Saturday, May. 25, 2024

From Rescue To Ribbons: The Journey Of A Pony Called Quest


“Do you think this horse has a chance?”

DeEtte Hillman’s work phone chirped with an after-hours ping from a local animal control officer asking that question in August 2015. The accompanying photo shocked even the veteran rescue worker, the equine programs director at Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine, Maryland. Hillman serves as the liaison between the rescue and law enforcement agents, and she’s frequently called to the scene when animals are in trouble. But nothing in her 15 years with the rescue had prepared her for the image on her phone.

Quest found

Even longtime Days End Farm Horse Rescue equine program director DeEtte Hillman was shocked by the photo an animal control officer sent her. A vet and farrier later would remove pieces of overgrown hoof that measured up to 3 feet long. Photo Courtesy Of Days End Farm Horse Rescue

In the photo, a thin, delicate-framed pony stallion stood on a mound of feces so high it nearly topped the panels surrounding his enclosure. But even more horrific were the stallion’s hooves: They were so long and curled it appeared as if he was standing on ram’s horns. Hillman couldn’t imagine how he was able to move.

“That was my first introduction to Quest,” Hillman remembers. “In this industry, I have seen a lot of circumstances and situations, and you are exposed to suffering and scenarios that you can’t explain or prepare yourself for. Quest was one of those moments when it defied all reasoning. There was nothing in our history that gave us any kind of preparation for seeing something like that. We didn’t even think it was possible.”

But despite his years of neglect and a solitary life—rescuers estimated the pony was 18 years old—spent within a dark, 15-by-30-foot enclosure, Quest proved to his rescuers every step of the way that a better life was worth fighting for. And in the process, the special pony has taught everyone he encounters to believe that anything is possible.

The Rescue

Quest was one of three equines discovered by law enforcement following a domestic disturbance call at a Maryland home. Although other animals found during the visit—including pigeons kept as pets in the house—seemed healthy, Quest and two miniature horses were living in extreme squalor. All three were in poor body condition and suffered from a complete lack of hoof care. Later, their former owner would admit the animals’ feet had been untouched for 12 to 15 years—she couldn’t remember for sure.

The day after receiving Quest’s photo, Hillman and Dr. Peter O’Halloran, DVM, of Monocacy Equine Veterinary Associates in Dickerson, Maryland, went to assess him and the other animals. O’Halloran believed that there was a chance the animals could be saved if they received immediate professional assistance. Based on his opinion, a warrant for seizure was obtained, and the rescue team sprang into action.

Removing the horses from their enclosures was no easy feat. Due to the condition of their hooves, they could barely move, and though not feral, all three were extremely wary of humans. Rescuers worried that if the animals became agitated, their curled hooves could become interlocked, risking serious injury. It was clear that the hooves would need to be addressed before the horses could be moved.

Rescuers decided the safest option was to use a dart gun to sedate each horse, which would then allow the veterinarian and farrier to remove as much excess hoof growth as possible. O’Halloran cautioned that the procedure was not without risk. Such an extreme level of hoof neglect put tremendous strain on the tendons and ligaments of the leg; removing excess growth could cause already compromised structures to give way completely. But ultimately, they agreed there was no reasonable alternative.

Once each animal was sedated, O’Halloran inspected each hoof and determined where it could safely be cut; farrier Kenny Romjue then used a Sawzall to remove the excess. One piece cut from Quest’s hooves was 3 feet long. Rescuers struggled to wrap their heads around what they were seeing.

“We found evidence—buckets of sections of hooves and hoof trimmings from previous horses and donkeys—of chronic hoof neglect,” Hillman says. “The average block of hoof was 3 to 4 inches long and had been cut with a saw. This is not what you’d see when you are trimming every six weeks.”

Unfortunately, one of the miniature horse’s limbs proved too damaged to support her weight once the excess hoof was removed, and she was humanely euthanized on scene. But for Quest and the second mini, another stallion named Rio, the procedure was a success.

Meanwhile, rescuers dug a ramp through 6 feet of solid manure to allow Quest to leave his pen. When the 19-year-old stallion took his first tentative steps down to solid ground, rescuers were overcome.

Quest Leaving the barn

With newly shortened hooves, Quest takes his first steps out of a manure-filled enclosure that rescuers estimated he’d spent most of the past 15 years inside. Photo Courtesy Of DEFHR

“It was a miracle standing there—an absolute miracle,” Hillman says. “It was a very powerful moment for me personally, to see this guy walk out of that barn and have sun hit his back for the first time in 15 years. Even when he was still sedated, he reached down to grab grass as soon as it was in front of his nose.”

