The Empathy of Horses

The Fallen

We woke up late that Sunday morning and there she was, the swell of her belly rising like a smooth, brown hillock above the short, fluffy grass on which she lay. Hovering over her sun-warmed flesh was a single, nervous sentinel: her last, and now orphaned, foal.

He pushed and prodded her body, nudging at the now milkless spot between her hind legs as we all stood there watching through the chain link fence that separated us. We felt the foal’s grief, felt the helplessness waft through this porous separator toward us as he screamed with shrill alarm.

We wanted to help him, goodness knows we did. We wanted to pick him up and lead him someplace safe but, where was safe? What could we do for this poor abandoned babe? This was not like America, or England, or Germany; we couldn’t dial a few numbers and summon a wailing veterinary ambulance to whisk away this crying child.

After all, this is the place where old horses come to die, where dogs — their necks twisted backwards and bodies crushed under speeding wheels — fester and mummify on sun-baked asphalt until, at last, they become one with the roadside dust. We swerve to avoid their lifeless bodies, lest their stench follow us home as a testament to our lack of empathy and the conditioned numbness that replaced it. They get no burial rights, these creatures. We treat them in death as we did in life: we forget they exist until they become a burden to us.

The mare was going to be a burden to us. We treated her differently.

We had to.

Hoof-print on a dirt road (© Alphanza1 2014)

The Cremation

She died at the intersection of three fences: her head pointed southward at the space between my fence and that of my westerly neighbour’s, her back facing the wooden fence on the north-west of us. I imagine that the last thing she saw was the swaying coconut fronds billowing in the salty air above her. Or perhaps she stared at the gap between the three fences that bore horse, goat and cow tracks hidden beneath the fallen leaves and composting grass. Only she would ever know.

The foal was long gone when I woke on Monday morning, and two men were preparing the mare for cremation. They had been riding past on their way to work when they noticed the bloating hillock. They stopped and jumped into action, knowing that if they didn’t get rid of her, she would remain and putrefy everything around us.

She would swell, and her flesh would melt away and evaporate into a mixture of noxious fluids and gases. The dogs — those skittish creatures with mangy coats draped over protruding ribs — would come for her, too. They would tear into her body to gorge themselves fat, taking pieces of her away and scattering her all across the neighbourhood to assault other people with her stench and morbidity.

The men laid old tires on her body like wreaths and blessed her skin with generous sprinklings of gasoline. They watered the grass around her and soaked the wooden fence against which she lay to prevent her pyre from spreading beyond her final resting place, and possibly consuming all we had built to keep unwanted life outside of our neatly defined territory.

As we leaned out over the back door and listened to her body crackle and snap in the fire, my mother told me her story. It was everything she had gleaned while doing her gardening and watching the foal that Sunday, or what she heard from the men who helped to get rid of her body or from the white lady in the flat house down the road who came to our yard in tears to see her old friend before she returned to the soil.

Foal Alone
Foal Alone (© Alphanza1 2014)

The Guardian

I knew the white lady had been feeding the horses for years. They always congregated at her gate, waiting for fresh water and treats on the hottest afternoons. They found refuge on her bridge. Sometimes, when I walked by as a teenager, I would see them tucked against the gate under a canopy of hot-pink bougainvillaeas. They would stand there, their tails swaying and swishing over their bodies as they ignored the three tiny yapping dogs and the croaking parrot behind her gate. When the she drove in, they would part slowly, allowing her to return home.

She knew all of them intimately, and when the mare got in trouble, she went to her. Maybe she was in an accident; maybe she cut herself on something improperly discarded when looking for food. Perhaps someone was just cruel to her. One day, she turned up at the white lady’s gate with a long gash down her chest.

She had cleaned the wound and sewn it together, perhaps with a steady hand, a grim expression and the unflavoured dental floss from her bathroom stall. The mare was getting better, she told my mother, she was looking healthier every day. Until she disappeared.

She was gone for three days, she said, only to reappear as a dead body that Monday morning when one of the men summoned her from her morning routine to tell her news of the recently fallen. She cried then, lamented that the mare must have eaten a grasshopper — the bane of all equine and bovine dining — and that must have killed her. It wasn’t the wound. She was getting better. It couldn’t have been the wound.

Image of another horse near to where the mare died (© Alphanza1 2009)

The Adoption

Whatever killed her will be a mystery to all of us. Maybe it was an infection. Maybe it was a poisonous grasshopper. Only the horse and her foal would know. We found her lying on the soft grass while her foal stomped the hard earth with his tiny hooves. He screamed and charged to chase away the stray dogs honing in on the smell of carrion.

We thought the dogs would bring him down, making quick work of him and lay him to rest in pieces like his mother before him. But the foal had a strong spirit and will to protect his mother even as the smell of death attracted more of these scavengers to her defenceless baby.

His cries carried far, the urgent, distressed squeals summoning the Matron. I imagine that she came with her own foal, ambling along in that calm, unhurried gait that marked her long life of semi-feral luxury. My mother said that she must be at least 20 years old, or perhaps even older than I am. She was a large buckskin mare, her strange coat colour setting her apart from the sea of brown she led.

That Sunday afternoon, the Matron wandered to the foal, examining him and her fallen sister’s body. He stopped crying them, standing there in silence as they both looked over the still mare. Minutes passed. Neither moved. Then slowly, the Matron led the foal away.

As my mother watched them from her garden, she thought that it would be the last she would have seen of the foal, but the Matron brought the foal right back to the body before they wandered off again. They went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth until — by Monday morning, long before the men decorated her body with rubber and fuel — they had stopped this funeral procession.

The Matron was wise, my mother said. She had allowed the foal to grieve but face the realities of that grief. I reckon they went to and from the dead and the living, letting the foal know that although his mother was gone, there was a community of other mothers waiting patiently to greet him. They would raise him. They would keep him safe. They allowed him to mourn and then helped him to move on.

This is the empathy of horses, these large, gentle creatures. They are kind enough to adopt the lost, patient enough to allow their young ones to grieve, wise enough to let them face the truth of the loss rather than leaving them to wallow in ignorance and sorrow.

Maybe this was a unique situation: the place where the mare fell was just right; the fact that the herd has other mares with young foals was perfect. Maybe the mare knew these things, knew that she was going to die at this bad time. Maybe she calculated her final resting place for this very purpose, hoping that the Matron would see, hear, smell and know.

Or maybe she died where she did to summon us, humans, only for us to turn our backs on her and her baby. Her death was inconvenient and a bit annoying for us. She left a foal behind, and that was distressed us. But we didn’t take the time. The horses did.

Perhaps this proves that empathy — instinctual or otherwise — is more universal than we think.

We just need to know where to look for it so that we may recapture and emulate it again.

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