(Melanie Sue Bowles, Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary, Arkansas)
HBO’s new racing drama Luck ceased production after the third horse died on the set. The young thoroughbred was euthanized after it hurt its head during a fall. Sadly, the industry that thrives on the backs of these hardworking horses is failing them. The horses are raced at too young of an age before their bones develop, and they sustain injuries as a result. Not all retired race horses get to live out their lives in peace.
Last year I came upon the book, The Horses of Proud Spirit by Melanie Sue Bowles and it opened my eyes to the plight of horses in America. Melanie is the founder of the Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary located in Mena, Arkansas and she has the same philosophy as I do. Riding horses used to be one of my favorite activities until one day I heard about the abuse that goes on in stables and the horse racing industry, and decided to give it up. I consider horses my friends, not merely a means of enjoyment.
“A horse doesn’t have to be used to have value,” said Melanie when I visited her beautiful sanctuary last Fall. Melanie and her husband Jim Bowles founded the Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary 20 years ago to help abandoned and neglected horses. Today, Proud Spirit is one of the most successful and longest running sanctuaries for horses in the United States.
Melanie never backs away from helping an animal in need- whether it’s an injured race horse, a miniature horse with an abusive past or an abandoned emaciated dog- she comes to their rescue. With Jim and Melanie’s diligent care and the comfort of the herd, the dogs, donkeys and horses that find their way to Proud Spirit recover their health, and become a part of their family. The 58 current resident horses of Proud Spirit get to run freely on 320 acres of rolling hills near the Ouachita Mountains, playing in the sparkling lake and living their lives in peace. They are never ridden, and they are never torn from their family.
During my visit to this amazing place where I spent time in the company of so many happy and much loved animals, I had a conversation with Melanie about the sanctuary, rescue work and what we can all do to help animals.
Lavanya Sunkara: Proud Spirit recently celebrated its 20th year, and no doubt you have saved hundreds of horses. How did it all begin?
Melanie Sue Bowles: I have to be honest and tell you that I avoid using the word ‘celebrate’. The fact that animals even need to be rescued can’t be celebrated and I actually wish that Proud Spirit was out of business. But we started the sanctuary because we saw a need; abused, elderly and neglected horses needed a place to go where they could heal. We began with just one horse on five acres of land. Over the years we’ve evolved into an award-winning facility and we’ve intervened on behalf of nearly 400 horses.
LS: What motivates you every morning to do the work you do?
MSB: The short answer is, the horses. The longer answer is that I believe we are most happy in our life when we take the focus off of ourselves- what we have, what we don’t have, what we wish we had- and instead find ways to give back without expecting anything in return. In that regard, I get much more from our rescued horses than they get from me.
LS: You treat all animals that come into your life as family, you nurture them, communicate with them and they seem to bond with you right away. What is it about horses that you think most people misunderstand?
MSB: One of the biggest things that most people, even seasoned equestrians, misunderstand or disregard about horses is their emotional well-being. Horses form very strong ties, they become family to one another, but we sell them and trade them and shuffle them around from owner to owner, breaking up bonded mates and taking babies from their mothers way too young. It’s heartbreaking. Even sadder is all the horses that are forced to come and go through show barns and industries like Thoroughbred racing. Horses are herd animals, they desperately need each other to thrive, but those horses never even have a chance for that essential bonding.
LS: How do you stay positive with all of the animal abuse and neglect you witness in your rescue work?
MSB: I’m not always positive! Anyone who does rescue work sees the worst of mankind. It can be exhausting. But I think I’ve survived for 20 years in the trenches because I accept that evil has existed since the beginning of time and there will always be wrongdoing. For me, it’s a waste of time and energy to lament this fact, or to constantly question how or why abuse and cruelty happens. I’d rather put my energy into making things right for the lives I’m able to touch and rejoice the successes. When we bring a new horse into our fold we don’t dwell on his or her past or rail on about the abusive former owner. We focus on “right now”… this horse is here, right now, and he is safe and his future is secure.
LS: I read your book, The Horses of Proud Spirit, and I am touched by the stories. Each time you brought an emaciated horse back to life, tears welled up in my eyes. You are truly a blessing for these animals. What else would you like to see happen?
MSB: We aren’t taking care of the animals already here, and everyone who brings another colt into the world or another litter of puppies or kittens is guilty of adding to the burden. No man is an island and irresponsibility affects us all. Before you breed, or buy from a breeder, consider rescuing an animal instead. Imagine a day when we aren’t sending millions of animals to their death. I would like to see stricter laws regarding animal abuse, but these laws must be enforced. The laws serve no purpose when authorities turn a blind eye to the suffering of powerless animals.
LS: Any advice for people who want to do rescue work?
MSB: Your vision regarding why you’re doing this should be very clear. Rescue work takes an extraordinary amount of commitment and sacrifice. It goes back to my statement about finding ways to give back to the world around you without expecting anything in return.
To support Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary, purchase Melanie’s books The Horses of Proud Spirit, Hoof Prints: More Stories from Proud Spirit and The Dogs of Proud Spirit or make a donation at www.horsesofproudspirit.com