Carla commented over on Fugly blog recently and raved about these guys so we took a peek at their website and did some googling and were sold. From all the info we could find, Christine Hajek, President and Founder, is doing a wonderful job finding loving, forever homes for these big guys in Mount Airy, MD.
As is tradition, we’re starting off with a few interviewy questions, Snarky Rider style 😉
Background/history – how did you get started rescuing horses? how long have you been doing this?
Rescuing drafts began as a hobby for me in 2002, when I stumbled upon a gem of a Belgian at an auction. At the time I had a Percheron mare, who I bought from a fancy eventing show barn. They were using her to breed TB crosses. She has the conformation of a quality camel. I did everything right- rode her a few times, vet check, etc- only to find out about 17 days later that she was drugged for soundness and temperament. (Oh the joys of Sarapin blocks and Fluphenazine) She was totally inappropriate for me, and I was quickly intimidated by her. This Belgian at the auction looked like such a gentleman, and he rode with an edge of bored resignation. I fell in love. I figured it couldn’t be any more a mess than my mare (who I still have and adore now that she’s a mellowed 22) so I bid and I won. When I went to the stall to collect my new horse, the seller expressed surprise. “Oh! You bought him? I though he went to the meat man.”
I stopped in my tracks. Meat man? I asked him what he meant, and got one very clear education of the slaughter industry. I grew up on a small farm that bred a few Warmbloods. I got my first pony at 6. And I had no idea what he was talking about. It was the perfect dirty little secret; no one spoke of horse slaughter in “proper” circles. The horses simply went away. Immediately I realized what must have happened to those old broodmares, the aging lesson ponies, the foals with crooked legs.
The rescue started because of that Belgian gelding, who was named Elijah. He lived to 28 and is buried here at the rescue. By finding him, I awoke to the realization that there were hundreds more just like him, just waiting for someone to notice their kind eye… and I had to do something. I started rescuing a few horses at a time, and by 2005 I consistently had 4 or 5 rescued horses I was training to ride and putting miles on before they would be for sale to good homes only. At that point, my then boyfriend (now husband) said I really needed to either go all in and form a rescue, or cut back. We thought about it for about 30 seconds and incorporated Gentle Giants in October of 2005 with the idea to have seven rescue horses. Seven is a nice number. Seven years later, we have 63.
How does rescuing a draft differ from the lighter breeds? What are some of their ‘special’ needs?
I’m really not the person to ask this question to, as I believe drafts are superior to all other breeds by nature. They are generally calm and eager to please, and are quite easy to train. They do tend to have more issues with hoof care, mainly that hoof care costs much more and many farriers aren’t very excited about trimming a draft. Due to their size, they are more prone to arthritis and ring bone, so joint care should always be addressed early and maintained through life. Drafts do require different dietary management and a much higher percentage of fat in their diet than light breeds, but in general are very easy keepers. The most common “special need” we see is failure of a previous owner to train the horse to stand well for trimming. Often there is simply no training or trimming happening at all, or the horse gets trimmed in shoeing stocks. This is the method nearly all Amish use for their drafts. Retraining is usually fairly easy using lots of patience and positive reinforcement, but we have had some horses left so fearful from shoeing stocks that it took over a year before they could stand for the farrier without the use of sedation. Hoof neglect is the most common thing we see, and we even see it in the barns of high dollar breeders and show competitors. The second biggest and most irritating issue is clueless owners who get a draft and think it’s going to be a huge rideable teddy bear that farts rainbows, and they don’t realize drafts need boundaries and a leader, just like any other horse.
Do Clydesdales really prefer Budweiser beer?
No one prefers Budweiser, it tastes like piss water.
What is your opinion on tail docking? and why?
Grrrr… tail docking. We compete the rescue horses in the local draft show circuit, and every single show the announcer gives this big spiel about how tails are docked for the safety of the driver because the horses tail could flip up and snatch the reins out of the drivers hands and he would lose control and we would all die, blah blah blah. Really? Because if a draft can’t use that huge neck to pull the reins out of my hands while I’m riding, how is HIS TAIL going to manage it? No other driving breed has its tail docked. I don’t see Standardbreds or Fjords causing massive pile ups because of their tails. Or is it that most people who use/d horses for daily field work were too damn lazy to keep it trimmed or braid it every day to keep it out of the britchen, so they docked them and started a “tradition?” Horses need their tails. We’ve been showing several un-docked horses this year with great success. Sunrise went from nearly dead to winning 3 First Place Clyde Yearling classes, 3 Junior Champions, 2 Reserve Champions, and 1 Reserve Grand Champion, and she did it with a full tail.
Don’t even get me started on Scotchbottom Shoes (our own shameless SR guest post plug – here!).
Are drafties better swimmers because they have such big paddles? oops, I mean hooves? 😉
Absolutely. And fat drafts float nicely too. Here we are at the only “swimming hole” in our area we have found so far. Light breed horses can swim out for a quite a few strides, we’re lucky on the drafts to get three or four true strokes afloat. That’s me in the lower corner. My horse rolled and I fell off. Like a champ. (Pssst… horse on left is available for adoption!)
What is this wonderful “Most Spectacular Unplanned Dismount” award you spoke of? and do you have pictures?!
Oh, how I wish I had pictures of them all. Our lovely volunteer Carla is an accomplished rider, so of course what that means is I put her on every horse I cannot be convinced to get on. Over the years, she’s had some pretty fantastic spills, all worthy of celebration. My personal favorite was the one where she got bucked off over a drafts head, did a flip, hit her head (helmeted, of course) on the round pen, and landed with her face in poo. (She was fine.) Still to this day she swears she came off the rear of the horse; but nope… that was over the head. Thankfully she’s only about 90 pounds, so she sort of floats down like a feather, rather than becoming a high velocity lawn dart like myself.
This isn’t her Most Spectacular Unplanned Dismount, but it’s still a fun picture. Carla had offered to show another volunteers green TB. It went well.
Other volunteer awards celebrated this year were “Most Likely to Taste the Dewormers”, “Most Likely to be Used as Crash Test Dummy”, and my personal favorite: “Most Likely to Suffer Grievous Bodily Injury”.
Thanks for giving us the opportunity for this interview. I hope it allows your readers to learn a little more about what Gentle Giants is about, and I hope it opens some eyes to the absolutely fabulous draft breeds out there and how multi-talented they can be. (Shameless plug: We have lots available for adoption, so take a look!) If any readers happen to be local, we always need volunteer help and we do allow committed volunteers to ride and show with us. But our first rule is always fun. We have lots of Firefighters, Police, Nurses, and Military folks who help run the rescue and volunteer here, so our environment doesn’t work so well for those who would be offended by a little foul language, lots of rude jokes, or constant friendly harassment. You get the picture.