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The animals she went to rescue may have been short of stature, but nothing else about the scene that confronted Melissa Ghareeb on that dark and icy night in early March was small in scale.
Rarely does a person find herself looking down on a horse—much less 38 of them. But “when we got there, we saw a lot of horses that were very, very skinny, covered in mud, covered in manure. ... There were just a lot of sad little faces looking up at us,” says Ghareeb, manager of the equine and farm animal center at the MSPCA-Nevins Farm in Methuen, Mass.
The horses’ overwhelmed owner surrendered the animals to the MSPCA and the Animal Rescue League of Boston (ARL) after the state veterinarian concluded that their basic needs were not being met. Ghareeb was among a handful of staff and volunteers who went to the farm in West Boylston, Mass., to help. The closer that the rescuers looked at the horses, the more suffering they found. They were infested with worms, which caused diarrhea that ran down their legs and, left caked there, scalded their skin.
Many of them, too, had “rain rot,” an itchy bacterial infection of the skin that afflicts horses who don’t have adequate access to shelter. And they were infected with lice, something that Ghareeb says you don’t see on healthy horses.
On top of everything else, the little horses were fearful of those who’d come to rescue them, making it that much harder to load them onto trailers for transport. They’d lived most of their lives out in a field, and didn’t really know how to interact with humans.
The effort to rescue, rehabilitate, and rehome the horses was daunting—not only was the herd in poor shape, but there were so many of them. And even a small horse is still a horse, requiring a pasture or barn, lots of the right food, specialized veterinary care, and adopters who have experience with equines.
The MSPCA and ARL each took in half of the herd, which also included some Shetland ponies, according to Ashley Arseneau, the ARL’s livestock liaison.
Nineteen went to the MSPCA’s Nevins Farm, a 55-acre animal care complex that provides shelter and adoption services for both farm and companion animals, and the others were taken to ARL’s Dedham shelter. The 29-acre facility houses and adopts out small animals, and also has a livestock rehabilitation center. The horses were put on a refeeding program of many small meals to prevent their severely malnourished bodies from going into shock from the reintroduction of food. “You have to be very, very careful. It takes a lot of work,” Ghareeb says.
Luckily, the community responded to news of the horses’ plight, coming through with all kinds of support. More than $10,000 in donations poured into the MSPCA. “We got something like 250 bales of hay, an equine dentist agreed to volunteer her time, a farrier stepped forward to work on all of the horses’ hooves for free, and we got enough deworming and delousing medicine for the entire herd from a local vet,” says Rob Halpin, the MSPCA’s director of public relations.
Meanwhile, ARL received more than $14,000 in donations earmarked for the horses. And many volunteers showed up to help feed them meals of soaked alfalfa cubes every four hours, according to Jennifer Wooliscroft, ARL’s director of communications. “That also really helped to keep the cost down,” she says.
The two shelters were able to save every horse, despite their serious health problems. And they were able to adopt out every animal, as well—all but a few into private hands. Two horses who needed further care and socialization went to the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals, New England’s largest equine rescue facility.
As the horses recovered, their behavior went from fearful to friendly. They began to nicker when they saw caretakers, and often came over to say hello and get a scratch. And they soon let staff groom them, and lead them in and out of the barn, Ghareeb says.
“They’re happy to see people, they’re outgoing, they’re happy to be around other [mini] horses and full-size horses. It’s pretty rewarding.”