Spare the horses

Over six years, a woman's passion has brought more than 60 animals to her Woodbine farm

November 24, 2007|By June Arney | June Arney,sun reporter

Christine Hajek fell in love with her first draft horse when she met Elijah, a Belgian gelding, at an auction in August 2001 and brought him home.

But Hajek, who grew up on a horse-breeding farm, had been mesmerized by the huge horses raised for plowing and farm labor ever since she rode one years earlier.

"I loved the gait, I loved the size and I loved the feel," said Hajek, 34, who is an Anne Arundel County firefighter. "They're so broad across the back that they give you a real sense of security. They move slowly. Anything they do is kind of in slow motion."

It was Elijah that gave her the idea to form Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue, a nonprofit operation specifically tailored to draft horses -- and turn a hobby into an obsession.

"He ended up being a perfect horse -- totally flawless in every way," she said.

That one horse has turned into 21 at the 42-acre Woodbine farm in Howard County, where she lives with her husband, Jamie McIntosh.

Hajek estimates that she and her husband have rescued more than 60 draft horses since then -- most of them within the past two years.

"They work hard, they've seen everything, so they're not afraid of anything," she said.

Often, the horses have sustained a small injury that wouldn't even show up in other horses but would quickly be apparent if the animal were hooked up to a 4,000-pound plow and required to work all day, she said.

"I'm realistic," she said. "I know we can't save all of them. I wish we could help them all, but we can't."

Sometimes, she says, she worries about what happens to the horses that she doesn't choose to adopt and what goes on at the auctions on the days when she doesn't make it there at all.

Once she brings horses home, she spends an average of two months with them before they are adopted.

"I might be sad for a couple days, and I might cry really hard when I drop them off," she said. "But mostly, I'm happy for them."

The horses she's rescued are now scattered around the United States, with adoptees in California, New York, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, she said.

Recently, Dick Dodson, 72, from Boyds, who recently took up riding again after a 20-year hiatus, visited Hajek's farm to meet a horse named Texas that he'd seen on the Gentle Giants Web site.

Dodson, who is 6-foot-2 and weighs about 220, needs a new horse because his horse, Casey, suffered neurological damage and can't be ridden anymore.

"The attraction for the drafts is that they're very calm, they're sure-footed, and they don't spook easily," he said. "I want something that's bomb-proof. I don't want to get hurt on a horse."

He was drawn to Texas because of the chocolate-colored Belgian's background as a carriage horse that had done some plowing for an Amish farmer. The Belgian breed has direct lineage to the "Great Horse" of medieval times that ancient writers say carried armored knights into battle.

Dodson liked what he saw once he met Texas, though an injury -- from lifting a water tub at his horse-boarding farm -- prevented him from hopping on the horse's back and trying him out.

But he watched intently as his trainer, Linda Pendleton, and Hajek rode Texas around an indoor ring. "He has a nice walk," Dodson said. "That pace is about what I'm looking for. I don't want a gallop or a canter. He has a nice, consistent, steady gait."

Dodson watched to see how quietly Texas would stand to have the saddle and bridle put on, to make sure he knew how to back up and would turn right and left.

Clearly smitten by Texas, Dodson said the horse would need to be checked out by a farrier, who would examine its feet, and by a veterinarian before he could consider an adoption.

"I might ride that horse bareback," Dodson said. "This horse has a very gentle disposition."

Not only can people adopt horses from Hajek; they can also ride. She caters mostly to adults and a few children of adults who ride there. She isn't interested in having a large clientele of children because of the size of the horses.

Hajek is able to accommodate riders of 225 pounds or more who might be turned away elsewhere, because her horses can handle more weight, she said.

Saving draft horses is a passion that costs her money, she acknowledges. There is no way she can recoup her costs through adoption fees, which range from $300 to $2,000. Although she buys the horses for between $250 and $700, costs to feed and care for them are high, she said. Feed for her 21 horses is $50 a day for grain and $1,200 a month for hay.

Every six weeks, the horses need to have their hooves trimmed, at a cost of about $75, she said. Every horse also requires vaccinations, and some may need additional vet visits, she said.

Usually, she is able to grow much of her own hay, but two cuttings were lost to drought. The farm will need another 14 tons of hay and an additional $4,000 to get through April, she said.

Prices to buy the horses fluctuate based on the market for horsemeat for slaughter, she said. Because all U.S. horse slaughterhouses are closed, prices are low currently, Hajek said. Slaughtering is now being done in Canada and Mexico, so the horses have to be transported far greater distances before meeting their deaths, she said.

She despairs that in Mexico, where there are no restrictions on methods used to kill horses, the animals routinely are stabbed repeatedly in the spine until they are paralyzed.

The horse meat is shipped to Belgium, France, Japan and increasingly to Italy, Hajek said.

She only wishes she could save more from that fate.

"I'm passionate about draft horses," Hajek said. "The bigger the better. There is nobody out there who's just for the draft horses. I just want everyone to know how incredible they are."

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