Of horses and heartbreak
How one organization is saving equines from financially strapped and desperate owners who are literally starving the animals to death.
Sometimes it’s a wonder that Tawnee Preisner doesn’t succumb to a broken heart. Last week was a rough one for her—the kind that’s a real kick in the gut, that would make most people want to crawl into bed and pull up the covers for days on end.
Preisner, founder of NorCal Equine Rescue, was getting nowhere in her effort to take possession of a very old and very neglected horse, a gelding whose owner had let the poor creature wither away to skin and bones. She had recently traveled all the way to Nevada County, to Penn Valley, based on a phone call from a concerned citizen.
Getting a tip like this is not unusual for Preisner, who, along with her husband, Jason, is well respected in the world of horses and has worked hard over the past seven years to establish one of the state’s most successful nonprofit animal-welfare organizations for equines. The caller had not exaggerated the animal’s condition. She found the old palomino in exceedingly bad shape—matted hair stretched over a sharply sloped spine, protruding hip and rib bones, conjunctivitis and a tail matted with diarrhea.
Skinny is an understatement. He was emaciated and needed help. So Preisner mustered up the courage and went to talk with his owner. “It’s hard to do, because you don’t know what they’re going to think,” she said last week during an interview at an Oroville restaurant.
She and a volunteer named April ended up waiting for hours in her oversized Chevy truck for the owner to return home. When he did, she asked the man, an older gentleman and self-described cowboy, if he needed help with the horse and whether a veterinarian had checked him out. The man said he couldn’t afford all that and stated he was feeding the horse sufficiently. She then asked if he would surrender the horse to her. When he turned her down she offered to pay him $200 for the animal. He refused that, too, along with her offer of a blanket to keep the horse protected from the elements.
“He’s a pretty tough hombre. He’s got a barn over there that he goes underneath … he’s cowboying up,” the man said of the 28-year-old gelding named Spring Bo. “That’s what he is; he’s a cowboy horse.”
The man explained that the gelding’s condition was due simply to his age and there would be an occasion—when the horse could no longer stand—that he would shoot the animal. Preisner says the man told her that is what he’d done to two of his other horses when they got old and decrepit. She persisted in trying to convince him to give up Spring Bo, but to no avail.
Next up, she sent out a flurry of calls to the Animal Control Division at the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office and anyone else who might be able to help the frail horse, which she imagined could be just days from going down. (Nevada County Animal Control did not respond to a CN&R request for an interview.) She captured several of the exchanges between her and the horse’s owner on the audio setting of a video recorder; at a certain point he threatens to call the sheriff if she doesn’t leave.
Eventually, Preisner, who came pulling a trailer, drove home, disappointed and dejected. Without the intervention of animal control, she had no legal way to help the horse, no matter how sickly and mistreated it may have been.
“It’s not legal to starve your horse down to shoot it,” she said, reflecting on that day.
The financial meltdown of the past couple of years that has seeped its way into businesses and households the nation over is just as ruinous in the fields and farms and pastured back yards, where similar stories of neglect and abuse are more and more common.
“The economy is killing horses in droves, is what it’s coming down to,” Preisner said.
This crisis in the horse community started in earnest two years ago, as the price of fuel skyrocketed, more than doubling the cost of hay. Last year, in this age of unemployment and foreclosure, Preisner rescued a record 414 horses—about a third of the approximately 1,230 horses the organization has taken in since its inception in 2003.
Meanwhile, the number of adoptive homes from 2008 to 2009 dropped significantly, from an 87 percent placement rate to 56 percent.
Preisner and NorCal’s volunteers travel to auctions to purchase unwanted horses, many of them perfectly healthy. They were regulars at the now-defunct Roseville Auction, where Preisner would sit behind “killer buyers,” outbidding them on horses that would otherwise be bound for out-of-county slaughterhouses. In California, the sale and consumption of horse meat has been illegal for more than a decade, but the law doesn’t stop people from transporting the animals across state lines and into Mexico or Canada.
For a while, Preisner was bringing in 20 horses a month from the auction.
