BY MARILYN TINNIN
Stephanie Billingsley—The Horse Lady with a Huge Heart
It was early April 2008, and Bill Billingsley was enjoying the Final Four college basketball tournament with his son in San Antonio. He answered his cell phone and heard his wife’s anxious voice. She told him he needed to hurry home right away because they needed to get to South Athens, Ohio, to rescue six foals.
“Can’t it wait till I get home from the ballgame?” he asked.
“No,” said Stephanie. “I have to go right now.”
A few days later he arrived home to find that Stephanie had brought not six, but twelve baby horses home. She then headed back to Ohio for twelve more.
Bill, who has had no choice but to embrace this mid-life career of his big-hearted wife, has become quite an “enabler” and “partner” in her endeavors. Since 2008, they have rescued around 300 horses and found forever homes for most of them.
They own Twelve Oaks Horse Farm in Madison and Muleshoe Ranch in Carroll County. Both facilities are committed to saving as many abused and abandoned horses as they possibly can and finding loving homes for the ones who are adoptable. The ones who cannot be rehabilitated and adopted out enjoy safety, care, and sanctuary all their days in the rolling hills of Muleshoe. This is no small venture.
At the moment, twelve rescues—due to temperament, health, or age—are not considered adoptable and will live out their lives in the sanctuary the Billingsleys have provided in Carroll County. A few of the rescues have had health issues that required that they be humanely euthanized. The challenges of saving horses are daily and individual. Every case is unique. There is not a one-size-fits-all kind of manual for this.
Even their equine veterinarian thought the Billingsleys were certifiably crazy to take this on, but he has since changed his mind. Dr. Donald Vice, of Dixie Equine in Madison, says, “Bill and Stephanie do a really fine job. What separates them from other rescues is that Stephanie doesn’t let money dictate whether or not she tries to save a horse. She always wants to try no matter what.” Dr. Vice says he sees at least one or more of Stephanie’s rescues every few weeks. He chuckles a little when he says, “She may outspend Bill’s pocketbook, but she has a big heart.”
Stephanie Huggins Billingsley was ten years old when she received a Welsh pony for Christmas. Despite the cold wet winter days of trudging through the damp chill carrying feed buckets, cleaning the stall, and caring for her pet day in and day out, rain, shine, snow, sleet, or in the sweltering summer heat, Stephanie did not mind the work. She knew even then that she was a “horse person.” The joy of loving the horse and being loved back was, for Stephanie, worth every hour and every chore.
“Horses are true companion animals. They make wonderful pets,” Stephanie says. Like dogs, they have their own personalities and temperaments, and they are hugely loyal to their “people.” In a way, an owner does not choose a horse as much as the horse chooses the owner.
Although marriage and motherhood took her away from horses for several years, she found herself drawn to them again when her ten-year-old daughter began to take riding lessons. When she discovered that the Mississippi Animal Rescue League (MARL) accepts horses as well as dogs and cats, she volunteered to help find homes for them. As is so often the case, one thing led to another, and before she knew it, her animal rescue volunteer work had turned into something else altogether. A calling, a passion, a ministry, an obsession—it was all of those things. It could have been called part mid-life crisis and part mission of mercy, but there was no turning back once it began.
Stephanie offered to do a little research in order to add information about the horse rescue to MARL’s website. She was completely surprised when she discovered that neglected and abused horses were a growing problem across Mississippi as well as across the country. “I had no idea people actually starved their horses to death,” she says.
As she continued to study horse rescue in other states, she discovered chilling bits of information that completely broke her heart. She learned some dark facts about the nurse mare industry and the “bad actors” that have created a reprehensible pandemic of throw away horses that are starved, clubbed to death, or sold to slaughter. Horse meat is a delicacy in several European countries, and even though there are laws banning U.S. horsemeat from being sold for human consumption, a Black Market exists. An unscrupulous seller can get forty cents a pound for a thousand pound animal.
It was through that initial research for MARL’s website that she found Last Chance Corral, a rescue operation in Athens, Ohio, founded in 1986 by one kind and devoted lady. Victoria Goss has been rescuing horses since she was twelve years old. Stephanie contacted Victoria, and in the course of their conversation, she felt such a tug at her heart that she hitched up a trailer and headed to Ohio for those first foals.
