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Aurileo, or Leo as he is mostly called, is our golden boy, an unexpected ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. He is a Lusitano Palomino, about twelve years old and we think he used to be a bullfighter in Portugal. When we came across Leo, he was a bag of bones, scared out of his mind and on his way to the abattoir, with a huge wound in his neck where a bull’s horn may have injured him. We decided to adopt him, a decision we have never regretted.
When Leo arrived from Portugal, he was not only just skin and bones, but his body was covered in lice and he was so weak that he could barely manage to walk off the trailer. He collapsed as soon as he got to his stable. Mentally, he had shut down completely. He had been tied up with a rope around his forelegs, which had left nasty, bleeding and infected scars. Because of the pain, he found it difficult to walk.
We very gently and slowly washed him to get rid of the lice, cleaned his wounds and offered him a clean stable with a warm bed of straw and fresh hay to eat. He wasn’t altogether sure about the difference between food and bedding and ate about an equal amount of each in the beginning. He could not tolerate anything but hay in the early weeks, but later on we started him on slowly increasing amounts of grain, with grape seed oil and a vitamin and mineral supplement. He was so weak that he just stood quietly when he was vaccinated and had his teeth done. He was also seen by an osteopath, who confirmed what we had already suspected, that although there was no serious physical damage, the mental damage was extensive.
Poor little Leo, it was clear that he did not understand what he had done wrong, nor did he understand why he had to travel all the way from Portugal to the south of France. We decided to give him time, and space, just to be a horse again. As he grew stronger, we turned him out into a small field with a large pond, on his own. We had to separate him from our other horses in case he carried any diseases. This suited Leo just fine, he was quite happy to be able to see other horses without having to compete for a place in the pecking order just yet. He spent most of those late-summer days standing with his lower legs in the water, cooling the wounds where he had been tied up.
He avoided all human contact, except for twice a day when he was taken into his stable and fed his grain, when he allowed himself to be caught and led. We just let him be. Over many months, he gradually regained his strength and filled out nicely. He progressed to eat from a bucket held by one of us and even allowed me to stroke his head and neck when he was eating. He also became more willing to come into the school to work a bit, as long as each effort was rewarded by a bit of carrot, however small. His work consisted of learning how to walk safely next to me, starting and stopping and doing stretches to make his back stronger and more flexible. He was even willing to be lunged, for short periods. He has obviously done this before as he knew immediately what was required.
Leo is still living in a field on his own but within touching distance of our other horses. As he got stronger, it became clear that although he is much smaller than our Friesian girls (and a gelding!), he has very specific ideas about how mares should behave. Belle, our boss-mare, did not take kindly to this sort of interference. For such a small fellow, he has tonnes of attitude and fears no other horse, not even our breeding stallion Bass, who at 165 cm towers over him. It was when we first introduced him to the mares that we saw what beautiful paces he has, he trots and canters all over the place, trying his best to impress the girls. In between, he spends long periods standing at the fence begging for a kiss from a passing mare. The mares do indulge him, maybe even a bit too often.
It will be a long time yet before Leo will be a normal horse but there is no hurry and we enjoy the small victories, slowly getting him to trust us and to come towards us of his own accord. In the meantime, we encourage him to express himself: his joy, his frustration, his anger, his need for affection – as safely as possible.
Update Aug 2015: Leo has always been very popular with our guests, his beauty alone has won him many loyal admirers, although until now his friends had to admire him from a distance. He has been watching our other horses work with clients with great interest for some time. There is not much Leo can be taught about suffering, he immediately recognises it when he encounters it – we hope that in time he will make an excellent therapy horse.
Sometimes I catch his eye, and he looks at me in wonder… I think he might be amazed at his own happiness.
Leo’s before photos:
Leo’s after photos:
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