Five horses huddle together in the paddock, wary at the approach of humans.
They’re part of a herd of 43 rescued late last year from an East Texas ranch, where they were no longer being fed. These five were fortunate to end up at the new Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center in Murchison, Texas.
“I was most struck by the look in the horses’ eyes,” says center director Anne Favre, recounting the bleak December day the horses were found. “Horses are usually curious and lively when you approach them. Some of these were like walking corpses -- bones protruding from hips, blank stares, horses that could barely stand.”
The Humane Society of the U.S. reported that among the starving animals at the grisly scene were yearlings and pregnant mares, emaciated horses clinging to life, as well as dead creatures and equine skeletons.
The lucky five here in Murchison will be quarantined for two weeks to check for disease and parasites before release into a bigger pasture with other horses, where they’ll “live more like horses do naturally: socially, in a herd,” says Jacques Favre, Anne’s husband and the facility manager.
Actress Doris Day, a longtime advocate of animal welfare, contributed $250,000 of the $1 million it took to construct the 12-acre rescue and adoption center. It opens to the public in mid-May and will be run by the Humane Society of the United States.
The center is on the grounds of late author Cleveland Amory’s Black Beauty Ranch, a 2,300-acre sanctuary that has been taking in unwanted animals since the 1970s.
The Doris Day complex will include an education center, a horse “playground,” and other amenities that suggest refugees will have a very comfortable existence here. Also under construction is a staging area for emergency rescues, where animals can be brought in and cared for after natural disasters.
Horses are more often up against man-made problems, such as the racehorse industry, notorious for its inability to take care of the animal-athletes when their racing days are over. These five rescues had been abandoned by a breeder who could no longer afford the upkeep, which is increasingly a problem in the horse set. Many would-be owners underestimate the responsibilities of caring for even a single horse.
“A lot of people don’t realize how much it costs to keep a horse,” says Jacques Favre. “They might buy one for a few hundred dollars, but it can easily cost $6,000 a year to keep.”
Rescues at Murchison will be trained according to principles developed by equine guru Pat Parelli, whose techniques focus on the dynamics of the man-equine relationship. The horses will be taught that humans are a source of not only food but also benign companionship. They won’t be “rounded up” at feeding time, but gradually conditioned to know when and where they’ll be fed.
“The Parelli program is really about teaching people to teach horses,” Favre says.
Eventually, horses fit for adoption will be paired up with humans. It is unclear who is adopting whom exactly, but the center takes its responsibility for finding the right match seriously.
I take a tour of the wider sanctuary, which, though mostly colorless on this gray late-winter day, is teeming with life. The first animals brought here by Amory were burros, helicoptered out of Grand Canyon National Park over 30 years ago. Some of them are still alive, including the aptly named Friendly, who ambles over to nuzzle humans at every opportunity.
Elsewhere roaming freely on the grounds are emus, an ostrich, elands and a camel. In spacious cages there are macaque monkeys frolicking in comfortable retirement, their careers as lab experiments over. A one-armed kangaroo (a boxing injury -- don’t ask) is nurtured like a beloved grandfather.
Candidates for Asylum
Abandoned and abused horses couldn’t find a better refuge. It is unfortunate that between neglectful owners, cashed-out breeders, and an endless supply of thoroughbred retirees, there will be plenty of candidates for asylum.
It’s amazing to see these magnificent animals, so recently treated shabbily by humans, now interacting with them in harmony and on somewhat equal terms.
“Horses are very forgiving,” says Jacques Favre. “That’s how they’ve managed to survive in a human environment.”
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Mike Di Paola at email@example.com.