Now she travels farther, to Petaluma, to compete with these buyers. She cannot save all of the horses at bid, but thanks to donations from devoted sponsors, hundreds of animals have been spared from the tremendous anxiety and fear endured during a long, cramped ride and then a painful death from a bolt gun or worse.
“The most important factor to me is that they don’t go to auction and end up on the slaughter truck,” she said.
NorCal Equine Rescue is located on the outskirts of Oroville near Bangor. Many of the horses that end up there these days are owner surrenders that might otherwise end up at auction. Some are placed there by animal-control officials who have seized the creatures.
And still others manage to find their way to the organization from out of nowhere.
That’s what occurred a year ago last January, when Preisner was driving one evening in the cold darkness. She was en route to her home tucked miles down a winding county road when she came upon something she’d been on the lookout for and pictured many times in her mind.
Around a bend, on the side of a remote stretch of poorly maintained gravel roadway not far from the rescue facility, a bewildered and unfamiliar horse stood behind a rusted metal gate in an empty pasture, its eyes glowing against Preisner’s headlights.
Wet, cold and underweight, the old bay mare with a white blaze looked in desperate need of some good feed. In her gut, Preisner could tell immediately that the horse was abandoned. A call to the owner of the property neighboring the pasture confirmed that. Preisner tossed the horse some hay and headed home. In the morning, she returned to find the pitiful little mare in the same spot. On the ground she saw the fresh imprints from a trailer that had backed up to the gate for a quick getaway.
The scene she encountered reeks of desperation and cruelty. Unfortunately, similar stories of abandonment continue today.
“When people are losing their houses, the horses are the first thing to go,” she said. “When it comes to the electric bill or feeding the horse, you know, they want to have showers, lights and heat to keep the kids warm.”
NorCal works in partnership with a Yankee Hill-based organization called Home at Last Equine Rescue and Sanctuary, a nonprofit at the home of Donna and Jim Kyle, a saintly retired couple who are caring for dozens of hard-to-adopt, neglected and injured equines.
Encountering increasing numbers of horses, many of them unadoptable, and operating the rescue well beyond capacity led Preisner to make the very difficult decision to organize euthanasia clinics at Look Ahead Veterinary Services in nearby Butte Valley. NorCal raises the funds through donations to pay for all or most of the cost—for both euthanasia and the rendering plant that disposes of the animals.
“People don’t start an organization to euthanize, but it’s had to happen because of the economy,” she said.
The first clinic was held in November 2008, and it has continued on a monthly basis due to demand. Preisner realizes some people have a hard time letting go, but she insists it’s the very best option when the other choice is an auction yard. She filmed a video of a horse being put down to give owners an idea of what the process is like—that it really is painless and quiet.
Uploaded to NorCal’s Web site, www.savethehorse.com, and Youtube, the video, simply titled “Horse Euthanasia,” shows a white horse standing calmly in a grassy area. A script accompanying the piece explains that Sugar, an old appaloosa, was living in constant fear and anxiety after having gone completely blind. Two women are tending to the old horse, each holding a rope attached to either side of the mare’s halter. When the horse starts to wobble, one of the women tenderly pulls the rope to one side and Sugar’s body goes down softly. The women gently lower her head to the ground.
The script pleads with owners to keep their animals from the slaughterhouses: “Euthanasia is a hard choice, but it’s a choice of love. Please, make the right choice when it is time to say goodbye.”
Dr. Michele Weaver, one of the women in the video and owner of Look Ahead Veterinary Services, evaluates each horse brought to the clinic. Those considered adoptable are taken to the rescue, and the remaining horses are placed in a stall where their owners are allowed to spend as much time as they want to say their farewells. The animals spend the night at the facility and are given hay and grain. Weaver sedates the horses prior to euthanizing them.
Many of the horses that end up at the clinic are crippled or very old. On occasion, the clinic will see a wild and dangerous animal. In nearly all of the cases, Weaver said the choice to put the horse down is completely justifiable. On average, the clinic handles about 20 horses a month. That’s a lot of death in a short couple of days, but the veterinarian says knowing it’s the right thing to do helps her overcome the emotional aspects of her task.
“Most of the time it’s a job, so I want to do the best job I can,” she said. “I want the horses to have no anxiety—no pain.”
