Chella, a gorgeous 21-year-old black Friesian gelding now living at Casalae Farms’ superb stable, has a story that is at once awful and hopeful.
Here’s how I came to know him, and his very nice, deeply caring owner, Laurie.
A month or so ago I was cleaning a stall in early morning, a few stalls down from a formerly empty one, now occupied by a horse that had only just arrived here from Florida. I paused to watch as Laurie snapped on his lead rope and led the very large, tall animal down the long main aisle to just outside the big barn doors, where the veterinarian waited. In the stable’s dim morning light I glanced at his jet-black profile, very long, thick mane and tail, and arched neck as he slowly walked to the vet’s open van, lined with cabinets housing various instruments and medicines. There he stood, in profile, calmly awaiting events. He was so still! His beautiful tail hung almost to the ground.
The vet began an extensive examination, so I got back to work. Soon I was ready for another stall. Why not do his? There was quite a mess in there, so I got right to it.
Suddenly, his owner peered into the stall’s semi-darkness and asked if I could hand her one of his fresh poop balls. The doctor needed to check it for anomalies. I quickly obliged, and thought nothing more of it. Thirty minutes later, though, Chella was led back to his new home. He towered over me. I was still working; our two bodies and the big poop bucket gobbled up space, but he didn’t seem to mind. I had the strong sense that he appreciated my efforts.
He began eagerly eating his hay.
Just a few minutes after I left the dark stall, though, he very carefully lowered himself to the soft ground. Hearing him go down, I peeked in through his window, wanting a better view in the stronger morning light.
Oh, My GOD.
This beautiful creature was stick-thin! I hadn’t noticed before, as the light was feeble and I was usually bent over, working, and because Chella was so tall. Now, lying there, his hip and rib bones protruded obscenely. He looked dreadful.
There he was, on his belly, hooves sticking straight out, neck still arched, the picture of utter exhaustion. I realized with a jolt that it had been a great effort to support his weight during the exam, as he was so emaciated.
I stared, stunned and tearful, and he looked up at me, his soft eyes showing how tired and weak he was.
They drooped. He slept, nose pointing at the ground.
I cried, making no sound.
HOW had this horror happened??
Laurie joined me at the window and anxiously asked how long he’d been down. I assured her he’d managed to eat some hay, and had just begun to nap.
“Good...That’s good.” She sighed and began carefully mixing powdered medicines into plastic baggies- antibiotics, vitamins, minerals and soothing meds- for his huge leg ulcers, now coated with special ointments, and for general malnutrition. These powders would be added to his grain bucket twice daily. She told me he had also been diagnosed with stomach and throat ulcers, which had developed due to extreme stress and anxiety.
Medicine to keep him less anxious was also included.
God only knew the extent of his stomach and esophageal ulcers...
It was tricky to eat; his feet hurt; his teeth were wobbly from food deprivation, and bright light bothered his eyes, so he’d need to gain strength in this snug, gently dark stall for some time. Food would be available day and night. Fresh hay, stuffed into a very large, soft hanging hay bag, would force him to tease out small mouthfuls. (Eating too much too fast would cause considerable gastric distress.)
This sort of criminal neglect occurs more than we like to think.
Laurie told me they’d migrated to Florida to avoid Michigan’s winter. In early spring she’d found a boarding stable there with good recommendations, boarded Chella there and then drove to Traverse City to find a good stable, and settle into living here during northern Michigan’s six months of nice weather. She rang the Florida stable nearly every day to check on him, and was assured he was doing just fine. But when she asked for specifics regarding hay servings, different stable hands, every day, were evasive. Their reluctance to simply answer the question made her nervous...
She drove back there with dread. And found that Chella was starving! Other boarded horses there were thin, too! (The owner’s animals were fine.)
“How many flakes of hay per day has he been given?” she demanded, angrily. (Each flake constitutes a small portion of a bale. Normal rations are two to three flakes or so, depending on seasonal conditions.)
The hired help looked away. Or walked away.
One shrugged and ignored her.
A second man muttered, “one.”
But he wouldn’t look at her.
A third man just sighed. “Look, Mam. We feed these horses what we are told to feed them- one flake daily, sometimes. The Boss wants to save money. As you know, decent hay is scarce and very expensive; it has to be shipped down here from the north.”
Horrified by the boarded horses’ appalling condition Laurie immediately phoned Casalae Farms, described what she’d discovered, and told them she was removing Chella immediately, and, after reporting the abuse to the Florida authorities, would drive straight to the Farm. Karen, Casalae Farms’ owner, assured her that Chella would have a stall, and that the vet would be waiting when she arrived.
Finally, after three months of agony, he was safe. He found it hard to relax, though. Maybe today there wouldn’t be food.
Chella was a bag of bones wrapped in a bundle of nerves.
I stopped at his stall the next morning, and, after making sure it was okay to offer him a Red Delicious apple, I bit off a piece and offered it. Chella came out of the soft darkness and sniffed it, incredulous. I spoke softly and kept my hand extended. After a long time, he delicately scooped it off my palm and ate it with enormous pleasure. That poor horse groaned as he gulped it down. Copious saliva poured out of his mouth. Oh, it was so delicious!
I bit off another nice chunk. He took it from me very gently, and ate it feverishly. More saliva poured out. He simply couldn’t devour it fast enough. Keeping each bite a reasonable size, I spoke to him.
“Hey, slow down, boy. You’re safe here. There is an endless amount of food and water, and this apple is yours. Only yours.”
He stopped chewing and stared at me.
I couldn’t stop my tears.
But honestly, though he tried not to eat at rocket speed, he just couldn’t help it.
He was so very hungry.
I went in and cleaned his home, noting that he’d relieve himself in just one area so he could lie down. I cleaned everything and staff added lots of fresh sawdust while he watched. When I left he immediately lowered himself into the soft bedding and fell into a deep sleep.
He was, I thought, on the way toward finding a small measure of peace.
The next day he immediately came to the window when I called his name, and looked hopefully at me. A fat apple sat in my palm. He was joyful!
Today I allowed him to bite off a chunk. He did this very carefully, and chewed it deliberately, and (I noticed happily,) a bit more slowly. Less saliva flowed. He savored every bite, and never once looked away from me.
I told him again that he was safe in this place. There would always be good food, fresh water and clean bedding.
I know this totally silent horse understood me.
It was hard to look at his huge sores when I cleaned, but every day there was improvement. He ate every scrap of his grain mixed with warm mash, vitamins and anti-anxiety medicine. Laurie came in frequently to check on him. The farrier and vet monitored his feet and teeth, and small adjustments to his meds were made as needed.
One gently warm, sunny June morning, Chella was led outside to a spacious paddock that housed a couple of flakes of hay and unlimited fresh water.
Sunlight and fresh air would aid in healing; he was strong enough now to spend some time outside soaking it in.
His hipbones and ribs still jutted out, but those horrid leg sores were healing fast. He walked slowly to me and bit into his apple with great pleasure and a deep sigh.
The next day Bud, an elderly, beautiful Arabian gelding, was led into the same paddock and introduced as a possible companion. Instead of rejecting him with teeth and hoof as others had, Bud sniffed a nervous, shy Chella -and immediately accepted him. The two new friends soaked up the sun, ate hay and swatted flies together.
I will always love Bud for that gesture.
Tune in for next week’s update!