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From intake to adoption, how horses travel through Harmony

By Deb Marsh

The Dumb Friends League Harmony Equine Center’s primary mission is to take in horses seized in cruelty cases. In a recent 12-month period, the center received 225 equines from law enforcement.

In May 2019, 49 Tennessee Walking Horses (a breed with a special gait) were relinquished by their owner to law enforcement and brought to the Harmony Equine Center. Not only were the animals extremely malnourished, but not a single animal had been taught to trust humans enough to be haltered. Mission impossible? For most folks, yes. But the staff at Harmony had encountered the situation before and has the equipment and a system to handle the most difficult circumstances.

All equines entering the facility start at intake, a separate area with a barn that serves as a quarantine and allows controlled access to horses that need intense monitoring and may be the subject of a court case.

Early on, the Dumb Friends League realized that pipe fencing was necessary for the most difficult cases. Many equines arrive that have never been touched or approached by human beings. Horses are prey animals, programmed to flee danger. Staff uses this instinct to round up the equines into stock trailers for the journey to Harmony, but once there, they must be carefully managed over time. That’s why the League spent more than $250,000 for a chute system and fencing to handle even the most skittish equines.

Newly arriving horses exit the trailer into a small round pen and then work their way through a tunnel-like series of heavy steel panels. They can’t turn around, and narrow “doors” can be moved in from the side to block them in front and/or behind. The first part of the chute allows an animal to be accessed from the side, the second is like a rodeo bucking chute where staff can work with the animal from above, and the third is a “squeeze” chute that gently moves in on either side to slowly and quietly immobilize even the most frightened animal without using any medication.

The chute system allows staff to take the initial weight of every equine, check for injuries or wounds, as well as external parasites or infections, and place a numbered identification tag on each horse passing through. The equines are then turned into paddocks, which are fenced pens, with shelters and put on a diet of quality grass hay that is available around the clock. (Every batch of hay is tested to ensure quality.) Developed at Harmony, this feed regimen has revolutionized rehabilitation for starving horses and is partially responsible for 82 percent of all equines coming in going on to be placed.

Using this regimen, the majority of the Walking Horses slowly regained alertness, body condition and a zest for life over time. The animals are weighed weekly to make sure they’re gaining weight at an appropriate pace, and grain, grass pellets or hay balancer are added to their diets when extra protein is needed. There are plenty of pens at intake to separate groups of equines that may need a special diet or any other needs they have.

Finally, after about three months, some of the Walking Horses were deemed recovered enough to graduate to the main barn. For the first time, each horse was taken out of his/her herd group and placed in a separate stall with a run. This step prepares them mentally for working with a trainer, whose job it will be to teach the horse to trust people via calm, consistent aids that reward desired behavior with a release of pressure. “Pressure” for the semi-wild Walking Horses is initially having a person approach or being touched. As time goes on, each is learning to accept more and more pressure (lifting a leg on cue, getting a body rub, having a saddle blanket plopped on and finally, for those old and sound enough, getting saddled and ridden) through calm, unhurried training.

“There’s never a deadline,” says Garret Leonard, director of the Harmony Equine Center, “We don’t look at a horse and say to the trainer, ‘You have until Wednesday to get him halter broke.’ We don’t push an agenda for exactly how long it should take him to progress. We know how long each step takes on average, but if a horse is ready sooner, that is great. If the horse needs to stay longer at intake, that’s okay.”

That’s true of every horse that comes to the facility, whether it’s 3-months old or 30 years; part of a sheriff’s seizure or relinquished in good health; mentally and physically abused or from a good home.

“Horses are like books,” says Leonard. “They tell you everything inside the cover.” Along with a staff of nine trainers, Leonard strives to give every animal coming through Harmony’s gate a solid foundation that will set it up for success and last the rest of its life, and that means taking time where it’s needed.

Most horses learning to take a saddle or just getting to know the basics will have sessions four to five times a week for three to four weeks. The first ride is scheduled so they can have consecutive rides three days in a row, reinforcing the lesson before a break. However, every horse is unique so this schedule can vary.

After an average length of stay of 146 days (or 164 days for horses, like the Tennessee Walkers who were not previously handled), an animal is sent to a new home. But a lot happens before they get into the trailer to leave.

All equines must stand for hoof trimming, a process akin to getting a manicure. Some animals need to have their teeth filed, or “floated,” because sharp edges have formed due to their sideways chewing movements. Students from Colorado State University do the job for free, as well as castrating any male equines that arrive intact. The students get field experience in routine procedures, and Harmony gets necessary veterinarian work with the latest techniques and top supervision.

Trainers take calls from people interested in adoption and assess what type of equine they want and need. The trainer may have a few equines in mind when the person comes to Harmony, but the list can change as the trainer assesses the person’s skill level and personality. An initial match is made, and three sessions are scheduled for riding lessons or groundwork (if the horse can’t be ridden) to make sure the adopter and the trainer both feel it’s the right fit.

In the meantime, a site inspection of the horse’s new home is made. If an adopter comes from out of state, their veterinarian or the local sheriff can assist in checking out the animal’s new quarters. Follow-ups are done at 30 and 60 days, and if for any reason the pairing doesn’t work out, or circumstances arise where the new owner can’t keep the horse, Harmony will take it back, no questions asked.

The day a horse steps onto that trailer to go to its new home is the culmination of a lot of time, effort and financial resources. But it’s the most satisfying day for the Harmony crew, who know another seizure case is just around the corner.

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