Dusty’s earliest memories were of the cold ground, the dark night, and the soft crooning of a horse nearby. The nickers came closer to her wet body and then a warm tongue massaged her from head to hoof. Steaming breath from the one who stood over her eased the chill. Dusty struggled to stand—somehow knowing she must. The large one who cleaned her nosed her close to the big belly of fuzzy warmth. Dusty learned to suckle the hot milk her mother urged her to find.
By morning, Dusty toddled unsteadily beside her mother as she grazed in the Nebraska prairie field. The sun rose and further warmed the filly. Her eyes began to focus on other horses and foals of various ages, strengths, and coordination. Dusty watched shyly as the older foals ran on skinny legs and romped with each other until their mothers called them closer.
Dusty lived with her attentive and loving mother as she learned to nibble at the grasses. When her mother no longer allowed her to drink from her body, Dusty learned she could quench her thirst at the creek with the other horses and that the field grasses could fill her belly.
Dusty’s tranquil life was abruptly ended when the herd of mothers and foals were chased by big horses with men on top of them. The men yelled. Frightened, Dusty ran behind her mother’s tail. When the equine families found themselves surrounded by a wooden fence, the herd circled in panic. After the men on big horses went away, the families settled. The foals were exhausted. Babies nursed, mares whinnied in concern. Formerly rebellious adolescents stuck near their mothers.
The days passed. Hay replaced the field grasses and water was found in stinky metal bins, not the fresh running stream. Half-grown, Dusty remained close to the only security she knew, her mother. The nights were filled with the smell of dung and biting flies feasted on horse bodies during the hot days. The boredom of confinement caused skirmishes between mares as the lack of space and competition for food and water became their only activities.
The men on big horses returned. The young horses were separated and driven into another confined area. All the foals and mares cried out to each other in anguish. The colts were castrated without care; the smell of blood and screams of pain traumatized the fillies. Then, both colts and fillies were brutally roped around their legs, tossed into the dust, and burned with hot branding irons. When all the commotion was over, and the men gone, the young horses moaned in pain and weakly cried again for their mothers, but to no avail. Not one saw their mother again.
Several days later Dusty and the others were forced by the men into a large metal box on wheels. Crowded inside, many unsteady foals caught the new scabs of their burned brands on the rough container sides and bled. For two days the foals bumped and slid inside the vehicle with no rest, food, or water. On the third day the rear of the vehicle opened and some of the foals in the back were taken out. Then the door closed and the trip continued. Over the fourth day, three more stops ensued, with more foals taken away. Dusty’s group exited in the cool evening of the last day.
They were unloaded into yet another corral where brittle hay and soiled water in troughs awaited. Eagerly they jostled each other as they dove into the subpar feast. Eventually each foal was taken away by other men. Dusty and three others were again forced into a smaller vehicle and taken on another hour’s drive. As the sun set, Dusty wobbled down the ramp and tentatively explored the new round pen with her remaining companions. Soon she crumpled to the hard ground, able to lie down and really sleep for the first time since being taken from her mother and family herd.
Here Dusty spent the next ten years of her life. She was taught to accept a halter, bridle, bit, saddle, and rough handling. She learned to herd cattle, cut specific cows out of their groups, hold ropes taunt when young calves were tied and grounded like she had been, for the horrid branding/castrating procedures. She learned to tolerate disagreeable scents, hot summers, cold winters. She learned to protect herself while being chased by dogs and coyotes. She was forced to tolerate the brutal mating by stallions.
The only emotional connection she experienced was with the birth of her own foals, as she remembered the affection and care of her lost mother. Their innocence and dependency roused buried tenderness. But like her mother, her foals were taken away. Dusty was forced to return to work as soon as her foals were weaned, until the next mating/birthing season when she had time off to raise and wean that year’s foal.
In the summer of her tenth year, Dusty was again loaded into a vehicle and driven two days with no food or water. Cramped with several other horses from the ranch, they endured a stifling transfer. When the vehicle stopped and the door opened, the exhausted and weakened older horses tumbled out. Again, Dusty was sparsely fed, watered, and forced to endure long days and nights bored, confined with strangers, and always hungry. Now in Colorado, her family herd, such as it was at the Nebraska ranch, was gone.
