In early 2021, Days End Farm Horse Rescue (DEFHR), Woodbine, Maryland, responded to a call from local law enforcement and animal control officers asking for assistance in the seizure of 19 horses in critical condition from a farm in St. Mary’s County, Maryland.

Though there had been concerns about the wellbeing of the horses for some time, the property was tucked away and largely out of view from main roads making it challenging to gauge the condition of the animals from afar. However, when a large number of horses from the farm got loose, animal control was called in to help safely return them to the property. Once the officers were onsite, their visual assessment raised significant concerns about their wellbeing.

All of the horses were living together in a small, muddy paddock estimated to be less than one acre. None of the horses had access to food, forage, or potable water. The only shelter provided was one dilapidated barn that was inadequate at providing coverage from weather events. Ultimately, local law enforcement agreed that the horses had experienced extreme neglect and they required intervention as soon as possible. Law enforcement placed felony-level charges against the owner and DEFHR agreed to support in the intervention.

According to DEFHR’s Equine Programs Director DeEtte Hillman, the collaboration between local law enforcement, animal control, and DEFHR was one of the best coordinated rescue efforts she’d ever witnessed. With the three entities working in lockstep, DEFHR’s staff welcomed the 19 critically ill horses to the farm on January 21, 2021.

The horse in the worst condition was a senior mare—estimated to be 28 or 29 years old—called Riddle. She arrived with a body condition score of a one, the poorest score for a living equine. In addition to being severely emaciated, she suffered from parasites, hoof and dental neglect, and significant skin fungus that caused hair loss and sores. The initial exam also uncovered a heart murmur that the veterinarian suspected could cause Riddle to succumb to heart failure within a matter of days.

When Riddle arrived at DEFHR, her ability to rehabilitate wasn’t certain as she was severely emaciated, had a heart murmur, and was suffering from numerous other ailments as a result of years of neglect. Photo courtesy of DEFHR
After 10 months at DEFHR, Riddle is fully rehabilitated but she is not able to enter training or be put up for adoption until the case against her owner is resolved. Photo courtesy of DEFHR

Despite the odds posed by her declining state, Riddle proved she was a fighter from the start. DEFHR’s Equine Health Manager Lynn Garvin strongly believes it was the mare’s personality that kept her alive. “[On paper] she obviously didn’t have the weight, energy, or heart health to survive, but she never gave up,” explained Garvin who had mentally prepared herself for a potentially sad ending.

“She has a huge and sharp personality,” continued Garvin of the feisty mare who’s been known to free herself from her stall to socialize with the geldings in the paddocks. “She’s a chestnut mare and she has her feelings and opinions. I think she always intended on living.”

Now, 10 months into Riddle’s time at DEFHR, she and the 18 horses she arrived with are fully rehabilitated. However, because the legal case against the owner of these horses is ongoing, laws mandate that horses in a rescue organization’s custody may only be cared for and managed in a way that maintains their health and meets their basic needs. As a result, these horses cannot enter into any type of training beyond basic handling and cannot be put up for adoption.

Unfortunately, many rescue horses in transition find themselves stuck in what DEFHR Equine Programs Director DeEtte Hillman calls “legal limbo.” When horses are caught in this holding pattern, Hillman notes that it can be a tremendous burden for supporting organizations, rescues, and the horses.

From the time the horses were impounded in January 2021 through mid-September 2021, care for these 19 horses alone cost DEFHR $102,000. It is estimated that by the time the case goes to trial in February 2022 and a resolution is reached, the total cost for the care of these horses will reach $146,000. These costs are in addition to the more than 70 equines in the organization’s care. As a privately funded organization, DEFHR will rely on the support of generous donors more than ever.

Garvin elaborates that senior horses stuck in legal limbo have their own set of challenges. “As far as adoptability goes, every year that passes makes it tougher,” she said. “In addition, senior horses, especially, thrive on a reliable routine that doesn’t change much day to day or month to month.”

So, while Garvin shares that DEFHR is very fortunate to be able to provide a natural, comfortable environment for the horses in its care, the constant herd turnover that comes with being a rescue organization—including the intake of new horses and horses being adopted out—can cause stress on those horses waiting for their legal cases to be resolved.

Garvin, who has taken a particular liking to Riddle, looks forward to the day when Riddle can find her happily ever after. For now, she is always looking for more effective ways to manage the mare’s health, especially heading into colder seasons where keeping on weight can become more challenging.

Despite being in legal limbo and navigating herd changes, these once-neglected horses are now happy and comfortable and looking forward to their bright future.

“My hope for Riddle is that she can find a permanent home and person,” concluded Garvin. “Every now and then, you cross paths with a horse that you know will truly impact someone’s life in the best way. She has certainly done that for me and my team and know she will one day have the same impact on her adopter.” 

For more than three decades, Days End Farm Horse Rescue has been renowned for working to not only prevent equine abuse and neglect, but also to educate the public about equine welfare and help their staff, volunteers, and members of the public become better horsemen and women. Learn more about DEFHR‘s adoptable horses as well as their numerous education and volunteer opportunities. Visit or follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

Feature image: DEFHR’s Equine Health Manager Lynn Garvin has a soft spot for senior rescue horse, Riddle. Photo courtesy of DEFHR