Horse Helpers of the High Country
Sierra Mueller carefully steadied herself in the saddle behind
the broad shoulders of Belle, a slightly agitated, but striking Appaloosa quarter horse.
Belle was not in the mood to be mounted — much less rode — but she was willing to give Mueller, her trainer, the benefit of the doubt. And this after losing all trust in any human.
Belle is just one example of how far proper training and care can go in the overall attitude and behavior of any horse.
After being mistreated by her previous owners, Belle was now on the path to recovery at Horse Helpers of the High Country, a nonprofit equine rescue organization in the Tater Hill community.
“She’s a good example that if you start a horse out right, you don’t have to have a bucking bronco the first time out,” said Amy Hudnall, who runs the horse rescue.
The rescue, which was started in 2004 after Watauga County Animal Control saw a need for neglected and abused horses, takes in a variety of steeds and ponies through a referral process.
For some horses, the road to recovery is long and arduous.
Malnourished horses, for example, can take up to a year to get back up to a healthy weight, Hudnall said.
“We are trying to get their bodies back to where they need to be, but also their mind and spirits, too,” she said, adding that sometimes, the owners need to be saved as much as their horses.
Sometimes, she added, owners need to be saved as much as their horses, and Horse Helpers of the High Country realizes this when taking in the animals.
Many times, the nonprofit equine outreach encounters individuals who simply don’t have the economic means to provide for the horses any longer.
This stark truth is often realized in the fall when horse owners realize they don’t have enough hay to feed the stallions and ponies once colder weather sets in — when open-field grazing is not an option.
“We just become inundated with calls for people wanting us to take horses in and investigating possible cases of abuse,” Hudnall said. “We had to turn between 25 and 30 horses away in the past two months alone.”
The reality of the situation prevents the rescue from taking in all of the animals that need care. When asked what happens to the animals the rescue can’t reach, Hudnall solemnly replied, “Sometimes, they starve to death.”
There is a wealth of success stories at the horse rescue, where many animals have left the stable to for a loving home with all the oats they can stand.
The tale of Chico, a Tennessee Walking Horse, is another story that appears to have reached a happy ending.
Chico has led a turbulent life. Due to the failing health of his owner, Chico was sold to a family that didn’t know how to take care of him, and he was close to starvation and death when the horse rescuers intervened.
Now approaching his upper 20s, Chico can live his final years in luxury. “He has all the love and alfalfa he can handle,” Hudnall said.
Even the sadder stories that fill the rafters of the horse rescue’s stables are still bittersweet.
One of the first horses the outreach ever rescued was left for dead at a horse auction after the owner didn’t receive any bids.
“She completely shut down,” Hudnall said. “She was on her last leg.”
But the horse’s condition rapidly improved, and although she was eventually put down a year later, her last days were some of the most blissful in her entire life, Hudnall said.
When Gypsy first came to Horse Helpers, she literally struck out at people with an open mouth, ready to bite.
Today, she is so calm and tranquil that Hudnall wouldn’t think twice to let one of the neighborhood children ride her. “She’s the greatest trail horse you will ever meet,” she said.
Gypsy’s transformation is not unique. Many horses like Gypsy come to the barn full of fear and repressed frustration. But by the time they are up for adoption, their behavior makes them almost unrecognizable.
“The horses that come here get to see that there are still a lot of good people in the world,” Hudnall said.
For more information on Horse Helpers of the High Country, visit http://www.horsehelpersnc.org.