Removing Quest’s excess hoof growth left his feet with a smooth surface that gave him little traction. When he tried to walk up the ramp of the waiting horse trailer, he slipped and stumbled, almost as if he were on ice—but he never gave up.

“Usually, we are using all the tricks in the trade to get the horse on the trailer willingly,” Hillman recalls. “He tried his heart out to get on—that was our first experience with the try this horse has. He was a participant in his own healing—an active partner in everything we had to do to him and for him. He just tapped into his remarkable heart and mind.

“I told Quest, this is the first day of the rest of your life,” Hillman continues. “Your past is being left behind, and we have only forward. Everything is about today and tomorrow.”

The Rehabilitation


The moment Quest unloaded at Day’s End, he announced his arrival to all who cared to listen. Though rescuers appreciated that his years in solitary confinement had not diminished his spirit, they knew Quest had a long road ahead to physical recovery.

Quest At DEFHR

Quest shortly after his arrival at DEFHR. Photo Courtesy Of DEFHR

“We thought we could turn him out in a paddock about the size he had been living in, but his body fatigued easily, and he would start to shake,” Hillman says. “We had to help him grow new flexibility and strength in muscles he had not used in a long time.”

Rescuers built Quest a smaller paddock made out of panels, and every few days, they would shift the edges to add a little more space to his enclosure. Soon, the stallion showed his appreciation by rolling, completely coating his light coat in dirt—a sign of his increasing strength.

“It was remarkable to see him scratch his body and get dirty for the first time in who knows how long,” says Hillman.

In the first few months, Quest’s team implemented a re-feeding program to address his weight and attended to his deworming, vaccination and dental needs. He re-learned essential equine skills such as being caught, haltered, led, groomed and bathed. Once his overall condition improved enough to handle the procedure, Quest was gelded.

Meanwhile, after so many years of neglect, Quest’s hooves remained a concern. O’Halloran completed a full set of X-rays, and using these as a guideline, collaborated with Romjue to devise an intensive, bi-weekly trim cycle that would hopefully keep Quest sound.

Quest Vet & Farrier

Veterinarian Peter O’Halloran (left) and farrier Kenny Romjue (right) collaborated on a long-term rehabilitation plan to keep Quest’s feet healthy and the pony sound. Photo Courtesy Of DEFHR

Throughout his initial rehabilitation, Quest’s spirit impressed his rescuers the most.

“Each and every ask we gave him, he tried,” Hillman says. “We had a snowstorm that year that was several feet of snow, and we brought him out, and he was just playing in it. Everything was like an adventure for him—like in the eyes of a child, in a way. He was super engaging.”

The Day’s End staff fell in love with the personable gray gelding, and they began to wonder if he should remain at the facility as a “spokeshorse.” But the one hardship Quest couldn’t seem to overcome was his lack of early equine socialization—Hillman says he had no concept of size, space or herd dynamics—and he could not find a place within their established herd.

“It took a lot of trial and failure and effort to find out what he needed in an environment, and it turned out what he needed was a small, consistent herd,” says Hillman. “We tried really hard to keep him, but because of his herd management requirements, we just couldn’t do it.”

With the blessing of his medical team, the time had come to help Quest learn new skills that might help him find the perfect adoptive home.

The Riding

Leigha Schrader was 19—the same age as Quest—and the newly hired assistant trainer at Day’s End when the pony arrived. As the most petite of the staff, the task of training the 12.3-hand pony fell to her.

“When I started working with him, I didn’t have any expectations that he was going to be a riding horse,” Schrader says. “I was very aware of the fact that he was a 19-year-old, recently gelded pony, and we didn’t know how sound he was going to stay because of the hoof neglect he went through.”

A long-time volunteer for the rescue and devoted student of natural horsemanship, Schrader was at the beginning of her journey as a professional trainer. She’d never worked with a horse like Quest before, and she had never started a horse on her own.

“When people ask me about him, I always refer to him as the ‘Golden Pony,’ because he took care of me when I didn’t have much experience in that way of working with horses,” she says. “Everything was brand new to him, and it was really unique getting to be part of those first experiences for him. You just saw this light in his eyes go on—he was excited for his new future.

“As I brought him into work, he was just incredibly kind and had such a good work ethic,” Schrader continues. “He gave me the go-ahead to keep going.”

Schrader developed a deep relationship with the larger-than-life pony, not only teaching him the fundamentals of dressage and jumping but also introducing him to an array of tricks and other at-liberty groundwork. Eventually, Schrader began doing liberty demonstrations with Quest at fairs and expos and competed at a few dressage shows.

