To drive by Jennifer Malpass' 10-acre farm in rural Zebulon and see the dozen or so horses peacefully grazing on grass and clover, you would not know that at one time, these same horses had been hobbled and starved by their previous owners.
Malpass, the regional director of the U.S. Equine Rescue League, which has a Triangle chapter, helps save these horses with a network of volunteers, foster parents and adoptive homes. Except for the three horses that she owns, the others on the farm are up for adoption.
She points to Tater, who, with several other horses, was seized from Surry County in an animal cruelty case. "It was a very pitiful group of horses," Malpass says. "His growth was stunted. He was 10 months old and looked like a 3-month-old."
Although he'll never be as large as his half-brother, who was born at the Malpass farm, Tater has blossomed into a majestic, sociable horse. Others crowd the fence line and nibble on a visitor's finger.
The number of people surrendering their horses, either voluntarily or by court order, has increased, Malpass said, in part due to the economy and families' financial hardships, but also because the prices of horses has dropped. It's cheap to buy a horse. But it's expensive to care for one.
"People got them cheaply and then they didn't have the financial stability to take care of them," Malpass says.
It costs at least $2,000 a year to adequately care for a horse, including ferrier services, veterinary bills, grain and hay.
In the past month, says Shelley Swaim, who has worked in the horse industry for 30 years, she has seen four horses that were surrendered by their owners and another six that were "strays"—dumped.
"You never used to hear of a stray horse," Swaim said. "If you did, you could find the owner."
Now people ride a horse down a trail, Swaim said, remove the bridle and saddle and turn it loose—as if abandoning a car and removing the license plates and registration.
While there are more horses to save, there are a limited number of foster parents who can afford to take them in. In 2008, the league accepted 100 horses in North Carolina; in 2009, it took in just 90 in order to prudently manage its caseload.
County animal control departments and shelters aren't equipped to take in horses, so officials rely on horse rescue groups to help them. "There is no place, no other resources for them," Malpass said. "They don't have a budget for horse cases. And they don't have the facilities."
Usually, horse owners are given a chance to comply with animal control laws before their pets are seized. "I agree with that," Malpass said. "Maybe it wasn't intentional. I'd say in 90 percent of the time, people didn't know what they were doing was wrong. And in 10 percent, they did."
In those cases, such as the one in Surry County, a judge orders the seizing of the animals, and sheriff's deputies deliver the warrant.
When a horse is surrendered or seized by county animal control officials, it enters a quarantine program at the farm, is evaluated by a veterinarian and placed on a refeeding program. "We go very, very slowly," said Malpass, a former regional animal cruelty investigator. Given the choice to eat freely, a starving animal will gorge, and can die from the stress on its body.
In the barn, which is equipped with a baby monitor, Malpass pets several horses, including former stallions, that aren't ready to mix with others in the pasture. Amigo was a stallion until recently. "He still thinks he is," Malpass said. Others may need to gain weight and eat special diets. They may be elderly, such as 39-year-old Duchess and 33-year-old Shalimar. (The average lifespan for a horse is 25 to 30.) Cletus, the donkey, is head-shy from being abused but is learning to trust people. Malpass cradles his head in her arms and scratches him between the ears.
If you're considering adopting or surrendering a horse, Swaim recommends visiting the rescue group. Malpass' organization has an excellent reputation, for example, but Swaim warns that some rescuers are little more than breeders. "You get the big, warm, fuzzy feeling that you've left your animal with a no-kill, and what happens is the animal ends up in a horrific breeding situation."
If somebody doesn't want to meet on his or her property and allow you to see the horses, that's a bad sign.
And most important, before you buy a horse, remember the financial commitment.
"That one-acre grass lot is going to last about three weeks," Malpass says. "Horses are a luxury item."