Riding to the rescue: Gentle Giants strives to give draft horses a new lease on life

When the Humane Society of the United States calls, rescue groups listen.

So in April, when Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue was asked to assist in the largest horse impoundment ever in Maryland (and one of the largest in the nation), the Mount Airy-based group’s volunteers headed to Centreville with trucks and trailers to ferry some of nearly 150 equines to new digs. No matter that they normally deal with hefty Clydesdales, Belgians, Percherons and somewhat smaller Haflingers, still bigger than the Polish Arabians being removed due to neglect.

Maybe that’s why the six Gentle Giants members served as wranglers during the operation, helping to catch, halter, tag and catalog the horses. Compared to the big boys and girls they’re used to, “it was like ‘come here, little horsey,’ ” says group secretary and volunteer coordinator Laura Michael, reaching her arm out as if to a much smaller creature.

And with so many victims, Gentle Giants volunteers were asked to take some into their care. They wound up taking 10 broodmares back to a farm not far from their own 41-acre stomping grounds in western Howard County.

But what is it that makes the draft horse, despite its intimidating size, even more lovable?

“They’re the best,” says Christine Hajek, an Anne Arundel County firefighter and paramedic who is founder and president of the Gentle Giants organization. These horses descended from the calm workhorses that pulled our ancestors’ carts and ploughs; they’re docile and not as excitable as smaller, feisty racehorses. “They have Type B personalities — they’re the ‘whatever’ breed,” the Mount Airy resident adds.

Although she grew up with thoroughbreds, one ride on a draft horse convinced Hajek that their wide bodies are more comfortable, their slower gaits smoother.

“Like riding a La-Z-Boy,” Michael agrees.

But most began their careers as workhorses. Manhattan, a former New York City carriage horse nearly put down when he needed a $600 throat operation, is also known as “Manny” for the nannylike way he took responsibility for two orphan foals in the stall next to his. He put up with their shenanigans, taught them to eat hay and feed from a bucket, and was visibly upset when they left the farm to be adopted.

The handsome blond-maned chestnut Belgian, a camera hog who loves to have his picture taken, is now Gentle Giants’ spokeshorse. As well as pulling wedding carriages, he visits shows, schools and events such as “Yappy Hour” at the Wine Bin in Ellicott City to introduce himself and his organization and spread the word about its mission.

Since Hajek learned about the practice of horse slaughter six years ago, she has attended sales and auctions to purchase as many doomed draft horses as there was room to take in, from 8 months old to geriatrics. She began with individuals she cared for personally, increased to five when she formed nonprofit Gentle Giants as the first rescue group of its kind in 2005, and is now up to 55 (including the impounded Arabians), aided by a core of 20 volunteers including Hajek’s husband, Jamie McIntosh, and Michael’s daughter Tyler. The organization leases 30 acres at three farms in addition to Hajek’s 41 acres in Mount Airy, which serve as the group’s rehab and training facility.

The big beasts are evaluated, treated, trained and put up for carefully arranged adoption. More than 200, chosen for rehab by temperament, soundness and “usability,” have been saved from slaughter. And each one has a story.

There’s Noel, a 35-year-old Belgian mare judged unfit to be sold and destined to be shot last Christmas unless Hajek took her. Now she’s fit, even a tad fat, and may reach 40, bossing the young’uns around.

There’s 1-year-old Clydesdale Miss Sunrise, appearing to wear fashionable Uggs boots on her shaggy legs now, but thin, parasite-ridden and carrying a 4-inch framing nail embedded in her hoof when she arrived in March. Only cutting-edge veterinary procedures saved her.

There’s Cricket, rescued at the size of an 8-month-old after living three years locked in a barn, and stud Beltaine, both of whom had to learn to be horses again. Haflinger ponies Tess and Tucker, now lesson horses, are  survivors of a well-publicized starvation case in Garrett County in 2010.

Most adoptees have found new homes locally, a good thing, since adoptions require references, home visits and regular contact ever after.

It’s always hard to say goodbye, but knowing that these gentle souls have been saved from slaughter is what the volunteers tell themselves to think about — not of the ones they couldn’t save.

These horses are not unwanted, Hajek maintains, just not wanted by their current owners. Most could continue doing what they have been doing  — pulling a carriage or barrel racing — for someone else, or learn new skills such as trail riding or schooling horses.

Too many horses are still being bred, Hajek contends, especially during the economic downturn, when owning such a pricey pet may be too much of a luxury. And unlike cats and dogs, there’s no spay-and-neuter publicity campaign for horses, though all Gentle Giants’ males, at least, are gelded.

For all her efforts, “we’re not going to change horse slaughter or the horse industry, or get everyone to be a responsible owner,” Hajek understands. But for 200 horses and counting, Gentle Giants has made all the difference. 

How to help

Donate.  Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue is funded entirely by adoption fees, donations and grants. Especially with the extra Arabians impounded (whose care cost $7,500 for the first 30 days) feed bills alone run the organization more than $12,000 per month. And that’s not to mention veterinary and farrier costs and utilities.

Volunteer. Lack of experience is no obstacle. Duties involve farm work. Volunteers are encouraged to choose one horse to work with and will be assigned a mentor or senior volunteer. Most volunteers are not horse owners but wish they could be; those who put in 20 hours a month may earn riding privileges or take lessons. Must be 18 or accompanied by a parent.

Sponsor. Sponsorships range from one-time gifts to continuing support until the horse is adopted. Cost ranges from $50 a month for a partial sponsorship to $200 a month for a complete sponsorship.

Foster. Take in a horse needing extended rehabilitation in a temporary home.

Adopt. The process is rigorous, requiring references, home visits, a legally binding contract, and the organization’s decision about the best possible match of horse and rider. But would you want anything less?

Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue can be reached at GentleGiantsDHR@aol.com. Its website is gentlegiantsdrafthorserescue.com.