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In Praise of Horse Heroes

December 29, 2011

Vickery Eckhoff

My hero: Dick, the rescue horse.

War Horse opened this week, an event chronicled in today’s 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 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, 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 (, 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 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.


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  1. December 29, 2011

    They are amazing creatures are they not, thank you, nice words, well written.

    • December 29, 2011

      Yes, they are. Thank you for reading and please stay tuned! Much more to come in the week ahead.

  2. December 29, 2011

    Vickery, thankyou, thankyou for your (and your sister’s) efforts to expose horse slaughter for human consumption. We are all so very grateful!
    Please know that we are trying our hardest to keep “talking slaughter”, to make the public aware. My husband claims that I’m just ‘this’ far from the funny farm over this. Going to see “War Horse” on Christmas day, I left the theater just as the final credits started so I could be first out the door. From that position, I handed a small flyer to everyone who left after the movie. The flyers have state and federal bill numbers, and some key points about slaughter. The opportunity’s there for outreach. Go get ‘em!

    • December 29, 2011

      Oh you’re so welcome. And thanks for what you’re doing. My sister (one of three!) handed out fliers at War Horse, and the other wrote the review. The eldest is the one who initially schooled Dick and turned him into such a great horse. I’m feeling indebted to all of them—and other horse and human heroes—today.

  3. December 29, 2011

    Again thank you Vickery for expression the compassion that the eaters just don’t get. The biggest lesson one can build from is the lesson that you will never know it all and having a rigid, unflexible, narrowed, irrational, closed mind, filled with “it’s my way or the highway” attitude will not solve any problems. Never has and never will. I think it is the reason the eaters are filled with such hatred is they haven’t learned the lesson that no one can know it all about the equine industry. Sad that they cannot see the forest for the trees. Sad that they value so called property rights as though they are the only ones who have rights. This decision affects all horse owners and all horses. Whether they like it or not, whether they see it or not, everything has a cause and effect. Every business has a supply and demand, but every human has a moral obligation for humanity. If they are so accepting of what other countries practice, eat and do, then move there. If the market paying price for horses in Mexico is so much higher, common sense would tell me to market my horse there then. Has it not always been understood that you don’t ask others to do things that you would not do yourself? Then let them slaughter their own $150,000 horse and eat it. Just don’t think I or any other caring horse owner should do it and pay to be poisoned.

    • December 29, 2011

      Well, I think you nailed it. They want to slaughter other people’s horses. I’m not sure they want their own to die that way, but some probably would. Hard to tell.

  4. December 29, 2011

    I’ve been following every one of your columns on Forbes addressing this issue, and feel I (and my equine companions) owe you an enormous debt of gratitude for illuminating the travesty of horse slaughter and its shameful propaganda machine.

    The selfishness, lack of logic and complete absence of compassion of slaughter proponents is vexing to me also, but I have to hope that with the mobilization of intelligent, articulate and passionate people advocating for horses, that we will beat this thing, and articles like yours are helping motivate us all to get it done sooner rather than later.

    • December 29, 2011

      Oh, thanks so much for your kind words. I’ve never felt the need so strongly to illuminate an issue. I guess it all goes back to the day I found a can of Alpo in the cupboard that said, “horse meat” on it. The label was blue. I’ll never forget it! Sadly, one of our horses probably went to slaughter later on, after he was sold when my sister went to college. What a beautiful big boy he was. So, I think of that can, I think of that horse, and all the others and the people trying to save them. We’ll get it done. We have to.

      • tealirish #
        March 15, 2012

        Just found your site and thank you for your efforts to end horse slaughter. Maybe every member of Congress (expecially those sponsors) should have to view these videos to be “educated” before voting on the issue.

        The intelligence, companionship and service that our horses have provided to us should never be ended with the slaughter process.

        It is akin to sending old dogs and cats to slaughter: oh, they are old and troublesome, incontinent now.. we should eat them or ship the carcasses to countries that market dog meat. My God, to what lows can humans finally stoop?

        I hope the re-activation of the horse slaughter bills can be challenged and overturned (again). That is the problem with the “bundling” of bills presented in government. Unrelated and terrible legislation gets passed in these bundles to get the few good items approved. How can this be stopped?

  5. January 9, 2012

    Beautiful piece…Keep spreading what I like to call the “gospel.” It’s so nice to read a sensible, kind, and factual take on the situation, rather than the rubbish that is constantly up on the UH facebook page. Never in all my years on this earth has anything moved me to act, or try to correct a wrong as horse slaughter. For the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone can look at horse slaughter and think it isn’t seriously deranged. Fifty-Nine billion animals were slaughtered in one year alone for US food consumption and now they want horses too?

    • January 9, 2012

      Thanks, swcrystal, for visiting here and your comments. I know how you feel about being moved to act and correct a wrong. And I think people like to comment on stuff they haven’t bothered to look at, or don’t want to. They’ll look if it doesn’t have something to do with them.

      Please visit my blog, Fat Cats, tomorrow for a new article and photo gallery coming out. Hoping to spread the word and a few images.

  6. Louie Cocroft #
    March 15, 2012

    Here’s someone who’s GOOD wish came true
    Woman reunites with long-lost horse 11 years later

    Read more:

    • March 20, 2012

      What a touching story. I’ve often thought about my old horse. Imagine finding him or her years later. Thanks for sharing this.

  7. wildhorseperilousp #
    May 28, 2012

    That’s why we are called Horse Warriors! It is war because of the brutality of horse slaughter and stupidity of man kind. The greed, the irresponsibility of horse owners and breeders causes the glut of “unwanted horses”! Just like the ad’s one sees, “Faithful family pet, now 10, must go, moving, or just can’t take care of ’em anymore, so free to good home”. WTF? What, can’t take your kids either, so just dump ’em off? Let’s not make feedlots the dumping ground for human irresponsiblity. If you can’t feed ’em, don’t breed ’em. If u can’t take care of them any more due to job loss, divorce, whatever, then call someone that can help b4 your horse is rated with a body score of 2, because that is neglect and hopefully will get some hefty charges filed against you whether u try to dump your companion horse at an auction or just slowly starve it to death. Horse owners must be prosecuted for starving and neglecting animals not given a way out by dumping them at an auction or slaughter feed lot. There are hay banks and rescues that can help you get your horse adopted or fed b4 you starve them. Do the right thing! Be a responsible horse owner.

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