Like most of my Facebook friends, I receive updates on my news feed from various rescues around the country featuring horses of every breed and description— mules, donkeys and miniature horses—all caught up in the slaughter pipeline with only a limited time to be saved.
How these unlucky animals got there is another story (see “The Economics of Kill Pens,” page 40), and it is estimated that more than 130,000 horses a year find themselves on a truck with a one-way ticket to a slaughterhouse in Mexico or Canada.
Early in 2016, word went out that a large number of Missouri Fox Trotter weanlings had been brought to a kill pen in Bastrop, Louisiana.
My heart went out to these youngsters who had been living, according to reports, in semi-feral conditions on a large farm somewhere in the Mid-west. Their dams had been shipped directly to slaughter, and the babies were left at the kill pen, where they could be “bailed out” for $300 apiece.
Equine nutritionist, endurance rider and educator Susan Garlinghouse, DVM, of California had just bailed out a chestnut weanling colt and drew my attention to tag #1660. She discerned potential beneath the ragged coat and spindly frame.
I’ve known “Dr. G” for many years through our mutual pas- sion for the sport of endurance riding. Like other committed equestrians, endurance riders have taken the unwanted horse problem to heart. From mustangs to Arabian show ring rejects to Standardbreds off the track, many successful distance horses emerged from the ranks of the discarded.
My love for endurance and grounding in equine health were nurtured by my long association with EQUUS Medical Editor Emeritus Matthew Mackay-Smith, DVM, who is also a member of the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) Hall of Fame. During the years I served as a senior editor for the magazine, Mackay-Smith mentored me on his favorite sport. Today, after having ridden more than 5,000 miles in AERC events, my love of the sport still burns brightly. But my husband, Kenny Weber, and I have found a new calling: helping horses regain their health. We are currently rehabilitating horses with conditions as diverse as joint disorders and EPM0.
Kenny and I live on a 200-acre ranch near the Hill Country of Texas with our 10 horses. We had never “officially” rescued a horse before, although we have a few who “became” rescues by virtue of our not wanting to send them into harm’s way. But when word of this group of Fox Trotter youngsters began drawing attention, we decided to make room for one more in our pasture.
So, on the basis of that murky video, I impulsively sent in the funds and spoke up for #1660, a dark bay colt with a frosted mane and tail.
Even after I had taken the plunge, I was still sweating it out. What if the colt had already been shipped? He was still on the list of available horses, but he wouldn’t be for long, and sometimes there were mix-ups. I wouldn’t relax until he was safely out of the kill pen. Once the funds were acknowledged and he was tagged “SAFE,” I began to search for a quarantine facility.
Garlinghouse recommended Angela Parham of Spirit Run Equine Rescue in Gilmer, Texas, where she had just shipped her own rescue. “Angela deals with Bastrop all the time and knows the protocols and how to deal with them,” she told me. The rescue process can be daunting for newcomers such as my husband and I, living more than 500 miles away from the kill lot. In addition, we had no practical way to isolate the youngster, with 10 other horses on the ranch.
Parham and I quickly connected and set up a plan. First, the colt would be transported to her ranch in eastern Texas and evaluated by her veterinar– ian. PayPal and credit cards were quickly enlisted. It would cost $17 per day to keep him in quarantine, plus medical expenses.
When the arrangements were set for my new colt’s initial care, I started to breathe easier. And I felt even more confident about the situation as I came to learn more about Parham. In short, she is a tremendous advocate for horses. “There is nothing like the heart of a horse” is one of her mantras. “And if you give them your heart, they will fight. I tell every single horse who shows up here two things: Life is better today. And if you’ll fight, I’ll fight.”
The fight to save #1660 was about to begin. But first, he needed a name.
The road to recovery
After a few trial runs with other names that just didn’t stick, I decided to call the colt Farley. The name partly came from memory. One of my childhood heroes was Walter Farley, author of the Black Stallion books. Mainly, I just liked the sound of it.
By the time he arrived at Spirit Run, Farley was thin, weak and obviously sick, with snot pouring from his nostrils. “I remember that frail, fragile, wobbly, poor broken baby coming off of the trailer with guarded steps,” said Parham. “I was worried about him, but there was much life in his eyes. I could see a beautiful young man there before me, a diamond in the rough.”
The road to healing would not be easy. Farley was diagnosed with both strangles0 and shipping0 fever and was running a high fever. Besides malnutrition, he almost certainly was riddled with parasites. To protect other horses on the property, he was isolated in a 40- by 30-foot pen with an attached shed, just 100 yards from Parham’s house. His coat was thick and matted and begging for a bath, but it would take weeks to even get close enough to touch him. We were also in for a surprise—Farley was about the size of a yearling, but the local veterinarian determined that he was actually about 3 years old.
The road to recovery would be long, with no shortcuts—antibiotics could have been potentially fatal by driving the infection deeper and causing bastard strangles. “If they’re eating, drinking and interested enough to whinny, I generally don’t start them on antibiotics,” Garlinghouse told me. “Supportive care is a big part of it. It’s in his favor that he is a little older, not a weanling—there’s a decent chance that he has been exposed to strangles before, even if he didn’t develop clinical disease, so his immune system is better able to fight it. Hang in there.”
At least four other Fox Trotter babies from Farley’s group did not survive. Many were too weak to en- dure long trailer trips, and some had been injured.
