by Nicole Rivard
It was mid-October when Susan Wagner, president and founder of Chatham, New York-based Equine Advocates Rescue and Sanctuary, was alerted to the case of a former thoroughbred racehorse who was at the brink of death on a farm in Steuben County, N.Y.
How Joey, who was bred in New York and raced under the name Laila’s Jazz, ended up nearly dying after being adopted out through one of the racing industry’s so-called aftercare programs was still under investigation at press time. Joey raced until he was seven with lifetime earnings of more than $253,000. Yet no one who knew and profited from him bothered to ensure he was protected from harm and given a safe, kind forever home.
“He was transported to Cornell Hospital for Animals where he was described by his examining veterinarian as ‘a rack of bones’ with a body condition score of ‘1’ on the Henneke Scale. It’s the worst number a horse can have,” Wagner explained.
After nearly a week in the hospital, he arrived at Equine Advocates on Oct. 27. When Friends of Animals (FoA) visited the sanctuary on Nov. 10—a public open house day—Joey already had a couple of sponsors and was sporting a new blanket, which he seemed pleased to show off to visitors. He was sweet-tempered, despite having had to suffer needlessly.
It was if he knew he was in good hands with Wagner and the care staff at Equine Advocates.
As I drove around the 140-acre property with Wagner while she tossed out apples and carrots into the pastures, I could see as their ears pricked forward and they locked their gaze on her that all 80 horses, donkeys and mules recognized her as a guardian they trust.
Wagner’s mission, besides rescuing and providing lifetime care for equines who have no one to speak for them, is teaching others how to become responsible horse guardians and how to recognize cruelty and report it. She started rescuing horses in 1994, established the sanctuary in 2004 and opened the doors to a Humane Education Center on the property two years later. Visitors of all ages come from many different parts of the country to learn about wild and domestic equine issues, responsible horse ownership and natural horsemanship.
Last spring the Humane Education Program served 800 students. The curriculum includes interactive lessons for pre-K through middle school. Students also meet some of the sanctuary’s equine residents and hear their stories.
“Children are the future guardians of animal welfare and the environment,” Wagner said.
“Empathy and ethical responsibility are qualities we can teach and nurture in children. We can get them to behave differently than adults who have failed equines.
“That’s always what I envisioned I would do after I rescued the horses— advocate for them by exposing the situations that they come from and were exploited by before entering the slaughter pipeline.”
Visitors can read each horse’s story about why they needed to be rescued from abuse cases or from auctions on their way to slaughter on plaques outside their stalls and pastures. Wagner points out that horse slaughter is the way by which irresponsible individuals and industries get rid of their unwanted horses quickly and for a profit.
Among the worst offenders: people who run seasonal riding camps; Amish farmers; the Pregnant Mare Urine (PMU) industry that continually impregnates mares and turns them into four-legged drug machines to produce Premarin, PremPro and Premphase for human menopause symptoms; the carriage horse industry; the racing industry; and the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA).
“The AQHA is the world’s largest breed registry and membership organization and they are as guilty as anybody. They breed ridiculous numbers of horses knowing they will go to slaughter and they are unapologetic about it. They need to be taken to task,” Wagner said.
Ironically, as a teenager, Wagner, a Bronx native, worked for one of the industries she now rescues horses from—she was a hot walker and groom for various players in the racing industry, which meant being involved in all aspects of the horses’ daily care.
It was a role she relished because she had loved horses since she was three. But the way the horses were treated overall troubled her, so she left. Wagner said that at the time she had no idea racehorses went to slaughter after outliving their “usefulness” because it was a dirty secret hidden well by the racing industry. Today, the exploitative industry is under constant scrutiny, and rightly so.
For instance, on Oct. 31, USA Today’s front-page story read: “Horses go from racetracks to slaughterhouses: It’s just a job to me.” That exposé came on the heels of several articles about the number of deaths at Santa Anita Park racetrack in California in 2019, which sickened Wagner.
The good news is public scrutiny and backlash matters. Wagner recently hosted students enrolled in the State University of New York Cobleskill’s Equine Studies program, and for the first time, no students were interested in pursuing careers in the racing industry.
“The public will ultimately determine whether the industry survives or doesn’t. I believe that if the breakdowns and deaths of racehorses in this country continue and there is no real change to end the doping and the slaughter of horses bred for racing, people will eventually stop going to races,” Wagner said.
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
Wagner credits her 18 months working at Friends of Animals (FoA) for putting her on a more fulfilling career path.
“At FoA, I had an immediate realization that humane work was where my heart was. The time I spent there set me on a path that I could use my equine experience to make a difference in the lives of horses that was truly meaningful.”
The first horse she ever rescued in 1996 was named Gandalf. He was living at a children’s zoo when Wagner learned his “stubbornness” would no longer be tolerated and he was going to be slaughtered. At the same time, she learned of a miniature horse, Rainman, on Staten Island slated to suffer a similar fate. She was able to keep them on an ex-boyfriend’s farm in Maryland. Rainman is still alive.
While we visited Rainman, visitors meandered along the property petting and whispering to the horses. Some were first-timers, stopping Wagner to tell her what she is doing at Equine Advocates is “impressive and magical.” Others were there to visit horses they sponsor. Sponsors can come visit whenever they want, said Wagner.
“They feel a real connection to the horse because not everyone can keep their own horse,” Wagner said.
Being herd animals, the residents enjoyed bonding with their human guests, especially Bobby II Freedom and Dallas, whose paddock is located front and center at the entrance of the property. Dallas was one of 27 camp horses and ponies rescued by Equine Advocates from a bankrupt New York tourist attraction back in 1997.
Bobby II Freedom is a former New York City carriage horse rescued from slaughter in 2010. FoA and the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages bought him from a broker who had just purchased him at the New Holland, Pennsylvania, auction and then the two organizations worked together to transport him to Equine Advocates. Wagner remembers that after Bobby was turned out on the grass, he started to roll in it.
Since NYC carriage horses are deprived of daily turnout, she believes he’d never gotten a chance to roll in the grass before. Remarkably, Wagner gets five to 10 calls a day about horses in need. Ultimately, she would like to obtain more land so she can expand.
“There is adjacent property that I really, really want,’’ she said. “There’s more that I want to do.”
IF YOU WITNESS A CASE OF EQUINE CRUELTY:
• Contact your local or state police immediately.
• Document as much as you know and how you know it before making a report.
• Be sure to get the name of the officer with whom you spoke. If you get no satisfaction, ask to speak to a supervisor and report the case again.