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Rescue, Rehoming and Rehabilitation: The Canberra women saving lives every week

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It’s a bright, Canberra winter day, and I’m out in Murrumbateman at a beautiful property called Nanima.

Clear country stretches for acres ahead, and I can see sheep, cattle and horses in the paddocks closest to me. The horses are why I’m here – this property belongs to Rachael Krnc, one of the driving forces behind ACT Animal Rescue, and almost every horse on this property has been rescued from the saleyards, where they would have ended up at an abattoir.

ACT Animal Rescue was founded in 2013, by Andrea Hinschen and Rachael, two Canberran women who saw the need for an organisation that saved animals from certain euthanasia or slaughter, finding them safe, loving forever homes.

I’ve been volunteering for a few weeks now, helping out with the horses, taking photos and learning as much as I can about the organisation.

I meet Rachael inside the storage room, where she’s busy making up a horse feed. There is another family of volunteers already busy cleaning out the yards, having fed most of the horses already.

Lauren with Jet

Lauren with Jet

We’re about to go and meet Jet, one of the newest horse rescues, with the biggest story to date. I’m here to find out how Jet came to be here, and to meet Lauren Woodbridge, a horse trainer who was key to saving Jet’s life.

Rachael and I walk over to the small paddock where Jet is. She’s a stunning grey mare, approximately seven years old and before a few weeks ago, almost entirely unhandled by humans.

“When she got here, she didn’t even know what a hard feed was,” Rachael tells me, as she lets us into the paddock, holding the bucket of feed in one hand. “It’s been a process to get her to even eat her feeds, and understand that it’s food.”

Jet is inquisitive now, walking over slowly, the tension in her body indicating how anxious she is. I make sure to stand very still, and far enough away that I’m not a threat. As I watch, she edged closer, until she can poke her head into the feed bucket and take a few mouthfuls.

Lauren and Rachael with Jet and Danny

Lauren and Rachael with Jet and Danny

I’m amazed to see her so comfortable with Rachael – it’s hard to believe this mare has been abandoned from birth, unwanted and wild for what we understand to be a large part of her life.

Scuffing around my legs is Danny, a miniature pony who was also a rescue. He’s Jet’s companion here, and is a large part of why she’s so calm now – but I’ll explain that in a moment. Right now, we try to keep Danny from guzzling all of Jet’s food, and let her eat in peace. It’s humbling to see how an animal that has suffered at the hands of humans, that has no reason to trust us, can be so open and willing to engage with us now.

It’s a testament to the work that Rachael and her team do. Key to their rescue efforts is Lauren Woodbridge, a horse trainer who has been working with the rescue’s in AAR’s custody for the past six months.

Lauren, Rachael and I sit down to talk, and I’m bursting with questions. I ask them how they first heard about Jet.

“I got a phonecall from the Yass Ranger,” Rachael starts. “She’d already made contact with a number of other rescue groups, but no one had responded to the request, and they knew for at least a month that this horse was needing rescuing, that it had been abandoned.”

Jet had been born on the property where she was abandoned, a product of artificial insemination. For some reason, whoever originally bred her had left her there, untouched and untamed for seven years. In the time she had been on this property, someone had cut the fence and pushed her through to the neighbouring land, where she was now stranded, following the sale of the property 18 months ago.

“The person who was renting the property was actually moving out that weekend,” Rachael explained. “They had only given the Ranger until Sunday to access the property and get the horse out.”

Rachael first heard about Jet on the Thursday prior, and immediately jumped into action.

“As soon as I spoke to her and found out what the situation was, I rang Lauren and said “What are you doing Friday? Can you help, what do you think?””

Lauren didn’t hesitate for a moment. Despite this horse having been unhandled and abandoned for seven years, she was confident she could build enough trust with the animal to be able to put a halter and leadrope on her, and get her onto a truck for transportation – all things that usually take weeks to train a horse to accept.

I asked Lauren how she approaches a situation like this.

“Carefully. I try and get as much information as we can as far as training goes, as to the horse’s history, what kind of infrastructure we’ve got to use. Then work that way. We had a couple of advantages, that she was already in a yard, and she knew what food was.”

