Truly amazing things can happen beneath the roof of a barn. This was proved on Aug. 27 when The Essex County Sea Horses, a horse 4-H club based out of Topsfield, volunteered a day to help out with New England Equine Rescues. The Sea Horses has about 18 members ranging in age from five to 19 who live all over the North Shore, including Georgetown, Topsfield, Newbury, Ipswich. NEER is an organization that strives to offer horses, donkeys, goats and other farm animals a second chance at life. Some of NEER's outstanding work includes helping horse owners to properly care for their animals in this challenging economy and taking horses from slaughterhouse to show ring. One of the particularly refreshing things about NEER is their ability to realize the goodness in horses and humans alike. Because of this, time spent at the farm is as much therapy for people as it for equines. The farm really is a truly therapeutic place to be. With beautiful green pastures and happy animals grazing, the place screams tranquility. We got the chance to enjoy this great atmosphere recently when the club volunteered to help out NEER with farm chores at their new location in West Newbury, 183 River Road. The weather was beautiful and sunny, and the mood around the farm was great. Before the work began, the club enjoyed a quick tour of the farm, which included meeting the animals and learning their touching stories. The club learned that despite what most people tend to assume about animals in need, very few of the animals who end up in rescues are victims of purposeful abuse. Many animal owners have fallen into difficult situations, whether it’s financial trouble or something else, and they are truly doing the best they can to care for their pets. Many honestly don't know how to properly care for their animals. After the club learned more about NEER and its mission, the 4-Hers scattered around the farm for the rest of the day, completing various chores including cleaning paddocks, washing and organizing brushes, scrubbing buckets, repairing fences and spending some quality time pampering the animals. “NEER is 100-percent volunteer and relies 100-percent on donations,” said club leader Kristina O’Connell. “As a club, we have selected NEER to do all of our community service with. It's very important to each of us in this club to make a difference, and I was so proud of the girls who put in four hours of work to end their summer break.” Because all of the club members own, ride or just love horses, spending time at the farm was a blast for all. At the end of the day, the mutual passion for horses all equine-lovers share proved to be as strong as ever.
Recession hits Rhode Island horse owners
01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, June 14, 2009
On a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, Deidre Sharp finished shoveling out a horse stall on her Saunderstown property and looked out at a series of paddocks where several horses munched on their hay. “That’s Brio,” she said, pointing to a brown mustang. “He was literally skin and bones when we got him.” Walking among the horses, she said hello to Aidan, the former race horse with an injured hoof, and Princess, whose owner could no longer afford to keep her. There are 18 horses in all at Sharp’s nonprofit equine rescue sanctuary, Horse Play, located on 82 acres just off Gilbert Stuart Road. Another three horses are in “foster homes” and there’s a waiting list of about nine horses. “This is it. We are at capacity, both financially and in terms of land,” Sharpe said. Last year, she said, Horse Play only had 12 horses. Sharp said Horse Play has received horses from as far away as Virginia, but two-thirds of them are from Rhode Island. Hard times in Rhode Island have hit horses, too. Or, more precisely, their owners. With Rhode Island in the grip of a recession that has sent unemployment soaring to 11.1 percent, families in the state are finding they need to cut expenses. Caring for a horse is not cheap, and many horse owners can no longer afford to keep their animals and would like to find new homes for them. So horse rescue organizations in the state, such as Horse Play, are now faced with a higher demand for their services and increasing difficulties finding new homes for all the horses that need their help. “I probably get two or three e-mails a week asking for help,” said Beth Hill Ross, founder of New England Equine Rescues, a network of people who will take in horses, at least temporarily, that have no other place to go. “A lot of it is the recession, absolutely. People are saying ‘I lost my job, my husband’s hours have been cut back. How are we going to keep a horse?’” Ross said she’s seen a steady increase in the number of horses taken in by New England Equine Rescues, which accepts horses from all over the region: 10 in 2005, 15 in 2006, 22 in 2007, 34 in 2008. “The recession has had a remarkably negative impact on horses,” said Scott Marshall, veterinarian for the state’s Division of Agriculture, part of the Department of Environmental Management. Marshall said that in the winter of 2007-2008, he didn’t receive any calls about abused or neglected horses. In the winter of 2008-2009, though, he had seven or eight. According to a recently published