Someone left a Shetland pony in a field. The pony foraged and lived alone, unkempt and untouched by human hands. His coat and mane and tail grew. His hooves grew, and grew and grew until his hind feet doubled up under themselves like twisted rams' horns.
Finally, 15 years later, a Purcellville vet was called to euthanize the pony. The pony's feet were grotesque, but he was hardy and the vet knew he didn't deserve death.
So he called the Equine Rescue League.
Just weeks later, the pony, now named Midnight for his dark shaggy coat, greeted visitors at the Equine Rescue League's open house last weekend.
Now in its 15th year, the Equine Rescue League is Loudoun's only horse rescue program. It has saved hundreds of lives like Midnight's, whose story still resonates with founder Pat Rogers even after years of seeing neglected and abused horses come into her care.
"We've seen horrible things," Rogers said. "Just the fact that this pony was left for years with no attention, he was left crippled."
But not long after a vet used a hacksaw to remove the ends of Midnight's misshapen feet, the pony walks almost normally, just a little gingerly. He's friendly and curious, poking his nose out at visitors who pet the velvety skin.
MIDNIGHT wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for a mare who wasn't saved.
A year before Midnight was left to fend for himself in an open field, Rogers was investigating conditions at auction yards. Bitsy was a 7-year-old thoroughbred mare too weak to stand. She was whipped to make her walk to the ring, where she fetched $7 from a slaughterhouse. Rogers could not save her.
A photograph of the emaciated mare looking at the camera with a fearful, white-rimmed eye adorns much of Equine Rescue League's literature. It was that picture that helped raise awareness and funds and bring Equine Rescue League into existence.
It's a reminder of the fate that many of the horses at the league's Churchland Farm could have faced.
Now, Rogers and her daughter, Cheryl Rogers, run the farm and bring new hope into the lives of scores of horses each year. Every horse has a story: there's Hans Christian, the Amish draft horse with the scars of a working life where the yoke rested on his neck, sold at auction for $30; there's Fly, the handsome old racehorse whose life took a turn when his owner was murdered; there was Ginger, the show horse left to starve in a field before animal control officers found her. She didn't make it.
"You could write a book," said Cristina Scalise, a longtime volunteer. During a decade of nursing starved and abused horses back to health, Scalise managed to keep detached long enough to prevent herself, a Springfield resident, from bringing one home.
That was before Monty returned to Equine Rescue League after two failed adoption attempts.
"I have to constantly keep myself from falling in love with anybody," Scalise said. But then Monty, a strapping chestnut stallion, returned to the farm. "I liked him. I started working with him and he bonded with me."
THERE'S LOTS of bonding going on at Equine Rescue League. Bianca Roberts of Purcellville is one of 27 children in the foster program. She fosters Dillon, a chestnut Welsh pony. Through the program, Bianca learns about horse care and riding.
When Bianca and Dillon first met, they hit it off.
"He was really sweet and patient," she said. "He acted like he enjoyed being groomed."
There's a lot of caring going on at Churchland Farm, which is southeast of Leesburg. Right now the farm has 40 horses on its fields. Some of them, like Dillon, have been there for years. Others are adopted after a matching process that can take weeks with a prospective new owner.
Keeping Equine Rescue League running is a job that Pat Rogers shares with her daughter. "I could not do it without her," the mother said.
"Hard to believe we've been doing this for this long," Cheryl Rogers said to onlookers on a blustery Mother's Day as her mother stood beside her.
It's been 15 years on a month-to-month lease at Churchland Farm. In its most recent newsletter, the league's top item on its wish list is "a new farm!"
On its 66 acres, Churchland Farm can only take so many horses at a time. And after this many years, the tide of neglected horses has not slowed.
"I haven't figured out why it's still happening," Cheryl Rogers said. She asked visitors to help in any way to keep Equine Rescue League doing its work finding a "forever home" for each of its tenants. "It's up to you guys to help stop it."
To learn more about rescuing horses, visit www.equinerescueleague.org. To schedule a visit, call 703 771-1240.