Heartbreak and happiness coexist on Anne Young’s idyllic 300 acre property outside Gordon.
The founder of the Horse Shepherd Equine Sanctuary has taken in scores of the most malnourished and maltreated horses and ponies that the RSPCA has come across in the past few years and done the best she can to rehabilitate them and find them new homes, or allow them to live out their lives at the sanctuary.
When her mobile phone rings, it could mean anything from one new resident at HSES to more than 100 needing care, food and veterinary attention.
In the first four months of 2016, HSES received almost 150 malnourished horses from two separate RSPCA seizures.
The first group, from a farm at Warrak near Ararat, saw 113 horses arrive as part of the largest RSPCA horse seizure in Australian history.
Two months later Ms Young received another call to take in 23 emaciated horses found alongside the carcasses of more than 20 others on a property at Bulla on Melbourne’s outskirts.
“When they first come off the truck your stomach goes tight and you get a shot of anger that anyone could be so cruel,” Ms Young said.
“Then the vet team kick into action and there is a lot to discover about the actual health status of the horse which determines next steps. As much as we try there are times we are just sad as we know we are too late.”
The horrific condition these types of horses come to her in – little more than skin and bone, and often unhandled and wild – pose a challenge to sanctuary staff, but the day they arrive at the sanctuary their life trajectory turns 180 degrees and they can look forward to ample food, love and attention.
Big Grey was one of the Bulla horses who has found sanctuary with Ms Young.
“When they arrived they were just skin and bone. Even now she’s hardly got any tail – the horses were so hungry they ate each others tails so it looked like their tails had been docked,” Ms Young said.
While most of the Bulla horses have been rehabilitated, retrained and rehomed, Big Grey and a handful of others will be “lifers” at the sanctuary.
Currently there are more than 140 horses on the property, some being trained and handled and others “turned out” in to the large paddocks to recover or run.
Expert horse handler and retrainer Chris Giles lives on site and has the tough job of handling and training the horses.
“The Bulla horses that were unhandled were all able to be retrained and found new homes, but those who had been started (as racehorses) were very reactive and had real problems,” Ms Young said.
“Big Grey had been started and we don’t know what had been done to her, but if you put her under pressure and she doesn’t understand what you want, she explodes so she’s not suitable to be rehomed,” she said.
Some of Big Grey’s paddock mates weren’t so lucky.
“We had to watch those horses 24/7 for three weeks. We had volunteers come and stay up all night watching them.”
Two of the confiscated horses died that night and another a few days later from colic, but 20 survived.
About 12 months ago the sanctuary had another mass arrival when it was called to collect 16 miniature horses dumped on the side of a road at Greendale. More than a dozen were also pregnant to the stallion running with the herd.
Outside of the big groups that the sanctuary has taken in, there’s regular calls from the RSPCA asking if Ms Young can take in one or two horses that have been neglected on individual properties.
Ms Young said the Greendale 16 was one of the hardest cases she had dealt with because of the nature of the dumping. “They were literally dumped in the middle of the road, and when you think about the logistics of loading, transporting and abandoning the horses it’s such a deliberate act.
”I get so frustrated that horses don’t have a microchip or need to be registered. It would make proving the owner so much easier. With the Greendale 16 the authorities have a good idea of where they came from but can’t prove it,” she said.
It’s not just horses who have a second chance at life thanks to the dedicated work of Ms Young and her small team.
The sanctuary, up a quiet laneway just outside Gordon, is also home to a menagerie of other rescued animals now living out their lives in comfort.
There’s a pack of rescue dogs who trail their master everywhere she goes – ranging from a pint-sized fox terrier to an Irish Wolfhound cross that is almost as big as the miniature horses.
In fact Ms Young had to trade in her farm vehicle for a bigger model with a second row of seats to accommodate the dogs who accompany her on her rounds and prefer to travel on wheels than on foot.
There’s a paddock of rescue goats, donkeys, cats, cows ex-battery hens, geese, ducks, alpacas and a turkey
All that love comes at a cost: the HSES feed bill is about $12,000 a month, and other than food the vet bills are the biggest cost. Then there’s the medications, rugs, training and everything else the animals need in their new lives.
Until recently the sanctuary was fully funded by donations, sponsorships and adoption fees but Ms Young has expanded operations to build the Horse Shepherd Veterinary Practice. Profits from private clients go back toward the sanctuary costs and it means there is a vet on site.
Through the vet practice, HSES also runs the Mums 4 Bubs program, which last year hired out mares who have proven to be great mothers to the owners of 15 orphaned foals. “They know what being a mum is about, we bring them in to lactation and they go out to the studs to raise the foals,” Ms Young said.
HSES is also home to one very special pig who isn’t a rescue but is Ms Young’s last birthday present – Jethro, the house pig. The five-month-old porker is house-trained, sleeps by Ms Young’s bed, can sit on command and considers himself to be one of the dog pack – especially when there’s food about.