Rodricks: Gentle giants put out to pasture in Howard County after a life of hard work

By Dan Rodricks, Contact Reporter for The Baltimore Sun

Now here’s something I did not know (nor think much about) until a recent trip to a farm in Central Maryland, self-prescribed as a break from the daily distress of Donald Trump tweets and Baltimore crime: Those big-shouldered horses that pull wedding carriages and beer wagons, those brawny drafts that pull plows and harrows across Amish farm fields — some of them get a nice retirement.

They are put out to pasture. Or they take a little part-time work. Or they develop second careers.

Clydesdales, Percherons, Belgians and other wide-body breeds are known mostly for hauling rigs of pleasure and industry. But in their retirement, they can serve as mounts. People ride them. Who knew?

“Oh, yes,” insists Christine Hajek. “Drafts are sought-after for trail riding. They’re calm. They just plod along. You get a comfy, cushy slow ride. It’s like riding your couch.”

Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue to expand with help of memorial gift
Hajek counts on the aftermarket demand for wide rides because she is the founder and president of a horse rescue that specializes in saving drafts from slaughter and finding them new homes. She claims more than 500 adoptions since establishing her operation 11 years ago, and many of the new owners acquired their drafts for trail riding, some for jumper competition.

Who knew?

Well, some knew.

Ross Peddicord, a long-time horseman who serves as executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board, points out that the Baltimore Police Department’s mounted unit uses drafts or draft crosses. “People do use them for trail riding,” says Peddicord, a former Evening Sun reporter, “even fox hunting with the slower hunts.”

Snowman, the legendary show jumper of the late 1950s who was minutes away from the slaughterhouse before a New York riding instructor rescued him and turned him into a champion, had a previous life as a plow horse.

Harry de Leyer famously paid $80 for Snowman at the century-old livestock auction at New Holland, Pa., the same place Hajek goes to picks up horses for her rescue operation in Howard County.

Her operation is called Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue, and it sits on a 139-acre farm at the end of a long, tree-lined lane off Old Frederick Road in Mount Airy. A donation from the Gretchen B. Mobberley Family Trust led to the recent purchase of another farm six miles away, in Woodbine, providing Gentle Giants with an additional 105 acres for a sanctuary — a long-term retirement home for drafts unlikely to be adopted.

The nonprofit’s mission is based in a belief that no horse should be slaughtered for the international meat market. Hajek watches constantly for drafts on the block at New Holland in the hopes of saving them from bidders who intend to have them butchered. She’ll even make an effort to acquire a horse in poor health.

“We’d rather have them euthanized on the farm than see them go to slaughter,” she says.

Many of the drafts come from Amish or Mennonite farms after a hard life of pulling plows. Hajek buys them, then she gets them to the farm, where her staff of 13 hands and numerous volunteers clean, feed and evaluate the horses, then place them in a paddock for new arrivals. A veterinarian and blacksmith visit each Tuesday.

Farrier Zach Shoop, left, works on the hooves of Roger with the help of barn staff members Leslie Forcino, center, and Lauren Bognovitz, right, at the Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue in Mount Airy. (Michael Ares / Baltimore Sun)

Farrier Zach Shoop, left, works on the hooves of Roger with the help of barn staff members Leslie Forcino, center, and Lauren Bognovitz, right, at the Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue in Mount Airy. (Michael Ares / Baltimore Sun)

At any given time, Hajek says, there are more than 100 horses on the farm. There were 112 in residence on Friday. Thirty-four of them are sanctuary horses, the remainder in pastures or stables, awaiting adoption. Sixty percent to 70 percent of the Gentle Giant horses come from New Holland, Hajek says. The remainder come from individual owners who, for various reasons, need to give them up. The actor Charles “Roc” Dutton, who has a farm in Howard County and once owned 12 Clydesdales, gave Gentle Giants a Gypsy Cob named Sainte.

Gentle Giants occasionally takes in abused or neglected drafts rescued by humane societies or animal control units.

And over the years, several have come from the carriage trade, including the one in New York City. The horse-drawn carriages of New York became a hot issue in the 2013 mayoral election, with an animal rights group calling for the trade’s abolition and throwing its support behind Bill de Blasio, the ultimate winner. De Blasio had promised a ban on the carriages, but the New York City Council and the public pushed back hard. The abolitionists gave up their crusade this summer, according to the Daily News.

Hajek is opposed to horses being slaughtered, but she’s not opposed to horses working.

“If they don’t work, they don’t exist,” she says. “I think most carriage horses get treated well by their owners. When they’re ready to retire them, they contact us or another rescue. The carriage horses are great to have in your barn. They are really well-behaved.”

And, Hajek says, many of them are still capable of a “lighter career” in retirement, pulling a cart or wagon maybe once a week — you know, a little part-time work.

Carroll County farm gives draft horses a second chance

By Megan Pringle for WBALTV11

Such horses are called gentle giants for their mild disposition and size.

But just like race horses, there is concern about what happens when a draft horse’s working days are over.

There is a farm in Carroll County that shares a similar concern and is working to make sure these horses have a second chance. The Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue in Mount Airy bring in those horses that are at the end of their working career.

"Oftentimes the owner of the horse will dispose of that horse through an auction or sale, and the biggest market there are the horses who are being offered for meat," Gentle Giants founder and president Christine Hajek said.

Hajek said they buy the horses before that happens, and that's when the work begins. The farm relies of donations and volunteers.

"It is a lot of work," Hajek said. "We have about 108 horses on a 130 acres right now. We only have about 10 barn staff so that's a lot for us to handle on our own and volunteers free us up to do other things like special treatments, which most of the horses need."

From hoof problems to neglect, the medical needs of the horses can be challenging.

"When they come in here, they are in quarantine that's when they have to take it slow and gradually build them up again," Gentle Giants farm manager Erica Raum said.

Avalanche is among the horses at the farm. He's only been there two months, but is already considered a success story. In his time at Gentle Giants, he has gained 300 pounds and has about 300 more to go. He is considered a pretty incredible success story.

Gentle Giant’s staff said that stories like Avalanche’s are incredibly gratifying.