Unadilla: From a bitter beginning comes a beloved buddy

img_1186.jpgLike all stories ever written or reflected upon, there is always a beginning. Sometimes you know when your own personal narrative starts, and other times your story begins without you even knowing. Your tale catches you by surprise while it sweeps you off your feet and begins to move you toward an unknown climax to your story. The plot twists, the characters interact and the story deepens.

I can still remember when my story started.

My story came upon me unexpectedly, and it walked, or should i say gaited, into my life on four sturdy black legs and a saddle on her back. Her name was Gypsy.

Prior to my sophomore year in high school, I had little to no understanding about anything horse related. In all honesty, I do not think that I had ever touched a horse at that point in my life. I knew exactly what horses were, but I could not understand them in any respects. That was where my knowledge about horses began and subsequently ended.

While I was leading a horseless existence, fate was concocting a chain of events that would end in a reexamination of my life and that would ultimately result in my introduction into the equestrian world. While I was doing something irrelevant and most likely unmemorable to my overall life, 125 miles away in Unadilla New York, a black mare named Blackberry was being pulled from the Unadilla horse auction. She was a spirited, middle-aged horse who was placed in the dark aisle, making her chances of finding a home slimmer than it would have otherwise been.

However, like all of life’s seemingly random events, this horse would be given a second chance. If we think of individual lives like a ball of yarn, this piece of fabric would continue to be pulled rather than cut. This horses string would be given the chance to play out, a chance it would not have had if a culmination of perfectly laid out moments had not happened.

And while I sat nearly three hours away, the string of my life began heading toward Blackberry’s string. I did not know it at the time, but eventually our strings would tangle, merge and begin to be pulled in the same direction. Whether I knew it or not, our strings were meant to be lie next to one another’s. If you told me at the time, however, I would not believe a word you were saying.

IMG_1323Fast forward about a month, and I was receiving news that my Mom was buying a horse. I knew that she was beginning to discover her love for the equestrian world, and it was a love that I had no concept of. She was purchasing a new horse. I knew that. It was a black mare. I understood that, too. The horses name was going to be Gypsy. Her old name, as it turns out, was Blackberry. Blackberry was rescued, brought back to a level of good health and now she was a member of my family.

Our first meeting was awkward to say the least. I was uncertain of this immense being. I had no prior knowledge that could give me some sort of solstice or act as a spring board to help me connect with her. Should I pet her? I had more questions than answers, and that scared me, but it also left me with an unrelenting hunger for answers. I left after our first encounter without knowing that I would come to love this black mare with that little patch of white between her eyes, and short, almost nonexistent mane.

As time began to pass, I found that I was spending an increasing amount of time at the stable that Gypsy lived in. Before I knew it, I had landed a job as a farm hand there. On the days I was not working, I found that I was taking the 20-minute drive over to the stable just to say hello. There was something about being with the horses. It was a nice reprieve from everything else in life.It was simple comfort. They were fascinating and yet so unbelievably real.

935666_10201160929605432_584923867_nGypsy, as I began to learn, loved Nature Valley bars. Honestly, however, I think it was just that she loves to eat, but then again, who doesn’t? I discovered that she enjoyed having the back of her ears gently rubbed. She was a pro at losing her fly mask. Great in cross ties and more than willing to be groomed. A little cranky when getting her girth tightened and impatient when dinner was being served. Endlessly gentle and unbelievably sweet. For all of her imperfections, I still began to uncover perfection.

For all that Unadilla gives away, it also gives back. I was given the chance to meet Gypsy. I was also handed the opportunity to become devoted to a cause.

And then there’s Gypsy. Gypsy was given a loving home. She was given somewhere to be loved, nurtured and grow old. Most importantly, she was given a second chance.

For all the second chances that are not given at Unadilla, there are also many that are handed out. And each new chance gives with it the propensity of changing many lives in varied and differing ways. This second chance gave one horse a new home, a mother her first horse and a young man an entirely new perspective on the world.

This is only one story. I would love to hear more about your stories. Please comment and share your stories below.

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Unadilla: The auction begins

IMG_1562I think we all run into moments that serve as a starting point for the rest of our lives; moments from which a map can be laid out and the path that your life was meant to journey down begins. It is a moment that lights a fire beneath us. It is a passion to ignite change or maybe even a desire to change the course of fate for someone or something other than yourself. This is the moment that changes your perspective and makes you see the world in a new context. For each person, this moment is varying. For some, it could be nothing more than a thought that they find ideologically appealing; a thought found on the outer edges of their minds. For others it may be an idea or inspiration that comes to them in a dream as if some divinity had placed it there to perplex and inspire them.

I’d like to think that my moment came to me on August 30th, 2013 at 6pm in Unadilla, New York.

