Rehabilitation and re-homing at the heart of SAFE Harbor
by Deborah Stone
published October 15, 2012 

Debi Shatos and Louie. Photo by Monica Bretherton

Meet Shay, a stunningly beautiful and perfectly proportioned Arab mare. A year ago, however, you would have been hard-pressed to have used these words to describe this incredible creature.

At that time, she was one of 16 horses seized by Pierce County Animal Control. The animals had been part of a breeding operation and all were starving and severely neglected at the time they were rescued. Shay was fortunate to be taken in by the folks at Save A Forgotten Equine (SAFE), where she received proper care and feeding, as well as the love and personal attention she so desperately needed.

The mare is currently one of 27 horses that SAFE has rescued and is helping to rehabilitate this year.

Founded in 2005 by a group of local women, SAFE is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and re-homing of neglected and abused horses. “We met online on the Chronicle of the Horse bulletin board,” explains Bonnie Hammond, one of the organization’s founders and SAFE’s executive director. “What began as a few people pooling money to purchase a single horse off a feedlot turned into quite a large group of people banding together in support of a Washington feedlot rescue group.” After purchasing and sponsoring a number of slaughter-bound animals, the group expanded to oversee the adoption of these horses into permanent homes. At the end of 2005, the members broke away from the feedlot rescue to form a rescue operation of their own that would have a greater focus on rehabilitation and careful adoption processes. SAFE officially became a nonprofit corporation in the state a year later.

Last July, the organization moved its operations to Woodinville after losing its lease at its previous location in Monroe. “This prompted the move,” says Hammond, “but we also saw it as an opportunity to find a property better suited for our needs. Woodinville seemed like a great fit, with its easy access for volunteers and horse-friendly residents.” The facility, SAFE Harbor Stables, is located in the Hollywood Hill area and has both an indoor and outdoor arena, as well as substantial hay storage in its two barns.“It has all the features necessary for the successful rehabilitation and training of the rescue horses,” adds Hammond.

SAFE acquires horses through two primary sources. The first is via local animal control agencies.

“We have contracts in place with King and Pierce counties to provide care and rehabilitation services for horses that are seized or surrendered,” explains Hammond. “Our goal in providing this care is to help animal control agencies be more effective in their ability to take action against people who abuse and neglect animals. “Most animal control agencies in this state do not have facilities to keep horses or the expertise or manpower to rehabilitate or re-home them. So we make it a priority to assist in animal control cases whenever possible.”

SAFE also takes horses that are surrendered directly to the organization by their owners. In today’s economy, there are many people who find they are unable to care for their animals. According to Hammond, SAFE receives requests on a daily basis to take horses that belong to individuals facing the loss of their jobs, homes or their health. Because the organization is limited in the amount of space, funding and manpower it has available, it can only assist in so many cases at one time.

“We take the most desperate cases first – horses that are starving or suffering from illness, injury or severe neglect,” comments Hammond. “These cases take the highest priority for our limited resources, simply because without our help, they are at risk of extreme suffering or death.”

The organization makes a long term commitment to every animal it saves. “It’s because of this commitment that we cannot and will not take on more horses than we are able to care for,” adds Hammond.

Some of the animals spend a relatively short amount of time at the rescue, but others are there longer, as long as it takes to find them the perfect new home.

Hammond explains that it’s not just about the “save.” It’s everything that follows – the rehabilitation and training and the tender loving care that each animal receives. “It’s a big responsibility, but it’s one we take on with great joy, knowing that we haven’t just saved a life, we’ve given a life back,” she says.

On average, horses that come into the program are there from six months to a year. The organization is able to places some of the animals into good homes quickly, whereas others take a lot more time, patience and often luck. The type of rehab is based on the individual needs of the horses.

A starved horse must be re-introduced to food very slowly and carefully or it will become very ill and possibly die. Severe cases go first to the Northwest Equine Stewardship Center in Monroe, where Dr. Hannah Mueller provides the appropriate veterinary care and prescribes a specialized diet that will allow the horse to recover to a healthy weight. Once the horse has achieved a healthy weight, it will undergo training.

“Our ultimate goal for the horses in our program is to create solid equine citizens that find homes that will last forever,” notes Hammond. “We put a great deal of energy and resources into training our horses, whether for under saddle work or not. After all, even an unrideable horse needs to be able to be handled safely on the ground and have good manners.” Training continues until the time the animal is adopted, with every effort made to enhance its adoptability, including instruction on different riding disciplines, participation in horse shows, trail rides and even trips to the ocean.

As for the rate of adoption, the organization placed 18 out of 23 horses in 2011.This year, there’s been less turnaround due to the economy. SAFE is run by a cadre of 80 dedicated volunteers and one full time paid employee, Hammond.

Throughout the year, the organization holds several events, including “Heart of the Horse,” its annual gala dinner and auction in winter, and the SAFE Benefit Horse Show in August. The show draws horses and riders who compete in a variety of classes including English, Western, Trails, Dressage and Hunters.

There’s also a quarterly open house at SAFE Harbor Stables, which gives supporters the chance to greet “their” horses and newcomers the opportunity to learn more about the organization’s work.

The rewards of being involved with such an organization are many, according to Hammond. She says, “For anyone who has ever dreamed of owning a horse or even helping a horse, SAFE offers the opportunity to be part of something amazing. “The work we do is hard and dirty and seems like it’s never ending. But, the rewards are unbelievable. Watching a horse transform from a skinny, frightened creature into an animal that is bursting with health and life is an experience you will never forget.”

She adds, “Seeing the light come back into the eyes of a horse that had given up on everything and everyone … it’s magical.”

For more information about SAFE, visit: www.safehorses.org.

Link to article on the Woodinville Weekly website