Quest Leigha show

Quest and DEFHR assistant trainer Leigha Schrader at the pony’s first dressage show, where eventual adopter Jennie Lupkin saw him for the first time. Photo Courtesy Of DEFHR

“Horses are extremely forgiving creatures,” Schrader says. “I think that’s the lesson we can all learn from horses, especially those that have been through as much trauma as Quest has been through. We connected pretty quickly, and I think it was the mutual relationship that we had with one another that led to our success. He taught me just as much as I taught him.”


In late summer 2017, Schrader and Quest were at a dressage show when another competitor, Jennie Lupkin, approached them. Lupkin commented that Quest strongly reminded her of a beloved former pony, and Schrader shared a bit of Quest’s story with her. As she walked away, Lupkin recalls that she remarked to her father, “There’s something special about that horse.”

In the days to follow, Lupkin, 26, who is the assistant manager and children’s riding instructor at Windsong Arabians in Mt. Airy, Maryland, could not get the kind gray pony out of her mind. When a friend mentioned a few days later that a pony named Quest was available for adoption from Day’s End, she didn’t immediately connect the dots. But when she saw his picture, her eyes filled with tears.

“I literally got in my car, went home, and turned in my application for him,” says Lupkin. “I was just so drawn to him.”

On Sept. 18, 2017, Quest finally moved home.


Leigha Schraeder and Quest in his final at-liberty performance before his adoption day. Everyone on “Team Quest” attended the event to celebrate his adoption, including his vet, farrier, rescue team, rehab team and adopter Jennie Lupkin. Photo Courtesy Of DEFHR

A Journey Fulfilled

A visitor to Windsong Arabians today might notice the striking similarity between two gray geldings sharing a particular paddock, one just a touch larger than the other.

“It’s funny, because the horse I thought Quest looked like, Hercules, is back in my barn now,” Lupkin says. “They live together, and they love each other. It’s a moment I never thought I’d see.”

In his first years at Windsong, Quest was primarily Lupkin’s ride, and she admits to hitting the ground on a few occasions. Although he had received a solid foundation with Schrader, at times Quest still seemed to be processing all the world had to offer.

Quest kids nap

Quest has legions of adoring young fans and students at his new home at Windsong Arabians in Mt. Airy, Md. Photo Courtesy Of Jennie Lupkin

“He was very responsive to a lot of things, and to this day he doesn’t like four-wheelers, lawn mowers or golf carts,” Lupkin says with a laugh. “Taking him to a show, he loved to go out and be there, but he was triggered by a lot of things and was very quick to take care of himself. But I kept trying, and as time went by, he came along really nicely.”

Eventually, Lupkin allowed a few of her most advanced students to take lessons on Quest; soon, some less advanced riders, and today, 26-year-old Quest is one of the most beloved horses in the Windsong program. He teaches an average of eight riders per week everything from basic skills on leadline to the fundamentals of dressage tests and beginner jumping. Lupkin says Quest thrives on the attention.

“When he sees each individual kid come to his stall, he fits a certain part of their life for them,” says Lupkin. “He knows some of the kids he has to be quiet with, and he doesn’t move. Some of my kids will play with him, and he’s into that. He knows how to turn off and turn on who he needs to be for whatever kid I have in the stall at that time.”

Quest kids ribbons

Quest has remarkable talent for matching his energy to the child with him, owner Jennie Lupkin said. Photo Courtesy Of Jennie Lupkin

Lupkin’s program focuses primarily on general horsemanship with a dressage slant, emphasizing safety and partnership with the horse over competition.

“He’s very invested in the kids and interacting,” Lupkin says. “If I cancel lessons for a few days, he’s running the fence line looking for everyone. I really think he loves exactly what is going on for him.”

Lupkin is extremely cautious to never over-do things with now elderly Quest, who is still barefoot and trimmed every two weeks. While there are some who might suggest that an older animal may prefer a life of leisure, Lupkin’s voice chokes up as she tries to explain how important Quest’s connection to the children is to his well-being.

“If [retiring him] was what I felt like he wanted, I would have no problem with turning him out and checking on him every day,” she says. “He deserves that 100%. But he really loves what he’s doing. I think that after the years of not having what he has now—the love and attention, and using his brain, which is his favorite thing ever—why would he want to miss out on that?”

Quest party Jennie

Owner Jennie Lupkin (center) now celebrates Quest’s birthday with students every year on the day of his adoption. Photo Courtesy Of Jennie Lupkin

Do you know a horse or pony who has been rescued from a dangerous situation to become a healthy, trusted competition partner today? If you think you have a good candidate for “From Rescue To Ribbons,” let us know by emailing


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