Saving Bentley: Trying to Rescue the Lost Lesson Horses

Photo from unsplash.com

BY CHRISTINA KEIM

2018 Equestrian Voices Distinguished Entry

The equine industry has a dirty little secret. It is whispered about in barn aisles and tack rooms; pontificated on behind aliases on internet bulletin boards; it has caused the end of professional relationships and friendships. It is the ultimately irony: despite the cessation of equine slaughter in the United States, thousands of our horses end up meeting that fate just over our borders – especially the old and the infirm, the ones which no longer have a “use”. And it is sometimes their owners or trainers which send them there.

It is a complicated issue. Horses can live a long time – sometimes thirty years – and are expensive to keep. In the eyes of the USDA, horses are considered “livestock.” Most familiar livestock species are raised to serve a use for humanity; most end their lives in a slaughterhouse. But the role which the horse plays in American society is much closer to that of a cat or dog; they are named, loved and embraced almost as a member of the family. The partnership between horse and rider is one of extreme trust and violates natural law; a prey species putting its well-being wholly over to the care and attention of a predator. Together, the pair is capable of tackling seemingly impossible tasks, with each partner taking care of the other.

Developing this bond is what drives many equestrians. It is a sacred relationship; when a horse is sold or dies, the loss can be felt as deeply as the grief of losing a close family member. And this is perhaps why the people who sell their horses at low end auctions are considered “less than” by many equestrians; rather than “doing right” by their horses at the end of their careers – either retiring them and paying upkeep for life, or humanely euthanizing them – some owners instead seek a quick sale and a few hundred dollars in their pockets. Maybe some of them feel a sense of relief, or carry the mistaken conviction that someone else will be willing to deal with their horse’s problems.  Maybe some of them simply don’t care. The reality of what happens to an older, lame or otherwise compromised horse which goes to auction is beyond what most horse lovers care to fully consider.

“No one is going to buy that horse, knowing the kind of upkeep they require,” says Kelly Smith, founder of Omega Horse Rescue in Airville, Pennsylvania, which assists in the recovery and placement of nearly 300 unwanted equines per year. 

New Holland Sales Stables is an auction with a notorious reputation within the equine community. Occupying one city block in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, it plays a pivotal role in regional livestock sales, with an average of two hundred horses passing through its doors each Monday. 

No one will actually admit that they have sent their horse to an auction like New Holland, because they know where that horse is likely to end up – nearly 25% of the horses sold there end up in the hands of brokers, known as kill buyers, who send the horses to feed lots before shipping them to slaughter in Canada. The whole process is 100% legal, but no one wants to admit to being a part of it.  

For most equestrians, to learn that a beloved and treasured former equine partner has become a part of that system is their worst nightmare. Smith can’t count the number of people who contact her each week, asking if she has seen their horse (previously sold, loaned, or even stolen) in the auction and feed lots located nearby. “It takes divine intervention and a lot of people searching in order to find horses,” says Smith. She has a migraine headache, probably from the constant stress and emotional strain.

“It is like finding a needle in a haystack,” she sighs. 

•••

Ocean Breeze Farm , a nearly six-acre property in Harwich, Massachusetts, had once been the home to a robust community of family oriented equine lovers. Founded by Melody Smith, hundreds of children met and fell in love with its ponies, first under her tutelage and later the farm’s second owners, the Wilson family. It was a beautiful facility, replete with indoor and outdoor riding arenas, nearly thirty stalls, run in sheds, multiple turnouts and access to miles of conservation trails. As the Wilsons approached retirement age, they began looking for someone to buy their business. In 2012, they sold Ocean Breeze Farm and all of its lesson horses to Monica Day. 

In a few short years, Kerry Gould had gone from working as a riding instructor at Ocean Breeze Farm to being a married mother of two, leaving little free time for the horses. Occasionally, Gould would stop by the farm, where she had formerly spent her every waking hour, to visit and check in on the lesson horses whom she had gotten to know so well. But once the farm sold to Day, Gould’s visits stopped altogether.

Still, Gould couldn’t quite disconnect from her equine roots, and browsed through her Facebook feed, scrolling for equine news and sometimes perusing rescue horse websites.

And that was how, on a winter day in mid-January 2015, she found Molly’s photo.

It was on the Cranbury Sale Stable Facebook page, the showcase for a New Jersey farm known for frequenting New Holland; Cranbury’s owners bid low on animals which look re-sellable and then bring them to their own sales barn for quick profit. Gould knew Molly’s face and Appaloosa markings instantly, the distinctive expression in her eye which Gould had come to know so well still clear, despite the years between them.

“Once you know a horse you will always know them,” says Gould. “I was heartbroken to see her.”

The last time Gould had seen Molly, she had still been living at Ocean Breeze, 300 miles away from Cranbury. By then, Molly was at least in her teens and had packed hundreds of the Cape’s children around summer camps and horse shows and taught countless lessons. Molly was a well-known figure, nearly an institution, amongst the Cape Cod equine community.

Gould shared Molly’s picture on her own Facebook page, asking if anyone knew how this beloved animal could have ended up at an auction house. She didn’t anticipate the immediacy – or intensity – of the response. A contact of hers reached out to Ocean Breeze owner Monica Day directly to ask about Molly; Day told the contact that she had sold three of her ponies, including Molly, to a family in New Hampshire, on a Saturday. But by the middle of the very next week, Molly’s photo had appeared on the Cranbury site. Most of Cranbury’s horses come from New Holland, which holds its equine auction each Monday. How did Molly get from Massachusetts, to New Hampshire, to New Jersey, in less than a week? Something didn’t make sense.

Several Cape residents offered to buy Molly and bring her home. With this intention, someone contacted the Cranbury sale, and found out that Molly had already been sold to a woman with a young daughter. This fact was confirmed and photos shared. Gould could live with that.

But she was still unsettled. The other two horses sold with Molly – Merlin and Bentley – were still missing. Merlin was a horse she had known since her pre-teen years, who she had ridden and loved and taught countless lessons on. He deserved better than to be dumped at an auction, and she knew what his odds would be in such a setting. 

Something had to be done. Merlin and Bentley had to be found.

Bentley at his last known location. Photo courtesy of Christina Keim

•••

Harwich also has a lively and tight knit equine community. Most everyone knows everyone, for better or for worse. Amongst many in this community, Day did not have a good reputation. No one was happy to hear that she had purchased Ocean Breeze Farm.

In the months before Molly’s photo turned up on the Cranbury Sales page, neighbors had noticed that the once full thirty stall barn was now nearly devoid of boarders, and that the condition of the property was deteriorating, with broken fencing and unkempt lawns. Most troubling, it seemed that the health of the lesson ponies was declining. A next-door neighbor saw that these older animals’ coats had grown matted and rough, that they were offered minimal hay and never seemed to have more than an inch of water in their tubs. The community began to talk.

People made complaints to Harwich Animal Control. The Animal Rescue League of Boston’s law enforcement division visited the property several times in response, but vet records and paperwork were always in order. One concerned neighbor with animal law enforcement connections allegedly snuck over at night and tried to collect evidence that the ponies were too thin, but these types of allegations are very hard to prove. Despite the talk and rumors, no one with jurisdiction in the Harwich area was willing to make a move.

Perhaps Day had fallen on hard times, financially, and needed help. Locals knew that something at Ocean Breeze seemed wrong. But they were also scared of Day, who has threatened lawsuits against nosy neighbors, so they didn’t stop to check in. Whether it would have made a difference if someone had approached her to ask about purchasing these ponies is not clear. 

What is clear is that Day had decided that these once treasured equine teachers were no longer going to be on her payroll. Instead of reaching out to her neighbors for help, Day sold the ponies.

And now, time was of the essence as Merlin and Bentley’s fates remained up in the air.

•••

In 2015, Emily Dupuy Stearns was a newlywed and just a few years out of college. She worked for the Animal Rescue League of Boston, making $14/hour, and was already supporting her Thoroughbred, Hardy. Friends since childhood, Stearns was one of the first people Gould reached out to when she found out that Molly, Merlin and Bentley had been sold.

Stearns started riding at Ocean Breeze Farm when she was just eight years old. She fell in love with Merlin, a black Quarter Pony with a little dash of white on his forehead, a distinctive curly tail and an unusual grey sock on his hind leg. For ten years, Stearns half leased Merlin from Ocean Breeze. Later, when she would come home from boarding school in the summers, the Wilsons would let Stearns just hop on and take him for a ride.

Stearns had heard, during her visits home from school, that conditions at Ocean Breeze had been declining. “I was concerned that the ponies were a little neglected but not more than that,” says Stearns. But when Gould shared Molly’s photo from the #10 pen at Cranbury, Stearns was floored. Molly was skin and bones.

 “It would have been so easy to find homes for these ponies,” says Stearns, recalling her immediate reaction. “Everybody knew them. All she would have had to do was ask.”

Stearns was instantly motivated to help find her childhood love, Merlin. He was at least 23 years old by then, and working in the animal welfare field, Stearns knew better than most how older horses fared at auction. “Once we started we didn’t have an option,” says Stearns. “If you didn’t follow through, it would sit with you.”

Energized by quickly locating Molly in her new home, Stearns and Gould created an online poster which was shared over 1,500 times on Facebook. Stearns combed through online photos of every equine rescue she could find, looking for Merlin’s distinctive curly tail and trademark gray hind sock. 

Stearns was immediately skeptical of Day’s story that the ponies had been sold to a home in New Hampshire. Instead, she believed that they were sold, as a lot, to a horse dealer. Dealers will often resell the animals directly to new owners or, more frequently, bring them to an auction for quick sale. In general, their motive is to make a profit, not to make a lifelong match. 

Stearns got the names of known horse dealers working in New England from the rescue groups and started going down the list. She started every conversation the same way. “I know you are just trying to make a living, like everyone else in the horse industry,” Stearns would say in anticipation of the defensiveness which most dealers affect. “I know that you have no reason to help us, but we are looking for these horses.” Progress was maddeningly slow.

But then, after a few weeks of searching, a real hit.

One of the rescues which frequent the New Holland auction posted a photo of a black pony with a gray sock, wearing hip number 054. Stearns knew instantly that she now had proof that Merlin had gone through the New Holland auction. She just had to find out who had purchased him.

Photo from unsplash.com

•••

Phoenix Jumpp had been surprised, in late January, to receive a message from her college classmate Emily Stearns. The two hadn’t been particularly close, but a mutual friend had suggested that Jumpp, now living in Glen Moore, Pennsylvania, might be able to help in the search for Merlin. 

“I go to New Holland about once a month to make sure I don’t see any familiar faces,” says Jumpp, who makes her living training and reselling horses. She doesn’t like to buy horses from New Holland, because its negative reputation in the greater horse community makes it harder to sell them. 

Jumpp took the photos of Merlin and reached out to her own contacts, including local dealers, to see if anyone had him. Skinny horses are often taken to local feedlots to be fattened up before shipping across the border, and Jumpp hoped that perhaps she would find Merlin at one of them. She also started attending the auction each Monday, perusing the horses on the line where they were tied to a rail, nose in and hips out, before bidding began at 10 AM.

Bentley hadn’t been in the conversation – at first. Stearns’ main focus was finding Merlin. She had never even met Bentley, who had been purchased from auction by Ocean Breeze Farm after Stearns had left. But soon Jumpp had a photo of him as well – a head shot, taken from the farm’s website. He was an older warmblood type, bay, with a large and unique white blaze on his forehead. She kept it on her phone for reference.

In the winter, fewer horses are available each week, and it was towards the end of the sale in early February when Jumpp spotted an aged bay gelding being led into the narrow chute between the two sets of wooden bleachers which flank the auction floor. Her heart skipped a beat as she recognized the shape of the blaze. The horse was in rough shape, but she was nearly certain – it was Bentley.

Jumpp quickly tried to open the photos stored on her phone, but they loaded agonizingly slowly. Before she could absolutely confirm the horse’s identity, the bidding ended. Hip #360 had been sold for $350 to a man in the front row.

•••

Based only on the photo she had found online, Stearns could see that Merlin had been in rough shape when he reached New Holland. She estimates that he was only a 2.5 on the Henneke Body Condition Scale, an objective measure of health used in the equine industry. In layman’s terms, 2.5 means that Merlin was emaciated. 

Stearns contacted New Holland and begged for any information about Merlin, using the date on the photo and hip number for reference. She was also able to access the auction manifests for that time period, and on them, she found a familiar name: Jay Noone. Noone is a horse dealer whose name had previously come up as possibly being the one to whom the ponies had initially been sold.

The person she spoke with at New Holland wouldn’t tell Stearns who had brought hip #054 to the sale; however, when Stearns suggested Noone’s name as the possible dealer, they didn’t deny it. The contact also told Stearns that, despite the photo and hip number, Merlin hadn’t actually gone through the auction.

Once a horse enters the grounds at New Holland, dealers are not supposed to do sales on the side. But the auction takes a seven to ten percent commission, and so it is known that private deals are often made behind the scenes, before the auction begins. Getting anyone to actually admit to being involved with one of these sales is, like everything else related to getting the full truth at New Holland, fairly impossible to do.

Desperate, Stearns contacted Noone directly. To her surprise, he was friendly at first, and confirmed that he had actually shipped the three horses to the New Holland auction, and he agreed to help track Merlin down. He told Stearns that Merlin and Bentley had been sold for $125 each and Molly for $150. Merlin was supposedly bought for a man’s grandson, and Noone said that he would send the man a message to get photos. From there, the text conversation becomes notably one sided. Stearns initiates every contact; Noone replies with shorter and shorter answers. Noone said first that Merlin was in Delaware and that the new owner raised goats; later it was pigs. Stearns pressed for the man’s contact info, to be able to confirm that Merlin had, in fact, made it to a safe home.

Her final text to Noone reads:

“If you know these animals went to slaughter please just confirm with me so I can stop wasting both our time. I know you were just doing your job.” 

Noone never replied.

For months afterwards, the “Find Merlin” email address and Facebook page would receive messages that a black pony had been found, in poor condition. They were never Merlin. Stearns found herself still scrolling through photos of horses at auctions, having learned that once a horse makes it into the auction system, they often keep cycling through it. But eventually, she had to stop.

“It wasn’t healthy,” says Stearns. 

Stearns was heartbroken, considering the implications of all that she had learned. In following the breadcrumb trail which had led to Noone and New Holland and possibly recovering Merlin, Bentley had been all but forgotten. 

But on February 9, 2015, Stearns received an urgent text message.

•••

Jumpp ran down out of the bleachers onto the floor, her blonde hair flying, trying to act calm but knowing that time was of the essence. The front row is where the meat buyers sit, big older men in hats wearing shirts with nondescript names on them like “Buddy’s Livestock”. They keep neat lists with the hip numbers of their purchases and how much they spent on each. 

She was able to locate Bentley, but no buyer was nearby to inspect him. This was a bad sign – it means that the purchaser is buying a lot, and it can be harder to track them down. She sent a text to Stearns with a photo of her standing with Bentley in the dealer’s pen – “I’m pretty sure this is the horse.”

Stearns took one look at the photo and knew that Jumpp had found Bentley. She told Jumpp to buy him if she could. 

Jumpp started asking everyone in the pen who had purchased hip #360. She had to be nonchalant – and she had to lie. If she had told the truth, that she was a buying a missing horse for her sentimental friend, the price would have shot up to $1,000 or more. Instead, she told the dealers that he looked like a nice older horse, that she was looking for something cheap for her lesson program, and that she had missed the bidding. It was a stretch at best – anyone with horse sense could have seen that the frail animal was a long way away from being lesson horse material. Eventually, she found the buyer – Brad Schloss, a known kill buyer. 

Schloss agreed to sell Bentley for $500 – but it had to be cash, and right now, because they were about to load up. She raced to the nearest ATM and returned moments later with a fistful of cash; she walked away with a flimsy bill of sale and an emaciated and unstable Bentley. Jumpp brought him to her farm forty-five minutes away. The horse was in rough shape – he had lymphangitis in both hind legs and was covered with cuts. She was scared to leave him out in the cold.

But finally, he was safe.

Photo from unsplash.com

•••

The winter of 2015 was unrelenting. Persistent arctic cold and punishing wind driven snow made conditions challenging for even the most diehard northerner. It was under these conditions that Stearns and her husband drove their brand new truck and trailer, so new they had never even been road tested, to Amish country to retrieve Bentley. It took them eleven hours to get him to his new home, a private farm in Norwich, Massachusetts. They had to dig four feet of snow out of his new paddock in order to close the gate.

Stearns had initially thought that they were going to pull Bentley from the auction only to euthanize him, and worried that he would not be well enough to make the trip. But Bentley surprised them all. He went from needing three people to help him stand up to have one foot trimmed to living outside with an equine friend in a run in shed. He eats one and a half bales of hay a day and fifteen quarts of grain – enough feed to send the average horse into the equine equivalent of a post-Thanksgiving feast food coma. He is anxious and head shy and won’t tolerate a bit in his mouth. Jumpp learned that the first time he had gone through the auction, he had been sold to a place which had tried to ride him, but he kept bucking under saddle. Stearns says that he likes horses better than people. In short, he is exactly the kind of horse which is inclined to end up at auction.

Nearly three years later, Bentley still lives under Stearns’s care. She thinks he is in his later teens or early 20’s, and with all of his quirks and issues, he is simply not rehomeable. “After being bounced around a lot, he deserves to have some happy years,” says Stearns. 

It could be seen as ironic that of the three ponies sold, it was the one perhaps most cherished who was not recovered. Stearns is a realist about Merlin’s fate. “It was unfortunate that we couldn’t find him,” says Stearns, her stoic New England veneer cracking only slightly with these words. “The one pony who raised me as a rider probably met a really horrible end.”

But it was this loss which helped propel Stearns forward. When it comes to her own horses, she knows she will always choose humane euthanasia over a trip to an auction and an uncertain fate.

Today, she works for The Right Horse Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping “horses in transition”, working to keep them out of inhumane conditions. She is currently tasked with developing a standardized behavioral assessment test for horses arriving at rescues, akin to those commonly used for dogs in shelters. No such test currently exists, and could aid rescue workers in prioritizing horses with better adoption prospects.

“Horses are livestock, and they might just be a tool for many people,” says Stearns. “But what happens to them must always be humane.”

Names have been changed to protect identities. Since this piece was written, Bentley passed away in a loving, supportive environment. 


The inaugural $2500 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest celebrated stories written by and for horse lovers from all over the world. We were inundated with amazing narratives about triumph, loss and the deep emotional experience that is being with an amazing horse. To learn more about the 2019 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.