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To the rescue: the Old Horses Lodge
The foal looking out over the barn door is just recovering from the last visible scars of severe neglect. The abscess above his right eye is receding, the bare patches on his flanks sprout new hair, and he stands sturdy on his young legs.
But things were very different for Kito when staff from The Old Horses Lodge found him three months ago. “He was too weak to stand,” says Wim Desnyder. “He reeked of urine, had sores all over his body and was so emaciated that we estimated him to be six months old. Imagine our surprise when the vet told us he was nine months.”
Desnyder is one of two full-time staff members who care for the animals who have found their way to The Old Horses Lodge (Tohl), a shelter for abandoned and neglected horses in Laarne, near Ghent.
Kito was one of a group of five young horses found just outside Sint-Katelijne-Waver this winter. At first his condition was so precarious that he had to spend two months recuperating under the 24/7 care of veterinary experts at the University of Ghent’s animal hospital. Tohl paid for his treatment: €2,300 – a reduced rate the hospital gave the non-profit organisation.
Too many horses
“People underestimate the cost of keeping a horse,” says Marina Tondeleir, who runs Tohl. “We estimate it costs €300 per month for food, maintenance, veterinary care and paddock costs; it adds up very quickly. For us, it’s even more expensive when you consider that many of the horses here need extra medical care because of the sorry condition they’re in.”
Underestimating the costs is one of the main reasons for neglect, according to the organisation. Add in that there is no law in Belgium regulating domestic breeding, which leads to an over-supply of horses that are then sold for as little as €300, and the extent of the problem becomes clear.
There are currently 250,000 registered horses in Belgium. While chipping and registration are mandatory, a vast number of animals remain unchipped and thus unaccounted for. “There are simply too many horses in Belgium,” says Tondeleir.
The federal Animal Welfare Department, which is responsible for investigating charges of animal neglect, has only 10 inspectors for Flanders and is overwhelmed by the task. Severely neglected animals are confiscated and sent to rescue centres across the region, while in some cases, the animals are left with their owner under strict guidelines for improved care, which are followed up by the department or the police.
But every year the number of horses arriving at Tohl increases. In 2004, the centre confiscated four horses; by 2006, that number had risen to 12. Last year 60 horses were taken in. This year, 36 horses have already arrived. Today, it is providing care for 70 horses, its maximum capacity.
“We have to evaluate every case very carefully,” says Desnyder, as we walk past a paddock in which a herd of boisterous young horses frolic, kicking and nipping at each other. “We’re at the stage where we can only take in the worst cases, simply because we do not have the resources to deal with more.”
And those resources aren’t small. The centre has six hectares of paddock, 22 stables and four open shelters. Surrounding farmers have put another two hectares of grazing land at their disposal. With Tondeleir at the helm – unpaid – Tohl also has two full-time employees and 10 regular volunteers. People can support the centre by sponsoring one of the horses. Or by adopting one.
Adopt a horse
“What we need most right now is people who can adopt one of our horses,” says Tondeleir. “People who know what’s involved in keeping a horse and who understand they are not adopting a perfect riding horse but giving a neglected animal a loving new home.”
She is adamant that a large part of the solution lies in education. “Never buy a horse for a child; it’s the worst thing you can do. Horses cost money, demand constant attention and live for up to 40 years. Your daughter may love her pony when she’s 11, but what are you going to do with it when she turns 18 and goes off to college?”
Heading back toward the farmhouse, we walk past a stable in which a dark, skinny mare shields a gangly three-month-old foal from sight. “These two were confiscated outside Torhout,” explains Tondeleir. “The foal was born at the height of winter; their owner left them to their own devices out in the paddock. They’re both still recovering.”
Desnyder runs a calming hand gently along the mare’s flank. “The owner has demanded her return. The Animal Welfare Department has decided she can be returned, so we’ll have to give her back once she’s strong enough. The owner has told us to keep the foal, so it will stay until we find a suitable home. All we can do is hope he won’t neglect his mare a second time.”
This article was first published in Flanders Today