A Labor Of Love

Two Decades Of Providing New Lives For Horses

July 19, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

A thoroughbred's tattoo - an identification code stamped inside its upper lip - serves as a key to unlocking much of its past.

But what the racing industry mark can't reveal is which of a former racehorse's various owners took good care of it and which did not.

Such was the case with two emaciated thoroughbreds recently brought to Days End Farm Horse Rescue, said Kathy Schwartz-Howe, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization.

The horses were voluntarily signed over by their owner to Frederick County Animal Control on June 29, she said, and then brought to the Woodbine rehabilitation operation, which is marking its 20th anniversary in Howard County.

The once-magnificent creatures were each about 200 pounds underweight, Schwartz-Howe said. Days End renamed the pair to give them a fresh start, as they do with all horses placed in their care, she said.

"Their owner did the right thing in surrendering those animals and shouldn't be stigmatized," she said. "Malnutrition is not uncommon in the horses brought to us, and it can be, but isn't always, an unintentional thing," she said. Abused and neglected horses are the rescue's main targets, though.

But how did retired racehorses end up at a Frederick County farm?

"Owners want horses for specific reasons, and over the years those thoroughbreds were probably sold for many purposes," said Schwartz-Howe. When any horse outlives its usefulness, it can be resold again and again, she said.

"Sometimes there's a mismatch, like a new owner expecting a thoroughbred to ride a trail and not understanding why it wants to run very fast and in a large circle," said Erin Ochoa, director of programs.

But the June 29 incident wasn't the first time a horse with a pedigree came into their care.

"Last year we had a 6-year-old that we renamed Islander," she said. "We researched his tattoo and discovered he had been sold as a yearling for $1.2 million."

Islander's original identity and storied past will be kept confidential, though.

"All of these horses deserve a chance to start a new life," said Schwartz-Howe.

"We don't worry about where they've been," she said of her facility's philosophy regarding care and treatment for horses in need. "We just worry about where they're going."

With 59 horses being boarded at a facility intended for 50 - 12 of them arriving in a recent 10-day spurt - Days End workers are stretched to their limits in providing those opportunities, even at the expansive, 58-acre farm on Woodbine Road they began leasing from a cattle farmer in April 2008. Previously, the operation was on 18 acres off Frederick Road.

"July is also a slow adoption time," said Ochoa. "And on top of that, we have had six adopted horses returned to us this year" by owners who said the ailing economy had hampered their ability to care for the animals.

Despite that setback, the staff has rallied and is using social media to spread the word.

"We put photos and information about the horses waiting to be adopted on Facebook and YouTube" to reach a wider audience, said Ochoa. Days End Farm Horse Rescue also has its own Web site.

Though they'd like to see all of their equine charges quickly find good homes after six to nine months of rehabilitation and additional time for training, a detailed brochure about horse ownership lays out the associated costs under the heading "Reality Check."

"The incredible thing is that many people take on the responsibility of owning a horse without understanding what is involved," said Schwartz-Howe.

"I know it seems like common sense. But people think, 'I have a large property, I have grass,' and they think they're all set," she said.

Four horses were taken in from a Howard County residence in October after a neighbor reported seeing family members continuing to ride the underfed animals, clearly unaware there was a problem, said Ochoa.

Because ignorance persists, the Maryland Horse Council adopted minimum standards of care for equines in 2003, guidelines which Schwartz-Howe helped formulate.

The leaflet, which offers detailed explanations of the six tenets of basic horse care, was developed by the Equine Welfare Committee she headed. The standards are sanctioned by the council's 35 member associations throughout the state.

Horses that are extremely underweight can be suffering from many problems, such as dental issues or parasites, said Ochoa.

And that's where Days End steps in.

Rescued horses are photographed and examined upon arrival, and on-call veterinarians are summoned for larger medical issues staff members aren't trained to handle. The animals' temperaments are rated using traffic-signal colors - green meaning "gentle," yellow urging "caution" and red reserved for "staff only." These colors are attached to their halters.

Days End horses receive names that follow the alphabet, much like hurricanes, and are only used once to aid in record-keeping.

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