December 29, 2011
War Horse opened this week, an event chronicled in today’s Forbes.com blog post, “Can War Horse Beat Clooney For Golden Globe”?
I sure hope so, not just because I’m a sucker for a good horse movie and fine film making, but because of War Horse’s ability to elevate a simple moral message so easily lost on the red carpet: compassion’s ability to neutralize brutality, compassion’s essence to survival.
Horses are recipients of both compassion and brutality, perhaps no more so than today, when there are people who actually say such things on Facebook as, “For so long feeding a horse for a month was under $50, and now within the last two years it has escalated to over $100 per month per horse. I am so tired of every horse out there being called a rescue. My wish for Christmas this year was that every rescue horse was taken for slaughter reducing the demand for hay. It is now getting so hard to feed the remaining horses I have that I am getting angry at the mere thought of Un-Wanted Horses not being slaughtered.”
It got 13 “likes.” Worse, this is someone’s Christmas wish.
You think any of them will see War Horse? Probably. They’ll claim it’s a pro-slaughter message because to them, everything is a pro-slaughter message. Somehow, they’ve gotten to the point of equating their very existence with sending captive bolts into the heads of animals that, like Joey in the movie, have worked in our service, done our bidding. Galloped the track, jumped the seven-foot wall, pulled the carriage, hauled the tree, calmed a disabled kid, helped an ex-con learn what it means to nurture, taken a toddler on their backs, rounded up the dogies, chased the foxes, chased our dreams for us or just happened to be nurse mare foals or the offspring of PMU mares as a cruel accident of birth.
Here’s why I asked my sister Sally to write the War Horse review for me on Forbes.com instead of doing it myself.
First of all, she has written about working animals for most of the last 20 years and is a frequent contributor to Salon.com, The New York Times and The Village Voice. Mostly, though, as a younger sister, I’ve read most of her writing. She wrote a piece once on various smells that was so beautiful. I remember thinking, I’m getting misty eyed at the description of wood smoke and how a lawnmower smells when running. It was that evocative. More than that, however, I couldn’t write the review.
Back in the Springtime, I watched my first slaughter video the night before going to see the stage play, War Horse, at the Vivian Beaumont theater. I’d read about it two years earlier when it first appeared on the London stage and just the description of the puppets made me cry. But as I sat and watched them on stage, after months of keeping the tickets safe on my desk, a strange thing happened. My throat didn’t tighten. I didn’t need the hankies I’d stuffed into my purse. I’d seen such brutality the night before that I had to remind myself to watch the play and not play out the terrible scene of horses struggling against humans shooting them in the head at point-blank range as they slipped and fell and rose only to be shot again. I ended up marveling at the production but not feeling it, and that felt like a terrible loss, equal to the one that Albert and Joey encountered together during the war.
I’ve never been a fighter, but I understand how wearying it can be. In the midst of pushing back against people who think it’s consistent to call yourself a Christian and then hope for other people’s horses to be bled out while conscious, I didn’t have the depth of feeling to say what War Horse meant to me. All I could focus on was trying to remain calm while parsing the logic of people who hate anyone who don’t think as they do. Kind of like the villains in War Horse, except there, both sides to the conflict wanted Joey for their own. If he could survive, then they could, too.
So I’ll tell my own little story, here, about a horse who taught me that at an early age. His name was Dick. Just Dick. Dick the horse. I’ve got a chapter about him underway for my other blog (www.ModernChristianSpinster.com), so I’ll just mention him briefly here, but suffice it to say that Dick was a rescue horse, the very kind the UH people think is driving up the cost of hay. He was a Palomino given to my family when my oldest sister was perhaps 13. And he raised all of us, taking us to Pony Club events, on long hacks in the green woods of Oyster Bay and for me, to several equitation championships.
Dick was the name he came with and it’s the one we kept, putting it down on horse show entry forms, even though the result was hearing “And, in first place over fences is Vicki Eckhoff on Dick” announced over the PA system. But I was proud of him and the name was his for keeps.
So here’s the story about Dick that made him of Joey stature: I was jumping him over a triple combination in a lesson one day and he stumbled between fences. I fell off in front of him, yet he stayed on his knees until I got out of his way. Then, he got up.
On another occasion, my sister Karen’s Beagle had been barking at him in the paddock, until he chased her down, knocked her over, and pinned her to the ground with his hoof. She was unhurt, but never barked at him again.
The smell of his fur under my nose, the feel of it with my arms wrapped around his neck, is vivid today, as it is for everyone whose life has been changed by one of these large, compassionate, willful yet willing creatures.
The UH people like to posture that they’re the only ones whose instincts on horses matter. Mixed in with that is a lot of hatred and—it seems—deep hurt. Sally talks in the Forbes.com piece about how children learn compassion through non-verbal communication with animals, through touch and compassion and care. But the lesson is there for adults, too. They just have to take themselves out of the center of everything. They need to stop thinking that the price of hay is essential to their survival. Even more so, perhaps they need to recognize that they’ve been brutalized. Here’s the thing, though: brutality won’t save them. It can’t, and it won’t.