I never really thought too much about horse rescue. Even though one of my horses came to me through our local rescue, I tried not to think about his situation too much. I wanted to believe that the well-off couple that owned him, who lost their business, who were getting divorced and losing everything, were unusual. They hid the situation they were facing from their outer world and their horses suffered. I wanted to think that there wasn’t too much suffering involved. I stayed away from reading the stories that would appear in news releases or on the Internet. I would send some money to horse rescue groups every now and then, but keep an emotional distance. I had done my part. And then the Horses In Need Documentary Project came along through the Equine Photography Network. I thought a long time about whether I thought I could handle photographing horses in need. I was afraid. Afraid of what I might see; afraid of what I might hear; afraid of what I might learn; afraid I would want to take all the horses I saw home with me and hide from the bigger issues.
Horses have a way of surprising me: leading me down paths of personal and social explorations I may otherwise not have ventured and increasing my awareness of the world I live in. Through my camera’s eye, something unexpected happened. I saw beauty where I could have seen pain. I saw horses who have the potential to thrive if a home can be found and who have a chance to be something beyond their past experiences. I saw resilience and inspiration. I saw people willing to open their lives and provide foster care and training to these horses. I saw a farrier who donates her time to care for the feet of these horses. So I began to look into their stories without fear, but with curiosity instead. Who were the people behind their abuse and why would someone behave the way they had? How could a community let the abuse happen?
The stories of these resilient souls unfolded for me through three different horses I met: Shelby, Lyric, and Mooney. Each one demonstrates the complicated issues behind the reasons for horse abuse, need for horse rescues, and the issues horse rescues face. In my own mind, I had always lumped horse abuse people into one category that I would call “Criminal”. And indeed, there are those people. But there is also a growing trend in animal hoarding which is unfolding in a more secretive fashion. Social workers, friends, family, and neighbors across the country are seeing such cases and finding animals living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions as they visit homes for other reasons. Animal hoarders may truly be proud of the domain they have created and believe it to be in the best interest of the animals living with them. The person’s home may be everything to that individual. Animals may be the sole source of mutual trust in the person’s life. Animal hoarders may proclaim deep love for their animals and not see their living situations as neglect. They might fight all attempts of “help” because they associate help with trouble. Hoarding is a behavioral pattern that crosses cultures, gender, and socioeconomic status. It is a difficult line to cross as to when collecting becomes hoarding, but in the case of animals, when their health is compromised the distinction is made. Animal hoarders tend to be individuals in their 40’s and 50’s who are also caring for dependent children or elders. Animal hoarding is not a behavior simply solved by drugs, jail time, or other restrictions. It is a condition that requires counseling and intervention. It also creates situations that require the close interactions between several community agencies that must work together in difficult circumstances. Hoarding can be ugly and dangerous on its own, but animal hoarding can have devastating consequences.
Shelby had logged a lot of road miles during her life so far. When I met Shelby, she had recently gotten off the trailer to end up back in Oregon after a long journey from Nebraska. As a yearling, she came to Oregon to Emerald Valley Equine Assistance (EVEA) along with several others. Shelby, a Mustang, was originally from the Sheldon Nevada Fish and Wildlife Refuge. Horse rescue groups sometimes take horses from one another, so her move to Oregon was not unusual. EVEA thought they had found the right placement for her with the 3 Strikes sanctuary in Nebraska, so she was shipped out there. Everyone thought she had found her “forever” home at the 3-Strikes Ranch. A place that was suppose to be a “Mustang Outpost, Helping Horses” according to it’s reputation. It was suppose to be a place where horses could roam free on a sprawling 1900 acre ranch with an abundance of grazing land. And apparently, for a while, it was a sanctuary. People paid the operators of the facility $500 to take their horses and give them a good life. It was a non-profit organization. But it seems that about a year ago, something started to go very wrong and by April of this year, the situation had turned tragic. Even now, nobody seems to understand what events transpired to change everything. Through the efforts of neighbors, Internet chatter, local officials, Habitat for Horses, and others, authorities were able to get onto the property to assess the horrific details of the situation. The owner of the facility had to be convinced to legally release the horses to these organizations in order to get the horses the help they needed. Criminal charges were brought against the operator of the ranch. But what does jail time really do? And what events could have transpired that would cause a once healthy environment to become a death trap? Were the operators of the facility too proud or overwhelmed to ask for help? Who would they have asked for help? Federal “bail out” programs for horse rescues do not exist (which seems ironic considering the long standing intertwined relationship between the horse and the automobile).
Many horses from 3 Strikes Ranch needed immediate health care and were treated by local Veterinarians as well as first and second year vet students from the program in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The other horses were taken to the local fairgrounds. The local Box Butte and Scottsbluff County Farm Bureau Chapters donated $3,000 worth of hay, more than 12 ton of first cutting alfalfa arrived. The local community was stunned and saddened by the ordeal. How could this have happened in their neighborhood? If local people could have helped sooner, why didn’t they? If vet school students can benefit from treating horses in rescue situations, why aren’t schools involved in the local rescues around their communities on a regular basis? All questions without answers, but ones that surround the difficult issues of horse rescue.
