Appalachia is a region defined not by borders but by culture and a cycle of profound poverty—a place where both animals and humans suffer in ways not easily understood by those who don’t witness it.
In the past, organizations have tried to address pervasive equine neglect within this economically impoverished region, which covers 420 counties in 13 states. But until Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue was founded in 2012, none had succeeded on a large scale.
In less than a decade, Heart of Phoenix has saved over 700 equines, established the largest equine event in West Virginia in the Appalachian Trainer Face Off, and has altered the trajectory of life for the average unwanted horse in rural Appalachia. For her efforts, HOP founder Tinia Creamer was presented with the ASPCA’s Equine Welfare Award in 2019.
All of this is somewhat remarkable, considering the enormity of the obstacles to overcome and the fact that Creamer never intended to start a horse rescue.
Fourteen years ago, Creamer had just returned to West Virginia after several years away when three of her younger siblings—ages 19, 17 and 14—were killed in a horrific apartment fire. The tragedy left her reeling from the shock and pain; for months, she was lost, desolate and filled with despair.
“I spent about a year where everything, to me, was done,” says Creamer, who was in her mid-20s at the time. “Then it was 2008, and the economic crisis hit us the worst, and I started to notice all of these horses for free on Craigslist. And I thought, ‘Isn’t there anybody out there doing anything about this?’ ”
Creamer, who had been an avid equestrian as a teenager, quickly learned that the answer was no.
“I definitely did not want to found or create a rescue,” says Creamer. “But I realized if I was going to say, ‘Somebody should do something,’ there was no reason I couldn’t try to help a little bit.”
Creamer began responding to ads and rehabilitated a few horses whose owners could no longer support them. One fateful stormy day, she responded to a call about a horse tied to a tree in a flash flood-prone area.
“She was a skeleton,” remembers Creamer. “Her feet were curled up in elf shoes just around and around, and she could barely walk.”
Despite Creamer’s efforts to heal the unnamed mare, her condition declined. When her coffin bones began to press through her soles, Creamer chose to let her go. The entire experience—from the mare’s rescue through flood waters to the failed rehabilitation and finally her death—proved life-changing for Creamer.
“If a horse can’t live a great quality of life, the kindest thing for the horse is euthanasia,” says Creamer. “But I learned the hard way with that horse about trying to help them when you’re hurting in the process.”
The day the mare was put down, Creamer named her Phoenix, after the mythical bird that rises reborn from the ashes of flame. That was also the day Creamer decided to dedicate her life to preventing this situation from happening to as many other horses as possible. In tribute to both the mare and her own personal journey, Creamer named her rescue Heart of Phoenix.
“I decided we were going to do it big, and we were going to do it right, and perhaps if enough people become aware, we could change things,” remembers Creamer. “It’s so amazing to go back and look at that now, because we did. We changed everything. It will never be like it was for horses here again.”
But in the early years, the scope of equine neglect and suffering throughout Appalachia in general and West Virginia in particular seemed a problem almost too huge to tackle with so few resources.
“When you consider that you’re living in an area where children suffer extreme neglect and go without food, it seemed impossible to make any progress,” says Creamer. “You’re fighting a constant animal control crisis and cases of gross neglect, where you’re trying to get animal control to come in and take a horse that isn’t going to survive much longer, in counties that don’t have the money to prosecute child abuse cases.”
Compounding the situation was that central Appalachia developed a significant feral horse problem in conjunction with the 2008 economic crisis—largely due to desperate owners abandoning animals on nearly 50,000 acres of former coal mines— and these animals were breeding and expanding in numbers exponentially every year. Creamer estimates that by 2014, there were as many as 4,000 feral equines living a hardscrabble existence on these marginal lands.
“They got into roadways and got hit. People hunted them for sport or ran them down with ATVs,” says Creamer. “The numbers were so incredible, but no one in West Virginia ever really addressed this issue until we went in and did it.”
In fact, state governmental agencies and local animal control officers at first refused to acknowledge the problem even existed; once it grew too large to ignore, they lacked the resources to do anything about it. Some local residents believed the horses to be a tourist attraction and resisted any suggestion of reducing herd numbers. Meanwhile, these feral horses faced conditions that were far from humane. Even now, with fewer than 1,000 feral animals remaining at large thanks to HOP’s efforts, many still starve to death while others bear scars from significant injuries or failed attempts at round up.
In HOP’s early years, with limited funding and no facility, Creamer sought unconventional solutions to these challenges. First, she built a volunteer network that spanned the country. Next she sought donations from outside the region.
“It was about convincing donors in New York or Maryland, or anywhere but this little part of the country, that the work here was important, and that we can do so much more for the donor dollar,” says Creamer.
In addition, Creamer built a network of foster homes. The idea was fairly revolutionary a decade ago; although the foster model was well used and accepted in small animal rescue, at the time it was virtually unheard of for equines. But Creamer believed it was the only way for HOP to help more horses, and today, nearly three-quarters of HOP’s 102 equines are rehabilitating in foster homes.
