June 2006 Issue
One Last Chance
A southeast Ohio farm rescues abused and unwanted horses and foals, nurses them back to health and finds them deserving homes.
Stoli, a month-old draft horse mix, offers a welcoming whinny from her tiny stall as the trailer transporting 11 other foals pulls into the Last Chance Corral in Athens on a sunny April afternoon. Although very young, she's at least two weeks older than most of the arrivals. She seems the picture of health with her strong build and bright eyes, but she's still recovering from a recent battle with blood poisoning. Like all the horses and foals that arrive at Last Chance Corral, she's been given a second chance at life.
The purpose of the farm is simple: "We rescue, rehabilitate and adopt out abused, neglected or abandoned horses and foals," manager Heather McGrath says. The farm, established by owner and president Victoria Goss in 1986, is one of the oldest large-animal nonprofit rescue facilities in the country.
The foaling season is now in full swing at LCC, but the babies weren't born here. They have been transported from Kentucky horse farms to southeast Ohio by truck. Organized chaos ensues as workers prepare for the arrival of the latest batch of foals. The horses' milk replacement - a baby-horse "formula" of milk replacer, vanilla yogurt, Karo syrup and water - has been sloshed into buckets and placed around the disinfected intensive-care barn. The fondly dubbed "mother post" in the middle of the barn holds three brimming buckets of the frothy stuff.
A dozen or so volunteers stand ready to handle the exhausted but still rambunctious colts and fillies that have to be fed, cleaned and medicated immediately, to avoid the host of illnesses they are predisposed to, ranging from septicemia to pneumonia. When they arrive, some of the horses appear confused, fearful, subdued. One by one they are led from the trailer, but they instinctively bunch together in a tight pack, looking for companionship and warmth. The braver ones curiously eye and even nuzzle their new human "parents" before fighting for room in front of the "milk"-filled buckets. The youngest ones are separated into stalls so they can be taught to drink from a bucket. One, just three days old, has to be tube-fed through his nose.
"This one's a filly, this one has two socks, this one is just four days old," Goss calls to volunteer Lindsey Fuller, who records the characteristics on a sheet of paper. The sooner a foal is identified and documented, the sooner it can be posted on Last Chance Corral's web site and perhaps catch the attention of someone looking to love and care for it. Most of the gangly babies are beautiful equine specimens. Bays, paints, chestnuts, Thoroughbred crosses and draft crosses - it's hard to believe that the alternative for these young horses is death.
Goss' husband Donny drives a trailer to within an hour of Lexington, Kentucky, where he meets breeders who are willing to sell the foals to Last Chance Corral for at least what they're worth at the slaughterhouse.
The foals' fate is a cruel but arguably necessary one in the high-priced world of Thoroughbred breeding. A Thoroughbred mare worth $200,000 or more is bred at a price tag as high as $500,000 and when her foal is born, the owner can't, or won't, wait to let her naturally raise it. So a nursing mare is brought in while the Thoroughbred mare is immediately bred again in order to produce yet another valuable foal. The nursing mare is sometimes even put into premature labor so that she can produce milk sooner. But what happens to the nursing mare's foal? In the past these mixed-breed animals were put to death immediately. Now they are sold for their soft leather hides or even as a delicacy meat abroad. To keep them from the slaughterhouse, Last Chance Corral pays up to $500 each.
"They come to us very sick and stressed from the trip," McGrath says. Because they have lost their nurturing mothers, they have no will to live, she explains. The common assumption is that motherless foals will die, and most of them do without the special care that they receive at LCC, McGrath adds. Most estimates of survival are 40 percent. Yet of the 200 foals that arrive at LCC every spring, only two will succumb.
"We are the name in equine neo-neonatal intensive care," McGrath says. Because of their extensive experience with horses, McGrath and Goss are called on by the farm's veterinarian, Dr. Pete Smith, to help with problems he can't tackle alone.
"There are times that I'll get a phone call at 3 a.m. from someone needing my help," Goss says.
The first nurse-mare foal that Goss rescued was a sick youngster she spotted lying on a manure pile at a Kentucky horse farm. The owners had apparently left it to die. Goss asked if she could have it, and ended up buying it for $50.
"It couldn't even stand up," she says. "But we [took it home and] brought it into the kitchen and cared for it. It lived."
Foal rescue is a significant part of LCC's mission, but the farm also serves as a sanctuary for other unwanted horses. No breed, color or disposition is turned away.
Goss found her horse-rescue calling on her family's New England farm in the '60s, when she was just 12.
