They are trail mounts, therapy horses and pasture pets. One is learning Parelli Natural Horsemanship and another gave birth to a foal this spring.
None of these horses would still be alive had their slaughter-bound trailer not been involved in a horrific wreck in Tennessee last November.
The doomed horses had just been purchased at a Knoxville auction by Bruce Rotz, a Pennsylvania-based kill buyer who collects horses from auctions throughout the East to sell to slaughter plants in Canada.
Thirty horses were on the trailer that night heading to Rotz’s Shippensburg farm when the rig slammed into a flatbed truck as it tried to merge onto a busy highway. In an instant, the horses were thrown on their sides or violently ejected from the trailer, leaving nine dead.
Amy Neary a Knoxville police dispatcher who also transports animals for the area veterinary school, is summoned to help in traffic accidents involving horses.
One mare was ejected or crawled from the wreck and was perched five feet above ground on the back of the flatbed trailer. The mare remained calm, despite badly injured legs and the precarious position where she landed. Neary was able to lead the traumatized horse off the flatbed trailer and onto another trailer with a bed that could be lowered.
Eventually the horses made it to Rotz’s farm, but Neary was haunted by the mare she had saved.
When Kelly Smith of York County, PA’s Omega Horse Rescue and Rehabilitation heard about the accident and learned the survivors were in Pennsylvania she appealed to Rotz to sell them to her.
They had suffered so much already, Smith said, certainly they deserved a second chance.
Smith doled out $13,000 to buy the 21 survivors – all mares – some barely handled. Of those, three had to be euthanized for behavior issues or injuries. Another was euthanized weeks later after it was determined she had untreatable navicular disease. Four were sent to a thoroughbred rescue in Maryland.
Neary couldn’t shake the impression the paint mare she helped unload that night had made on her. She was so captivated by her strength and spirit she decided to adopt her and packed up her trailer to go to Pennsylvania to get her. Given that Hope was part of a herd brood mares, Chester County veterinarian Philip Holt, who works with Omega rescue, recommended a pregnancy test. Sure enough, the mare she’d named Hope was pregnant.
In April Hope gave birth to a healthy Medicine hat colt, distinguished by their white coats and rare markings. She named him Freedom.
“I came home from work one night and saw this flash of white in my headlights in the pasture,” said Neary.
Kelly Smith said saving a pregnant mare who gave birth to a healthy foal despite the trauma, was the most positive things that came out of the terrible accident. “They were so close to being denied life.”
Smith, who regularly attends weekly horse auction at New Holland in Lancaster County, pointed out that pregnant mares are sold for slaughter every day. On a recent Monday, she said, a herd of thoroughbred mares were being moved through to the kill pen. Some were clearly never handled.
“People who breed and dump horses are not responsible for the life they brought into this world,” said Smith. “They send to them to auction and hope someone will buy them and give them a good home. The over breeding is frustrating.”
Kelly’s group has spent thousands of dollars in vet care to treat the injured and neglected Tennessee horses and more to train the little-handled and traumatized animals. Today all but four have found new homes, she said. Two of the remaining horses are in foster care and will be offered as non-riding companions. The two others are working under saddle with Omega’s trainer, Jeff Michael, and should be ready for adoption soon.
“The majority of the group made it and are thriving,” said Nikki Scherrer, a veterinarian who works with Smith helping place horses. “There are no lingering issues from the accident. It’s impressive how well they came out of it.”
The wreck has expanded awareness about large animal rescue and slaughter among Knoxville first responders, Neary said. Area fire and police departments are getting more large animal rescue training as a result, she said.
“It was a wake-up call that has made us more prepared,” said Neary.
She said her fellow first responders had no idea that scores of horses from an area auction were going to slaughter every month.
Meanwhile, Freedom is growing up fast, Neary said, enjoying galloping up and down the hills in his pasture, playing in the pond and getting plenty of loving from her riding students. Neary thinks he might make a competitive trail horse one day.
And Neary is starting Hope under saddle with Freedom trotting along behind.
“I can’t believe someone would throw her away,” said Neary.
Amy Worden is a Harrisburg-area writer. She founded the Philadelphia Inquirer’s pet blog, Philly Dawg, which is now on Facebook. Follow her on twitter @inkyamy.