Voice for the horses: Mother, daughter go from muck boots to dress shoes to end horse abuse, neglect
Story by Kathryn Schiliro
Above Photos by Angelina Bellebuono • Below Photos by Sherry Stevens
Twelve-year-old Summer Stevens wasn't expecting the tragedy she witnessed at the state's Mansfield equine impound facility.
Neither she nor her mother, Sherry, who drove Summer to the barn as mothers so often do shuttle their children from one point to the next, expected to be affected in quite the way they were. Neither mother nor daughter expected that the 4-H DPA entry that had taken them to the barn would win the competition, or that the project would bring the Georgia Department of Agriculture Equine Auction to Morgan County. And they certainly didn't expect to find themselves advocating for horses at the state capitol.
Thanks to their efforts, the legal consequences for horse abuse and neglect in Georgia may change, and Summer may just get her wish:
"While he's standing in the cold he thinks to himself, 'Did I deserve this? Did I do something wrong?' Then after he can't take his pain anymore, he dies. I'm trying to save horses like these. I want to give them the voice they don't have."
Bridles to blue ribbons, and back again She doesn't quite remember when, but she remembers how her what-can-only-be-called a mission started. Late last year, following a Morgan County 4-H meeting where the event was addressed, Summer elected to take part in the organization's Demonstration Project Achievement (DPA) program, which requires participants to give a presentation to a large audience on a topic of their choice. The decision to participate was easy; Summer took some time to choose her topic.
"I decided to do horse abuse because I thought it was something that should be brought up, not hidden under the carpet," Summer said, of her decision to focus on equine abuse and neglect as her DPA project. "It's an important thing. I'd watched Animal Planet where it showed horses being slaughtered and thrown out on the road. I told Mama and she said it was a great subject."
At the encouragement of her mother, Summer sought the help of Laura Rolader, 4-H program assistant for Morgan County, in preparing her visual aide and the five-minute speech she would have to participate in DPA.
"I told her I thought that [horse abuse and neglect] would make a great speech," Rolader said. "It's an issue that needs to be brought to the forefront."
"Miss Laura was helping me think of things that I could put in my speech because I was new and didn't really know what DPA was," Summer said.
In picking Summer up, Rolader mentioned to Sherry that the state had an equine impound barn in Mansfield, less than 30 minutes from Madison, and that there was a nice lady, Miss Robin, who works there.
Several weeks later—"Yes, we procrastinated," Summer said—mom and daughter made it out to the impound barn.
"When we pulled in the driveway, there were horses in the fields," Summer said. "They looked OK from a distance, but I didn't know their story, if they were deaf or blind or what."
Come to find out, the horses outside were in the best shape; the most tragic cases were kept in the barn.
Robin Easley, affectionately called "Miss Robin," Georgia Department of Agriculture field supervisor at the Mansfield facility, sat down with Sherry and Summer outside the barn and explained her job, the difference between abuse and neglect—abuse is intentional mistreatment, whether physical or otherwise, while neglect is depriving a horse of necessities, whether intentional or not, according to Summer—and why abuse and neglect happen. She explained the inner-workings of the equine impound barn, how vet visits and vaccines cost money that the facility didn't have. Then she began to tell the horses' stories, something Summer remembers well.
"[One horse] was not halter-trained, which means it would jerk around. The owner didn't really like that, but it was just because [the owner] didn't teach it right. [The owner] wanted to teach it a lesson by attaching it to a truck and dragging it down a dirt road. There were briars in its mane and tail, and its skin was pretty much gone," Summer recounted the impounded horses' stories. "Another lady loved her horse so much, it had cancer in its mouth and she wouldn't let the doctors put it down. It spread to its eye, but she just let it suffer like that."
Going into the barn, Sherry and Summer saw the impounded horses. The horses' visible ribs told the story of starvation; dehydration showed on their faces.
Then Summer met Twiggy.
"I thought it was a girl at first, that she had long hair, but it was a he," Summer said. "He was skinny. In the back around his butt he didn't have enough muscle back there... Between the eye and the ear, there's a dent. His was way down because of dehydration. I think he had riding marks like where he has been ridden when he was not strong enough to be. He was an old horse, but he had a lot of spunk to him."
December came, and with it came time for DPA. Summer and other local 4-H'ers were bused, camp songs blaring, to Rock Eagle.
In the days before the competition, Summer practiced her DPA speech in front of her parents, who told her to be louder and refer to her visual aide, and her friend, Lilly, who spent the night with Summer before DPA and, upon listening to the speech, told Summer to look up from her note-cards more. Although it was a lot to remember and give a speech at the same time, the advice worked.
"I tried to speak loudly, to be myself with personality," Summer said. "I think the judge liked that. She smiled at me."
After Zaxby's for lunch and more camp songs, the award ceremony began. Reading from third to first place, Summer realized she'd won when her name, of the 20 4-H'ers she competed against, was the last spoken.
"They said my name and I was like 'Eek!'" Summer said. "Mama wanted to take my picture and I got my blue ribbon. When I sat down and started looking at my blue ribbon I was thinking, 'I should give this back to Twiggy at the impound barn.'"
To the highest bidder
A couple weeks later, Summer and members of Morgan County 4-H went on a field trip to the impound barn. She got to pin her blue ribbon to Twiggy's bridle, the one happy moment during her second trip to the impound barn.