“What ultimately happened was that training programs, lesson facilities and boarding barns started offering to foster,” says Creamer. “That was really revolutionary, because it allowed the horses to get training from the time they came in at little or no cost to us.
“It was out of desperation and need that we adopted the foster model,” continues Creamer. “But now it is a model that many, if not all, organizations follow. And we were able to say yes to the typical horse that ends up in rescue—that horse is usually untrained or poorly trained.” Today, HOP rents Mulligan Farm just north of Huntington, West Virginia, and most horses taken in by the rescue are assessed there first. Creamer emphasizes that HOP is a “realistic” organization and that not all horses can be brought back to good health.
“The conditions we receive horses in are worse than elsewhere, as a routine,” says Creamer. “They come in at body condition score 1 all the time, with extreme trauma-related injuries that have gone untreated for a very long time.”
Depending on the individual’s needs, the horse may stay at Mulligan Farm for intensive care or will be placed in one of nearly 60 foster homes, which are located all over the East Coast. Creamer knows each of these homes personally and matches animals to the best fit.
HOP is an open intake facility, meaning it’s unusual for the organization to turn away any horse in need. About 30% of their horses come from legal seizures, and the rest are either owner surrenders or animals HOP has gathered from the feral herds—a process that requires skill, determination and a little luck.
“We constantly try to go in and remove them,” says Creamer. “Our fear is that if we as a rescue organization don’t address it, and the state comes in, it’s probably going to be mass extermination. We have a really great team of sensible horse people and cowboys who can go out there and do it in a way local people cannot.”
In addition, HOP offers gelding clinics and safety net services— short-term assistance to owners going through a rough patch—for basic health care and feed needs and occasionally help with training.
“If there is a way to keep a horse in a safe home, we have numerous safety net services to keep horses in that situation,” says Creamer. “This includes sending trainers to people hours away, to help assess if the horse is the right fit for the owner. We have found helping somebody get a trainer in there does wonders.”
With the exception of two on-site caretakers and a part-time barn manager, HOP’s work is done by volunteers, including Creamer, who as president does not draw a salary from HOP.
“We have 200 active volunteers,” she says. “Some are remote; some volunteer at foster barns. It is such a nationwide effort. If our story and mission resonates, there is a way to help, no matter where they are or whether they know anything about horses. There is so much that can be done remotely.”
HOP’s marquee fundraising event is the Appalachian Trainer Face Off, now in its fifth year. Modeled on the Extreme Mustang Makeover, trainers from across the country are matched with one of HOP’s untrained rescues and given 100 days to work with them, documenting the process on social media. In August, horse and trainer return to West Virginia for a judged three-day showcase. Horses are then adopted out to pre-screened homes via bid; trainers receive 50% of the adoption fee, along with additional donated prizes, while the remainder of the money goes to HOP. Despite the pandemic, the 2020 ATFO went on as scheduled, raising nearly $150,000 for the organization and drawing nearly 1,000 spectators.
Erin O’Neill, a Frederick, Maryland- based trainer who specializes in working with horses that have experienced severe neglect or abuse, has participated in the ATFO since 2018. Her 2020 ATFO project, a little gray gelding named Mercury, was adopted for $12,300.
“These people are my people,” says O’Neill about HOP’s leaders and volunteers. “I resonated with absolutely everything, from their mission to the feral horse issue. I’ll do [ATFO] until they kick me out.”
In January 2021, O’Neill temporarily relocated to West Virginia—along with her horses, dogs, sheep and 7-year-old son Johnny—to assist HOP with gathering and gentling more animals. Within a week of arrival, she went on her first gather, a two-day trip to Mingo and Logan Counties that left gatherers empty-handed. But three months later O’Neill returned to Mingo County on her own and gathered the five remaining animals they had originally sought.
“It was far-fetched, and it was whimsical, and it should not have worked,” says O’Neill of her plan to camp out near the herd in order to gentle them. “It was 17 and a half hours from the time I was dropped to when the horses were caught. That part is what resonated the most for me—not only did this work, not only do all five of these horses have a future; it took less than 24 hours to do, and that was incredible. It was something I’ll never forget.”
Members of this Mingo County herd may now appear in the 2021 ATFO, which will be chronicled in a series on Horse TV. The opportunity for these horses and others like them, previously unhandled, fearful and unmarketable, to transform into animals with a viable future is a large part of what continues to drive HOP’s efforts.
“When I started doing this, you couldn’t even charge an adoption fee,” says Creamer. “It has been a big struggle to convince people these horses are valuable. They are sound, sane, trainable horses and have so much potential. The ATFO really shows that. The trainers come from all disciplines and do some incredible things.”
Horse by horse, HOP and its dedicated network of volunteers is proving that despite great adversity, small actions can create large impact.
“It’s nothing like it was 12 years ago,” says Creamer. “We did that. We’ve changed everything for horses.”
Learn more about Heart of Phoenix at wvhorserescue.org.
This article originally ran in the Summer 2021 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse Untacked.
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