The Amish Horse
A friend of mine who owns a horse rescue/rehab operation pulled the Amish horse off a kill truck. The horse was covered with harness sores, wounds that had been camouflaged with motor oil, and plentiful whip marks. His tail had been cut off to sell for hair extensions . Every bit of value that animal had ever possessed had been extracted from him, casually, carelessly, by his owners.
The Amish horse was beautiful from the shoulders forward, and a wreck everywhere else. He had a severe roached back, which is the opposite of a sway back. His haunches sagged, his hind legs were grotesquely out of whack, and he was coon-footed; his pasterns sagging til his fetlocks almost touched the ground. When he walked out of the kill truck and into the rescue trailer, his joints crackled like breaking glass.
There was no part of the Amish horse that did not hurt.
But the Amish horse had stopped flinching or groaning years ago.
The Amish horse may have been better off dead. But my friend didn’t think so. In her barn were horses that had arrived as bags of bones and sores. One of them was blind, one irreversibly lame. Several had been wild. A few had been crazy. They were now thriving and happy, and learning new things. Why not the Amish horse too?
My friend and her young students got the Amish horse off the trailer and into a paddock. He was obedient. He did everything they wanted, but nothing he wanted. He just stood there by the gate. They led him to the grass and told him it was ok to graze, and he did. He looked at the other horses but did not call to them. My friend put him into his stall, where he dug his hind toes deep in the bedding to relieve the pain in his legs.
Next day the crew led the Amish horse to a soft mat and cleaned his sores and put Desitin on them. They bandaged his hind legs to support them a little. They did not know if they were hurting him, because he stood quietly, bracing himself for pain but not reacting. They groomed him a little with soft brushes, and he stood, seemingly calm and indifferent.
My friend and her trainees saw that the Amish horse not really calm; he was overmastered by fear. He was way past flight, way past fight, and was all the way into shut down, almost catatonic. They wondered if they had enough love and kindness among them to fix him.
The farrier came, and the Amish horse stood shakily but obediently on two good legs and one bad one, while the man shaped the angles of his feet to give him as much relief as possible.
The vet came and examined the Amish horse, standing meekly on his mat, while his caregivers gave him treats and reassurances: There is no punishment here, ever, sweet boy.
The vet’s news was not good. The Amish horse had a disease called “degenerative suspensory ligament desmitis,” which is hereditary, and not just the result of old age and overwork, as people used to think. There is no cure. He will not heal, he will only get worse, the vet said, and he will die in a year or so.
The Amish horse was born with this condition, as he was born with his hunched back. And his owners worked him hard anyway, in the fields and on the tarmac pulling their quaint Amish buggies, with his rotated stifle joints banging against the carriage shafts at every step. They beat him to make him go, they squeezed work out of him until he had fallen almost completely apart. Then they hacked off his tail, pulled his shoes and walloped him over to the auction pens.
Fallen almost completely apart. The Amish horse is at the end of his nightmare life. He has some time to heal, at least inside. He is among friends now, who will ease his pain with drugs and special leg braces and supplements. They will give him him candy and rub him on his favorite scratch spots, if he finds the courage to indicate where those spots might be. Maybe he will come out to play games or work puzzles or paint abstract expressionist paintings, as his stablemates do. Maybe he will choose a buddy, human or equine. Not feel helpless. Have an opinion.
Why is my friend willing to spend money on a useless horse? To show her students how to take care of a useless horse? To love a useless horse and hope that someday, before the day comes comes when he can’t stand up anymore, he will love in return?
She asks for donations for her useless projects, and I and many many others around the world pony up. She, and we, don’t think it’s useless to comfort the sick and dying, to ease suffering, to pay horses back in part for all the good they have done for us. The full amount of what we owe can never ever be paid.
I was haunted by the Amish horse, and I didn’t know entirely why. I thought about him days and dreamed about him nights. It wasn’t just the tragedy of his life or the beauty and depth of his eyes, or his profound withdrawal into himself. Nor was it my awful realization he probably cannot even lie down to ease the pain in his body. Or get back up again, if once he managed to lie down.
I could not stop thinking about the Amish horse, or wanting to drive to the barn in Maine and just sit outside his stall and be with him. I hoped the vet was wrong about his condition; I Googled DSLD in Horses, to see if there was any hope. When I read the articles I wept, and I understood at last why I am so obsessed by this animal.
Degenerative suspensory ligament desmitis is the same as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome in humans. My daughter and her teenage daughter both have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
They have what the Amish horse has. Muscle pain, ligament deterioration, dislocation of joints, fatigue, arthritis. There is no cure. They will also live with challenges, although they have access to good pain management and physical therapy, canes and perhaps braces someday; and Task Rabbit. They can work and study, go to concerts and movies, and they are surrounded by love and care.
But what if that care disappeared? What if they were forced to work beyond their strength to make the rent? What if people saw them as useless, because they were “disabled?”
Of course we wouldn’t ever do that. Or would we?
We need a better way to live and care in this world.
To learn more, or donate to Empowered Equines, a nonprofit organization, and the heroic horses and young people it serves, please find them on Facebook or at
To learn more, or support the Ehlers-Danlos Socuety, please find them at