Tuesday, 25 August 2009
They Save Horses Don't They...These horses go from death's door to paradise
The frigid January air seeps through their clothing and stings their skin. Fatigue settles in their arms and legs.
It's been 30 hours, but the two women and a man standing in a Huntington Beach stable manage to ignore basic human needs for things like food and sleep.
They must keep a suffering horse on its feet.
"You're amazing," one of the three, Susan Peirce, whispers to the horse.
The filly has colic, a sometimes fatal ailment that causes intense cramping in a horse's intestinal tract. The condition can be caused by either feeding a horse too much – or too little.
In this horse's case, the problem is the latter. Her ribs protrude and her gray coat is dull, signs of undernourishment and malnutrition.
The filly tries to collapse but Peirce coaxes her to her feet. If the horse lies down, she will die.
Thirty-two hours pass and hope keeps them going. Peirce's husband, David, and their friend, Marcy Roberts, try to get the horse to eat and drink water.
Thirty-four hours in and the horse seems close to taking a turn for the better. Peirce seizes on this, and gives the horse a name - Gracie.
"I just kept thinking of the song 'Amazing Grace'," Peirce says. "She deserved to have a name."
Finally, 36 hours pass and the three horse lovers collapse with fatigue. It is over.
Three months later, Susan Peirce, 46, makes her way through other stables, in Huntington Beach and places her hands on a dusty metal fence. A stunning chocolate-colored gelding approaches. Peirce holds her hand out for the horse to sniff and plants a kiss on his nose.
A placard on the front of the stable has a name – "Robin" – scrawled in permanent marker.
The horse nuzzles Peirce's chest and gently tugs at her light pink vest.
"He's looking for treats," Peirce says. "He's so spoiled now."
Robin wasn't always spoiled. Just a few months ago Robin's coat, like Gracie's, was matted and dull; his shoulder blades almost poked out of his skin.
"When he first came here he would just stand in the back of the stable with his head down," Peirce says. "He wouldn't even approach his feeder. That's how we know he wasn't fed."
In a few months, Robin has gained 250 pounds and is strong and sleek. His coat glistens; his hooves are healthy.
Robin throws his head back and his ebony mane swishes from side to side. It's as if the thoroughbred knows he looks good.
He flashes what seems to be a smile, displaying a missing front tooth. Then he goes back to nudging his owner for a treat.
"Now, there is such a light in his eyes," Peirce says cradling Robin's face in her hands.
Peirce continues down the row of stables and greets eight more horses. Some are doing better than others, but all are in various stages of recovery from abusive, near-death experiences.
"They just need to be loved," Peirce says.
Robin is one of nine horses Peirce has rescued over the past three months that now has a home at the Huntington Beach Central Park Equestrian Center.
And although Robin is safe, his home is just temporary.
A horse lover
Peirce was 8 when she had her first trail ride, in Arizona, and she was smitten by horses.
Then she got lucky. Her family moved to Kentucky. And horses are to Kentucky what surfing is to her current home, Huntington Beach.
She was 12 when she rescued her first two horses – a pair of neglected Tennessee Walkers she found abandoned near a Kentucky pasture.
"I fattened them up. I trained them. And I used to ride them bareback.
"They were just wonderful best friends."
About 30 years ago, Peirce's family moved to California. And while she has stayed involved with equine culture in California – caring for and riding horses – she didn't practice her old habit of finding and helping, down-on-their luck horses until last summer.
Peirce and husband David were on one of their regular trips to the Inland Empire, where David practices his hobby, training border collies. As David worked with dogs, Susan was a regular visitor to a nearby stable to check out the horses.
In July, she found an espresso filly with a white smudge on her head – cowering in her stall.
"She was so skinny," Peirce says. "And she was terrified."
Peirce had developed a cordial relationship with the stable owner on her visits, and, that day, she convinced him to let her take the horse home. Since then, she's nursed the horse to health, trained her to be suitable for riding, and given her a name – Harlow.
A Mission Defined
Peirce won't say what city Harlow lived in before she came to Huntington Beach. She says that'll embarrass the stable owner and, worse, make it tougher for her to rescue other horses.
She started doing that in January, when she took a call from the stable owner. He had a horse with colic but, apparently, not enough money to hire a veterinarian. Would Peirce help?
Peirce knew she had to rush to the horse's aide. But, if the horse lived, Peirce didn't know where she could take it. Boarding a horse costs nearly $500 a month, and that's before food and grooming and training.
Peirce took a chance. She told Mary Behrens, owner of the Equestrian Center, about the sick filly, and Behrens didn't hesitate.
"Go get her," she told Peirce.
Peirce and her husband drove an hour to the Inland Empire stable, loaded the nameless horse into their trailer, and drove her to the Equestrian Center. That's where the couple and their friend, Roberts, stood knee-deep in hay in a 36-hour fight to save the filly they named Gracie.
At hour 34, Gracie's fight started to change. Though they thought they were winning, they called in a vet for help. The life was draining from Gracie's eyes, and anguish was taking its place.
"She is in so much pain," the vet told Peirce two hours later. "There is nothing more we can do."
As Peirce left the barn she heard the gut-wrenching sound of putting a horse down — a sound that makes her wince and cry.
"You just hear this 'boom'," she says. "It is the worst sound you will ever hear in your life."
So Peirce made a promise to herself: "Never again," she said that night. "Not another horse will die."
