From the outside, the barn looks normal – there are bays for horses, straw, harnesses and a couple of curious cats keeping watch. But this Hanover stable is where horses go to get a second chance at a happy life.
Husband-and-wife team Susan and Alan White founded the Virginia Equine Welfare Society in 2012 as a way to help save, rehabilitate and rehome horses. Some come to the group from local animal control offices, some are owner surrenders, but some are headed to a much crueler fate.
“Our mission right now just seems to be helping horses who have gotten, for whatever reason, at no fault of their own, into the slaughter pipeline,” Susan said.
Horse slaughter is illegal in the United States. But once purchased at auction stateside, some horses are sent to Canada or Mexico where they are processed through meat markets en route to Europe or Japan as a food supply. Situations where a horse is bought at auction for a more innocent purpose are the exception, according to the Whites.
Making the situation even more tragic is that, often these horses are healthy, have a good temperament and are well trained.
“The horses that go to these auctions are generally pretty nice horses,” Alan said.
“You can’t save them all, but you can save one, two at a time,” he added.
When they come to the Society, Alan said they work on getting the horses back into shape. Often, they are malnourished, so the rehabilitation starts with feeding them. Training can also be an issue, especially for horses that come from owner-surrender situations or that have been seized by authorities. Before finding them homes, the group trains the horses and gets them accustomed to riding.
Auction horses are first quarantined to make sure they don’t carry any diseases that can be passed along to other horses. Three horses have been adopted right out of quarantine. But the process can take up to four to six months depending on the horse and the condition it’s in when it arrives at the stable.
Since the fall of 2012, the Society has saved 11 horses. Right now, the group is keeping its operation small so that the small core staff and a group of dedicated volunteers can properly care for the animals it takes in. Their current stable capacity is four horses until the group can add more fencing.
“We don’t want to get overwhelmed; we owe it to these horses to do right by them,” Susan said.
The Whites were both experienced with horse rescue when they started their nonprofit, having both worked with a similar organization based in Powhatan since 2006. But the couple’s individual equine backgrounds differ.
Growing up, Alan said he had a friend with horses and learned how to ride. He hails from the generation of baby boomers that grew up on westerns like “Roy Rogers” and “The Lone Ranger.”
“Everybody wanted to be a cowboy,” he said.
Susan, at age 42, took a horseback riding class at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. After a year, she bought a horse and her passion for equine
escalated from there.
Alan’s lived in Hanover County since 1977 and Susan joined him on his farm in 1999 when the two were married.
Keeping their horse rescue going is a full-time job for the Whites, who founded the non-profit while both in retirement.
“We are enjoying retirement, but we don’t sit around wondering, ‘What are we going to do today?’” Alan said.
They are joined by a group of volunteers that help keep the stable running. But, the organization is in need of extra volunteer help.
Volunteer tasks include caring for the horses with jobs like feeding, grooming, training, riding and mucking stalls, but the organization is also looking for help fundraising, organizing volunteers and showing the horses up for adoption.
“We’ve got a great, core group of volunteers. Our biggest problem now is we just don’t have enough of them,” Alan said.
Recruitment has been slow over the holiday season and winter months, but Alan hopes it will pick up once spring breaks, as more people want to spend time outdoors.
Susan said most of the Society’s current volunteers are individuals who always wanted to have horses but never had the opportunity. Once they volunteer, they are trained how to handle horses and ride them.
“It’s just a really good opportunity for these people who always wanted to do this, but for whatever reason didn’t have the resources,” Susan said.
The Whites also hope that prospective volunteers will be drawn to a very satisfying line of work – giving horses that are close to the end of their lives a second chance.
“When you bring these horses in and some of them can barely walk, they’re so emaciated – they’re literally skin and bones – and they walk in and their heads are down, they’ve given up,” Alan said. “And after a month, after 30 days, all of a sudden a sparkle comes back to their eyes, their head comes up.”
“They’re just so grateful, it’s amazing,” Susan added.