BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — From a distance, the brown mare looks like any other horse. Lily, an American quarter horse, stands in her stall, ears forward as a stranger approaches. It is only up close that one sees that Lily has dark sockets where her eyes should be.
A blind horse can, unsurprisingly, be a skittish horse. But Lily, rescued from abusive owners in West Virginia three years ago, stands patiently at Rainhill Equine Facility on the outskirts of Bowling Green as strangers stroke her forehead, seemingly aware that she is in a safe place.
At Rainhill, Lily is not unique. The nonprofit shelter has 55 horses, and 33 of them are blind.
Karen Thurman runs the shelter single-handedly.
Thurman, 65 years old and perhaps approaching 5 feet tall, is a whirl of energy as she cleans stalls and fills water troughs, stopping to gently lead a blind Paint horse named Gypsy back to her stall. She doesn’t use a halter, instead tucking an arm under Gypsy’s chin and speaking softly.
“C’mon girl,” she whispers, and the massive horse follows.
Thurman recently retired from Western Kentucky University parking services but still works full time at Cracker Barrel. She spends several hours each morning and evening taking care of the horses around her work schedule.
“And I sleep a little bit,” she said with a smile.
Thurman grew up in New York state before moving to California and then Kentucky. The constant in her life was a love of horses.
She moved to Kentucky in 1974 “because I wanted to live on a farm,” she said. “My idea was I was going to make a living” in the horse business.
In 1984, she purchased 185 acres on the outskirts of Bowling Green and fulfilled her dream — offering riding lessons and boarding hundreds of horses.
She eventually decided to get out of the business of horses and start rescuing them instead.
Her original intention was not to focus on taking care of blind horses.
But “as life has a way, one day I got a call about (taking in) a blind horse. I thought, well, I guess we can start taking blind horses,” she said.
There seems to be no shortage of horses with that disability.
Some breeds, such as Appaloosas, are especially prone to blindness as breeders look to cash in on the popularity of the horses and breed as many as quickly as possible. The limited gene pool causes myriad heath issues, including blindness.
Other horses are blind because of mistreatment, such as Lily.
“She was nervous the first day I got her,” Thurman said.
After spending her first few days in a stall getting used to the environment, Thurman put Lily in one of the several pastures at Rainhill.
“The next day she was standing by the gate,” awaiting her breakfast at just the right spot, Thurman said. “She acclimated very well. It’s only humans who feel sorry for themselves.”
Lily’s stall neighbor at Rainhill is Marty’s Dream, a racehorse who was on her way to a “kill pen” — a slaughterhouse where horse meat is prepared for sale to foreign markets, where the meat is regularly consumed by humans.
She was saved by another horse rescuer and brought to Rainhill, which is one of the few rescue facilities in the country that accept blind horses.
Thurman slowly acclimates the blind horses to their surroundings but doesn’t keep them penned for long. They only stay in their stalls until they feel comfortable enough to roam the pastures with equine companions.
“The worst thing is punishing your blind horse by isolating them,” she said.
Thurman said the horses seem to be aware that they are in a special place.
“They know I saved their life. That nothing bad happens to them here,” she said.
The biggest obstacle in running Rainhill is the financial burden.
The cost of just feed is hundreds of dollars a week.
“We’re always in a hole,” she said.
To raise some funds, Rainhill is offering a program called “Sponsor a Horse for the Holidays.” For $35, donors get a photo and biography of a horse, a tax receipt “and the knowledge you are helping an otherwise forgotten animal,” Thurman said.
The burden of fundraising is added to the lengthy list of chores Thurman takes on daily.
When asked why she does it, she pauses for a moment and her eyes moisten.
“Because I love them,” she said.
“Sponsor a Horse for the Holidays” or other donations can be mailed to Rainhill Equine Facility, 11125 Hwy. 185, Bowling Green, KY 42101. Rainhill can also use donations of food such as apples or carrots, gift cards to home improvement or feed stores and donations through PayPal at rainhillrescue.wordpress.com.
Feed on behalf of Rainhill can also be purchased at Southern States, 640 Plum Springs Loop, in Bowling Green.
Information from: Daily News, http://www.bgdailynews.com