Group rescues, rehabilitates abused horses

It takes a lot of time, money and dedication to care for a horse.

Now imagine trying to look after nearly 50 of them.

It's a daunting task, but it's Joan Benson's passion and life's work.

The China Grove resident is founder of the Horse Protection Society of North Carolina, a nonprofit that rescues and rehabilitates neglected and abused equine animals.

A team of volunteers helps Benson operate the society, but her most urgent need, she said, is to find homes for the horses she has. That effort, like those of many other nonprofits, has been hampered by the recession.

"We have 49 horses at the present time," she said. "We usually average 35, but we're just not finding homes. The last horse we placed was in October, and that one came back in the spring because the family's finances took a nosedive."

Since she was a girl in Colorado, Benson said, she has loved horses. Not long after she moved to China Grove in 1991, she started taking in neglected horses, nursing them back to health and placing them with new owners. Word spread about her work, and in 1999 she incorporated the society. Besides her eight acres, she leases 20 acres from a neighbor, giving the horses plenty of land to roam.

When Benson first started, she operated out of an old log barn.

"Since we were a nonprofit, we didn't have much money," she said. She and a group of volunteers salvaged old lumber, metal roofing and other materials and built extensions to the barn to accommodate a growing number of horses.

By 2004 the old barn was overcrowded and needed repairs. Benson secured grant money from several charitable organizations, including the Foundation for the Carolinas, and built two new barns and a covered hay feeder.

"We've been able to accomplish some amazing things," she said.

Benson takes in horses from all over the state, including many rescued by animal control officers. "We take the worst of the worst," she said.

The society's trained investigators respond to calls of neglected horses. Benson said they make every effort to educate the owners in the proper care of their horses. They prosecute owners for neglect or take the horse only as a last resort.

Once Benson and her volunteers return a horse to health, they give it a few months to rest and recuperate, then determine whether it can be "put under saddle" again for adoption. In some cases, Benson provides permanent retirement care for the animal.

Benson said placing horses in good homes can be a challenge. While people mean well, she said, she often gets inquiries from people who know nothing about how to care for them.

"They think it will be neat to own a horse, or their kids have been bugging the heck out of them," Benson said, "but they have no idea of the costs or what it takes."

For novice horse lovers, Benson recommends coming in and volunteering for a few months to learn what it takes to care for an equine. "It's a big responsibility," she said, "but it also feels great to know you're giving these loving animals a safe place to live."