Protecting horses a passion for Joanie Benson

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Shavonne Potts
As the tiniest kid in her class, Joanie Benson was probably the most spirited. She didn’t think twice about standing up to the naysayers who laughed when she proclaimed she could ride a plucky horse.
Decades later, Benson ó still a tiny woman ó runs the Horse Protection Society of North Carolina.
The China Grove agency has been around since 1991. In 1999, it received nonprofit status.
Benson’s love of horses began when she was 8 and a friend took her to ride. As soon as Benson got atop the palomino, it took off at a full gallop.
“It was the most exciting thing that ever happened,” she recalled.
From that moment on, Benson rode horses whenever a neighbor or friend let her.
Wild ride
When she was 10, Benson worked in a hack stable. She attempted to ride a Tennessee Walker, much to the stable boy’s amusement.
The horse reared on its hind legs and took off. It bucked and galloped at full speed through nearby woods. All the while, Benson just rubbed and petted the horse, telling him he belonged to her and he needed to “just stop it.”
She returned two hours later, dirty and disheveled, with the owner screaming.
“I said, ‘What are you yelling at me for? I trained your horse,’ ” Benson said.
After cleaning the child up, the owner told Benson the horse was going to auction the following day.
Benson begged and pleaded with the woman not to sell the horse. Then she made a deal: she would work for the owner in the stables in exchange for the horse staying there.
She worked at the stables for years and, when she was 20 years old, she decided it was time to buy the horse.
Around the same time, her husband was shipped off to serve in the Vietnam War. Benson was never able to purchase the horse and the owner eventually gave it to a family with five children.
What inspired her was the owner’s attention and care for the horses.
“They really worked hard to take care of their horses,” she said.
Benson later moved to Colorado, where she began what she calls her “life’s purpose,” rescuing horses.
She started going to auctions where horses were being sold just to be used in dog food. She was a member of a local humane society and advocated for the protection of horses and livestock.
Benson and her husband moved to North Carolina so he could attend school. Although she was no longer in Colorado, she never forgot her passion.
Her first horse came to her because the owner was cutting its hooves back with a meat saw. The horse was eventually rehabilitated. After that, she got more and more requests to care for horses.
“Then I figured, ‘I’m starting to get this thing,’ ” she said.
Horse Protection
The Horse Protection Society is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The organization takes in starved and abused horses.
The animals come from the local humane society, law enforcement agencies and individuals.
Currently, there are 36 horses housed at the society’s two barns. Once the animals are nursed back to health and rehabilitated, some of them are placed with other families.
Throughout the years, Benson has educated herself with hours spent in veterinary libraries and on the Internet researching how best to treat certain diseases. Benson and volunteers have created supplement regimens that have slowed some diseases and stopped others. One disease they see often is uveitis, an inflammation of the eye that can cause blindness.
“We can stop that,” she said.
They’ve even discovered how to reverse chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or horse cough, which is similar to asthma in humans.
“Most of it is good nutrition and good supplements,” Benson said.
She works seven days a week, usually about 12 hours a day.
“It feels good. When you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing in life, what’s not to feel good about,” she said.
People from as far away as California and Canada call Benson with questions about the care of their animals or requests to take an animal.
The group doesn’t take all horses, but does take those that have been abused or neglected.
Back to health
“Our goal is to bring them back to health,” Benson said.
The organization works with a number of local veterinarians and farriers, who trim and shoe the horses’ hooves.
“The work has to be done slowly because it’s too stressful to do it all at once,” Benson said.
Many of the horses also come to the society from families who don’t know how to care for the majestic animals or for some reason can’t care for them. One horse brought in recently was a couple’s gift to their child. The animal has glaucoma in one eye and was very thin. Another horse, an 18-year-old thoroughbred named Windstar, was rescued from the coast.
“All over North Carolina we find that with the economic times, people are giving up their horses,” Benson said.
Benson doesn’t do it all by herself. The society has a board of directors, members, sponsors and volunteers. Those who feed and care for the animals are officers or members. About 45 people volunteer their time to feed the horses. Deborah Baker spends countless hours tending to the horses.
“It’s therapeutic, coming to be with the horses,” Baker said. “And this is the best place to come to learn about horses.”
Officers are responsible for different tasks such as maintaining the Web site, organizing fundraisers, administering food and supplements and ordering supplies.
“They are a great group of people, from young kids to a 73-year-old who just likes cleaning barns,” she said.
Most of the volunteers are learning more about horses as they go.
Things run like a well-oiled machine. There is someone who feeds, doctors and cleans daily.
“It’s well organized. Everyone is good about taking care of them,” she said.
The horses roam on 15 acres of pastureland.
Benson and volunteers say many people think horses can survive on grass they eat in pastures or that owning a horse is like owning a dog. That is not the case.
It takes $300-$400 to take care of one horse. It mostly depends on the condition of the horses when they arrive.
All of the horses require individual diets, medicines and supplements. Costs have gone up, Benson says.
For instance, before the drought a couple of years ago, hay cost around $25 a bale. Now it’s about $40. The average cost to provide basic care for a horse with with no illnesses is $3,000 a year.
The organization depends on donations from Angel Sponsors for the needs of the animals, but bigger projects ó such as when the society built its new barn last year ó came from grants.
“This could not function without the people who support the organization. Those who come here and dedicate so many hours,” Benson said.
The Horse Protection Society is located at 2135 Miller Road, China Grove. For more information, call the society at 704-855-2978 or e-mail it at