Vickroy: Atlas hugged: Frankfort equestrian saves, rehomes slaughter-bound horse
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy December 6, 2013 7:04PM
Updated: January 9, 2014 6:25AM
Atlas trots gracefully around the barn, switching direction upon command. She lunges, gallops and, with utmost affection, nuzzles her human handlers.
She’s a far cry from the skittish, emaciated horse that first arrived, with an upper respiratory infection and covered in hives, at Downtown Equestrian in Frankfort six months ago.
“She had been terribly abused when I got her and had had no training,” said Shannon Sullivan, as she patted the warmblood mare’s mane. “It’s been a long road to gain her trust. We’ve only just started to do some lunging and a bit of riding with her. She has a long way to go.”
Sullivan said Atlas was so dehydrated when she arrived from a Pennsylvania auction house that she could barely walk and was destined for a slaughterhouse in Canada.
“Ninety-nine percent of the horses that go through auctions are bought by kill buyers — people who bid as low as possible and then take the horses to Canada for slaughter,” she said.
Horse slaughtering is not conducted in the United States, but that may be changing as facilities in New Mexico and Missouri prepare to open, even as the debate over whether horses are livestock or companion animals continues. The slaughter industry was dealt a setback last month when a federal appeals court issued a temporary order prohibiting the U.S. Agriculture Department from inspecting horse slaughterhouses, a requirement if they were to open.
Animal rights groups across the country continue to battle attempts to resume killing horses for human consumption. One method is by finding rehabbers to work with horses headed to slaughterhouses.
Sullivan, who opened Downtown Equestrian 10 years ago at age 19, was contacted by one of the several organizations that attempt to intervene. In addition to operating an equestrian center that provides horses with loving car and offers riding lessons, Sullivan always wanted to help those animals that endure the ugly side of human interaction.
“I’ve always had a passion for horses, and I always wanted to be in a position where I could save the horses that could go on to have somewhat of a career,” she said. “They’re such kind animals, none of them have a mean bone in their bodies. But it’s amazing how people can mistreat them.”
There are many more horses in need of rescue these days than there are rescuers. One reason is the economy. Horses are expensive to care for. They need hay, feed, boarding and veterinary care. A lot of people fantasize about owning a horse, Sullivan said, “but a lot of people get in over their heads.”
Thanks to the nation’s ongoing economic struggles, the horse industry has been overwhelmed with neglected, abused animals.
“I wish I could save all of them, but I can’t,” she said. “If I could save one at a time, at least I can help that one.”
A final stop for many is the auction houses, particular the large ones on the East Coast where Atlas was bought. Every Monday, horses go up for sale, and most are bought for slaughter, Sullivan said.
“I try to pick the horses that have a chance to go back to work,” she said. “If I can’t rehome them, I can’t save them. It’s easier to rehome a horse that is sound and that is mentally stable, but it still can take a long time.”
Her biggest rescue success story is Domi, a Welsh cross pony, who came in emaciated but today is a bright, healthy crowd pleaser.
“He’s gone to a lot of horse shows, people love him,” Sullivan said, and she’s among them. “I’m not looking to sell or adopt him out. He’s a lifer with me.”
Sullivan grew up in Orland Park. As far back as she can remember, she was always around horses. After she graduated from Sandburg High School, she announced that she would open a stable. That was met with skepticism at first.
In 2003, with two horses and enough hay and feed to last six months, she leased a vacant stable on 88th Avenue and put up a shingle: Downtown Equestrian Center.
“At first I had trouble gaining peoples’ trust because of my age,” she said.
But once horse owners realized how passionate Sullivan was about her chosen field and that she was in it for the long haul, they came in droves. Today, the stalls are full. She has 43 horses and a waiting list.
In addition to offering riding lessons, she competes in horse shows, matches horses with buyers, offers pony parties and embraces the use of social media, particularly Groupon discounts. Being innovative, she said, has helped her business thrive while other equestrian centers have struggled.
But boarders say it’s her compassion that has made her so successful.
Tom Kearney, a retired Andrew High School teacher, said, “I think one of the major things that Shannon gets, like any very good business person, is the people-to-people skills. Shannon loves the horses, and she cares for each of the horses as if they were her own.”
Kearney’s daughter boards at horse at Downtown Equestrian. He’s one of the 4H leaders for the Jumping Clovers, and Sullivan is the horse leader for the club. She gives special lessons to the kids to get them ready for the 4H Horse Show.
Maggie Valcik has worked as a trainer at the center since 2008 and boards a horse there.
“Shannon can just look at a horse, and even if it’s scraggly and underweight she can see the potential in it,” Valcik said. “When the rescues come in, they look horrible. After a few weeks, they magically flourish.”
Sullivan said rehabilitating a rescued horse takes patience, consistency and repetition.
“It starts with getting them used to the equipment, just like when you go to work out for the first time. You learn the equipment and then gradually increase,” she said. “You set small goals every day.”
Atlas is ready for more intense training, Sullivan said, and in time will make a good hunter, a horse that jumps. The horror she’s endured doesn’t seem to have had a lasting effect on Atlas mentally, Sullivan said.
“She is so laid back, she will be great for children or adults,” she said. “She is turning out to be a wonderful horse.”