Roo: Letting a Horse Be a Horse

I was doing what I do when I lay down at night; mentally taking the late night walk-through, tossing hay for overnight, checking horses one last time. I’m in New Zealand now, one of the most beautiful places in the world, and missing my little farm on the flat, windy, treeless prairie of Colorado. It’s the first place that ever felt like home. Some of you know what I mean.

I’m thinking about an old horse on my farm. He doesn’t even belong to me.

Roo is a lost horse. That’s what his “owner” calls him. She had no intention of owning him and as for him, well, he has low expectations at this point in his life. He failed at his last position, and most likely, a few before that. His history is lost, too.

His name is Rooster, maybe he was that cocky when he was a colt. Now, he’s Roo, a chestnut with enough gray hairs that his color looks flat and rough. His withers poke up high and his spine is exposed. In his later teen years, he seems much older. An enlarged arthritic knee slows him up. On a bad day, he can’t always lay down and get up.

That’s the problem right now. It’s bitter cold in Colorado and he’s struggling. He’s on my mind, not that he likes me much.

That’s the other thing about Roo. He isn’t all that friendly. He defends his food aggressively, although he’s alone in a pen. His eyes are sunken. He doesn’t ask for much and he doesn’t say thank you. It’s okay. I keep a place for an elder in my barn, in the name of a useless old horse that I loved. I think we all should.

When my friend took Roo on, she thought he was not long for this world. He was in a therapeutic program and when she resigned, she brought him with her. He’d been lame and a bit unpredictable, so, he is useless now. Dangerous territory for a horse like him.

Her plan for Roo was kind. She would let him graze a couple of months, and then, in his sad and painfully diminished state, she’d euthanize him in the fall.

Naturally, he rallied. Of his list of issues, it wasn’t easy to tell what was mental and what was physical. Sometimes I wish horses were as simple as some think; that they were only beasts of burden, here for our use. There’s that word again.

My grandmother, a farm woman in the late 1800s, used to say that life was hard if you were useless. She’s right still.

Roo rallied, not that his topline is stronger or that his knee is any better. He gained some weight but still had the look of a scraggly old stray dog. Then, in the first few weeks here, he got hung up, hind leg caught through the top of a panel. He was fence-fighting with a mare. Who knew he could kick that high? By the time I got him free, it looked like a truck had crashed the fence but miraculously, he limped away not much worse than before. Lame but indestructible.

It isn’t that his life on my farm is all that great. I have no green meadow. He’s in a dry lot pen with four meals a day, he poops in his water, and doesn’t care much for the donkey.

Naturally, we hoped he’d have a more romantic outcome than just being a horse. Don’t we hope that old horses will all be saved by a little girl’s love? Not happening for Roo. He still stumbles, he still has anxiety, and he isn’t all that charming. He used to be a bit of a trial to catch. He doesn’t really like being petted. You get the feeling he just doesn’t care much for people. I’m sure he came to the opinion honestly.

So, we just let him be a horse. We didn’t think he needed a faith healing. We didn’t think he was a lost soul, only that he was due a safe retirement. One that he didn’t have to pay for by pleasing humans.

Sometimes the best advice I give is that we have to let a horse be a horse. It’s up to him to find himself. Rescue is all fine and good, if we don’t take ourselves too seriously. But sometimes we think being with humans is the healing for every horse. To be blunt, horses need horses more than humans. But Roo didn’t want to be with horses and he didn’t like us much either. He needed an unconditional place to be.

Roo has been with us a little over a year now, just being a horse. He’s got some supplements, not that they help, but his weight is good. It’s still heart-stopping to watch him lay down. Winter hurts him.

Eventually, there has been one small change. He stands closer to the gate when we muck out his pen now. Not offering anything, but not moving away. One day I had to shoosh him out of the way and it dawned on me he was passively blocking the gate. Quietly standing in my way. His eye was a bit softer, too. Not because he owes us a thing. It’s because he’s just being a horse. It’s what they do.

All horse stories end the exact same way. Roo’s will be no different. He’ll get to have a home between now and then. Most of us have some room in the barn. A place where it’s safe to be useless.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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77 comments

  1. Hi Anna, I loved reading the story of Roo. My first horse was a very “overused” and retired lame 15 year old ranch horse. People would often say, “when you get a younger horse…” like he was just temporary in my life. With lots of listening and reading, I helped Chief to feel better and we shared 14 years of trail rides, over night trips and lots of bonding. He passed at 29 but remains forever in my heart. On a similar note, I have a rabbit who is very much like Roo. Shilo just wants to be left alone. She is beautiful but mean and she bites and growls. I care for her and will until she passes. Something bad happened to her but nothing will ever hurt her again. I love your blogs and your books. Thanks for sharing your stories.

