Eleven years ago when Christine Hajek, 39, of Woodbine, went to claim Elijah, a Belgian draft horse she bought on an impulse at a horse auction in Thurmont, she found the previous owner crying.
“I went into the stall and the owner was holding the horse’s head,” she said. “When I asked him why he said ‘Because the horse was sold to the kill buyers.’”
Hajek explained that she wanted to keep Elijah as a pet, not slaughter him for meat as some other buyers do. It was the first time that Hajek, who grew up on a horse farm, had heard about the practice of horse slaughter.
“I went home and had a panic attack about what happened to my old ponies, and the breeding mares that my mom sold at auction...,” she said.
From then on she worked to save as many draft horses from the slaughter house as she could. What started out as a hobby became the Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue.
Incorporated in 2005, the Mount Airy rescue at 17250 Old Frederick Road sits on 109 acres and works to save draft horses from slaughter, abuse and neglect by finding them adoptive homes as trail and schooling horses.
The horses are rehabilitated and trained before being put up for the rescue’s adoption process, which requires, among other things, a home visit.
Since its formation, the rescue has helped 300 horses find adoptive homes.
“I decided to go out and find all of the Elijahs,” Hajek said. “Our main focus is to rescue draft horses or draft breeds. We chose draft horses because there is no one really helping them specifically.... They are [usually] passed over because of their size.”
Draft horses are large horses bred traditionally for hard, heavy tasks such as plowing and farm labor.
“It’s all about keeping the horse safe,” said Cindy Sikes, 50, of Chantilly, Va. Sikes has been a volunteer at the rescue since 2009.
Elijah died three years ago of from kidney failure at age 28. He was buried at the rescue’s old location at Lady Anne Court.
About 200 volunteers help run the Mount Airy horse rescue, which currently has about 58 horses. While some horses come to the rescue through owner surrender and forcible seizure, many of the farm’s occupants are bought at horse auctions, like Kanin, an 8-year-old draft horse cross. Kanin and his brother Kobe, 7, were bought by the rescue three years ago. Kobe was adopted two weeks ago by a family in Falls Church, Va.
“[Kanin] arrived in pretty poor shape.... He was really shaggy and his feet were horrible,” Hajek said.
Hajek said Kanin, which means rabbit in Swedish, is fitting for the horse, who she describes as “skittish.”
“Rabbits are always scared,” she said.
Hajek said she suspects that Kanin was abused before coming to the rescue. It still takes time for him to warm up to strangers, she said.
“He is so convinced that every day we wake up and say ‘I think I’m going to kill Kanin,’” she said. “He is just a very scared horse.”
Hajek said the group has gone everywhere from Florida to New York to pick up horses, like H.P. Patty, an 11-year-old mare, who was bought at a New York auction. This month she was named grand champion Clydesdale mare at the 2012 Maryland State Fair and will soon go to her adopted family in Westminster.
“Ninety percent of the time I am so happy for them,” Hajek said. “Most of the time it’s the feeling of a proud parent.”
The rescue typically buys about three or four horses at each auction they go to. Many of those they don’t take home, Hajeck said, are slaughtered for their meat.
“It’s very sad because the need never stops,” she said.
Now, Gentle Giants is the second horse rescue in Maryland to become verified by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, a global nonprofit that provides standards for identifying legitimate animal sanctuaries. MidAtlantic Horse Rescue in Chesapeake City is the only other rescue in the state with verified status.
Verification means that Gentle Giants meets the criteria of a true equine rescue and is providing humane and responsible care for animals. To be awarded the status, an organization must meet the nonprofit’s standards, confirmed by a site visit and must also adhere to a set of ethical and operational principles.
“We look at everything from fencing, food storage, sanitation procedures, fire alarms, we look at their veterinary records,” said Jeannine Alexander, a GFAS deputy director.
Hajek said she hopes the status will give the rescue more credibility.
“[Verification] gives us an edge when competing for donors or grant money,” Hajek said. “People get bombarded with solicitations for money all of the time... so basically if there’s any way that we can ensure a donor’s confidence we’re going to do it. [GFAS] makes an organization prove that what they say they are doing is what they are actually doing.”
The rescue also gives riding lessons at a cost. Hajek said it takes over $12,000 a month for the rescue to operate at a basic level. The rescue is primarily funded through grants and donations.
The next status level from the GFAS is accreditation, which requires reviewers to take a more intense look at the group’s internal functions as a nonprofit, Alexander said.
Alexander said accreditation requires rescues to have several features, including a disaster plan and conflict of interest policies.
Hajek said Gentle Giants plans to turn in their application for accreditation in the next few months.
To learn more about Gentle Giants go to www.gentlegiantsdrafthorserescue.com.