Helping Horses Heal: On the Farm at the Hooved Animal Humane Society

One cold January morning in northwestern Illinois three nearly frozen horses were found locked up in a filthy, dilapidated barn. They stood in more than a foot of manure where they had been chained in tiny stalls for 9 months without seeing daylight or breathing fresh air. The water troughs were frozen solid and no food was found on the premises. Their ribs and hipbones protruded grotesquely from their bodies, and they teetered on the brink of death.

Their rescuers brought them to the Hooved Animal Humane Society (HAHS), a nonprofit animal welfare organization located in Woodstock, Ill., dedicated to promoting humane treatment of hooved animals through education, investigation, and if necessary, legal intervention. While the majority of its work is with horses, the society has "rescued" cows, goats, pigs, sheep, mules and donkeys.

The HAHS was established in 1971, and it is the first hooved animal shelter in the country. Donna Ewing, HAHS founder and president, started the society when she stumbled across a horrible case of abuse.

"I was searching for a horse for my daughter, and what I found was shocking – a herd of about 30 starving Arabian horses in various stages of malnutrition, some too weak to stand and several that had gone through agonizing deaths," she recalls.

Ewing quickly left the farm determined to help the horses. But after contacting the police and animal control, she found no one had the authority to help. So Ewing enlisted fellow horse owners to launch a humane society specifically for hooved animals.

One of the society's first accomplishments was to help re-write Illinois' hooved-animal protection laws. With the support of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, the Illinois Humane Care for Animals Act was passed in 1973. This landmark legislation set a statewide standard of care for large animals for the first time and authorized humane investigators, certified through the Illinois Department of Agriculture, to enter private property if animal abuse or neglect was suspected.

"Before this act there could have been barns full of horses dying and nobody would have had any right to go on the property and investigate the situation because it would have been trespassing," Ewing says.

After the law was enacted the HAHS set up a network of about 85 volunteer investigators, working under the umbrella of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, to report neglected farm animals.

The Rehabilitation Process

When the HAHS is notified about a suspected case of neglect or abuse a volunteer investigator is sent to assess the situation. If the horse owner is simply ignorant about how to care for the animals the investigator will work to educate the owner about equine care. If the horse owner doesn't have the financial resources to properly care for the horses the owner may be asked to cut back his herd to what he reasonably can handle.

In matters of willful neglect or abuse the society may impound the animals and assume their care. That normally means transporting the horses to the HAHS farm and providing the veterinary care necessary to restore them to good health. After their rehabilitation, these animals are put up for adoption.

When a horse arrives at the HAHS facility he is rehabilitated, physically and behaviorally. Every horse gets a full medical exam. Most need to be wormed and get caught up on their vaccinations. The animals are thoroughly groomed. Many get their feet trimmed and are placed on a special diet to help them recuperate.

Professional trainers on staff work to solve behavior problems the horse may have developed, or they make sure the family that is adopting the animal is equipped to deal with the situation.

Punishing abusive or neglectful owners varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In many cases, judges often put owners on probation and eventually return the horses to them. In other instances, jurists have refused to return the animals.

The Adoption Program

Since 1971, the HAHS has rescued thousands of abused and neglected hooved animals and placed them in homes through their adoption programs. Each year, the society places between 30 and 60 horses that they impounded and rehabilitated on its farm. Another 20 to 30 horses are adopted out every year through foster facilities, where volunteer investigators – who may live a long distance away from the HAHS farm – rehabilitate impounded horses on their own properties.

An additional 40 to 50 horses are placed in new homes each year through the society's direct adopt program. In these cases, the society acts as a placement service for owners who no longer can care for the animals but want to make sure they are placed in quality homes. These animals are adopted from the owner's home and do not go to the HAHS farm.

The HAHS has established an adoption procedure for all its animals. Potential adopters must first apply in writing. If the applicant meets their criteria, then the society sends an investigator to the person's home to verify what was stated in the written request and to confirm that the animals already owned by the applicant are well cared for.

During the application process, HAHS staff tries to match the right horse with the right person. If the applicant is a timid rider, for instance, the society is not going to pair them with a feisty thoroughbred. The HAHS also looks at the number and types of hooved animals already owned by the applicant to see if the new pet will fit in.

Applicants are asked to pay an adoption fee that varies from case to case.

"We try to get back some of the money we put into rehabilitating the horse, but the money isn't the deciding factor about where the horse goes. Going to a good home is the most important factor," says a HAHS statement.

After a horse has lived at his new home a while, a HAHS representative will make a follow-up visit to see how the animal is doing and to confirm that the horse and the person are a good match.

What's the drawing card to adopting a horse from the HAHS?

"People come here to get a horse because they want an animal that needs a person who will really love him, and to be able to give a better life to a horse who's had a rough past," Ewing says. "And that's a really good feeling."