Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Horse Rescuer

A horse in need of rescue

In an earlier post I wrote about my positive experiences as a volunteer at a local horse show. The proceeds benefited the United States Equine Rescue League. According to its mission statement, U.S.E.R.L. is a:

...non-profit organization dedicated to the compassionate care of equines. 
Our mission is to save, protect, and rehabilitate equines in need. We rescue 
 abused, neglected, or abandoned equines; provide them with care and 
 rehabilitation; and finally find them a compatible, loving home. 
We believe that education is the long-term solution 
to improving the lives of equines.

I have often been amazed and inspired by what a dedicated group of volunteers can do for animals in need, and U.S.E.R.L. is perhaps the best example I know. My good friend and U.S.E.R.L. volunteer, Amy Woodard, is deeply involved in this organization and an important part of its success. She is currently the Regional Director of the Northeastern North Carolina region and of the Tidewater, Virginia region. She is Co-director of the Richmond, Virginia region, too. In other words, Amy is in charge of directing U.S.E.R.L.'s work in ten counties in Eastern North Carolina and all parts of Virginia south of Williamsburg and east of Glouster, all the way to the Virginia border. She's a member U.S.E.R.L.'s National Board of Directors as well.

Amy takes on many different roles in her work for horses, from hands-on rescue work, to fostering, to fundraising, to media relations and more. She is even a Lead Investigator in her regions of North Carolina and Virginia in the investigation and prosecution of neglect and cruelty cases related to equines. As part of this work she must appear as a witness in these cases in court. How Amy works at all this so energetically and tirelessly, year after year, without any financial compensation, I will never know. And she does this while working full-time as an elementary school teacher to support herself, her family, her own horses, and her rescue work.

Speaking of her teaching experience, she even wrote and illustrated a children's book, The Day the Teacher Rode a Horse to School, to raise money for horses in need. Her teaching experience certainly also comes in handy as she carries out some of the educational portions of the Rescue League's mission. On October 1st she even taught a group of twenty-nine Animal Control Officers about equine cruelty investigations at a Basic Animal Control Officer's Academy in Virginia. 

Recently I asked her how she got started with her work with U.S.E.R.L. Here is what she told me:

Amy used to have a horse that she used for giving lessons in Elizabeth City, Pasquotank County, North Carolina. We'll call him "Ace"--not his real name. A former student of hers was looking for a horse, but she couldn't find a horse that she liked as much as Ace. Amy sold Ace to the student, who later resold him. The horse may have been resold more than once thereafter.

A few years later, in 2001, Amy learned that Ace was once again for sale because he was old: about 27 years by this point. So she went to visit her old equine friend.

She was horrified by what she saw. The horse was not only old, but skinny, injured, and lame. Lethargic, with his head held low, Ace was picking at a bowl of oats covered with chicken feces. His pasture had little grass and was full of weeds. It even looked dangerous, strewn with debris and rusted-out farm implements, perhaps the source of his injuries. A cut on his front knee, left untreated, was swollen with a softball-sized calcium deposit. This resulted in stiffness in the joint and lameness.

Amy was at a point in her life when she had little extra money. She talked to the owner to see what it would take to buy Ace. But the owner had paid $1,000.00 for him when he had been in better condition and would take nothing less for him. He then said words that were so greedy and heartless, they changed Amy's life and the lives of many horses forever:

"I know you can't stand to look at him like that, so just write the check and let's get this over with," the man sneered.

Up to that point, Amy had been considering coming up with the money to make some kind offer the man could accept. But right then and there she decided she wouldn't pay this person for Ace if she had all the money in the world. Nobody should profit from cruelty and neglect. She turned around, left the man behind, found Ace, and hugged her old horse. Crying, she told him she was sorry, but she couldn't help him.

She went home angry. She called Pasquotank County Animal Control but learned that it could not help with "livestock animals." The department did not have the resources for the investigation of equine cases nor the facilities to impound horses. If a horse was so abused or neglected that it died, then the department could investigate for possible cruelty charges, but otherwise its hands were tied.

Horrified, Amy searched online to see what she could do to change this terrible situation. She found U.S.E.R.L., at that time called The North Carolina Equine Rescue League. Based in the Winston-Salem and Raleigh areas far west of where she lived, the organization was willing to expand. She began to volunteer for the group in the area surrounding Elizabeth City. But back then she just wanted to  raise funds and to educate people. "I didn't want to be in charge; I just wanted to help horses," she says. She certainly never wanted to see other skinny horses in terrible condition like Ace had been. Ironically, she now sees them all the time (see photos on this page).

Same horse as top photo, close-up to show body condition.

So why does she do it? 

Her life's mission is to prevent any other horse-lovers from feeling as helpless as she did when she found out about Ace. "I feel that every skinny, neglected animal, once had somebody that loved it," she says.While she never obtained resources in time to help him--she would later discover he'd been sold at auction for a fraction of the money the owner had demanded--she works tirelessly so others will have the resources they need to help abused, neglected, or abandoned horses.

With the help of Amy and countless other supporters and volunteers, U.S.E.R.L. has produced considerable results for horses and other equines. According to its website, the League has rescued on average over 200 horses per year since its incorporation in 1997. Under Amy's efforts as Lead Investigator, the organization has been involved in the prosecution of several high-profile cases in Southeastern Virginia. One hundred and twenty-five horses were seized in four different cases alone. This workload comes on top of numerous smaller cases involving five or fewer horses at a time. The largest seizure with her involvement to date has been the Dinwiddy, Virginia, case: fifty-seven horses seized at one time.

Same horse on the mend under U.S.E.R.L.'s care, 10/3/12. Photos courtesy of U.S.E.R.L.

With the assistance of her volunteer network, Amy has fostered out about seventy-five to one hundred horses out of her own barn since she started in 2001. She quickly fosters out the easier cases, but she winds up fostering many of the sickest horses, or the ones with the most difficult behavior problems, herself. She envisions herself working as a horse rescue volunteer for as long as she's able to or until there is enough change in the community that there's no more need for her efforts. 

Unfortunately, she does not foresee that day coming anytime soon. She gets new calls about cases every week, and she needs all the volunteers, donations, and other support she can get. Any reader who is interested in learning more about U.S.E.R.L.'s work in Virginia and Northeastern North Carolina should check out the organization's website or the regional chapters' Facebook page for more information.

Update on 12/8/12: USERL has released this beautiful Christmas video with rescued horses, just in time for the holidays. Take a few minutes to watch these inspiring animals and the volunteers who help them!

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