Highveld Horse Care Unit’s Rescuing Equines

by Gabrielle Ozynski
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If you’ve ever wondered how working horses and donkeys – of which there are plenty in the townships – are cared for when ill or injured, it is organisations like the Highveld Horse Care Unit (HHCU) that are doing this heroic work.


HHCU is the largest equine welfare organisation in South Africa. The organisation was established in 1991 and Bev Seabourne ran the Unit for many years until retiring recently. The Unit is now run by Dr Dale Wheeler who has been involved with the Unit for 20 years on a pro bono basis, but is now employed as the Manager and Vet. Along with Dr Wheeler, a dedicated team of office personnel, stable staff, field workers and inspectors work tirelessly 365 days a year to care for equines in need.


Stella du Toit, the administration manager, spoke to us about the Unit:
“The animals live a tough existence – owners are often poverty stricken and not educated about horse care. There are no stables in the townships and owners may resort to hobbling the animal so that they do not escape. Most of these working equines are used to transport coal, water, wood or scrap metal. Their carts are often over-loaded and they suffer with harness wounds and poor shoeing.


“The Unit undertakes a variety of work in the care of working horses and donkeys in under-privileged areas. We treat equines when owners cannot afford to and will often admit the equine to the clinic until they have recovered. Our inspectors go out daily to inspect the condition of these working horses, educate the owners and provide basic primary health care where needed. The Unit also holds outreach medical clinics for gelding and dental work. The field workers help owners with harnessing, feeding, shoeing, vaccinations and de-worming. The Unit also collects old and unwanted tack from the horse community and gives it to underprivileged owners to help ensure that the harness does not injure their animals.”


A difficult part of their job is investigating cases of animal abuse. This will often involve a legal process and, as with many animal rescue organisations, is where they might face intimidation and aggression from the accused. Says Du Toit, “Funds for protracted court cases and stabling for the confiscated equines are not easily come by. Careful decisions have to be made on how to deal with each individual case. We have to follow a strict legal process.”


Day in and day out, HHCU’s inspectors are out and about checking on the welfare of working horses in the townships.
“On occasion horses are surrendered by owners or else, through a strict legal process, confiscated for the animal’s wellbeing. These working horses then have to be treated, rehabilitated and whenever possible re-homed to a caring, loving home,” she says.


HHCU assists, whenever possible, owners who can no longer afford their horses to find them a home. The Unit also takes in racehorses when they retire from racing. These racehorses have to be carefully rehabilitated in order to go on and pursue a second career as a sports horse or hack. When these horses first arrive at the Unit, they are first turned out into a small paddock during the day and gradually allowed the freedom of a larger paddock. When they are eventually re-homed through a special adoption process, the horses are monitored on a regular basis and they will be taken back if a post-home check reveals that it is not actually the best place for the horse,” says Du Toit. Not all horses are suitable for re-homing as they may have chronic, untreatable injuries or temperament problems. In such cases, the Unit is left with no alternative, but to humanely put these equines to sleep. It is the hardest part of the job for all the staff, but it is sometimes the only option.

South Africa has a large population of donkeys, some of which are used for work purposes and others that are effectively feral and left to forage in rural areas for any food they can find. The Unit has special programmes to care for these animals, relying on the goodwill of the horse community and several overseas charity organisations for funding in these cases.
The Unit also gives talks at schools to make children aware of the welfare and basic care of the working animal. They assist government agricultural departments with the training of their staff by giving lectures on equine welfare, teaching handling skills and encourage trainee vets and animal health technicians to become involved in the outreach clinics in their provinces.


They conduct regular inspections of facilities where horses are housed for sporting or recreational purposes or kept for security patrols.
Du Toit explains that they raise a small amount of funds from the tack shop at the Unit, selling second-hand tack and riding gear that has been donated. “We check all the tack as we will never sell defective items that could harm the horse or its rider.”


HHCU’s average stats over a year are impressive, and are all carried out through donations from the public and sponsors:
• They annually assist about 9 000 horses and donkeys.
• On average, 1 400 needy animals will pass through the Unit per year.
• Carry out owner education and empowerment clinics in seven provinces.
• Educate the owner of every horse or donkey they assist.
• Hold training workshops for hundreds of owners, teaching them how to better care for their working animals including how to shoe their horses correctly, repair harnessing etc.
• De-worm over 4 000 rural equines per year, and vaccinate over 800.
• Hold gelding and dental clinics in underprivileged areas.
• Care for up to 65 horses at their base on any given day.
• Travel over 200 000 kilometres per year to help horses and donkeys in need.
These amazing statistics are achieved by a small staff, reliant on the public and sponsor’s generosity and goodwill. The costs of horse care are staggering when one considers the feeding, stabling, veterinary and farrier care, transporting and staff salaries. Any help or donation they receive goes a long way to enable them to achieve the vision of being “Committed to welfare and education in order to ensure the well-being of all equines”.

Pay It Forward

Always needed are: Fly sprays, dewormers, unwanted tack – saddles, bridals, numnahs and horse blankets.  Donation bins can be found at Wester Shoppe, Equestrian Affair and Midfeeds.  For fund donations go to Highveld Horse Care Unit FNB Meyerton Acc No. 530 100 342 38 Ref: People Mag. For info: [email protected] or phone 081 598 38.

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