Horse Rescue: Where did the stories come from?

Structural editing: pages from the book -- 'cut and paste' old school!

Structural editing: pages from the book — ‘cut and paste’ old school!

Where did Horse Rescue stories come from?

My publisher, Andrea McNamara from Penguin Australia, approached me to see if I was interested in writing this book. Of course I said yes!

Right from the start, Andrea and I agreed that we wanted to create a book of inspirational stories rather than focusing on the stressful issues that lead to horses being neglected, abused or sent to slaughter. As I say in my introduction to the book, you can easily go and find that information if you want to, but what brings me joy are the inspiring, goose-bumping, enlightening stories of exhilarating triumph, quiet meditative wisdom, life-changing moments and powerful self-healing. Most importantly, we wanted to highlight the relationship between the rescue horse and the person or people whose life had been changed because of it. And Andrea invited me to weave my own personal stories into the book as well. Then we worked out a structure and I set about filling the chapters.

The keys to the successful stories were that (1) this was not a book about horse slaughter specifically (and though a number of the horses were rescued this way, many were not); (2) it was not a book about horse rescue organisations (though one of the stories came via one in Victoria), and nor was it a book about equine therapy organisations specifically… a broad mix of stories was needed; and (3) the focus was on the relationship between the rescued horse and the rescuer, so the interviewee needed to be able to clearly articulate the way in which that horse had changed her or his life, and be willing to have that shared with the whole country!

The book opens with the story of me and my rescue horse, Lincoln (a gelding I ‘accidentally’ bought at a dogger sale on a blistering hot day in September 2009), who changed my life, not least of which was by inspiring me to start a horse rescue charity.

For other chapters, I approached a few people directly, such as Jill Strachan and Elf, because I knew their story well and found it so moving. My dad texted me one night and told me to turn on the TV to ABC’s Compass, where I found a story on Colin Emonson and the Horses for Hope program in Victoria. And through Colin, I found Michael Williams, in and out of prison for seven years before finding hope through horses. My stepmother found a story in the Women’s Weekly on Sue Spence and the Horse Whispering Youth Program. I contacted Sue and asked her if she happened to have a rescue horse in her therapy team. As luck had it, she had little Larry, a rescued miniature pony who not only helped her through the healing stages of breast cancer but who went on to change literally hundreds of children’s lives.

For other stories, I cast a wide net. I emailed scores of organisations (pony clubs and equestrian and RDA groups), explaining my agenda for the book and inviting people to contact me if they thought they had a powerful story to share, and I listed my request many times over on various Facebook sites too. From one of those posts, someone emailed me and told me to contact Australian Olympian, Rebel Morrow, who had rescued her horse, Groover, from slaughter and taken him all the way to the Athens Olympics. I had been looking for exactly that type of story but had been running into dead ends until I received that person’s email—another piece of luck that popped up at the right time to help shape the book’s development.

Slowly, the rest of the stories began to come to my inbox. To be honest, I was worried I would be inundated and I’d have to say no to people and disappoint them, something I really dreaded. Although a few stories came in that were great in themselves, for one reason or another they didn’t suit the book or show enough variation in story type to be included. But mostly, the ones that came in were the ones that stayed. I was truly blessed with quality not quantity and I was thrilled with the great variety.

I did try hard to include some male perspectives in the book because men’s voices are generally under-represented when talking about horse rescuers; and I did try hard to find content from places in Australia outside of the eastern states, but as it turned out none came through. 

I didn’t contact horse rescue groups specifically because I know there are lots of them around the country and I didn’t want to appear to be favouring any one organisation over another. But none were excluded as anyone from anywhere in Australia could have emailed through a story. It was just the way the cards fell. (The only exception to that was that I think I might have sent information about the book to one organisation in WA and that was towards the end when I hadn’t received any contributions from outside eastern Australia. But that didn’t pan out either.)

Of the Skype interviews that I conducted, there was only one I didn’t take further and that was because that particular story (though wonderful) was just not quite right for the mix of stories already in the book by that time.

It was a lengthy process, and the very final chapter’s subject only came in a short time before the final submission deadline. I’m so very grateful for everyone who shared their stories. The honour was truly mine.

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How much is a life worth?

My old girl, Anastasia

My old girl, Anastasia

The other day, someone asked me how I felt about taking on horses with lots of issues while I was running a horse rescue charity and it’s not the first time I’ve been asked, so I thought I’d take the chance to write about it here.

One of the most difficult things about rescuing horses is that at some point, you’ll be asked to make life and death decisions. Which horse do you save? Which horse do you pass over?
When faced with requests to save a horse that is on death row, I took every situation very seriously and always did my best, even if that meant all I could do was to post the information online and hope someone else picked the horse up.

Every horse I heard about lodged itself into my psyche and I continued to think about it for weeks and months and maybe years afterwards… always wondering. What happened? (Even now, two years after the charity ended, I still wonder what happened to some of those horses.)

The next difficult question to deal with was how much money would we, or could we, invest into a horse? If we had one horse that needed thousands of dollars to rehabilitate, then weren’t we taking money away from other horses in need? Is it fair? Does one horse’s right to a new life outweigh the rights of many others?

Ultimately, the question people are asking is how much is a life worth?

I realised very early on that we couldn’t play the numbers game. That is, it wasn’t not necessarily ‘better’ to save one hundred horses than it was to save ten. Why? Because there are too many horses in Australia. No matter how many we saved, there were hundreds of thousands more waiting to take their place at the slaughterhouse. Since we couldn’t beat the numbers (quantity), we had to make sure that the horses we could save received the very best (quality) in order to improve their lives.

I used to be a teacher. And at one point, we had several new students come to the school. These students had special needs and were being integrated into mainstream schooling. The school was required to make many modifications to buildings, costing many thousands of dollars. Many parents and teachers were upset by this, saying that it was unfair. It was then that I heard a new definition of equality:

“Equality doesn’t mean that every person is treated the same. Equality means that every person receives whatever they need in order to have the same opportunities in life.”

So I adopted that definition. Was it fair to spend thousands of dollars rehabilitating one horse? Yes, if it meant that horse got whatever it needed in order to have the same opportunity to find its loving forever home. How much is a life worth? Whatever it takes.

I felt that it wasn’t up to me to place judgement on a horse that was in a world of emotional and psychological pain and say that it wasn’t “worth” spending the money to rehabilitate it. I believe that all life is valuable; all life is equal.

And if I did put a value on a horse’s life, that would make me a horse dealer, which I am definitely not.

So I always want to make sure that the horses lucky enough to come into my care receive whatever they need in order to go back out into the world, stronger, wiser, healthier and healed. It’s the best I can do.