Saving the Most Famous Horse You Haven’t Heard Of (Yet): The Vigil for Police Horse Shaktiman

Horse news has a new edge lately. Each week, media around the world are reporting on cases of violence against police horses.

It’s not supposed to be that way. For decades, mounted police were touted as the ultimate in crowd control. Their horses were expertly trained not to react to protestors or rioters. Their riders felt that the horses were superior in crowd control, that people yielded to them. Horses were outfitted with riot gear: eye shields, face guards, leg wraps, non-slip shoes or even barefoot, in hopes of better traction on pavement. Police horses seemed to be equipped for better crowd control than ever, and city police departments were taking steps to protect their horses.

Was it a coincidence that in recent years draft breeds and crosses became the horses of choice for police departments? For years, a police horse might be a Morgan horse which would be dwarfed by one of the Shire or Irish draught crosses used today. Did the police need to feel even taller? They look like they’re going into battle on ancient war horses.

(Above) In Slovenia, police horses stood between Syrian refugees and their path to friendlier nations in October.

But police horses were supposed to be the antithesis of war horses. They are peace horses. When they show up, crowds would disperse. Or back up. Or at least quiet down and show respect.

That was then. Recently, police horses have been attacked by protestors and rioters. The news reports tell of prosecutions for punching and kicking horses. Multiple horses were injured in England in one riot.

What do the victory celebration for NCAA Basketball champions of Villanova in Pennsylvania have in common with the crowd that gathers to protest (or defend) a Donald Trump rally in Kansas City? At both events in the past month, police horses were assaulted by people on the ground. In The Netherlands, a woman drove into a police horse, injuring both the officer in the saddle and her car, but kept on driving. She was arrested later and charged.

Preparations for the upcoming Republican National Convention in Cleveland have been described in terms of the hay and tack that will be needed to maintain the police horses over the span of the event. It’s not the equivalent of outfitting a cavalry regiment, however; Cleveland only has seven equine members of the force.

All that pales in the shadow of what happened to a lovely horse named Shaktiman (also known as Shaktimaan), who must be the most famous horse you’ve never heard of. Yet.

(Above) Perfectly-groomed police horses line up in Toronto.

It’s hard to tell if this is a story about violence or about kindness. It might be about the extremes of both.

Shaktiman is a statuesque gray horse who was, until last month, the pride of the mounted police unit in the northern India state of Uttarakhand. (This story originates on the southern slope of the Himalayas bordering Tibet.) When he was injured in a political demonstration in the capital city of Dehradun last month, his plight became front page news and his day by day survival status has been a staple of television news across India. 

It is hard to tell where genuine concern for the horse ends and the political implications of an opposition leader in the protest being arrested for attacking him begins.

But make no mistake: in a country with 1.25 billion people, this horse has been on a lot of people’s minds and found a place in their hearts.

Shaktiman’s left hind leg was shattered at the fetlock when he went down on the pavement during the protest. His leg dangled limply below the fetlock. Whether he was directly clubbed, slipped on the pavement, or was pulled off balance when a protestor grabbed his bridle probably doesn’t matter. What matters is that the police, perhaps on religious or traditional grounds, did not euthanize him in spite of his grave injury. If he was a racehorse or show horse in the United States, he probably would not be here today.

(Above) In London in 2010, a police officer struggled to keep his horse on his feet during a student demonstration outside Parliament. Something–or someone–caused the saddle to slip.

The fact that he is here today, and that the Indian media has chronicled his ordeal practically hour by hour means that he has been seen and is known by millions of people who are hoping and praying for his recovery.

The plight of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro comes to mind when reviewing the facts of Shaktiman. Barbaro also suffered from a shattered fetlock and the decision was made to try to save him, too. But Barbaro lived in a state-of-the-art ICU stall at Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center outside Philadelphia. He had the benefit of the best pain medications. His surgery site was kept clean. There were no flies in his stall. He adapted to life in a sling. He had little to distract him. Presumably, he slept while hospital staff watched through a window. Veterinary medicine learned from Barbaro and his death came from the heartbreak of laminitis rather than from his original injury.

Shaktiman lies on his side behind a mosquito net in a makeshift pen in India, surrounded by handlers who are intent on shooing flies from his bedsores. His face is covered by a makeshift fly mask. A handler drops bits of grass into his mouth so he can eat. For weeks, he has spent hours dangling in a sling hanging from an excavation vehicle’s boom.

Following Shaktiman’s treatment hasn’t been easy because, in spite of the volume of news, most of it is not in English, and there have been no primary sources for fact checking. The news reports that are in English usually tell conflicting stories or are not updated. Shaktiman is surrounded by people but he doesn’t seem to have a press spokesman.

WARNING: The following video contains graphic content that may be disturbing. Watch and share accordingly. It is a trailer for a news documentary about Shaktiman that aired last night in India on ABP News.

