A Horse Haven

Retirement pastures help animals avoid slaughterhouses

May 16, 2006|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN REPORTER

From a glass porch overlooking a lush, green pasture on her 140-acre farm in New Windsor, Edna McNemar glimpses her piece of equine paradise.

She watches a dark bay warm- blood named Dino suddenly charge toward a light bay thoroughbred named Not With The Maid. Both rear in what appears to be a fighting pose, then quickly gallop off to mingle with other horses in their grazing herd.

It's hardly a confrontation, however.

"That's horseplay," McNemar says brightly. "Literally horseplay. They're just having fun."

It sure beats the alternative for Not With The Maid.

The 21-year-old gelding once held residence at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for juvenile offenders in Baltimore County and spent time at a different Carroll County farm before landing serendipitously at McNemar's Farm.

If not for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, Not With The Maid long ago could have been killed at one of three slaughterhouses in the United States and packaged off to Europe or Asia as a culinary delicacy.

Instead, he gets to enjoy his retirement years in relative luxury. Forget the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and all of racing's other glamorous events. This is where horses can be horses, marginal racing records mean nothing and "killer buyers" aren't welcome.

Not With The Maid is one of nine TRF horses on the McNemar farm. The group ranges in age from 14 years (Safeway Sandy) to 26 (Bon Arctic). All but one (Four Wheel Drive, 17, a bay mare) were raced, and she delivered six foals.

Balanced against an industry that has little tolerance for non-winners, the New Windsor farm is a virtual retirement home for aging thoroughbreds. It is exactly what Diana Pikulski, executive director of the TRF, had in mind in 1998 when she decided to send nine retired thoroughbreds there.

"I think she just thought we had an idyllic situation," said McNemar, a middle school teacher in Taneytown who has served as her own farm manager since the death of her husband, James, in 2001. (Primarily, she has the help of their two daughters, Cynthia, 20, and Christina, 18.)

"There are at least 40 acres of pasture right now. And the horses aren't stressed, they're well-fed, they're looked after. And that's sort of what the TRF wants for the retirees."

What Pikulski wants is an end to the slaughter of racehorses who have outlived their prime and been dispossessed.

"I have seen so much progress over the last 20 years that I believe I can see this through until the day that no thoroughbred racehorse leaves the track for the slaughterhouse. And that is my intention," said Pikulski, who quit her own law practice to become the TRF's full-time director in 1996.

Founded in 1982 by advertising executive Monique S. Koehler, the TRF (www.trfinc.org) has set up rehabilitation centers in Lexington, Ky.; Poughquag, N.Y.; and Montpelier Station, Va., to retrain thoroughbreds for second careers as riding horses, show jumpers or simply companion horses.

The nonprofit rescue organization also has nearly 30 satellite farms around the country, including several at correctional institutions, where horses as well as inmates try to learn a new life.

All told, the TRF cares for some 1,250 thoroughbreds. It already has adopted out more than 1,000 to private homes. Last year alone, its horse population grew by 387. But it must rely on donations and sponsorships of horses to continue.

With an annual budget of $3 million, Pikulski spends much of her time raising funds.

"I am so grateful for people in the racing industry who do support us," she said. "They all agree it would be good business for the industry to tackle the problem and set up a funding mechanism either from the breeding business, sales business or the racing business."

Donations from Maryland -- normally between $10,000 and $15,000 annually, she said -- "slacked off last year."

Pikulski, who lives and works out of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is on a New York task force that will look at possible mandatory funding for horse retirement.

At the same time, she has more work to do to discourage the current trend of killer buyers who purchase worn-out or injured horses at auction and transport them to slaughterhouses in Illinois and Texas.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, 88,271 horses were slaughtered at three sites in those states last year. That represents a 50.3 percent increase from 58,736 in 2004. In 2003, 44,255 horses were slaughtered. By the TRF's estimation, about 10 percent of those horses killed are thoroughbreds.

Even Congress has taken aim at the slaughterhouse. Representatives Ed Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky, and John Sweeney, a Republican from New York, co-sponsored legislation that would outlaw the commercial slaughter of horses in the United States for human consumption. The bill, which failed to gain approval last year, has been referred to the House committee on energy and commerce.

Pikulski takes it one horse at a time.

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