Although abused and neglected horses often see the worst parts of humanity, one alumna shows them the best.
By Luis Ruuska
Photographs by Patrick Murphy-Racey
Originally published in Tennessee Law, Fall 2016
“He just needs to know the camera flash isn’t going to eat him.”
Kaliwohi (Cherokee for “perfect”), a three-year-old bay-and-white gelding and Esther Roberts’s (’01) personal horse, nervously stamps the ground as a burst of light from the camera for today’s photo shoot illuminates the dressage arena. Spending only a few minutes with Roberts is enough to reveal the extraordinary relationship she has with the horses that call Starlight Farm Animal Sanctuary home. Though they are initially nervous around strangers or objects (like cameras), she has a nearly magical ability to put them at ease with positive affirmation and a gentle hand.
Roberts has been able to cultivate such unbreakable bonds with Kaliwohi and the rest of her herd by living among them. The sanctuary, established by Roberts in 2003—two years after receiving her JD, the most recent of her five degrees—sits on six acres of land in Strawberry Plains. Her home, completed in 2008, is only a stone’s throw away from the stable and paddock in this parcel of paradise where the still air is only occasionally punctuated by a bird’s call or a horse’s whinny. “I had the excavators cut the bank so the house and stable would be on the same elevation,” Roberts says. “I wanted to be able to raise my head off the pillow each morning and see my kids.”
“He was captured by helicopter at eight weeks old and shattered the left side of his face. The BLM does no healing when they have these animals in HMAs, so after 16 months, when I adopted him and brought him here, the UT College of Veterinary Medicine did a six-hour standing surgery to rebuild his face,” Roberts recalls. “He has no teeth on the upper left since they were all crushed, but he compensates really well and you can tell he hasn’t missed a meal.”
Suddenly, the photo shoot is interrupted by a call Roberts has been waiting for. A Mennonite farmer from Kentucky is calling about the status of his mare and her 12-week-old foal, which fractured its hip at three weeks old. The previous week Roberts picked up the pair and brought them to the UT College of Veterinary Medicine for treatment. She has to deliver the heartbreaking news that the foal was humanely euthanized as the fracture had begun to decay, which inevitably would have led to painful sepsis.
“This was one of the saddest situations, but this is part of what we do. The sanctuary’s mission is always critical care. Any time you have an upper-limb injury with a large animal it’s pretty much catastrophic. If we had gotten to him within a 12-hour window of the injury, there might have been a small chance,” Roberts explains after hanging up. “It took [the farmer] eight weeks until he found a sanctuary—us—that would take the pair. We had a 12-hour window and that was two months ago.”
Ever the optimist, Roberts sees hope from this harrowing incident. “For this Mennonite to reach out to a sanctuary was huge. There’s a cultural dictate regarding animal husbandry in that community that ‘if you don’t have a job, you can’t stay here,’ so they never retire a horse; as soon as it’s worn out, they send it to the kill pens,” she says. “He loves the mare, he raised her from a baby almost 20 years ago, and he asked us to take her when she was 25 or so, and he retires her. He’s cutting-edge for his belief system and maybe he’ll tell his friends and they’ll tell their friends, and all of a sudden that entire community will realize that maybe there’s an alternative to just shipping these animals to slaughter.”
The Last Line of Defense
Approximately 75 percent of the horses that come through Starlight’s gates are pulled directly from the slaughter pipeline. Some end up in the pipeline from farms or communities like those of the Amish, where their life is only as long as their usefulness. Many others come from the horseracing industry, where only a few can be champions and the other 90 to 95 percent are discarded. Still other horses come from BLM auctions, where if they are not adopted by their third auction, they are swooped up in truckloads by so-called “kill buyers,” who get them for as low as $25 and sell them to foreign slaughterhouses at a markup.
While 2007 saw the closure of the last three slaughterhouses in the United States—all of which were foreign-owned—little has been done to stem the problem of slaughtering horses en masse. Instead, more than 150,000 horses annually are now shipped alive to Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered for human consumption in first-world countries like Japan, where horsemeat is considered a delicacy, or third-world countries like Kazakhstan.
“Unlike us, some rescues will say that once the horse is in the pipeline, we can’t take them out; we’re just going to try to get them before they end up in the pipeline so that we don’t end up lining the kill buyers’ pockets. Because the logic is that if you pay to bail a horse from a kill buyer, they’re just going to turn around and buy more horses,” Roberts says. “So have you saved one and sentenced nine or ten more to die by trying to do the right thing? There’s a moral conundrum that I don’t know the answer to, but I do know that if more countries would outlaw the sale of the horsemeat, that would be a huge help.”
Consuming horsemeat has long been culturally taboo in the United States due to the pet status horses have acquired. Currently, there is legislation in Congress—the Safeguard American Food Export (S.A.F.E.) Act—that would ban the export of horses for slaughter due to concerns about the safety of the meat. “The problem is that most of these animals are given phenylbutazone [an NSAID no longer approved for human use in the United States due to adverse side effects] for pain and it doesn’t leave the tissue post-slaughter,” says Roberts. “American horsemeat is not safe for consumption. This issue of slaughter for consumption is more than a moral wrong; it’s a safety issue.”
Since starting the sanctuary, Roberts has saved and rehomed more than 60 horses—14 in the last year alone. She is also optimistic that consumers and corporations will begin doing their part to stem the slaughter of these animals. “American people are starting to realize that while the circus or the racetrack may offer some modest form of fun or entertainment value, we just don’t need this wholesale usage of animals for our own purposes without some idea of where they’re going to end up,” she says.
