After swimming with wild dolphins and blissing out on satin-smooth bay beaches, then hiking up the Tomaree Headland for panoramic views of the outstretched bay and posturing landforms, my short break in Port Stephens seemed to have achieved perfection. That was until I load up on carrots and visit the Hunter Horse Haven sanctuary.
I’ve barely closed the gate when I’m bewitched by a rock-chic, pretty bay mare called Delta. She strides up to me eagerly and we snuggle, chatter and stroll about together. Granted, carrots may be motivating my new bestie, but the romantic in me revels in the joy of a spontaneous horsey connection.
Exuding glamour-puss verve, Delta comes across as a confident and practiced networker. So it’s a big surprise to learn that she was until recently terrified of people, having been rescued from a “neglect property” in Victoria along with scores of other starving horses.
Delta’s transformation echoes the journey of so many of the 29 horses residing at the Anna Bay sanctuary, a testament to the skill, love and tireless dedication of founder Debbie Barber and her crew of committed volunteers.
I look around and see everything from statuesque Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds to the cutest of minis; exceptionally lucky horses now glowing with contentment. Yet many of these horses were once emaciated, had brushes with several knackeries and bore major medical and behavioural issues. Some have been rehabilitated to the extent where they can be adopted and enjoy successful careers as riding horses. Others, however, are scarred by trauma and they’ll remain at the Haven.
Between running the rescue and caring for horses with complex physical and emotional needs, monitoring a swathe of “neglect properties”, advocating for critical industry reforms – such as the establishment of a national horse traceability register – creating welfare-driven industry relationships and organising therapeutic programmes, Debbie Barber is a woman of exceptional energy and enterprise. Squeezing in a chat whilst the vet tends to numerous horses, she takes us behind the scenes of the rescue.
RESCUE IS MULTIFACETED
“Rescue, rehabilitation and rehoming” is the ethos of Hunter Horse Haven, however, these clear objectives are fiendishly complex in execution. Rehabilitation has two major components, mental and physical, as Debbie explains: “The mental rehabilitation can take a lot longer to address, some horses do not recover to be adoptable – they remain at the sanctuary.”
Along with the emotionally tumultuous task of attending sales to save horses from slaughter, Hunter Horse Haven is increasingly called upon to rescue horses from neglect situations, which can involve prickly encounters with humans.
Behind the dire situation of so many horses, Debbie laments, is the lack of a legal framework and the reluctance to enforce laws. These gaps inspired Debbie to lobby for better welfare outcomes.