In January 2021, 19 horses arrived at Days End Farm Horse Rescue (DEFHR) in Woodbine, Maryland, after they were rescued from squalid conditions in St. Mary’s County, Maryland.

First responders found the horses standing in deep muck with hay of such poor quality it was nearly inedible and no water source in sight. Unfortunately, when rescuers arrived, they discovered they were too late for two horses who had passed away on the property. It is a scene far too familiar for staff at DEFHR, who work tirelessly to save these horses and then rehabilitate and train them with the goal of matching them with a loving forever home.

Among the 19 horses was a chestnut mare named Esmeralda. Though she was obviously emaciated and covered in filth, her eyes showed she was ready to take steps toward a better life.

Thanks to the life-saving efforts of Days End Farm Rescue (DEFHR) staff and volunteers, Esmeralda and her 18 herdmates, all of whom arrived at the facility in critical condition, fully rehabilitated. ©Days End Farm Horse Rescue

Already at the DEFHR facility was a group of 17 critically ill horses who had been rescued from a different location just four weeks prior. An infectious disease forced the DEFHR staff to implement a quarantine, and special preparations had to be made for Esmeralda and her herdmates to ensure they got the fresh start they deserved.

“With the quarantine in place, caretakers had to prepare space for 19 new critically ill horses while protecting depleted immune-compromised bodies from exposure to an active virus,” explained Erin Clemm Ochoa, Chief Executive Officer of DEFHR.

“Hours were spent strategizing, shuffling horses, and adjusting routines and schedules so that the new horses could be brought into a calm, healing environment, and so that all 36 horses could receive the exceptional rehabilitative care that only DEFHR can provide.”

Once the horses had settled in and rehabilitated sufficiently, they were split into herds and turned out to enjoy what being a horse is all about.

“Esmeralda and her herdmates loved to nap together on beds of the leftover hay that fell out of the feeders outside,” shared Ochoa. “As I watched them in the fields napping, I could just see the sighs of relief as stresses left their bodies.”

This was the first case of its kind in St. Mary’s County, but DEFHR lends a hand in many similar cases that require the hard work and brain power of multiple entities and organizations. For Esmeralda’s group, DEFHR stepped in to assist local authorities, helping ensure evidence was collected and legal procedures were followed to bring the case to trial.

While Esmeralda and the other horses rehabilitated relatively quickly, they were stuck in “legal limbo,” meaning they couldn’t receive any training—which is a critical step in the adoption process—until their case was legally resolved. Finally, on April 29, 2022, justice was served. Esmeralda’s owner was convicted of multiple charges of animal neglect, putting ownership of her and her herdmates into the hands of DEFHR.

“The horses could finally be assessed by DEFHR’s trainers to determine the effects of long-term abuse and neglect on the horses’ behavioral well-being,” detailed Ochoa. “We could now move forward with addressing their training needs and seeking potential adopters.”

For Esmeralda and her group, their extended legal limbo meant more time in the fields before entering DEFHR’s training program. This time exploring pastures with other horses was ultimately beneficial as it helped her slowly regain musculature. When DEFHR head trainer Sara Strauss began working with Esmeralda, she was noticeably more fit, although still wary of humans.

“Esmeralda was actually a little spicey and nervous when I first started her in our training program,” recalled Strauss. “With consistent work, she became much more relaxed, and I really tried to find what made her happy and content. I found that she really enjoyed hacking out around the farm. Our rides would consist of me hopping on her bareback and heading off to explore the farm.”

Esmeralda was initially wary of humans but she progressed and began to thrive with support DEFHR’s head trainer Sara Strauss. ©Days End Farm Horse Rescue

Fittingly, Esmeralda, meaning emerald, the gemstone known in ancient Greece and Rome to represent hope and love, found her happy ending when she was adopted to a loving forever home in November 2022. She will now get to enjoy the rest of her life as a casual trail partner and a companion for two miniature donkeys.

The price of justice

DEFHR staff members see horses like Esmeralda every day. They give their all to orchestrate rescue logistics, aid in the legal process, organize veterinary, farrier, and supportive care, as well as train each horse to make the most successful matches. Whether this process takes months, or in the case of Esmeralda, more than a year, DEFHR never wavers. Of course, all of that comes with a price tag.

For Esmeralda’s group, the cost of resources to rescue one horse was multiplied by 19. In addition to the tangible expenses like food, bedding, and medical treatment, there are costs that are difficult to quantify, such as the many hours of phone calls, Zoom meetings, and documentation necessary to achieve justice for the unbelievable negligence and cruelty these horses experienced.

“Pre-seizure planning took three weeks of continual consultations and meetings between DEFHR and St. Mary’s County Animal Control, Sheriff’s Office, and Commissioner’s Office,” relayed Ochoa. “To help ensure the St. Mary’s team was as well prepared as possible, DEFHR coordinated additional consultations with the Office of the States Attorney for Baltimore City, Calvert County Animal Control, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund—all of whom have had successful outcomes in similar cases.”

The calculated monetary cost for critical and extended rehabilitative care for Esmeralda and her herdmates that was submitted with court documents totaled $175,000. It sounds like an incredible undertaking because it is, and DEFHR’s efforts are made possible by donations from generous supporters as well as volunteers. Thanks to a true team effort, DEFHR continues to make happily-ever-afters come true.

Esmeralda’s former owner was sentenced by a Maryland State judge on November 30, 2022, and while justice prevailed for this case, there is still work to be done to put a stop to the vicious cycle of equine cruelty and neglect.

Currently, DEFHR is caring for 78 horses, 18 of which arrived at the facility throughout November and December from three separate cases and two states. If you are interested in joining DEFHR’s life-saving efforts, please visit their website to learn more:

Feature image: Esmeralda’s case spent 16 months in the legal system before her former owner was convicted on misdemeanor charges for animal neglect. The cost for the critical and extended rehabilitative care for Esmeralda and her herdmates totaled $175,000. ©Days End Farm Horse Rescue