then she started asking pointed questions about how I obtained him. I answered cautiously because there was clearly an issue, and I didn’t want to impugn my seller unless he deserved it. She sent me her phone number and asked for a call the next day.
Over the next several hours, she sent more messages. His name was Buddy. I briefly mourned the loss of the name Lenny, which fit so well… RIP name Lenny. The little old guy had been the World Reserve Champion Missouri Fox Trotter two years in a row many years ago! She apologized for her confusion but wrote that she thought Buddy was in a therapeutic riding program in Kentucky, so when I contacted her she was shocked and terribly distressed. I was also upset as I started to see where this was going.
The next day I had a long phone call with her. I now know Buddy’s life history!
A gentleman in California spent years planning to breed his dream Fox Trotter. He produced Buddy. He trained and showed Buddy all over the country to huge accolades. Sadly, due to physical issues, he could not keep his beloved horse, and he gave Buddy to his farrier. Buddy was relegated to a field for two years, where he went from pampered show horse to thin and back-burnered. This woman had begged to buy Buddy. She spent seven months fattening and strengthening him before she ever rode him. She contacted the original owner to inform him that she now had Buddy and was hoping to learn more about him. The breeder loved Buddy so much, he traveled to Iowa with some of Buddy’s belongings to visit and tell her all about him.
She kept Buddy for more than five years, until he started slowing down. She taught him how to be a trail horse, for which he was perfect and kind. Eventually he couldn’t keep up on long rides but could still be used lightly. A friend of hers had a contact, a dealer, who he swore was trustworthy. The dealer told her that Buddy could go to a therapeutic riding school if she traded him in for another horse. She vaccinated him, had his feet trimmed, and took him to the dealer. She said that the day she left Buddy there, he turned and looked at her, and it broke her heart, but she knew he would be a wonderful therapy horse. Happy ending, right? Wrong.
Immediately after receiving him, the dealer sold him cheap to the gaited horse seller from whom I bought him. My seller didn’t do anything wrong. He bought a horse, marketed him fairly, and sold him with his papers. The dealer who initially took the horse is the one who lied. This is where Buddy fell through the cracks and, at his age, he could have very easily ended up in a kill pen.
Old Buddy, beloved for most of his life, traveled from Iowa to Kentucky to Ohio to southeast Pennsylvania in two weeks. I was horrified. No wonder the poor guy was defensive and stressed.
The reality is that kill pens are filled with Buddies. The only reason that I was able to learn his history is that he was sold with his papers… thank goodness! I hope that microchipping will soon be a common way to identify unknown horses.
Look at the recent news story of a veterinary student who took many peoples’ old horses promising a forever home, then sent them straight to the killers to make a few bucks. Over and over she did this. If a situation sounds too good to be true for an older or lame horse, I promise that it is.
Horses are not easy. If you don’t own a farm, they are expensive to retire. People must face the truth, do the humane and responsible thing, and make the tough decisions. You have only to visit one auction to understand the horrific plight of slaughter-bound horses. There are fates worse than death and being starved, neglected and/or shipped to slaughter is one of them.
If you can’t keep tabs on the horse or pay for its retirement, you need to humanely and safely euthanize. You owe that to them. If you can’t afford euthanasia and disposal, talk to your veterinarian! They may be able to help. I strongly believe that vets need to work hard to help owners make the right decisions.
Buddy’s last owner has retired many horses on her property, but she thought he would love being a therapy horse. She is distraught over what he went through and will never make that mistake again. I can’t wait to get to know him and hopefully ride him out over the beautiful Chester County countryside. His personality is already changing, and I’m seeing glimpses of who he used to be. He’s an endearing little guy and has earned a nice retirement.
Do you know where your old horses are?
Liz Arbittier, VMD, CVA, is an an assistant professor and equine field service veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. In her spare time, she enjoys adopting elderly shelter dogs and posting an excessive number of adorable photos of them on Facebook. She currently has six tiny old creatures at home! Liz grew up riding hunters and breaking babies, rode in the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association in college, and got her start in show jumping prior to veterinary school when she took a job riding with and managing Kevin Babington’s show jumping team. She currently specializes in pre-purchase examinations and sports medicine in the field. You can read her previous blogs here.