This one-of-a-kind horse rescue works with law enforcement to help equines who need it most – from those who are abused or neglected, to those caught up in the wake of disastrous hurricanes.
At first glance, Habitat for Horses is a non-profit equine rescue registered in Texas. But beneath the surface, it’s an inspirational organization with a mission that reaches far beyond rescuing horses (see below). Since its founding in 1998, Habitat for Horses has worked closely with law enforcement throughout Texas and across the nation, assisting in investigations, temporary holdings, documentation and court presentations in equine mistreatment cases. Around 6,000 equines have passed through the organization’s gates in the past two decades.
When they receive a call for help, Habitat for Horses starts with an initial investigation. Since their primary goal is always to keep a horse in his home, the rescue team does its best to rectify the situation through education. They assist in deworming horses, finding them a farrier, providing transportation to the vet when necessary and teaching the owners the basics of proper horse care. Sometimes, the owner is grateful and the horse is no longer neglected. Other times, it’s not quite so simple.
The more difficult cases are, unfortunately, not uncommon. Some neglectful owners ignore the advice the rescue team offers, while others chase them off their property. When this happens, it’s time for law enforcement to step in. If necessary, Habitat for Horses alerts a judge, and requests a seizure warrant. Luckily, the rescue’s relationship with law enforcement has come a long way since they first began.
“Twenty years ago in this part of Texas, many local law enforcement officers had little interest in or knowledge about animal cruelty laws,” says Habitat for Horses’ retired president, Jerry Finch. “When I approached a judge about the lack of enforcement, he said, ‘If you want something done, you’ll need to learn how to do it yourself.’” Taking these words to heart, Habitat for Horses became an active assistant to law enforcement agencies in the area. All they ask in return is that the officers alert them whenever a complaint of equine cruelty comes in, and that all abused horses be turned over to them. Today, local law enforcement officials respond with enthusiasm.
All they ask in return is that the officers alert them whenever a complaint of equine cruelty comes in, and that all abused horses be turned over to them.
Once a horse is turned over to the rescue, rehabilitation begins. Often, this lengthy process requires the skills and TLC of an entire team of professionals. “Dr. Dennis Jenkins, for example, has been on our board since the first day,” says Jerry. “His dedication to our cause is exemplified by his resistance to giving up. ‘Let’s try one more thing’ is a statement we often hear when we’re searching for a miracle, and more often than not, miracles happen.” According to Jerry, a gentle approach goes a long way toward healing the bodies and souls of neglected equines. Together, the Habitat for Horses team paves the way toward retraining and adoption.
Habitat for Horses has four ranches in south Texas where rehabilitation takes place. On average, they house 350 horses and donkeys at any given time. Their rescues range from minis to drafts, all from different backgrounds and disciplines. “It’s always shocking to find highly trained hunter-jumpers stuck in a junkyard, starved and neglected,” says Jerry. “We’ll never know the whole story, but our goal is to turn the sadness into a happy ending.” Indeed, for the staff and volunteers, few moments are more cherished than watching a once-starved horse galloping freely at one of their sanctuaries, or sharing a new home with a loving family.
But Habitat for Horses’ goodwill doesn’t stop at the Texas border. In 2005, the rescue was called to action in Louisiana during one of the worst disasters the United States had ever seen – Hurricane Katrina. They rescued 200 horses from the storm, and returned all but one to their owners.
This experience, along with emergency rescue efforts during Hurricanes Rita and Ike, plus independent coursework, has provided Habitat for Horses with extensive knowledge on disaster preparation. Still, nothing could prepare them for Hurricane Harvey in the fall of 2017.
When it comes to emergency response, Habitat for Horses takes no action unless requested by the law. As Harvey’s unprecedented winds and torrential rain pummeled Houston and surrounding areas, the organization’s rescue crew stood by, waiting for the call. Meanwhile, water levels rose on their ranches, and roads became impassable. It was up to Jerry and his wife, executive director Rebecca Williams, to get from their home to the Habitat for Horses ranch in Galveston County, half a mile away. The two of them rescued horses from flooded pastures and provided the best care they could until the storm began to recede.
Finally, Habitat for Horses was called southwest where flooding was up to the rooftops. They responded immediately, offering whatever help they could. When an area was too dangerous to enter, the rescue staff and volunteers offered advice from afar, directing emergency responders to the best of their ability. By the time the hurricane finally eased, a second team had set up a distribution center at one of the organization’s ranches to hand out the donations coming in from all over the country. “Someone in Pennsylvania sent an 18-wheeler full of hay,” says Jerry, who never ceases to be amazed by the kindness of others.
Two decades ago, Habitat for Horses set out to become a safe place for law enforcement to bring horses and donkeys when they had nowhere else to go. Today, although their sights have expanded, the mission remains the same. “We’re a sanctuary filled with promise, a pathway to another chance and a final resting place for those that don’t need to try anymore,” says Jerry. The secret behind their impact and longevity? A commitment to transparency, an educational approach to rescue and collaboration with like-minded organizations. But at the end of the day, none of their efforts would be possible without compassion. “It’s almost magical to see the change in horses when they hear a soft voice and realize that we’re there to help.”
“It’s almost magical to see the change in horses when they hear a soft voice and realize that we’re there to help.”
Habitat for Horses’ mission
- To promote and secure the safety, well-being and health of horses.
- To encourage education concerning the physical and mental health of horses.
- To utilize horses in the growth and mental health of humans, either adults or children, through education, demonstration and connection.
- To study, promote and enhance the proper training of horses through positive training techniques.
- To provide a home for those horses who are no longer able to be productive.
- To return to health, if possible, owned horses that are deemed sick or injured.