Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Equine Rescue of Aiken

Good for the Soul

by Pam Gleason, Photography by Gary Knoll

Caroline Mulstay takes Noel off the trailer while Jim Rhodes looks on.

The chestnut filly seems unsure as she looks out of the trailer that brought her to Equine Rescue of Aiken. This is not surprising: most of the experiences she has had in her short life have not been good. But she seems to feel that moving forward is better than standing still, and so she trots down the ramp.

She has a pretty white blaze, four socks and a long, energetic stride. She’s feeling good, and Caroline Mulstay who holds the lead rope, has to use her weight to control her. There is no doubt that this is a horse with a certain style about her, a flashy long legged creature somewhere between a pony and a horse. But to see that you have to look past the fact that she is painfully thin with large, partially healed sores on her bony hips and shoulders. Close up, she is a little hard to look at.

“This is Noel,” says Jim Rhodes, who manages the rescue. “You should have seen her before. She’s fat now in comparison.”

Noel greets the volunteers.
Caroline, who oversees adoptions and helps evaluate the horses that come into the rescue, leads the little mare into a box stall that has its own attached paddock. The door to the paddock is open, and the little horse trots around it sniffing and exploring. A small crowd of volunteers, all women, watch her. Everyone is happy.

“It’s so inspiring to see her feeling so good,” says one of them. “It really reminds you of what the mission is.”

Noel has just returned from over a month of intensive care at Performance Equine Vets where she was nursed and attended to around the clock. She is one of 19 horses, one donkey and one mule that were confiscated from a pasture where they were starving to death in McCormick County, S.C. These were the lucky ones. There were also bodies on the property, and bones.

This herd of horses was initially rescued by Big Oaks Rescue Farm in Greenwood, S.C. in mid-December. That rescue had taken in four other starved horses in Laurens County just the day before. Overwhelmed, Joe Mann, who owns Big Oaks, asked Equine Rescue of Aiken for help. ERA stepped in on Christmas Eve, taking the four horses that were in the worst shape. These horses were not far from dying. They were down on the ground and couldn’t get up. They had to be dragged onto the trailer to make the trip to Performance Equine Vets. Jess Fisher, the hospital manager at PEVS, rode with them, giving them IV fluids the whole way to the clinic.

“I wasn’t sure if they were going to make it,” says Jim. Noel was the worst of the four: it took a month of nursing and nutrition before she had the strength and the energy to stand on her own. “But it’s going to be good now. She might not have had a good start in life, but the ending will be good.”

Equine Rescue of Aiken is a 501c3 charitable organization whose mission “is to rescue unwanted horses who have suffered from abuse and neglect and to repurpose off-the-track-Thoroughbreds.” The rescue is located at Haven Hills Farm, a 90-acre parcel on Aiken’s Southside. Much of Aiken is flat, but the Haven Hills is not: there are hills here, and small ponds. The pastures have four-board fencing and run-in sheds. There is a main barn and a satellite barn, round pens and riding rings. There are also about 60 horses, almost a third of them sanctuary horses that will live here the rest of their lives. The rest are up for adoption or will be when they have been rehabilitated enough to be a good horse for someone. According to Jim, it will likely be six to eight months before Noel will be ready to leave the property.

Two of the four starved horses were already at the rescue when Noel arrived, while one, Rose, is still at the vet recovering from surgery on her abscessed withers. The second one to arrive was Milagro, a chestnut colt who looks a great deal like Noel, but younger and smaller. He could be her little brother. The first one to come home was Star, a smaller horse who has already put on substantial weight.

Marie Hogge has been working with Star since she arrived. The filly had been mistrustful and frightened, but Marie brought her around slowly and has been gratified to see her start to respond to the attention.

Milagro has learned to buck and play.
“Once she figured out about brushing she started coming over to me,” says Marie. “I call her Paula Dean, because when you rub her, she melts like butter.” Marie goes into Star’s paddock to scratch her withers. “When she first got here, I noticed that she wasn’t eating the hay we gave her – she didn’t know what it was,” Marie continues. “Instead, she was eating the leaves that blew into her paddock. That must have been all she was used to eating.”

