What started as a routine welfare check by animal control officers in Washington County, Maryland, in August 2015, quickly turned into a terrible scene.

Officers discovered three horses in horrific condition inside of a small, old barn on the property. They later learned the horses had been suffering from extreme neglect for more than 10 years. One of them, an 18-year-old miniature horse stallion, now called Rio, was emaciated and had severely overgrown hooves, a fractured jaw, and an old hip injury that made walking painful.

Rio suffered from several issues as a result from his neglect including severe emaciation and overgrown hooves. ©Days End Farm Horse Rescue

Fortunately, his life was about to change.

When the horses were seized, they were brought to Days End Farm Horse Rescue (DEFHR) in Woodbine, Maryland, for rehabilitation, training, and eventual adoption. Unfortunately, one of the three succumbed to her dire situation, which left Rio and rescue-mate Quest fighting for survival.

DEFHR staff prioritized getting the horses healthy and gelded so they could continue on their path to a brighter future. However, the weight of their physical ailments was compounded by emotional baggage due to years of neglect. The DEFHR team knew it would take patience and dedication for the rescues to settle into their new lives. One volunteer in particular was up for the challenge.

“Rio didn’t like to be touched and was very food-aggressive,” recalled DEFHR volunteer and adopter Michelle Marraccini. “He was afraid of people and of being outside.”

As a volunteer who supported DEFHR staff in the barn, Marraccini spent a lot of time with the 8.2-hand grey gelding. She brought him his meals and would sit with him while he ate. Though she started by standing in the opposite corner of his stall, over time she slowly closed the distance between them and earned Rio’s trust.

Ultimately, she was able to comfortably handle Rio and would walk him around the DEFHR property to greet the other volunteers and barn staff. Before long, the socialization encouraged Rio to let his guard down, and he began to appreciate being cared for and loved.

Marraccini had previously adopted a DEFHR horse for her daughter so she wasn’t looking for another equine when Rio arrived at the farm. Yet, when Marraccini met Rio for the first time, she immediately felt a connection with him. Though he couldn’t be ridden due to his physical limitations from years of mistreatment, Rio still had a lot of heart to give. Marraccini knew he was special and, after Rio completed DEFHR’s training program, she adopted him and brought him home to her farm in Boonsboro, Maryland, in the fall of 2016.

Thanks to the hard work and dedication put forth by DEFHR staff and Marraccini, Rio’s health and behavior significantly improved.

However, the years of neglect led to some lingering challenges Marraccini had to tackle once she made him a permanent family member. Rio was particularly untrusting of the farrier and x-ray procedures that were required to help correct complications caused by his overgrown hooves. Thanks to months of patience from Marraccini and her farrier, Rio learned he was safe and able to stand relaxed.

Through it all, Rio’s personality continued to blossom far beyond his small stature.

“Rio has always been sassy and still is,” laughed Marraccini. “One of his first nicknames was ‘Mr. Sassypants.’ He has all the attitude of a full-sized horse in a small-sized body. He is also very loyal. He recognizes my car and knows my voice, and he trusts me to do no harm.”

Because Marraccini was determined to give Rio the happily-ever-after he deserved, he lives a life of leisure. His routine includes a peaceful morning breakfast and a day of grazing and lounging before dinner, and he usually scores a few additional cookies for being extra charming.

While he is enjoying a low-key lifestyle, Rio has one important job that he takes very seriously—introducing Marraccini’s three-year-old granddaughter Athena to the magic of horses. Once shy and standoffish, Rio happily stepped into his new role as a kind and understanding companion and teacher for Athena.

“Rio’s patience with Athena has always astounded me,” remarked Marraccini. “She can groom him, and he doesn’t get bothered. He stays calm with her. Despite how food-aggressive he was, he is really good and gentle when taking cookies from her. Rio will often accidentally knock the cookies from her hand, but he patiently waits for her to pick them up and offer them again.”

Though Athena is still a young child, Rio has already taught her a lot about life with horses. She’s learned that these unique animals aren’t exactly like her large family dogs, and that paying attention to horses is critical to really understanding them. The endearing relationship between Athena and Rio, despite all that he has been through, exemplifies the potential of a rescue horse.

“Rio has permanent damage from his neglect, but that doesn’t mean he is broken and has no value,” emphasized Marraccini.

“He makes me, Athena, and many others who follow his story very happy! I fall in love with him every time I see him. He has such a sweet face and giving nature for a little horse who was mostly forgotten for years. Giving him a hug always warms my heart.”