Saving a Starving Horse: Part 1

She could've just kept driving. But instead of dismissing the idea of intervention as someone else's sad responsibility, Sue Thompson last year saw a chance for helping a nearly skeletal, weak, neglected brown horse that was standing in a muddy pasture visible from the freeway.

Rear view of Freeway before rehabilitation

Freeway in his first weeks at Thompson�s farm.

Thompson lives in Clayton, Calif., where she keeps two Shires and a Thoroughbred, and her career could be perceived as somewhat prophetic in the context of Dec. 27, 2007, the day she spotted the starving animal from Interstate 205: Thompson provides emergency transport for horses.

"There are some beautiful places around this area, and there are some places that are pretty bad," Thompson says of the horse operations that she passes on her daily trips to and from veterinary hospitals. "Then there are places where I think, 'It's okay that the fencing is bad--the horses look okay. That horse could use a hundred pounds, but he's not in jeopardy.' "

She had called animal control or notified a veterinarian several times in the past about horses who appeared as if they were neglected, but Thompson had never actually taken in a rescue horse.

But this particular morning on her way to the farrier with her Shires, she saw an animal she knew didn't have time for the choreographed intervention of animal control, which generally requires an official to inspect the horse, give advice, and time to see if the owner complies (she noted little can be done if feed or water are on the premises). "Had I not been on the freeway, I would've stopped dead," Thompson said. "I couldn't believe that the horse was standing. I was driving past what we call horsey Tijuana, where there were horses in pens, more horses in pens, and then, 'Oh my God, that is a walking skeleton.' I was 150 yards away going 60 mph and saw him 50 feet down below the freeway."

Side view of Freeway before rehabilitation

According to Thompson, Freeway spent his first weeks in his new home alternating between having his head buried in the manger and sleeping in the deep, clean shavings.

With her full trailer it was impossible to help the horse that particular day, but she knew the next day she would be hauling her friend Beverly Minor's horse up to Pioneer Equine Hospital in Oakdale for surgery. As the two women drove past the pasture to the hospital drop on Dec. 28, Thompson was relieved to see the brown horse was still on his feet.

After delivering Minor's gelding on schedule, she asked her friend if she'd be up for taking the entire day off from work to help this horse; her friend quickly agreed. "He didn't have a week or two" for animal control authorities to get involved, Thompson emphasized. Getting involved that day was the only way they were going to be able to help the horse.

The women drove around on the tangle of local roads below the freeway until they eventually found the property where the horse stood. As Thompson parked her rig and a woman emerged from the residence on the property and approached, her friend Bev turned to her and asked what she was going to say. "Crap, I hadn't really thought that out," she thought. "Guess I'm going to wing it," she told her friend.

She said her conversation with the owner about the horse in question went something like this: " 'He's really thin, he might not live much longer.' She said (in broken English) 'Do you want to see him?' She opened the gate and let us in. You never know how people are going to react. We walked out there and we looked at him."

She observed there was very limited hay and water available to this horse and his two pasturemates, and it was offered in one location, creating a competitive situation. A pregnant mare that was also thin--but in better shape than this brown horse--was jealously guarding the available feed and water.

"She had had him about three months, and the story was he had belonged to a friend of theirs who had fallen on hard times," Thompson explained. "I'm guessing he was (a victim of) one of the bad mortgage upside down foreclosure problems. All his horses had looked that bad, and the former owner had taken the other one back. I was trying to be diplomatic. 'Maybe if he was at my house he would gain weight.' You don't want to ask the question because you don't want to hear the 'no.'

" 'The red one,' I said. 'If I had him, he might make it,' Thompson added. 'That might be the best thing for both of us.' "

After the woman at the property consulted with her husband via phone, she sold the mud-coated, food-and-everything-else deprived horse to Thompson without much fanfare for $150, just $15 less than what the two women had on hand during the drive that day. The horse first tried to avoid being caught, but had little energy or stamina for games. "He was just too weak, and the mud was too deep," Thompson described, noting they were able to catch the horse and push him onto the trailer.

"When I started driving home--a 40-minute trip--Bev asked if I thought he'd make it," she continued. "Usually they do, adrenaline will keep (horses in distress) on their feet. But, I thought, if he doesn't, at least he goes down and dies in clean shavings instead of drowning in the mud."

 Freeway after a bath

Thompson took advantage of a warm sunny day in January 2008 and gave Freeway a warm bath. According to Thompson, this was a major step in the battle against the lice from which he suffered.

Coming Home--What is He/She/It?
Upon arriving home, Thompson thought it a good idea to find out the sex of the horse in order to address stabling arrangements. Normally, she said, she wouldn't be so bold to take a close look at an unfamiliar animal's undercarriage, but the horse was so weak that she didn't anticipate any drama. When she looked in the groin area, she was surprised. "I carefully stuck my head under to look, and there's nothing--no sheath!" She then took a cursory glance under the tail to make sure he wasn't a mare--nope, definitely a male horse. "He was so emaciated and dehydrated he didn't even have a sheath, just a slit where the sheath would be."

She led the straggly horse into an isolation stall at the far end of her property to avoid exposing her resident horses to any diseases or untoward conditions the new addition might have, and she offered him fresh water and hay sparingly. The horse was so dehydrated he could barely swallow. "The first thing I did was call my local vet, Dr. Renee Golenz (DVM)," Thompson said, noting that she made an appointment for Golenz to come out the next day and gathered a few bits of advice for caring for the horse in the meantime.

From her conversation with Golenz, Thompson understood that the horse's most difficult days could still be ahead of him, when his liver and kidneys would attempt to "come back online" after regular ingestion of food. But first things first: Thompson tucked "Freeway"--named for the unlikely circumstances by which she first spotted his bony frame--into a stall for the night, on deep, fresh bedding, with access to water, a tiny bit of soaked Equine Senior, and all kinds of hopes that he'd be able to pull through.

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About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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