When I look into a horse's eyes I am filled with happy memories. I remember the first time I cantered at riding summer camp. I remember racing friends through fields back when our parents dropped us off at the barn and didn't question it. I remember my first show ribbon. These happy memories make it hard for me to believe that so many of the horses at Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue were saved from the fate of slaughter.
My morning began driving through the familiar gravel drive towards a white hay barn and silo. A couple years ago I actually volunteered for Gentle Giants to get in some extra horse time. While familiar with the layout and a few of the horses, I was excited to get a more inside scoop on the 'why' behind this safe haven for beautifully big equines.
I was met in the parking lot by Christine Hajek, President & Founder of Gentle Giants. As we exchanged greetings a few riders walked by, perhaps after a training session, and a gorgeous bay mare caught my eye. I immediately started taking pictures and only then noticed one of her eyes was missing. This was 'Betty Boop', a Belgian x Arab mare who was surrendered to an auction because she was deemed aggressive towards other horses. Since being rescued by Gentle Giants however, they have seen no signs of aggression and she is currently being trained at the walk/trot/canter under saddle.
According to Christine, this is not uncommon. Most of the time when they are told a story by an owner on why a horse was surrendered or sold to auction, it ends up being a stretch of the truth. She finds that many owners try to convince themselves that they are making the best decision for the horse, and sometimes that means telling a false story to help get the horse off their hands.
I tossed my gear into the golf cart and off we went to meet the horse Christine was eager to highlight. His name is 'Duke', a large Belgian gelding rescued from auction in March of this year. When I asked Christine why she chose to highlight Duke her answer was simple. There was "no reason" for him to be at the auction in the first place. When she first saw him he was underweight and forlorn. His face appeared asymmetrical supposedly caused by a fall on concrete as a foal, however his personality was gentle, sweet and polite. After being rescued, quarantined, and brought back to a healthy weight his time in training has been going extremely well.
"He’s the perfect horse for someone wanting a safe ride or a beginner friendly ride" said Christine. This is why it is upsetting that he ended up at an auction to be loaded onto a meat truck. All he needed was a little TLC. He bathes, fly sprays, trailers, walks out on the trail in a group or alone. He's exactly what so many people want in a horse. Duke's sad situation reminded me of the popular Seabiscuit movie quote by Tom Smith,
"You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause he's banged up a little".
So why draft horses? Christine's equine background involved riding for fun around her Mom's breeding farm. She took a break from riding as an adult, but was called back into the sport by a message in a dream. Reenrolling into adult group riding lessons, It was here that she discovered her love for big bodied horses. Christine typically rode a quarter horse in her lessons but when another rider staked a claim, she was switched to a Clydesdale. As she rode the big draft for the first time she fell head over heels!
When the time came to find the right horse to call her own, Christine went against all she had been taught as a child and headed to a sale barn. Growing up around a horse breeding operation, she watched horses be sold left and right because they didn't fit ideal descriptions. A sale barn she was taught, was where only undesirable horses would be found. As if it were meant to be, a Belgian crossed her eye and on an impulse Christine bought him and took him home. He ended up being "a gem of a horse", and the perfect match. This struck up a thought... If there was one amazing gem of a horse at the sale barn, there must be others! They weren't undesirable... they were simply unlucky in their circumstances. Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue slowly but surely came to life from there.
Gentle Giants' MO is rescuing drafts and draft crosses from auctions just as Christine did in the very beginning. While the discussion of horse slaughter has slowed down over the past couple years, it is still very much alive. The priority for Gentle Giants when they head to auction is to buy every single draft horse no matter what unless they've been purchased by a private buyer. This means outbidding the kill buyers is #1.
So what do they mean by "no matter what"? Sometimes, the horses they've saved from slaughter can't be saved much further (i.e. horses with obviously broken legs, which has happened). Gentle Giants will call the vet and have that horse humanely euthanized to end their suffering with dignity instead of fear and pain. It's all about preventing the horses who give us so much in life from being tossed away into the terrifying journey to slaughter.
I am not joking when I say every single horse I met at Gentle Giants tugged at my heart strings. Their soft eyes reflected big hearts and a thankfulness that they had a safe place to just be horses. While the goal is to place every horse into a forever home, it is in Gentle Giants' adoption policy that horses must be returned back to them if an adopter cannot keep them any longer. Despite their intense application process and education with potential adopters, they still end up seeing about 30% of their horses return. Christine believes that many people truly feel in their hearts that they will keep their horse forever, but one way or another they somehow fall short.
That number was astonishing to me, and lead me to ask Christine what was one thing she wished the public understood more that would be helpful to rescues or horses. "There is rarely a fantasy home that wants to retire your unrideable horse for you" she said. To explain further, many people (whether tired of ownership, financially unable or looking to buy a new horse) want to believe that someone out there will love their horse for them no matter what, but it's just not that common. I shared that my current riding instructor still has her retired mare who is now almost 30 and how much I admired that. Christine replied "If more trainers were like that, the horse world would be very different". It sets a good example for others, especially young riders. Retiring a horse responsibly should just be a natural part of ownership, and Christine upholds that value herself.
She once had a quarter horse that she owned for only about a year before he suffered a tragic accident in his pasture leaving him unrideable. Some would attempt to pass off that horse to a new home with hopes that they'll be loved as a companion, others would send them to an auction, but Christine kept that horse for the rest of his life. He lived until he was 33 years old. If she wasn't able to do that, she would rather humanely euthanize then sell him when she knows his future as an unrideable horse would have been so questionable.
The horses in Gentle Giant's care can be
very versatile. Some go into eventing, dressage or are happy as trail horses. Their rescues range in abilities, age and experience. You can find a list of available horses here. I asked Christine how people could help Gentle Giants most right now, and she explained the easiest way to do that is to make a donation of any amount or to sponsor a specific horse's care. Sponsorship of a horse starts at just $50 a month which covers your selected horse's grain. It makes a huge difference when it costs Gentle Giants about $12,000 a month just to feed their herd when at full capacity.
This rescue does an amazing thing. As a 20+ year lesson horse rider, I have known so many horses in my life and each one has taught me something invaluable. It pains me to think that any of them could have ended up in the wrong hands and sent to slaughter, but the sad truth is that some of them could have. A quote from the Gentle Giants website that sends chills down my spine reads "Every horse slaughtered was somebody's horse once".
I think more conversations need to be had on responsible retirement of our beloved horses. That's one of the reasons I created The Equestrian's Promise. As equestrians we know that our relationship with our horses is only as good as the trust we have in each other. Let's not break that trust by sending them into the unknown.