Caring for Colorado’s homeless horses
Caring for Colorado’s homeless horses
On a crisp October afternoon as the cottonwoods are just starting to show yellow around the edges, I arrive for my Sunday afternoon shift at the Colorado Horse Rescue. After kicking on my dirt-caked boots, I pause by the large sign in front of the visitor office: “The only difference between a rescue horse and any other horse is a set of circumstances.”
In the front welcome pen, I contemplate the sign while greeting Jade, a honey chestnut mare, and her colt, Malachite, a rambunctious and furry little fellow who was born at CHR after Jade was rescued from auction. I’ve been volunteering at the rescue for a little over four months, and I often think about the circumstances, how its equals parts timing and chance — and a good bit of luck — that brings each horse to CHR.
The property isn’t large, only 50 dry acres, but it’s tidy and welcoming. Located west of Longmont, Colorado, the rescue has four main pastures with views to the south of the jutting stone slabs of Boulder’s iconic Flatirons, and to the west the looming slopes of 14,259-foot Longs Peak — a prime view and particularly stunning at sunset. On the weekends, the sky is full of the colorful parachutes of spiraling skydivers from the Mile High Skydiving Center, while planes, departing from the nearby Vance Brand airport, fly low over the pastures, a familiar drone that the horses are accustomed to.
Inside, in what is the equivalent of a staff lounge, a weekly bulletin board announces the arrival of the newest horses, the lounge complete with feed buckets, dusty tack, the sweet smell of grain, and today an errant barn swallow as well as the rescue's robust and demanding orange tabby named Griffin. The hope is these new arrivals are here for a short-term lease, just long enough to pass a vet inspection, a training assessment, and perhaps to spend a little time getting back on their feet before being adopted into their new home. On the bulletin board the new horse announcements are like a hard copy Twitter feed, snippets of lives in 140 characters designed to let the volunteers know who’s who. I read through the new horse list to start my shift:
Remi is the tall, dark, handsome Holsteiner gelding you’ll find in Overflow Pen 2. He was re-homed by a private owner who needed a horse capable of jumping, and at 24 years old Remi is now suitable for flat work only (and he looks great for his age).
Mr. Tumnus is the stunning Tennessee Walker gelding in Q-pen 2. He was rehomed by a private owner struggling with some health issues, although he loved this horse very much. Mr. Tumnus is supposedly 16 years old, very rideable, and loves trails.
Echo and Harmony were rehomed by private owners who could no longer afford to care for them. They are in Q-pen 2, on grass hay and grain twice daily. Echo is the chestnut gelding. Harmony the bay mare. Both horses are in their early 30s, believe it or not!
Jeep is the dark bay Arabian gelding in Overflow Pen 1. He was re-homed by a private owner. He is a ripe 25 years old. His teeth have deteriorated with age, so he is on grain/beet pulp/soaked alfalfa pellets AM/PM and a bucket of hay cubes to be fed separately.
That’s all the headlines for this week’s newsfeed. I grab my gloves, storing horse’s names, health, and history in my brain, eager to meet the latest arrivals.
I head to the quarantine pens for my first chore—mucking—starting with Remi, the surrendered Holsteiner. As I clean Remi’s pen, I watch him joust through the fence with his neighbor, a stocky white pony named Bryn. It’s good natured harassment from a horse who wants company, who needs a companion to keep himself entertained.
Owners seem split on whether to consider horses pets or commodities. You wouldn’t trade-in a dog or cat the same way you’d trade-in a used car once it had outlived its convenience, so why do we do this with horses? It makes me sad to realize that owners sometimes don’t need their particular make or model of horse anymore and, for the sake of convenience, post their horse for sale at a low price. The sales market for horses is highly saturated, and a horse like Remi, a big-boned, wide-eyed, mischievous but gentle horse, runs the risk of being sold cheap and picked up by a kill buyer.
I am surprised to learn that in the Unites States, where horse slaughter is banned, privately sold horses are still at risk of this fate. I try to imagine what Remi’s previous owner might have felt if they learned their jumping companion ended up at a slaughterhouse in Mexico. Remi nudges me back to the present with a nosy bump on the elbow followed by a snort, graciously showering me with horse snot and flecks of dirt.
CHR can house around 55 horses at a time. The horses are divided between four herds, a few small pens known as “training camp,” and several quarantine or “Q-pens” for incoming horses waiting to pass an initial vet exam. In 2018, the rescue sent 55 lucky horses home to new pastures, nearly doubling their usual yearly average of around 25 adoptions. In 2019, they were on track to break this record number of adoptions, a fact that operations manager, Rachel Corbman, attributes to hiring a second trainer and a full-time adoptions manager.
Over the years, CHR has done great work, placing over 1,600 horses in new homes since 1986. “When there are private owners who need help re-homing their horse for whatever reason—life happens and basically horses are expensive—we are a service that helps match those horses up with new homes,” says Corbman, who has been working at the rescue for a little over ten years. Corbman was the one who onboarded me, her easy smile and gentle voice putting me at ease as she showed me and a group of four other potential volunteers around the property. She estimates that at any given time 60-75% of the herd is made up of horses surrendered by private owners.
Another private surrender, Mr. Tumnus is a quiet bay gelding who watches me with steady, dark eyes as I fill his water tank. Supposedly, this horse loves trails. I’d guess his prior owner did too. I feel an emotional pain in his story—a loss, a separation, a letting go that we often don’t stop to acknowledge.
