The Equine Rescue League in Leesburg, Virginia, preparing to celebrate its tenth anniversary, thought it had dealt with every imaginable form of neglect and abuse involving horses, ponies, donkeys or mules.
Bob had been continuously confined to a stall for five years. Goldie’s teeth had been neglected for so long that she could not eat and was almost 400 poundsunderweight when she arrived.Ithad been so long since Henry’shooves hadbeen trimmed that they curled up like petrified elves’ slippers. Grace suffered cruelties that left her believing she’d be better off if no human hand touch her for the rest of her life.
While all of those cases seem hard to understand, perhaps the hardest stories to comprehend are those involving mistreatment of babies. As a result of an investigation by diligent humane investigators in August 1999, ERL began preparing for the arrival of several malnourished horses. ERL Founder and President, Pat Rogers, knew that three of the expected horses were foals, estimated to be four months old and already weaned. A stall large enough to accommodate all three babies was designated as the nursery and stood ready for residents as the trailer pulled through the gates of Churchland Farm.
When staff members opened the gates of the large stock trailer, the three foals huddled in a far corner. They were so tiny and frail they had to be carried into the barn. How could babies this age be so underweight? All fillies, the trio had been “weaned”far too early, and had never been given any replacement for the absent mares’ milk.
Volunteers and staff (not knowing precisely how much handling or training the fillies had) lined the yard to guide the babies toward the waiting nursery. Disoriented, the young horses submitted meekly to their new handlers’ wishes and shuffled through the gate. The fillies, rather than showing curiosity or even fear, seemed ready to accept whatever happened next.
“The Babies” were quickly named. Chloe was the chestnut, Faline the bay and Shalimar the black. All three were emaciated and frighteningly weak. They were given no food. Also, the girls had been confined to a stall for an unknown period of time. Lack of exercise combined with starvation left them weak and uncoordinated. Their hooves, already overgrown, further aggravated their poorly developed senses of balance. An experienced farrier was reluctant to trim the girls’ hooves, worried that with such underdeveloped muscle tissue they might dislocate leg joints if they struggled in the least. In addition, Chloe, Fay and Shally were heavily infested with several kinds of parasites, both internal and external. What should have been soft baby coats felt more like Brillo pads.
During ten years of helping horses in trouble, ERL Farm Manager Cheryl Rogers has learned a lot about rehabilitating horses teetering on the brink on disaster. Even for Rogers, though, handling babies in such extreme condition was a nerve-wracking experience. She wanted to avoid overloading their inactive digestive tracts or causing colic. Chloe, Fay and Shalimar needed to eat frequent small meals. Chloe, the smallest and weakest of the three, ate many of her first meals at the farm shelter lying down beside her tiny feed bucket. She was unable to stay on her feet more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time.
After several days of rest, the babies were introduced to a small paddock adjacent to the barn. It was the biggest space they’d ever seen. As expected, their first instinct was to explore the new surroundings. They sniffed the unfamiliar greenery and tried to cavort in ordinary foal games. In just minutes, their frail bodies were exhausted and soon all were sound asleep in the sunshine; the first sun they’d had on their backs in weeks or possibly months.
The fillies’ caretakers were concerned with how little exertion was needed to overwhelm the tiny foals. The short time in the paddock, however, also inspired hope. Chloe, Fay and Shally wanted to play! They had not given up.
The foal’s progress during the first few weeks of recovery was measured in minutes and inches. At first, there were only ten minutes between naps, then fifteen, then twenty. Chloe could trot ten feet, then ten yards, and eventually the length of the paddock before tiring and losing her balance. Perhaps the most exciting development of all was that the girls started to open up to people.
In dealing with many horses like Chloe, Fay and Shalimar, the people at ERL have learned some valuable lessons. One realization is that although ERL depends on volunteers and private donations to continue helping horses in trouble and to maintain the farm shelter, the real heroes of ERL are the horses themselves. Regardless of past mistreatment or abuse, these horses continue to trust and warm up to people. Each one believes that the next caregiver will treat him with kindness and respect. It is inspiring to see how quickly a horse can recover from total neglect once appropriate care begins. The convalescent period is tackled with a “gusto” not often seen in human patients.
The three Arab fillies are no exception. While it is impossible to know if the early malnutrition will have any permanent effects, recent progress is measured in leaps and bounds. Now yearlings, the fillies are growing rapidly and have been turned out to graze in the large field called “The Outback” by ERL staff and volunteers. Watching them canter over the hill at meal times, it is difficult to remember that these young horses could hardly stay on their feet only six months ago.
As noted on several displays in the ERL office, “Perhaps in the dictionary, next to the definition of resilience, there should be a picture of a horse.”
Equine Rescue League
PO Box 4366
Leesburg, VA 20177