By Joan Trossman Bien
It is hard to think about animals in distress due to abuse or neglect. Trying to prevent more abuse is hard. But seeing and saving abused or neglected horses has its own set of difficulties, mostly due to their size and their inability to express their misery. It takes someone with a strong stomach and a stronger sense of justice to find and care for these horses.
There are several horse rescue groups in Ventura County. Some have their own property where they can care for several horses before opening horse adoption to the public. Other groups are purely administrative and use foster caregivers and boarding stables, placing horses in need in an appropriate environment.
The nonprofit California Coastal Horse Rescue in Ventura County was originally established to rescue horses from abusive situations, and aims to “find loving homes for them, giving them a second chance for life.” Volunteers do all of the work: ranch maintenance, composting, gardening, feeding the horses, grooming, stall cleaning, exercising, medication and training.
Other groups include Rescue Me!, the outreach program Animal Guardians Horse Rescue in Simi Valley and Heart of a Horse, which includes an educational component to “teach the public the basics of good horse care and training.” The backbone of each horse rescue organization is a dedicated staff of volunteers.
Forming a bond
Adri Howe of Oxnard volunteers for California Coastal Horse Rescue (CCHR) and has been with the group for eight years. She said that she happened to see a booth at the Ventura County Fair for California Coastal Horse Rescue, attended an orientation and has never looked back.
Right now, the group cares for 17 horses and has room for one more in its Ojai facility. The rescue also has two miniature horses as part of its outreach, although another pair of minis was adopted out.
“Our last pair [of rescue miniature horses] that came in were named Mischief and Caesar,” Howe said. “They came in as a pair and we adopted them out as a pair. Yes, even miniature horses are looking to be rescued.”
Howe is on the front lines when she is called to check out a new horse that is in a bad situation. “I feel a certain amount of trepidation in the sense that we don’t know what we’re going to see.”
Rescuers must assess each horse to provide the best destination. Does the horse merely require sanctuary or is it elderly? “We have to look at them and see what condition they are in. It is the colder part of it,” she said. “I feel that we are the last place that these animals have to go. They’ve come to what people think of as the end of the line. That can be very disheartening.”
Horses are brought to CCHR’s Ojai ranch for care, rehabilitation and veterinary services. “We can make a huge difference in their lives,” Howe said.
This type of work, however, can be challenging emotionally.
“It’s a bipolar existence, in a way,” Howe said. “We see so much sadness, a lot of desperation; and it is hard to believe some of the horses have been through everything they’ve gone through, emotionally, mentally, physically. We see how that can be changed. We can see these animals who were fearful, who had no hope, and we can see their lives really be turned around. It’s the best feeling in the world; you couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Howe said she is still amazed at how the horses that have been through so much can still be forgiving. They still come and say, “Yes, I want to be with a person. I want to share my life with people,” and she said that is a story of how redemption is possible.
Howe’s life has been changed by the horses as well. She said it has taught her patience and to be a better listener. “You have to be very quiet sometimes to hear what the horses are saying to you,” said Howe. “They speak very clearly even without words. It teaches you to be willing to take the time and form a bond to develop communication with them. Completely nonverbal animals, but sometimes it is as though they are speaking ‘human’ to you.”
Howe said the work is well-rewarded. “We can learn so much and grow so much from them. And to receive so much is a gift from them to me. It is just a beautiful reciprocal relationship.”
There are several horse rescue organizations throughout the county which provide information, education and volunteer opportunities.
Rescue Me! 649-4840 horse.rescueme.org
Humane Society of Ventura County 646-6505 www.hsvc.org
Hogan Family Foundation Rancho St. Francis 480-3039 www.ranchostfrancis.org
California Coastal Horse Rescue 649-1090 www.calcoastalhorserescue.com
Heart of a Horse 323-331-9259
Animal Guardians Horse Rescue, Inc. animalguardianshorserescuenetwork.webs.com
Having a dream
Donna Rhodes of Ventura has been a dynamic force in horse rescue. Although Rhodes does not have any rescues right now, she once supported as many as possible.
“My favorite thing about rescues is that it saves live,” Rhodes said. “My least favorite is that while most volunteers’ hearts are in the right place, they lack the knowledge of horse care, especially care of horses with medical issues, or the mental scars that many of them have.”
Rhodes used to adopt rescue horses with medical issues. Her favorites were a pair that were part thoroughbred. One of them helped to teach her daughter to ride. But even sweet, old horses require caution at all times for rider safety.
“As he got older and more deaf and blind, he couldn’t tell who or what was by him,” Rhodes said. “I came up on him too fast once when I was in a hurry and had to take his blanket off. He kicked me square in my knee and literally snapped all the ligaments in my knee. To this day, I have no ligaments in that knee. A fabulous sports medicine surgeon was able to cut a portion of my hamstring out and lace it through bone to hold my knee in place.”
Rhodes said her other favorite rescue liked to play Follow the Leader. She would sing, “We’re following the leader,” and the horse would bounce her ears with the rhythm of the song. Rhodes said the horse had a neurological issue and the game helped her work on muscle control.
Rhodes still strives for the dream that perhaps all rescuers want to achieve. “In the future, I would like to open my own rescue, but I still need to work on grants for funding.”
A sense of urgency
April Horowitz, who runs Heart of a Horse Rescue, realized that she needed to work with a veterinarian and relies on Dr. Kevin Smith, a mobile vet in Ventura.
“You have to find people around that will team up with you to take on some of these cases that were just heartbreaking,” Horowitz said. “When I see the animals I feel a sense of urgency, whatever it takes to get the horse comfortable and then healthy again. The next step is finding a forever home. If I can’t find a forever home, I find a location where they can live out the rest of their life in peace, get fed, not be neglected.”
Horowitz has found that the law tends to emphasize education over punishment. “Most of the people who abuse or neglect don’t get prosecuted, they get educated,” she said. “They get in a little bit of trouble, or sometimes they don’t get in trouble at all. There’s just so much abuse.”
Horowitz tries to understand those who are so irresponsible, recognizing that the physical and financial demands of keeping a horse can be overwhelming for the unprepared. “I think people can neglect things when they get overwhelmed or financially strapped. People go into a space where they don’t want to deal with it. Some people, and I hate to say this, are just cold-hearted human beings. Doesn’t matter if they have money; they lose interest and are hard to deal with. It’s heartbreaking.”
Horowitz believes some people see having a horse as a novelty. “They will actually think of a horse as a machine; they don’t realize it has feelings. It gets scared, it gets lonely, it gets nervous, it wants to be loved. But it gets neglected.”
In the field
Bryan Bray is the field operations supervisor with the Ventura County Department of Animal Control, and has seen his share of neglected horses.
“In the past couple months we’ve had maybe three or four cases where we actually had to go out and talk to the animal owners and do a whole investigation on it,” Bray said. “We go out on every case to find out what is going on.”
Like Horowitz, he recognizes that economics often plays a role in neglect and abuse. “The high price of vet care is absolutely an impediment to caring for the animals,” Bray said. “We have created a task force within Ventura County through our department that includes the Humane Society, local law enforcement and equine officers from our department who have been trained in recognizing animal abuse and animal neglect.”
One bright spot in an otherwise disheartening story is that education seems to be working.
“Once the animal owner understands the severity of the issue, it makes me feel better when I see them actually take the initiative to get the proper care for that animal and rehabilitate that animal back to health,” Bray explains. “For the most part, people are cooperative.”