Big horses have even bigger hearts. And so does the team at Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue.
Though she grew up on a small Warmblood breeding farm, Christine Hajek was totally unaware of the horse slaughter industry. That blissful naivety came to an end one August night at an auction house in Maryland.
“On impulse, I purchased an older Belgian gelding for my boyfriend, now husband,” recalls Christine. “When I went to the stall to collect my new friend, I found the seller quietly crying. I asked the young man what his horse’s name was, and told him I was sorry he had to sell him. He replied that the horse was named Elijah, and that he didn’t mind having to sell him since he had purchased the gelding with the intent of resale. He was sad because Elijah had been sold to the ‘meat man’, because he was a good horse and didn’t deserve that. I quickly informed the young man that I had purchased Elijah, and asked him to explain what he meant by ‘meat man’. I got a quick lesson on the slaughter industry, and suddenly the fate of all the old broodmares who could no longer get pregnant, and all the lesson ponies who eventually went lame, came rushing at me.”
Elijah ended up being an angel of a horse, never taking a bad step or throwing a rider. Inspired, Christine made it her mission to seek out all the Elijahs of the world, and find homes for them. The result was Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue, based in Mount Airy, Maryland and established as a nonprofit in 2005 (GentleGiantsDraftHorseRescue.com). Elijah himself lived at the rescue until he passed away at the age of 26.
About the rescue
Christine and her Gentle Giants team focus on rescuing, rehabilitating, training and rehoming draft and draft cross horses.
“We have a small staff, and rely on over 250 active volunteers to keep the farm up and running smoothly,” says Christine. “Our volunteers participate in all aspects of horse care and handling, and are the backbone of Gentle Giants. We rarely utilize foster homes, because it would be difficult to ensure that the horses receive the same care and training as they do here. The few foster homes we do have are well-trusted friends and volunteers who have long been involved with the rescue.
“We currently have 68 horses in residence with us,” she continues. “We strive to maintain a base number of around 60, but can comfortably house 75 if need be. We once temporarily cared for 81 horses while assisting the Humane Society of the Harrisburg Area with a large seizure of neglected Morgan horses.”
The four R’s – rescue, rehabilitate, retrain, rehome
The goal of Gentle Giants is to find permanent, loving homes for all their horses. Each horse is assessed upon arrival, and given everything necessary to successfully find a better future.
“All our horses are quarantined for 21 days upon arrival, and then are fully vetted from head to toe,” says Christine. “If they are physically able to be ridden, we start with an evaluation of their training, and begin riding them. Most of our horses were fieldwork (plow) horses in their prior careers, so the transition to riding horse is relatively smooth and easy. On occasion, we do have to fully train a horse for riding. We do some driving with the equines that were carriage horses. Horses who are physically unable to work are evaluated for their basic manners, and offered for adoption as companion horses. We do lots of training to make our horses agreeable to the vet and farrier, and more appealing to novice owners.”
Big horses have big hearts, and lots of love to give. Contrary to stereotypes, drafts often make fantastic riding and trail horses due to their good-natured personalities. If you are looking for your next companion horse or riding buddy, consider giving a home to a draft in need.
How you can help
Gentle Giant’s goal for 2015 is to renovate their main barn, which is in desperate need of repair. They accept financial donations on their website (you can make a one-time or monthly donation, or sponsor a horse in need), and are always in need of the following items:
• Five-gallon flat-backed buckets
• Oversized or draft-sized halters
• Eight-foot lead ropes
• Saddles in usable condition
• 78” to 90” waterproof turnout sheets and blankets
“Idan is a nine-year-old Belgian gelding that Gentle Giants rescued at New Holland, where we found him rejected for sale due to his poor condition,” says Christine. “We purchased him in the parking lot, since the auction house would not admit him. Idan suffers from lymphangitis in his right hind leg, and is currently under the care of two veterinarians. His conventional veterinarian treats him with antibiotic therapy, exercise therapy, and anti-inflammatories, while his alternative veterinarian supplements his care with chiropractic, acupuncture, and herbal remedies.
“At 18.3, Idan is currently the largest horse at the rescue, although our record is held by a Belgian gelding named Hunter who was 19.2. Idan’s outlook is still guarded – most lymphangitis cases as advanced as his are considered late stage and untreatable. But due to his charming nature and apparent enjoyment of life and lack of discomfort, we are committed to trying everything we can for him.”
Kelly Howling is a writer, equestrian, and former editor of Equine Wellness Magazine. She manages a large boarding facility and starts young horses for the hunter/jumper divisions. Kelly has completed courses in equine nutrition and acupressure, and has received certification in equine bioenergy work.