DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer
ARGYLE — The work at Ranch Hand Rescue in Argyle has gotten national attention since Midnite, an abused and handicapped miniature horse, was fitted with a prosthetic hoof.
“Midnite has become an ambassador for the ranch,” said Bob Williams, president of the gay-owned and operated rescue.
Mike Marshall of Animal Planet’s Pets 101 flew in from Boston last week to film Midnite and talk to some of the people he has affected. The segment should air this fall.
Midnite arrived at the ranch last year after being seized by law enforcement.
“Here’s a horse that would have been euthanized,” Williams said.
He was either born without a left rear coffin bone and hoof or lost it in an attack early in life.
“Midnite had no muscle strength, was malnourished, was beaten, would cower,” Williams said. “It took him two weeks to come near us.”
Lane Farr of ProsthetiCare in Fort Worth made the prosthetic for the horse. He was at Ranch Hand Rescue for the taping. He said the first time he put the limb on Midnite the horse was bucking.
“Now he’s so used to it he doesn’t know it’s on,” Farr said.
The only difference between fitting a human and a horse, he said, was that Midnite couldn’t tell him where he was feeling pressure.
“So I reached down with a probe,” he said.
But while Marshall was there to film the uplifting story of the miniature horse with the prosthetic leg, the animals are there because they’ve been rescued from severe starvation and abuse.
One of those is a horse named Honey Boy.
When Animal Planet visited, Honey Boy was grazing freely for the first time in years in a field just beyond camera range.
Honey Boy was seized several weeks ago from a farm in Brownwood. The horse, which Williams estimates is 28 to 30 years old, had been starved and is about 800 pounds underweight.
Honey Boy’s owner plea-bargained and surrendered the horse. Despite a rule that they will only take animals if law enforcement prosecutes, Williams said he took the horse because officials pleaded that he was in such bad shape, no one else could handle him.
Williams said Denton County is aggressive in its arrests and prosecutions of people who abuse animals. He said that other areas don’t necessarily prosecute.
According to Steve Harris, owner of Steves’ Market and Deli in Brownwood, the abuse of this horse has been going for several years. Neighbors had been calling the sheriff about the animals on the farm since the family that owned Honey Boy and other animals moved to Brownwood.
Joyce Fisher, who lives across the street from the people who owned Honey Boy, said their neighbors moved to Brownwood three years ago with six horses, 18 dogs and no money.
She said only two horses are left on the property and the dogs were taken out into the country and abandoned. One of the six horses died, but Fisher did not know what happened to the others.
She said that not only did Honey Boy not get much food, but also he had no water.
“They didn’t pay their water bill,” she said. “And they wrote bad checks to every vet in the area.”
So the horses got no veterinary care, either.
The former owners will be in court in July, but not on charges of animal abuse. They are facing a number of charges of writing bad checks.
“We really appreciate someone taking care of Honey Boy,” Fisher said.
Last week, Honey Boy was out in the field grazing. Despite having been abused, he walked up to anyone who came into his field, enjoying the love and attention.
Most animals arrive more fearful than Honey Boy is, Williams said.
“We do everything at the animal’s pace,” he said.
One technique Williams uses is holding their heads to his heart several times a day while talking gently to them, reassuring them that they’ll be OK.
“Before you know it, the horse starts to come out of its depression,” he said.
But Honey Boy is showing little sign of depression. Williams said they’re feeding him beets soaked in water every four hours to jumpstart his digestive system. His teeth are mostly gone and he may be blind in one eye. Williams said he doesn’t know how long Honey Boy will live, but he’ll be safe and comfortable for the rest of his life.
Ranch Hand Rescue is limited by space, number of volunteers and money. Other landowners in the area have volunteered their fields. Two horses seized last week are recovering at a nearby ranch under the care of Williams and his partner, veterinarian Marty Polasko.
In the beginning
After suffering a stroke five years ago, Williams decided to retire from corporate life and do something he loved. So he and Polasko, his partner of 24 years, founded Ranch Hand Rescue.
Polasko is a vet and owner of American Pet Spa and Resort, which shares the property with the rescue facility.
When the SPCA takes 70 horses from a ranch, Williams said, he can only take the five that are in the poorest shape. The most abused horses he’s taken at one time is 17.
But he said every seizure is expensive. On-going operating costs mount with every new arrival.
Shep Shepard saw a story online on Dallas Voice about a recent seizure and decided to volunteer. He said he spent most of his first day picking up 100 bales of hay that had been donated by a rancher near Gainesville. That should last about three months.
“It’s a great way to get out of town for the day,” Shepard said.
“They have sheep and rabbits and turtles and goats and llamas and alpacas and each has special dietary needs,” he said. “And they pay staff because there aren’t enough volunteers.”
He said he’d like to hook Ranch Hand Rescue up with someone with new fundraising ideas or who could incorporate the ranch into other fundraisers within the LGBT community.
“The need became obvious when they took in Honey Boy,” Shepard said.
Not only do Williams and Polasko, along with their staff and volunteers, look out for the animals, but the recovered animals seem to look out for each other.
One by one, each of the horses as well as Al, a tall black llama who likes to follow visitors around, went to the fence to see Honey Boy. Each one poked his head through the fence and gently nuzzled the injured horse. They seemed to be telling him he was safe now.
And Angel, a horse that now shows no sign of the abuse and starvation she suffered, seemed to notice that Midnite was out of food in his pen. Williams said Midnite, who arrived emaciated, is getting fat so they’re controlling his diet.
Angel grabbed a mouthful of hay from her bin and walked over to Midnite. She lowered her head so the miniature horse could reach and Midnite had a snack.
And when he was done, Angel brought him a little bit more.
Before getting his an artificial limb, Midnite struggled for up to 45 minutes to get up.
“Once he put it on and was ready to go, he didn’t want to give it back,” Farr said.
Williams said Midnite got right up and began walking and then started running.
Midnite is kept in a pen while his hip muscles are strengthening. Williams said he’s afraid the horse will start running and break a hip, an injury that couldn’t be repaired.
But Midnite comes out of the pen often to exercise with a trainer. They’re teaching him how to shift his weight.
Williams said he gets dozens of emails about Midnite every day and is in tears reading them.
“A girl who was having her leg amputated visited,” Williams said. After seeing how well Midnite adapted to his new leg, she went through her
own surgery with less fear.
A blind girl came to the ranch and Midnite, who just a few months earlier would cower, let the girl touch him from head to tail.
And he’s become a well-traveled little horse. Midnite has been to Scottish Rite Hospital in Oak Lawn three times already to visit the children having orthopedic surgery and they’re planning another visit soon.
Recently Mayor Annise Parker invited Midnite to Houston for the opening of a new “Playground Without Limits” for handicapped children. Everything in the park, including a swimming pool, is wheelchair accessible. But Midnite was the star attraction.
Among others visiting the ranch and speaking on camera to Marshall about Midnite was Lily, a 13-year-old double-amputee who was also fitted for her legs by Farr.
“I like to walk him around and brush him,” she said. “He’s my friend.”
Williams said he believes Midnite has a special gift.
“When children with special needs meet him, it’s emotional to watch them bond,” Williams told Marshall on camera for Animal Planet.
Even though Midnite is the one getting most of the media attention right now, each of the animals that comes to Ranch Hand Rescue comes with a story. And thanks to the efforts of Williams, Polasko and their employees and volunteers, now those stories have a chance to have a happy ending.