The Black Stallion of Pine Ridge

November 10, 2009

by Flower Marsh

Girl on horse
A young girl on a horse in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
Laura Polerecky

HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) provides care to animals on Native Nations in the United States, where economics and location preclude veterinary treatment. The Lakota culture has a deeply rooted equestrian tradition, and there are horses all across the vast prairie of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

So it was no surprise to see several teenage Lakota boys present a black stallion at one of our recent field clinics.

Bring it on

Snickering is surely one of the ugliest noises in human language. Standing in a ramshackle rodeo ground in South Dakota, it echoed across the open grassland.

The noise began when a rusty diesel did two rumbling, uncertain drive-bys before turning into the pow-wow rodeo complex, where our equipment and unfamiliar faces had slowed every driver on the main road today. The vehicle was filled with young men, bouncing boisterously to music, as though the carload was cruising the weekend strip.

It was evening, but long before sunset in South Dakota. This would be the last patient today, we had decided, considering the need for certain daylight to do surgery. We discussed the "last-surgery-of-the-day curse", and heard ominous thunder in the distance, though the sky was clear.

Teenagers and two-year olds

Being the equine intern for the summer, I followed my routine and peered into the trailer to assess the patient. The two-year old horse inside was foamed with sweat, scared and as powerfully adolescent as its collective owners. He looked sprung to do something he didn't mean to at the drop of a hat, literally.

I asked the boys who the owner of the horse was, and a slightly older boy made a deliberate walk towards my clipboard. As I took a medical history, the boy spoke up hesitantly.

"Look, I don't know if you…," he started and faltered as I stared back politely, already knowing what he was going to say. This scene was new to the clients, but very familiar to me.

The boy glanced at the other female student with me. The snickering was escalating, and I'm not sure if it was intended for the horse or the blonde cowgirl calmly outlining her plan to take the whinnying animal's testicles.

"He's really wild; it took us all day to run him into the trailer. You might not be able to do him," the boy warned in a serious tone that broke the joking façade around him.

Loading the chute

I directed the boys to back the trailer up to the gate while we got some drugs ready. We would have to get him in the chute to give the drugs, and I asked that they keep him as quiet as possible. The horse's head shot up and he looked wildly out the sides of the trailer as the truck squealed to a start.

Flower Marsh examines horse
Flower Marsh, a veterinary student at Colorado State University, examines a horse at an HSVMA Field Services clinic.
Laura Polerecky

When everything was set, I jiggled the trailer door open. As the stud and I stared at each other from opposite corners of the trailer, I said, "He's just beautiful."

He was lanky and so dark only the sheen of his coat allowed him to have three dimensions. His eyes were large, wrinkled and worried. He looked wary, like he'd had a long day since the aliens abducted him.

The boys began chiding the owner at my compliment, citing the stallion's protruding rib cage, lack of markings and refusal to load into the trailer. A posse had gathered behind the crack in the trailer door, with ropes and determined expressions.

"I got him in here this morning," a friend spoke up professionally, pointing at the trailer. "I'll chase him to the chute for you."

"I appreciate that," I said, "but let's see if he'll just walk in." I could hear the eyes rolling all around me. I had just diminished my authority and offended the speaker, who turned his back on me, grumbling wait-and-sees. The horse needed little encouragement, and in a few minutes we were injecting the vein and opening the chute gate.

My credibility had increased, perhaps to the level of their math teacher, I thought. But, as the horse stumbled and laid down, outright laughter and shouting echoed from the teenagers.

The boys' bravado was likely out of discomfort, but I wanted to leave no mistake that this was a disrespectful time for cheering. I glanced up and locked eyes with a few boys, whose faces fell and soon mirrored my own solemn expression.

Ain't our first rodeo, kid

The surgery was complete in ten minutes, and the proficiency of our work shut the heckling down to a hush. These boys had seen horses roped down and wrestled through bloody procedures. Animals could bleed to death, acquire tetanus or some other infection, and unfortunately, people could get injured, too.

Horses like this one—those that have never been handled before—may never be caught to be castrated or trained. So many unhandled yearling prospects become unwanted, unruly middle-age studs, with no monetary value and too much testosterone for most owners' tastes.

Our team now calmly leaned along the fence line, waiting for the animal to wake up. A few boys were standing amongst the HSVMA-RAVS students, querying "the docs" with reverence. Still many kids remained aloof—impressed, but not convinced.

Show's not over 'til it's over

Everybody just watched the horse breathe. As he slept, the sky darkened. It began to rain, and the teenagers huddled underneath any cover the rodeo apparatus offered. Water pooled in the arena. I went to the horse's back and scratched it, to see if he would wake up. The horse sighed, but couldn't be roused. The owner and a few friends followed me, hovering around the animal, wringing their jeans and asking when he would wake up.

A sky of rainbows after a thunderstorm provides the backdrop for the rodeo complex.
Flower Marsh

With a brief drum roll across the corrugated metal roof, it began to hail. A vet student was already pulling up a reversal agent, when I turned to see the entire crowd of boys, soaked and squinting into the battery of ice, coming to help the unconscious horse.

Gone from their faces were the sneering and tough pretensions; they were serious and concerned, and looked to me and the other vet students with trust and urgency. Just as the student approached with the reversal injection, the horse raised its head.

Let's hear it for the clowns

"What do we do?" one of the previously jeering boys demanded earnestly. As the horse stood, about a dozen vet students and teenage cowboys began running through the arena like a practiced sports team—shouting our actions, giving directions and trying to stay upright in the mud.

The horse was in a precarious situation. He was afraid of human touch, stuck in a muddy enclosure and unsteady on his feet after anesthesia. We had to practice perfect horsemanship to avoid an injury.

Someone backed the trailer up to the end of the arena, and together we began to encircle the horse, moving imperceptibly towards the trailer, never scaring him. Eventually, with hands held together, we isolated the horse in a human corral around the entrance to the trailer.

In the punishing weather, we stood still and patient, firming our grips to one another and shouting encouragement whenever the horse thought to challenge any part in the chain. Slowly and gently, the horse walked inside the trailer and we shut the door.

Thanks for the ride

The boys loaded into the cab and bed, hopping in and out to push the vehicle back to the road from the swampy grass. I ran up to the driver's window.

"Are you guys OK?" I asked. They responded that they were, nodding and chattering their teeth. Everything was quiet after several rounds of thanks.

It was time to go, but now we were good friends, unready to part. The stud, the storm, the surgery—they had brought us all together and changed our perceptions. We began talking, as horse people do, about the psychology of the black horse standing in the back of the trailer and all the things he had done today.

"You know, he's really a nice horse," one of the boys remarked.

"Yeah, he is," I agreed.

Flower Marsh is a veterinary student at Colorado State University. She spent last summer as an intern with HSVMA-RAVS, working primarily with our equine program.