One sunny but bitingly cold January afternoon a young girl accompanied the new ranch’s owner, a small man who smelled of smoke. Two other men followed, one tall and fat, the other medium height and lean. The girl and the owner conversed, the big man spoke, then the thin man spoke. They all stood around Dusty and talked. Depressed, emaciated, and itching from a skin infection, Dusty hung her head and closed her eyes. Then she was saddled and the girl rode her around the enclosure. Weak from her afflictions, Dusty submitted to the signals the girl gave from the saddle. She was slightly confused for she had never had contact with a human female, but Dusty’s lack of nutrition and condition closed off any energetic interest.
The party left and Dusty was abandoned in the muddy, stinking corral. Horses always came and went, as the owner bought and sold horses that not many wanted. Dusty was weakly surprised when the girl returned with the lean man called, “Dad.” She was pushed into a small trailer and taken a short distance. Fresh food was in the front bin under her chin, but Dusty had no interest in it. She paid a little attention to the scenery she could now see through the large windows at her head. It was her first trip where she could see where she was going and was not crowded and jostled between other bodies. The trailer was clean, with no disgusting odors and the side bars were padded so when her bare ribs and bony hips hit, there were no cuts or scrapes. The floor was a rubber mat, so Dusty could balance and not slip.
Dusty arrived at her next new home that winter afternoon. Fresh snow covered a fenced corral—barbless wire, not splintery wood, confined her now. There was a newly built stall to protect her from weather extremes, a clean trough with clear water, a shiny bucket of molasses-coated grain, and an elevated pile of fresh alfalfa hay—not the straw-like, sooty, dried grass hay she had always been given. Dusty saw her corral sat at the top of a high hill and her view was of a farm and creek below, with mountains in the distance.
The girl sat on the bales of hay near Dusty’s stall and talked to her. She introduced herself as “Candy.” Timidly, Dusty mouthed the sweet green hay, nibbled the rich grain, and drank deeply from the freshest water she had had since the creek of her birth field. Later, Candy put salve on Dusty’s bare skin, where the lice had eaten into her. The gentle touch was new to Dusty, and it relaxed her. Candy stroked her with a soft bristle brush to avoid bumping her protruding bones. Years of dead hair billowed onto the ground. Candy put oil on Dusty’s cracked hooves and carefully combed the knots out of her long matted tail and mane. With warm water and a towel, Candy washed the filth from her body, cleaned her crusted eyes, and chattered the entire time in soothing, quiet tones.
Over the next weeks, clean and well fed, Dusty transformed into a beautiful buckskin mare. Her mane and tail were ebony, her back was evenly divided by a chocolate dorsal stripe. Her legs were black from the knees and hocks, and the backs of her front legs were marked by classic zebra stripes. She had a flour-white blaze down her nose and her long-lashed dark eyes set off her dished face. Months later, her eyes sparkled with spirit, and her body quivered with muscle. By spring the scars of neglect, mistreatment, and lice were covered by a healthy hair coat the color of honey when held up to the sun in a Mason jar.
Over the next nine years, Dusty and Candy learned to trust and love each other. When the school bus stopped at the top of their street each afternoon, Candy jumped out, whinnied, and ran to Dusty. Dusty returned the whinny and pranced, tail high. Together they galloped down the length of the corral fence to the stall where Candy dropped her books, and gave Dusty horse treats. After Candy changed clothes she took Dusty for out for adventure. If Candy saddled Dusty, Dusty knew it was time to work—to practice in the neighborhood arena. Dusty learned many things and enjoyed the challenges and attention. She learned to do the events that Candy competed in—barrel racing, pole bending, trail obstacles, and equitation—walking, trotting, and cantering on cue. If Candy simply bridled Dusty and swung onto her bareback, Dusty knew it would be a “fun” ride, with other neighbors and their horses. Often, especially on weekends, Dusty and Candy headed out alone for sauntering rides through fields, up hills, and over creeks. During the summer they swam in a pond, as Candy floated behind Dusty, holding onto her mane and Dusty paddled through the deep, cool water. Then Candy napped under the willow trees as Dusty grazed the grasses and wild alfalfa around her head. After each adventure, Candy spent hours massaging, brushing, and tending to Dusty’s physical needs.
Candy graduated from high school and got jobs at mountain ranches in the summers. She took Dusty and together they wandered through forests and meadows. One time Dusty stopped and refused to go forward. Something was not right with the grass ahead. Candy urged Dusty to continue. Dusty balked. Candy became firmer. Knowing but not knowing, Dusty gathered herself and jumped as far as could. She came down in a hidden bog! The stench of mud rose as the vile brown goo drenched them both. Dusty lunged again and again. When her front hooves hit sold ground, Dusty dragged them both out of the death trap. As Dusty stood quivering, Candy slid off of her, wrapped her arms around Dusty’s neck and sobbed apologies for not trusting her horse’s instinct.