The progression of events has been narrowed down to these verifiable facts:

  • On March 14, Shaktiman’s left hind leg was broken when he went down on the pavement during a political demonstration, perhaps as a result of direct attack from protestors. Shaktiman is believed to be about 15 years old and has been with the police for ten years. His breeding is attributed to the Kathiawari breed, a native Indian horse prized for endurance and military use.
  • The first round of surgery lasted five hours and managed to achieve external fixation of the lower limb.
  • The surgery was deemed unsuccessful, according to most reports, because the circulation to his pastern and hoof were deemed irreparable. Reports noted that the horse had not slept. Television news reviewed the anatomy of a horse’s hind leg.
  • The decision was made to amputate his lower limb.
  • American Jamie Vaughan of The Maya Foundation in the Himalayan nation of Bhutan became involved as Shaktiman’s advocate. She was present during the amputation and successfully sourced a US donor who would pay for a prosthesis.
  • Following the amputation surgery, Shaktiman stood with the help of a simple temporary prosthesis. Part of amputation recovery includes time for the stump to heal before a regular prosthesis is attempted.
  • A US citizen from Kentucky read about Shaktiman’s plight on Facebook and volunteered to fly to New Delhi as the courier to deliver the newly completed articulated prosthesis from America–at his own expense.
  • Shaktiman is suffering from bed sores but he is alive and continues to amaze all who see or even hear of him. Jamie Vaughan remains with him.

As with Barbaro, Molly the Pony, St Nicholas Abbey and so many other limb-injured horses who must adjust their weightbearing and/or live in recumbency, the biggest ongoing threat may not be the injury itself but secondary factors such as infection or the dreaded onset of what is called support limb laminitis. Disruption to digestion from recumbency or simple refusal to eat or drink are risks as well.

As of this morning, Shaktiman is continuing to improve. In an email to The Jurga Report, Jamie Vaughan said that she is encouraged by improvements in his coat, his bright eyes and his attention to the activity around him. 

She wrote as the time came to once again hoist Shaktiman from lying on his side to standing, or what passes for standing, with the help of the sling suspended from a heavy equipment boom. Vaughan owns an amputee donkey back home in Bhutan, and masterminded the donation of a prosthesis from Animal OrthoCare LLC in the United States.

“At present we are wrapping the hoof hourly with cold leg wraps, then changing…” she wrote this morning, referring to efforts to prevent laminitis in his “good” foot, which is bearing so much of his weight. Ice-based cryotherapy as would be used in a US veterinary hospital to prevent laminitis does not seem to be an option in the Indian heat, and insulated cold boots with circulating ice water are simply not available.

She’s not leaving him. And she’s not giving up.

Shaktiman’s plight has not escaped the attention of PETA’s branch in India. PETA initiated a letter-writing campaign to urge Prime Minister Narendra Modi “to protect India’s most vulnerable beings and show that cruelty won’t be tolerated by strengthening India’s animal-protection laws and ensuring that animal abusers receive jail time and significant fines, as well as counseling and a ban on having contact with animals”.

The man who is alleged to have been Shaktiman’s attacker, a known political activist, has been arrested for his aggression toward the horse. In videos, he is shown standing in front of the horse,wielding a club.

PETA seems to be aware of the condition that Shaktiman is in, and the nature of his injury. They are not protesting the care he has received or the decision to amputate his limb. No international welfare organizations except The Maya Foundation have intervened on Shaktiman’s behalf. No American or European veterinarians have flown to his side. Only Jamie Vaughan was brave enough to do that.

Shaktiman’s story has been ignored by the media in North American and Europe, even though Indian television and newspaper reporters have covered his plight almost daily.

Do horses in developing countries not matter? 

Next month, it will be ten years since Barbaro broke his leg in the Preakness Stakes and the world began a seven-month vigil to follow his high-tech, high-stakes, well-funded survival. On the flip side of Barbaro’s story is the low-tech campaign to save Shaktiman. They are the two sides of the sometimes bright, sometimes dark coin that is tossed in the air to see where on this earth a horse will be born and whether or not it will take a “bad step” on any given day, or fall victim to forces who are heedless of horses.

Shaktiman is named for an Indian television superhero from the 1980s. Think: Super Man in Mumbai. This horse may not be powered by digital imaging, regenerative medicine and antiseptic safeguards but, as of today at least, he has the will to live, even though he will be dependent on humans for the rest of his life.

What can you do?

You can follow Shaktiman on Facebook. You can donate to the Maya Foundation, which is at present the only internet-facile and authenticated way to send money in his direction. (You might annotate your PayPal donation that you’d like to support him.) 

On a broader scale you can support efforts to spread veterinary and horsecare expertise around the world, through groups like the AAEP’s Equitarian ventures and the “Vets with Horse Power” initiative in Great Britain. Groups like SPANA, World Horse Welfare, and The Brooke are standing by to take your donations for their programs around the world. You can help to sponsor attendees from other countries to benefit from US education experiences. Support research to investigate the viability of amputation and the prevention of support limb laminitis.

You can say a non-judgmental prayer tonight for Shaktiman, just as a billion or so people in India are, to keep the spark of his spirit alive. It’s been working so far.

And the next time you see a police horse? Show your respect and appreciation for a job well done, here in the USA and around the world.

Watch a video interview with animal advocate Jamie Vaughan of The Maya Foundation, shot immediately after the amputation surgery.