Roberts also says that larger rescue operations, such as New Vocations Racehorse Adoption in Ohio, are working with racehorse owners and breeders to rehome horses that are not fast enough on the track to other equine disciplines like dressage, trail riding, or eventing, where horses need not be fast in order to be loved and live purposeful lives.
“There’s a new sense of responsibility taking hold in the racing industry that says we need to be more responsible because if we’re making billions of dollars off this gambling industry and we’re not going to fix or change or end that, let’s be socially responsible, both on the breeding end of the pipeline as well as the post-racing end of the pipeline.’”
The Road to Recovery
Each horse’s journey at Starlight is different. In the stables, Roberts introduces Caleb, a four-year-old black and white speckled gelding and a Tennessee Walking Horse.
“When he came to us he was 18 months old and was the size of a six-moth-old baby and had a bad shoulder injury,” Roberts says. “Unfortunately, true to Walking Horse-style, he was raised in a small, dark stall so that when he was taken out he was what they call ‘keen and in the bridle;’ living in darkness makes the horses overreactive to everything. He didn’t know what to do with light or shadows or even how to balance on uneven ground.”
Eventually, Caleb was nursed back to health, and although his growth is permanently stunted and can never hold a rider larger than a child, he has found his purpose as the ambassador of the sanctuary. “He’s a big clown and everybody loves him,” Roberts says with a laugh.
Unlike some of his fellow Tennessee Walking Horses, Caleb fortunately did not show signs of soring, a perennial problem among his breed that Roberts has been a staunch advocate against. She calls the practice “unconscionable.”
“The two-minute way to describe soring is this: Imagine you go to a pedicurist and they scour your feet and your calves until they’re almost bleeding. Then they strap on five-inch stilettos with crushed glass in the sole of the shoe. Then they rub your legs with abrasive chemicals like mustard oil or kerosene and Saran Wrap your leg so that the chemicals can’t evaporate and they literally cook into your skin tissue,” Roberts explains. “Then for 23 hours a day, they put you in a room the size of your body where you can’t sit down or take the shoes off. But for one hour a day, they take you out and put somebody on your back and tell you, ‘Go run a marathon.’”
The Tennessee Walking Horse’s trademark four-beat running walk is naturally aesthetically pleasing, but unethical owners sore their horses in order to produce the so-called “Big Lick” style, in which the horse throws its legs up higher than it naturally would in order to gain momentary pain relief. While the Horse Protection Act of 1970 deemed soring “cruel and inhumane,” the problem has not been eliminated.
“The Tennessee Walking Horse is known as the most docile horse on the planet. They’re the Golden Retriever of horses,” Roberts says. “If you tried to sore a horse like an Arabian or a Thoroughbred, they wouldn’t tolerate it; their sense of self-preservation is too strong. But Tennessee Walking Horses will give until they collapse and still say, ‘I want to please you,’ so it’s heartbreaking when that’s taken advantage of.”
Although Tennessee Walking Horses like Caleb often endure soring in addition to poor living conditions, Roberts says they often “bounce back” sooner than horses rescued from the slaughter pipeline, who have often experienced even greater physical and emotional trauma. For all abused horses though, the road to recovery can be a long one.
“I spend a lot of time just sitting with the horses. I read aloud to them, I eat dinner with them, and I just spend time with them and let them come to me on their own. Because from their point of view, at first, it’s ‘every time a human comes to me it’s to cause me pain, or they make me scared,’” Roberts explains. “So I try to just let them know I’m here. I have no expectations. ‘Come when you’re ready.’ Invariably they do, and it’s always a teary moment when they finally say, ‘You’re different.’”
Although most horses can be rehabilitated, a minority are so mentally broken that humane euthanasia in a veterinary setting is the only option to end a horse’s suffering. But the vast majority that do make it often live fulfilling, purposeful lives as either permanent residents of the sanctuary or as adoptees.
“One of our best success stories is about an off-track Standardbred (OTSTB) named Powergaiterdotcom, whom we renamed Malachi. Mal, who is a huge horse, was just adopted to a place called Edelweiss Equine Assisted Therapy Center in Indiana, because they wanted a large horse to work with United States veterans,” says Roberts. “He had nine owners before he came to us and was just a money-maker to them. But now he has blossomed and the veterans are in love with him, and he’s learning to understand, ‘I’m not going anywhere else, these people really like me, and this is my home.’”
Standing in the paddock with Roberts, it’s clear that this is where her home and heart are. Though by day Roberts practices at her own firm, Global Intellectual Property Asset Management PLLC, at the end of the day it’s the horses that fuel her spirit.
“This is my passion. This is so easy. Like with any non-profit, the only hard parts are time, money, resources, and getting volunteer help. But there’s never a question of ‘can I do this?’ It’s all about how I can help the next one and the one after that,” Roberts says. “What I love about horses is that they are a mirror and an amplification for who you are as a person. If you’re kind, they’re going to be kinder. If you’re upset, they’re going to be more upset. They challenge you to always be your best self.”
Sidebar: Sanctuary for All
Tennessee’s diverse geography and habitable climate have allowed a number of other exotic and large-animal sanctuaries to provide a haven in the Volunteer State.
Tiger Haven (Kingston) is a rescue facility for big cats that have been abused, confiscated, or are in danger of euthanasia. The cats come from such backgrounds as circuses, zoos, and private collections.
The Elephant Sanctuary (Hohenwald) is the nation’s largest natural-habitat refugee (2,700+ acres), with three natural habitats designed specifically for Asian and African elephants that have been retired from zoos and circuses.
Ark R.A.I.N. Wildlife Sanctuary (Brownsville) is home to a variety of exotic and large animals, including monkeys, big cats, kangaroos, horses, small mammals, and birds.