The horse I met had been through a lot. As soon as EVEA caught wind of what was going on in Nebraska, they did all they could to find her and paid to have her shipped out here as part of the national relocation effort for the horses from the 3-Strikes Ranch ordeal. She had not been handled by humans beyond health care/transportation related issues in a long time. EVEA found a foster care/training situation for her where she is being handled again by gentle souls. With cautious optimism she approached us in the round pen. She wanted to be part of what was going on around her and was willing to take a chance on us. She wanted human contact despite her past. One of the biggest challenges EVEA faces is finding trainers willing to work with these older horses that have not been handled or started under saddle. Even finding foster homes for horses in Shelby’s situation is difficult. Many of the horses rescued need homes with experienced horse handlers making them even more difficult to place. Where is Shelby to go?
The rehabilitation efforts for Shelby have gone well so far. She has gained weight and is moving well. As is the case in many of these situations, this mare is most likely pregnant. Pregnancy can be a joyful event; for a horse rescue’s pocketbook, it means they just took on 2 horses rather than one. Now 2 horses will need to be fed and 2 horses will need homes. Breeding her had never been part of the plan.
In a pasture across the way from Shelby, another rescued mare stood with her 1 month old colt. Her story is of a different type of litigation.
Lyric, the name given to the mare, comes out of a rescue effort near Burns, OR. Lyric’s story is one of people attempting to get horses through Craigslist and auctions for resale. A man and a woman were involved in this case. The man would run ads for horses saying that he would take any unwanted horses no questions asked. Several of the horses rescued were branded ranch horses. News story accounts of the event describe the seizure as one of the biggest horse rescue efforts ever in the State; 47 horses were taken from the property.
The female owner of the property had a history of similar behavior in Texas. It is not clear if the woman involved was told she could never own animals again or not. In this case, she agreed to sign release agreements to let the horses go, but when police arrived the next day they found her loading up animals to take away. The man involved fled before authorities arrived at the scene. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.
Lyrics case is similar to one that happened in Oregon in 2002. In that situation, the people had done something similar in the State of Washington. These people were labeled “animal hoarders” and ordered to never own animals again. But the reality of cases like this is that when the people re-locate they begin acquiring animals once again. Prosecuting animal hoarders has been compared to herding cats… a daunting task. Animal hoarding is a mental health issue and frequently paired with other complex compulsive disorders. Jail sentences without mental health interventions will not change the behaviors of the animal hoarders. Hoarding is thought to be an instinctual nature in humans and unfortunately, animals may become caught up in this pattern. Law enforcement agencies have difficult times getting past property rights issues even where animal safety is concerned. How many of us even know what our local animal regulations are in terms of animal ownership? And what animals fall under these guidelines? Who has the right to challenge our animal acquisitions?
Like Shelby, Lyric will find herself in a difficult to adopt situation. She has lost her trust in humans and will need an experienced person to provide her a safe new home. Her foster family is working with her and she has made gains. Her foal has a home waiting for him when he is ready to leave his mom.
Mooney is a 3-year-old Appaloosa colt. He is young, but has found himself in EVEA’s care twice already. Mooney’s original story represents the criminal element of neglect. His original rescue was from a home with a drug problem. Methamphetamine was being produced at the location. A concerned phone caller reported starving and injured horses. When EVEA got to the property, they found meth trailers all over the place. At first the owner of the horses was cooperative, but then changed his mind. Animal control was called in and the owner was required to seek veterinary help for the horses. Instead, he surrendered them to EVEA. Illegal drug use stories rarely have happy endings and homes that produce methamphetamine create environmental destruction as well as harm to those individuals and communities involved. Not only was Mooney living in a home where he was neglected, he was also living in an environmentally contaminated situation. A total of 15 horses were removed from the environment in which Mooney was living.
Mooney’s stature has been stunted through his ordeal. His breeding suggests a fine sized horse, but his neglect left him small in physique.
Mooney was quickly placed in a new home. The adorable yearling was easy to place at first. But his small size became an issue. When his original adopter realized is small size would not change, a new home was found for Mooney. The details surrounding his second rescue involve animal hoarding. He was found by accident this time. The home where he was living contacted EVEA about adopting horses that came out of the rescue effort in which Lyric was involved. EVEA requires references for veterinarians before placing horses in new homes. EVEA wasn’t able to get a hold of the veterinarian listed as a reference so a representative for EVEA visited the home. What was discovered were starving horses on site and a person resisting the notion that anything was wrong with the situation; a common thread seen with animal hoarding. Through a network of people’s effort, rescuers were able to buy Mooney’s way out of this situation. The owner was willing to sell him because he was getting out of property line fences in an effort to reach the grass in the ditches on the side of the road. This behavior was seen as troublesome. Once again, through a network of effort, animal control was able to gain access onto the property and tell the owner to get rid of the horses on site. The owner put the horses up for sale on Craigslist and ended up being evicted from her property, but the chronicle of events doesn’t end there. The former owner of Mooney is known to EVEA and local animal control authorities and has been seen on a new piece of property collecting horses; recreating the cycle of abuse in the name of love?
