All morning the December sky has been pressing down like an anvil, heavy and dark. The temperature is just above freezing—cold, but not quite cold enough to transform the sheets of rain into a more cheerful mist of snow. As it is, the wintry dampness steals under your skin, takes up residence in your bones.
But for the horses tucked inside Horse Haven's West Knoxville barn, the storm swirling outside is just white noise. They're preoccupied by piles of sweet-smelling hay, pausing occasionally to take a leisurely slurp of water or nap in a nest of fluffy pine shavings. Like the weather outside, their past lives—narratives checkered with cruelty and neglect—are a thousand miles away.
Nina Margetson, Horse Haven's founding president and executive director, sits in an office a few feet away from her four-legged charges. Suited up in muck boots and muddy jeans, she hardly looks the part of an administrative guru. But it was her vision and passion that got Horse Haven through its first 10 years as the first and largest equine humane organization in Tennessee.
Margetson, a longtime advocate for the animal welfare community, founded Horse Haven in 1999 after recognizing the need for a shelter for down-on-their-luck equines. "There weren't really any options out there for horses that were abused and neglected," she explains.
She emphasizes that the organization does not drive around the countryside looking for skinny horses. Rather, they get called in by local law enforcement or the Humane Society to confiscate the victims of equine maltreatment cases and maintain them as evidence. Horse Haven is a statewide organization but, due to the size of the state, works mainly in counties east of Nashville, responding to West Tennessee calls on an as-needed basis.
"We will pick up, house, and care for horses that are confiscated by law enforcement in cruelty and neglect cases while the cases go through the court process," Margetson says.
What happens next, she says, is up to the judge. "Hopefully the courts will remove those animals from the owners, and they'll be placed in our custody. Then, in turn, we can find an adopted home for them, and we'll monitor that home so they don't end up back in the same situation they came from," she says.
Over the years, 253 horses have come through the Horse Haven program, with upwards of 50 horses in 2008 alone. Some, like Brave Warrior, arrive with horror stories. "A gentleman traded his chainsaw to his neighbor for this horse, and when the horse wouldn't get into his trailer he decided to tie him to his bumper and drug him home," Margetson recalls, shaking her head in disgust. "And then he tied him to a tree for three days with no water. That's when we got called in."
Others are victims of mere ignorance. For instance, there was a case in Union County where a well-meaning family went to the auction house on a Saturday night and came home with four cheap horses. They strung some barbed wire through the trees around their trailer, which had no running water, and turned the horses out. Within months, their new "pets" were skin and bones.
"The majority of the situations are people who don't have the money and don't realize the responsibility that comes with owning a horse," Margetson says. "They think they can just sit it on an acre of land and throw it some water and it's all set and ready to go."
In reality, says Margetson, it costs approximately $1,200 per year to meet a horse's most basic needs: hay, grain, deworming, vaccinations, and the occasional visit from a farrier. And that's best-case scenario. The tab can soar hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars higher if the horse gets sick or injured and requires additional veterinary care.
Margetson says that "auction fever"—her term for when people buy multiple cheap horse from local auctions, either because they believe they are rescuing them or they think they can resell the horses for profit—is another big problem.
"It's a hoarding mentality," she says. "They find some little old lady who has a big farm and isn't using the property and offer her a small sum to put 20 or 30 horses on it. Then, when the grass is gone, they don't continue to feed them, or they don't bother going to see if the creek has dried up." Such a situation was to blame for Horse Haven's largest confiscation case to date, involving 36 horses in Greeneville. Having been all but abandoned by their owners, the horses were starving—some already dead—by the time the landowner finally called the authorities.
Waking up to tragedies like this is an unpleasant, but not uncommon, part of Margetson's job. ("Job" being another word for a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week labor of love—she only began accepting a small salary for herself in July 2008.) But what keeps her going are the success stories: horses rescued from near-death situations, rehabbed, and placed in healthy, loving homes.
Horse Haven graduates have evolved into successful jumpers, trail horses, and carriage ponies. Others are happily retired from riding, living the good life as beloved pets. Take, for instance, Buck, a miniature pony rescued years ago from his "stall," a three-foot tall chicken coop. Buck's legs, deformed from living in the too-small cage, were eventually straightened with the help of special horseshoes, tiny leg braces, and lots of care from the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital, and he was able to be adopted out. The home his new owners built him, a little red barn outfitted with pony-sized flowerboxes, is significantly more suitable.
Freckles is another horse whose number was nearly, prematurely, up. He'd already been through the Horse Haven program when his new owner, in violation of the adoption contract she'd signed, sold him. Margetson and her associates caught up to Freckles at an auction house in Cookeville. He was tied to a post with eight other horses, his fate in serious jeopardy once again. "We got with the trader who had him—who had bought him legitimately, not knowing his background—and ended up having to pay $550 to get him back," she says.
It was money well spent. Auction horses rarely have a bright future ahead of them; slaughtering horses may be illegal in the United States, but it's not against the law to transport horses across the border to renderers in Canada and Mexico. With few enforced regulations, it's not a peaceful way to go.
