By Heather Benedict
This story is part of the series “Clear Eyes, Sound Mind, Halt, Salute.” Focusing on equestrian mental health, these articles come from dressage riders across the country who wish to share their struggles and triumphs. With so much focus on the physical health and fitness of riders, it is important not to neglect the mental health aspect of becoming a great equestrian. We hope these stories and bits of advice assure you that you’re not alone and inspire you to push on through all challenges.
Slaughter in the equine world is a divisive, ugly topic. Most of us have seen pictures from a kill-pen of the poor souls awaiting their fate. Thankfully, many rescue organizations have stepped up to save as many as they can. Still, an astronomical number of horses are shipped across the Canadian and Mexican borders each year. Sadly, most of these horses still have life left in them but are simply thrown away.
Shannon Hansen, a dressage rider from Green Bay, Wisconsin, was juggling being a new mother, a nurse, and the owner of two horses. One was her dream horse, a warmblood with fantastic potential and the other was a paint gelding that belonged to her husband. Unfortunately, the warmblood was diagnosed with a career-ending case of navicular. Shannon found a wonderful retirement home for this gelding and was comfortable with her decision. This was devastating, but Shannon still felt like something was missing. She turned her attention towards the paint gelding and set her sights on earning her USDF Bronze Medal.
“Rex” was a willing, talented partner. However, whether it was the fact this was her husband’s horse or postpartum hormones, Shannon’s heart was not in it. She looked at a warmblood to purchase but ultimately passed because she realized that she could not stand the idea of selling Rex. She continued showing and did earn her final score for the USDF Bronze Medal. Relief set in, and she no longer had anything to prove, mostly to herself. While showing, she met a family that was interested in leasing Rex as an eventing horse. She and her husband had never even thought about leasing him, but the fit and timing was right. Rex headed to his new home, and Shannon was left without a horse. Rescuing a horse from slaughter was always on her bucket list, but this was planned for when her daughter was older.
She only lasted a few weeks and began looking and talking to a few individuals that frequented horse auctions. She learned the ins and outs of how things work. She told one of them her budget and what she was looking for. The next day, a Friesian-cross gelding was pulled from the kill-pen. As it turns out, the horse was a Tennessee Walker. Knowing Shannon was interested in dressage and that a gaited horse was not ideal, she found a family that was interested. They discussed it, and this family had been looking for a horse just like this and would be a forever home. Shannon was confident in her decision, and the horse is now happily living in Arizona with his new family. Win-Win.
Shannon was taken aback at how quickly she owned a horse that was pulled from a kill-pen. She decided that she would wait a few months and would look again. The universe had other plans. While on a break from a class she was taking, a kill-pen in Texas showed up in her Facebook news feed. She had never “liked” this page, but she saw the face of one of the horses and was drawn in instantly. After doing some research, she found out that this horse was a 2- or 3-year-old stock horse type gelding named “Big Stupid”. He was bred to buck for the rodeo circuit, but he refused to buck. Shannon’s rational mind kept her thinking that pulling a horse from a kill-pen was a bad idea, and she would probably end up with no horse and her money gone. He also had no training at all, was not halter broke, and his conformation was questionable. Still, there was something about the look in his eye that made her continue the pursuit. She talked to her husband and her trainer about this crazy idea, and they agreed to go for it. Shannon went back to the post and Big Stupid was gone. Not sold, not shipped. He just vanished. Her heart sank.
A month had passed, and the kill-pen appeared in her feed again. The auction for these horses was to be held in the next few days. She immediately clicked and was stunned to see a horse that looked just like Big Stupid. Shannon called the kill-pen and the lady that answered said they do not list horses twice. However, she was willing to review the paperwork as Shannon was absolutely convinced that this was indeed the same horse. A few hours later, the call came that it was, in fact, Big Stupid. The lady at the kill-pen was stunned and mentioned that horses that are returned are automatically shipped. She told Shannon that he had been sold to a man and returned because he was basically untouchable.
Pushing the craziness of the idea to buy this horse from a kill-pen but knowing there was a reason this horse appeared again, Shannon sent the money and was in contact with individuals to transport and quarantine him. Transporting a horse that was not halter broke was going to be a challenge, but Shannon managed to find a group of people that were willing to help. Big Stupid spent 30 days in quarantine to get healthy. He had “pen crud” and needed to be dewormed and de-liced. Thankfully, the staff at the quarantine facility were eventually able to get a halter on him using a stock. Shannon arranged for transport to Green Bay and had found a place to board him.
Upon arrival, he was thin and weary of his new surroundings and his caretakers. He was in desperate need of name change from Big Stupid to Mister. Several names were tried but Mister was the one that stuck. The first few days of him settling into his stall were spent letting him de-stress. Shannon would come out and just sit quietly in the corner of his stall. He would edge closer and closer to her and stand quietly. If she moved, he would move away. One day, he came towards her and stood there quietly with his nose next to her shoulder and let out a sigh. One small victory for building trust.
He began to allow small amounts of touching. Shannon became aware of his body language with hers and allowed him breaks when needed. Mister also began greeting her with a whinny as soon as she closed her car door. Mister knew he finally had a person in this world. After a few more days, Shannon and the barn owner were able to move Mister into a small round pen. He seemed to enjoy it and would follow Shannon around while she walked around the outside of it. She even would jog a bit, and he followed suit by trotting and jumping in the air as if he wanted to play.
One day, Shannon walked to the round pen and much to her dismay, she saw he had gotten his back hoof stuck in a plastic feed pan. She could get a lead rope on him but working around his hind end was a bit sketchy. His touchiness was probably due to the use of a flank strap in his past life as a rodeo horse. It was up to the barn owner’s husband and Shannon to get the feed pan off. Armed with a broomstick, Shannon and the helpful husband entered the round pen. Two scenarios played out in her head. One, they would end up frightening Mister to death or two, they would get run over and kicked. After five minutes, she was able to free the hoof without incident. Mister looked at both like, “What did you think I was going to do?” That was the moment that Shannon realized the trust Mister already had in her.
Slowly, Mister was more accepting of being touched and would even walk to the gate when Shannon would arrive for their sessions. Whenever she did chores, he watched closely and with interest. Watching him trust and open up to her reminded her that she needed to open up as well. Taking each day to learn, grow, and evolve with each other was of utmost importance.
After nearly a year of forming a bond, Shannon rode Mister without incident. She also introduced to him big round inflatable balls that he could kick and throw. He realized that he loved all the farm tools and wheelbarrows. They were fun to play with and knock over. He also figured out how to buck and run in his pasture. As it turns out, he did know how to buck after all, but he knew all the wiser he was destined for something bigger.
Mister and Shannon went on to become Search and Rescue certified in 2020. They also have their sights on some dressage schooling shows. However, the most important achievement in all of this was Shannon and Mister having the ultimate level of trust in each other. His personality has blossomed with the help of trust, love, and care. Shannon describes him as a big goofball that tries his heart out for her. And to think he was destined for slaughter.
Shannon has said she would not ever have believed that she would have rescued a horse from a kill-pen. However, she realized through her sessions with him that he was helping her as much as she was helping him. Mister “saved” her and provided an outlet from daily life but allowed her to have her horse time. This, in turns, allows her to be the great mother, wife, and nurse that she is.
Shannon decided that Mister deserved to be registered with the Rescue Horse Registry. His registered name is now “De Leap Fidei”, Latin for leap of faith.
Are you a dressage rider who rides a rescue horse? You may be eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All Breeds Awards Program, as the International Rescue Horse Registry is a participating organization.