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Back From the Brink of Death


2012/11/03






By Maggie MacDonald

See also: Refeeding the Starved Horse [Download]

In my life I have seen two horses die from malnourishment.  It is a terrible, slow death, and it is not fitting for any creature to endure.  I quickly decided after those experiences that, even though I might not be able to save them all, I would at least do my best to save as many as I could.

Nikki came first.  She was a pretty little Palomino with a sweet disposition and soft, dark, loving eyes.  Her shaggy winter coat all but disguised the frail skeleton that was just below the surface.  She had been a show horse once upon a time, but time and circumstances had taken their toll on the old girl. When she first came to me she had been reduced to a mere shadow of the great horse she once had been. I led her into the stall that would be her new home and serve as her protection from the biting winter, and I gave her a hot mash of heavily soaked alfalfa cubes and sugar beet pulp.  As she stood there noisily slurping away on her warm mash, I ran my hands across her arched withers, prominent ribs, and protruding hipbones to survey the extent of her condition.  It was going to be difficult, but she and I agreed that we would give it our best shot. 

We started out with those warm mashes, a hand full of alpha oat pellets, and a bit of hay several times a day.  As the days progressed the amounts of food got larger; the feedings gradually reduced to twice a day;, and I gradually started working in a mixture of senior feed and grain.  She eagerly greeted me each day waiting for her gourmet meal and her brushing.  As the weeks passed, I started seeing improvement.  Those soft, dark eyes had more of a sparkle, and she had a bit more spring in her step.  A month went by, then two, three, and four.  Her ribs began to retreat back into her sides, and her hips began to round out.  The backbone, which had once stood inches above her body, was gradually beginning to fade out of sight.  As her winter coat began to fall away, her return to health could more easily be seen.  We had done it!  She was on her way back to a healthy, happy life.  Now, the task could begin to find her a home.

Over the next few months I contacted about 15 different therapeutic riding programs, but all of them were filled with horses, and none of them needed Nikki.  Just as I was about to lose hope, I got a call from Susan, the director of a therapeutic riding program in Batesville, MS.  She was in need of a small-framed, narrow-bodied horse with a gentle disposition and a good steady gait for a student with cerebral palsy.  I talked to her about Nikki, and we decided that this little mare would be a lovely fit.  Susan came out one warm, spring day to take Nikki to her new home where she would be spending six days a week grazing in a big, green pasture and one day a week helping a little girl to gain confidence and strength.  I could not have asked for a better placement! 

But the story doesn’t end there. 

Next came Lucy, who was in even more immediate need of rescue.  What I found when I saw Lucy was but a sketch of what was once a horse!  This little bay mare was the most emaciated horse I had ever seen!  I believe she was quite close to death when she came to me.  For those familiar with the Henneke body scoring system, Lucy would have definitely been a 1.  I could count every rib in her body and see each individual vertebra in her back.  Her body, indeed, looked as if it was merely a boney frame covered in an old hide of some sort.  Her skin was full of sores and her hair was clumped, matted, and falling out.  Even her face lacked any covering of fatty tissue. I saw this poor girl, and my heart lurched!  I wanted to just simply kneel down and cry, but I knew tears would not save her; she needed action. 

I made arrangements with the owners to take her to my home so that I could begin the long process I had started with Nikki so many months before.  Lucy received the same regimen of food that Nikki had gotten and just as Nikki had, Lucy also began to show great improvement.  She took longer in her recovery than Nikki, but she also had a lot farther to go.  Lucy has been with me for about four months now and is doing very well.  She, too, greets me each day waiting for her meal and attention.  As Lucy begins to show signs of being happy again, both in spirit and body, I am hopeful that she will be as lucky as Nikki in finding a good home with loving caretakers. 

It seems as soon as one leaves me another finds me, and the process begins again.  There is always a need.  I think back to the two others that I could not save, and I feel I owe it to them to open my stalls as often as I can and to do my best with each horse that passes through. 

 “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” –The Talmud

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