Monday, June 27, 2011

The Rescuers | 6/27/11

Saving Horses in Need 

By Pam Gleason, Photography by Gary Knoll

 Horse rescue in America is nothing new. Various groups have been involved in animal rescue for about 150 years. The first humane organization in the United States was the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in 1866. The earliest humane groups often had horses as a primary focus. At that time, horses were used to pull carts, carriages, cabs and milk trucks – abuse was probably inevitable. Horses that worked for a living were often treated as machines. Many people may have read Black Beauty as a child, and remember it as a romantic story about a beautiful horse. But that book, published in 1877, was not written for children. Its author, Anna Sewell, wrote it "to induce kindness, sympathy and an understanding treatment of horses." The book became known as the "Uncle Tom's Cabin of the horse" and is credited with helping to spread awareness of animal abuse throughout England and North America.

 Although it has been a long time since horses were considered primarily as workers to plow fields or to transport us in style, horses today occupy an uncertain position in our society. Are they pets, or are they livestock? Are they companion animals or are they commodities? Most horse people want to have it both ways. They love their horses as if they were pets, but they still might sell them if the price was right. (Would you sell your cat or dog?) For some people, horses are big business and they cost a lot of money. For these people, the horse's feelings are not important; what is important is making the right business decision. Horse rescuers come down squarely on the other end of the spectrum. To them, all horses have an equal right to good care and happiness.

Today, the horse rescue movement has many components. There are horse rescues whose mission is to take horses from situations where they are not wanted, rehabilitate them if necessary, and then place them somewhere that they are wanted. There are animal sanctuaries, whose mission is to provide a "forever home" to horses that might not be adoptable. There are rescue networks that spread the word about horses that are in danger of being shipped to slaughter. There are educational organizations whose goal is to educate the public about responsible horse ownership. There are political lobbying groups who try to change the laws to promote equine welfare.

Horse rescue is a growing enterprise, but it is facing many difficult challenges in the current struggling economy. Most people involved agree that something needs to be done so that fewer horses need rescue. Overbreeding is a problem among registered horses and backyard horses alike. There are practices in some segments of the horse world, such as the use of nurse mares in the Thoroughbred industry, that probably would have been stopped a long time ago if the public knew about them. Most horse rescuers agree that there is hope for the future, but that the situation is not improving fast enough.

Equine Rescue of Aiken 


Aiken got its own horse rescue in 2006 when Larkin Steele moved here from Florida to open Equine Rescue of Aiken. The rescue occupies Haven Hills Farm: 80 acres of rolling hills and fields with riding areas and a new barn. Jim Rhodes, who is the farm manager, says that the rescue can comfortably accommodate about 58 horses. Because adoptions are slower in the summer when there are fewer people in town, the rescue tries to keep numbers down during those months, bringing more animals in during the fall, winter and spring when more people are looking for a horse.

"We always help out Aiken County when there are abuse cases," says Jim. "So we have two or three slots open for them. But our main focus is on adoptable horses, rather than horses that might take a long time to rehabilitate or might become permanent residents of the rescue. We're like a halfway house for horses. The majority of horses we are getting in now are Thoroughbreds."

Before Jim Rhodes was the manager at Equine Rescue, he ran one of the largest horse and carriage auctions in the country, the Big Perry Sale in Georgia. Because of this background, he has numerous connections all over the country that can help him get horses for the rescue. 

"In the Thoroughbred industry, they overbreed," he says. "There area lot of horses that don't run, or that don't run fast enough, and those horses become throwaway horses. I have the right connections with some big Thoroughbred farms that I can get in some very nice horses. I can't say enough about the Thoroughbreds. They're very good horses. They make polo ponies, event horses, hack horses in the woods. In the last two years we've adopted out at least 60 of them." 

Jim says these horses have also been successful. "We have horses from our program all over the United States doing shows and competing. You can go to just about any show in Aiken, and there will be two or three horses from the rescue there." 

The rescue itself welcomes volunteers from the community. There is also a lesson program and an equine assisted therapy program called HOPE (Horses Offering People Empowerment) that helps veterans returning from overseas. Over the years, the rescue has attracted a small group of dedicated helpers who care for the horses, ride and spend their spare time at the stable. Some of these volunteers may have never handled horses before they came to the rescue, but they all learn. 

"The horses here today are being handled a lot more than they were when we started, because we have more volunteers," says Jim. "It's good for the horses, and it's good for the volunteers, too. I always say the rescue was started to save horses, but we end up saving more people than horses. It's a good place." 

Running the rescue requires a great deal of time and it costs a lot of money to feed all the horses, fertilize the fields and keep the place in good shape. It helps that the horse-related businesses in Aiken have been so generous, sometimes selling feed and hay at cost or even donating it. Many of the tack stores also give discounts to volunteers. Still, Jim says they would welcome more help. 

"There are a couple of ladies who do a great thing. Every two weeks they go to Aiken Saddlery to buy their feed. When they do, they buy an extra bag and leave it there for us. It doesn't seem like a lot to them, but it’s great for us. If we had 40 people a week do that, we wouldn't have a feed bill!" 

