Last October, Kelly Hirsch read a Facebook post indicating more than 60 miniature horses were headed to the Innisfail auction in central Alberta. Fearing the animals would go for meat, Hirsch knew she had to do something.
“I convinced some friends to go with me and load up as many minis as we could,” says the general manager at Calgary’s Rocky Mountain Show Jumping (RMSJ) and a competitor herself. Although they wanted to bring every animal home to RMSJ that day, they ultimately saved five minis and two yearlings from kill-buyers.
“Just being there was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Hirsch. “I’ve never been to an auction before, to be honest. I kind of just assumed they were all older or lame horses or more dangerous horses, but that’s definitely not the case.”
A week after the first auction visit, they liberated six more horses from the sale and shortly thereafter, another two. Deciding to make a commitment to the cause, she and good friends, fellow RMSJ-ers Kelsee Downie and Meghan Senger, founded Haven 4 Hooves, with the mission of rescuing, rehabilitating and finding homes for horses that are likely bound for slaughter.
The trio only bids against meat buyers, not the public, and mainly targets animals that can be brought to health and rehomed quickly or used as surrogates in Hirsh’s high-performance breeding program. However, heart occasionally overrules head when it comes to certain vulnerable animals. Hirsch recalls a particular Percheron-cross mare who had a large, weepy abscess on her hip.
“When we were going through the pens, I looked her in the eye and I connected instantly with her. No matter what, I knew I was coming home with that one. There was just something about her. She ended up being the sweetest horse.”
Now named Beauty, the 15-year-old has settled into a new home near Edmonton where she’s doted on by a loving family.
RMSJ is a busy venue with boarding, lessons, high-calibre shows and lots of general comings and goings. Therefore, biosecurity is a concern when it comes to the Haven 4 Hooves horses. They are quarantined for three weeks in paddocks with run-in shelters behind RMSJ’s main barn. “You would have to know where to go to find them,” says Downie.
The area is clearly marked and anyone entering or leaving must undertake disinfectant procedures. Once their quarantine period is up, horses requiring more handling are stabled in the main barn. The rest are turned out in a field with Hirsch’s young and retired horses or sent to their new owners.
Downie says they are taking things slowly. “It is super important to make sure that when we do bring these animals into our care that we are doing the best we can for each animal, so we don’t really want to overwhelm ourselves by taking on too many.”
Of the 15 horses rescued, the majority have gone on to new homes. A couple remain at RMSJ where they are still undergoing training, but are still available for adoption. One is a draft horse named Raven who was taken in with six-month-old baby Giselle by her side as an “impulse buy,” says Hirsch. “We got her back and realized we couldn’t touch her. She was very scared of us and at first, I was like, ‘What did I buy?’ But she pulled on my heartstrings.”
In just a few short months, 10-year-old Raven has gone from being totally terrified of humans to starting under-saddle with Downie.
The women have done some fundraising, including a GoFundMe campaign to help cover initial veterinary expenses. Friends and family have also offered support, both monetarily and hands-on with training and care. Any funds raised and adoption fees go right back into the horses’ requirements.
They are also in the process of establishing Haven 4 Hooves as charitable foundation and look forward to fundraising events at RMSJ this season. Long-term plans include building a barn for the rescue operations.
Hirsch’s husband, international show jumper and owner/president of RMSJ, John Anderson, is supportive. He donates the space, food and some manpower to Haven 4 Hooves – as well as encouragement.
“They are majestic animals and they deserve a better life than going off to the meat farm. If there’s anything I can do to help the girls facilitate any or all of this, I will; we have the land and the means to help look after these animals,” says Anderson. “Hey, the horses owe me my life, so why not try to do something in a small way for them?”