- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

GILMER, Texas (AP) - Horse enthusiast Richard Fincher’s eyes twinkle with emotion as a leggy colt scampers up for a bear hug and midmorning nuzzle.

The Tyler Morning Telegraph (https://bit.ly/2hlq3Sq ) reports just a few short weeks ago, a feisty 4-month-old named Rico and his mother were near death, deprived of proper nutrition until they were reduced to shaky-legged skeletons.

“They were poisoned,” Fincher said. “They were on land that had something bad in it. They had poison in their bodies, and his mother’s milk was all dried up. . They were in pretty bad shape.”

To make matters worse, the former owners essentially ignored the plights until the animals reached dire, almost irreversible conditions and law enforcement had to step in.

“If we had not gotten to them when we did, they would be dead,” he said, as the wiggling Rico suddenly grew still for a back scratch. “This is why we do what we do.”

Fincher is no stranger to society’s horrors.

The former lawman saw plenty during his time patrolling Houston-area streets and neighborhoods.

In his post-retirement career, he serves as executive director of Safe Haven Equine Ranch, a place that offers healing for distressed and abused animals.

The organization also executes emergency equine rescues and provides educational opportunities to first responders and others on how to save horses caught up in danger.

The oft-crazy hours can be reminiscent of police work, but Fincher doesn’t seem to mind.

“We’re available 24 hours a day to help,” he said. “There are a lot of long hours and sleepless nights. But then you get out here and mess with the animals and they bring something good out of you.”

Safe Haven was started in 1999 by Ruth Meadows, who dreamed of saving horses and helping them find better lives.

When she eventually handed the reins to a successor, Fincher and wife, Debbie, took up the cause a few years ago and leisure time for the couple seems a thing of the past.

About 14 animals are rehabbing at the ranch, but the number fluctuates according to need.

“Since we’ve had it, we’ve rescued more than 800 horses,” he said. “It’s grown by leaps and bounds. The horses can come here, they get healthy and then we adopt them (out). Nothing leaves here that’s not adopted.”

Safe Haven, a 501(c)(3) organization, operates off donations and about 10 acres of fertile pastureland.

Days can be long and complicated.

“We are one of two horse rescue organizations in Texas, accredited under the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries,” said Kerri Downs, who serves as the organization’s treasurer, barn helper and jack of all trades.

The organization works closely with law enforcement by caring for animals seized from abuse and neglect, then placing them with qualified, caring new owners.

Not every horse lands a new home.

Some - such as a geriatric mare named Granny - are not suited for adoption, so they stay on to live out their lives in comfort and dignity.

Others are too sick or injured to recover, in spite of emergency vet care.

At the other end of the spectrum, many new arrivals are pregnant and close to delivery.

“We’ve slept in the barn and in the office, whatever we have to do to take care of them,” Downs said. “This is not a job; it’s all volunteer work. We do all this for free. Our paycheck is the smile a horse gives us when they know they are safe.”

A large barn sited in the center of the ranch seems especially popular with both two- and four-legged residents.

Every horse has its own stall and food allocation so it doesn’t have to compete for the basic necessities.

Nursing and expectant mothers get special treatment, and new animals always warm quickly to their new surroundings.

“Some come in and their eyes are dark,” Fincher said. “But after they are here for a while, their eyes light up. At night, they are all ready to go into the stall.”

Would-be adopters are thoroughly vetted to ensure they are ready to care for a horse, which can be a magnet for mischief.

“Whoever coined the phrase, ‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ never met a horse,” Downs said with a grin.

Safe Haven could be described as a type of heaven on earth for some animals, but all that love and care comes with a price tag.

Starving animals can require intensive treatment, based on veterinary recommendations.

That can mean small meals several times a day, special diets and/or medications and plenty of attention.

Time and money and volunteers are precious commodities, it appears.

The ranch spends hundreds of dollars a month on hay and feed, relying on two primary suppliers for the best deals.

Occasional donations of hay and leased land are always welcome.

Rico, the nuzzling colt, likes his new human friends and the feed bucket, but his mom is not so quick to trust again.

She can be aggressive at mealtime, gobbling her food as if it’s her last meal.

“Rico’s mother tolerates a halter,” Fincher said. “She’s doing better, but we still have work to do. A horse needs to be brushed and touched. It seems like volunteers are few and far between. . We could really use quite a few.”

Volunteers are needed, in part, because the ranch plays other critical roles in addition to animal care.

Safe Haven is certified and equipped to perform certain types of equine rescues, such as when animals are caught up in accidents, wrecks or natural disasters.

Group members recently returned from the East Coast where they were summoned to aid animals affected by Hurricane Matthew.

A trailer loaded with donor-funded rescue gear is always at the ready in case of emergency.

“We have angels,” Fincher said, displaying donor-funded equipment, including lift harness and rope system. “They don’t want credit, they prefer to remain anonymous, but they have really helped us out.”

Safe Haven also offers classes to police and fire personnel to educate them on the proper ways of dealing with distressed animals, such as those trapped in overturned trailers.

The next round of classes, set for early March, is expected to focus on high angle rescues.

And throughout the year, group members visit schools and hospitals and offer ranch tours for Scout groups and others to highlight the importance of responsible pet ownership.

It’s a never-ending responsibility that shows no signs of lessening.

“We are here to help,” Fincher said. “That’s what we do.”


Information from: Tyler Morning Telegraph, https://www.tylerpaper.com

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