By Emily Chappell, Contact Reporter, for the Carroll County Times
More than a decade ago, Christine Hajek began looking for a draft horse rescue to volunteer at.
After searching online, she was shocked to find that not only were there no organizations in the state of Maryland, there were also none in the country.
“So that started a hobby,” Hajek said. “If no one else is doing it, I shall do it.”
Draft horses are large horses bred to work on farms doing tasks such as plowing and other labor.
Hajek began going to auctions and began purchasing some of the best horses that were being sold for slaughter. She’d ride them for a few months, and then after checking buyers out, sell them to a good home.
Hajek’s hobby got to the point that there would be four or five horses available to adopt out at any given time, she said, and she had to make a choice.
“Either I have to tone down my hobby, or we have to form a rescue,” she said. “And here we are.”
The Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue, located at 17250 Old Frederick Road in Mount Airy, was formed in 2005. The original vision was to one day have seven horses at any given time for adoption. As of mid-July, the organization has 119 horses.
For Hajek, who is the president and founder of Gentle Giants, it’s more than just a job. As she walks through the 135 acres of land — between barns and pastures — she stops to love each animal.
She paused to rub the face of one horse, scratches behind the ears of another. She pets the goats, sheep, cats and other animals that have found their homes at the rescue too.
“[Horse are] so forgiving and they’re so emphatic and they constantly see the best in us,” Hajek said. Choking up as tears formed in her eyes she added, “It really deeply upsets me to think about an animal that’s been raised alongside people being butchered as its thank you after a long life. It’s just not OK.”
Since its formation all those years ago, the organization has just grown, Hajek said. The ultimate goal?
“We facilitate the rescue of draft and draft cross horses from slaughter, abuse and neglect,” she said.
Hajek said the horses they rescue are often coming from the sale auction or are being brought in after having been abused or neglected. But the rescue is just the beginning.
Hajek said they attend sales and pay attention to the horses who are being bid on by kill buyers on behalf of the slaughterhouses. Horse meat is considered a delicacy in some countries such as Japan, and draft horses are popular for meat because of their sheer size.
On occasion there are some buyers not purchasing a horse for slaughter, she said. What they do is bid against the kill buyers until they stop bidding or they bid the horse past the point of being profitable for them.
If someone else is bidding, and they’re bidding past the point of it being profitable for slaughter, they assume the bidder is reputable, she said.
When a horse comes in from slaughter, Hajek said, they typically have to work with hoof neglect and retraining. These horses were more often than not plow horses prior to the sale, she added.
The issues are different when a horse comes in from animal control, she said. In that case, the problem is usually physical neglect, and the horse goes through a whole process of physical rehabilitation before they can even think about training.
“Often with those horses they have a slightly longer process,” Hajek added.
If a horse has been surrendered, the problems can be a mix bag, she said, The animal may be slightly neglected, or, she said, sometimes wonderful owners have unfortunate things happen and can’t keep their horse.
The first step when a horse comes in is a minimum 21-day quarantine.
The horses have often been in very crowded environments if they come from auction — it’s like an airport — with horses from all different areas coming in and out, Hajek said. This means that viruses, bacterial infections and airborne diseases are very common, she added.
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After the quarantine, horses go into an assessment program to see if they need more rehabilitation or if they can move into training.
“We start all of our horses with a reevaluation from the ground up to retrain them for riding if they’re able,” Hajek said, because almost all adopters want to be able to ride the horse.
Trainers also work on manners, like if a horse leads politely, is able to let someone pick up it’s feet, if they’ll stand for shots and more.
Often, she said, even if horses have had previous careers, they have some gaps in their knowledge.
If a horse is too sick, Hajek said they have to instead euthanize the animal. It’s a hard topic, she said.
“Of course, it’s sad,” she said.
But, sometimes it’s necessary, and the rescue is stepping in — and stepping up — for a horse because someone else has failed to do so, Hajek added.
“Our ultimate plan for every horse is for it to find an absolutely loving, perfect adopter that’s just going to cherish them for who they are,” she said.
They want to find an adopter who is in it “for the long haul” — it’s more about what the adopter can do for the horse, not what the horse can offer the adopter, she added.
Most horses at the rescue find this. But, Hajek said, they don’t give the horses a timeline. There’s a horse that will finally be adopted this summer who has been with the rescue for nine years, she said.
Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue is 100 percent donation based, Hajek said, and is consists of a number of small donations.
While there are 13 full-time barn staff, Hajek said she considers the organization volunteer based. They have 175 active volunteers, but a core group of about 40.
And they’re always looking to add more, she said.
“We need volunteers,” she said, adding, “We will train people.”
If someone has farm experience, they may go through two trainings before being set loose. Someone with less training will likely go through four or five trainings.
But, from the beginning, everyone is working with horses.
“From the first day, you’re feeding horses, you’re walking horse to pasture,” she said.
A volunteer works with the animals, mucks stalls and more. The experience is very hands-on, she said.
Rick Blatchford is one of those volunteers.
He said via email that while he started riding horses at the age of 12, he realized his knowledge of horse health care was lacking.
“I stopped riding when I went to college, and haven't sat a horse (until last month) in over 50 years,” Blatchford said. “At age 77, I feel ignorant on the subject, but am working to learn. The sad part is, because of my longtime love for horses, I'm still shocked that some (a minority) horse owners can be so uncaring/neglectful of the animals which rely upon them.”
Hajek said if someone can commit to 20 hours a month, they can be involved in a partner program, where a volunteer is paired with a horse and comes in three or four times a week to spend one-on-one time with the animal.
“Partner programs are a great way that some of our retired horses that don’t get a lot of attention still feel important,” she said.
The horses look forward to having someone special come in and see them, Hajek said, who focuses on meeting the horse’s emotional needs.
Its physical needs are always met at the rescue, but that’s not enough.
“Just having hay and water thrown at them and grain twice a day, you know, isn’t necessarily a whole life,” Hajek said. “They still need that one-on-one connection. They like us as much as we like them.”
For more information on volunteering, email the volunteer coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 443-285-3835.
For more information on Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue, visit https://www.gentlegiantsdrafthorserescue.org/.