 The Foals of Dream Equine 

Horse people in Aiken first learned about Dream Equine Therapy Center, located in York, S.C., through a series of shows that raised funds for the rescue at Three Runs Plantation. Dream Equine Therapy specializes in rescuing, raising and adopting out nurse mare foals. 

Nurse mares are used in the Thoroughbred industry because it does not make economic sense for a valuable broodmare to nurse her own foal. Breeders like to breed mares back as soon as possible after they have had a foal, and mares typically go into heat and can be bred a week to 10 days after giving birth. The Jockey Club will only register horses that are bred through live cover (no artificial insemination or transported semen) and insurance won't cover a week old foal at a stallion barn. Besides, it would be risky to transport an expensive foal that is so young. The industry's unfeeling solution is to take the valuable foal away from its own mother and put it with a nurse mare, freeing the valuable broodmare to return to the breeding shed.

The trouble is that the nurse mare has also recently given birth. Her foal, the nurse mare foal, is taken away from her. The nurse mare is then tricked by various methods into accepting the valuable Thoroughbred foal as her own. 

In this way, nurse mare foals, the by-products of the Thoroughbred breeding industry, are turned into orphan foals. Some of them are taken away from their mothers when they are just a few days old. The nurse mare farms, most of them located in Kentucky, vary widely in what kind of care they provide the nurse mare foals. Some are relatively responsible, while others essentially let the nurse mare foals fend for themselves. There are no statistics on their survival rate since this is a hidden industry. It has been called racing's dirty little secret. 

Terri Stemper discovered the practice of taking less valuable foals from their mothers so that other foals could have their milk when she was a student at the University of Kentucky working at a major veterinary hospital in Lexington. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing, but she soon discovered that the practice is widespread and accepted in the Thoroughbred industry. She picked up her first nurse mare foal at an auction in 2000, and since that time has made it a mission to save as many as she can. 

Today, Terri has contacts with several nurse mare farms and makes trips to Kentucky each spring to buy foals and bring them home. Then she and her boyfriend, Mark Hill, nurse the foals with milk replacer if they are under two months old and start feeding them creep feed if they are older. They socialize them, handle them and offer them for adoption. Both Terri and Mark are registered nurses, so they are well qualified for this job. The foals themselves vary in their genetic makeup. Some are purebreds – Thoroughbreds and Quarterhorses – other are mixes, some of them gaited. This spring Terri rescued 31 foals. Last year she had 41. 

"They're great horses," she says, dismissing the belief that an orphan foal does not make a good horses because he sees people as his equals. "If you handle them right and don't spoil them, if you discipline them when they need it, they make great riding horses." 

Terri has been saving nurse mare foals for over a decade now. She says that there are only a few rescues that try to help them, and that others that rescued them in the past have stopped. 

"It's too hard," she says. "You can't do it every year. You just get burnt out. It's harder every year. And we know we’re not even making a dent. There's thousands of these foals out there." 

Terri's dream is to change the way the nurse mare industry is run. She has four nurse mares of her own this year. They are experienced broodmares that she brought to her farm. They were then treated with various hormones that caused them to produce milk. It cost about $200 per mare and it took ten days, but all four began to lactate. Then they were introduced to the youngest nurse mare foals that Terri rescued this year. All the mares accepted the foals as their own, and the previously orphaned nurse mare foals now have their own foster mothers. 

The hormone induced lactation (HIL) program is helping Terri's foals this year, but in the future, Terri hopes to offer nurse mares that have milk through HIL to the Thoroughbred farms in Kentucky, and she is already looking for property outside Lexington where her cruelty-free nurse mares will live. Eventually, she hopes to be able to put the other nurse mare farms out of business and end the practice of turning foals into orphans for profit.

"When I tell people about it, about how the nurse mare industry works, they don't believe me," says Terri. "People have come to write articles, and I see them shake their heads and say 'What? Well, I'll have to check around. I've never heard of that.' I’d like to make it so no one ever has to hear of it again."  

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Eventer's Paradise | 6/20/11

Aiken's Winter Season 

Photography by Pam Gleason and Gary Knoll 

Aiken's winter eventing season was another successful one, with ten United States Equestrian Federation/United States Eventing Association recognized horse trials and an equal number of unrecognized events and combined training competitions taking place in the Aiken area between January 15 and March 20. As in years past, many horses and riders came from the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic to train, school and compete on Aiken's sandy soil.

