NEWTON, Ala. (AP) — To look at Lexi, you wouldn't guess she almost died from severe malnutrition in the summer of 2012.
"She was actually lying on the ground, pretty much was bones," Lori Woodham of Wiregrass Horse Rescue & Sanctuary said.
The horse had not been fed for a long time.
"We were pretty much told she wasn't going to make it," Woodham said.
The neglected, abused and abandoned horses the rescue takes in go through a process. They are quarantined for 30 days and evaluated by a veterinarian. They receive vaccinations. Bloodwork is drawn to screen for disease. They are put on a strict diet, sometimes fed up to six times a day as they move toward a more normal once in the morning and once at night feeding schedule.
"When you let a horse get down to where they're almost dead when they've been malnourished, there's a lot that goes into just getting them to where they can eat," she said.
The rescue works with local sheriff's departments on equine abuse cases.
"They'll go in and they'll need somewhere for the horse to go," she said. "The main problem in the past has been, 'Well, we don't have anywhere to take them.' So that's where we're trying to come into play, so that we can help these animals that don't have anywhere else to go."
The rescue's mission is to provide sanctuary for neglected, abused and abandoned horses, rehabilitate them physically and emotionally and find them caring homes.
It has applied for status as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization and purchased 60 acres on Bethlehem Road in Dothan for a permanent home. When the site opens later this year it will have about 20 acres of open pasture and 40 acres for trails.
In the meantime, 10 horses under the sanctuary's care are being kept on leased property in Wicksburg. Another five horses are in foster care, where people who have land offer to keep them.
"They feed them and help them get fat and healthy," Woodham said.
In most cases, owners don't purposely abuse or neglect their animals. Sometimes horses are bought with the best of intentions, but economics and other situations make it difficult to provide proper care.
"When you start to get in a situation where you realize you're not going to be able to take care of your animals, reach out to the humane societies, reach out to rescues," Woodham said. "It might be a situation where maybe we can help out and find you some hay, or maybe we can help find another home. Don't let the animal suffer. Ask for help."
Houston County Sheriff's Capt. Antonio Gonzalez said his department gets involved when there are any issues of animal abuse, but in many cases charges aren't necessary.
"We assist them to avoid any kind of prosecution because most people aren't really trying to be abusive, they just can't afford to take care of the animals," he said. "We're going to give them all the contact points they need to try to get that help."
Gonzalez said his department has a good working relationship with shelters and will help lead people in the right direction no matter what kind of animal is involved.
The bottom line is that organizations need to know about the problem before they can provide supplies and other assistance. With the high cost of food and medical care, Woodham wants owners to find ways to provide for the horses so they won't have to be taken in by the rescue.
"I don't want to take anybody's animal away from them," Woodham said. "I don't want to be that person, but I'm going to stand up for the animal."
Dr. Chris McCoy, owner of Walden Pond Animal Hospital in Headland and the primary veterinarian for the rescue, said it takes time and money to properly care for a horse.
"Horses are not really worth a whole lot right now, so people see a horse for sale for $100 or $150 and think 'Hey, that's a great idea,' but don't realize that you're going to have to put that much in them probably once a week to keep that horse in good physical condition," he said.
Sometimes kids get a horse and then lose interest, and the parents don't know what to do with the animal. Without regular care, the horse can develop problems.
McCoy said horses need some sort of grain to supplement hay and grass, especially in the winter when the grasses are poor and the quality of the hay declines. Horses that eat only low-quality grass or hay can suffer from colic and become constipated.
He said horses need to be vaccinated against viruses carried by mosquitoes, such as the West Nile virus and the eastern and western equine encephalitis viruses. Their hooves and teeth constantly grow and have to be maintained. If the teeth are not wearing right "you'll start having problems there, too."
On its Facebook page, the rescue is asking for $5 donations to fund dental care. "That's $160 per horse and that covers one year of dental work," Woodham said.
Their hooves need to be trimmed every six to eight weeks at $40 per horse. The rescue is in constant need of hay, feed and supplies. People can volunteer to help in any way they can. As long as there are horses, there are needs.
For Woodham and the organization's core group of volunteers and supporters, developing facilities, programs and a support organization that will treat and rehabilitate horses is the goal.
"We've got an amazing board of directors we've put together that hopefully are going to be able to help us get the word out and let people know that we're here and what we're wanting to do," Woodham said.
The site on Bethlehem Road will be the base of operations. The trails have already been built so the horses can be trained for trail rides and obstacles.
According to information from the organization's Facebook page, an estimated 180,000 to 200,000 horses are abandoned, abused and unwanted in this country each year. Hundreds of those are in the Wiregrass.
The horses taken in by the rescue vary in size and age. Houdini lived in a horse trailer until he taken in by the rescue when he was about 4 or 5 months old. He'll soon be a year old.
Peaches arrived about three weeks ago. At approximately 33 years old, she's the oldest of the bunch.
Most every horse has value, not in dollars and cents but in spirit.
"It's just amazing how people can give up on an animal," Woodham said. "I think the thing we want to get through to people is that there are a lot of rescue horses out there that need a good home that don't cost thousands of dollars but can be amazing horses with just a little love and care and a little bit of training."
On a recent afternoon, Woodham and her daughters Alyssa, 11, and Allie, 9, were looking after the horses in Wicksburg.
"They help me every day," Woodham said. "Usually the three of us are out here in freezing cold temperatures. It doesn't matter, we're out here."
Woodham has taken in or assisted in 59 horse rescues. It started when she spotted a picture of a rescued horse in Florida on Facebook about two years ago. She had seen horses all her life, but "something about that one just spoke to me."
She went down to meet Dolly, who is now her horse, and "realized how much a horse rescue was needed in our area. That's why I started it."
Woodham and her daughters know the horses under their care by name, and the horses know them. Each horse has needs that are tended.
"We've had all kinds of issues with a lot of different horses," she said. Chelley came from a hoarding case in September. She was named after one of Woodham's friends who "came out here and helped me put up fence in the dead heat of the summer."
Chelley was emaciated when she arrived. "Usually it's really hard to put weight on a horse in wintertime, but she has really packed on pounds," Woodham said.
An equine dentist had to pull one of Lexi's teeth when it abscessed. Lexi is 24, and Woodham said the problem could have been prevented had people given her proper dental care through the years.
"Right now she's just so sweet," Woodham said. "She's just happy that she finally can be somewhere where she's taken care of."
Information from: The Dothan Eagle, http://www.dothaneagle.com