Tomorrow: A community of horse lovers comes to the rescue, again and again.
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Susan Peirce pulls at the horse's upper lip.
She's in the Inland Empire stable again, the place where she found Harlow, her own horse. The last time Harlow was here she was sick and emaciated and afraid of people. Now she's healthy and trained and living at the Huntington Beach Equestrian Center, near Peirce's home in Huntington Beach.
This is also the stable where Peirce picked up Gracie, the horse sick horse Peirce couldn't save.
Now she's back, checking out yet another horse – a thoroughbred gelding – that, like the others, looks near death.
Under the horse's lip Pierce sees the tattoo she figured she'd see, the one that indicates he was a racehorse. She soon names this horse Robin, and takes him with her to Huntington Beach, where, over the next three months, he'll transform back into a beautiful, sassy creature.
At the moment of Gracie's death, Peirce made a promise. "Not another horse will die."
But even when she's in the stable, looking at the lip, Peirce knows that keeping that promise won't be easy.
The horse rescuer
In all, there were seven troubled horses at the stable.
Some were thoroughbreds, like Robin, that used to run the race circuit. When they were no longer fast enough for racing, their owners had dumped them at the stable.
Peirce believed the next step would be grim.
"The owner told me that he would take them to auction, even if he could only get $50 a horse," Peirce says.
That may have been code. Although slaughtering horses is illegal in the United States, it's legal in Mexico. Horses there are killed and their meat sold.
"A lot of kill-buyers go to these auctions and buy the horses for cheap," Peirce says.
"There is no doubt in my mind that these horses would have ended up at an auction."
Peirce won't reveal the name of the stable, or the names of the horse owners, because she believes it could hinder her rescue efforts in the future.
"If you become a vigilante," she explains, "they won't call you."
But Peirce's good intention carries a price – literally. Boarding, food and supplies can run about $1,200 a month for one horse.
"I'm just a regular person," she says. "I can't really afford that."
So, just as she did when she tried to save Gracie, Peirce sought the help of Mary Behrens of the Huntington Beach Equestrian Center.
"She told me that she wanted to help and to go get those horses," Peirce says.
Behrens' employees said they were not surprised by her generosity. Behrens has run the public facility for more than 20 years and jumps at any opportunity to help an animal in need.
"Someone has to be a voice for the animals," says Equestrian Center manager, Allison Hathaway. "(Behrens) just has a huge heart."
Building a Foundation
Stables at Huntington Beach Equestrian Center were set aside, free of charge, which included feed and water, for the horses Peirce brought in. Behrens has even paid out of pocket for some medical and dental expenses to get the horses on the way to recovery.
And two more horses – two fillies that were neglected in a man's backyard – brought the rescue list to nine.
"The man thought he could raise these horses to be race horses," Peirce says. "He just had no clue."
As others at the Equestrian Center learned of the rescues, volunteers stepped in to help with feeding, grooming and training. Some donated food and supplies.
Children at the stables even held a yard sale to help pay for a week's worth of food and care for the animals.
"The support from the community has been fantastic," Peirce says. "There is just no way I could've done this alone.
"Right now, these people are truly giving."
Peirce calls the operation Red Bucket Equine Rescue, a name inspired by the red treat buckets taken to the horses each day. Each bucket is marked with the horse's name in bold black letters.
After the horses began to make progress, Peirce opened the program to children ages 8 to 17 who wanted to be involved in equine culture.
Children and teens can take training classes with their parents and then enter the stables and help with cleaning and grooming.
Certified trainers have volunteered their time to get the horses ready for riding again. They are hand-walked at least once a day and taken to a large pen where they can run around.
The ultimate goal, Peirce says, is to adopt the horses out to worthy owners.
"We want to save them, rehabilitate them and find them a loving home," she says. "This is really about what is best for the horses.
"The training here prepares them for a very different life."
Although the goal is altruistic, Pierce can't fight her sentiment.
"I want them to get adopted, but I know I'm going to cry when they are," she says. "I get attached to these horses."
The road ahead
The Red Bucket Equine Rescue is still new and Peirce will be met with many challenges as she looks to expand the operation.
She is looking to get nonprofit status to help bring funding to the program.
"Some people don't want to donate yet because we are not an official nonprofit," she says. "We're still trying to figure everything out."
The Red Bucket Equine Rescue is looking to get some volunteer help from lawyers and accountants to help with the paperwork.
Although the project has been somewhat of a financial strain, Peirce says they will push forward until the funds start filtering in.
"I will keep going until we get that nonprofit filing," she says. "This will not fail. These horses depend on us."
The organization is also partnering with the Equestrian Center in August to throw a fundraiser for the program. Riders from all over the county are expected to participate in the Extreme Cowboy event, an exhibition competition for riders with proceeds benefiting the Rescue.
The Rescue is also looking for foster parents, called Guardian Angels, who will spend time with the horses until they can find a good home.
Eventually, Peirce hopes to build a freestanding building near the center dedicated to rescue horses.
As she and the volunteers continue to prepare the nine horses for family life, Peirce can't help but think of Gracie, the one she couldn't save.
"Every time I see these horses I wonder what she would look like today.
"It's sad but I know what happened to her, in turn, will bring about so much good."
Click here to read Day 1
Contact the writer: 714-445-6692 or firstname.lastname@example.org