The auction began with an elderly man speaking to a crowd of what I would estimate as being 100 people. In a tired but sturdy voice, the man spoke proudly about the auctions 76th year of business. As he spoke, people in the auction house were listless. Talking, the sound of feet sliding across wood and the faint sound of horses impatiently waiting on the other side of a weathered wooden door drowned out the sound of a not-loud-enough microphone. And then seemingly all at once, although it seemed to me that this moment will play out forever, the call for the auction to begin came and that wooden door opened.

I was sitting in the middle of the bleachers in the front row. Directly in front of me was a large white fence, which was where the horses were either ridden or lead around while people bid on them. The fenced in are was about 30 feet in length and maybe 10 – 15 feet in width, but this is just a rough estimate. To the left of where I was sitting sat a few of, who I had gotten word, were kill buyers. They sat in desks in the front row, although others decided to stand inside the ring.

The first horse to come out was a chestnut gelding. A teenage girl sat on his back, giving the audience proof that the horse was ridable. She circled the horse from one side of the fence to the other, back in forth while the bidding process was carried out. And then the verdict came; sold – privately.

This horse would see another green pasture. This horse would feel the unmistakable weight of another human on their back. For this lucky gelding, his future was no longer in question. His day at Unadilla would just be the final day of his old life and the first day of his new beginning, the starting point for what could be a bright future. Another wooden door on the opposite side of the fenced area was opened, and as the horse exited, he was marked with an orange marker. As the gelding left I thought to myself that not every story has to have a tragic ending.

Early on in the auction, things were going well. It seemed like every sale was private, but like all things that go well, things had to take a turn for the worse. And they did. Dark isle bidding was beginning.

The first horse shown from this isle was sold for slaughter. In one swift moment, I felt as if I was kicked in the stomach. It was not so much a physical pain, as it was a numbness that I felt. It was a feeling inside me that I could only equate to helplessness. A verdict had been delivered and there was very little if anything that I could do to change what had transpired. I was just a leaf stuck in the breeze, I had no control over what would happen to that horse. I think it was just the knowledge of not knowing that hurt most. Knowing that I would not know what would lie ahead for this unlucky horse who was nothing more than a casualty of circumstance. There would be no way to know what its’ trip to Canada would be like. Would this horse be comfortable? Would this horse’s final thoughts be beautiful, or will its’ final thoughts be one of terror, fear and one filled with the knowledge of what lies just moments away.

I thought about the concept of literally auctioning away a life. The idea that somehow one life had a higher price tag than another. This flawed thinking that, well since I will pay more for your life, you get to live, but since I do not want to pay that much for your life, you will die. I felt like people in the auction house were playing god. Some horses would be granted life while others were granted death. Salvation in a battle against destruction; good versus bad. An auction religious in scope, but human in nature. Each decision made had long term and short term consequences, and every decision made affected the course of many lives both directly and indirectly.

During the middle of the auction, a woman, who I had met earlier in the day, stepped into the ring as a horse was brought out to be auctioned. It turns out, she said, that she had given a horse to a man the evening before to train and take care of. When she arrived at the auction the following day, that same horse was already at the auction ready to be sold. With picture evidence as the only proof, she had no claim with the police, and pleaded for the people attending the auction to let her buy her horse back for a dollar. Her horse sold for around 350. Private. Safe, but no longer hers.

Toward the end of the auction, with a feeling of emptiness already welling up inside me, I watched as the white, supposedly non-pregnant, mare stepped into the auction room; there was no way that she was not pregnant. In an earlier examination of the mare, one of the the people who I attended the auction with noticed that the mare was, in fact, lactating. It was a finding that I did confront the owner about, and in a not-so-surprising turn of events, he denied that she was pregnant. “She’s not,” he said. “Don’t you think I would know my own horse.” Obviously he knew his horse so well that he was going to sell it. I can understand and excuse ignorance sometimes, but when ignorance is exposed and confronted, the party informed should accept their wrong and work to fix it. I quickly learned that this wrong would not be made right, and that some people would rather believe their own lie to make a few bucks than do what’s ethically and morally correct.

She was sold to slaughter.

And just as quickly as the auction had started, it had ended. We had pulled five horses at this point and were preparing to barter for one more. Overall, around 30-40 horses were sold to slaughter, while around the same number were also sold privately. I was left thoughtless, but the worst was still to come; it normally takes time for shock to sink in. As I left the auction room and walked toward the stable, I was walking toward what would be the most upsetting part of the day. Before while walking around the stable I felt that at least there was hope, but now as I walked into that stable I could feel a thickness in the air. I knew I would see horses alive, but no longer living, breathing, but soon to be breathless. Horses that were once friends, loved ones and companions that would, in due time, be nothing.

More to come.

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.