Riding to the rescue: Gentle Giants strives to give draft horses a new lease on life

  • Penny (left) and Miss Sunrise, both Clydesdales, run together at Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue in Mount Airy. Gentle Giants rescues draft horses at slaughter auctions frequented by meat buyers. The horses are rehabilitated and then are offered for adoption.
Penny (left) and Miss Sunrise, both Clydesdales, run together… (photo by Sarah Pastrana )
July 27, 2011|By Lane Page

When the Humane Society of the United States calls, rescue groups listen.

So in April, when Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue was asked to assist in the largest horse impoundment ever in Maryland (and one of the largest in the nation), the Mount Airy-based group’s volunteers headed to Centreville with trucks and trailers to ferry some of nearly 150 equines to new digs. No matter that they normally deal with hefty Clydesdales, Belgians, Percherons and somewhat smaller Haflingers, still bigger than the Polish Arabians being removed due to neglect.

Maybe that’s why the six Gentle Giants members served as wranglers during the operation, helping to catch, halter, tag and catalog the horses. Compared to the big boys and girls they’re used to, “it was like ‘come here, little horsey,’ ” says group secretary and volunteer coordinator Laura Michael, reaching her arm out as if to a much smaller creature.

And with so many victims, Gentle Giants volunteers were asked to take some into their care. They wound up taking 10 broodmares back to a farm not far from their own 41-acre stomping grounds in western Howard County.

But what is it that makes the draft horse, despite its intimidating size, even more lovable?

“They’re the best,” says Christine Hajek, an Anne Arundel County firefighter and paramedic who is founder and president of the Gentle Giants organization. These horses descended from the calm workhorses that pulled our ancestors’ carts and ploughs; they’re docile and not as excitable as smaller, feisty racehorses. “They have Type B personalities — they’re the ‘whatever’ breed,” the Mount Airy resident adds.

Although she grew up with thoroughbreds, one ride on a draft horse convinced Hajek that their wide bodies are more comfortable, their slower gaits smoother.

“Like riding a La-Z-Boy,” Michael agrees.

But most began their careers as workhorses. Manhattan, a former New York City carriage horse nearly put down when he needed a $600 throat operation, is also known as “Manny” for the nannylike way he took responsibility for two orphan foals in the stall next to his. He put up with their shenanigans, taught them to eat hay and feed from a bucket, and was visibly upset when they left the farm to be adopted.

The handsome blond-maned chestnut Belgian, a camera hog who loves to have his picture taken, is now Gentle Giants’ spokeshorse. As well as pulling wedding carriages, he visits shows, schools and events such as “Yappy Hour” at the Wine Bin in Ellicott City to introduce himself and his organization and spread the word about its mission.

Since Hajek learned about the practice of horse slaughter six years ago, she has attended sales and auctions to purchase as many doomed draft horses as there was room to take in, from 8 months old to geriatrics. She began with individuals she cared for personally, increased to five when she formed nonprofit Gentle Giants as the first rescue group of its kind in 2005, and is now up to 55 (including the impounded Arabians), aided by a core of 20 volunteers including Hajek’s husband, Jamie McIntosh, and Michael’s daughter Tyler. The organization leases 30 acres at three farms in addition to Hajek’s 41 acres in Mount Airy, which serve as the group’s rehab and training facility.

The big beasts are evaluated, treated, trained and put up for carefully arranged adoption. More than 200, chosen for rehab by temperament, soundness and “usability,” have been saved from slaughter. And each one has a story.

There’s Noel, a 35-year-old Belgian mare judged unfit to be sold and destined to be shot last Christmas unless Hajek took her. Now she’s fit, even a tad fat, and may reach 40, bossing the young’uns around.

There’s 1-year-old Clydesdale Miss Sunrise, appearing to wear fashionable Uggs boots on her shaggy legs now, but thin, parasite-ridden and carrying a 4-inch framing nail embedded in her hoof when she arrived in March. Only cutting-edge veterinary procedures saved her.

There’s Cricket, rescued at the size of an 8-month-old after living three years locked in a barn, and stud Beltaine, both of whom had to learn to be horses again. Haflinger ponies Tess and Tucker, now lesson horses, are  survivors of a well-publicized starvation case in Garrett County in 2010.

Most adoptees have found new homes locally, a good thing, since adoptions require references, home visits and regular contact ever after.

It’s always hard to say goodbye, but knowing that these gentle souls have been saved from slaughter is what the volunteers tell themselves to think about — not of the ones they couldn’t save.

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