[WATCH] The horse rescuers

Challenging misconceptions: How horses perceived as useless are being given a second chance

There is an idea that racehorses were only useful as long as their legs were strong
There is an idea that racehorses were only useful as long as their legs were strong
Giving horses a second chance

As an animal-loving child, I remember one of the most brutal pills to swallow, was the idea that some animals, namely racehorses, were only useful as long as their legs were strong. But two organisations are challenging the old adage, and proving that there is indeed life after injury… MaltaToday visited the Malta Horse Sanctuary stables in Siggiewi and RMJ Horse Rescue stables at Salini, to find out how some lucky animals are being given a second chance…

“If it weren’t for services like ours and the Malta Horse Sanctuary, these perfectly healthy horses would have been put down,” RMJ horse rescue founder Korin Farrugia said as she took us around the stables to see some of the horses under her care. 

Korin Farrugia with Tiny, one of the horses rescued by RMJ
Korin Farrugia with Tiny, one of the horses rescued by RMJ

A quick glance around both the RMJ and Siggiewi stables shows horses trotting majestically around their paddocks, or up to some sort of mischief in their stables, as they follow us around and demand our attention as we tour the premises. At face value, it might be hard to understand or even imagine that any of the horses had been in need of rescuing.

“There is a lot of awareness about cat and dog rescues, but what we mean by rescued horses can be different,” Farrugia says, explaining that horses in need of rescuing are a little harder to spot.

“Rescued horses can include cases of mistreatment and inappropriate care, but in the most part, they are horses that are perceived as useless,” she said, explaining that once they are no longer fit for racing, many horses were considered as an unnecessary expense, and ultimately done away with to make way for new horses.

Estelle Duca from the Malta Horse Sanctuary explained that retired racehorses, which make up the bulk of the horses treated at the sanctuary, would ultimately have been rescued from a slaughterhouse fate. 

“We get a lot of cases where owners call in saying they intend to put their horses down, either because they cannot afford to keep them, or because they do not have space for them, despite the fact that they may be in perfectly good health,” Duca said, adding that of the 14 horses currently in their care, USA-born Confidence was one such horse.

“He was reportedly a winner in his homeland, but the local climate slowed him down for some reason,” Duca said, explaining that such cases were, although not unique, truly heart-breaking when not reached in time.

Farrugia tells similar tales, and adds that although these horses were generally not so difficult to rehome, not all owners turned to rescue homes when they needed to make space for new horses. Indeed, even then, that was no guarantee that the horses could be rescued, given the high demand for rescue services. She explained that since she first began rescuing horses some seven years ago, at her own stables, the demand had grown, to the extent that the organisation often had to made tough decisions about which horse to save. 

“The growing demand is a good sign, and we truly believe that lives shouldn’t be thrown away just because they are no longer perceived as useful. We are currently working on building better stables to house more horses, but the focus remains on rehoming the horses, rather than becoming a sanctuary for unwanted horses,” she said, adding that the organisation had successfully rehomed 40 horses during the year so far. 

“However difficult saying goodbye can be, we try to do our best to train the horses for different uses once they come to us, but rehoming some of the horses can be difficult,” she said, adding that they also had one permanent resident, the docile Totti, who suffers from a number of medical conditions, making his adoption a remote prospect. 

Farrugia said that the organisation, which had become a registered NGO in September last year, typically rescues race-horses that were no longer fit for racing, either due to age, or small injuries. However, she points out, many might still be suitable for other activities like dressage, jumping and leisurely riding.

“Many of these horses still have a number of years in them, but they will require a much more relaxed lifestyle that people in racing understandably cannot afford to give them,” Farrugia said. 

Similarly, the sanctuary, which currently homes 14 horses, counts five horses amongst those that will probably never be rehomed given their injuries or medical conditions. 

“This doesn’t mean they are useless, though,” Duca said, pointing out that many of the horses were central to the children’s parties organised by the association on the premises. Indeed, 14-year-old Katie, a former Polo horse who suffers from arthritis, was used for therapy with autistic children.

“The parties and activities are an important source of income for the association, and they are also ways to bring children closer to an animal they might only ever have encountered in a story-book so far,” she said. 

Duca acknowledges however, that caring for such horses is literally a labour of love, requiring endless patience and finances, with medications reaching something akin to €200 a month in some cases, excluding the cost of farriery services and fodder, which were made worse this year due to the sparse rainfall.

Farrugia pointed out that although the reality of putting horses down despite their good health seemed somewhat barbaric, neglect could often have even more devastating consequences. 

“Sadly, an unwanted horse will always be an unwanted horse, and simply stating that they shouldn’t be killed is not enough,” she said, recounting one of the most touching and extreme cases the group had encountered so far. Three-year-old Chance was bred for racing, but a deformity in his shoulder meant that he ultimately couldn’t race, leading the owners to shun him.

“Although he wasn’t put down early on, he came to us emaciated and weak, beyond anything we had ever experienced. He couldn’t even stand,” Farrugia said. “His was the only case when the vet actually told me not to get attached because his condition was so bad.”

Chance before: Chance came to RMJ emaciated and unable to stand on his own legs
Chance before: Chance came to RMJ emaciated and unable to stand on his own legs
Chance after
Chance after

However, perseverance on the group’s part ultimately meant that Chance has become quite the picture of health, and his personality seems unperturbed as he occasionally tried to gently snatch anything from my papers to the microphone during our visit. 

Although these cases are rare, of the four horses being homed by the organisation at the moment, newcomer Ali (named after Muhammad Ali whose death occurred on the same day that the colt came to RMJ) arrived under similar circumstances. 

“He is a severely malnourished pony not older than three years, and his hooves are in very bad shape as a result of bad shoeing,” she said, adding that he currently isn’t very trusting of people, veering towards the aggressive at times. 

“It’s not uncommon for horses rescued in his condition, but eventually they learn to trust people again once they realise we aren’t going to hurt them.”

Duca told the newsroom of a similar case, one of the most extreme the association had come across, with one of their current residents, New Year. 

“He came to us on New Year’s day a couple of years ago, and he had been abandoned, wounded in a field where he could no longer move,” she said, adding that his wounds had festered by the time he was found. 

Although he looks perfectly normal now, Duca pointed out that not all horses recovered from past psychological traumas, and that horses were often susceptible to anxiety and at times even depressive tendencies. 

Finding a remedy to this state of affairs seems unlikely, but these organizations, the only two offering rehabilitation programmes for horses in Malta, are giving at least a small number of these horses the opportunity to live longer lives in dignity. Both organisations explained how they saw their groups developing, hoping for more space and funding and volunteers to allow them to take in more horses. 

“Every horse has a unique history that we believe ought to be respected,” Duca said, adding that although not endemic to Malta, the situation was exacerbated locally by the lack of open space available to breeders. 

“Our ultimate goal is to try and help prevent unnecessary deaths as much as possible,” Farrugia said, urging animal lovers to help in any way they could.