At Iverson’s Ranch

At Iverson’s Ranch


The mare had been scheduled to die in the morning. The drive to the ranch was long. The traffic in the city had started to pick up as I made my way into Chatsworth, but the winding roads into the mountains were mostly empty. The city sprawled, its edges seeming to fade into the hills of the Simi Valley. Patches of trees and grass twisted across the pale dirt that framed the highway. After about forty-five minutes, I turned down a dirt road, and the fields split open in front of me. After a while, I reached the decorated wooden gates that marked the entrance to the ranch. A carefully aged sign reached across two antique posts; Welcome to Iverson Movie Ranch was painted in red ornate letters, an attempt at imitating the illusion of the “Wild West.” In front of the gate, two large men stood in black coats with crossed arms. I stalled the car, and one of them walked to the window.

“There is a movie shoot happening today, no public entrance.”

“A movie shoot?” I asked. The man in the coat nodded and stuck out his bottom lip. “I’m here for work. Joseph Williams might have left a message with you.”

He asked my name. “Oh, alright, head on through. Barn’s just down the road.” He waved at the other man, who shrugged and opened the gate.

I continued down the dirt road toward a cluster of barns and buildings. These buildings, like the gate, seemed to mock me. Stained wood and sand plastered to the walls. Handmade holes and sprinkled hay. Entirely unoriginal, entirely unfounded, a facade of a fraudulent golden era. When I arrived at the largest barn, I parked and rested against the hood of my truck, waiting for the farm hands that Williams had told me would meet me. After some time, two young men on a horse rode up to me. One was dressed in leather chaps, a red bib shirt with a blue checked neckerchief, and a white western hat. The man behind him on the horse wore a suede frock and felt moccasins with rope soles. In his hair, he had a band of feathers and beads. On both of their chests was a dark red splattering that soaked through their shirts.

“You the man here for Betsy?” The man dressed as a cowboy asked. 

“The horse? Yes.”

“I’m Frank. This here’s Mikey. You like our get-ups?” asked the man dressed as an Indian as he gestured at the cowboy. “They’re shooting a picture out here today, a western with Bill Cody.”

“‘Cept not enough extras,” said the cowboy. “They asked Williams if some of his boys could get dressed for a shootout with Indians. Was good fun ‘cept we got killed early, so now we got to help you.”

I got the captive bolt pistol out of its case in the truck and followed the farmhands into the barn.

“Kill lotsa horses?” the cowboy asked.

I turned the pistol in my hands. “Yes.” The steel was cold and smooth.

I was hired to euthanize a horse at Iverson Movie Ranch. Joseph Williams had contacted me the evening before and said that Charles Sherman, the stable manager at Lasky Movie Ranch, had recommended me. I killed a lame mule and a Saddlebred with the strangles at Lasky two weeks before. Hadn’t worked since then. It was always like that when I killed a horse with strangles; they should never have to die. When I came to Lasky Movie Ranch, the flaxen stallion’s rotting neck was draped over his mare’s back, jaw and throat mottled with abscesses and holes. A dry crust had formed on the mare’s shoulders. Charles told me they had stood together, embraced like that for two days. You could see in the mare’s eyes that she knew. The stallion seemed to have hope. A stallion is like a man in that way. A confidence that he can overcome, that it will always be someone else. It’s easy to work a horse to death; they always believe they can keep going. They call it Bastard Strangles when it goes untreated and gets so bad you have to put them down, the rotting spreads from the lymph nodes through the whole body. The horses in France got it too, but we only realized it after they died. There, rot was everywhere, in the land, on all of us. Williams’s Quarter Horse had Equine Herpesvirus; it needed to die. There was nothing he could have done.

“Poor thing still got the baby in there with her,” the cowboy said, leading me through the barn. “Came out all broken and dead. We tried to take it away from her, but she gave Frank a real thumping when he tried it.”

The barn’s arching roof spread out over empty stalls, a preventative measure to stop the disease from spreading to the other horses. The open stalls watched me as we made our way through the corridor. I could feel the presence of the missing horses. The mud-caked hay on the floor and the rounds of manure were like shadows. About halfway through the barn, the farm hands stopped walking. I continued down to the last stall. I had to drag my feet across the concrete and hay on the ground. The bolt pistol was heavy in my hand; the cold from the metal had left, and the grip was warm and moist with sweat. I turned to the stall and saw them.

The mare was wavering on her feet, her knees swollen and bowed. The lower legs jutted outward from each knee, skewed at an angle, inclining inwards as if trying to converge at a center point underneath the horse’s hanging stomach. As I watched the horse’s hobbled legs, I saw that the membranous sac had broken but had not been fully expelled and was dangling between the horse’s rear legs. The twisted membrane of the umbilical cord hung down, spilling onto the ground and snaking into a pile of straw. Curled in the straw, still connected to the cord, was a white speckled body. I opened the gate and moved slowly into the stall. The mare shuddered and shifted her feet; I lowered my eyes and moved closer, following her as she backed up. She was weak and didn’t resist as I raised my hand and cupped her face. Slowly, I pet down from her cheeks to her jaw. With my head down, I stared into the mound of straw. The foal was malformed, born with only rear legs and thin skin stretched over its eyes; it had never had a chance. There was no shine to its white coat. It wasn’t the white of fresh paint or clouds or light. It was an empty white, a dry, swallowing white. I dragged my fingers underneath the mare’s jaw, avoiding the sludge that dripped down from the herpes-infected muzzle, and slowly raised my eyes. I saw the mare as she had once been: a light strawberry roan coat, a long brown mane, and bright wide eyes. I saw what she could never be again. She looked back at me and bowed her head. Then, slowly, I raised the pistol to her forehead and fired a bolt into her brain.

