When the call came in from animal control in York County, Pennsylvania, of a large Percheron draft horse caught in a severe neglect situation, the volunteers at Gentle Giants dropped everything to drive to his rescue.
The horse was a shell of what he should be. Weighing just 1,000 pounds, he was well below the 2,200-pound healthy weight of a draft horse his size.
The volunteers had a decision to make: euthanize him to alleviate his suffering or try to take him back to their 135-acre farm.
“He looked like he wasn’t done yet. As thin as he was, he still had a lot of fire in him,” said Dawnn Double, development director at the rescue.
On Thursday, she walked up to the barn where some of the rescue’s sickest horses are kept. The white Percheron — now called Tonka — was standing in the far stall.
Standing was an improvement. On his sickest days, he lay on the ground and pressure sores opened on his rear hip and ankle and near his front shoulder. Now that he was standing again, a veterinarian could begin to address the damage the neglect had done inside.
An extensive blood panel would soon show if Tonka’s organs were damaged by starvation, which is hard to see externally, Double said, even as Tonka’s ribs gave his sides a rippled appearance.
Double has volunteered with the rescue for 12 years, and Tonka is the worst case she’s seen in her year as development director.
In the past, she has traveled with volunteers to auctions in Pennsylvania, where Gentle Giants Draft Horse Recuse outbids slaughterhouse purchasers for draft horses they believed could be trained and rehabbed.
The history of horse slaughter and horse meat sales in the U.S. is long and filled with controversy, as Susanna Forrest wrote for Object Lessons and was published in The Atlantic in June 2017. At times, it has been outright barred, or Congress and the president have defunded U.S. Department of Agriculture equine inspectors, making the slaughter of horses functionally illegal in the U.S.
In other countries, however, horse meat remains a delicacy and a lucrative market.
At an auction, the rescue raises the bid so it’s no longer economically feasible for the meat buyers to purchase the horse, Double said. The rescue’s founder and president, Christine Hajek, has been traveling to auctions for years, rescuing draft horses and taking them back to her Mount Airy farm in Howard County. Over the years, she’s learned who are the buyers and who are the families.
“If we see a private family ... if it’s a family bidding on a really good horse and they want it as a pet, we’ll back off,” Double explained.
Sanctuary in Mount Airy
Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue has about 117 horses in its care. For neglected, abused or lost draft horses, it is one of the few places equipped to care for them.
“We would love to save every horse we can, but our main mission is to save [horses] from slaughter or neglect,” Double said.
Most will be trained at trail riding horses and rehabbed so that they can be adopted. Shelby Piovoso, 23, is the lead trainer at the stable and picks from the list of horses every day to clean, saddle and work.
One of her recent success stories was Kanin — a draft cross — who had been at the farm for nine years, was labeled “dangerous” and believed to be unfit for adoption.
“We were kind of sure he would never find someone,” Piovoso said.
Then a volunteer named Jim found Kanin and together they worked through Kanin’s extreme fear of people. His adoption is being processed, and Kanin is expected to go home with Jim in August.
The rescue’s reputation for care and success stories has made it a resource to animal control agencies in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
“They are definitely a go-to rescue for draft resources,” said Frederick County Animal Control Director Linda Shea.
Frederick County is lucky to have few loose or neglected draft horses, Shea said. However, the rescue’s good reputation has made Animal Control comfortable using the rescue if a situation should arise, she said.
Since 2010, Animal Control has re-homed only one potbelly pig in September 2017 to Gentle Giants, Shea said. An assortment of barn cats, goats, and rams also live on the farm, and founder Hajek is forming a second nonprofit called Gentle Friends Farm and Wildlife Sanctuary for its other residents, Double said.
None of it would be possible, however, without the volunteers.
Hanna Ruark, 22, has been volunteering at the rescue since she was 12 years old, and she considers the farm her second home and workplace. She will soon go to veterinary school, but she has already learned a lot from hands-on experience.
The rescue is known for its work with canker — an inflammation in the hoof wall — that pushes the coffin bone in the ankle through the bottom of the horse’s foot and eats away at the hoof. It can be deadly, but the farm has been working to provide better canker care.
Madison, a former New York City carriage horse who developed canker, was re-homed to Gentle Giants, after her bone shifted in her foot and went lame. Her care was hour-by-hour as the staff weighed her pain and improvement to see if they should euthanize her or keep fighting. Madison hung on and today is sound-footed.
The volunteers and staff say their farriers — Precision Horseshoeing — deserve the praise. In Madison’s case and Ezekiel’s — a rescued Belgian whose front hoofs are cracked and dissolved up to the fur line — the farriers have designed individual care plans.
It may take a year or more for Ezekiel’s hoofs to regrow. The situation could be likened to a bad fingernail injury, except more than half of Ezekiel’s body weight is being held up by it, Piovoso said.
The farriers drilled special screws and wires into the hoof to keep it from splitting further, and at night they pack the wound with medication and turn him out to graze. The women were hopeful Ezekiel’s story would turn into a happy one.
“I love everything about this place; the peace it brings. I don’t like having to look at the Tonkas, but knowing we’re helping them — levels it out,” Double said.