Sometimes owners don’t know who or how to ask for help. It seems simple enough, if you’ve owned a horse before and know how the daily routine should go. But, I ask myself, what if, hypothetically, I inherited a 1,500-pound hippopotamus (Greek for “river horse”). How would I begin to know how to take care of it? And what if I hurt my back, say in a car accident, and could no longer carry a 12-pound breakfast watermelon out to my hippo in the morning? What would I do when my neighbors came knocking, telling me that they called the authorities to report me for neglect?
It’s easy to judge people we perceive as being cruel or callous to animals, but for a horse like Mr. Tumnus who seems happy and mostly healthy, I remind myself I mustn’t lose sight of the kind of sacrifice it takes to give up what you love.
The rescue is currently staffed by eight full-time employees. The work of feeding, watering, mucking, and grooming the horses falls to a crew of about 100 volunteers. Two shifts, a morning and evening rotation of about six to eight people, each take two to three hours one day per week to care for the horses. I only know a handful of the volunteers, but I’m encouraged by this group of people I have never met and the time they take each week to care for these horses. I’m thankful for each set of fortunate circumstances that brings a homeless horse to CHR. At the rescue, I find space to feel hopeful, and I find time to slow down and do something as simple as watch a sunset from start to end.
The sun is starting to dip toward the mountains, and Harmony is waiting at the corner of what we call the “geris” (short for geriatrics) pasture for her dinner. Echo, her chestnut shadow with a twisted blaze, is a bit shy and hangs back with hesitant, tender steps. Both horses are fuzzy, perhaps an early sign of Cushing’s disease, perhaps an indication that they’ve adapted after many winters in the cold, blue Colorado altitude.
Keeping older horses like Echo and Harmony is much like caring for an ailing elderly family member. Older horses have special needs brought on by aging joints, worn down teeth, and cardiovascular disease. Horses lose eyesight, get cancer, have arthritis, and experience getting older in as many ways as people do. Burying my fingers in Harmony’s thick coat as I walk beside her to her catch pen, I think of my grandparents who are in slowly failing health, and my parents, both showing grays around the edges. I think about myself and my husband and our determination to be childless. Walking with my hand on Harmony’s withers, I wonder who will be beside my faltering steps at the end.
Growing up with two horses, I learned that the cost of keeping a horse is no small investment. For owners who find they can’t afford to care for their equine companion, CHR provides services like re-homing, auction purchases, courtesy listings of horses for sale, and even a temporary assistance program for owners who might need short-term financial aid to continue caring for their horse. And for those who are no longer able to provide for their equine partners, CHR works to adopt the surrendered horses into new and loving homes.
Jeep’s dished face and attentive eyes remind me of my little Arabian mare whom I lost in 2015. A horse like Jeep, with a slight sway to his back and a paunch to his belly, is not a looker like Remi. He’s not flashy although he’s friendly, always nickering when I approach his pen. But he’s a hard keeper.
We soak beet pulp and alfalfa pellets overnight to make a kind of off-green oatmeal mash for Jeep to munch on. He gums the mash, his nostrils flared, as green mush drops out of his mouth, like a kid chewing with his mouth open. Due to his worn-down teeth, Jeep requires extra time and financial resources that might be beyond the capacity of an owner who previously took five minutes to throw some hay in the feeder. Watching Jeep happily masticate his dinner, I understand that where we invest ourselves is important.
Each of the horses arrives with a story, one in which CHR is hopefully only a brief chapter leading to a happy ending. But I know not all stories have a satisfactory outcome. In my brief time at CHR, I’ve learned that a lot can happen in a week. From one Sunday afternoon to the next, I don’t know which horses will be there to greet me when I return. Some weeks, I show up to the happy news of completed or pending adoptions. Some weeks, I return to the sad reality of horses who have been euthanized. An empty pen can signal equally good or bad news. But an empty pen is also an opportunity, a chance for another unwanted horse to enter CHR’s haven and have a chance at a new life.
In 2017, CHR estimated that there were 6,000 unwanted horses in the state of Colorado. Yearly averages from organizations such as the United Horse Coalition and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) place the number of unwanted horses in the United States at 170,000 to 200,000 per year. In my time at the rescue, I learn that unwanted and privately sold horses are just as much at risk of going to slaughter as mustangs. Kill buyers visit auctions and scour online sale posts, and well-intentioned owners who don’t have the time or resources to vet prospective buyers might not know that the buyer is going to turn around and ship their long-time companion to a slaughterhouse in Canada or Mexico. I also learned that these unwanted horses have so much to teach us about the depth we need to go to change the course of equine homelessness and to relearn caring that transcends utility, reaching toward true compassion. Through my time with these homeless horses, I deepen my understanding of aging and loss, necessity and sacrifice.
My Sunday afternoons these days are filled with hard work and happy horses. Feeding 55 horses on a shift is no small chore, and I come home tired but content, my hair full of hay and dirt under my fingernails. One day, I hope to provide a home for my own rescue horse. But for now, I muck corrals, scratch withers, toss hay, mix grain buckets, and dream up future homes for all the CHR horses.
Since this writing, Mr. Tumnus has been adopted to a new home. Remi and Harmony are still at CHR awaiting adoption. Echo and Jeep, facing deteriorating health, were humanely euthanized and have gone on to greener pastures.