hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News February-March 2016


Riding to the rescue

Chatham farm gives sanctuary to equines saved from slaughter


The mule Emma, one of the animals rescued by Equine Advocates, stands with the group’s founder and president, Susan Wagner. The group currently cares for 81 animals at its sanctuary in Chatham. Susan Sabino photoBy JOHN TOWNES
Contributing writer



The mule Emma, one of the animals rescued by Equine Advocates, stands with the group’s founder and president, Susan Wagner. The group currently cares for 81 animals at its sanctuary in Chatham. Susan Sabino photo

The four-legged residents of Equine Advocates have many different shapes, sizes and personalities.

They range from stately thoroughbred racers to sturdy workhorses and mules to three humorously quirky miniature donkeys nicknamed “the three amigos.”

Their pasts are also varied. Some come from the world of racing and horse breeding. Others performed heavy hauling on farms and other labor, or were attractions at zoos and summer camps. Among them is a former New York City carriage horse.

What they have in common is that they were rescued from abusive situations and/or saved from horrific deaths in slaughterhouses.

Today, they live out their lives in the comfortable environment of the 140-acre sanctuary operated by Equine Advocates, which will mark its 20th anniversary in February.

Equine Advocates is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to rescue horses, mules and donkeys. It currently houses and cares for 81 equines. It also has arrangements with foster homes in other locations for another 20 animals.

The organization also works to prevent the abuse of equine animals. It conducts activities to raise awareness and educate the public about the treatment of equines -- and to encourage horse owners to make humane decisions regarding their animals.

People often assume that horses end their days being peacefully “put out to pasture” once they are no longer useful for roles such as racing, breeding, laboring, being ridden, displayed as show horses or serving as pets.

But that is not the case, according to Susan Wagner, the founder and president of Equine Advocates, which is on Route 66 a couple of miles north of the village of Chatham.
“People don’t realize the terrible things that often happen to horses once their owners have no more use for them,” Wagner said.

One major focus for Equine Advocates is the practice of selling horses to slaughterhouses. Those animals spend their final days being subjected to harsh treatment when they are being transported, kept in pens and eventually killed.

Wagner said that is the fate of many horses. They include animals that are sold by owners who see them only as commercial assets. Other owners have a bond with their horses but may sell them without realizing the consequences for the horses, she said.

“The problem is that it seems more convenient to sell the animal for slaughter,” she said. “The horse is taken away, and the owner makes a little money from the sale.”
It is not as simple as that, however, Wagner said.

“What happens when they are sold for slaughter is horrible, barbaric and terrifying to the animals,” she said. “The suffering of the animal has to be taken into account. They deserve better than that.”


Rescues and education
Wagner said one of the goals of Equine Advocates is to encourage owners to find alternatives for horses they can no longer keep and care for.

“Owners have to be responsible when they can no longer keep an animal,” she said. “It’s important to make the effort to find a caring home for them. Or if that is not possible, the animals should at least be put down humanely, which is not very expensive.”

Equine Advocates locates and acquires the animals it rescues through investigations, tip-offs, law enforcement agencies and other sources of information. Wagner also attends horse auctions and buys animals to prevent their sale for slaughter.

“We also get calls from people who have horses and want help in finding homes for them,” she said.

Wagner’s organization has to be selective in the animals it takes in at its sanctuary because of the limitations of space and resources. The group works with a network of other rescue organizations and foster homes to try to place other animals, she said.

“One of our goals is to acquire additional adjacent land, so we can enlarge the sanctuary and increase the number of animals we can house,” said Wagner, who lives in a farmhouse on the property with her sister Karen, who is the organization’s vice president and development director.
The sanctuary has a farm manager and a staff that includes several office workers, a crew that maintains the facilities, and an equine care staff. Volunteers back up the paid staff.

The sanctuary’s open rolling property is divided by a maze of fences into smaller pastures and paddocks. Each section serves as home for two or more animals, offering them open areas to graze and move, and small shelters where they are fed.

The animals are grouped by breed, compatibility and other factors. Each area has a name that describes its occupants, such as Goodfellows, where several male horses reside. They are also marked by small signs with the names and pictures of the resident equines.

