Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bringing Back Chesapeake

In 2003, the White Bird Appaloosa Horse Rescue was still in its first year of operation as a non-profit organization. We were an enthusiastic bunch of rescuers (many fresh from the ranks of companion animal rescues) who were undaunted by distance, finances or complicated logistics, and who were still becoming familiar with the many issues and ethical minefields in the horse industry.

One day, I happened upon a post from another rescue, which was forwarding information about the upcoming auction of horses by the Colorado State University. Horses have traditionally been used in the school’s veterinary program labs, and at the end of their tenure, the horses had just as traditionally been auctioned off to the highest bidder. These usually turned out to be buyers for the slaughter market. Without opposing bidders, the horses would certainly enter the slaughter chain. The more we thought about it, the less fair it seemed. These horses had already come from owners that they had served, then been used by the University in their embryo transfer program. Now, they’d be sold for meat. It seemed to us that these horses had already done their service to humanity and deserved a better end.

A handful of members of our Yahoo! group pooled their resources to form an ad hoc team they called “ARC (Animal Rescue Corps), with the intention of buying one of the horses through the on-line auction. We selected several likely candidates from the list of auction horses and when the auction opened, we bid. Our bidding methodology was simple: we assumed that the least expensive horse would be in the greatest danger of being sold for meat. We altered our bids accordingly and remained watchful.

When the bidding ended, we were shocked. Every single horse had had their bids topped and their high bidders had been outbid. We were equally shocked to receive an email shortly after the auction, advising us that “our” horse would be available at our previously bid price. We have been told that there were some shady dealings at the end of the auction, though we cannot verify what happened. We only know that we had “our” horse, an overweight, sullen-looking chestnut mare with a large scar on her neck and the number “1830” tattooed on her butt. ARC named her Chesapeake Hope, a compromise between the ARC members who favored “Chesapeake” and those who favored “Hope.

The following weeks involved a flurry of negotiations with a rescuer in Colorado, who picked her up at the vet school for us, kept her for several weeks, and helped us to locate a reliable hauler to bring her home. The horse that rolled out of the trailer was far different from the one in the photo. She was bright, lively and in better condition than in her photo (thanks to Shirley, in Colorado). What a bundle of energy! From the quarantine paddock where she desperately wanted to get to the other horses, to the love and discipline she doled out as “Momma” to our nurse mare foals, she took immediate control of the herd and remained its matriarch. Did I mention she is bossy?

Among the volunteers we have had at the rescue was a young woman who came out a couple of times a week to help feed and clean stalls. The chemistry between these two grew quickly and we received the surprise request one day for Chessie’s adoption. We were ecstatic. Chessie went home with our best wishes for a bright future.

But predicting the future is impossible. We never know what hooks and turns our lives will throw at us, and so it was with Chessie’s adopter. Several weeks ago, we were advised that Chessie would need to return to us, for reasons beyond anyone’s control. So six years after Chessie arrived from Colorado, we brought her back to White Bird, to a new farm she hadn’t yet seen and to some old friends, both horse and human, that she still recognized.

Chessie has been very well cared for by her adopter. But it is apparent that Chessie’s life prior to her rescue had not been an easy one. We are now seeing the results of what appears to be a series of old injuries that are emerging as various arthritis and joint problems, in addition to the navicular syndrome that is so common in Quarter horses. It is not unusual for old injuries to start causing problems a long time after they seem to have healed. But for a 14-year old horse (a baby by our standards!) she has a surprising number of health issues. Chessie will never be completely sound and will always require a little extra care to keep her comfortable. But she is still our bright-eyed, bouncing girl and still “large and in charge.”

We are sorry that Chessie lost her home and the person who loved her. But we are glad that she had somewhere safe to go, especially in this difficult economy and terrible horse market. People are not exactly standing in line for busted up mares with bad feet, no matter how personable they are. But one of the best reasons to adopt horses from rescues is that, if something unforeseen happens, your horse has an insurance policy. Bringing back Chesapeake was possible because her adopter opened her home to a rescued horse, ensuring that in an emergency, her horse had a safe haven. But we are also grateful to her adopter, for taking such good care of our girl and for making sure she was safe when she could no longer care for her.

Top photo: Auction picture taken at CSU, 2003
Middle photo: Despooking exercise, taken at White Bird's Stillwater Farm in 2004
Bottom photo: Chessie at White Bird, taken this morning, Valentine's Day 2009