In addition to all the recognized competitions, there was also a series of formal training sessions for riders on the USEF High Performance and Developing Rider lists. These sessions were held at Three Runs Plantation. Some of the top riders in the country were on hand to receive coaching and training from Captain Mark Phillips, the chef d'équipe of the U.S. eventing team, and Katie Monahan Prudent, who is the show jumping coach for the team. This year, riders on the High Performance list are hoping to compete at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Although a few of the scheduled early schooling trials in Aiken had relatively low attendance, the recognized horse trials were often bigger than ever. The Sporting Days March Horse Trials from March 4-6 had almost 400 horses entered at levels from Tadpole through Preliminary. The Paradise Farm Horse Trials also had a large number of entries – and was blessed with perfect, sunny weather. Full Gallop Farm held three recognized events from February 2 through March 13, with levels going from Beginner Novice through Intermediate. Intermediate is the highest level of eventing offered in Aiken, although there are Advanced trials at Pine Top in nearby Thomson, Ga. All of the recognized events saw their share of upper level riders, along with numerous amateur riders and Aiken-based professionals.
By April, the traveling upper level riders have mostly left town, in pursuit of points and experience at horse trials up and down the East Coast. But eventing itself is in Aiken all year, with an increasing number of event riders coming to live here full time. There are also training, schooling and competing opportunities here year round. The winter season brings a certain energy and level of excitement to Aiken's eventing world. When that season is over, Aiken's year round eventers can go back to the serious work of riding and training, preparing themselves and their horses for one of the most challenging equestrian pursuits in the world.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Wearing Helmets | 6/13/11

A Fashion Statement

By Pam Gleason 

People often ask "What's the most dangerous thing you can do on a horse? Is it polo? Eventing? Bronc busting?" These sports are certainly risky. But statistically, the most dangerous thing you can do on a horse is get on one without a helmet on your head. A helmet cannot protect you from every type of injury and it may not even prevent you from sustaining brain damage if you fall off while wearing it. But if you do fall on your head, you are more likely to be gravely harmed if you are not wearing a helmet than if you are. The majority of incidents that result in the death or incapacity of the rider are head injuries. The vast majority of people who die from these head injuries were not wearing helmets.
The extent to which riders wear protective headgear varies widely from sport to sport. Most organized English sports, and all sports governed by the United States Equestrian Federation, require riders to wear helmets when they are competing, but the disciplines each have their own cultures when it comes to riding outside of the show ring. Riders in some disciplines always wear helmets; those in other disciplines never do. In 2011, these cultures are all moving toward more helmet use.
Some of the move toward helmets is institutional. For instance, the rules in dressage competitions changed this year, so that now riders at the national levels are required to wear helmets at all times when they are mounted at the show ground. (Riders who are only showing at international levels can still ride around in bowler hats, in the arena or out of it.) Polo is also moving toward a greater appreciation for protecting heads. Today, players are required to wear helmets in the game, but there is no stipulation that these helmets need to have passed any safety testing whatsoever. In fact, the majority of polo helmets in use today provide far less protection than most people know. An expert at a major national testing lab told me that most polo helmets are essentially as protective as a beanie with a propeller on top. As of January 2012, six months from now, all players will be required to wear helmets that have passed stringent safety tests. It may be a very long time before polo people start wearing helmets when they are not in a game, but there does seem to be a small trend in that direction.
Another part of the helmet movement is cultural and grassroots in nature. There are several national groups started by ordinary riders that advocate helmet use. One new one is Riders 4 Helmets, which sponsored a "National Helmet Awareness Day" on June 11. ( Riders 4 Helmets was inspired by Courtney King Dye, an international dressage competitor based in Florida who is slowly recovering from a devastating head injury she suffered when she fell from a horse she was schooling. She was not wearing a helmet.

Helmet advocacy has not moved into the Western disciplines in any big way. In fact, almost no Western riders wear helmets, even when they are competing in fast sports such as barrel racing. This is as true for children as it is for adults. Fashion dictates a lot of this: Western riders wear cowboy hats so they look like Western riders. But it is also true that people involved in Western sports seem more cavalier about safety than their English cousins. We have seen parents at a local Western event actually strap a little boy to the saddle of a hot horse he couldn’t control, and then shove him into the arena to run a barrel pattern. There was a frightening wreck that involved flipping over a fence and dragging, but the boy did not appear to be seriously injured, and no one seemed to blame the parents. It would be hard to imagine a similar scene taking place in a junior jumper class at Highfields.

It probably is easier to fall off if you are riding English than if you are riding Western. You are also more likely to fall if you are an inexperienced rider than if you are a professional. But these are not good reasons to forego protective headgear. At the South Carolina High School Rodeo Association finals in Pendleton this spring, a 12-year-old girl who was riding outside of the arena died of a head injury when her horse, who was walking, stumbled and fell on her. Over the past six years, at least two people under the age of 25 who used to ride in Aiken have died of head injuries that were the result of falls. One was a little girl riding her horse down a dirt road; the other a skilled polo pony trainer whose horse spooked and he hit a tree. Neither was wearing a helmet.

Would they have died if they had been wearing helmets? Maybe, maybe not. We can only speculate. When riders have bad falls that wreck their helmets but leave their heads relatively okay they tend to say "If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I would have died." This is only speculation too. But if I had to wonder "what if" I would rather be asking if my injuries would have been worse if I hadn't been wearing a helmet than if I would have been fine if I had only put one on that day.

Wearing a helmet is smart, and smart is always in fashion. Protect your brain. It's not like your arms, your legs or even your eyes and ears. A brain is unique. You only get one.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.