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Emaciated baby horses back on four feet

By Deb Marsh

The call came into the Park County sheriff’s office in late July. More than 40 horses were reportedly suffering from severe malnutrition. Could someone check on them? Bobbi Priestly, director of field and equine services for the Colorado Humane Society and the Dumb Friends League Harmony Equine Center, met animal control officers at the site. What they found was awful but all too common. Most of the animals were in appalling condition, but to make it worse, five were mares with young foals at their side.


A veterinarian was called to come out the next day to evaluate the herd. While the veterinarian was going through horse by horse, the littlest baby went down. So sick and weak, she was unable to stand, and an intravenous (IV) solution was immediately administered, but the outlook was grim for the tiny sorrel named “Addie.” Another small foal, a colt dubbed “Pie,” also needed an IV injection. Thirty of the 41 animals had body scores of 1 or 2 (on a scale of 1 to 9) and could be confiscated. Many exhibited signs of illness that hadn’t been treated. It was clear that it was doubtful all the animals could be saved.

The horses deemed bad enough to come to the Harmony Equine Center were in “horrendous” condition, recalls Priestly. The tiny filly looked the very worst and suffered from a fever. “Addie wasn’t going to be alive much longer if we didn’t get her out of there,” Priestly said.

Good intentions

The people who owned the horses surrendered them willingly, and no charges were filed. Their hearts were in the right place—all of the animals had been purchased at a “kill lot” near Ft. Collins. There, horses awaiting shipment to slaughter are sold at a premium to individuals who want to save them, although the owner of the lot pockets the profit, incentivized to buy more animals to come take their place. Unfortunately, this particular couple could not afford to feed the horses properly nor pay for veterinary care. One adult animal with a gaping wound had been left untreated because there was no chute to manage it; only a couple of the equines were tame enough to wear a halter or be led.

Harmony staff quickly came on the scene to expertly gather and transport the emaciated horses back to their top-notch facility near Franktown. The sickest animals went first, including the five dams with their foals. On the 2 1/2 hour ride back, baby Pie went down in the trailer. He began antibiotics to treat a fever as soon as he arrived at intake, but he was extremely weak. It would be a very rough road ahead for all of the horses and the end of the road for two adults that, sadly, were too sick and malnourished to recover.


Taryn Hillman and Brent Winston, Harmony co-managers, remember mentally preparing to lose both Addie and Pie and likely others from this case. “We didn’t think they were going to make it,” said Hillman of the youngsters. The little pair needed antibiotics and other health treatments, but although they’d never been touched, they weren’t hard to treat. The duo was so weak they “spent most of their time lying in the hay,” Winston recalled.

When a foal is born, it is up and nursing within two hours of birth. That first milk, called colostrum, is rich in antibodies that provide immunity for the newborn and needed protein, energy and vitamins. If the mother is starving, her body cannot provide a good quality or amount of this first feeding, nor make enough milk in the following weeks and months to feed her baby. When Priestly first saw the foals, one thing that shocked her was how they kept trying to eat hay instead of nursing to ingest the much more nutrient-dense milk of their dam. But the mothers were so thin they could barely produce any milk, certainly far less than a growing baby requires. There were simply not enough calories available for their bodies, much less to make food for their foals, forcing the babies to seek out any food source they could find.

For Addie, Pie and the rest of the babies now at Harmony, it was touch-and-go for weeks, remembered Hillman. Early on, staff discovered through fecal analysis that all of the adult horses had sand in their bellies, a likely result of browsing forage down to the ground. Luckily, it’s a condition that can be treated simply by feeding the animals apple- and molasses-flavored fiber crumbles that push sand and dirt out of the digestive tract. However, none of the animals were in adequate condition to be treated until mid-August, when analysis on the foals revealed that even they, too, had ingested sand in a desperate bid to fill their bellies.

Finally, the animals were on a path back to health, although the mares didn’t begin to put on significant weight until their foals were weaned, despite getting a special, high-starch feed supplement from the time they arrived. Priestly recently went out to Harmony to view the horses four months after she first encountered the skeletal herd. With normal body weight and bright eyes, seeing them now made even this animal welfare veteran get a little choked up. One of the babies had already been adopted, and another was slated to go to its new home in a matter of days. That’s what makes her job so rewarding, said Priestly.


The rest of the equines are on to better things, too. Horse moms Jelly (dam of Bean), Moon (dam of Pie) and Whinny (dam of Wallace) are in the adoption barn, getting gentle enough to wear a halter and be led in ground work. Experienced youths are training a pair of yearlings in the Colorado Horse Rescue Network Colt Challenge. They’ll be evaluated via video after 60 days for a chance to win their trainers prize money. You can check out one of them, Togo, on Facebook at Brody’s Colt Challenge 2020. Meanwhile, mare Helen is in the process of learning how to work under saddle with a rider on her back.

Coming full circle, a trio of Harmony program graduates, the kind with four hooves, are helping the newbies learn the ropes. Harmony now owns Golden palomino Peaches and handsome bay Rusty after arriving with their own stories, and gorgeous, athletic bay Smash was adopted by Winston after the gelding caught his eye and excelled in the equine center’s training program. All three help skittish new arrivals get comfortable in the arena as they learn how to be led and ridden in the company of these experienced, unflappable equine veterans.

As for Pie and Addie, their rough coats remain as evidence of their difficult start in life. But the twinkle in their eyes and the spunk in their attitude are indicative of a much brighter future for each. Come spring, they’ll shed into sleek, shiny creatures in the bloom of health—hopefully in new homes, where they will have all their needs met and can grow and progress to reach their fullest potential.

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