EAST DORSET — Meet Buttercup.
She is a beautiful 14-year-old horse with an eye-catching tan coat. Her human friends say she is friendly, gentle and playful, now.
It was just over a year ago that Buttercup had been auctioned off to a "kill buyer."
She was on the scale being weighed for meat and about to board a truck for a five or six day truck ride — with no food or water — to a slaughterhouse in Canada, where she would have been shot in the head and hung on a hook for rendering.
That's when Dorset Equine Rescue stepped in. They bought her from her buyer for $100 more than what was bid on her, and brought her to Vermont.
For nearly four years the volunteer group has been rescuing horses at auction that had been sold to "kill buyers" for slaughter. They also take in horses confiscated in New England in neglect or abuse cases.
Buttercup's experiences left her traumatized and depressed. She also faced medical issues.
Today Buttercup is fully rehabilitated and spends her days frolicking in a Dorset pasture where she lives with a dozen other horses who once faced the same fate, were it not for the efforts of the folks at Dorset Equine Rescue.
"I've been a horse lover since the day I was born and this is something I've wanted to do all my life," said Jen Straub, founder of Dorset Equine Rescue. "But it goes deeper than that. Horses have carried us through war and plowed our fields. They basically built America. They deserve better from us. So our goal is to rescue, rehabilitate, train and adopt these horses to a good home."
So far, 27 rescued horses are enjoying their lives at their new homes, with 12 more working on their rehabilitation on borrowed pasture in Dorset, where volunteers tend to their needs. They are fed, exercised and retrained by volunteers.
Rescuing horses isn't easy, and it isn't cheap. It has cost Dorset Equine Rescue about $75,000 to $80,000 a year to accomplish what they have.
As part of their ongoing fundraising efforts, they hosted an open house and tag sale last weekend, hosting families who came to spend time with the horses and learn about their needs.
An annual fundraising event is the Barnyard Ball in July. Straub noted that aside from operating expenses, Dorset Equine Rescue is seeking funding to purchase its own nearby pasture land and build its own stables, allowing them to work with more rescued horses.
These volunteers spend so much of their time and energy on the operation because they know that each equine life saved is priceless, noted trainer Tiffany Vittum, of West Rupert. She has be retraining the rescued horses for almost two years.
"These are living creatures," she said. "Every one has a desire and instinct to thrive. And they bring a lot to our lives. There is nothing quite like it when you find that special connection with a horse, when you can communicate on that same level, without words.
So we are responsible to these animals to be sure they can thrive, and have a certain quality of life."
In one fenced-in pasture are two other rescued horses, Ferdinand and Jaks. Ferdinand is still battling depression and malnutrition.
He is getting better, showing signs of affection and increasingly more spirited, but he still has a ways to go.
His ribs are a testament to his need for more weight gain.
Depression is typical for the rescued equines, noted Connie Blatchford, a volunteer and board member of Dorset Equine Rescue.
Most of them had been trained for racing, as either thoroughbreds or quarter horses.
But if they don't win races, their owners are quick to auction them to the highest bidder.
Estimates are that thousands of horses are sold weekly at auction to kill buyers who ship them to slaughter in either Mexico or Canada where they are processed for their meat, which is sold internationally.
The rescued horses, like the rest of those sold at auction, had been removed from their life-long environment and herded through tunnels and shipped on overcrowded trucks, no matter their age or medical condition (some are pregnant at the time).
Horses have an average natural lifespan of 35 years.
"Six months old or 35 years old, it doesn't matter," Straub noted. "Horse slaughterers do not discriminate. They don't care. And the kill buyers want as little expense as possible in getting them to slaughter.
So they get no food or water during the trip. Some don't survive it. The ones that do are hungry, panicky and weak."
She said they are herded one by one into the kill pen, where they are shot. Then, even though some may survive the bullet wound, they are hung on the rendering hook.
The rescued horses are brought to East Dorset where they are evaluated for medical needs and emotional issues.
The depression causes many horses to "shut down," according to trainer Tiffany Vittum, of West Rupert.
She has be retraining the rescued horses for almost two years.
Vittum noted that the jobs these horses had been trained for are no longer relevant to their lives, leaving them psychologically aimless, which exacerbates the depression resulting from the trauma they endured.
Some are anti-social, some won't eat. Each horse presents a different challenge, and treatments are unique to each rescued horse.
"It's a matter of finding a job for them to do — matching them with something that meets their needs — so they can get adopted out," Vittum said.
"They all have different needs. But for each one, we need to untrain what someone else has done and retrain them so they can be safe and comfortable."
As with humans and canines, having a purpose, or a task, gives the horse a goal and can lead to emotional stability.
At one auction she attended with the horse rescuers, Vittum was walking by a corral when she heard a whinny.
That's how she met Dixie, one of the rescued horses.
Dixie is a thoroughbred that didn't win enough races, and had been purchased by a kill buyer.
They brought her home and now she also is prancing in a prairie with new friends.
Vittum said the racing horses are trained to do one thing: "To run in a circle in only one direction. But they are capable of so much more."
Finding the right path with each horse is a matter of "really listening to the horse to figure out where they physically and emotionally," she said. "You're breaking down walls and it takes a little while to make that connection. And they really do come around when they understand what they need to do and enjoy doing it."