October 2, 2014--The Pennsylvania National Horse Show attracts the world's greatest equine athletes – horses that show in top venues around the globe – led by riders who are legends in the show jumping world.
Also competing this year will be Little Red, a 3-year-old quarter horse cross who was emaciated, filthy, scared and untrained when she was rescued from an abusive situation in Mercer County.
Little Red and nine other rescue horses will compete Oct. 14 in the inaugural Equine Comeback Challenge at the show. The class is co-sponsored by A Home for Every Horse and Penn National. It is meant to highlight the plight of abandoned and neglected horses, many of whom get sent to slaughter in Canada or Mexico although they are healthy and could make wonderful companions for the right riders.
Guilynn Gray is on the board of the ANNA Horse Rescue which saved Little Red and 29 other horses from what she calls "deplorable" conditions.
"They were living in the equivalent of a puppy mill for horses, with little pasture space, poor water availability and little hay," she said. Nearly all the horses were severely underweight, suffering from extreme rain rot, and had poor hoof care. Most had never been handled.
All of the horses in the Equine Comeback Challenge have similar sad back stories.
Little Red is being trained by Todd Feaser of Newville. He is the perfect trainer for this kind of horse.
He is one of seven children, and although his family loved horses, they didn't have much money. So they got the horses nobody else wanted, then turned them into roping, reining and barrel racing competitors.
"Some of our best horses were retreads," he said.
Feaser, his wife, Meg, and 9-year-old daughter Fallon have 13 horses at their farm, including a stallion they use to breed their own.
Little Red was pregnant when she was rescued, but she was too malnourished to sustain the pregnancy. That could have been a blessing in disguise, since she had already been through so much, Gray said.
She spent the next seven months with a foster family, who built up her weight and started teaching her ground manners and to trust people.
She had never been ridden before Feaser got her. That was one of the qualifications for participation in the Equine Comeback Challenge.
Each of 10 trainers were randomly assigned one of the rescue horses on July 15. The trainers each had three months to show how far the horses could come, and give an idea of how far they could still go.
Little Red learned quickly, Feaser said.
"She could be stubborn early on, but within a week she learned to trust," he said.
Her quarter horse breeding seems to have given her a good cow sense, Feaser said. While she was at first reluctant to walk over objects on the ground, she would do it while following a cow.
During her competition at Penn National, she will have to walk, trot and canter in both directions, walk over a wooden bridge, cross a tarp, back though a chute and perform other feats a good trail horse should master.
She will also do a two minute freestyle performance, but Feaser is keeping most of his plans for that a secret.
If he has one gripe with Little Red, it is that she was too easy. He prefers the troublemakers.
"I look for the biggest train wreck there," he said. "The talented ones can be the most finicky, with the biggest personalities," he said.
But he thinks Little Red will make a wonderful "bomb proof kids horse," although she can carry an adult weight. Fallon has been riding her a lot.
All the rescue horses will be available for adoption following the show.
Dave Andrick is group vice president for Active Interest Media, a company that publishes several horse magazines and on-line classified websites for horse sales. The company started A Home for Every Horse three years ago, asking no money for classified ads for rescues. Last year, it found homes for more than 900 unwanted horses.
Andrick said running a competition at the prestigious Penn National Horse Show brings awareness to the plight of neglected and abused horses. The problem became acute during the economic downturn, and "sensitivities have changed," he said. Animal lovers are less likely to allow a healthy horse to go to auction. Rescue operations "are now doing incredible work on this front," he said.
"There will always be thousands of horses looking for homes," he said.
Feaser said he does not care if Little Red wins the competition, only that she finds a good home.
"I think the benefits of rescue horses are that they appreciate you more. They can form a stronger bond than the more privileged ones who are pampered from day one, who can become little divas," he said.
Gray and the other members of the ANNA Rescue are following Little Red's saga closely and rooting for her in the competition. Her two former owners have been charged with 28 counts of animal cruelty, but the case is still ongoing.
"We have all been watching her progress on facebook and we know Todd is doing an amazing job with her," Gray said. "On the surface, she's just a little red mare, but the talent he has brought out in her is exactly what the challenge is all about. It isn't perfect breeding that makes horses great. Great horses are the result of hard work from talented, gentle trainers."
If you go
• What: The 69th Penn Natiional Horse Show.
• When: Oct. 9-18.
• Where: Farm Show Complex, 2300 N. Cameron St., Harrisburg.
• Info: The Equine Comeback Challenge is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14.