Weaver also takes part in many of the success stories out of NorCal Equine Rescue. There are hundreds of them, though some are more memorable—and miraculous—than others. One of the greats is the rehabilitation of Phoenix, a 7-year-old thoroughbred-cross (an appendix quarter horse and former race horse) that was picked up near Modesto last spring after complaints from a concerned and persistent passerby. In this case, the owner agreed to surrender the gelding.
Phoenix was anemic and required immediate plasma transfusions. His mouth was ulcerous from having only toxic weeds as feed, and he had no muscle. Weaver said it was touch and go whether he would survive, but the gelding pulled through.
“He’s the thinnest horse that survived that I’ve ever seen,” she said. “He could have died the first two months he was here. He was just all bones—just amazing.”
After six months of constant care at the veterinary facility, he went to his new permanent home at the rescue. A horse lover paid for all of the life-saving vet care and is sponsoring Phoenix for the rest of his days.
The combination of so many people desperate to find homes for their animals and a dearth of buyers is a bad one. Horses considered average quality are frequently listed as giveaways on Craigslist and other Web sites, and the prices of higher-quality equines are about half the going rate found several years ago.
Weaver also consults with Butte County Animal Control on potential cases of cruelty, including increasing numbers of malnourished horses.
“I think people don’t have the means to support them and don’t know how to get rid of them, or don’t want to get rid of them,” she said.
Butte County Animal Control Officer Debra Trew echoed Weaver. Some people simply cannot afford the care the animals require, she said.
Trew, a 14-year veteran BCAC officer, said there are times when an equine is so neglected or injured that it needs to be seized immediately, but that the agency’s response varies case by case. “We do try to work with the owner,” she said. “We don’t want to have to take the animal.”
Lyndia Wade, a longtime successful local horse breeder, gets three or four calls a month from people who want to give her their animals. She’s taken in a few at her 80-acre Escamilla Farms, but the recently widowed horsewoman has all she can handle.
“I’m struggling, too, just like everyone else,” said Wade, who has been around horses for more than 50 years.
Wade is expecting only four foals this year. During a typical spring she would be preparing for the birth of 20 at her Butte Valley farm. She started cutting back on her breeding program as soon as real estate started tanking, having noted over the years that there’s a direct correlation between the two markets.
She’s also seen a huge decline in interest from outside horse breeders. So far this year, she’s booked only two broodmares for her operation that houses three stallions at stud—a paint, a quarter horse and a thoroughbred. In an average year, 15 to 20 is the norm.
“People can’t afford it,” she said. “It’s dropped. It’s bad, really, really bad.”
In the meantime, she won’t be lowering the price of the horses she has for sale, for fear that they might end up in the wrong hands.
“If somebody is willing to pay [full price] for a horse, they’re going to have the means to take care of it,” she said.
Like Weaver, Wade too has seen the evidence of people cutting back on feeding their animals. Just recently she noticed some extremely thin horses in Glenn County, on her way into Orland. Her hope is that the animals are rescues and getting the care they need. In a lot of cases of neglect, she thinks people are sort of blinded by their desperation.
“For the most part, horse people are great people,” she said. “They love their animals.”
She has heard horror stories, such as people turning their horses loose in Nevada. For domesticated animals that have no idea how to live in the wild, it’s a move that is certain to lead to a painful starvation death. Wade said she would rather see California reinstitute the legal slaughter of horses than have the animals go hungry.
Preisner thinks differently, and would rather euthanize healthy horses than see them trucked off. Investigations by organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States, have uncovered horrifying conditions—horses jammed into trailers with no food or water for days on end as they are carted to those Mexican and Canadian slaughterhouses.
A national movement for an all-out ban on the shipment and sale of horses to be slaughtered for consumption, and other uses, has been waged in the halls of Congress for years. The latest version of legislation—the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2009—is supported by animal-welfare organizations, including In Defense of Animals and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, and by celebrities such as Morgan Freeman, Jeff Bridges and Shasta County’s own Merle Haggard.