study, “Horses in Rhode Island,” there were about 7,000 horses in the state as of 2006-2007. Given the relatively small amount of suitable land for horses in the state, the report calculated that the population density of horses in Rhode Island is among the highest in the country. The study was jointly conducted by the Santana Center for Equine Education, in Saunderstown, and Outreach, the state’s Division of Agriculture and the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Marshall said there are relatively few big commercial equine enterprises in the state. According to the report, 80 percent of the 4,000 or so horse owners in Rhode Island keep their horses strictly as a hobby, with only about 20 percent deriving any income from animals. The report listed 112 facilities to board horses in the state. Horses can live for 30 years or more, and caring for them is expensive. Costs vary widely, depending on whether you’re keeping a horse on your own property and doing most of the work yourself, or boarding the horse at a stable. “Horses in Rhode Island” estimated the minimum cost to keep a horse at about $3,000 a year, going all the way up to $17,000 and more. Sharp figures it costs Horse Play about $250 a month to keep each horse. Sharp said the money comes from private donations, an occasional small grant and fundraising efforts such as an annual calendar, an open house and a walk across Rhode Island to raise money. Sharp also earns money for Horse Play working as a trainer, riding instructor and farrier. (A farrier takes care of a horse’s hooves). Finding homes for her horses is getting tougher, Sharp said. “People are just not interested in taking horses. I’m sure it’s the recession. They just can’t afford it.” Kathleen Castro of the Santana Center for Equine Education and Outreach, one of the authors of the horse study, said many horse owners she knows are looking for ways to economize, while still keeping their animals. Severine Degnan, of North Kingstown, owns a mare named Etoile, which means star in French. Degnan said she has a job in the travel business, and work has slowed lately. Her husband is employed by a nonprofit group. To save money, she moved Etoile from a stable that was costing her about $350 a month to the property of a friend, who also has a horse. The move cut the cost to about $200 a month. Instead of having Etoile’s hooves trimmed every four to six weeks, Degnan said, she’s having it done every eight weeks. “I’ve been struggling with keeping her or not keeping her … moving her to save money was a very easy step for me,” Degnan said. E.J. Finocchio is an equine veterinarian and president of the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He said he gets two or three calls a week from people who can no longer take care of their horses. “It’s always ‘Can you help me find a good home for my horse?’ Rarely, rarely, rarely do I get asked to euthanize a horse,” he said. Finocchio said that RISPCA also gets calls from people reporting horse abuse on the part of others. (In 2008, three horses died in separate incidents in Lincoln and West Greenwich). Finocchio said the society has the legal power to confiscate abused horses, but it has no place to put them. So RISPCA leaves them on the property, but tries to ensure the horses are properly cared for. Finocchio said there is between $7,000 and $8,000 earmarked for horse care in the society’s Marvin Fund — named for the dog Finocchio adopted from a RISPCA shelter — but that money will only go so far if a substantial number of horses need care. Finocchio does not see the problem going away, largely because of the number of aging horses in the area. According to the “Horses in Rhode Island” report, New England has the highest percentage of geriatric horses, between 20 and 30 years old, in the nation. For vets such as Finocchio and Marshall, the most humane solution when a horse truly cannot enjoy a good quality of life is euthanasia. “There’s always a guilty feeling when you need to put an animal to sleep,” Finocchio said. “But it brings closure. You know it was done with dignity, you know it was painless, you know it was done humanely.” But they pointed out that it can cost $100 or more for a vet to come and euthanize a horse. And then there’s the problem of disposing a thousand-pound dead animal, which can run several hundred dollars more. A far less palatable option is slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, which process horsemeat sold in Europe. Many horses purchased at auction in the United States end up there. “What’s someone doing at an auction buying a 24-year-old horse?’ Finocchio said. “It’s probably going to a slaughterhouse.” The idea of slaughtering horses evokes strong reactions in many horse lovers. “There’s absolutely nothing humane about it,” said Ross, of New England Equine Rescues, who equates slaughterhouses in Mexico with torture chambers. “I would sooner put horses in the ground than send them to slaughter. People need to be more responsible for their animals.” Ross said she would like to find a place in the area where horses could be buried — an equine cemetery, in effect. “I’m looking for the land,” she said. “It would be a huge service to the people of Rhode Island, and the old horses.”