One morning I woke up with horses on my mind; perhaps I had been dreaming of them, or perhaps they called to me in some way. I put aside my thoughts of horses, which was not difficult since I have never had a speck of experience with them. You know the nagging feeling that haunts you--the feeling you have forgotten to do something important, but can't remember what it was? This nagging feeling continued to follow me around for a few weeks; it would not go away.
One day, while I was tooling around on Facebook, I came across a former client's Facebook page. We had recently connected and I honestly cannot recall if she friended me or I her, but I saw horses on her page. A big dong went off in my head and I suddenly felt the relief of finally remembering something long forgotten; the nagging feeling vanished. I realized I needed to begin photographing horses--didn't matter why--something told me to just do it.
Renee, a life time horse lover, kindly brought me to visit her friend Karen who had rescued two horses from slaughter; Karen had bravely agreed to let me into her paddock to photograph her horses. I'm sure she was a bit concerned when I showed up in sandals with a large DSLR slung around my neck. For those horse neophytes, the last shoe attire one wants to wear around a 1200 lb. stomping animal is sandals! Karen was a trooper and let me scrabble around her two girls, Arabel & Ella, shooting away and the "girls" graciously put up with me, perhaps knowing I was there with good intentions. At one point, I found myself alone with Ella and hoping no one could hear me, decided to tell her how happy I was she had found a good home, how sorry I was she had experienced pain and sadness, and thanked her profusely for letting me photograph her. When she put her head down and rewarded me with a snicker, I knew I was on the right path; there is something about being around horses that is totally enchanting.
Between my time with Ella & Arabel and my pending trip to a horse sanctuary in the Catskills, I had learned about kill auctions and horse slaughter. To my horror, it was explained the horses going to auction all have different circumstances that put them in harms way and most are healthy animals; I never imagined young healthy horses being used for food. Some horses are coming off the racetracks at three or four years old (very young) due to injuries and no longer being valuable as racers, horses who have been living with families and have been abandoned probably due to lack of funds to keep them, work horses who are no longer valuable to the farmers, and owners who have decided they don't want their horse anymore; they are brought to auction where kill buyers, who are employed by slaughter houses located in Canada and Mexico, bid on the horses. If the horse is not adopted out by a private buyer or a rescue organization, the kill buyer wins the bid and the horses are loaded onto double-decker trucks meant for cattle in conditions that cause physical and emotion trauma. They are transported over the border and inhumanely slaughtered to be someone's European meal.
It is a cruel story and I realized why I was "guided" to begin telling their stories and photographing them. It was time to listen to the rescuers and the horses who have a story to tell.
The issue of horse slaughter is very controversial and with such an emotional subject matter, finding viable solutions is difficult. Should horses be considered companion animals versus livestock? ( this blog writer thinks so ) Some horse owners feel if they were deemed companion animals, they would lose the "protection" of livestock transportation laws, but when speaking with animal activists and rescue organizations, they say there are loopholes used daily to avoid compliance.
In 2011, the USDA issued a final rule that amended the regulations under the Commercial Transport Of Equines to Slaughter Act to extend protections now supposedly afforded to horses being transported directly to slaughter facilities. The act that went into effect October 7, 2011, made several changes by broadening the application of the act to include the equines being transferred to a slaughter facility, including an assembly point, feedlot, or stockyard. Previously, the rule only applied to horses moved directly to the slaughter plant. Prior to the amended regulation, kill buyers would put the horses on double-decker trailers not suitable for horse transportation. The horses unlucky enough to find themselves on the trailers regardless of transport, are exhausted, frightened, and many arrive injured with no medical treatment availble. Just because there are regulations in place, doesn't mean they are adequately monitored. It always comes down to unscrupulous behavior and economics for those without a heart. The manner in which the horses are slaughtered is brutal and if the details of the slaughter were more widely known by the public, there would surely be an outcry.
There is also the issue of tainted meat being consumed; these horses have no drug histories accompanying them since they are not raised as food animals. Horses receive medications throughout their lives that are banned by the Food and Drug Administration and the EU. This issue alone should cause people from wanting to consume horse meat and how anyone could sell or serve this to their customers is baffling. The obvious solution, the humane solution, is to outlaw the slaughter of horses--period. They are sentient animals, social, and develop deep bonds with their humans. Thousands of horses were sent to slaughter last year with over 70% of them having been companion animals. There is now legislation pending about reopening slaughter houses in the states, which I find disturbing.
I have learned that over breeding of horses is a big part of the problem and contributes to the number of horses who find themselves at the kill auctions. Why not geld the horse? After all, we use this option for our cats and dogs--it's a standard procedure to solve a problem. Horse slaughter is an issue rarely discussed except amongst horse and animal activists; it certainly was not on my radar screen. The news channels ran a quick one night story about the possible reopening of U.S. slaughter plants, but one doesn't see it being a topic of continuing coverage. The story can go on forever and I am not even touching on the wild horse issues on land out west and what the Bureau of Land Management is doing to those herds. I will leave that story for a future blog.
