Unadilla: When the auction ends

Slaughter Isle After Auction

Slaughter Isle After Auction

For me, this will undoubtably be my most difficult post to write. It is a post that will mark an irrevocable finality for myself in every way to my day at Unadilla. This post is my last memory from Unadilla on that fateful Friday, and final impressions, as I am certainly finding out, are what truly stick with you. At Unadilla, the end of the night is unbelievably moving because it tugs most on your heart. When the auction closes for the evening, you know that lines have been drawn and the unpredictability that fate often is has already drawn its’ unrelenting line in the sand; a line that separates the living from the soon-to-be dead.

But sometimes this line can be scuffed. At times it is possible to reach across this line and grab a life that was nearly assigned to an early death. And this too is an aspect of fate, I guess. The fate that brings so many horses to Canada also has an undeniable capacity for bringing some home, too. Fate is devastatingly brutal, but also understanding.

When the auction ended, myself and the other members (again, names will not be offered in order to respect the rescues interest) of the rescue that I was with made our way to the ring where moments before horses were facing their final judgements. At the time, I believe we had pulled four horses, or maybe it was five. Regardless, we still had it within our power to pull one or two more horses from Unadilla. As many spectators piled out of the auction room to make their way to the office to settle their payments, our small group approached, who I came to understand, was the most known kill buyer at this auction (I will not mention a name).

While waiting to speak with him, I realized something about this man. He was helplessly average. He wore a wrinkled button down shirt, lazy fitting blue jeans and a Dallas Cowboys hat. He was not thin, but he was also not over weight; just average. This being said, it seemed as if he was regarded as a celebrity by the staff and locals in Unadilla. People approached him with “hellos” and “how are yous?” as they stuck out their hands offering him a handshake. It was a status that you could tell he was used to. He was not cocky sounding, but he was aware of the power he had, and it was a power that I do not think any man deserves to possess; the power over another living being.

Horse Destined for Slaughter

Horse Destined for Slaughter

As people began to finish their conversations, I realized that it was now our turn to speak to him. It was going to be a barter for life. We began enquiring about a younger horse, I recall, and maybe one more, but it appears that my memory is unclear about this (I know for certain that we at least talked about one, and left the auction with six that night). After we made our enquiry about this horse (or horses) the kill buyer wanted to see which horse we were talking about so that he could offer us a price.

And this is when I became overwhelmed with emotion.

We stepped out of the auction room and into the stable. It felt as if we were crossing what the Greeks referred to as the River Styx. In the lower part of the stable stood the nearly 30 horses that this one kill buyer had pulled from the auction that night. And all at once, I felt my eyes becoming moist. As I stepped into the actual stable area, I felt alone, tired and numb in my face. I no longer heard the conversation between the kill buyer and my friends from the rescue. Everything was being drowned out as my eyes fought to take in everything that was laid out in front of me in the dim lighting of the stable.

One horse caught my eye. It is a horse that I will never forget despite the fact that I would never have the chance to get to know it. The horse was a chestnut mare with a thin white stripe down her nose. She was thin, but not emaciated. As I walked past, I made eye contact momentarily, and felt the need to offer a light pat on her side, as if this condolence could somehow ease the pain from the fate that she was now destined to endure. As I patted her side, she looked at me in a way that made me believe that she knew what was awaiting her on the other side of the Canadian border. It was an inquisitive look as if she were asking, “Why not me? Why can’t you save me?” It was a question I do not think I could rightfully answer.

As I walked away from this horse, it seemed as if something snapped within her. Maybe it was because there was no more hay for her, or maybe it was the water she did not have that made her lose it, but for some reason, she began to start kicking a horse directly behind her. The horse she was kicking, due to how it was tied to the wooden beam, was unable to move away from the constant blows, and stood there helplessly. I think at this point we were all helpless.

After we managed to make a deal that would save another horse, the kill buyer who had just done us a “favor” asked if we could do one for him. He took us to the furthest corner of the stable area where IMG_1584his horses were and brought us to a black horse that seemed to be in immense pain. This was a horse that we could tell was exposed to difficult and relentless working conditions. Its’ back legs were barely capable of holding up the weight of its’ own body. This horse, in the kill buyers opinion, would not be able to make the trip to Canada. He asked if we would take it so that it could just be euthanized humanely rather than suffering in a trailer to Canada. With two full trailers, however, there was nothing that could be done. This horse would have to try to endure a painful ride, and if it survived, the only thing that would be waiting for it would be slaughter.

