"The nightmare of Spindles Farm still haunts me even now"

One of our inspectors, Kirsty Withnall, was first on the scene to discover the horrors of one of the worst horse neglect cases we’ve ever seen. Here she recounts her experience, ten years after the enormous rescue operation.

Horse collapsed on the floor © RSPCA

What I remember most about those first moments after I walked into the farmyard on that cold January day in 2008, was the complete silence. Reports to us stated that there were almost 100 horses being kept there, but we could hear nothing. No neighing or whinnying, or the ‘chaos’ that you’d expect with so many horses altogether in one place. The silence was very unsettling.

Peering over broken gates and fences in the dingy barn, we had no idea what awful sights we’d be seeing next. The frightened ponies crammed together into tiny stables was shocking enough, but in one pen, I could see the bodies of two horses sinking knee-deep into the filthy ground underneath all the clambering hooves.

The next thing to hit us was the smell. Decomposing bodies of horses, stables that hadn’t been mucked out in months and months, and the smell of infection coming from so many of the ponies who were still alive.

Among the dead horses and the piles of bones we had to step over, we could see so many faces looking back at us, of horses who were still hanging on and just about surviving. We knew we would have to plough on through the horror and focus on getting to every single one of these poor ponies, and bring them to safety.

An enormous rescue operation

Horse in poor condition Amersham

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 had been in place for a few years by the time Spindles Farm came to our attention, and thankfully, this meant police were able to seize all the surviving horses, and place them into our care.

The massive team of people who came together to help us with this emergency rescue was amazing – this was the biggest rescue of horses we had ever been called to deal with, and remains so to this day.

From the Police and private hauliers to the vets and farriers who all worked together with us to help these poor horses, it was a huge undertaking.

Not to mention the horse charities who sent staff and volunteers to come and help us dig out the desperately sick horses and take them to their own facilities for emergency care. And the people who gave us the use of their whole farm with just 24 hours notice and were working through the night so we could transfer some 70 ponies to a temporary safe place.

Everyone played their part and in turn are all responsible for saving so many horses’ lives that day. In total, between us all, we rescued 111 horses, ponies and donkeys from the farm during just four days. Sadly, three horses had to be put to sleep on-site by vets as they were so gravely ill.

Months of rehabilitation

Those who survived had to undergo months and months of rehabilitation at Redwings Horse Sanctuary, World Horse Welfare and the Horse Trust – who took some of the worst affected horses.

We paid for many more of these horses to stay at private boarding stables to receive the care they needed, until they were well enough to be transported to the other charities and our Felledge equine centre. Most were treated for a combination of malnutrition, muscle wastage, diarrhoea or severe respiratory conditions.

It still makes me incredibly sad to think of those 32 horses who weren’t so lucky and didn’t survive long enough to see the day of the rescue.

Wilma the horse being shown

I’m haunted by the memories of that day ten years ago. However the stories of those ponies who survived and are today living the lives they deserve and are very loved and appreciated, are what helps me overcome the horror I saw and makes my job so worthwhile.

One pony named Disney went on to become a therapy pony at a wonderful organisation in London. Another named Wilma has been adopted by a wonderful owner and is taking the showing world by storm!

Luckily, cases on this scale are very rare but the impact of the recession, over breeding, the high costs of vet bills and falling prices for horses are all contributing to a crisis which has seen us looking after over 850 horses, ponies and donkeys this year. While we managed to save so many from a hellish existence back then, there are so many more who still need our help.

Homes for horses

If you think you could offer a rescue horse a new life and a loving home, then please use our pet search pages to check out horses near you.

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