Saving Horses in NeedBy 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.
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
"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
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.