Long-time Forest Park resident Leslie Schroeder said she was born wanting to be around horses. A rider since the age of 11, she owned her first horse when she was 18. Over the years though, life pulled Schroeder away from her equine friends, until an unusual promise got her back into the barn.
“My best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer and I told her, when this is all done and cured we should get a horse together and share it,” Schroeder said.
That was three and a half years ago. Now Schroeder and her friend Diane Pompei, whose cancer is in remission, own nine horses.
“Horses are good therapy,” Schroeder said.
In time, the joy the two women shared in working with these animals evolved to include a more altruistic motive. “Barn gossip,” as Schroeder called it, led them to take up rescue missions.
Until a recent federal court ruling, Illinois was the only state in the country with a slaughterhouse that processed horses into food for humans. Federal legislation that would shut down the industry within the U.S. is still pending.
Through the grapevine, Schroeder and Pompei heard of a colt marked for death in the Illinois slaughterhouse and made their first rescue more than two years ago. A lively and precocious Palomino, the two women purchased Seraphina for 55 cents a pound, the going rate for horses destined for the slaughterhouse.
“The first time I saw her, she was being pulled out of a trailer by her tail,” Pompei said. “She was going to the meat market.”
In January, a federal appeals court upheld a 1949 Texas ban on the slaughter of horses for human consumption overseas. The ruling forced two plants in Texas to scale back operations, which made the facility in DeKalb, Ill., the only fully operational plant in the U.S.
But on March 29, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly released a decision that the slaughter of horses in America violates federal law. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, said the ruling effectively shuts down operations at the Illinois plant.
While horses cannot be slaughtered in the U.S., they can be transported to plants across the border. Currently pending in Congress are HR503 and its Senate companion, S311, which would ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption and prohibit the transport of horses outside of the United States for slaughter. Ten Illinois representatives co-sponsored the U.S. House of Representatives bill, which was approved in September of last year. The senate version was introduced on Jan. 17.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 100,000 horses were slaughtered for their meat in the United States in 2006.
Seraphina isn’t the only horse that Schroeder and Pompei have rescued. They also own a horse named Jimi Hendrix, who had been mistreated by an Amish owner.
“He’s a timid horse and he was too timid for them,” Schroeder said. “They wanted him to be able to pull buggies and he wasn’t good at it.”
The horse was skin and bones when the pair acquired him.
“He would just stand in the corner of his stall with his head down,” Pompei said. “His hooves were bad, they were curled and four or five inches overgrown. He could barely walk.”
It took more than a year of work before Jimi could be ridden, but now the horse has acquired a great deal of confidence. Part thoroughbred, Jimi was 8 years old when he was rescued; a horse in his current condition could live to be 25 or 30 years old.
“It feels so awesome to do this,” Pompei said.
Working with the animals once they are rescued is not an easy task. By nature, horses are more skittish in comparison to other livestock and the animals purchased by Pompei and Schroeder have sometimes been mistreated.
Seraphina, for example, was traumatized by her contact with humans and was initially very aggressive when they began working with her.
“She was in a children’s petting zoo, in a pen,” Schroeder said. “Because people were poking at her all day she became aggressive and the owner was going to sell her to be slaughtered.”
Understandably timid and skittish when she first left the petting zoo, the beautiful horse with the blonde tail and mane has learned to trust people, especially Schroeder. Schroeder purchased Seraphina when the colt was 8 months old; now almost 3 years old, she is just old enough to be ridden.
“At first, you couldn’t go into her stall with her,” Schroeder said. “She’d lay her ears back and she’d try to kick, but now she lets me in with no problems at all. She never lays her ears back with me.”
Schroeder has been a resident of Forest Park for almost 20 years, but since rekindling her interest in horses, she doesn’t see much of her home. After work she spends several hours grooming, exercising, and tending to her horses, which she keeps in Palos Park, Ill.
It’s a tremendous amount of work, but a labor of love, Schroeder said, which is why, even with nine horses, she is still tempted to save more.,