ASPEN, Colorado - A Roaring Fork Valley organization's efforts to save imperiled horses from ranches in North Dakota and Alberta, Canada, paid immediate dividends last fall and winter when nearly 200 animals were rescued.
Secondary rewards for members of Aspen Valley Horse Rescue came last week, when the first foals of rescued pregnant mares were born.
"We've seen our peaks and valleys but seeing these babies is definitely the peak," said Heidi Alles, a co-founder of the horse rescue group, as she observed a mare named Jean nuzzling her foal named Chanti. "They wouldn't have had a chance to live if we hadn't saved the mares."
Chanti was born last week on the Missouri Heights ranch of Mary Bright, another founder of the horse rescue operation. Chanti spent a lot of her first days lying at her mom's hooves, but when she was on her feet the long-legged filly was prancing alongside the mother.
Another rescued mare named Breeze also gave birth to a beautiful spotted filly at Bright's ranch last week. Nine other pregnant mares with rounded bellies are due any day.
All told, about 65 of the 200 horses rescued from the ranches were pregnant mares. Most have been adopted out by Aspen Valley Horse Rescue. Those that haven't are being cared for at Bright's ranch.
Aspen Valley Horse Rescue is a nonprofit that was formed in September to save horses from former "PMU ranches" - operations that once had contracts with a pharmaceutical company to provide pregnant mare urine for a drug used to treat menopausal women.
The ranches lost their contracts as the drug makers shifted direction in the early 2000s. Many of the ranches reverted to their old business of horse breeding. When the recession hit, there was no market for their horses. Kathy Raife, another founder of Aspen Valley Horse Rescue, said the ranchers the organization worked with were in financial distress. The ranchers were selling horses to slaughterhouses because they couldn't afford to feed them.
"They just didn't have a choice," Raife said. She said she had no doubt the horses brought the Roaring Fork Valley would have been sold to slaughterhouses and ended up on "a dinner plate in Asia" without intervention.
The horse rescue operation raised roughly $200,000 to buy the 200 horses from four ranches and transport them to the Roaring Fork Valley.
The effort was somewhat controversial. Critics contended that rescue efforts like Aspen Valley Horse Rescue enabled the ranchers in North Dakota and Alberta to operate "horse mills" because they knew there were do-good buyers.
Raife said four ranches the organization dealt with are no longer operating.
"We pretty much cleaned those ranches out. That was our goal," Bright said.
In the bigger picture, animals that were going to be killed were saved, Raife said.
A dude ranch in Montana helped out by accepting 39 pregnant mares after they arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley. The foals and trainable mares will become part of the dude ranch's operation. The other mares will become part of the attractive scenery.
Of the remaining 160 or so horses, all but about 20 have been adopted by Roaring Fork Valley residents. The 20 are still available for adoption, as are the foals being born this spring.
But the unadopted horses are being cared for at Bright's ranch, and Aspen Valley Horse Rescue still needs cash donations, or in-kind help with hay, for the care of those horses. Local veterinarians have contributed discounted services to care for the animals.
The rescue operation founders said they witnessed significant changes in the horses after they arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley. The physical changes are obvious: The horses put on significant weight.
They were definitely not in ideal shape, Bright said.
Some had sores on their bodies. Many had dental issues that didn't allow them to process food correctly. Many needed hoof work.
They also had psychological issues. Alles said the horses had "a vacant look" in their eyes at first. They were indifferent about human contact, at best, and avoided it. Now, they have learned about loving care, and many yearn for human contact.
People can assist the horse rescue in a number of ways. They can adopt a horse and provide its care. They can sponsor a mare and foal, providing $1,200 to help cover initial costs for the baby's care, but not adopt the horses for long-term care. Or cash donations can be made to the general fund. Details are available at www.aspenvalleyhorserescue.org.
Alpine Animal Hospital is making it easy to contribute. It's holding a grand opening of its new hospital in the midvalley on Saturday, May 22. The event is from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will include a barbecue and veterinary services fair benefiting three organizations - Aspen Valley Horse Rescue; Animal Rescue Foundation, better known as ARF; and Colorado Animal Rescue. A financial contribution will be made to the organization of choice for each visitor over the age of 18 to the grand opening, according to veterinarian Chuck Maker.
Alpine Animal Hospital is on old Highway 82, about 2 miles downvalley from El Jebel.