Her first rescue was a starving mixed-breed horse that she paid $50 for and then nourished and rehabilitated. She then resold it to a deserving owner for $50.
"I put that $50 into a tin can with a picture of a horse on it," she says. That became her rescue-fund account, which quickly grew to hundreds of dollars.
"I just was always taking in horses that were the odd ones out," she says. "I really was their last chance."
At one point, Goss was contacted about a starving horse that she reported to the authorities, but as she waited for them to respond, the horse continued to deteriorate. Finally, she decided to take the horse home to care for it.
"I was sneaking into the field with the lead rope in my hand to rescue the horse and I found that it had died," she says. "I made that horse a promise that I would do everything that I could to not let another horse die like that."
She never realized how much stress and hard work it would take to keep that promise, Goss admits. Hundreds of horses come through the 2.75-acre farm every year, and Last Chance Corral is constantly in need of volunteers and funding.
"It's amazing the kind of money we go through around here," Goss says.
Abused and neglected horses require more than the typical amount of medical care. LCC depends on the expertise of Dr. Smith for the occasional surgeries and emergency medical treatment for the worst cases. The foals require the most special attention and feeding costs alone top $100 a day, Goss says.
Volunteers are another necessity for running the operation. On any given day, there are a few who pitch in, but they show up full-force for a foal-arrival day, McGrath says.
"There's also always plenty of help on the weekends," she says.
For Fuller, a sophomore at nearby Ohio University, this is her first day as a volunteer. "It's not something where you're sitting at a table asking for money," she says. "I'm actually pitching in and helping."
Goss observes that Last Chance Corral's main handicap is a lack of experienced volunteers who can train and handle horses and administer medical treatments.
Yet despite its needs for volunteers and funding, LCC manages to save the life and health of nearly every horse that passes through its always-open doors.
Goldie, a 10-year-old palomino quarter horse mare, for example, was delivered to LCC by the local humane society. The malnourished horse nearly died from heart failure, but after more than a month of intensive treatments with antibiotics, cleaning and regular hay and grain feedings, she recovered completely.
Horses must be put up for adoption, McGrath says, because there are always more needy ones to take their place. One can imagine, though, that given the choice, the horses would love to stay and bask in all the attention they receive at Last Chance Corral.
"This is horse heaven," McGrath says. "They get everything here."
Prospective owners are thoroughly screened, she says. Anyone applying for a horse must prove that he or she is a capable horse owner; the new home is often visited and the new owner must leave his or her veterinarian and ferrier phone numbers.
"We can call them at any time," McGrath says, "and we do."
Current residents of the Hope barn, a structure moved to LCC from the old Hope Dairy Farm in Athens, include Fate, an Oldenburg yearling colt that was given to LCC as a tax write-off. McGrath affectionately describes him as a "brat" and Fate proves himself as much with his attempts at playful nipping whenever someone brushes by his stall. He's inside on this beautiful day to keep a seven-year-old quarter horse mare company. She suffers from navicular disease, which affects the tendons and ligaments in a horse's lower legs.
Sache, a 16-year-old Trakehner mare who came to Last Chance Corral because she can no longer jump, occupies the first of the two paddocks along with Lucky. Lucky has such a good disposition and ideal jumping frame that his previous owners nearly jumped him to death.
"He's such a willing horse that it was easy to do that to him," McGrath says. He was injected with painkillers so often that "his veins feel like puncture bumps all the way up and down," McGrath says. "He's up for adoption now but his web site ad stresses that he can only be ridden on flat surfaces."
In the second paddock, Tango, a New Zealand-born Thoroughbred, is causing trouble with her companion, Back Rat, by kicking up her hooves at him and tossing her head with teeth bared. Tango's claim to fame is that she's 40 years old and has traveled all over the world as a polo horse. The two are likely permanent residents at Last Chance Corral, in Tango's case because of her age, and in Back Rat's because of a possible nagging back injury from his past as a jumper.
When it comes to adopting one of the foals, the procedure is even stricter than it is for the other horses, McGrath says. These babies require constant care, much like a newborn human would, with a daily regimen of feeding, cleaning, medicine and companionship.
"We stress that you should adopt two babies rather than one because they get lonely," she says.
Stoli has turned out to be the ultimate companion foal to all of her younger "siblings." Goss refers to her as the "psychologist" foal and has decided to keep her for a time because she's so encouraging to the other young horses.
"She loves to baby-sit the foals that become lonely and depressed," she says.
Last Chance Corral welcomes visitors seven days a week during the day, not to mention volunteers with and without experience. Donations are always appreciated. For more information, call 740/594-4336 or visit www.lastchancecorral.org