Once again, Mooney’s story highlights the complex issues that represent the conditions a horse rescue effort faces. Fortunately, this story ends well. Mooney’s foster family has decided to become his “forever” home. His youthful personality and willingness to engage with people despite his beginnings makes him irresistible to those who meet him.
Humans domesticated horses as early as 3,500 BC. for their use. Since then horses have played a significant role in human cultures around the world. In the United States, horses are American legends. They fought our wars; pulled our carts and carriages; plowed our lands; entertained us; brought us prestige through their beauty and strength; and shared a bond with us, a connection. Much like our other national symbols, horses make a statement about who we are as a culture. Americans would never consider melting down the Liberty Bell for its copper or turning Mt. Rushmore into a rock quarry; Ellis Island has not been abandoned because it is not longer useful for it’s original purpose and the prime real estate it sits on has not become expensive condominiums. Horses deserve the same attention, respect and care we devote to our other national symbols.
It may take a village to save a child, but it takes a nation to save our horses. Local horse rescue efforts say a lot about the communities they represent. It takes a special person to be able to go into a situation where a horse (or many horses), needs to be removed from the living situation in which it is found. And it takes a team of support to help after that. What happens to the horse (s) after being removed from the unacceptable conditions makes a strong statement about the local community.
No doubt, horse rescue efforts need money, but the buck doesn’t stop there. Horse rescues need people to care and be involved. Communities need to be involved in recognizing agencies that need to be able to work together in order to effectively resolve animal abuse issues and subsequently, support the animals caught up in litigations. Rescue efforts need people to know and understand their local regulations related to horses, or pass regulations if they are needed.
Animal hoarding is a condition that probably exists in most communities, but is not yet recognized as a specific psychological disorder. It is usually discovered as a result of another behavior or situation. Once a situation reaches the proportions of animal hoarding it is particularly hard and financially cumbersome to resolve. Hoarding situations involve personal freedom, property rights, and mental competency issues. Animal hoarding conditions need to be recognized in the early stages by family, friends, neighbors, veterinarians, and social service agencies for the mental health condition involved. Animal hoarders tend to be secretive about their behaviors making dealing with the situation that much harder. Stereotypic images of the elderly woman with many cats comes to mind when thinking of animal hoarding, but the reality is that animal hoarding crosses all demographics and socioeconomic status. Good intentions wind up being costly to a community on many levels and all to frequently deadly for the animals involved. We all need to become informed about the psychological condition of animal hoarding and know the tips for recognizing the behavior.
Horse rescue efforts also need foster homes and trainers who are willing to donate time to handle horses that may not have been handled for some time. Skilled people to help re-establish connections with abandoned horses to enable them to become adoptable. Most horse rescues end up with feral horses and older brood mares that have been physically untouched by humans. Horse rescue groups need help searching for homes for these horses. A few people can’t do it all. Places need to be created and supported for those unadoptable horses to inhabit and live out their lives if they are unadoptable.
The biggest question surrounding horses in need is, where do all these unwanted horses come from? Why are there so many? The next time you hear someone talking about breeding a horse, ask why they want to do that and where that horse will end up if it doesn’t meet the expectations associated with its birth. Manufacturers of cars have had to wake up to the fact that they have over produced their product and perhaps the horse industry needs to acknowledge the same situation.
Humans created the situations that these rescue horses find themselves in and humans need to become responsible for their actions. If you have read this far into this story, please ask yourself what you could do to help these horses in need. Could you care for or adopt a horse permanently or foster one? Could you send a small donation regularly to your local horse rescue organization? Could you donate a specific product? Could you help organize a fund raising event? Could you attend a fund raising event if one was being put on? Could you volunteer in some way that would be useful to the organization? Could you talk to people openly about the issues of horses in need? We all can do something and pennies of effort do add up.
The people working in the trenches of horse rescue have something in common: hope. Hope for change; hope for a better world; hope for appreciation of an animal that has shaped our history; hope to stop animal hoarding; hope to win the lottery and create utopia. But primarily, hope to find a home for the horses whose souls are resilient and ready to put their pasts behind them.
Special Thanks to:
Sandy Huey of Emerald Valley Equine Assistance (EVEA) for providing me information about Shelby, Lyric, and Mooney and sharing her stories with me.
LeAnn Stafford of Emerald Valley Equine Assistance (EVEA) for personally accompanying me on the site visits to meet the horses and sharing her knowledge on the topic of horses in need.
Shelly Moore for helping me to connect with EVEA and serving as the model and horse handler for the photos.
Visit EVEA's website to find out more about them and the horses they are caring for.
To learn more about the horses featured in this story and the news accounts of the situations they were removed from, click on the horse's name.
Clutter Busters Deconstructing Our Acquisitive Human Nature
The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium
People Who Hoard Animals