Where Old Draft Horses Don’t Die,
They Just Fade Away
Area Ranch Gives Sanctuary to Discarded Draft Horses
BY BILL KILEY
Deborah Derr had no idea what to expect as the big stock-truck pulled onto her ranch near Livingston to unload the 20-year-old Belgian gelding. All she knew about the horse was that it had spent the last 10 years alone in a dark stall. He saw no other horses, no birds, no sun, clouds or rain—a decade of dark solitude and fear.
Dr. Derr, a chiropractor whose practice lead her into the world of horses, worried how the horse would react as he was reintroduced to freedom, daylight, good food, and the company of other draft horses.
“He had been alone in that cramped stall for so long I was afraid it might have damaged his mind,” says Deborah, owner of America's only non-profit rescue haven for old, retired, damaged and unwanted draft horses. “His owner was a trucker who often left him alone while on long-haul trips, and eventually became so frightened of the angry, fear-filled horse he'd just open the stall door, toss in a handful of hay, and leave again.
“A couple who heard about how poorly he treated his animals investi-gated, and, after spotting several dead cows on his field, convinced him to let them take the terrified horse off his hands. As soon as they had custody they called me, and the trip to his new life began.
“He had been loaded onto the truck in New York and driven all across the country, and now those doors were going to open and he would finally be welcomed with love. How would he accept it?”
As the skinny horse named Moonshadow was unloaded he looked around with fearful eyes for a moment before slowly testing his legs on the new ranch grass. Then he broke into a run, circling the pasture as though trying to remem-ber how to use his legs. “He jumped, twirled, backed up, ran forward, and generally did all the things he hadn't been allowed to do for more than 10 years. The sight of a bird startled him, and he twirled at the feel of a stiff breeze,” recalls Deborah. “Then some of the other horses came over to greet him—and he ran from them as fast as his weakened old legs would carry him. He didn't know what they were going to do, and his trust had been shattered by the owner who was so afraid of him he never even removed a tight halter that left scars on his nose.
Under Deborah's watchful eye he sauntered down to the hay and began munching, but when two other horses came to join him he reared, kicked, and drew blood with vicious bites.
“I quickly separated him from the others and put him in a smaller pen. I had to make him feel safe, and I had to protect the other horses from his anger.”
It took Deborah nearly two years of gentle caressing and tender care to turn Moonshadow into the big lover he is today. “At first he wanted nothing to do with the other horses, which often gathered outside his separate pen and watched him. I finally played a mind-game with him by feeding the other horses first, while he looked on with envy. I knew that sooner or later he'd want to come out of his enclosed area and join the gang. The trick worked, and he's been a member ever since.”
Today, visitors to her United in Light Ranch in the rolling hills up behind Albertsons quickly discover that Moonshadow is the ranch's star, and he’s the first horse to mosey over to have his ear scratched or for a few friendly pats.
“He now greets new horses and shows them where the food and water is located. He's my Welcome Wagon.”
Over near the scratching post stands Knight, the big white Percheron who started the whole thing.
Deborah had a thriving chiropractic practice in Southern California when a friend told her about the big horse she had just rescued from a slaughter house.
“I drove over to see this creature she was raving about, and fell in love. He was a beauty. But he had odd bumps along his spine, and when I put my hand on his back to pet him he quickly jumped sidewise in pain. As a chiropractor she recognized the signs of bones or muscles out of alignment.
“When my friend mentioned that she couldn't keep Knight, and was looking for a new home for him, I agreed to take him on.”
She didn't have any place to keep a big horse, so she put him in a boarding facility while working and studying with a veterinarian who taught her the art of animal orthopedic manipulation.
By the time Knight had been restored to good health Deborah had started studying draft horses, and was surprised to hear what happened to so many of the old horses when they could no longer work. “Draft horses often have to do the heavy lifting, and they just wear out quicker than a pampered Arabian. Many draft owners retire the old guys to the pasture and take good care of them—but too many others just sell them to an auction house where they often wind up in cans of dog food. I knew I wanted to do something about that.
“I learned that there are sanctuaries for old, injured and unwanted horses all across the country—but none for draft horses. They just eat too much, and take up too much space. There were places where they would be cared for until they were healthy again, but then they'd be sold and put back to work. I wanted to start a place where they would just settle into honorable retirement and never have to pull a plow or wagon again as long as they lived.”
I began asking questions and discovered that there were wonderful people who felt the same way and would be willing to help me financially. So I set out to form the country's only 501C3 non-profit rescue sanctuary for elderly and injured draft horses. Now I have a great board of directors from all across the country and wonderful volunteers who come to the ranch and offer magnificent help.”
Deborah sold her California home and practice and opened her first ranch in 2003 in Arizona's Chino Valley, near Prescott, but found that the state of Arizona would not recognize her Califor-nia chiropractic license. Finding that the growing number of big draft horses could eat up a huge amount of expen-sive food, she set out to find a locale where her license would be accepted, so she could earn a living in the chiroprac-tic profession.
Last year, she bought a small home on eight acres of rolling pasture with gorgeous mountain views on the outskirts of Livingston.
“I love the way these old timers get along with each other,” she said of her horses. “They greet newcomers with a gentle head rub of welcome. I have horses from all over, from Pennsylvania and Maryland to New York and Arizona, and they all care for each other like brothers and sisters.”
Deborah has a new Belgian that suffered years of faulty shoeing, and has feet that point in, which makes walking difficult—but he's happy. She says she's learned that draft horses under a lot of stress start metabolizing their own fat and lose weight at a rapid clip. That's why neighbors and volunteers are accustomed to seeing Deborah out in the pasture talking to a skinny newcomer, saying “Come on now. You can get better. Eat a little more, Get fat. I know you can do it!”
She presently has seven Belgians and Perchereons—five geldings and two mares. And she hopes to have room for two more soon. Her ultimate dream is 25,000 acres, two more wells, and a happy home for several dozen old draft horses.
“I now get calls from all over, from people looking for a home for their old unemployed horses—and the very hardest part of my life is when I have to say 'No.' It breaks my heart to know that 100,000 horses are sent to slaughter houses each year.”
Deborah Derr works long hours, treats chiropractic patients, sells her own outstanding photos of horses, creates cards, and travels for miles seeking funds for her four-legged guests.
“I'd tap-dance on a pool table if it would let me have one more horse.”