Of course, the best-case scenario is to find unwanted animals stable homes with responsible owners. Responsibility is a key word with Preisner, who is always on the lookout for animals in need. During a recent interview, she drove by a house where horses are frequently tied up for long periods of time without water. Preisner keeps a small digital camera next to her in the cab, and she isn’t shy about posting photos on the rescue’s Web site.
Jason, her husband, who “married into horse life,” takes care of the intensive labor at the rescue in addition to maintaining the Web site and its near-daily blog on the happenings. They also rely on some very dedicated volunteers. The Preisners are an impressive twosome. Tawnee Preisner has a maturity level well beyond her 26 years. The couple have a life that revolves around caring for animals—not just equines, either—and they’re constantly on the go. If that wasn’t enough, they do it all while rearing four children.
NorCal outgrew its current home at the couple’s 16-acre ranch in the foothills sometime ago, so the organization had been on the lookout for a new property. Preisner kept tabs on a 20-acre parcel for sale for several months and, thanks to an impressive fundraising campaign a few weeks back, was able match funding of an $8,500 single donation in less than 24 hours. Added to the $13,000 already in the coffers, the money helped to close escrow on the $69,000 purchase price.
Flatter and more usable, the site is located about 11 miles away and not far down a gravel road off of a main thoroughfare south of Palermo. The Sutter Buttes serve as an amazing backdrop to what is lush green property this time of year. Preisner envisions NorCal’s future home with a covered adoption center with stalled areas for the equines and on-site modular housing for staff. That vision is a long way off, though, since the property, fenced pastureland, is now completely bare—no electricity, no well, nothing.
“It has a lot of potential,” said Preisner, who wants to construct a drop-off pen near the entrance for unwanted animals. “Kind of like how you can take a baby to the hospital, no questions asked.”
If anyone can accomplish this monumental project, it would be Preisner. Weaver, the veterinarian, noted her knack for finding a solution when there’s a need, like purchasing a tranquilizer gun for the veterinary staff to sedate unruly equines brought to the euthanasia clinic.
“She’s quite amazing. She’s easygoing and she walks the walk,” said Weaver, pointing out Preisner is a vegan.
For her part, Preisner says she takes things one day at a time. She kind of has to, because she never knows what will happen from day to day. It was hard last week to see Spring Bo stay in his home, though there was a bright spot when another animal-welfare organization agreed to pay for special feed for the old horse. That offer came after Preisner organized a protest in front of the animal’s Penn Valley home. Part of her thinks that the help enables an abuser, while the other part is glad to see the horse get some care.
Weaver, who has examined photos of the horse, said the gelding would be better in the hands of animal control. She said the horse is without a doubt a body score of one based on a scale of one to 10 called the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System, which law enforcement officials widely use to determine cases of cruelty. Essentially, that means the horse is as skinny as possible for a living equine.
“It’s definitely neglect,” she said.
Preisner still hopes there’s a chance NorCal can aid the horse. The same anonymous sponsor who paid to rehabilitate Phoenix has offered the same chance to the old palomino.
Another letdown last week was the death of a recent rescue, a 3-year-old emaciated filly that Colusa County Animal Control officers found early last month wandering loose, dumped on a gravel road in an area where other stray horses have been picked up. NorCal paid for extensive dental work for Love Bug, who had a pretty severe jaw deformity. The young horse seemed to be recovering nicely, but began bleeding from the mouth. Turns out she also had a separate problem, a disease that would require another surgery. Even then, there would be no guarantees.
After talking with volunteers, the vet and other rescuers, Preisner chose to have Love Bug euthanized.
“It broke my heart … but it’s the kindest thing we could do for her at that point,” she said. “For me, it’s nice knowing that she had a few days where she felt good.”
There’s also the practical reality that the money used to pay for Love Bug’s surgery could pay to rescue many other animals. Preisner said she keeps going on by looking at the bigger picture.
“It’s a hard life, but you make a difference in so many animals’ lives,” she said. “I would encourage people who are financially able to adopt a horse to go to a rescue. Whatever you’re able to do makes a difference, whether it’s in the life of a horse, or a dog or cat at a shelter.
“If an animal needs help and you can prevent the suffering of that animal, you should.”