They help horses, don’t they?
When cash-strapped owners abandon or neglect their animals, NorCal Equine Rescue steps up to the plate
Last month was a rough one for Tawnee Preisner, a real kick in the gut.
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 to Nevada County, to Penn Valley, based on a phone call from a concerned citizen, to see the decrepit beast.
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.
Preisner and a volunteer waited for the owner to return home. When he did, she asked the man, an older gentleman and self-described cowboy, if he needed help caring for the horse and whether it had been checked by a veterinarian. The man said he couldn’t afford a vet and that he was feeding the horse sufficiently.
“He’s a pretty tough hombre,” the man said of the 28-year-old gelding named Spring Bo. “He’s got a barn over there that he goes underneath. … He’s cowboying up. That’s what he is; he’s a cowboy horse.”
Preisner asked if he would surrender Spring Bo 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 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.
“It’s not legal to starve your horse down to shoot it,” Preisner said, reflecting back on that day.
Such experiences aren’t unusual for Preisner and her husband, Jason. During the past seven years, the couple has grown NorCal Equine Rescue into one of the state’s most successful nonprofit animal-welfare organizations for equines. Thanks to the economic downturn, they’re busier now than they’ve ever been.
“The economy is killing horses in droves is what it’s coming down to,” Preisner said.
The 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, 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.
NorCal Equine Rescue is located on the outskirts of Oroville, about 70 miles north of Sacramento. Many of the horses that end up there these days have been surrendered by owners and might otherwise end up at auction, where they may be destined for slaughter. Others have been dropped off by animal-control officials. Some 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. 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 in Preisner’s headlights.
She 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 tire tracks from the trailer that had backed up to the gate, dropped the horse off and made a quick getaway.
“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.”
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 Livestock Auction, where Preisner would sit behind “killer buyers,” outbidding them on horses that would otherwise be bound for out-of-country 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 jolt 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.
That’s become harder to prevent since the percentage of horses being placed in adoptive homes has dropped significantly, from 87 percent in 2008 to 56 percent in 2009. With the numbers of mistreated and abandoned horses increasing, the rescue has been operating well beyond capacity. Preisner was forced 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.
Dr. Michele Weaver, 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.
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.
“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 than others. Phoenix, a 7-year-old thoroughbred cross (an appendix quarter horse and former racehorse) was picked up near Modesto last spring after complaints from a concerned and persistent passerby.
The owner agreed to surrender the gelding, which was anemic and required immediate plasma transfusions. His mouth was ulcerous from having only toxic weeds as feed; his muscles had atrophied.
“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.
Of course, the best-case scenario is to find unwanted animals stable homes with responsible owners. Responsibility is a key for 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.
NorCal outgrew its current home at the couple’s 16-acre ranch in the foothills sometime ago, so the organization recently purchased a 20-acre parcel 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, stall areas for the horses and on-site modular housing for staff. That vision is a long way off, though, since the property, fenced pastureland, is now completely undeveloped.
“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.”
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 month 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, an offer that came after Preisner organized a protest in front of the animal’s Penn Valley home.
Another letdown last month came with 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 the filly, dubbed Love Bug, which had a severe jaw deformity. The young horse seemed to be recovering, but then began bleeding from the mouth. Turns out she had a separate problem 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.”