Even after the sandal scandal, Renee and Karen drove me to Rosemary Farm Sanctuary located in the Catskills of New York, owned by Dawn Robyn and her husband. Former Brooklyn dwellers and talented artists, they changed their lives in the most drastic way possible and began a sanctuary for horses headed to slaughter. They now find themselves the stewards of 40 or so horses at any given time. It means long hard days feeding, watering, tending wounds both physical and emotional, fundraising, finding adoptive homes, and saving beloved animals from a horrific and painful end. The farm is nestled amongst green rolling hills where her guests can live as a herd until someone comes to adopt them. It is not unusual to see a horse running through her front yard, which I found to be hilarious, but no one else in my group even raised an eyebrow--just another afternoon at Rosemary Farm, I suppose. I don't know how Dawn finds the time to write such profound blogs about her experiences, her horses, and her daily life running a horse sanctuary. I look forward to one day reading the book she has yet to realize she will write...
Dawn comforting one of her horses....
Having the desire and curiosity to continue exploring the story of horse rescue, I decided to fly out to Fort Collins, Colorado and visit Amber Herrell, owner of Shiloh Acres Horse Rescue. Amber is a beautiful young woman who has close to forty rescued horses (and a sheep, goats, and a talented pig who dances and twirls for a treat) on a farm with an amazing view of the Rocky Mountains lingering in the distance. She was gracious enough to let a total stranger--who, I must admit, called, emailed, and basically stalked her until finally connecting--to come visit her farm. We agreed to meet early one morning to photograph her gorgeous horses and hear about how she got started in rescue. It was interesting to learn that although the two rescues were on opposite sides of the country, the stories about the fate of the horses were sadly the same.
Amber's family home is just down the road from a kill auction yard where back in 1999, she had gone to see what it was about and, not surprisingly, left in tears. Driving by a year later, something compelled her to drop in; her fate awaited her in a draft mare named Shiloh. Amber literally bought her on the spot from a kill buyer and Shiloh came off the trailer and went home with Amber that very day (after scrounging around for a horse trailer, hay, and other horse accoutrements).
Although Shiloh was only with Amber for five days before submitting to severe Colic, it changed Amber's life and consequently, saved the lives of all the horses she now takes in, loves, and adopts out. Shiloh was the fateful messenger meant for Amber and all her future rescue horses that cold winter day twelve years ago.
As I discovered with both rescues, fundraising is a big issue because the cost of horse upkeep is very expensive. The price of hay, which has skyrocketed due to drought conditions, makes feeding the horses a major challenge. These rescues rely solely on donations; often, these women feed and provide vet care out of their own pockets. Fundraising is difficult at the best of times, especially when there is so much need to conquer hunger, poverty, etc. Engaging people in the plight of horses can be daunting; doing so while working from dawn to after the moon emerges, is almost impossible. They cannot possibly do it by themselves and need help. Most donations come from animal lovers; people who have furry children in their homes and barns. The question I am pondering is how do I engage the public to support these organizations? I know it "takes a village," hearts who know it is important to give back to receive, to care for beings who cannot speak up for themselves... I just need to find them.
I will be traveling to different rescues around the country, meeting more amazing women who sacrifice their own financial lives for their horses. This project, if all the stars align, will hopefully turn into a book to raise money for the rescues I visit. My main objective is public awareness. As a society, we need to remember to be mindful of how we treat the earth and all of it's inhabitants. It will be a work in progress, a labor of love. I appreciate everyone who supports this project, you know who you are.....
I have made arrangements to learn more about horses since the largest animal I hang around with is a 17lb terrier. My steel toe boots are en route from Amazon, every horse book I could find is stacked by my bed, and I have made arrangements to spend time with a horse woman with 47 years experience to teach me horse body language, grooming, picking up their leg, how to get them off my foot should a hoof land on it (hence the steel toes), and how to put a saddle on. Riding horses? Well, not my primary interest right now--I just want to see them live quality lives. My fantasy would be to have lots of land with old draft mares living out their lives just hanging out munching while letting me love them.
Back to Amber and her rescue farm, Shiloh Acres. If I wasn't hooked on horses before, this visit took me right over the edge of the cliff. Amber let me roam amongst her draft mares and even though horse safety is always an issue and not to be taken lightly, I felt very safe amongst her drafts--the gentle giants. I found myself surrounded by curious mares who stood there as many of my brides do, showing me their best angles while I shot away. I finally put my camera aside and became present in the moment--it was the most amazing experience of my life. I felt like I was standing right where I was supposed to be; I knew I was on the right path by doing my small part in helping to save these amazing animals and in doing so, saving a part of myself.
Please visit my blog as more stories of rescues visited are posted.
If you would like to contribute to this project and make a donation to the rescues, please visit my Etsy Store - ViolettePhotoImages. There are beautiful images of the horses I photographed and 30% of the proceeds goes to the rescues where that horse was a willing model.