Walking around the stables after an auction is haunting. It is quiet, but it is also immensely noisy. The sound of horses moving and nickering.It was the sound of desperation. The sound of hunger, of thirst and yearning to just go home. You could hear horses pulling on their bailing twine, struggling to free themselves as if they knew what their destiny was. Maybe they were freeing themselves in hopes that if they were able to free themselves from the bailing twine, they could free themselves from their fate too. If only this was true – it wasn’t. There are some places that I have found you are allowed to hold onto hope, a horse auction is not one of those places.

And then I heard the sound of a young girl crying. It was not just a gentle tear shed, but a full sob. Tears poured down her face and onto the ground like stars falling from the heavens. She came to the auction in hopes of rescuing a horse. Equipped with $100, she thought that she had a chance. She came up short. I watched her cry while she clung onto the horse that she had hoped to save. Tears that could have been tears of joy were now tainted with sorrow. The kill buyer wanted $200 for this horse from the young girl if she was going to take it home. With a little thought, one of the women in the group gave her the extra $100.

And once again,  the line between life and death was blurred.

As we began to load the six horses onto the trailer, one other woman and myself found ourselves in an encounter with an older man. “You’re tree-huggers,” he claimed as his words slurred and the smell of alcohol hung in the air. This man held onto a can of some sort of cheap beer, Budweiser I believe, and had a large white beard covering the vast majority of the lower part of his face. He wore blue jeans with suspenders, which held his jeans over his large belly. He continued by saying that, “Those horses deserved to be dead.”  We were tree-huggers, and we were somehow morally wrong whilst this guy sat around at a horse auction getting drunk and preaching about how his view points were unquestioningly superior to all others. If caring about living things other than humans equated to being a tree-hugger, then I was going to wear that title with pride. I kept my mouth quiet, although I found it difficult. I found myself thinking that I would much rather be a tree-hugger than a man of considerable age stuck in such ignorant ways. I would rather not be a man who finds his answers in the bottom of a beer can and dismisses all people who do not agree with him. I will keep being a tree-hugger, I thought, and  he could continue being a drunk.

On the drive home, I was hit with a final thought before I drifted away into sleep in the passenger seat of the truck I was in. With six horses in our trailers, we were driving south toward what would be the beginning of something new. There was hope, possibility and the prospect that these horses were headed toward a love that they had never experienced before. The future was wide open.IMG_1585

And then I thought there were also horses headed north toward Canada. Victims of circumstance and casualties of chance. They would not feel the warm hand of love ever again, but would instead have to welcome the cold hand of an unwelcome death. Their future, as it turned out, was a closing door. With each mile driven, the door shut a little more.

It was an irony that I now understand can only be found in Unadilla. Where one door opens, another door closes; where life is given, it is also taken.

Don’t Cry For The Horses”
Brenda Riley-Seymore

Don’t cry for the horses
That life has set free
A million white horses
Forever to be

Don’t cry for the horses
Now in God’s hands
As they dance and they prance
To a heavenly band

They were ours as a gift
But never to keep
As they close their eyes
Forever to sleep

Their spirits unbound
On silver wings they fly
A million white horses
Against the blue sky

Look up into heaven
You’ll see them above
The horses we lost
The horses we loved

Manes and tails flowing
They gallop through time
They were never yours
They were never mine

Don’t cry for the horses
They will be back someday
When our time has come
They will show us the way

On silver wings they will lift us
To the warmth of the sun
When our life is over
And eternity has begun

We will jump the sun
And dance over the moon
A ballet of horses and riders on the winds
Of a heavenly tune

Do you hear that soft nicker
Close to your ear
Don’t cry for the horses
Love the ones that are here

Don’t cry for the horses
Lift up your sad eyes
Can’t you see them
As they fly by

A million white horses
Free from hunger and pain
Their spirits set free
Until we ride again

Unadilla: Arriving at the auction house

Trailer pulls into auction house lot.

Trailer pulls into auction house parking lot

My day in Unadilla began approximately seven hours before the horse auction was slated to begin. As our small group pulled into the parking lot of the D.R. Chambers auction house, there were already horse trailers in the parking lot. Equipped with two-horse trailers (room for six horses total) myself and four others (I won’t refer to exact names in order to protect the rescues interest at the auction) backed into our spots in the dusty, rock covered parking lot.

