The Cowgirl Spirit Rescue Drill Team is a unique organization. It began as an equestrian drill team but soon expanded its focus to rescuing and rehabbing slaughter-bound horses. Here’s how it happened.
EW: What sparked the idea behind the Cowgirl Spirit Rescue Drill Team?
CS: In 2005, a couple of girls decided to form a new equestrian drill team in the Pacific Northwest. In putting together the team, they found they had lots of willing riders, but not enough horses to go around. They decided to go to the auction and pick up some inexpensive horses. But once they saw what was happening at the auction – all the amazing animals going to slaughter – they knew there had to be a different mission for the group. From that point on, their philosophy was to save unwanted horses from slaughter, rehabilitate them, retrain them using drill, then adopt them out to forever homes. The Cowgirl Spirit Rescue Drill Team (CSRDT) was formed.
EW: How did you get started?
CS: After the Cowgirl Spirit Rescue Drill Team was formed, founder Juliane Hanley worked countless hours with many people in the rescue and horse worlds to set up the organization as a nonprofit, create a mission statement, and develop a culture that would allow the Cowgirl Spirit Rescue Drill Team to last through the years. The organization wouldn’t be here today without the help of many dedicated and selfless professionals, volunteers and members.
EW: What is your goal?
CS: To raise awareness of equine slaughter in America through education. We also rescue and rehabilitate unwanted or slaughter-bound horses, and using affection, training and dedication, develop their skills and spirit through equestrian drill competition. We then fulfill their potential by placing these horses in new adoptive homes to give them happy, long and productive lives as riding companions.
EW: Why did you decide to involve your rescue horses in drill?
CS: When we saw the dozens of horses going to slaughter each month at just one auction house, we began educating ourselves on the process of equine slaughter in America and found it was a much larger issue than we had ever realized. We had the unique opportunity in our budding drill team to do something more – something that would save the lives of over 40 horses over the next six years.
Drill is more than a sport. It is a tool that helps horses become balanced, confident and happy. They learn social skills in order to get along with another horse cantering just inches away. Anticipating upcoming moves in precise formation requires them to learn responsiveness to their riders and balance in their bodies. The daily practice is great physical exercise and helps them get back to health. And they are working and having fun. Once we have a horse healthy and trained, we find a good adoptive home so he can live out a happy, useful life.
EW: How do the horses find their way to you?
CS: Horses will be considered for the Cowgirl Spirit Rescue Drill Team if we have room available, if they meet the physical health requirements to do drill (i.e., no degenerative conditions that could be made worse by drill practice and performance), and if they are between the ages of three and 12. If a horse isn’t specifically a “drill” type horse, we can still accept him into the program. We will use drill as a training modality, but may find other avenues to promote the horse in finding his or her forever home. In the past, we have taken in owner surrenders, and horses from auctions, kill pens, feedlots and more.
EW: How are the horses rehabbed and cared for?
CS: We lease a 20-acre pasture in Carnation, Washington. We have divided the land into two pastures, and have a loafing shed for shelter for the horses, a roundpen in one pasture, and two sheds for storage. We do have rescues housed at other locations if it is in their best interests. Currently, we have one horse, Ruben, who is being sponsored by a supporter to receive training at the National School of Academic Equitation in Woodinville, Washington. We are also working with another local rescue, Northwest Equine Stewardship Center, which is treating one of our newest rescues, Sunlight Dreams, with much needed chiropractic work and acupuncture.
When horses come into our program from their various situations, they usually require some serious rehab. They’re typically very underweight, have various skin conditions, their feet are often neglected and in very bad shape, and they may have lice, mastitis, fungal infections and more. When they arrive, they’re quarantined from the herd, but they see a steady flow of members and volunteers who come to meet the group’s newest additions. The new rescues are given time to take everything in (including apples, carrots and numerous scratches and pets), get used to the routine, and learn what is expected of them regarding groundwork. They are typically just passive participants for about a month. After that, they begin to attend practices, even just to stand by the sidelines, and start getting worked regularly in the roundpen when cleared by our veterinarian.
EW: How are the organization and horses supported?
CS: The Cowgirl Spirit Rescue Drill Team is staffed solely by volunteers and is funded entirely by donations. We have teams of members and volunteers who go to the headquarters each day to feed, pick pastures, groom the horses and work with their special rescues.
EW: Please share an equine success story or two.
CS: Casanova was rescued from the 2009 Enumclaw auction. His owner could no longer afford to feed him, and Casanova was basically a skeleton. He had a horrible skin condition that caused him pain, and several blanket sores. Casanova was rescued, and we spent over a month putting weight on him before assessing him under saddle. It turns out he is one of the most amazing horses we’ve had. He has a heart of gold and is so enjoyable to work with. He is very highly trained (his former life was as a Mexican Dancing Horse) and is a dream to ride. Casanova was adopted by the team’s VP and Treasurer, Belinda Jensen, last year. Casanova still performs with the team as a Cowgirl Spirit Alumni, and he loves to be out in front of the crowds.
Another great success story is that of Ready Say Go. Ready was a Thoroughbred racehorse, and his owners sent him to auction with firm orders that he was not to go to slaughter – if a decent home didn’t want him, he was to be returned to the owners. Unbeknownst to them, Ready was sold to the meat men. The Cowgirl Spirit Rescue Drill Team worked with the Auction Horses board (an online forum where people across the country come together to help save slaughterbound auction horses) to rescue Ready from the kill pen.
Ready had been a stallion at the auction, but since a stallion cannot be transported to the processing facilities, he was castrated on the spot at the kill pen – no anesthesia, no sterile conditions or antibiotics. We received Ready shortly after his castration, and had our vet, Dr. Hannah Evergreen, look at him. After treating him, she recommended hand walking to keep him from facing too many side effects. For several weeks, volunteers took shifts walking Ready. This was an interesting experience, because he had never been off the track. Everything was new to him. He was a doll, and everyone fell in love with him
His former owners by this point found out what had become of Ready, and were devastated. They immediately reimbursed us for what we paid to get him out of the kill pen, and sent supplements to help his tender hooves. After he recuperated from his ordeal, we began to work with Ready under saddle. After only a month, he attended his first show where he met his new adoptive owners. He has been steadily progressing in his transition from racehorse to riding horse ever since.
EW: Where can people see you perform?
CS: Our scheduled performances for this year are listed on our website (csrdt.org). The Cowgirl Spirit Rescue Drill Team will also be lining up several drill demonstrations around the Seattle area this summer, so keep on the lookout for our rescues during local schooling shows, parades and more.
EW: How can people help?
CS: Since our group is funded entirely by donations, any funds are much needed and appreciated. We also greatly benefit from the generosity of the horse community, and corporate sponsors who are able to donate new or used tack, grooming supplies, feed, supplement, hay, lawn mowers – anything! Since our competitions are typically a few hours away, one of our largest needs is for a solid six-plus horse stock trailer and a truck to tow it with. At the same time, we really need a new two-wheeled wheelbarrow and some storage space donated at a local storage center – or an additional storage shed.
EW: What are your future hopes/goals for the organization?
CS: We want to continue growing Cowgirl Spirit’s core members and volunteers so we are able to increase our fundraising and the number of rescues that come through our program. Our volunteers and members are our biggest asset. They are Cowgirl Spirit. Without them, there is no organization.
EW: If you could share one piece of information or advice with horse owners, what would it be?
CS: Horses are like any other member of the family – they must be looked after and loved well into their old age.