Friday, 23 August 2013 was a horrid, wet and rainy Cape winter’s night. At 6:30 pm, the staff at the SPCA horse care unit received a call from Delft in the Cape Flats to report a dead horse. Inspectors Clive Matthews and Sandile Malotana headed out into the cold and dark to assess the situation. Shortly afterwards they rang the office to advise the Unit manager, Romayne Midgley, that the horse was still alive, but probably a ‘PTS’ – SPCA code for Put To Sleep.
Romayne and SPCA assistant stable manager Thomas joined their colleagues at the scene. Despite the plummeting temperatures and the driving rain, they encountered quite a crowd. There was a large fire, a radio blaring, alcohol and couples swaying to the music. A group of children were kicking a ball around while the adults partied. Nearby was a grey horse. She was lying on her side, most of her body in a ditch of cold, filthy water. Her head rested on the small bank, elevated just enough to keep her from drowning, and her legs were outstretched. Every now and then one of the children would kick the ball into her stomach to score a goal.
Romayne says that at first glance she thought the horse had died. However, as the team moved around deciding on the best course of action, they noticed that the horse’s eyes followed them and realised that there might still be a spark of life. They fitted a headcollar and tried to get her to her feet, but to no avail. The mare was exhausted and spent and had nothing left to give. Destroying an animal in public is an upsetting event and one that the SPCA tries to avoid unless an animal can’t be moved without causing it further pain and suffering. So the team decided to try and get the mare back to base and do what needed to be done out of public sight. They tied her feet together and dragged her into the horse box, where she lay under Romayne’s watchful eye all the way back to Grassy Park. The team ‘unloaded’ her the same way and dragged her into a stable.
The team rolled the mare onto her sternum, at which point she surprised them all by perking up a little and showing some interest in the food and water that were on offer. The SPCA folk see all manner of atrocities and frequently have to make the hard decisions that lesser humans can’t (or won’t), but seeing that little bit of fighting spirit, they all decided to give the mare another chance. She was ice cold and her core temperature had dropped to 32 degrees, so the most pressing order of business was to get her warm and dry. The team got to work with a pile of towels and blankets and covered the mare with an electric blanket.
Her mouth was torn and the corners extended well beyond normal, her body covered in abrasions, particularly on the right hand side. Her near hind had a large suppurating wound, but perhaps worst of all were her feet. Or rather lack of them. The soles were entirely missing and the mare had nothing but raw red tissue to walk on. Why am I telling you all this? Because it turns out that the horse is a Thoroughbred.
For the first four days, the mare, now renamed Fantasia, did not even attempt to get up. Dr Nadia de Swardt from Blue Cross Veterinary Hospital attended to her, administering IV drips to help her rehydrate, as well as daily antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, Vitamin B injections, Omepracote and pre and probiotics to protect her stomach. She also received tetanus and worming treatments. To prevent her developing pressure sores from lying down so much, the team shipped in a ton of sand, which they then covered with bedding and rolled Fantasia over from one side to the other every two hours. Her damaged feet also had to be soaked daily and then painted with DMSO, poulticed and wrapped. Anyone who has ever had a Vitamin B shot or a tetanus injection will attest that they sting like blazes, yet Romayne tells me that Fantasia has never raised even the slightest objection to all her treatments.
Fantasia was particularly lame on her off hind – so much so that Dr de Swardt and the team suspected a broken pedal bone. However, an X-ray showed a long thin piece of wire that had penetrated her foot as far as the pastern. This was removed immediately and Fantasia has made steady progress ever since.
Long Road to Recovery
On her fifth day in the Unit, with the aid of a winch and a harness, the team helped Fantasia to her feet for the first time. Horses don’t have very good circulation to their lower legs and lying down for extended periods of time can result in circulatory problems, so despite the obvious challenges, it was important to get Fantasia to her feet as quickly as possible. She could not stand for very long to begin with, but the team repeated the hoisting exercise and Fantasia gradually increased the length of time she was able to stay on her feet.
Fantasia’s stable door was left open so that she could enjoy a little afternoon sun. A geriatric pony of indeterminate origin called Ou Toppie decided to make Fantasia his pet project. Since her arrival, he spends all his time near her, constantly calling and encouraging her. Finally, on her seventh day at the Unit, and perhaps somewhat poignantly the first day of spring with all its associations of new beginnings, Fantasia responded. She got to her feet of her own accord, hobbled across the short stretch of concrete and joined her little friend for some grass. A small and insignificant event for some, but a huge achievement for everyone at the Unit.