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Dark aisle horse

As we opened our doors and stepped onto the uneven ground, a grey truck with a picture of a horse on the driver’s side door and an electric blue trailer hitched to its’ back pulled into the spot directly next to ours. The movement of a horse could be heard from the back of the dilapidated-looking trailer. A little man wearing a cowboy hat, a snug fitting Coca Cola shirt and jeans jumped out from the driver’s side door of the truck and came around to the back of his trailer as the others and myself waited to ask about the horse that was locked away inside the tiny blue trailer.

Waiting inside was a 22 year-old gelding with smooth brown hair and a slight cut over the bridge of his nose. As we sat listening to the story about why that horse was placed in auction, my mind began to drift away as I wondered whether or not you can believe any of the stories that anybody at these auctions say. If he was such a wonderful horse, why would you be selling him at an auction that could possibly lead to your horse ending up in a Canadian slaughter-house. When asked why, he was selling his horse, there was no answer, as if he just did not hear the question directed at him, or maybe it was that he did not want to hear it. Stories at these auctions, as it turns out, were as flimsy and fake as the people telling them were.

Number 1555

Number 1555

At around 1130 a.m., we made our way into the auction stable area where the horses are left to wait, some waiting for rescue, others waiting for death, the line between blurry and indecipherable. With six and a half hours until auction, there were already about 10-15 horses tied with bailing twine to a wooden beam. In the dark aisle, the aisle in which the majority will go to slaughter, there were horses of all different shapes, sizes and colors. The only way of really referencing them, however was through the green circular tags placed on their rears with numbers on them. These horses were nothing more than numbers. They were no longer somebody’s pet, a little girls dream present or even animals. Just number 1548, a white pregnant mare. She was living, breathing, but at the same time she was now just a number; numbers don’t breathe and they don’t come alive. Names are too personal. Names belong to things that have futures. Numbers are assigned to products, to anything that needs to be impersonal, to anything that won’t be around long enough to need a name anymore.

In a small stall further inside the confines of the auction stable I found where the minis were kept. As I approached I could tell that something was wrong. Upon further inspection I found that this mini had gotten its’ leg tangled in the bailing string that also kept it tied to a wooden beam. I watched as this horse helplessly struggled to remove its’ foot from the twine that it had wrapped around its’ leg. The horse began to jump and smash into the side of the wooden stall as it struggled with no avail to free itself from the bailing twine. I pulled out my keys and began to cut off the bailing twine while I began to also wish that I had brought some sort of knife so that I could have helped cut the horse free quicker. While I struggled with cutting the twine, I heard voices approaching and had to stop. I started to walk away as two chubby men approached where I had been moments before. They watched as the horse jumped, continuing to try to free its’ foot. One of the men was amused by the horses struggle and said, “We got a jumper here boy.” Where I found horror, another found humor, and just like that, the two men walked off without even thinking of helping the tangled mini. Apparently they had clear consciences and untroubled minds.

Unloading

Unloading

As the sun began to rise, so did the number of horses being brought into the stables. It was one trailer after another. A continuous stream of unwanted, or unneeded horses. Horses that were used and then tossed away like cigarette butts. As I watched the trailers come in, I felt myself beginning to go numb. There seemed to be no end to the flow of them. But the auction house employees handled it with perfect precision. They worked like clockwork, and trailer after trailer was emptied with little or no difficulty at all. It was not their first rodeo. By 430, the total number of horses (not including minis and mules) was at 70.

At around 430, the Amish began to arrive, which was a contradiction in itself. The Amish showed up in trucks, something that I had previously believed was not something they were supposed to use. The Amish brought horses that were virtually beaten into the ground. Horses used to do work until they physically could not do anymore work, at which point these horses would just be discarded at the auction. Horses who made life possible for the Amish were sold to slaughter without any type of pity, as if years of hard work was still not enough for these horses to deserve reprieve.

Dark aisle

Dark aisle

In the parking lot there was pandemonium. Men and women sat atop horses as they rode walked, trotted and cantered through a parking lot full of rocks. This act in itself could be devastating for some of the horses due in part to the fact that if the rocks bruised their hoofs and they became lame, buyers could interpret this as being a bigger problem than it was, resulting in some perfectly healthy horses being sold to slaughter because of nothing more than being a little sore.

