At Begin Again Farms, Rhonda Jackson has seen it all: horses that come in with their ribs showing, legs broken or tendons missing.
Jackson welcomes those injured and abused animals to her sanctuary.
She is president of Begin Again Farms, an Ellerslie, Ga., shelter for needy and abused horses. Since 1997, Jackson and volunteers have helped adopt out more than 100 horses — some that, upon arrival to the shelter, looked like they would not be able to survive through the night.
Jackson first decided to take on the shelter more than 12 years ago. She had recently met fellow horse lovers Donald and Pat Malloy, who would take in pregnant and injured horses. When Donald passed away in 1996, his wife Pat asked Jackson to continue caring for their needy horses. And Jackson agreed.
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Today, she cares for 39 animals on the 47-acre farm, the same property on which Pat Malloy still lives. Many are elderly horses who have retired from equine shows. Others are rescue animals seized from abusive owners.
Jackson said she thinks helping rehabilitate horses has helped her health. Ten years ago, the now 50-year-old woman was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease that affects the central nervous system and can cause paralysis or loss of vision. She now heads to the farm each day to feed, groom and care for her animals.
Jackson took a break to speak with the Ledger-Enquirer about working with abused and needy horses, adopting them out to the right families and fighting multiple sclerosis with the help of her animals.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about Begin Again Farms. How did you get into this?
I grew up on a farm in Minnesota, and I really liked that and I wanted that for my children. So I thought I’d go look for a horse for my children. When I started looking, I thought, ‘Well, the best thing to do was to find one who really needed a home.’ I started talking with veterinarians and they found me some horses that really needed help. That’s kind of when my heart starting going, ‘OK, there’s a lot of horses out there that need help.’ I felt it was kind of a calling. It was something that was necessary — there was a need for it.
I wanted my children involved. Then I realized there were other children out there who maybe didn’t have access. It was something that needed to be a community thing, where people could bring their children out here and we could educate the community. Everybody’s child wants a pony, but they don’t realize what kind of work is involved. It’s not like getting a dog. It’s something you have to be dedicated to. There’s a lot of work, and the riding part is the privilege for all the hard work ... My husband tells me all the time he has to find some type of sport that doesn’t take so much work before you actually get to do it (laughs).
I tell people when their child says they want a pony, bring them out here. Find out how dedicated they really are.
When you take in abused horses, what are some of the challenges you face?
Take Callahan (gestures to an elderly brown horse.) When he came in, the horse could barely stand. He smelled of death.
Our biggest thing is, when we take them off the trailer, can we keep them on their feet for the first 24 hours? When we can’t keep them on their feet, a lot of times they don’t make it because they’re just too weak by the time we get them … I’ve had them come where they couldn’t make it through the night. If we can’t keep them up and hydrated, then we have a real struggle.
Then it’s a matter of, can we get them to eat? Because a lot of them have given up. They’re prepared to die because no one’s been feeding them, they haven’t been getting water, they haven’t been caring to their wounds. We have them come in with muscles missing, tendons gone, broken legs … They get in barbed wire fences, and then they’re not tended to properly …
So do you work with animal control? Do you work through referrals?
Sometimes it’s animal control. We work a little bit with state investigators. We try to be there for the state because they are the ones that can legally remove the animal. We cannot. We don’t have that authority.
I do an 18-month adoption period on every animal that goes out. So (the adopters) have to fill out an application, be approved by our board. Then for 18 months, we retain ownership. We check on them quarterly. If they’re not taking care of them, we go and pick them up …
You’ve been doing this for 12 years. Have there been any horses that have particularly touched you?
They all touch me. (Tears well in Jackson’s eyes.) A lot of these horses have had some real history to them. They all have a story … We just had a 40-year-old pony who passed away and she was very special. She came from Fort Benning. There’s been a number of people who have come out here and said, “Oh my God, is that the pony that used to be at Fort Benning? We thought she was dead”…
She started at (Fort Benning) … they used to have rental horses. She started off, I think, as a rental horse, became a lesson horse, and then someone who was stationed at Fort Benning felt like she needed to be retired. She had two families — their children were taking lessons. So I said, if you could find sponsors for her, she can come.
So these two families started sponsoring her.
Spottie came out here and was the best little lesson horse for years. You could put any child on her with just a halter and a lead line and they thought they were the perfect rider because she’d just do anything they asked her to. She was just wonderful.
She was the perfect fundraiser because she had no teeth. She had a couple of scraggly teeth in the front, and she would smile at people and turn her head and show her little scraggly teeth. And people would go, “Oh, that poor pony” and just throw money at her. She would go into PetSmart and walk around like she was the queen.
What’s your motivation? What gets you up in the morning to come out here?
Well I have to tell you that when I was diagnosed with (multiple sclerosis), the biggest thing I had to do was to find something that got me up in the morning. The easiest thing for me to do, with the fatigue and the other things that go along with (M.S.), was to stay in bed. But the horses depend on me. They depend on me to be here every morning and afternoon to feed them and to care for them. That really motivates me to get up in the morning … It doesn’t matter, rain or shine, they still have to eat …
I think this has been one of the things that has kept me the healthiest. The diagnosis I had 10 years ago was that I would be in a wheelchair in a nursing home within two years. At that point, I was unable to speak, swallow, I had no use of my left side. It was very tempting to give this up. But then I knew that if I didn’t do it, who was going to?