Many little girls dream of having a horse — I know I did. I grew up in the city with a relatively small backyard. Behind the chain link fence that separated our house from a large field — lived a horse. I never knew her name. She was nothing special to look at; slight of build, dull chocolate coat, scraggly knotted black main. She was only there for a few short weeks, but man did I love her. Every afternoon I’d run outside and she’d gallop up to greet me; her velvety nose nuzzling my fingertips as much as the metal barrier between us allowed. I longed to touch her — really touch her — to run my tiny hands along her withers, to rest my forehead against hers, to straddle her bareback and hug her neck as far as my little arms would allow. Instead, we stood eye to eye, our hearts forever connected.
Liberty Sanctuary is all about connecting hearts, healing souls, and offering America’s forgotten equines a second chance at life.
Debra West, along with several equine enthusiasts, founded Liberty Sanctuary in 2023. According to the non-profit’s website, Liberty Sanctuary’s mission is “[…] not only to rescue and rehabilitate horses and donkeys that are found in kill pens but to share their stories and create awareness of their plight and unfair circumstances. The horse slaughter pipeline feeds an underground of black market businesses, all of which take advantage of the horse, America’s most noble animal. The American horse stands for freedom. Because of the horse, settlers could explore the country and head west. It’s unfathomable how this gracious animal that has enabled the country’s progress has fallen victim to greed, severe abuse, and, too often, an unjust and cruel demise. We aim to advocate and be a voice for slaughter horses by promoting the SAFE Act and others seeking other solutions.”
Every year tens of thousands of horses are sent to kill pens, where they are eventually shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter. Although the horse slaughter industry has declined drastically since the 1990s, today, about 20,000 equines are being exported from the United States yearly to be served as meat in foreign countries, namely Russia and China. The Save America’s Forgotten Equines (SAFE) Act aims to stop the export of equines for slaughter.
Debra shares, “To me, it is unconscionable to think that this partner, who was so integral to the building of our country, our freedom, is now up for bail – basically in a prison. How does that happen? How are they not more protected?” Although she wishes she could save every horse in the slaughter pipeline, Debra has, to date, saved 24 lives. Her rescues include a foal born in the kill pens and, more recently, eight foals from Wind River, WY, whose mothers were sent to slaughter.
Making The Connection
Debra didn’t realize it at the time, but her first rescue was a mare named Shiloh. She shares, “Part of putting this property together was that I wanted to have horses here. It’s always been a dream. I used to call it my little ranch dream. Since I was a little girl, I have loved horses, but I grew up in New York City, so it wasn’t very easy or economical to ride or have a horse.” In 2016 Debra’s dream finally came true! She says, “As I was looking at these horses, I was like a little girl, so excited, I found this girl online […] and I agreed to purchase her sight unseen. I just fell in love with her little face and spirit. […] She’s really my spirit animal.” Debra didn’t know about the slaughter pipeline then, but Shiloh was priced so low that she could easily have gone to a kill buyer.
A kill buyer is someone who goes to auctions and waits for the horses that don’t sell. They purchase them for almost nothing and turn around and sell them to kill pens. Debra explains the brutal process, “As soon as an equine enters the slaughter pipeline, medical care ends. Absolutely ends. Horses endure a twenty-hour packed ride to Mexico, sometimes with no food or water. Their demise is just really inhumane. No matter what people try to say, an animal can smell the blood of other animals. The horses are terrified before anything even happens. […] Due to the physiology of equines, many remain alive during the greater part of the slaughter process. […] To say that they don’t have awareness — they do have awareness.” I can hear the passion in her voice as she continues, “We have to do better. I think we can do better. That is where the SAFE Act comes in, but frankly, that is only step one. It’s not the solution.”
Part of the solution is connecting the dots for people. Yes, the goal is to see the slaughter pipeline completely shut down, but also to make sure that there is a safety net. And that horse owners know where to go for help. One of the most shocking aspects I discovered is that a large majority of the horses in the pipeline are domesticated, young, healthy equines. All deserve a second chance at life; sadly, many do not get it. Debra says, “I was attracted, for lack of a better word, to the kill pen in Bowie, TX, because they are more professional, and they do a video on all of the equine so you can see them. Connect with them in a way. Most of the horses’ bail is anywhere from $700 to $1000, and when you are looking online, it shows their expiration/slaughter date. It’s pretty real. You see that date, and it motivates you to get a plan together.” She continues to explain, “Typically, we prefer to rescue younger horses because we feel like we have the best chance at giving them a meaningful chance at a new life — to be able to rehab them. Some will live their lives out here at the sanctuary, and we will try to rehome others and then, hopefully, rescue more because there is no shortage of them.”
