We live in an age of exaggeration. People say “I almost died,” over a paper cut, and “I rocked!” when they didn’t. Which is why I always had the feeling no one believed me when I told them what Cosmo looked like that first day.
Cosmopolitan, eighteen hands high (that’s six feet even at the shoulder), sired by an Olympic stallion, shown through second level and trained through Prix St. George, was never destined for the Olympics. Genetics guarantee nothing. But he was a beautiful, high-dollar show horse, talented and intelligent. When his owner called looking for boarding, he’d been out of training for over a year due to an injury. It was a sure bet he’d never show again, doubtful if he could even be ridden, and he’d been retired on a farm where neither owner nor trainer visited him. He’d also been starved, nearly to death, and his owner was panicked about finding a place to stable him where he would actually be fed.
Cosmo, my mom informed me when she picked me up from school on the day of his arrival, looked like a Holocaust survivor. There was a buzz at the farm, a low-pitched hum that was emanating from the last paddock up the driveway because everyone was tear-choked and shocked by the “fancy dressage horse” who’d arrived earlier that afternoon. The vet had come and gone and left a list of the animal’s emergency nutritional needs and Cosmo’s owner had logged her credit card at the feed store and told my mom to, “get him whatever he needs.”
I was the only one who hadn’t seen him, and was dying to. Mom handed me a halter so long it could have hung around my neck and tripped up my feet and said that, even though I was twelve and tiny, it would be okay for me to bring him in by myself because he was, “too weak to misbehave.”
All the way up the driveway and there he was, nibbling feebly at the sandy grass just inside the gate, big as a brontosaurus with hooves the size of dinner plates. And he was ruined. Whatever he’d been before, however brilliant he’d been, he was completely, devastatingly ruined.
People say “skin and bones,” and it’s only true half the time. Cosmo was skin and bones. His massive knees and hocks, the knobby vertebrae in his neck, the hollows of his pelvis, each smoothly curved rib was stark beneath the leathery, too tight skin stretched over them. His hair was gone – a few tufts of red bay stubble clung to his belly and shoulders, but the widespread rain rot on his back and hips and face had taken away his coat. The fungal infection was so bad that half-dollar size crusty barnacles pocked his flanks. His huge mule ears flopped lifeless on either side of his head.
His “injury” – that we would later learn the truth of – was a great sunken cavity beneath his tail and dock: the meat and muscle of his hindquarters wasn’t merely atrophied, it was gone, surgically removed after a massive hemorrhage.
I didn’t cry, like so many people did, but the sight of him was sobering. He was nothing but bone, hide, and the muscle it required to stand upright. He didn’t even look alive.
When I went into the paddock to halter him that first time, he didn’t see me, his eyes like glass, and for one long moment that smelled like the stink of his rotting skin, I wondered how I could slide the halter over his head because he was much, much too tall for me to reach. He was taller than any horse at the farm. Taller than any horse I’d ever been in the presence of save Budweiser Clydesdales. He let me walk up to him and touch the end of his nose, and then slowly, like the effort of doing so might make him collapse, he lowered his mammoth head, pressed the white star between his eyes against my chest, and his brown, glass eyes blinked while I haltered him. It was the first, but not the last time he’d help me, and I walked backward down the drive in front of him as we began the arduous journey to his stall, awestruck.
His owner had tears in her eyes when she talked about the trust she’d placed in the farm that had almost killed him, the money she’d paid them for the mass amounts of food he consumed daily. She was not a rider, but an owner and benefactor, and her guilt was palpable.
“He won’t ever look like this again,” my mom promised her, and he never did.