One night Dusty collapsed on the floor of the ranch lean-to where they were living. Candy raced to her side and held her horse’s head in her lap as she stroked Dusty and hummed songs to comfort her. The vet came and gave Dusty medicine but it took until morning until she was able to stand again. The two slept on the floor of the lean-to, cuddled together in the straw.
Candy went to college in the winters. Dusty eagerly awaited Candy’s returns. Dad fed and watered her, but he did not talk to her. He did not brush her. He did not stay. Dusty was lonely.
On a mid-winter afternoon during her tenth winter in her home, Dad hitched the horse trailer to his vehicle and loaded Dusty into it. Obediently, Dusty went in. Was she going to meet Candy at a new ranch like the previous summer? The trailer bumped onto a driveway and when Dad opened the door, Dusty calmly backed down the ramp onto the frozen ground snorted for familiar scents. Candy was nowhere to be seen.
Fear, dread, and anxiety filled Dusty’s senses immediately. She knew this place! This was a return to the “horse dealer.” Dusty never saw Candy again.
Eventually, Dusty was loaded into yet another vehicle. This time it was a cattle trailer. She and other unwanted horses were crammed into the double-decker. The floor above Dusty was so low (for cattle are shorter than horses), that she had to stand with her head down. She was smashed between other horses and more were loaded above her. Their hooves clanked on the metal, and the cacophony of clatters, snorts, and distress calls was deafening. The vehicle lurched forward and hurtled through rain, snow, sleet, and cold winds. There was no food, water, or room. When the horses had to urinate or defecate, they had no choice but to do it where they stood. Urine and diarrhea dripped down on top of Dusty’s body–her well-kept coat became matted and reeked. Feces beneath her feet made the steel surface even more slippery. Several older horses who were smashed into the interior could not breathe and fainted, only to be stepped upon by their companions. A few died. They remained where they fell as the vehicle continued its trek.
Days later, when at last the hellish movement stopped, men with sticks of fire poked the exhausted, frightened horses through the outside air holes to get them out of the trailer. Some fell off the top ramp as they scrambled out of the second level. They plummeted to the ground and broke ribs and legs.
Horses that could still walk were forced into a corral of tall, solid wood that gradually narrowed into a nose-to-tail trail. No one could see where they were being driven. The single-file ramp disappeared into a building. The dark that lay beyond the entrance emanated scents of increased fear and cries of pain screeched. The horses still outside smelled death and tried to stampede backwards. More shock prods separated the frantic bodies and forced them forward.
Limping on arthritic knees, elderly Dusty was pressed to enter the hell-hole. Before her aged eyes could adjust to the darkness she felt an electric bolt of pain jolt through her right temple. Lightening fried her brain and vibrated through her body. Dusty’s legs gave out and her body crashed onto a conveyor belt. She was moved along to a huge, well-lit room where her body was hung upside down from her back legs on overhead hooks. She was skinned and cut into pieces. Her “edible” body parts were packaged, frozen, and sold to food wholesalers. Parts of her went to Europe. Parts went to the Orient. The rest of her was tossed into a refuse pile and ground up for animal feed.
Candy returned home from college to an open corral gate, empty stall, and silence. No welcoming nicker, no attention-seeking whinny greeted her. She dropped the horse treats from her hand in shock and sobbed. Then she left her home and never spoke to her parents again.
Fifty years later Candy is working with others to pass legislation in the state of Colorado that will abolish the transport of unwanted horses out of state for slaughter for human consumption. She works to raise the funds to prepare and present the legislation that will save horses like Dusty.
A bill will be introduced in the Colorado Legislature in 2023 that will make it illegal to buy or sell a horse in Colorado if either the buyer or seller know that the purpose of the transaction is the slaughter of the horse for human consumption.
Please contribute what you can in Dusty’s name.
Tax deductible donations can be made to Colorado Animal Protectors (www.coanimalprotectors.org)
Non-tax deductible donations can be made to Colorado Voters for Animals (www.covotersforanimals.org)
Also see: https://covotersforanimals.nationbuilder.com/stop_horse_slaughter and sign the petition to save Colorado horses.
(Note: The names used in this piece are fictional, although the story is true. Dusty was a real horse.)