Martha Sue was bound for a slaughterhouse when she caught the eye of her rescuer three years ago.
Underweight and matted, the ex-racehorse didn’t look like much when she was loaded up on a trailer and driven from the auction house in New Holland, Penn. to Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue in New York.
“She’d been in the kill pen for about a week before she was rescued,” says Akindale exercise rider Melissa Hogan. “I remember being told that she was almost impossible to lead to the auction ring when people came to rescue her. She didn’t want to leave her food.”
And when she did finally make it from the auction ring to the safety of her bucolic rescue, she was still afraid most of the time.
“Sometimes I’d just walk her across the street and hand-walk her back. If she didn’t panic, I’d consider it a success,” Hogan says.
Each day got a little better than the last, and over long grooming sessions and very short riding lessons, Hogan’s connection to Martha Sue slowly rebuilt the horse’s trust. Stat Box
Race name: Martha Sue
Dam: Wayne County
Foal date: April 19, 2001 in Maryland
“When I first started riding her she was extremely nervous. The second we entered the riding ring she’d throw her head straight up and start to panic,” says Hogan, 29. “Each time I got a little further and stayed on her a little longer. Then, one day, something just clicked with her, and all of a sudden she was trotting around like a hunter with her nose on the ground.”
The more comfortable Martha Sue became, the more Hogan and her boss Erin Pfister, admired the “eye-catching” mare for her courage to adapt.
And yet, Hogan and Pfister never showed Martha Sue to prospective adopters.
“We just figured we’d never find her a home,” Hogan says, explaining that the mare required so much nurturing that she needed a special person to take her on.
In May, that “special person” emerged in the form of longtime warmblood owner Kelly Follett. Against the advice of her friends who said she was crazy to do it, Follett took the nine-year-old mare home with her.
“I was told she was hard to ride, and I think she was probably abused at one point because she was so standoffish and shy,” Follett says. “But my heart just went out to her. I could tell there was something there, and that she wanted to learn to trust again.”
Patiently, she worked with the mare to build a bond. And over six weeks of everyday riding, talking and grooming, the connection was made and Martha Sue blossomed.
“Now I have this adorable, loving horse who calls to me whenever I walk into the barn,” Follett says. “In the ring, she walks right in with her head low. And in the barn, she puts her face in my hands.”
The fate of roughly 70 ex-racehorses has come to a similar happy end through the work of Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue.
Founded in 2006 by businessman and philanthropist John Hettinger, the 1,000 acres of rolling farmland in Pawling, N.Y. is now home and retraining ground to off-track Thoroughbreds from Pennsylvania and New York. The facility is testament to a man who fought against horse slaughter and the inhumane methods with which they are transported to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada.
Before his death in 2008, Hettinger had become as well known for his horse advocacy as he was for his talent breeding top-level racehorses.
That same passion to save horses is what inspired Hogan to work with Martha Sue day after day.
“Without rescues like us, there isn’t a chance for these horses to get adopted. “To me, if the kill pens aren’t full on a particular weekend, that’s fulfilling to me.”