Back in the saddle

About 70 neglected horses seized from a Sharpsburg farm recover at a slow gait as they wait to be adopted

May 28, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,sun reporter

In the lobby of the Washington County humane society, gift baskets for puppies are on sale. "Don't Leave Without Me" reads a handmade sign in the cat suite, which is home to a 14-pound Tabby named Lucky. Boyd the rabbit - "gender unknown" - twiddles in his cage.

But what happens when an animal adoption agency finds itself the sudden recipient of 75 horses in need of a home?

"I knew it was a situation we had to deal with," says Paul Miller, the group's executive director. "Whatever it took, we had to do it."

The horses were seized in December from a Sharpsburg farm in what animal care authorities called the largest horse rescue in Maryland. Five months later, the farmed-out horses from Washington County are alive and kicking. They still need work. And they won't be winning any stakes races or be draped in black-eyed Susans at Pimlico. But the animals are safe.

"They can do what they want now," Miller says. "They are at peace. They can have fun now."

Last month, Barbara Reinken, a 62-year-old registered nurse, was placed on five years of supervised probation for animal cruelty and abuse - four months after authorities were alerted to an overpopulation of horses on her Sharpsburg farm. Many horses had diseased teeth and feet. Some were emaciated. There were also five skeletal remains, three carcasses buried in a field, a dead foal and yearling. One died in the trailer ride from the farm. Four of the animals had to be euthanized.

In a plea agreement, Reinken surrendered her horses. The agreement formally placed the responsibility of adopting out the horses to the Humane Society of Washington County. The case was a particularly egregious example, but groups that respond to such incidents say that hundreds of horses are neglected or abused each year. It's rare for more than a few at a time, perhaps 20 at most, to be seized, however.

"People don't become educated before they become horse owners, and they become overwhelmed very quickly," says Kathy Schwartz of the Maryland Horse Council. "Many are looking for the beauty in the horse, but if they aren't capable of riding or caring for the horse, then it's not going to be a match made in heaven."

With some 200,000 acres of pasture land, Maryland is home to more than 87,000 horses, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Ideally, a horse requires 2 acres, and monthly care can run more than $250. Untrained, horses can bite, rear, charge and kick. Owners become fearful and might not go near their horse again.

"You have people breeding horses because they think they can make money," says Nicky Ratliff, executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County, an area with an estimated 6,000 horses. "We end up with more horses than there are people who want or need them."

The humane society in the Hagerstown area has spent more than $100,000 to care for the impounded horses it received in December - a financial strain on a small facility designed primarily for cats and dogs. After the five horses that died or were euthanized, the 70 horses that remained were split largely among four farms. To handle 22 horses, the humane society leased a farm a few miles away in Fairplay. Miller and Katherine Cooker, the humane society's development manager, have been regulars at the rental farm along with an indefatigable band of pale-carrying, booted volunteers.

"I get accused of overfeeding the horses, but there's worse things to be accused of," says Miller, grabbing a sack of apple snacks from a stall at Fairplay.

In the rolling farmland, fences separate the adult females and castrated males. Most of the 45 mares from the impounded group were pregnant, so sterilization was one of the first orders of business. Births have been outnumbering adoptions.

Naming the horses has been easier work. Typically, volunteers run through the alphabet, then run through it again. Standing in a field of mares, Miller and Cooker tick off a few of the names: Medicine Hat, Pinkie, Sunny, Chief, nosey Quarter Mare and a gray mare known as the Dragon Lady.

"She just needs someone to work with her," Cooker says. "Most of these horses would make good companion, trail or 4-H Club horses," she says. They are learning to come up to people. They have discovered the joy of carrots.

`Pretty darn cute'

The humane society, which charges $500 per adoption, has found homes for 11 of the impounded horses. Laura and Ron Schlicht in Harford County adopted two miniature horses - a skittish paint named Maggie and an agreeable bay gelding named Stuart Little, who had been named Stud Muffin.

"Why did I buy them ... let me see. They were pretty darn cute, plus I know they needed homes," says Laura Schlicht, who has other horses on the family's 8-acre farm in Fallston. "It was my moment of insanity."

There's no timetable for the rest of the impounded horses, Miller says. He's determined to find homes for all of them. But the humane society can't lease farmland indefinitely.

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