VALLEY CENTER — Nine of 39 horses once under the supervision of a now-defunct Phelan rescue have had to be euthanized so far, according to the executive director of the San Diego County group that’s taken over responsibility for the horses.
HiCaliber Horse Rescue Executive Director Michelle Cochran said Thursday that six of the horses were put down just recently. They were suffering from various ailments.
Cochran’s group stepped in and began incrementally transitioning 33 horses from Fallen Horses Inc. to the HiCaliber facility in Valley Center on Feb. 14. The other half-dozen horses previously under Fallen Horses' control were in foster care and had to be tracked down to bring them to Valley Center, she said.
Days before the transition began, the Daily Press reported that more than three dozen horses were lacking food and adequate care at Fallen Horses, a nonprofit rescue in Phelan. Shortly after, the rescue announced it was planning to dissolve.
At the time, Cochran said the majority of the horses were either a 1 or 2 on a 10-point body scoring index that characterizes near-death as “under 1.”
“As they’re putting weight on, we’re seeing what their ailments can hold,” she said Thursday. “Most of these horses went to (Fallen Horses) from the (race)track with injuries. That’s the important thing to remember — these horses should have been receiving orthopedic treatment from Day 1.”
The majority of horses have since added about 400 pounds, according to Cochran.
With it being too costly to X-ray all the horses for potential issues and some hidden ailments, the 11 to 15 HiCaliber officials on-site each day can only feed the horses until they begin to reach a healthy weight. After about four to six weeks, it became evident which horses couldn’t handle their new mass.
“Horses are different because you can’t open them up and explore,” Cochran said. “You kind of have to hunt down what the problem is.”
It’s a progressive process, where most horses tend to follow the same route to recovery. When others steer off the course, that’s when their ailments usually surface, she said.
“Sometimes ‘rescue’ doesn’t mean keeping them alive, it means ending suffering,” she said. “The first goal was to end their suffering in terms of starving.”
Now, officials are dealing with the orthopedic problems that have come to light.
But it’s not all gloomy news. One horse that was removed from Fallen Horses is ready for adoption — the first one so far — and Cochran said she expected more to be ready soon.
"Warp," a former racehorse who won over $220,000 on the track, was arguably in the worst condition of any of the horses, but is now likely the biggest Cinderella story.
Having suffered trauma to her shoulder that went untreated, Warp nearly died after the transition, Cochran said. The horse was found by HiCaliber staff to have a maggot infestation within its wound.
For six weeks, Warp was provided a strong mix of antibiotics and, once X-rays were no longer cloudy, officials pulled a chunk of wood from her shoulder. The horse must have run into a post or thrashed into something, Cochran surmised.
She said that Warp is “coming along amazingly well” 60 days into her rescue.
Yet the exploratory surgery to remove the wood chunk, and caring in general for the Fallen Horses herd isn’t cheap. To date, Cochran said the organization has spent about $23,000 caring for the 39 horses. Of that price tag, $15,000 has been raised in donations, leaving HiCaliber in a roughly $8,000 hole.
The nonprofit cares altogether for more than 115 horses.
Cochran said that donations had been ripe within the first three weeks after the story broke, and financial help trickled through for about two more weeks after that. But outside funding has largely dried up since then, along with the public perception of exigency.
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“It’s bittersweet because you go through this with high hopes and you want them all to succeed and thrive, but you know that’s not the case,” Cochran said. “Now we’ve had them long enough to know them and love them ... and to have to say ‘good-bye’ to your special one that you fought so hard with and connect with, you wonder, ‘who’s next?’”
She said for all the efforts that have led to progress, the situation also has generated anxiety. She likened the feeling to being a child who runs through a non-lit room at night to escape the threat of the dark.
“I kind of want to close my eyes,” she said, “and race through and not think every day there’s another one or two that will pop up and we can’t fix them.”
Shea Johnson may be reached at 760-955-5368 or Follow him on Twitter at @DP_Shea.