Rachael and Lauren with Danny

Rachael and Lauren with Danny

Even so, it took three days and hours of work to eventually get Jet to Nanima.

The first day, Lauren spent almost five hours gently building trust with the mare, getting a halter onto her and acclimatising her to being led. This was a long, difficult process, with Jet pulling free and running almost 20 acres away, and then being caught, before running away again.

The next day, Lauren came back with help, to try and get Jet onto a truck. Jet had a paddock buddy, a gelding that belonged to the people on the property. They tried to get Jet onto the truck by using him as an incentive.

However, there was a large step between the tailgate on the truck and the ground, and for an animal who has never had to negotiate that kind of step before, it was nearly impossible.

“It took her ages to figure out to get her front feet on [the tailgate]– about an hour and a half, and to get her back feet on it, she was so exhausted she just couldn’t physically figure that out. She was just mentally exhausted – she’d stand up on the ramp and her legs would be quivering so hard, she couldn’t move.”

They decided to leave it, and try again the next day with a three-horse float they managed to source.

Unfortunately, this time Jet’s paddock buddy turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help.

“He was just… he was a bit of an exploder. When he’d get stressed, he’d freeze and then blow up. So he’d be on the float, he’d be fine, then he’d get a bit stressed and start making a huge ruckus and that would upset her, so in the end we took him off,” Lauren explained. “My mum was standing with him next to the float, and considering how clingy Jet was to him, that was a challenge too, getting her on there without him.”

It took another three hours, but eventually they did it. Jet was finally out of her paddock, and onto the float.

“The experience, even though it was stressful for her to get here, it wasn’t a traumatic incident, so she got off the float calmly, and obviously we had Lauren’s little pony, Danny, there to support her and be her little buddy, and she bonded with him straight up.”

I asked Lauren what Danny’s role is in all of this. Danny himself was rescued from the back of a truck that was heading to the slaughterhouses, where he would have been killed for his meat. Now, he’s a therapy pony, helping acclimatise rescues to their new environments.

“When you’re talking to a horse, the environment is talking to them at the same time. And if the environment speaks louder than you, the environment is going to win.

So with Danny, because he’s so independent, if another horse is upset, he’ll still be himself and be calm and be happy, and hang around you all day quite happily. So he adds to the points in your side of the field. He makes the environment less big and scary,” Lauren explains.

Listening to this story, it’s amazing to think that there’s a team of people who will dedicate days of work to rescuing a horse that they’ve never interacted with before, and then actually invest in her wellbeing and health going forward.

ACT Animal Rescue is largely self-funded, with Rachael paying for a lot of the costs associated with the horses herself. Lauren also trains the horses at a highly discounted rate, dedicating significant time to working with them, and getting several of the rescues to a point where they can eventually be adopted as riding horses.

What’s in it for them?

“I guess, well, my story was, I’ve got Aspergers, and when I was a kid, we could never afford the expensive horses, or expensive anything,” Lauren says. “So we always got cheap horses that no one else would want or take care of, and they did a lot for me. So I kind of feel like continuing that and returning the favour.”

For Rachael, rescuing horses was a natural evolution after years of rescuing dogs. She made the move to horses when she realised that too many rescue dogs could be unpredictable and a potential risk for her two year old son.

“We just recently bought this 400 acre property, and a friend sent me a picture of a horse in poor condition at the horse sales, and for me it was a no-brainer,” she says. “I think there are so many rewards involved. I think with the horses and dogs, you just know they are so thankful for your efforts, and what you do, and the results – just simply seeing them grow and develop and love life and be healthy and go on to future lives, knowing that they’re on death row and you’ve literally saved another life – to me that’s everything.”

ACT Animal Rescue only rescues animals at risk of euthanasia, and horses that are at risk of slaughter. They are currently fundraising to help cover the costs of horse feeds for the next three months, so that they can put more resources into training and expedite the adoption process for some of their beautiful rescue horses. Head to their fundraising page to contribute.

If you are interested in volunteering, foster caring, or adopting, please visit the Act Animal Rescue website here.

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