    • You bring back memories of a grey rabbit named Rosie who purred!!! She also did a growl on occasion. She was one of many loved ones.

  2. Thank you for loving Roo, even though he doesn’t sound all that lovable. Thanks to you, he has a place, and his ending, when and however it happens, will be much more kind than that of so many others who remained lost.

  3. Thanks for this. As I try to understand our latest kill pen rescue. He’s just this. I’m learning to quit expecting gracious thank yous, and learning also that a quiet ignorance may be all they can muster after the hell many have likely tolerated for people. That’s just going to have to be enough for me and this old yellow horse.

    • When I originally bought my horse we boarded at a barn with a hackline. Most of the horses there came from an auction where who knows what kind of life they had. Most had a stare that sort of looked away & beyond when they first came. (if I don’t look or care, I’ll be all right!) Most were there long enough to accept that they got fed & somewhat cared for. We (chico & I) boarded there for 4 years until the barn switched to round bales & for whatever reason, he had some kind of allergic reaction to them. Actually, that was a good thing! We moved to a really great barn – longer drive for me – but wonderful care for him. Which was what mattered. He and I were so fortunate – we had 12 years there – His health was great till the last 24 hours and I had him put down the next day – hes buried at the farm. He & I were so lucky for 16 years together. Far too many animals don’t get that kind of luck.

  4. Very touching story. It always makes me a little sad that people feel okay about taking the best that a horse has to offer, then passing them off with no concern for how their story ends. Roo is one of the lucky ones to have ended up with you and your kind friend.

  5. This was good-sweet but sad. In a way, it’s like this for lots of elder people who have lost the “zing” for life but are still here none-the-less. Maybe they feel useless but they can
    still have a purpose whether they see it or not. Maybe it should be up to the rest of us to help them remember when they weren’t useless.

  6. Wow, your writing is just so good. I just feel that old Roo so well. I found myself wondering if time being safe and left alone would eventually change his mind. It sounds like it has. Please keep us posted. I’m fascinated to see where this goes (if anywhere other than where we know it will go.)

  7. Anna, I love your ability and willingness to peel back the more romantic (to use your well chosen word) aspects of life with horses, and underscore the ethical underpinnings. I must say that this horse’s story makes me enormously grateful to have known so many horses who were (and are) willing (and able) to offer a reciprocal relationship. I see a lot of parallels between your discussion of horses and many of the social discussions of the current moment, including the idea that we should be careful not to view ourselves as saviours (in other words, selfless and benevolent beings), since in so doing we run the risk of undermining and underestimating beings (in other contexts, people) who are far more capable than they’re acknowledged to be. Thanks for this bracing tonic.

  8. Thank you again for your re-affirming my decision making. I do nutty things like keep an old, useless horse in the name of an old horse I loved and sometimes question the things I see, feel and do. Usually, about that time I stumble back to your blog and see I am not alone and I am on the right track.

  9. Most grateful that Roo ended up in a ‘soft place’ where he can just be a horse. Just BE. We could all use some of that from time to time – unconditional space to JUST BE. No pressure, no obligations, no pleasing others. Time to settle into ourselves.

    Thank you for gifting that space to Roo. And thank you to all who take in an older ‘useless’ horses. My experiences with seniors have been a Blessing. Amazing teachers.

  10. ❤ If we all could just have such compassion for the useless and the thankless. There are reasons, and to know them would possibly crush us … and not just for horses but for all creatures, 2-legged and 4-legged.
    Our old brood mare is 26, her last foal 11 years ago, but she lives here, matriarch in her small herd, and will until it is time to let her go. I guess in some eyes she is "useless" as she was never started under saddle, but she can be safe here, living the rest of her life as a horse.

  11. Roo does bring a woman who does not own a horse much happiness when I am with him. I hope I make a small positive impact on him when I am there, I do miss him when I am not there. I expect nothing back, but somehow he always seems to give back to me anyway. I guess if I ever owned a horse, it could be a very different scenerio. Maybe that is one small blessing I can find in not being a horse owner, zero expectations… and I just love the animals because they deserve to be loved. Thanks for telling it like it is Anna.

