December 4, 2008
As I was working around the barn today, enjoying the treat of a sunny but chilly day, I received a call from an SPCA constable; could I attend for a seizure right away? I finished up quickly, then headed out to an address in a rural area near Chilliwack. Responding originally to an abandoned dog complaint, the officers had rounded up a number of dogs, left behind in the wake of a tenant moving out. Apparently these folks left in such a hurry, they "forgot" their dogs. After the officers had the dogs loaded up, they heard a sound, which apparently came from an old abandoned barn near the edge of the property. On investigating, they found the barn was not at all empty ...
I backed my rig into the driveway & stepped out to the grim faces of the SPCA constables. As we made our way through an ocean of discarded junk & garbage, I began to get a sense of foreboding; despite trappings familiar to these abandonments & seizures this would not be a scene I would soon forget. We reached the only opening in the barn, which had been sealed up with boards & plywood. I as peered into the gloomy innards of the decrepit barn, I made out a shape huddling in the far corner. The only response from my hushed call was a pair of terrified eyes reflecting the slim shaft of sunlight that sliced into the darkness from behind me.
I moved slowly inside, talking quietly in reassuring tones as I went. When the shape darted to the other side of the small enclosure, I backed away slightly & just waited. Eventually, curiosity got the upper hand & with painfully laboured steps & a body trembling from fear, a frail form inched cautiously towards me. Presently I got my first look at the barn's only inhabitant; it was a small horse who seemed to wear a head two sizes too big for his body. He sniffed, then quickly licked my palm before backing away. I continued to stand in the same spot for a moment, then took the initiative to move forward again. The horse did not move away this time, instead he stretched his gaunt neck out to meet my hand, which he licked again before retreating once more. I watched as the look of trepidation slowly faded from his eyes, replaced with one of pleading.
Over the course of the next 1/2 hour we exchanged gentle touches, soft words & meaningful looks. Each time I would reach for the lead rope hanging from my neck, the horse would dart away as quickly as he was able. It took the remainder of the hour to gain enough of his trust to allow me to stand next to him with my arm draped over his neck. As I rubbed his whisper thin neck, I would lean over him enough that the lead would brush against his shoulder. At each sign of going too far, I would back away slightly; as this pattern developed, the horse eventually began to follow me as I moved out of his space. At length I draped the rope over his neck & backed away, with him following. Shortly afterwards I was able to get a halter onto him, & after leading him around the tiny enclosure for a time, I decided to go for broke & head for the doorway.
We walked slowly towards the opening, & although the horse was hesitant to follow it took very little coaxing to keep him close by. Everything seemed to be going quite nicely, until we left the confines of that barn. On exiting, the sun spilled over the horse's unbelievably thin body, revealing what was little more than a walking skeleton. It was then I realised the impression I had gotten inside of his head being too large for his body was due to the disproportion between that head & his hideously emaciated body. He appeared to be a young horse, at first I thought perhaps a yearling, as between his gaunt lips I could see juvenile incisor teeth.
I managed to position myself so as to shade the horse's head from the sun, which eased his terror at seeing his own shadow for what may have been a very long time. He continued to shake violently, so we stood there for the next several moments as I quietly reassured him. Once his trembling subsided, we resumed our walk towards the trailer. He followed quite willingly, sensing that he was leaving this place of dark horrors behind, & walked onto the trailer with only brief hesitation to investigate the threshold. Once I was satisfied the horse was confident enough, I stepped out & closed the access door behind me. I had left a small amount of hay in the box stall for him, enough to let him munch for a bit but not too much, as I did not want to risk the chance of a colic by allowing him to gorge right away.
On arriving at the SPCA shelter & examining the horse in detail, we reached the conclusion that he was at a state in which the volunteers there were ill-equipped to deal with. I suggested moving him to a friends' barn, where he could be monitored more frequently, & by horse people well versed in helping severely neglected horses restore their own health. Throughout the examination, I stayed close to the horse, stroking his neck & talking to him. He eventually began to respond to this & willingly moved closer. If I moved away, he instantly followed suit, so as to remain close at my side. The result of this made it quite easy to re-load him; all I had to do was head for the trailer, with a horsey glued to my hip!
Yet another uneventful trip followed, & I was greeted by the barn owner as I wheeled into the driveway. Despite her experience with abused & neglected horses, she winced at the first sight of the horse as we stepped off the trailer. She led the way as we walked slowly into the barn & headed down the aisle to a large stall. We set about once again to examining the horse, this time with an eye on assessing the approach to rehabilitating him. Despite his frail stature & having feet malformed from neglect & wading through a mire of his own feces, he was of splendid conformation. As we inspected the horse, I began to relate the conditions under he was found. There was neither food nor water where he was kept, & the tongue marks on the walls & lack of manure told at least part of the story of how this fellow survived being entombed; he licked at the condensation from the walls in an effort to satiate his steadily growing thirst, & had eaten his own feces when there was nothing else left but the dirt floor on which he stood. As near as could be determined, that horse had been boarded up inside that barn for several months. We could only speculate how long he'd been left without food or water.
As would be expected, a small crowd gathered outside the stall as we looked the horse over. Each new face that peered over the doorway reacted with more or less the same degree of horror, save one young girl who simply stared at the horse with a blank expression. We all went on discussing his condition, until someone asked, "What's his name?" I had no idea, but one of the shelter volunteers had begun calling him "Little Richard", for lack of another name. So we more or less agreed that would do. The young girl continued to stare at the young horse, and on leaving much later in the evening, she followed us out to the parking lot. We all bade one another good night & were about to leave when the girl suddenly spoke up; "How about we call him Noel?", she asked. When someone asked why, the girl simply replied; "Because he's our Christmas Pony!"
On thinking about this I realised that girl had a better understanding of that aged story than the rest of us. That little horse brought something with him to our neighbourhood tonight; following doggedly in his footsteps is hope.
Hope that we can help to repair at least some of the damage to his stunted body.
Hope that one day someone may be deserving of his trust.
Hope that in time he may leave the nightmares of his ordeal behind.
Hope that those who did this to him come to understand what they have done, & in doing so resolve to never allow it to happen again.
So to Noel, our Christmas Pony I offer thanks. Thanks for giving us hope.
The above was originally written 6 months ago, the evening after I first met Noel. Since then he has undergone an amazing & very rewarding transformation. The rest of the story can be seen on Noel's own page on my website: http://www.h-4.ca/noel.html