Monday, July 14, 2008

A Horse Named Gus

 Gus And Christine  

Throughout the country, numerous feel-good stories have surfaced over the past several years about various horse rescue organizations saving horses from slaughter. All the while, the fight to abolish horse slaughter continues.

Here is one of those stories about one particular horse.

In April, 2007, 33 horses stood shoulder to shoulder at Cavel International, a horse slaughter facility located near DeKalb, Illinois waiting to meet their inevitable fate.

As if in a movie script, where the prisoner on death row awaiting execution receives a last-minute pardon from the governor, the Supreme Court issued a ruling shutting down the Cavel facility. The 33 horses had narrowly escaped death, but now faced an uncertain future.

With nowhere to send them, their owner loaded them on a truck and had them dumped off at a stockyard in Cheyenne, Wyoming that served as a holding facility for livestock that pass through the state. There was no funding provided to feed the horses, and that’s when the Humane Society of the United States stepped in after being contacted by the owner. The HSUS negotiated for their release and teamed up with Denkai Animal Sanctuary in Grover, Colorado to facilitate their rescue. Veterinarian Dr. J.D. Fox of Cheyenne and his technicians vaccinated the horses and then administered antiobiotics and provided whatever medical care was needed.

After about a week, Denkai helped the HSUS distribute the 33 “Miracle Horses,” as they came to be known, to various rescue facilities, while taking in seven for their own sanctuary.

In May, 2007, Christine Schultz, who has a modest six-acre farm with three pastures in Ramah, Colorado, at the base of Pikes Peak, went to Denkai to meet the sanctuary's founder Floss Blackburn about acquiring one of the horses, who became known simply as Gus. He had arrived with bone spurs on his stifle and was severely underweight. On the Denkai website, it said Gus was believed to be around 7-years-old, which actually turned out to be a typo.

When Schultz went to see him, she knew the horse desperately needed a good home. “All the bones on his back, ribs, and hips were visible and it was obvious he was in dire need of help,” she said. “Even his hair was wiry feeling, dried out, and looked sunburned. The white snip on his nose was burned and all scabbed up and he had some small cuts and spots where his hair was rubbed off.”

When she was shown his lip tattoo, she noticed that the horse’s teeth were very long, much longer than any of her other horses. When Gus was checked out, it was estimated that he actually was about 23 years old. On the HSUS website, he was known as “Tattoo.”

Schultz was determined to find out the age and identity of Gus. She did research online, frequented various chat rooms, and read tips on how to identify a horse.

“I spoke with The Jockey Club and kept digging for blogs and information online on how to find out who that big bay was in my backyard,” she said. “I was fighting the nagging feeling that I needed to solve this mystery and tell his story. It was a void to me to not know who he really was.”

When she finally took possession of Gus in July, 2007, she put the identification hunt on the back-burner, because there were more important matters to deal with, mainly getting him to put on weight. Schultz was worried about the horse and made sure she always had good hay available to him. He was put out in one of the pastures, while always under her watchful eye. After five months, when Gus had put on weight and his health had improved, Schultz called the vet to look at him and check out his lip tattoo. The vet said she believed it read “88341.”

After going back to the internet, Schultz realized that the “8” had to be a letter. She used up six rolls of film photographing the tattoo, which wasn’t that easy to do, with Gus always wanting to play around, something Schultz was happy to see.

After using different lighting methods to read the prints and negatives, she finally came to the conclusion that the letter was a “B.” The entire process took almost six months, with the vet visits, the film developing, and working with the TRPB (Thoroughbred Racing and Protective Bureau) and talking to The Jockey Club.

The mystery finally was solved. The "young" Thoroughbred Schultz had obtained with the hope of turning him into a dressage horse, was named Ribot Dream, who, amazingly, was 36 years old.

Ribot Dream was a great-grandson of the legendary Ribot, through his sire, Johnny Ribot, a son of Sir Ribot. Bred in North Dakota, he made 24 starts from 1974-76, winning three races and earning only $4,551.

“Ribot Dream had been sent to slaughter at the age of 35,” Blackburn said. “We have not been able to track the person that originally sold him through the sale barn. We are still working on it, but it may take a while to accomplish.  We believe he came out of Nebraska onto this slaughter truck.

“Gus is doing incredibly well. You would never know he’s 36 years old. Christine said someone had taught him at some point how to bow, and she can still get him to do it.”

Gus has regained all the weight he had lost during his ordeal, and according to Schultz is a “typical Thoroughbred: go, go go,” but has been easy to train.

“It was obvious someone really gave him a hard time,” she said. “Every time I’d go in the pen headed his way, he'd run. It took me months of working with him, and he’s much calmer now. He has had some major breakthroughs. He likes to play with the other horses over the fence. He always wins since he’s the biggest one here. It must be good to be the big man on the block.

“One morning I was feeding and I noticed out of the corner of my eye, he was not wanting to eat as normal, but hanging out at the gate waiting for me. So I went up and pet him; I wasn’t sure what he wanted. That morning he reached over and nuzzled the tip of my nose. We have had several of these ‘human/horse bonding’ sessions.”

Meanwhile, Gus has become great friends with Smiley, a 13-year-old Thoroughbred and Quarter-horse mix who also was among those rescued from Cavel and given to Schultz. They had become so close while at Denkai, Blackburn wanted them adopted together. Smiley has no lip tattoo or microchip to identify him. A vet’s examination in January revealed his age.  Smiley, despite suffering from ringbone, a badly bowed tendon, and arthritis, is doing as well as can be expected, and he and Gus remain inseparable.

As it states on the Denkai website, “Hopefully in the near future, racehorses like Ribot Dream will see a suitable retirement and placement where they will no longer be considered simply byproducts and breeding machines.  Thanks to Christine, Gus is living happily and eating well.”

So ends the story, at least for now, of the great-grandson of Ribot who miraculously escaped slaughter and was reborn at the age of 35. At this point, his life after the track is nothing but a collection of blank pages. But for him to have lived this long and survived the inside of a slaughterhouse is a story by itself, and one can only hope those missing chapters will one day be told. What is important is that at age 36, well beyond the maximum age range of a Thoroughbred, Gus’ life has become one of contentment. Whatever miseries he may have suffered throughout his life, it is Schultz’ loving care and the happy final years she has provided him that he will take to his death.

A visit to will reveal the other five horses of the 33 that were sent to Denkai and their before and after photos that show the remarkable physical progress each one has made.

As for Schultz, she is hoping to move to a 10-acre farm and continue helping ex-racehorses like Ribot Dream.

“I feel his case set a precedent,” she said. “I’d love to give people an opportunity to visit, and be able to get up close and personal to ex-racehorses. I know there are more fans out there like me.”

Her goal with Gus is a simple one: “I’m committed to giving him the end he really deserves – being loved, safe, and treasured, living like no one else.”

For anyone interested, contributions toward Ribot Dream and his care can be made to: Denkai Animal Sanctuary, 36710 WCR 126, Grover, CO 80729.

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