    • Thanks, Michelle. You do make a difference to the herd, and I think you’ve seen this difference in Roo slowly, over the year. He is an intelligent horse who listens. Thanks for all you do for us, Michelle. (Michelle does reiki for us at Infinity Farm and has struck up a friendship with Roo.)

    • Michelle – so glad he has you, a friend who appreciates that he is there and helps you find your joy. I believe he will feel your appreciation and just stays safe if he doesn’t acknowledge it on a physical level… he knows..

  12. I can’t add anything to the beautiful comments here. They all resonate with me and my life here in NE PA. It is always thought provoking and incredibly comforting to read your posts, Anna and then read the comments by people with such beautiful hearts.

      • Therefore, the comfort. Yes, they are and in my heart of hearts, I agree. Glad I have lived long enough to witness some of it.

  13. “Useless” Back several years ago now. I became “useless” still no answer as to why. What caused it. Best guess is un treated chronic Lyme. I started dropping things with the dominant hand. Started falling randomly. Weakness, numbness, tremors- oh the tremors!. Short term memory loss. So bad that I would forget a persons name that I had known for over a decade. Then the migraines. So bad I would lose my vision. All on my right/dominant side. I could no longer pick up a pen to even sign my name. Word drop, slurred speech. Now I get muscle spasms and horrible cramps as well. I had been helping my barn owner (at the time), take care of her horses and the property when she went to shows, or on vacation. Or didnt feel well. Then I became “useless” to her. Suddenly I was more a chore to have around. My muck bucket would go days without her emptying it so I could clean my horses stall. The water hose would go missing, so I couldnt get my horse water. Then winter came. The driveway- hill would not be plowed. My parking area not cleared. Often times, my horse not fed as per our agreement. Then, when my health made it so that I couldnt work. I got the platitudes. I “didnt have to worry about paying board right then” But I was now useless to her. Shortly after I was told she no longer was offering rough board. Even though I was still making it there daily. My husband driving the half hour round trip every morning before he had to be at work. Him, a non horsey person cleaning my horses stall. Just so I could still see my equally “useless” horse.

    I left that barn. Looking back. I should have left there a lot sooner. My horse wasnt happy there. She wasnt a happy, good, or nice person. I took him back to our “home barn” Where he and I stayed when I first got him. He is pasture sound only now. But no one thinks he or I are useless.
    I help when, where I can. I have friends that help me bring in grain, stack hay, get him from the pasture every afternoon. I am there every day. Twice a day. Even though it is further. And it takes me longer to get there. Some days I still need my husband to drive me. And soon I will have a teen driver that can get her miles in by driving me to the barn. But my horse was never useless to me. He let me hold on to him when I was weak. Cry into his mane when I was depressed over losing my ability to write, draw, work. Even hold a brush to groom him. He was never useless to me, even when I became “useless” to others.

    • Thank you for this beautiful heartfelt comment. You have said everything worth saying. Amen and best wishes to you and your horse, both of infinite value. Thank you.

    • I really hope you have found a doctor who can at the least take care of your symptoms. Have known of several people with Lyme Disease – several who were as disabled by the symptoms as you have been. But my son also was diagnosed with it – he found a homeopathic doctor in PA (we live in NY) & was on strong antibiotics – B12 shots – change of diet for between 2 and 3 years – his bloodwork was good about 6 months ago. Obviously, he will have to be watchful from now on, but he did get thru & is doing well.
      Anyone who makes another person feel useless? They are the useless one – pretty sad human being, I would say! What strength of spirit you have to continue to care for your horse – altho I’m sure part of that came from him!!

      • Maggie.. I treat the symptoms best I can. And I nap. A LOT. The doctor I had when I first showed symptoms didnt even give me the “Starter” dosage of Doxcy. I have a LONG list of everything that I do not have. LOL But not one answer as to why I got so sick and became disabled. My current primary care doc, and the doc that delivered my daughter, and knew me before I got sick. Both say Lyme, even though I have never tested positive.
        My horse is what keeps me going. My husband can care for himself. My daughter is now a teen, and although she still needs me. She needs me less. My old boy? He needs me. I miss him when I cant be there. I have driven through blizzard conditions to be there to make sure he is ok. Even though I leave his food out and have had the other owners tell me they will toss him his food etc. But I need him. And I am pretty sure he misses me when I am not there. He’s been my partner for 13 going on 14 years. And I will mourn him horribly when he tells me it’s time for him to go.

