Horse Protection Society volunteers love their work, and vice versa
Joanie Benson came from Colorado, where she first started saving horses. She would go to auctions and bid against a dog food company for the horses.
“They wanted to take them across the state line into Nebraska and put them in cans,” says Joanie.
Her tenacity at these auctions confused other horse enthusiasts; they thought she knew something they didn’t and would get involved in the bidding wars, often winning a horse she was simply trying to save from a can.
“That was fine; you take one, and I take one, and you over there, as long as they aren’t going to become dog food.” Benson says.
That desire to save horses prompted Benson to establish The Rocking Horse Ranch rescue in 1991 and to incorporate it as the non-profit Horse Protection Society of North Carolina by 1999.
Benson no longer needs to seek out horses. County animal control workers across the state find sick and emaciated horses for the team to go and pick up.
“A lot of people think rescued horses are crazy; that’s not true,” Benson says. As anyone can see on a Saturday tour, these horses are happy, friendly and intriguingly peaceful to be around.
They radiate a feeling of thanks; they know they have been saved and deeply appreciate it.
Sybil Athey, a 78-year-old,is up to her elbows in alfalfa and warm water. “It’s great exercise,” she says as she softens the mixture by hand, making sure it’s easy for the horses to digest.
Sybil has been a volunteer for six years.
“I prayed the horses would know that I love them,” she says.
When Sybil arrives with a pail at feeding time, the horses appear to recognize her. They know Sybil loves them, and they feel the same way about her and the other volunteers.
Benson says she can put up to 10 pounds a day back on a starved horse, but its not immediate. Feeding too much too soon can cause Refeeding Syndrome and death.
Another issue is horses can get ulcers very easily from stress, and inevitably every starved horse has ulcers. To remedy this, aloe vera juice is mixed into two of their daily feedings. Forty-seven horses of varying breeds and stages of recovery makes for 47 mixed-to-order breakfasts. This is no small operation.
“We could use twice as many people as we have right now, and we don’t mind training people,” Benson says.
Horse trainer Stacy Carter helps with some of the more adolescent arrivals. “We’ve been practicing who moves who, and that’s very important for safety.”
Unfortunately, it’s not all love and aloe vera juice. The organization receives no county or state money, so it relies completely on donations. Many of the rescues require extreme chiropractic and muscle therapy. Operations and medications are very costly.
A harmful disease called EPM is also a threat. It involves three varieties of protozoa attacking the spine and brain. The FDA-approved treatment is only effective on one of the three; however, a non-FDA-approved medication out of Florida has been highly effective.
Then of course there is simply the cost of feeding a horse.
Donations are accepted year round. Although cash is best, a Tack and Treasure auction is held in the arena consisting of donated antiques, valuables, and tack or horse items.
Some volunteers recycle aluminum cans and donate the profits to the organization. Benson likes this because it is also good for the environment.
A big part of what Benson has created is not just a horse preserve, but a nature preserve, a place where children can come and learn.
“Seeing is what life is all about,” says Joanie. Many types of plants, trees, waterfowl and friendly working dogs all coexist on the farm — even a hawk, which Joanie acknowledges “may get a chicken.”
After breakfast the horses head over towards the lake. There is plenty of space to explore and, as Joanie says, “Let horses be horses.”
A popular spot is a clearing in the woods where the shade allows the horses to be about 10 degrees cooler on hot days.
The Horse Protection Society is at capacity and cannot begin any more rehabilitations until some of their healthy horses find homes. But efforts to help other horses are not stagnant.
Having realized that there is no organization that can help people if a horse goes down and can’t get up, the group hopes to raise funds for a mobile crane and put together a knowledgeable response team to help. A trained veterinarian would need to be on hand.