The SPCA put the story on their Facebook page and it seems to have caught the attention and imagination of the local horsey and animal loving community. They have received hundreds of messages and Fantasia is receiving a steady stream of visitors, some bearing gifts of apples or carrots and some content just to sit and soak up her presence. A generous benefactor donated a brand new winter rug to see Fantasia through the last of the cold weather, local farrier Jacques Sauer has donated his time and services for as long as it takes to get Fantasia back on her feet (likely to be a long-term exercise as she will need many months of supplements, pads and remedial shoeing) and there have been additional donations of medical supplies and probiotics. Although they have received communications from the likes of the TBA, NHA and RA, Romayne asked me to make special mention that they have yet to receive any visitors from the racing fraternity.
And so what, you may think. Why should this mess be dumped on racing’s doorstep? Well, for a start the mare is a Thoroughbred. She was specifically bred and produced for racing. She came from a reputable breeder and was conditioned by a reputable trainer. Despite her lack of racing talent, she was an attractive individual (everyone loves a grey) and clearly has a good temperament. Yet despite having all these things in her favour, she still fell through the cracks. The general reaction seems to be that the racing community is to blame, that we exploit our horses for profit and dump them when they are no longer useful. While anyone who thinks racing is an easy money-making racket should consider taking their cornflakes with milk and sugar rather than a crack pipe, there are elements of truth to the accusations. The mare did not pay her way, or earn enough in terms of racing fun to be considered worth keeping. She was sold on. And then sold again.
While none of that is a crime, with every slip down the ladder, her links with the system became increasingly tenuous, until her microchip became the only means of proving her identity.
It seems that Fantasia ended up in the bush racing community. The term has a relatively pleasant, almost rural feel to it. However, I am advised that it is anything but. Bush racing is a term applied to informal and unregulated racing conducted in urban areas. Meetings are held on Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays. Horses literally run around urban blocks Palio style, with one circuit of the ‘square’ constituting a race. Races are conducted on tar roads and the horses are not shod. The only piece of tack is usually a thin nylon rope through the horses’ mouth to act as a bit and the riders carry sjamboks to beat their horses and each other in their efforts to cross the line first. The winning combinations earn the right to race again. Thoroughbred horses are highly prized and green NHA passports brandished with pride. There is a lot of gambling and horses are also freely traded. The SPCA are making slow inroads into the bush racing community and tell me that there are in excess of 500 horses in the Mamre area alone. The horses are not stabled, fed or exercised – during the week they are simply tied to a stake in the ground and left to graze on whatever they can find. Weekends they race. Jealous rivals or disgruntled punters are not above trying to harm successful horses, with the preferred method of ‘nobbling’ apparently being to take a spade to a horse’s legs and chop the tendons off.
Of course there are also some great homes and a lot of horses do find fantastic owners and go on to have great second careers and be loved and pampered. But the sad fact is that it is the less attractive, less sound horses that are most vulnerable as their prospects are just that much more limited. And even for the lucky few who are attractive and sound and have a lot to give, unfortunately the fact is that life sucks and shit happens and circumstances change. Little girls fall out of love with horses and in love with boys. Horses are forgotten. And passed on. And lost.
I’m not being a gore hound or trying to create sensation or scandal. In fact, I would probably sleep a little easier at night not knowing some of the things Romayne told me last week, but not knowing wouldn’t make it any less true.
So whose fault is it?
The general public seem to blame racing. And while it is not necessarily all our fault – there were third parties that helped Fantasia end up where she did – we are a high profile sport and community and it is frankly embarrassing when one of our own ends up like this. It is happening with increasing regularity and becoming patently obvious that we have no formal system in place to track our horses once they leave the track. Well, nothing that works anyway. While one might think that a prospective new owner seems nice and kind and trustworthy, the truth is that people lie and once a horse leaves the relative safety of the rules and regulations of racing, they can end up just about anywhere.
Fantasia has been formally identified as Coalmine Canary and her name seems to be an appropriate one. Mine workers used to carry caged birds down mining tunnels to use as early warning systems – if gases such as methane or carbon monoxide leaked into the mine, the gases would kill the canary, but hopefully still allow the miners enough time to escape. Wikipedia also describes it as “something whose sensitivity to adverse conditions makes it a useful early indicator of such conditions; something which warns of the coming of greater danger or trouble by a deterioration in its health or welfare.” And hopefully Fantasia’s story has happened in time for people to sit up and pay attention. A lot of horses disappear into oblivion without anyone noticing and until appropriate and effective safeguards can be put in place, it seems that the only thing standing between a horse and a water-filled ditch is an owner who cares enough to keep track. For anyone who does not follow through with changes of ownership and can be tied to an animal that ends up being neglected, it is worth knowing that abusing an animal is a criminal offence and the penalties range from large fines to jail time.
– ROBYN LOUW
If you are interested in helping in any way please contact the Cape Of Good Hope SPCA: