BY PENNY LOEB
Every morning, Elaine Nash wakes up in her home overlooking Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre and begins the never-ending search for funds to feed thousands upon thousands of horses.
Nash founded the nonprofit Fleet of Angels in 2011 to help equines in crisis. Over the past decade, it has provided hay and feed for owners in need, networked free transportation for rescue horses and won an award for rescuing a group of 907 mustangs. But the plunging economics of COVID-19 shutdowns has put Nash and three volunteers at the front lines of an unimaginable crisis in the horse world. The desperation spills out in nearly 300 applications for hay for more than 5,100 horses that have poured into Fleet of Angels since mid-March.
A Minnesota woman with 7 horses and 6 minis lost her job after COVID-19 closed the movie theater where she worked. The shutdown wiped out income from a California family’s riding program, and they had only a week before their 14 mostly rescue horses were out of feed. Another California family had never asked for help, but when the movie set where the husband, a stunt rider, worked shut down, they asked for hay for 40 horses, 5 cows, 10 donkeys, 7 ponies, 1 buffalo calf, and 3 goats. COVID-19 shutdown wiped out a couple’s business and all their income, leaving them at a complete loss on how to feed the animals that mean the world to them.
Approved owners, commercial riding programs and equine rescues receive micro grants of $250 to $500 usually sent directly to the recipient’s feed store. Under a new program, some applicants can be matched to hay donated by people near them. So far, 42 people have donated a share of their own hay.
“Fleet of Angels is basically doing triage,” Nash said. “The last thing we want to see is people giving up horses they love because they temporarily can’t afford feed for them.”
Unfortunately, Nash has only been able to help half the horses. Requests far exceed Fleet of Angels recent emergency grant from the Humane Society of the United States Homes for Horses Coalition in partnership with the ASPCA, funding by the Best Friends Animal Society and donations on the website. Helping the rest would take at least $100,000.
The pandemic has impacted the entire horse world. National animal welfare groups and horse racing organizations have stepped up with support. But all could use more funding. While the public rushed to feed and adopt dogs and cats, the plight of the nation’s 9 million horses and more than 550 equine rescues is mostly invisible to the average person.
Equine rescues take in horses owners can no longer care for, and from cruelty situations discovered by law enforcement. They pluck horses from slaughter auctions. Some provide feed to struggling horse owners. Many retrain and adopt out horses for small fees. Others provide lifetime sanctuary. Over the past decade the racing industry has established a network transitioning racehorses to new careers.
In early March, the Humane Society surveyed the 440 equine rescue members of its Homes for Horses Coalition. A majority of the 220 respondents reported donations had stopped or slowed dramatically by mid-March. About 30 expected to be out of feed in two to four weeks. The Humane Society and the Homes for Horses Coalition, in partnership with the ASPCA, have given approximately $168,000 in small emergency feed grants to members in need.
Now, double that—they need help. “We have 60 or so equine rescues who have requested assistance that we will try to assist if, or when we have more funds available,” Cheryl Jacobson, deputy director of equine protection at HSUS, said. “The earliest that I’ve heard that rescues are planning to resume fundraising events is the fall. We expect that the need for help will remain high for the foreseeable future.”
In late April, The Right Horse, a program of the ASPCA, launched a fostering initiative as a way to free up space for rescues to take in the growing number of horses needing homes. Traffic tripled to its “My Right Horse” website, and more of the 525 available horses found foster or permanent homes. In addition, the ASPCA established an equine feed distribution center in Los Angeles, and plans other locations. The ASPCA designated June 5-June 7 as National Adoption Weekend to help horses, dogs, cats and the animal welfare community during COVID-19.
While The Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals offers comprehensive care for rescues, free adoption with the Maine Horse Matchmaker, and free grain and hay, requests for help keep coming. “Nearly every day, the MSSPA receives one or two requests from owners who have lost income as a result of the pandemic,” said Chief Executive Officer Meris Bickford said. “The Society’s goal is to divert these at-risk horses from becoming abused, neglected or entering the shelter system.” Last year, the Society helped 58 Maine horses. He expects double that in 2020.
Fleet of Angels has begun getting second requests from owners and rescues, since the grants cover just a few weeks. “We’re starting to really feel the deepening worry that so many rescues and horse owners are experiencing now,” Nash said. “Our job is to provide lifeboats, but without patrons or sponsors who understand the seriousness of this situation, we’ll be unable to help further, all too soon.”
Penny Loeb showed No Alibi, in his first year off the track, to AHSA national Amateur Owner Championship in 1973 and AHSA National Second Year Green Championship in 1974. Since then, she’s been a prize-winning journalist at Newsday and U.S. News & World Report. She also wrote “Moving Mountains how one woman and her community won justice from big coal,” which became a feature film.