Touched by a horse-angel
On her Spencer farm, veterinarian Sue Whitman heals the bodies and spirits of abused and neglected horses.
After miles of winding roads and open fields, a large barn and lush green pastures come into view. Cows and horses graze among the curves of the hills, basking in the warm sunlight, and you can't help but feel in awe of the simple beauty and palpable peace here.
'Here' is Horse-Angels, Inc., a horse-rescue ranch in Spencer, owned, operated and managed by Dr. Sue Whitman. Abandoned or abused horses, most often seized by law enforcement officials, find a new home -- and a new life -- at Horse-Angels.
Whitman, a rosy-cheeked woman with straight, no-nonsense hair cut to just above her shoulders, typically cares for anywhere from 40 to 45 horses on her 120 acres. But, with the downtrodden economy, the number of horses in her care reached 65 last November. Her husband Bill, a farmer, doesn't work with the horses, but when the stables are at capacity, like they have been for the past year, he always lends a hand in building extra stalls.
Many owners can't find a buyer or afford to feed their horses, so they take them to auctions where they end up in slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico. Other times, horses are simply abandoned and law enforcement officials find them wandering the roads.
After horses are rescued and brought to Horse-Angels, Whitman teaches them how to socialize with humans. Basic skills, like how to go forward and back up into a halter, are the groundwork. After they complete the groundwork and are in good health, they are sent to a trainer who works with them 30 to 60 days until they can be ridden and sent to a home. But sometimes, depending on the horse's former life, just getting to the trainer can take months.
"Meg was the worst horse we ever had," Whitman says. "She wasn't a bad horse; she was just completely horrified of humans."
Meg's past is filled with abuse, and her distrust of humans stayed with her even after she arrived at Horse-Angels. For almost a year after her arrival, Meg would bare her teeth, pin her ears back and spin and kick when anyone approached.
Whitman was the only one who was allowed to clean her stall and talk to her for four months in order to build a sense of trust and assure her that no one would hurt her.
Meg's troubled history, along with some other horses' negative experiences, serves as a moral lesson for the groups of children, like Boy Scouts, who visit Horse-Angels. Whitman explains to them that it doesn't help to get angry and hit a horse -- it only ruins that animal's potential. Some of the horses that come to Horse-Angels were so abused that they can never be ridden again.
At the age of 3, Whitman knew that she wanted to rescue horses. As a child, she could often be found next door to her family's home at a park that offered pony rides, watching the horses for hours on end. By the age of 10, she had read just about every book about horses ever published, and that same year, she finally got her wish. After saving her quarter-a-day allowance for several months, she purchased her first horse rescue.
Whitman's parents were unfamiliar with the world of horses, but at this point, they knew her passion for them wasn't going to fizzle out. They purchased property to build a barn, along with hay and all of the other horse essentials. Whitman began to take riding lessons once a week, and soon, her younger sister caught the excitement as well. Her sister wanted to show horses in competitions, although Whitman preferred caring for the horses behind the scenes.
"I didn't care if anybody else looked at my horse," Whitman says. "I just wanted to love it."
Although Whitman's sister had excellent balance as a rider, Whitman was able to understand the horses on a deeper level, which would often work to her sister's benefit.
"She would come out of the show ring and say, 'My horse won't move right, and she made me get second, instead of first,'" Whitman says. "Then I'd go over to it and tell her how to fix the problem."
As the years went on, Whitman's sister lost interest in horses, but Whitman was more passionate about them than ever. By the time she went to veterinary school, she had five horses, but she could only take one with her -- she chose to take the one she had raised herself. He stayed with her until he died at the age of 29, while Horse-Angels was being built. He is buried at Horse-Angels.
Whitman knew early on that she wanted to run a horse rescue, but she chose to begin her career as a veterinarian when she realized the hefty price associated with a horse rescue. After graduating from Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine in 1983, she worked primarily with horses. But after about five months, she realized it wasn't the job for her.
She was often commissioned to pull out horses' teeth, but after she told the owners the cost, they would reply that the horse was getting old and she should put it to sleep. Whitman would refuse and drive back to her office where her boss would lecture her.
"He would say, 'Now I have to drive all the way out there and waste my gas and time, you should have just done it in the first place,' and I would say, "No because now it's on your heart, not mine," Whitman says.
Whitman no longer wanted to participate in the practices that accompanied large-animal veterinary care, so she decided to focus on treating small animals. In 2001, Whitman opened Horse-Angels, Inc. and finally achieved her life-long goal of running a horse rescue.
"My husband Bill asked me what my dreams are, and I told him about opening up a horse rescue," Whitman says. "He said, 'Then let's do it.'"
Horse-Angels isn't your typical horse ranch, partly because it's a rescue ranch, but mostly because of Whitman. Interactions between her and the horses are hard to distinguish from that of a mother and her children. With 65 horses, it's no easy feat to recognize and know each of their histories and personalities, but for Whitman, that comes as naturally as breathing.