"I've seen a local trader on a Monday morning when he loads up his truck and puts every horse imaginable—big horses, little horses, leg injuries, babies, stallions—all just shoved into a trailer. Listening to what's going on in that trailer and knowing they're going to be on the road for who knows how long, you wonder how many are really going to make it where they're going," Margetson says.
Destiny had another plan in store for Freckles. If the soulful-eyed gelding was ever mistreated in his past, his new adopters, Sharon and Wally Brines, are now working overtime to make up for it. The adoptee was greeted at his new home with welcome signs, balloons, and tears.
"When he stepped off that trailer, I just gasped and broke into tears," recalls Sharon. "To know that he was in his ‘forever' home, that he would never again wonder if there was going to be hay or water or good pasture or a place to come into out of the weather. It was one of the happiest days of my life."
Sonja Cowsert is another satisfied Horse Haven adopter. She was a volunteer at the program when she met Charlie, victim of a backyard surgery gone wrong. "Somebody tried to castrate him and did a very, very bad job," Cowsert says. "He got away from them and ran around Grainger County for almost a week before they managed to catch him." Real vets later had to amputate his penis.
Cowsert says Charlie was "a special needs child" for a while. But with time and patience, he eventually came around, both physically and emotionally, and is now a kid-safe riding pony. "It took him a long time to realize that the food was going to keep coming and that he didn't have to be so aggressive at feeding time," she says. "But horses as a rule are fairly forgiving creatures."
It has been her experience, both as an equine professional and Horse Haven volunteer, that dealing with horses is usually the easy part. Dealing with human personalities, on the other hand, can be trying. It's frustrating, she says, when abuse and neglect cases get tied up in court for months, even years, while the evidence—living, breathing horses—waits in the wings. Horse Haven has held horses for up to 24 months while their cases play out in court, unable to be adopted.
In 2007, Horse Haven helped pass the Care Bond Law. It requires defendants in abuse/neglect cases whose horses have been confiscated to bond the animals out in a manner similar to how people bond themselves out when they go to court.
"If the counties can't afford to pay us, then the owner is supposed to pay a reasonable care bond for the horse within 15 days," Margetson says. The price-tag for "reasonable care" is $140 per month, a lowball figure that rarely covers the sometimes sick, often emaciated horse's expenses.
At least, Margetson says, it's a start. The problem is that judges aren't familiar with the law and therefore aren't being strict about enforcing it. "So we end up holding the horses for months and months and months," she explains. "You take $140 a month and multiply it by—the last case had 20 horses in it. The owner is not going to pay that bill two years later. So the horses finally get relinquished, but in the meantime we've spent thousands and thousands and thousands on animals that are just hanging in limbo."
Restitution is rare: Horse Haven collected only about $4,000 in restitution in 2007. And when the animals are released back to their owners or the owners are sent on their way with a slap on the wrist, it's an extra dose of salt in the wound. "Especially with the large animals, even if we have an abuse case that is as crystal clear as the day is long, it is very hard to get the justice system to dole out punishment," says Cowsert.
In 2009, Horse Haven hopes to launch Hoofbeats Across Tennessee, a series of five-day road trips to various East Tennessee counties aimed at educating local officials, law enforcement agents, county extension agents and the general public. "We want to let them know what we're here for and how we can help," Margetson says.
Sitting in the corner of her office, cluttered with books and bills and the occasional horse-show ribbon, Margetson maintains that she wishes there was no need for Horse Haven to exist. That won't happen, she says, as long as there are more horses than there are people who are responsible enough to care for them. And that won't happen until people begin breeding horses more responsibly.
"The dollar figure of horses has just dropped because of over-breeding," she says. "People breed just to breed: ‘I want a baby.' Same thing as you hear with puppies: ‘I want a puppy.' And then when the puppy grows up and chews up their furniture they get ticked off and send it away."
The relatively lengthy lifespan of horses is a mixed blessing. "A dog, a cat, you're looking at 12, 15 years maybe," Margetson says. "With a horse, you're looking at 30, sometimes 40 years. Are you prepared for a lifelong animal? Are you prepared to retire it when you can't ride it anymore, and take care of it for another decade or two?"
Euthanasia, she says, is a touchy issue. Horse Haven has caught some slack for its offer to provide free transport, within 30 miles of Knoxville, to horses whose owners wish to have them humanely put down. Margetson's rationale is that it's better to euthanize an animal than have it end up in the system—starving to death in a horse trader's field, or crammed into a Mexico-bound stock trailer. That's how Margetson says she wants her horses to go out if she is unable to take care of them anymore. (Unless, she adds, there's an opening at Freckles' farm...)
"I don't know about cats and dogs, but I know horses are going to heaven," she says, looking out the office window into the barn. Somewhere down the aisle, a horse snorts—carrumph!—as if to agree.
Go to horsehavenoftn.com for information on how you can assist the facility.