"She took Twiggy out. I was glad to see him again," Summer said. "He was walking around and having a good time. He looked a lot better than before but he was still himself, wild and crazy in his own way."
Given the lowdown on the barn, much as Sherry and Summer heard the first time around, the 4-H'ers were then introduced to Emma, Britches and the Clydesdales.
Emma was up in a sling; her back legs were busted and she had a "shelf" where her spine was sticking up. Summer remembered that, despite the yummy food laid out in front of her, she wouldn't eat.
"She was a really sweet horse," Summer said.
"Emma died a couple of weeks ago," she added.
Because Emma occupied the facility's sole sling, Britches was in a makeshift sling—made of ropes—in the barn too.
Several Clydesdales, once wedding horses that pulled a carriage, were also living at the impound barn. Dwarf, one of the Clydesdales, had thrush—a condition that renders horses' feet soft.
"He was a real sweetie, a 'gentle giant,'" Summer said. "Miss Robin picked up his foot and tried to show us the thrush, but he didn't really want to."
While the Clydesdales' owner made money through the use of the horses, he never really gave them food or water, Summer recounted the story. Part of a wedding, someone at the event noticed the poor state of the animals and reported it. They ended up at the Mansfield facility.
"It was way more intense than I ever imagined it," Rolader said.
After witnessing the barn, the 4-H'ers wanted to do more.
Rolader, at the urging of the 4-H'ers, suggested to Easley that the Morgan County Ag Center host the equine impound's auction, "where they sell horses when they're good and ready," Summer said, as Easley had expressed to Rolader the impound was having trouble finding a place to hold their February sale.
Representatives from the impound and 4-H approached the Ag Center's board with the idea, and they agreed. For their part, members of the Morgan County 4-H will clean all 30 to 40 of the stalls used.
Muck boots to dress shoes
And Sherry took it upon herself to start a phone campaign.
"Mama's trying to get state representatives to come to the auction," Summer said. "We want big people there to see the horses who were abused and neglected."
"I said, 'We need to get on the phone and invite everyone we can,'" Sherry said. "I got on my e-mail and looked up every representative I could think of who would be interested in coming out."
Sherry invited the county's representation to the state legislature, Senator Johnny Grant and Representatives Doug Holt and Bob Smith, as well as Tommy Irvin, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Agriculture among many, many others.
And, as Summer's story project and word of the Morgan County auction got around the capitol, Sherry and Summer's foray into changing Georgia' equine legislation began.
"I did ask one representative if Summer could page for them," Sherry said. "I thought it was a good thing for her to do plus I could get my foot in the door and talk to them about changes [to legislation]."
After Summer paged for Holt, Grant's office asked her to come another day and page on the Senate side.
Mother and daughter are pulling for the consequences for horse abuse and neglect in the state to become harsher.
"The passion of knowing that, after a horse has been abused, they can be turned around and sent back to their owners," Sherry said, of her motivation. "Most of them are repeat offenders. They get a slap on the hand from the judge [offenders are required to pay a fine], they get their horses back, they starve again and they come right back [to the impound barn]. We wanted to make a change. We can turn our backs on it or we can be the voices of the horses."
On one of her days at the capitol, Summer and Sherry were taken by Representative Bob Smith to meet Representative Tom McCall, chairman of the Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee, who heard their story and of the changes they hoped to see in horse abuse and neglect legislation.
"He seemed very interested in what we were doing and told us about a lady [part of a loosely formed group of prosecutors]...who has already been trying to make up a [similar] bill," Summer said.
Sherry and Summer met up with the group; they explained to the pair the changes they are hoping to make to the bill, changes that include making willful neglect (starvation, etc.), currently a misdemeanor, a felony as it causes the death of the animal—at present, intentionally killing a pet, a dog or cat, is a felony. The group is also attempting to make torturing an animal a felony—currently, this only applies if the animal dies, is disfigured or rendered useless.
"One of the ladies at the table gave Mama a handbook of people at the capitol," Summer said. "[She] circled a whole bunch of people and representatives and said 'You tell them what you told me.' ... We didn't expect this at all; we must've run around for two miles."
By the end of the day, Sherry and Summer met numerous legislators, House Speaker David Ralston and even Governor Sonny Perdue, who they walked to the elevator.
"At the end of the day, here we go down these steps. [One of the prosecutors from the group] said, 'There's your governor... Get him girls!' So Summer and I took off and ran up behind him. He was stopped by someone else, so we waited on him to approach us," Sherry said.
Introducing himself, he asked Summer what she was doing at the capitol.
"I said, 'I paged for Doug Holt today.' I told him we're trying to make a bill that keeps horses from getting abused and getting given back to their owners. He told me, 'OK, that sounds great.'"
Sponsored by Representative Kevin Levitas, a bill addressing the Morgan County mother-daughter team's concerns is currently in the hopper, according to Sherry. And as soon as it's released, the pair is trekking straight to Atlanta.
"They're still working on the language, but we're waiting on that call," Sherry said. "We won't miss it. We will be there when it hits the floor."
In the meantime, the Georgia Department of Agriculture Equine Auction is set for Saturday, Feb. 27 at the Morgan County Agricultural Center. Gates will open at 10 a.m., and the auction begins at noon.
Money raised by the purchase of concessions and donations and the selling of the horses will go back to the Mansfield facility.
At auctions like this, the horses begin at $15 or $20. It is Sherry and Summer's hope that more bidders means more money raised.