The sanctuary has a large central barn, with stalls for animals that need special care. It also contains a veterinary medicine room.

A feeding room is lined with buckets marked with individual horses’ names, where meals for each animal at the sanctuary are individually prepared. The animals are fed three or four times daily, and each receives a special diet tailored to its nutritional and medical needs.

The property has another large building that serves as an education center, where the organization conducts workshops and programs. Equine Advocates also hosts conferences for animal advocacy organizations.


Taking up a cause
Wagner said she has loved horses ever since she was a girl. As an adult, she worked for 15 years in the racing industry. She started as a groomer and later held other positions, including working in public relations.

But it wasn’t until she started working for the New York Zoological Society that she became aware of the fate of many horses.

She explained that it was decided that one particular horse, Gandalf, was not temperamentally suited for the zoo and would have to be removed.

“When I asked what was going to happen to him, I was told that he would be sent to the slaughterhouse,” she recalled. “That was the first I had heard about that, and I was horrified. I was also upset that I had worked in racing but this had been a deep dark secret.”

That was the beginning of her first animal rescue. She convinced a friend who owned a farm in Maryland to provide a home for Gandalf.

Wagner began to investigate the fate of equines in depth, and she started running Equine Advocates in 1996 out of her New York City apartment.

“We garnered supporters and contributions gradually,” she said. “People who learned of what we were doing came to us and offered to help.”

Equine Advocates conducted its first major rescue in 1997, when the group saved 27 ponies owned by a camp in Catskill that had gone bankrupt. Wagner went to court to block the animals’ potential sales for slaughter, and her group arranged to find new homes for them.

“A local paper gave the situation high-profile coverage, and we gained publicity because we had come to the rescue,” she recalled.

Wagner also worked with law enforcement agencies and journalists, including on an expose of horse auctions on the syndicated television program “Hard Copy,” among other projects.
In its early years, Equine Advocates placed rescued animals in foster care at a variety of locations. But in 2004, the group had the opportunity to buy its current site, a former horse farm that had fallen into disrepair. A fund-raising campaign led to the creation of Equine Advocates Rescue and Sanctuary.

The organization is actively involved in efforts to reduce the practice of selling equine animals for slaughter, which has been a longstanding and contentious issue.

Although Americans do not eat horsemeat, it is consumed in Europe and other parts of the world. Until 2007, there were slaughterhouses in the United States owned by European firms that exported horsemeat.

Apart from concerns about slaughterhouse practices, Wagner said horsemeat is not healthy for humans to eat.

“Horses are given chemicals such as phenylbutazone for medical and other purposes,” she said. “They don’t harm the horses, but they are toxic to humans.”

In 2014 and again last year, congressional bills defunded inspections of horsemeat, which essentially outlawed the sale of it in the United States.

But the animals continue to be sold at auctions in the United States and transported to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico.


Opposing estrogen drugs
Another issue that Equine Advocates is involved with is the Pregnant Mares’ Urine, or PMU, industry. In PMU “factories,” mares are kept continually pregnant to produce estrogen-rich urine. This is used to produce Premarin, Duavee and other estrogen replacement drugs that are administered to postmenopausal women.

“Those horses are treated horribly, and they have absolutely miserable lives,” Wagner said. “They are subjected to the strain of constant pregnancy. They are confined and restrained, so they can’t move, and are connected to extraction tubes. Once they are worn out, they are sold for slaughter.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first approved PMU drugs in 1942. There used to be a number of PMU farms in Canada, but most production now has been moved overseas to China.
Equine Advocates has been active in the rescue of PMU horses, and there currently are two animals from PMU facilities living at the sanctuary.

“We are working to encourage women not to use drugs containing PMU,” Wagner said. “Aside from being inhumane, studies have linked these products to cancer and other diseases in women. There are alternatives today that do not involve the PMU industry and are healthier.”

Although the property is often closed to protect the horses, Equine Advocates is open to visitors by appointment. It also holds a series of free Open Days, from April through November, when the public can enjoy the property and visit the animals. More information is available at the Web site equineadvocates.org.