A stable future

PUBLISHED: 12:42 08 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013

Julie Hill visits the RSPCA's equine centre at Dorrington, where neglected horses and ponies are given love and attention

Julie Hill visits the RSPCA's equine centre at Dorrington, where neglected horses and ponies are given love and attention


The RSPCA has two equine centres in the UK, and one of them is right here in Shropshire, Just south of Shrewsbury, a short drive from the A49, you can find yourself in another world; a world devoted to ensuring horses most in need of medical attention and tender loving care receive exactly that.
Taffy is a lively, happy pony full of character, but he was very different when he arrived at the centre, after being appallingly neglected. Taffy had to be fed handfuls of hay every hour in a bid to improve his emaciated state, and put some flesh on a figure where each rib stood out. His main problem was his feet. Laminitis had transformed them into 'Turkish slippers'. Laminitis can cause the bones of the feet to rotate and actually grow down through the sole. The condition is generally caused by lush grass that contains too many sugars. It is associated with ponies that are overweight.
If Taffy had not had such a strong personality he would most likely have died. However, thanks to the perseverance of Fyrnwy Vets and Forden Farriers, working closely together, his feet began to return to something nearer normal. In addition to careful feeding, and pain relief, regular X-rays and precise trimming of his feet saw him well on the road to recovery.

Unlike RSPCA domestic centres, which house dogs, cats and other small animals looking for new owners, the function of the equine centre is to nurse horses and ponies back to health when they have been removed from owners due to mistreatment. Some mistreatment is due to deliberate cruelty, some is inadvertent due to ignorance, but the consequences can be devastating for the animals involved.

The farrier visits the horses at the centre every two weeks, and in order to put traditional metal shoes on Taffy, he had to be sedated. Then the farrier and the vet recommended a new development - plastic horse shoes. These imprint shoes are moulded exactly to Taffy's foot, helping to support the delicate internal structure, preventing soreness and pain developing. The shoes cost £150 per pair, every six weeks, but thankfully Taffy only needs them on his front feet.

At 32-years-of-age, Taffy is definitely a pensioner, and thanks to money provided for retired horses he will be able to live out the rest of his life at the centre. The Wyndham Cottle Home of Rest for Animals donated money to the RSPCA to enable it to care for retired working horses. There is only one pit pony left at the centre - 28-year-old Tom who spent his working life six miles under the North Sea - so these days the money left over after the working horses are cared for goes to the other equine residents, of whom unfortunately there are plenty.
Companionship is extremely important to horses, since they are social animals, who establish a pecking order amongst themselves. The need to mix with others of their kind is taken into account at the centre, although case horses - those removed from their owners, but not yet signed over to the charity - have to be kept safe, and introductions have to be done gradually. This is achieved by letting horses get to know one another over the fences that divide the fields. They are free to see and sniff each other, and staff observe, hoping to see mutual grooming that will indicate friendships forming.
No effort is too much for the staff, and a good example of the trouble they take is Khajeil. Khajeil was a riding horse who came to the centre as a cruelty case. He was emaciated due to the fact he had very few teeth, and today he is left with only one grinding tooth. As a consequence he is unable to eat grass and hay like other horses. Meeting a horse's dietary requirements is a matter of balance. Too much rich grass can result in laminitis, while too little denies the horse vital fibre. The centre therefore weighs the hay and bases portions on the weight of each horse. Furthermore, hay is split throughout the day and evening ensuring a steady flow of fibre.
As Kate says, "A munching horse is a happy horse! Horses eat for 16 hours a day in the wild."
So what of poor old Khajeil, unable to munch? Again the centre found the perfect answer. He has special sloppy food that meets his protein and fibre needs. To ensure the constant flow of fibre, his sloppy mash is divided into six meals. During the day Khajeil is kept on the lushest grass at the centre, some of which he manages to bite and suck, while he gets room service - or rather field service - with staff carrying his mash out to him.
The horses' health is a priority at the centre, and to safeguard this they receive yearly vaccinations against flu, biannual vaccinations against tetanus, are regularly wormed. As well as attention from the farrier, the vet checks and treats teeth regularly too.
The animals also receive appropriate training. This happens partly through daily routine, says Kate, "You're leading them, teaching them to stop, start, walk on, trot on, turn left, turn right, walk backwards, all those things because it teaches them general manners, and you get a good rapport going. For example grooming a horse is really important because it gets to know you, you get to them, and so they trust you much more when you come to do more work with them."
The centre is not a home for unwanted horses, but its location means it is regularly used as a stopover for horses on the way to a new home.
Centre Manager Becky Emeny says, "A lot of horses get rehomed in Wales, from down south. So quite often what they do is stay here for a couple of days, then carry on with the journey, or they get collected by a new owner from here because we're an ideal spot in the middle of the country."
All new inmates stay in the isolation block, and are only allowed to mix with the other horses after a three-week quarantine.
There are so many horse and ponies that are fortunate enough to have found a caring home at the centre. Each has their own touching story. There is Moe, the feisty fine boned ex-racehorse who attempts to lord it over the others, but allows retired riding horse Mistletoe to boss him about, though ten years older and much smaller. Des, who suffers from arthritis and has a tendency to laminitis, spends his days with a small Fallabella cross breed called Harry. Harry is on lifelong medication for a troublesome tooth abscess. The occasional donkey also finds sanctuary at the centre.

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