We awoke to another beautiful Lesotho morning. Most of us were able to face the day, others who had welcomed it early in the morning weren’t so handy.
But all managed to get up, pack their tubs, and saddle their horses. Ethan was eager to try his hand again at riding and I felt Pegasus would give him an ideal ride. I had (quite devilishly) talked Chrissy into riding Genghis and I would take Tequila (of “airs above the ground” fame). I was quite smug with my horse shuffling. I had successfully ducked another ride on the fire-breathing dragon and Aly had ridden Tequila up with little complaint.
I saddled up and prepared to mount. Left foot stretched high to the stirrup. Upon placing my weight down Tequila sank. I hovered above his withers and suddenly thought one of two things would happen – he’d flip over, or flop down. In an act of self-preservation I stepped back down – and promptly buckled, embracing the earth as if it were my mother’s womb.
In my graceful pirouette to avoid Tequila’s sudden antics I felt all the tendons in my right ankle stretch beyond their normal elasticity. I sat in an embarrassed heap while someone caught my horse.
And what do you do when you fall off (or can’t get on in the first place)?
You try again.
So I mounted up and we headed out. Chrissy and I found ourselves in front with our mounts. Both horses could be compared to a car on ice. They fishtailed their way over the landscape. Which is fine, if there aren’t cliffs and other objects of danger next to you.
After 15 minutes of Tequila I bowed out in defeat and gave Aly back her horse. It has been a rare occasion where I have felt defeated by a horse. But quite simply Tequila had no use for me, and in fairness, I didn’t have the patience for him.
I found myself on Lord Michael, Chrissy’s mount.
I fully expect you to have followed that exchange:
1) Ethan takes Pegasus (my horse)
2) Kevin takes Ethan’s place driving the Cruiser
3) So Chrissy takes Genghis (Kevin’s horse)
4) I take Tequila (Aly’s horse)
5) Aly takes Lord Michael (Chrissy’s horse)
6) Subsequent Tequila problems (sounds like a bad night at the bar) leaves me Lord Michael.
Right, so now that we are clear on that, more on the ride.
Now that I had a horse under me that wasn’t willing to throw his body off a cliff face, I felt much better. Giddy, in fact.
The ride continued at a more leisurely pace, past a waterfall and along a beautiful valley. Upon reaching the ridge, we looked down upon the village of Sehlabathebe – our ultimate destination. The mud huts were barely discernable at that distance from the surrounding rocks and earth.
We rode into town, reminiscent of cowboys in a western. Only, when 99% of your population rides a horse for transport, you don’t really stand out. At least, not like riding a horse into New York City.
Our ultimate destination was The Project. The Project is/was an agriculture center that perhaps started with good intentions but is now falling into decay. It was where we’d lay our heads for the next few nights. Our accommodations were what they were because we felt this was the one location where we could secure the horses from horse thieves.
The paddock railings were rusted and broken, but there was enough there to fashion a barrier of sorts, in part to keep the local horses out.
A lazy afternoon ensued with part of the group headed to the local bar and the rest of us headed to our bunk beds. I was in the latter group, still nursing a cold and my now swollen right ankle. But you wouldn’t hear any complaint from me when Richard’s foot was twice as big, twice as broken and he was twice as doped up on painkillers (subsequent research has revealed that Richard had a supply of non-FDA approved drugs from China).
The late afternoon descended on the sleepy village and we all piled into the land cruiser to drive to the pound, hoping to be there when the animals returned for the day.
The Lesotho Pound Rescue Project is centered around the conditions in the government run pounds, and it was this project that prompted the Lesotho Rescue Ride.
I can’t speak for the others, but I was filled with a bit of apprehension as we drove down the bumpy dirt road to an unmarked, nondescript, low-slung building that was also the police station. My apprehension was well founded. Grazing around the building were four police horses in such a deplorable condition, they couldn’t possibly be ridden.
The pound itself sat slightly below the police building on a slight grade sloping off to the North. The border of the corral was composed of rocks piled thickly and dung blocks drying on top. Inside the small area, approximately 25 cattle huddled in a corner. It took me a minute to pick out the two equines amongst them – their hip bones as prominent as those of a dairy cow. Two walking skeletons with coarse hides and lifeless eyes stood on the top terrace of the corral. Ear tips were gone and brands burned over multiple times on their shoulders and haunches.
The girls in the group descended upon these two hapless creatures. Our sunglasses hid the tears coming from our eyes but the dejection in our bodies matched those of the horses. Unless claimed by their owners, the two horses would likely be dead in a couple weeks.
A rotting horse skeleton outside the walls of the corral just served to reaffirm this sorry future.
The rib cage in a wheelbarrow inside the building adjacent to the police building told a more sinister story. While the police officers, or pound master will not touch the animal while it is alive. Once it has starved to death, it is fair game.
When we inquired why there was a wheelbarrow full of meat in the building we were told it was for the dogs. We didn’t see any dogs. Nor could we understand why the dogs wouldn’t feed on the carcass laid to rest outside the corral (apparently this carcass had been left inside the corral a couple weeks prior).
The men in our group questioned the police officers about the very basic conditions. Why was there no water for the animals? Why weren’t they being fed? How could the animals be treated in such a horrible manner?
The answers were sorely lacking and I thought it would come to blows. I turned my head away and buried my face in the mane of a small grey horse, his breath soft on my hand. I cradled his head in my arm and he leaned into me, accepting what little I had to offer. We wouldn’t be able to save him. Even if there was some mechanism for taking him out of the pound, he was past saving.
I wished with all my heart that just a kind touch or expression of compassion would grant him a moment’s escape from the hell that he was in. A breath of air for a drowning man, a sip of water for someone dying of thirst. But perhaps my wish just prolonged his agony. He didn’t appear to express pain, but how can you see pain in a horse’s eyes when they don’t even reflect life?
At some point this horse belonged to someone, and then the police or stock theft unit did their job and rounded him up. That’s when they stopped doing their job. As pound residents, the animals are supposed to be grazed and watered daily, but if they die, then the meat belongs to everyone, hence the rack of ribs in the wheelbarrow. The operation reflects a clandestine backyard meat business.
A cluster of ears swayed gently, hung from the rock building like a bouquet of flowers hung upside down to dry. They looked soft, like velvet and they were all that were left of the animals that had died in the pounds. That, and the sun bleached bones scattered about haphazardly.
It looked like hell.