On an elevated platform, two women carefully examine a horse’s leg. Cheryl Flanagan looks up and meets my eyes, rubs a dirty palm on the hip of her jeans, and extends a hand to shake mine. “This’ll just be a minute,” she tells me, concern on her face. The veterinarian is examining her fourth horse that morning and Flanagan adds in my direction, “Sometimes, things happen all at once.”
The aroma of sweet hay and horse manure floats on the air. Even at eight o’clock in the morning, the temperature has crept above eighty degrees in the highlands of Cherokee County, Georgia. While I wait for Cheryl, the Director and Facilities Manager at Northwind Equestrian Center, I stare out at the rolling hills from the barn entrance, fanning my face with my hand. Two unfenced horses wander around the gravel driveway; one gelding meets my eye and lazily approaches me, nudging up against my shoulder before he sways his head another way. High up in the barn rafters, a wall fan emits a peaceful white noise throughout the stables.
Cheryl and the vet speak rapidly back and forth – a proficient, knowing dialogue about the horse’s progress, his trouble sweating, the possible need for a biopsy – before the veterinarian departs, leaving the facility owner with new knowledge instead of an invoice. Cheryl carefully holds a garden hose, watering down the examination area, and acknowledges my presence with a tired smile.
“This is why I began The Horse Rescue, Relief, and Retirement Fund twelve years ago,” she tells me, referencing the non-profit organization run through the equestrian center. “Horses like him.”
Easy Breeze, a former racehorse, arrived on her property in 2001. He developed a condition in which part of his small intestine caught inside an internal cavity and rotted away. A medical team at the University of Georgia removed 37 feet of his small intestine. Although his chance of survival was only fifteen percent, Flanagan refused to have him put down.
“We had to give him a chance,” she says, looking at him fondly, “And that was seven years ago.” At the sound of human conversation, curious horses poke their heads out over the tops of their stalls, observing our every move. Dry-erase boards hang above each enclosure: Names, feeding schedules, pasture assignments, reminder lists, and temperature readings are scripted in carefully chosen colors. Some have signs that read, “ASK” and “GO.”
Animals come to the rescue in all different ways. Recently the Northwind Equestrian Center received a lame 5-year old racehorse from the Philadelphia Park racetrack. Flanagan has a pet sheep that was discovered roaming an area golf course. The rescue’s pig arrived through local Animal Control. Families have called Flanagan in hysterics, begging her to take in their horses, sharing that they can no longer afford to care for them. Oftentimes state shelters ring Flanagan directly, asking for her to adopt abandoned animals. Some of her horses have cancer, Cushing’s disease, and other serious ailments. A few have been abused. And others are perfectly healthy horses, saved from slaughter.
A recent influx of unwanted horses have flooded her facilities. Flanagan currently cares for about a hundred horses on her four Georgia farms. Through the equestrian center’s charity, The Horse Rescue, Relief, and Retirement Fund (HRRF), Flanagan tries to rehabilitate and adopt out as many animals as possible, to give each creature the best quality of life, no matter their condition.
As we walk the facilities, I am surprised at how warmly the horses greet me, nudging my forearms with their muzzles, lips, fumbling for a treat. A black gelding scratches his mouth on a wooden post, swatting flies with his long tail. Most of them appear unscathed by the reasons that brought them here. We watch them silently for a moment, listening to the soft, muted sound of hoof beats on the red Georgia clay.
She moves past ambling goats and points to Bravo, the HRRF mascot, who is now a permanent resident on the farm. He’s a striking dark Shire that was rescued from slaughter.
While rescuing needy horses is a rewarding experience for Cheryl and her associates, the costs are high: rising gasoline prices and regional weather variables affect the price of hay and feed. Although local veterinarians offer services at a discounted rate, not all medicines and visits are pro bono. And in addition to monetary costs associated with running the rescue, the rehabilitating animals need hours of human attention to muck stalls and bathe, brush and exercise horses.
As Cheryl and I walk the farm, I ask her what HRRF means to the community. “It’s a horse rescue, but we’re also a people rescue,” she answers, after a moment in thought. “We see people change their lives after being here.” She briefly shares a story of a prominent business executive who arrives weekly in an expensive car to just clear his head and muck stalls. “And we have troubled women and children who find their way to the horse sanctuary. Volunteers from Big Brothers and Big Sisters spend their afternoons bonding while feeding and spending time with the animals. They also weed the garden and paint fences. There’s a reason they all come here to volunteer,” Cheryl tells me, suggesting that rehabilitation is shared between both human and equine.
Through the HRRF website, interested parties can sponsor a horse, learn about horse adoption, schedule a birthday party, plan a visit to the facilities and build their equine knowledge. Through volunteering personal time, promoting animal rights awareness, or giving monetary donations, Cheryl Flanagan believes we can all have a part in improving the lives of unwanted horses by offering them a “forever home.”