As we walk down the rows of stalls, Whitman names each horse without skipping a beat: Rosie, Boston, Jessie, Olive. Coco, Angel, Amish, Cherokee.
Cherokee is taking a nap when I am introduced to her. Horses sleep standing up, so it takes me a moment to process that she is in fact asleep. A credit card-like tag is tied into the hair on her forehead, and Whitman explains that it's an all-natural fly repellent called Shoetag that works by emitting high-pitched noises that is undetectable by both humans and horses.
As Cherokee's head dips down in fatigue, Whitman explains that she is one of four blind horses at the ranch. Ironically, her blindness is what saved her life. In the United States, it's illegal to slaughter a horse that's blind in both eyes because of the risk of leptospirosis, a disease you can get from eating the meat of horses blind in both eyes. Cherokee was left in a slaughter pen where she was trampled by horses.
By some twist of fate, a woman driving past the slaughterhouse decided to go inside, and she was deeply disturbed by Cherokee's treatment. The slaughterhouse's owner allowed the woman to take Cherokee, so she called a friend who had a horse trailer to come get Cherokee and take her back to her garage. Eventually, Cherokee found a real home, including her own little garden at Horse-Angels.
The roped-off patch of grass located near the stable entrance is named Cherokee's Garden.
"I plant clover and all kinds of grass," Whitman says. "She doesn't have very many teeth, so she can't really eat the grass she picks, but it makes her feel like a horse."
It's intimate knowledge of each and every horse, like Cherokee's feelings about her garden, that allows Whitman to be somewhat of an unconventional matchmaker when it comes to adopting out horses.
Some years ago, a recently widowed woman came to Whitman, expressing her grief and seeking a companion in a horse. The woman and her husband used to have horses, and she wished she had a horse to groom and ride once again. So Whitman matched her with Rainy, a former rodeo clown horse, knowing that a horse accustomed to people hanging all over it would be the perfect fit for a woman who hadn't been around horses in several years. Rainy gave the woman a sense of purpose. Every morning the woman would wake up early to feed Rainy and mow his pasture.
"Her heart was broken, and he gave her something to love and need her," Whitman says. "That's the kind of thing we do with our horses."
When I first came across the website for Horse-Angels, I assumed that the name came from the idea that Whitman and her volunteers were acting as angels for these abandoned and abused horses, bringing them back to life. I didn't give it a second thought until Whitman and I were strolling along the pastures under the impossibly blue sky.
We entered another section of the stables, discussing the definition of thoroughbred (a racehorse breed often found in the Kentucky Derby) when a rumbling noise too loud to ignore brought our conversation to a halt. It was Vision, an energetic horse who has been confined to his stall for the past two months with a torn tendon.
"Vision!" Whitman scolds playfully. Vision responds by jiggling the loose wooden panel on his stall again and even louder this time. Whitman laughs.
We make our way over to the riding ring, where a few horses are relaxing in makeshift stalls, a result of the recent increase in abandoned horses.
"Come here, Silver!" Whitman whistles. Silver stays on the other side of the ring, hooves stubbornly planted in the ground. Whitman pulls a chunk of hay from a stack and Silver relents, starting to walk toward us.
Silver, a stunning horse with a vanilla-colored coat, blond hair and piercing blue eyes, looks like he could have been the life-size model for Barbie's horse. But his beauty is more than skin-deep.
He is the most respected horse at the ranch. He's confident and independent. Occasionally, he saunters around the pastures by himself, which is uncommon for horses. They are herd animals and go out to the pastures in groups and subsequently pair off.
Silver doesn't let his status blow up his ego. He treats the other horses with fairness and sweetness, even when a newly weaned colt, or weanling, tries to nurse from him.
"He just lifts up his leg and pushes them aside, like, 'That's not what you think it is!'" Whitman says. "He doesn't kick them or be mean."
When a new horse joins the ranch, Silver is Whitman's most crucial tool. He accompanies a new horse, who he stays with the horse until it feels comfortable and makes friends. At that point, Whitman places Silver with the next new horse.
"We look at the horses who come here as angels and ambassadors," Whitman says. "We try to get them well so they can do what they're supposed to do."
It was only after learning Silver's story that I realized what the name of Horse-Angels really means. "Angel" applies to Whitman and other rescuers, but it also applies to the horses that help both humans and fellow horses find the light in their new lives. Just as Whitman is an angel to all of her horses, Rainy was an angel to a grieving woman, and Silver is to any horse that comes to the ranch.
Horse-Angels is more than a ranch that rehabilitates horses and adopts them out -- it's a sanctuary to heal both the body and the soul. The symbiotic relationship between human and horse, and even among the horses themselves, is unlike anything I have seen before: It's truly a sight you have to see to believe.