The Painful Truth
The horse breeding and thoroughbred racing industry is a multi-billion dollar business in the United States. With the potential winnings for a Triple Crown champion at around three million dollars, the quest for that history-making super horse has led to a great deal of greed and exploitation by some breeders.
The inexact “science” involved in breeding a high-performing mare with a strong and fast stud in hopes of producing that one-in-a-million winner has resulted in thousands of foals that fail to live up to the hopes of the breeder. Many of these, if not rescued, are sent to slaughter. Slaughter, by the way, is not euthanasia. You can find out more about the inhumane practice with just a few Google clicks only if you can stand it.
But that is just one aspect of the “dark side” that caught Stephanie’s attention eight years ago when she began rescuing horses. Because a gestation period for equines is about eleven months, breeders want their best mares to produce a foal every year. Once a highly valued mare gives birth to a foal, she is shipped off as soon as possible to another breeding farm in order to become pregnant again and produce a new foal in the next calendar year.
The yearlings are too valuable to travel with their mothers. An owner can’t even insure the baby until he is six months old. Therefore, the nurse mare arrives, a cheaper horse that has been bred for the sole purpose of nursing the potential champion foal whose mother has been taken away. Those nurse mares leave their own babies that likely will be starved or killed if they are not fortunate enough to be rescued. Neither they nor their mothers are considered worth much.
Time is of the essence in rescuing these throwaway babies. They likely will not survive more than two days without either a mother or a rescue. With no mare to nurse them and no caring hands to teach them the art of drinking nourishment from a bucket, they do not survive.
Saving Those Babies
There are horse rescue operations in almost every state. As Stephanie says, “These horses need an advocate.” It is encouraging to find that in a country where there has been an epic devaluing of innocent and vulnerable life, God still stirs the hearts of some who are willing to be that advocate the helpless desperately need.
On a humid June afternoon, Stephanie showed me around Twelve Oaks and introduced me to her “horse babies.” In a separate room on one side of the stable are huge sacks of feed stacked five feet high and organized according to individual horse diets. Along a third wall are color-coded plastic feed buckets with each horse’s name printed on the side. Like human babies, dietary needs are not all the same.
The feed bill is one of the greatest expenses, but feeding is just the beginning. Stephanie says with a laugh, “Nobody would get into this as a money-making adventure because it is certainly not that!” Necessities are endless: veterinary care, medicine, training, essentials like bridles, lead ropes, storage sheds for hay, maintenance money for the fences and barns, and the list goes on.
Neither are there ever enough hands to go around, but Stephanie has several daily volunteers who are as committed to the project as she is. There is no paid staff, but you would never know it from the daily hours several committed volunteers spend at Twelve Oaks or Muleshoe.
Sarah Anderegg is one of those volunteers at Twelve Oaks. She has taken on the unpaid position of fund-raiser. There are some regular donors who help with the vet bills, “sponsor” a specific horse or simply show up from time to time with much-needed tools of the trade. Sarah tries hard to manage the ratio of funds to horses. However, Stephanie’s heart has been known to overrule her head. Last time she went off to Last Chance Corral to pick up four horses, she returned with seventeen!
As Bill and Stephanie’s mission of mercy grew, and they realized they had gotten into the horse rescue business in earnest, they knew they would have to apply for a 501(c)(3) status. The bills were mounting. The physical demands were almost overwhelming, but despite the lack of logic in the operation, they knew they were called to this. On most days, just the visible improvement in the appearance of her rescues is more than enough to bring Stephanie enormous satisfaction.
But there were and still are emotionally stressful moments—like when Stephanie and Bill take turns through the night getting a sick horse on his feet every two hours in order to prevent pneumonia or when she can’t save a horse even after pouring love and time and money into his care. There have been a few discouraging times when Stephanie thought, “This is just too hard.” Without fail, when her spirits are at a low, God brings some unexpected and unlikely “coincidence” along as if to give her a big hug and speak words of encouragement.
A few years ago when the bills were stacked high and the resources were fewer than the needs, she was feeling particularly discouraged. One late afternoon as Stephanie was making her feeding rounds, a lady she had never met stopped by explaining she had read about Stephanie in a newspaper article. She followed Stephanie through the feeding ritual before handing her a ten thousand dollar check and telling her how much she appreciated her compassion for the neglected horses.