“We don’t even know how old these horses are,” adds Jim. “You can’t age them like a regular horse because their teeth are worn down. This one might be a yearling, or it might be a 2-year-old. We think Noel is 2 or 3. We just don’t know.”

The four horses rescued from McCormick represent one end of the scale here. These are the horses you might think of when you hear the words “rescue horse.” But they are not the only kind of horse you might find at the rescue. In addition to horses that have suffered from abuse or neglect, there are horses that simply needed a new job. These include a good percentage of offthe- track Thoroughbreds, many of whom have the talent and athleticism to excel in another discipline.

“When we get a horse in, we do a thorough evaluation,” says Caroline Mulstay. “We figure out their personality, get their feet in good condition and make sure they are sound. If the horse isn’t sound, or something comes up, we take care of the issue. When a person comes in looking to adopt, we have a reasonably thorough application and we make sure that the person and the horse are a good match.”

Marie Hogge and Star: "I call her Paula Dean because when you rub her she melts like butter."

Unlike many other rescues, ERA does not prohibit professionals who adopt their horses from reselling them later.

“I want to be a safety net for that horse,” says Jim. “I want to take him back if he ever looks like he might be going to a bad place, because I have made a personal commitment to that horse. But if he can be sold into a good home, that’s wonderful. We had a local trainer adopt one of our horses and turn it into a high goal polo pony. He took that horse to Florida and sold it for $50,000 – this was a throwaway horse, but he put in the time and the training and made it worth that money. Did we get a nice donation when he made that sale? You bet. Does that happen often? No, but it can.”

Although the primary purpose of Equine Rescue is to help horses, it is also a place that helps people. This winter, the most visible people it is helping are participants in the Saratoga Warhorse program, which is designed to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Part of this program includes a kind of equine therapy in which veterans learn to work with a horse in a round pen – an exercise in trust and communication. Saratoga Warhorse has its winter headquarters in Aiken: Equine Rescue donates it facility and the use of its horses, all of which are available for adoption.

Since the rescue was founded in 2006, it has placed over 600 horses in new homes. They have been horses of all types, from quiet trail companions to hard-hitting competitors in the show ring or on the event course or polo field. The rescue has also earned an important place in the Aiken equestrian community, attracting many devoted volunteers and supporters.

But even with all this success, the Equine Rescue of Aiken still needs the help of the community. Like most animal rescue operations, it needs more volunteers and more donations to be able to keep doing the right thing for the horses. With the help of Nancy Marks, who is a marketing specialist, the rescue is currently developing some new programs, along with a new website and a marketing campaign, all designed to raise public awareness and increase the Aiken horse community’s participation in equine welfare activities.
Caroline and Milagro

“We couldn’t do any of this without the help of the community,” says Jim. “The volunteers are wonderful, and they keep this place going.”

An hour after she arrived, Noel is standing happily in her stall, munching on a flake of hay and meeting Moon, the barn cat. Like the other three rescued foals, Noel has a good appetite. The four horses are now eating 25 pounds of feed a day: one 50 pound bag of grain for two horses. Rehabilitating horses that were this close to death is undoubtedly an expensive proposition.

“Did it put a financial burden in the rescue?” says Jim. “Yes, of course. Did saving the other horses from that farm put a tremendous burden on Big Oaks Rescue? Yes. But it is what we do. These foals were lying prone on the ground and they couldn’t get up, but they were raising their heads to take food out of our hands. We could have made the call that they were too far gone and we could have put them down. But they had life in their eyes and they had fight. They didn’t choose to be put in that situation. It wasn’t their fault.

“This is what we do. We do it because it is the right thing to do for the horse.” He pauses, looking at Noel where she stands, skinny, scarred, but on her way to better things. She has a long way to go, but she has taken so many steps forward already.

“It’s the right thing to do for your soul,” he says. “It helps the heart.”

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