Tucker and Blackjack disregarded the frenzy of snowflakes falling overhead as they buried their noses into food buckets and licked them clean. The pair of blind horses had the run of the farm, but were content staying near the barns licking buckets and munching on grass until their cranky companion, Helen, was finished eating.
The three horses — admittedly, Helen is a mule — are among the 32 at Maryland Horse Rescue to get a second chance at a good home after having experienced a trauma or being abandoned by their former owners.
The farm focuses on the care of aged and often unridable horses. Several of its residents are blind from sun damage, an injury or a genetic predisposition, including one of the farm’s most recent additions, Zenith, a speckled black and white 22-year-old horse who was rescued from a hoarding situation, said Melanie Biemiller, executive director of the rescue.
Zenith and his companion, Yara, were rescued by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals from a home in Wisconsin that had 14 horses and 40 wolf-dog hybrids, Biemiller said. They were starved and neglected, ranking as a three and two, respectively, on a scale of one to 10 — with one being emaciated and 10 being overweight.
The rescue housed the horses while courts settled who should be their legal owners, and Maryland Horse Rescue was recently awarded full custody.
“He’s so friendly and so trusting,” Biemiller said of Zenith. “Honestly, we’re thrilled to have them.”
But, caring for and feeding 32 horses doesn’t come cheap. The rescue purchases all the feed and equipment needed to care for the horse on top of leasing the farm.
So, when the volunteers pulled out all their winter blankets this year and found that there had been a catastrophic leak in the shed and the blankets were all molded and ruined, panic set in.
Luckily, 38 new blankets had been donated to the farm earlier that year, after a shipment of blankets arrived to a Maryland Tractor Supply store with a bug that made them unsellable but still usable, Biemiller said. The donation covered all but five of the farm’s smallest residents, for which she turned to the rescue’s Facebook followers, seeking donations. The need was filled within a day.
Biemiller joked that her role is “chief executive beggar,” and while she hates having to ask, volunteers and donations are the only way the farm can operate.
Biemiller fell into her role at the rescue by accident. It all started when she and her daughter, Jessica, drove by one of the rescue’s farms and Biemiller suggested volunteering would be a good way for Jessica to earn community service hours toward high school graduation. They started volunteering on Saturdays and after her daughter graduated, Biemiller found herself working through every role in the organization until she became executive director.
The completely volunteer-run rescue operates on one 47-acre farm near Mount Airy.
“Everybody does it simply for the love of horses,” Biemiller said.
Sherry Hand, 61, and Diane Jones, 67, have been volunteering at the farm for the past 2½ years, feeding, mucking stalls and providing care for the horses. Both always wanted a horse, and volunteering was the “next best thing” to the cost, space and knowledge needed to care for a horse, Hand said.
The most rewarding part of working at the farm is seeing the horses gradually relax as they realize meals are guaranteed and that they’re going to be cared for, she said. Still, getting enough volunteers to care for the animals two times a day has been a challenge.
“There’s not a whole line of people waiting to do this. Snow, sleet, rain, humidity, flies — we have a commitment to these horses,” said Hand, who works full-time as a pharmacy technician.
“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, we’ll get there in a few days,’” Jones added.
Because the farm is dedicated to the care of the horses, it no longer accepts owner surrenders. In the past, the rescue leased three farms and was caring for over 100 horses due in a large part to owners giving up their animals in the winter when the cost of care and feed went up. The farm was getting calls almost every day for owner surrenders, especially as the weather changed, Biemiller said.
“People need to be responsible for their animals and make hard decisions — make a life plan for your animal,” Biemiller said.
When possible, the rescue finds new homes to adopt the horses.
“Our adopters are very supportive of us,” Biemiller said. “They know how hard we work ... and we don’t just flip them.”
The rescue guarantees that every horse in its care has a home at the farm even after it is adopted. In a few instances, due to an illness, death or a significant change to the adopter’s financial situation, a horse that has found a new home is returned to the rescue, Biemiller said. The goal, however, is that all 32 will eventually have a home and family.
“This is a transition. People always ask what is my ideal number to have here. It’s zero,” Biemiller said.