Home, Home at Last Carroll County's Blind Horse Refuge
- Categorized in: Features – Past Issues
Black Jack nuzzles up to HorseNet’s executive director, Michelle Sithithavorn, as Gallahad bids for attention.
The horses stand together in a small herd, eating hay from a large bale that sits halfway across the grassy paddock. Some distance away, visitors walk beside the fence, talking. The animals stop and perk up their ears. Registering that there is no danger, most return to their meal.
But Black Jack and Gallahad cannot resist being nosy. Easily keeping pace with one another, the two ponies trot over. They want some attention, or even better, a treat.
It is not until the ponies lean their heads over to be nuzzled that their secret is revealed. Black Jack, a tall Appaloosa with a mottled brown and white coat, and Gallahad, a majestic white mixed breed, are both blind.
Gallahad’s eyes look like two pieces of murky amber, colored that way because he is actually an albino. Black Jack’s eyes are dark, without the pupils he needs to focus on the things in front of him.
The rest of the horses in their paddock are blind as well. And so are the horses in stalls in the nearby barn. HorseNet Horse Rescue counts 15 fully and partially blind horses living among the 100 equines it cares for on two rented farms in Mt. Airy and New Windsor.
The goal of the all-volunteer, non-profit organization is to rehabilitate horses that have been rescued from neglect or are brought in by owners who can no longer care for them. Suitable animals are then offered for adoption to potential owners who meet HorseNet’s requirements. Working with blind and aging horses (and sometimes these conditions go hand in hand) is HorseNet’s specialty.
“A lot of people feel that once a horse goes blind, it no longer has any use,” said Michelle Sithithavorn, HorseNet’s executive director. “We feel that they can teach you things and that their life still serves a purpose. Just because a horse has this disability doesn’t mean it needs to be put down.”
Sithithavorn says HorseNet’s blind horses do not require much more care than sighted horses. The blind horses soon learn the boundaries of their paddocks and stalls. And once they are able to remember by touch where obstacles like hay racks, fences and water buckets are located, they usually do fine, she said.
Volunteers working with the blind horses must bear in mind that even without their sight; these are still large animals with amazing strength. “This is still a herd situation and there is still an alpha horse,” said Sithithavorn. “They could fuss at each other and kick you by accident because they’re not really focused on the fact that you’re there.”
On one cold winter morning recently, Toady, who is also blind, joined Black Jack and Gallahad at the fence. The five-year-old Appaloosa gelding came closer when Laura Jones, HorseNet’s public relations director, shook a plastic jar full of horse treats. “Forget trying to sneak by them with food,” said Sithithavorn.
Toady could turn out to be one of HorseNet’s most interesting success stories. Toady was used for horseback riding lessons at another facility until he began showing “behavioral” problems, said Sithithavorn. After tests revealed his blindness – likely the cause of his behavior issues, she said – Toady’s owners brought him to HorseNet. Volunteers there have been working with Toady for months, hopeful that he will be able to help teach riding once more.
Toady’s debut was tentatively planned for HorseNet’s annual Fall Fest, held at the Mt. Airy farm this past October. But Toady was nervous around the big crowd that day so his coming out was delayed. “He wasn’t comfortable, so we didn’t push him,” said Sithithavorn.
Comfort is something that many of HorseNet’s animals – blind or sighted – have not experienced. Like animals at other horse rescue facilities, HorseNet horses often have horrific backgrounds. In many cases, volunteers can only piece together the abuse through veterinary examinations, which reveal past injuries.
In other situations, such as the seizing of neglected horses from a farm in Garrett County last May; the conditions the horses lived in are revealed. According to a Washington Post article published May 22, 2010, the Garrett County horses were eating tree bark to survive and living in a muddy field among the remains of other dead animals. Many of the horses were underweight, infested with parasites and afraid of human contact.
HorseNet eventually received horses from the Garrett County rescue. Horses at the rescue’s two farms also include animals taken from well-publicized seizures at “arabbers” stables in Baltimore over the past few years as well as racehorses that have been cast off as a result of age or injury.
All of the horses are doing much better under HorseNet’s care, said Sithithavorn.
HorseNet’s website (www.horsenethorserescue.org) details permanent injuries and trust issues experienced by many of its horses, as well as their personality traits and likes and dislikes. The horses are divided into two groups – Rideable and Non-Rideable/Companion Horses. Most of the blind horses fall in the latter category.
Supporters who cannot adopt a horse have the option of sponsoring its care at the farm. That is especially helpful in the case of animals with ongoing medical concerns, said Jones.
In the current economy, however, sponsors and potential adoptive owners have been in short supply, said Jones and Sithithavorn. HorseNet requires those who can no longer care for an adopted animal to return it to the rescue. It keeps tabs on its horses by only allowing adoptions within a four-hour driving radius of Mt. Airy and by requiring that the new owners agree to spot checks of their properties. Last year, the rescue did have some animals returned because their owners could no longer afford their care, said Sithithavorn.
Financial constraints and space limitations at the HorseNet farms have meant that the rescue can no longer accept “owner surrenders” – horses that were not previously at HorseNet whose owners cannot care for them. Sithithavorn said she does not know what happens to the animals that are turned away.
Besides volunteers to feed and exercise the horses and muck their stalls, HorseNet always needs hay and grain as well as financial donations to purchase these and other supplies. In spite of its great needs, the certified 501[c]3 has never wavered from its policy of not euthanizing animals because they are old.
A sign on the first paddock at the Mt. Airy farm may sum this philosophy up best. It reads “Take A Deep Breath – You’re Home Now.”