Before the Civil War, the Mabrys were one of Knoxville’s most influential and wealthy families. General Joseph Alexander Mabry II owned more than 2,000 acres in East Tennessee, was president of the Knoxville and Kentucky Railroad, and was the publisher of the Knoxville Whig newspaper. After the Confederacy lost the war, Gen. Mabry’s fortunes declined forcing him to reduce his land holdings and sell his “blooded horses.”
The term “blooded” is used loosely to refer to several breeds of horses including thoroughbreds and Standardbreds, which are used for harness racing. Today horse breeds are often categorized as “cold-blooded”—large boned, calm animals like Clydesdales used for hauling heavy wagons and farm work—and “warm-blooded”—which are bred by crossing cold-blooded breeds with more spirited, hot-blooded breeds such as Arabians. Thoroughbreds, known for their long legs and speed, were created in England generations ago through cross-breeding.
It is likely Gen. Mabry’s blooded horses were considered members of the family, as well as a source of transportation and an emblem of his prosperity. One can only speculate what they might have been worth. Blooded horses continue to be highly prized today, and thoroughbreds can be worth millions of dollars. American Pharoah, the stallion that won the Triple Crown in 2015, could be worth an estimated $75-$100 million in stud fees over the next few years.
I have owned horses for several years, but I never paid more than about $1,500 for any of them. In fact, the best horse I ever owned was a gift from cowboy who needed a home for a Quarter Horse used in rodeos. The horse’s name was Sloan, and riding him was like sitting on the top of a locomotive speeding down the tracks. He was strong, solid, and fast, and he had incredible maneuverability. He could turn on a dime and stop in a heartbeat.
Several weeks ago, I had to ask the veterinarian to put down one of my two remaining horses. His name was Chocolate, a 16-hand Quarter Horse/Appaloosa cross who had been diagnosed with cancer. The vet explained the cancer was aggressive, and even if it were removed, it would return quickly with a vengeance. Since the horse was old, had tooth problems, and was blind in one eye from “moon blindness”—an ailment common to Appaloosas—surgery was ruled out.
So I did my best to keep him comfortable and well-fed. Other than showing some signs of discomfort occasionally and losing a little weight, he seemed to do pretty well for the first several weeks. He also became calmer and more cooperative, which was odd for an Appaloosa which are known to be willful and hard-headed. His personality change foretold his imminent demise.
A few days before Easter, Chocolate spent most of his time standing beneath the Storm Tree, as we call it, where he and his stable-mate Buster tended to gather whenever bad weather was expected. Chocolate also began to eat less. When I fed him grain in the evening, he was reluctant to lower his head to reach his feed pan. Instead he nudged my arm with his brown-and-white speckled nose, signaling me to pick up the pan and raise it to his mouth. He took very small bites and chewed them laboriously. Whenever I put the pan down and he was ready for another bite, he would nudge me again.
Finally, he simply gave up. I called the vet. The procedure was quick and painless. I watched tearfully as Chocolate’s legs buckled and this magnificent creature collapsed onto the ground.
Although I mourned the horse’s death, it was Buster who truly suffered. He ran through the pasture searching for Chocolate and whinnying to him. It was heartbreaking to watch. The vet had warned me that Buster would grieve for his companion who had been with him for more than 20 years.
Buster has since adjusted to his loss and seems to be doing well. I guess I have adjusted, too. At least I did not have to face the bitterness of losing a horse for financial reasons like Gen. Mabry. Having to sell his horses, along with losing land and the railroad, must have been exceedingly difficult and humiliating. Yet he persevered and continued to be a force in Knoxville until he suffered the ultimate defeat in 1881, when he was killed in a shootout on Gay Street.
More on that in the next blog post.