As I made my way up the winding gravel drive in Westminster, Maryland, a wave of peace came over me. If this is the kind of property the horses at Maryland Horse Rescue were living on, then they must feel a sense of relief. Tall trees, bright green grassy fields and the quiet song of birds filled the air. As I pulled up to the metal gate I realized I was right. Huge rolling pastures stretched across the landscape with almost 40 horses contently grazing with plenty of room to roam.
I was greeted in a small metal barn by Cheryl, the rescue's Assistant Director. After losing her own horse of 25 years she was looking for a way to fill her time and was immediately sucked in after hearing the heartbreaking stories behind the horses in their care. She has now been with the rescue for 5 years and counting. Maryland Horse Rescue is run entirely by the hearts of dedicated volunteers like Cheryl.
The first horse I met was named Twist. He was being loved on and allowed to graze in a round-pen by one of their volunteer trainers. Twist is a Tennessee Walker that had been with the rescue for about a year, and was saved by the humane society from a neglect case in Texas in which he was malnourished and scarred physically and emotionally. Since Twist was still battling with some trust issues, the volunteer team has been giving him a lot of positive attention and easing him in to training slowly. His kind eye as he grazed was full of hope, but still guarded for now.
I was also told that Twist was the only "sighted" horse that lived out in the blind herd. That's right, the blind herd. Maryland Horse Rescue is unique in that they specialize in caring for horses who have lost their sight. Sure enough, right behind us was a large pasture of horses munching on a pile of hay each wearing a special sun visor fly mask to protect their eyes. If I hadn't been told they were all blind, I never would have guessed from afar. Unfortunately, many of them share the same story of becoming unwanted due to their blindness. That's how they ended up here.
One of these blind herd members, Bonnie, is only 5 years old! Full of spunk and curiosity, Cheryl believes this cute appaloosa would make a wonderful riding partner or enjoy the challenge of liberty work with the right person. It is their hope that someone will come along and see her potential despite her blindness so she may live out her young life in a forever home, not a rescue.
Among the blind and visually impaired is the rescue's mascot, matriarch and Queen bee, Helen. Helen has been with the rescue for 10 years now and was surrendered by her 90+ year old owner who couldn't possibly care for her any longer. Before arriving at Maryland Horse Rescue, the only job she knew was to pull a vegetable cart down the streets of Baltimore. Upon surrender she was thin with hooves a mile long. One of her eyes also needed to be removed due to injury. Now an elder of around 40 - 50 years old, she has a special paddock just for her and her best friend, Blackjack. Oh, and Helen is not a horse, she's a long-haired mule.
Her personality is described as an old woman sitting on her stoop with a glass of whiskey and a cigar. She knows what she wants in her old age, but don't let that fool you - she adores children. Helen has a huge fan club, and while she can be stubborn when it comes to visiting the vet or farrier, she can read a person's intentions and will gladly stand to be groomed or loved on for hours. Helen, like all of their rescues, is adoptable to the right home. She would require a strict dry lot, special soupy diet, and extra care due to her age. Until then, Helen's care is sponsored by a few loving volunteers who will happily dote on her and cherish her unique qualities.
I wondered if it took longer for the blind horses to integrate into their surroundings. It turns out, not really! When the rescue moved to their new property over the winter, the blind herd settled in to the new surroundings faster than the rest of them. When a blind horse is integrated into the herd at Maryland Horse Rescue, volunteers lead the horse along the fence line and show them where the water trough is. It also helps to have a horse (or mule) buddy show them the ropes and provide comfort.
It was made evident that the blind herd fares just fine in a pasture as I watched the spunky young appaloosa, Bonnie, gallop across the field and know exactly when to slow down to avoid the fence (see for yourself in the video below).
When one of their rescues finds their new home, Cheryl shared with me it is often the horse that chooses the person. People will spot a particular horse on their website and schedule a visit, but as they walk through the pastures a horse they weren't expecting will approach them and give them a signal that they're the one.
Maryland Horse Rescue is always looking for new volunteers, as they have no paid staff on their team. Volunteer opportunities range from horse care and barn maintenance to organizing fundraisers at your favorite local restaurant, winery, you name it. Donations of any amount are also greatly appreciated to fund the daily care of their herd.
As I wrapped up my morning in the presence of all the wonderful horses in their care, I asked Cheryl to tell me one thing about rescues that she'd like to share with the public. Her mind immediately went to how rescued horses don't seem quite as socially accepted as dogs or cats. "'Rescued' doesn't mean 'damaged'. It doesn't mean they don't have the opportunity to be a really wonderful companion whether they're rideable or not rideable. Often times it's just a matter of circumstance that they ended up in a rescue."