When a horse dies in war, it screams, shatters, bursts. I have seen a hundred horses die in a moment. Ripped through, mangled, shrieks, and pieces, and fear. When I kill a horse, it dies in silence. I look them in the eyes, and in those final moments, I’ll hold their head in my hands, feel them breathe, and watch their nostrils open and flare. I do not kill healthy horses, and I do not kill horses because I want to; I kill horses who must die, and I kill them because someone has to.

The night before a euthanasia, I do not eat because I know I will be sick in my sleep. I sleep on the floor of my apartment in my coveralls and boots with my jacket rolled for a pillow. I lay my captive-bolt pistol by my side and sleep on my back. Every night before a euthanasia is the same because I know the value of consistency before violence. In deviation, there is uncertainty; in uncertainty, there is failure. Every night must be the same because every death must be the same. In war, when a horse dies, it dies violently. When a horse dies with me, I give it peace.

I called for the cowboy, and he returned with the Indian and four other farmhands dressed as cowboys and a large metal cart. It took the seven of us to move the mare out to my truck. A stout man pushed while a flat-faced man with two wooden revolvers on his hip pulled the cart, walking backwards. The mare’s head hung limply off the side, and her twisted legs were drawn close to her body. I cradled the broken foal in my arms and followed them. It couldn’t have weighed more than forty-five pounds; it felt like it had no bones. We loaded the bodies into the truck’s bed.

“Alright.” The stout man retucked his shirt behind the large gold buckle on his felt gun belt. “Williams said he wants ’em buried by Aster rock.”

The cowboy from before nodded and looked toward me. “If youse just drive down Main Road a stretch, you’ll see a path turn left, should be marked with a signpost. Just head on down thataways, and we’ll meet you there and start digging.”

I stared at the five men in their chaps and oversized hats. They pawed at their wooden guns and dug their pointed boots into the ground. They were young, coddled, weak. They didn’t deserve to be there to bury the mare and her foal. I told them that if they gave me a shovel, I would do it myself.

When I began digging, it was before noon. I had to undo my coveralls and wrap the sleeves around my waist. Breaking through the top layer of dirt is always the hardest. You have to jab the shovel into the ground and stomp it deeper. Soon, your feet and back tire, and the wrenching motion makes your shoulders ache. I learned to dig in France. All we did was dig. With shovels, trowels, and buckets. In the morning, we dug out the trenches. We mounded dirt into the walls and laid wooden planks against them. In the night, mortar rounds blew through our trenches, mud and splinters of wood flying through the sky. If it rained, it rained dirt. The trenches would fill with water, and muck would slide down the walls. The ground would turn to a heavy sludge. The trenches would pull down on you, sinking you in and trapping you under mortar fire. If you couldn’t make it out of the mud or away from the booming mortars and shattering wood, your body would join the grime and rot. Many boys died in those nights, destroyed along with the trench. In the morning, new boys would arrive, and they would rebuild the trenches and prepare for the night.

When I finished digging the grave, I wished that I had let the cowboys help me. By then, the night was heavy on my shoulders. I walked back to the truck and reversed so the bed was out slightly above the grave. I climbed into the back of the truck and began trying to push the mare into the open earth. She was heavy, barely nudging. I pushed against the mare with all the force I could muster, and she began sliding forwards, inches at a time. I adjusted my position so my back was against the rear window and my feet were on the mare’s back. I kicked forwards, and the horse fell into the grave with an undignified slam. I lifted the foal into my arms and stepped out of the truck. Once again I felt how light it was, the soft, weak muscles, the eyeless face. I lowered it into the grave so it lay against its mother’s side.

It was late by the time I had filled the grave with dirt. I stood on the mound and looked up into the sky. My legs buckled; the day’s labor had worn them down. I fell to the ground, my chest against the fresh mound of dirt. In the still night, I kneeled beneath the sky. A shadowy authenticity, organic and untouched, stretched across the heavens. The sky was a testament to unfeigned vastness. My eyes, my hands, my body were heavy. I reached down and bent forward so my shoulders were only a few inches from the ground. I tried to dig my hands into the earth, to hold the faun and feel the mares breathing again. As I clawed into the freshly packed dirt, I began to pull it into my chest. I took handfuls of dirt and felt the grains of sand slide between my fingers; the earth was warm and soft, heated by the desert sun. I rubbed it into my coveralls and my arms, grinding it between my palms. It felt cleansing, dry, and hot, different than the mud in France. That mud would swallow you; this dirt held you gently. 

I stopped bathing in the dirt long enough to stare into the shadowed cliffs and open land where I saw them. They were illuminated against the dim ridges, a strawberry roan mare and its white speckled foal. The horses broke into a gallop, bounding across the farmland. Soon, they were joined by another horse. A flaxen saddlebred ran alongside them. As they ran, they kicked up a cloud of dust that concealed them and the hills behind them. The dust was thick but weightless and hung idly in the sky. I sat up, still on my knees, and remained as still as I could, staring into the cloud of dust. Suddenly, the dust seemed to break; it came to life in a burst of movement as hundreds of horses flew out of the haze of dirt. They ran together behind the mare and the foal. Even in the darkness details of their bodies were visible. Their sinewy forms and musculature. Their shoulders rolled and fell with their steps. Taut tendons and veins stretched across their flanks. I watched as they ran powerfully, freely, unbound. They disappeared into the darkness, fading away into the hills. I kill horses, not because I want to, but because I have seen a hundred horses die in a moment, and I have seen a hundred horses return to life in the night.

Back to Top