      • Yes the antibiotic that my son took was “doxcy” – a friend of his was finally diagnosed after a LONG time of attempting to find out why – & he was the person who gave Brent the name of the PA dr where he eventually went. Hes much better, but still has after effects from chemo & radiation (throat cancer). I’m amazed that he does so well now after all that.
        I’m so sorry for you mis-diagnosis and that still happens a lot. Keep napping and keep loving that “old boy”. I sure do wish mine was still with me.

  14. Do mountains and canyons have a “use”? Do clouds? “Useful” things have may value, but not every valuable things is useful.

    My horse deserves the best care possible whether or not he is behaving “usefully” – says the woman who just purchased a stout insurance policy to cover his time at the retirement facility (where thankfully there will be no demands on his “usefulness”) should I pass before he does. 😀

  15. love this. i have had some horses and ponies that were “useless”, eventually. its a beautiful free place to be, and i love them for it, and am happy to keep them that way for as long as is kind. i also have a little rescue that i suspect has always been useless. haha she doesnt think so. put two headcollars on her they said, that way you can catch her. Often contrary i left her with none. she is the queen of the place, marching about,we can now trim and groom and all that jazz without restraint, she quickly worked out who was the quiet boss and sticks with him. its a great arrangement for all of us.and there are times when i know i am useless too, despite the frustration there is a beauty in accepting the inevitability too. huh! who am i kidding 😉

  16. I retired my soon to be 30 year old saddlebred about 2 years ago. He’s got a poor back end. Since retirement he has become more grumpy, more anxious (I can see increasing cataracts in his eyes), and absolutely hates my only other horse (most of the time). About 6 months after I retired him, I found him down and he couldn’t get up. I called the Vet in hysterics because I had just lost another beloved member of the herd unexpectedly. She said,”Ask him to get up with some vigor, and if he does, we’ll put him on some Previcox”. So he’s been beating the odds and getting up and down without problems for a year and a half since. I don’t see him as useless; he gave me so much of his best years and is tough enough to hang around and give some of his more challenging years as well. I continue to stand in awe of him and all the horses I’ve known. I’ll always have a place for a “useless” horse in my barn.

  17. I’m glad I made room for an old horse in my barnyard….useless, pretty much, but deserving? Absolutely. Always a soft spot for the unusable and unwanted. Something most don’t understand. Glad to know I’m not alone….

  18. Anna, your words come to life and touch my heart. Thank you for painting such beautiful portraits.

  19. Just finished thru reading, thinking about what everyone had to say. Life and living and letting live, doesn’t always have to have a lot of drama to be cherished. Thank you, everyone. Michele

  20. Reblogged this on The Merry-Go-Round and commented:
    This post choked me up. Horses give so much to us humans, but all too often the minute they quit giving, we let them go. I’m hoping to find a retired horse or pony as a pasture mate for the mare I’ve just bought.

  21. Just a loving reminder that horse rescues would LOVE more people to adopt one of their ‘useless’ horses. Might be a senior horse or might be a companion only horse. You’d be a Godsend to them- the horse and the rescue!!!

  22. “Geez, she always makes me cry.” That’s what I said after reading this last post. You always get straight into my heart. I don’t know if that’s good for me or not, but I’m intent on having the better understanding you share

    • Geez, I’m sorry. I never intend to make anyone cry. On the other hand, I notice some of us are pretty sweet on old horses. (I want a better understanding all the time, too.) Thanks, Linda.

  23. Hooray for Roo…
    So proud to be a member of the Useless Club! Although, mine get hungry which makes me feed them every day as well as poop to clean up after. I’d say that’s pretty useful!

  24. LOVE LOVE LOVE this! We had a dog like the horse Roo. He lived in his own little bubble and was content to be pretty much left alone. If he wanted or needed us, he’d let us know. Otherwise, he was happy just “being.” There were times when it would have been so much easier on us to not have him (he especially disliked the company of children), but we catered to his own unique personality and adjusted accordingly, rather than trying to force him to be anything else. When he let us know at age 14 that he was tired of “being”, it absolutely broke our hearts. He taught us so much about our relationship with non-human animals and how we need to respect their needs over and above our own needs, desires, and expectations.

    • I’m not sure why I like the ones who don’t like us so much, but I do. He sounds wonderful, and I’ve had a few kid-hating dogs myself. Thanks, Laura, for sharing this wonderful comment. You’re right, their needs matter.

  25. Love this! And love the quote “horses need horses more than humans”. We have a 26 year old mare and just when you think she’s coming to the end of her days she comes back swinging! I have a running joke that I think she will outlive all the other horses on the farm! Love this story of Roo!

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