Bernard walks around the eroding pasture, nonchalantly picking at tufts of grass, twitching his giant ears to keep the flies away. Wherever the 3-year-old donkey goes, Ladybug the horse isn’t far away.
Bernard and Ladybug, a 10-year-old thoroughbred mix, have an unusual relationship that was formed at their previous home. Andrea Rickards, a volunteer for Columbia Second Chance animal shelter, said Ladybug became blind after not receiving proper medical treatment and being picked on by other horses. As a result, she said, Bernard became her “seeing-eye” donkey.
“If she gets lost, she’ll call for him and he will go over and put his body against her so she can feel him and he will lead her places,” Andrea Rickards said. “If she gets lost, she’ll just talk to him and be comforted by his presence. They have a really neat relationship. It’s pretty amazing.”
Andrea and Eric Rickards stepped forward to care for Bernard, Ladybug and two other horses after a state official called the shelter and determined that the original owners had more animals than they could financially support, said Second Chance board member Kerri Duren.
“We took in the horses as a favor for the state,” Duren said. “It is not usually our practice to take in farm animals, but we made an exception in this situation.”
Matt Rold, animal health officer with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, was involved in removing the animals from their old home. He said that after evaluating the horses and several dogs, his office decided to send the animals to Second Chance to receive proper care.
“It’s called a voluntary surrender of ownership, and it’s much like when someone wants to take their dog into the humane society and give them up,” Rold said, adding that the reason in this case was pressure from his agency and the Humane Society of Missouri in St. Louis.
He monitors about 225 facilities in 14 counties, including boarding kennels, breeders and animal shelters. While there isn’t a licensing program for horses, he said, the state deals with nonroutine incidents about twice a month that include rescuing animals from poor living conditions. The state works with several organizations in placing such animals.
“Second Chance was helping us out by receiving some of the animals that needed immediate care,” he said.
In addition to Bernard and Ladybug, the Rickardses agreed to take on Blondie and Princess, the two other horses involved in the case. Blondie is a half-blind, 20-year-old Arabian cross. Andrea Rickards said Blondie was so emaciated her backbone was sticking out 2 inches and water was pooling in the dips of her back muscles, forming a fungus. Princess, a 15-year-old Missouri fox trotter, was suffering from severe respiratory problems and allergies to the point where she was not able to breathe, Rickards said, adding that both horses were suffering from pneumonia.
“We got the animals who were in the worst condition, the hardest to treat,” Andrea Rickards said.
Eric Rickards said Blondie was in such bad shape he was unsure she could be saved. “I didn’t think she’d ever recover from that.”
Blondie is fine except that she is blind in one eye, and Andrea Rickards said the horse became so fat that they did an ultrasound to see whether she was pregnant. Princess is also much healthier now and can be ridden long distances.
The Rickardses want to make sure Bernard and Ladybug stay together no matter who adopts them; it would be unfair at this point to separate them, they said.
Ladybug, however, was recently diagnosed with cancer in her right eye. A specialist determined the cancer is not treatable, and Andrea Rickards said it looks like Ladybug will have to be euthanized in the next month.
As far as finding permanent homes, the Rickardses said some applicants look good on paper, but don’t have the proper amenities for the horses.
“We have had many inquiries about adoption for the horses and several applications, but as of now, we have had no one follow-through in the process of adoption,” Duren said.
And although the applicants may have the money and proper veterinary care available for the animals, if the people aren’t a good match, it won’t work.
“Out of the people that apply and the people that want them, there may only be a few who actually have the facilities to house them, so it really narrows down the pool quite a bit,” Andrea Rickards said.
While the Rickardses have no regrets about taking in Bernard, Ladybug and the two other horses, the project has been expensive both for them and Second Chance.
“We have found out very quickly that the cost of mending horses is extremely high and that as a rescue group, we cannot recover the expenses of these horse without special funding,” Duren said.
Between the feed and the doctor bills, the Rickardses estimate they will have spent well over $1,000 of their own money on care for the horses, in addition to the thousands of dollars Second Chance has put in. Despite the high cost, the Rickardses said saving these animals is worth it.
“You figure you’ve got a few animals of your own,” Andrea Rickards said, “it doesn’t take that much to take another one.”