That is just one of countless stories of God’s confirmation that He is very much pleased with Stephanie’s commitment to these magnificent creatures.
What can be done to stop the inhumane aspect of American horse breeding? Preventing the irresponsible practice of overbreeding would be a start. It is also impossible to justify the lack of oversight or regulation in the horse slaughter industry. Clearly, not all breeders participate in the abuses that have led to the grim realities.
One of several efforts in the works at the moment is the Safe Horse Project. There are all too often horse owners who, due to the economy, cannot continue to foot the expense of a horse. At the same time, their great fear is that their horse will go to slaughter if they sell it. Stephanie and others are working on a unique brand for Mississippi horses that can be used to identify their rescues. Owners can get the brand and a microchip at no charge. If an owner is no longer able to care for an adopted horse, they can bring him to a “safe” auction where none will be sold for slaughter. With a little education about the Safe Horse Project and the brand’s recognition, new prospective owners will know that the background information on the horse’s age, history, and temperament is reliable and trustworthy.
The greatest need the horse rescue operation has is public support. In a perfect world, every horse would be adopted into a loving family. Obviously, there will never be a perfect world, but it is Stephanie’s great hope that through education and awareness, more and more vulnerable horses will live their days knowing only love, nurture, and freedom from any abuse.
Contact Stephanie Billingsley at 601.201.8522 or email@example.com.
HAPPILY EVER AFTERS
Stephanie is forever amazed by what she calls, “the amazing people God puts in my life.” Christie Joe Galey, a horse trainer, is one of them. When the Billingsleys lost their farm manager in Carroll County, they could not afford to hire someone simply to oversee the horse sanctuary. “We were trying to rehome the horses when Christie called me with the proposition to oversee the farm, care for the horses in exchange for permission to use the land. Our friendship started and since then, even though she has moved on and has her own barn in Coila, she has rehomed more of our horses than anyone else.”
Like Stephanie, she has discovered that horse rescue is about more than horses!
A recent post on Stephanie’s Facebook wall from a mother in Eads, Tennessee, tells a great story of rescue, redemption, and relationship in the journey toward finding the right horse for her daughter.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words and this one is definitely one of those pictures. These two longed for a horse. Each horse, I’m sure, longed to be loved and find a safe home. See, they were on a trailer heading to a kill pen. We don’t know their full stories, but for one reason or another, their owners did not see any other alternative. They were rescued, trained and loved on until new owners could be found.
My sweet girl has been actively looking for a horse for about 6 months. She worked hard and saved her money to purchase a horse—turning down many other fun options along the way, if it required her to spend HER money. Through the process she has had her sweet heart broken several times over the last 3 months when the vet found good reasons not to purchase that particular horse (injuries, health issues that the average person might not notice). If we had not had the disappointments, I don’t think she would have been ready for THIS horse. I can almost “see” her joy in this picture. Look at that smile
God does all things in HIS timing. He’s seldom early, never late, but ALWAYS on time. (His time) God’s story of redemption is like that. Ever found yourself headed in one direction to find or “bump into” someone who encourages you or prays for you or maybe literally rescues you and…then you find yourself being loved on and cared for and “adopted” into something even bigger…God’s big family? Maybe you haven’t, but I have. God is all about second chances. Whether you messed up or someone else did and it hurt you or someone you love. God’s business is the redemption and forgiveness business!
Today: It’s a typical HOT Friday in June, and my girl wanted to stay at the barn and love on her new horse. I just love how my day-to-day life reminds me of just how much God loves me and takes an interest in me. He hasn’t forgotten me.
So thankful for Mississippi Horse Rescue and Christie Joe Galey who have invested their time, energy, talents, and resources for these beautiful animals and, in turn for my daughter. Becca has learned more about God this past week and how He cares about the details of her life and her horse’s life than she would have learned had she not had to walk through the hurts of disappointment and longing over the last six months. Of course I can’t compare her disappointment to what her horse may have experienced but she gets it. She loves him. She has compassion for him. She wants to take care of Him. He’s young and will need instruction and continued teaching and maybe even a little discipline at times. But she GETS it. It’s precious to see.
Looking forward to many happy years and many happy memories in the years to come.
“For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. ‘You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:11-14