It definitely takes a team of knowledgeable people on both ends; those who know about rescuing from kill pens, scouting, and transporting, and those who know about caring for and mending broken souls. Debra shares, “I don’t go a day or an hour without remembering that I’m responsible for these lives. At the end of the day, I have to do my best for them. […] I can’t reiterate enough that there’s no way I could do this without the help of so many people. My husband, Scott Horner, he’s honestly like the pied piper where all the animals follow him around. It has been really beautiful to see his relationship with the animals here. And these beautiful equine advocates who have sat with me and helped educate me, helped me get my head around all of these issues — they have been so gracious. Don and Trevor, our trainers, Eric, our physical therapist, our Vet, Blair, and all the volunteers — I can’t say enough how amazing they are. […] There is not one thing I’ve done in my life where I have felt this kind of support — not one thing.”
I believe if the horses at Liberty Sanctuary could speak our language, they’d say the same thing.
“The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched; they must be felt with the heart.” – Helen Keller
Providing support to all the rescues is paramount at Liberty Sanctuary, from the open space to move around, to ample access to food and water, to no pressure and a soft place to land, to vet care and time to heal, to time to just be a horse. And, eventually, come to trust and make connections with others. Equine and Human-quine.
I had the privilege to visit Liberty Sanctuary and witness some incredible connections, and learn more about these majestic beings’ stories. Where their stories actually began, for most, is undocumented. If we start at the kill pen — they are marked with a number — affixed so well, if removed, it would tear off hair and possibly skin — a semi-permanent reminder that they’ve been forgotten. One of the first things Debra does is give the rescue horses names. She explains, “I know it’s probably a human thing to name them. But we do know names are important; when an animal has a name, we treat them differently. The intonation of our voice, our actions, and our movements, they all change, and the horses know it. I feel like names help to create a connection between us.”
Axel is a gorgeous draft mix who was working with Trevor Howard in the sanctuary’s main round pen. With views of Timp and American flags waving in the background — it was awe-inspiring. At first glance, there is a presence about this eight-year-old stallion. Abandoned to the kill pen and then abandoned in the kill pen, Axel has come a long way. Trevor shares, “Horses can tell when you are invested and when you are not; when you are in a hurry and when you are emotional.” I watched as Don Herbert, another trainer, switched spots with Trevor and gently worked with Axel to put a halter on. I didn’t realize that what I was watching was the culmination of months of work. Trevor explains, “That’s pretty cool watching Don work with Axel. That’s the first time Don’s ever handled him. If you would have seen this horse when we started to where he is now — I mean, that’s the first time we’ve put a halter on him, and I’m not even doing it.”
It’s all about connection, trust, and feeling safe. Trevor explains, “One of the biggest things that I try to work on with any horse, whether it’s day one or day 151, is the connection between you and them. If you’re on the mountain one day and the horse startles and spooks — all you have at the moment is how deep your connection is with that horse. It’s hard to describe, but if you think about the positive connections in your life — they took time.” He looks toward Axel for a moment and says, “I think the horse is one of the most forgiving animals that there is on the planet. You can come and do everything completely wrong, against the nature of the horse, today, and they’d let you in tomorrow. You could do that for years, and they’d be hoping that tomorrow, you’d do it a little bit better. They’re just really incredible.” Trevor connected with Debra a few years ago, helping with her horses before she started the sanctuary. So it makes sense that she would reach out to him to work with the rescues. He says, “Everything that Deb is doing with the infrastructure and all the work that they’ve put into getting the horses to where they can just down-regulate from what they were, and they can come here and be a horse for awhile before we start working with them — I think that’s huge! I can guarantee that if we had started working with Axel on day three after being here, it would be a totally different story. Letting him be here, get fed, and feel safe — it’s been pretty cool. It’s really rewarding getting to work with horses that essentially really didn’t have a chance anymore and to give them a chance.”
In the background, I hear Don speaking to Axel as he removes the halter, “You’re pretty alright for a wild free spirit.” Debra responds with, “Right! You’re okay with a wild free spirit.” And he is.
Don is reserved and quiet, but from the moment you shake his hand, your soul feels calm. Where Trevor exudes a surety and strength in a jovial yet commanding and kind manner, everything about Don, from his smile to his gait, to the smooth, soft cadence of his voice, conveys a gentle strength. The two trainers complement each other perfectly.
Don was one of the first on the scene when most of the rescues arrived; he looked them over and caught sight of a malnourished, runty four-year-old palomino-draft cross stallion. His ribs were sticking out, he had cuts and scabs all over his face and body, and Don said, “I want that guy.” When asked why, it takes a moment before he replies, “Sorry, my emotions well up. Really, it was just the look in his eye. The state that he was in. Obviously, he needed the most work. He was scared just being here, scared of being anywhere. He was just full of pain. And fear. I figured I could do something to help.” He pauses and smiles at Navajo. “And it’s working.”