As 6 approached, the stable was nearly at full capacity. You could feel the energy. It was a dark energy, the kind of feeling that made the hair on the back of your neck rise. It was a feeling of anxiety, nervousness and maybe even emptiness. With only room for six, I felt myself realizing that not every horse in this stable would be finding a happy ending. I looked around realizing for maybe the first time that day that there were going to be a lot of horses there that would never again be put out to pasture. Many horses would not feel the softness of green grass beneath their hooves ever again. When 6 rolled around, it would be the beginning of the end for many, but at the same time, some of these horses would also find new beginnings. For every life taken, there would also be the chance that a new lease on life would also be given.

There would only be six horses that would be coming home with us, and with nearly 100 horses there,

Waiting

Waiting

this seemed too small, but we also were not alone. Others were there who were not kill buyers. Not everyone who shows up at auctions are people looking to sell for slaughter.

It was in this moment that I began to realize the enormity of what we were doing. We were going to be a part of change. There was no way that we could save them all, but we would be able to save a few, and sometimes that was all there was too it. You save what you can, you act as the change that you hope others will be someday too. Change, I realized, was the sum of all the intricately small actions directed at a larger goal, and that day, our change was going to be six horses; six lives.

It’s Basically Life and Death

Image“Only when you accept that one day you’ll die can you let go, and make the best out of life. And that’s the big secret. That’s the miracle.” – Gabriel Ba

From my short stint of time on this Earth, I have learned two definitive things: life is valuable, and death is greedy. Death constantly attempts to steal the preciousness of life, and often is very successful in its’ endeavors. Death is a resilient and hardened criminal; a trained thief. It has no understanding of the preciousness of life and the sentimentality that each life is worth to others. A life is not just the energy that fills a vessel, but it is also a father, a mother, a sister and a brother. It is that neighbor who you have known your entire life or that cute girl who you see around from time to time. It is that majestically crafted animal that you have come to love as your own. It is the trees, the grass, the plants and the vegetables. It is the air above us and the soil beneath us. It is everywhere.

But wherever there is life, you can guarantee there is death. This Earth has given us the opportunity for life, and at the same time, it has cursed us with the terror of death. We fight death, we allude death and we often fear death. Death is the universal equalizer, making it certain that even the strongest are capable of succumbing to it. Death is the unknown; taking us from what we are certain of, to something that science will never be able to explain and that religion can only claim to have an understanding of.

Death is always around us. It lurks in the shadows, patiently waiting for misfortune. Death preys on fate and gambles on chance. And sometimes death decides to look us straight in the eyes, and even though we fight and battle it, battles are still lost. Death understands that there needs to be balance although we wish that those we love could live forever. So even though we may use all the strength that we have to battle death, sometimes death comes out on top, claiming its’ bitter victory in the battle with life.

I’ve seen death before, I’ve felt its’ aftermath and I have feared its’ presence. I have seen young friends lost and I have seen fathers and mothers perish and leave this flawed Earth early to get a head start on making their way to the polished gates of heaven, where they happily embrace those who perished before them, and patiently await the arrival of the ones they left behind. I have watched children and old men battle with cancer. I have cheered in the moments of victory, and wept in the sourness of defeat.

Through it all, I have realized that who you are does not concern death; if death wants you, it can very easily take you, and it can take you at any age. Each day we walk on a tightrope between life and death. We need to understand that life is continually depleting; a gas tank heading toward empty with no gas station in sight. We find ourselves wasting away our time as we are enveloped in our petty disputes, our unimportant arguments and our unsubstantial problems. During all our minor inconveniences, our life is slowly dwindling away as if we are all candles with a flame burning away at our limited wick of life.

Even though death may tightly wrap its’ greedy, skinny and cold fingers around the lives of those who we hold so closely to ourselves, death has no way of grasping the memories of those lost that are held within the cozy embrace of our hearts. The smiles are never forgotten. The memories captured like a still frame in our mind do not disappear. Nor do the moments relived within our thoughts like grainy, discolored homemade movies. Death takes life, but it doesn’t take the precious moments that life generously and graciously sprinkles upon us.

So say goodbye to those we’ve lost. The ones who left early, and the ones who were able to grow gray. Be prepared for the lives that death will ultimately pluck from the fabric of mortal life. Let these lives live on though through fond memories of good times, never-ending laughter and warm embraces. Death wins sometimes, but life will battle, and ultimately, life prevails.

RIP to all those lost and good luck to all those who are battling.

“Death truly does have life, and walks with and lives through us everyday.” – Nicholas A. McGirr

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