Many times I, too, feared Farley would not make it. His fever persisted, and the photos Parham sent daily were often heartbreaking. But slowly, day by day, he got a little better. Each soothing word from Parham, each gentle touch, each carefully measured scoop of feed seemed ultimately to work magic on the little colt. I believe she saved Farley’s life with her experience, dedication and never-say-die attitude.
On February 16, Parham reported, “After today’s dose of Banamine, his fever fell from 103 to 101.5 F. Praying he is on the mend. And his strangles abscesses have burst. He is eating alfalfa and sweet feed and whinnying to the other horses.” His fever did not spike again, and the abscesses began to recede.
Angela told me then that Farley is an old soul with “many stories to tell,” and she believed he would pull through.
A nutritional challenge
Every rescued horse presents a unique nutritional challenge, but Parham starts with a base feed of a 12 percent protein pellet and to that adds an all-around vitamin and mineral supplement formulated to support hoof and digestive health. “You can throw food at them,” Angela says, “but unless they are digesting it, it just goes out the other end.”
She likens an emaciated horse to a “balloon trying to stretch out,” noting that, “If you try to fill it up too fast, it will pop. You don’t want to starve them, but you also don’t want to shock the system.” She begins each horse with a single scoop of feed twice daily, plus the supplements, and builds slowly.
She closely monitors their water intake and their stool. “Their poop will tell you everything.” Loose stools or diarrhea are a signal to cut back on concentrates and go back to grass hay only. “You have to give their body a chance to adjust to the distribution of that much food.” She increases a horse’s feed by only small amounts each day: “We want to love our horses through the feed bucket, but [giving them too much feed too soon] is the worst thing you can do,” she says.
Parasites are another huge concern with rescues. Parham typically does fecal testing on each new arrival. Farley, not surprisingly, had lots of parasites on board, so he received a double dose of fenbendazole daily for four days.
Eventually, his sticky ID tag—#1660 —peeled off his mane, and a pretty, new green halter went on. Over a period of weeks, Farley learned to be led, to tie, to allow his feet to be picked up. But the biggest lesson was that humans may not be so bad after all. For the first time in his young life, he knew love.
We meet at last
We met Parham and Farley for the first time at Spirit Run on our way home from an endurance ride in Mount Pleasant, Texas, in early April.
Parham is a whirlwind of a woman with an intuitive sense of each horse’s needs, nurturing his survival on every level. She knows rescued horses need more than ordinary care—“They need to be treated like royalty,” she says. She described Farley as a “sweet, kind soul.”
As we approached his paddock, the youngster was bounding around and full of himself. Yes, his shaggy coat was still matted and he was still ribby, but he was clearly on the upswing. And he was super friendly, boldly approaching us for nuzzles and scratches.
We also met a number of other horses in Parham’s care, including a Thoroughbred gelding off the track in Louisiana who had been discarded because of a bone chip. “Swazi” had just had his surgery, and I helped Angela by holding him while she changed his bandage. A teenage girl has since adopted him. We also met a charming chestnut Paso Fino mare named Carmelita. And there were two Tennessee Walker mares, heavy in foal.
Watching Parham interact with each horse was a treat. She tunes in to each individual at an emotional level that is rare in any realm. Once she gets youngsters past their initial physical challenges and hardships (and recog- nizing they still have a long way to go), she increasingly focuses on their behavioral development. She allows each horse to approach the human at his or her own pace, and this process can take some time.
Farley displayed good horse-human social skills early on, but his horse-to-horse education proceeded more cautiously. “He did not acclimate well to being in a herd environment,” Parham recalled. “He was fearful of the other horses and wanted to be with me.” She recalled the first time she turned him out with another horse, a quiet gelding named Teddy. Farley ran and hid behind a manure pile in the far corner of the field.
When he hadn’t budged by morning, she took him out of the field and moved him to a smaller paddock “where he could see the other horses and communicate but still had safe boundaries to help him settle into being with other horses. He had been let down by everyone, his herd was gone, humans were awful to him, and then there was me—and I took care of him. I think his dependence on me kept him from becoming part of the herd at first. Once I moved him and started spending time with him and the other horses next to him, he was good with it. But that first day was pretty scary.”
Parham sees it every day in her work with rescues: “The mental side of recovery can be just as big of a challenge as any.”
Farley came home to our ranch on May 14—healthy, much bigger, shiny and bold (and fortunately, gelded before he arrived).
He has blossomed into a goofy clown and an acrobat! After a couple of months in his own paddock, he is now fully integrated with the herd and knows how to keep himself safe. Our 4-year-old palomino Tennessee Walking Horse filly Athena is head-over-heels in love with him, and he is also the chosen companion of our herd’s alpha mare, Excalibur Annakate.
Farley picks up his feet nicely for trimming, and he has discovered how wonderful a bath can be. He’s been introduced to the agility platform and pedestals in our arena and has proven a worthy student. From a rough-coated, shaggy, ribby little rescue with nothing much going for him but heart and a will to live, he has blossomed into an athletic, smart survivor with potential for success in many disciplines.
Best of all? Farley has the sweetest, kindest disposition. He still loves to smooch and nuzzle and never misses a chance to score a cookie. We are looking forward to watching him grow into the lovely horse he was meant to be.
This article was originally published the February 2016 issue, Volume #473 of EQUUS magazine