Navajo shares a space with another rescue, Scout, and Scott’s horse, Cody. As I walk to where Navajo is standing, Cody and Scout move to intercept until they decide I’m okay. Debra shares, “Scout’s been a good protector and comfort to Navajo. And Cody has sort of taken on the role of big brother. He has to supervise everything.” Navajo was the worst off out of all the rescues, but with patience and Don’s gentle guidance, he’s come a long way in the few short months he’s been at Liberty Sanctuary. Don explains, “When he first got here, he was extremely guarded — even when I’d come and just stand at the opposite end of the pen.” Debra adds, “He would snort at Don, but he was never aggressive. He was just terrified from whatever happened in his life – terrified of being in his own body.”
Don walks over to Navajo and tenderly strokes his neck. “It wasn’t but a couple of months ago when this was just a dream. Between the environment and socializing and the work we’ve been doing, they’re [Navajo and Scout] coming around. They are actually looking for touch now and enjoy the connection.” Debra interjects, “Honestly, what Don is doing with Navajo — touching him, brushing knots out of his main and tail, feeding him out of his hand — he took one of the hardest cases, and they bonded beautifully. I didn’t know if it would ever happen. I thought it would take at least a year — he was that guarded.” Don affectionately moves his hand from Navajo’s neck to his head and notes, “They’re really head-shy, so you have to be careful. It’s fine, though, because every inch you gain, you keep forever.”
When asked what his favorite part of working with Navajo has been, he quickly replies, “Every bit of it. It’s just been completely rewarding. Seeing him go from what he was like, (he pauses, controlling his emotions) he was just completely traumatized and afraid, and now he is completely the opposite, comfortable. We still have issues, of course, but we are making progress. Horses — they’re like the number one prey animal — they can freeze and run, but they don’t have much of a fight, and humans are natural predators, apex predators. So, the relationship between man and horse is kind of oxymoronic, really. It’s just extremely rewarding for me to see him come from being crazy wild and afraid to being accepting and realizing and allowing me to build a relationship with him.” Don continues to share his thoughts, “I can’t thank Deb enough for getting this whole thing started and letting me be a part of it. For me, being here is like my sanctuary. It does a lot because you have to be aware of your emotions, what you are thinking and feeling when you’re spending intimate time with them. Because we really do radiate our energy, our thoughts, our emotions, and they do too. To get a horse to relax and connect with you, to want that connection — it has to be a mutual relationship — the healing and growing that happens in that round pen is mutual. It’s quite a process, but it pays dividends for sure.”
Trevor reminds us, “Everything we as horsemen feel we need to teach the horse, they innately already know how to do — without humans in the picture or on their back. In a way, we are in the way of choreographing this dance they already understand completely. Many times it’s very easy to place blame or point the finger at the horse, to point out a specific behavior, when generally all those behaviors that we don’t like were placed there because of a human in some pattern or something that we did in domestication that normally wouldn’t happen to a horse if it lived in the wild. The more time I spend with the horses, the more I realize how much I have to learn.”
Debra agrees and shares what the horses have taught her, “Public speaking and advocacy are not the most comfortable things for me. But these horses give me courage — it’s an honor to try and give them a voice and to give voice to this cause and educate others. These horses are my passion. This is so deep in my soul that I feel it’s a calling. This is something that I’ll put my entire life on the line for.” And, really, she has. Debra quit her full-time job as a realtor and is giving her whole heart to all the souls that have found a home at Liberty Sanctuary.
As I watch a few of them, I notice the last remnants of a kill pen sticker clinging to the hindquarters of what was once a horse with no name. I can’t help but smile at the symbolism; it fills my heart with joy to think about. Just as the numbers fade, and the glue loses its hold, and the sticker eventually falls to the wayside, so, too, are these incredible individuals’ fears and self-doubts fading, losing their hold, and falling to the wayside. I take in the smells of hay, horses, and scrub oak and enjoy the silence of the moment, broken only by the munching of hay and eventually the calm cadence of Don’s voice, “Ya, once you have that connection, it’s like the world melts away and it’s just simple — pure — I love it.”
Safe Act this year is the year!
Scott Beckstead, Director of Campaigns, for the Center for a Humane Economy shares, “The SAFE Act was introduced to Congress and we are working on getting it added to the Farm Bill, a piece of must-pass legislation that Congress has to pass every five years. 2023 is a Farm Bill year. Our focus right now is on getting members of the House-Senate Agriculture Committees to pass the SAFE Act as an amendment to the Farm Bill.”
- Contact your local members of Congress, whether they are on the agriculture committee or not, and support the passage of this legislature.
- Visit animalwellness.org to learn more about horse slaughter and the SAFE Act.
To learn more about
how you can volunteer or donate to Liberty Sanctuary visit: libertysanctuary.org