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Waldo's Recovery: Helping One Horse Overcome a Rough Past

Duchess Sanctuary staff take time every day to teach a formerly neglected, starved horse that he's safe

The Humane Society of the United States / The Fund for Animals

  • After months of work, Waldo is finally beginning to trust people again. The HSUS

  • Waldo, when he first arrived at Duchess Sanctuary. The HSUS

by Julie Hauserman

Kathleen Megill-Strek says she can hardly imagine the terrible trauma that the rescued horse named Waldo must have endured in his first seven years of life.

He’s afraid of people and constantly looks behind as if he’s being chased. Getting close to him safely takes know-how and time. When Megill-Strek first got near enough to touch him, he would shudder and jump as if he’d been burned.  

Waldo may not know it yet, but he’s finally safe at Duchess Sanctuary in western Oregon. People are there to help him—at whatever level of interaction he feels comfortable with.

Establishing a routine

“We’re here to help horses who have been abused and neglected,” says Megill-Strek, a lifetime equestrian and public-interest lawyer who joined Duchess Sanctuary this fall as director.

Every day, Megill-Strek and Duchess Sanctuary Ranch Manager Jennifer Kunz take a few moments out of their jam-packed ranch schedule to practice routine interactions with Waldo. They might just stand near him for 20 minutes, picking up a lead rope and dropping it.

“As soon as he relaxes, I pick it up again,” Megill-Strek says. “I stand next to his shoulder, hold the rope and touch him with my right hand until he relaxes.”

Progress comes in tiny milestones: The latest is that Waldo will eat grain out of a bucket while Megill-Strek or Kunz hold it.

“For him, that’s a big step,” she says. “Our goals are to bring him to the point where he can be caught and haltered, led safely, and stand for the vet and farrier, all without undue stress.” 

This is important because Waldo needs to have an important operation. He has an undescended testicle, so he was never able to be properly gelded. That means he has to stay separated from the other 187 horses at Duchess—especially the mares. He does have one buddy to keep him company, a friendly older gelding.

A safe place to recover from a rough life

The Duchess herd—many of them mares who spent their lives being kept pregnant so that the pharmaceutical industry could use their urine to produce hormones—roam large pastures at the 1,100-acre ranch, which is operated by The Fund for Animals in partnership with The Humane Society of the United States.

Waldo came to Duchess in 2009. He was among a group of 11 painfully starved horses that someone dropped off on an isolated road near Mollala, Oregon. The state’s Department of Agriculture took custody of the eleven horses, and Duchess Sanctuary agreed to help house them and find adoptive homes if possible.

“Waldo recovered physically really well,” Megill-Strek says, adding that the psychological recovery for the eight–year-old stallion has been slower.

“I’m not sure what happened to him,” Megill-Strek said. “He has obviously had a really rough life.”

Megill-Strek and the other caretakers at Duchess plan to keep working in small steps to gain Waldo’s trust.

“It’s going to take him a while to get to the point where we can get his halter off and on,” she said. “I am hoping we can get him comfortable enough with people to make it safe for him to have his operation.”

Megill-Strek says she is appreciating the deliberate pace of life with animals at Duchess—even when things get hectic. For years, this lawyer and mother of three has raised and trained horses, taught riding, and participated in competitions.

“It’s different at Duchess,” she said. “We’re not training them for a performance, we’re not breeding them. We’re there simply to care for them. That feels good.”

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