Katie Holme stood alongside a gleaming white pasture fence, whistled and raised her right hand in the air.
"You whoooo, Ginger," she called. A reddish-brown mare grazing in the distance lifted her head, snorted and galloped toward Holme, her month-old foal scampered behind.
Ginger, a quarter horse, was rescued in June from near starvation by Healing Horses, a Lancaster-based organization that rescues and rehabilitates abused and neglected horses. In August, Ginger gave birth to a male foal that Holme dubbed Lakota Merry Lakes.
Holme, 49, the organization's founder, learned of Ginger's deteriorating condition from a concerned citizen. Ginger was brought to Larkspur Ranch in Lancaster, a 1,200-acre horse ranch that is fostering Holme's six rescued horses.
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"They have a huge heart for the horse," Holme said, referring to the ranch's owners, Missy and Joe Hinson. "They want horses to be cared for."
Ginger has put on 75 pounds since arriving at the ranch and she appears to be more energetic. She is expected to make a full recovery, said Holme, who lives in Lancaster.
"They are in greener pastures now," Holme said, referring to the horses. "They have all the acreage they need and all the grass they can eat."
The Hinsons have adopted both Ginger and her baby. "We fell in love with the baby, and Ginger is a very good mare," said Joe Hinson, whose father started the ranch in 1967.
Hinson, who loves horses, has been riding since he was 6. "These horses needed a place to stay and we had the facility," said Hinson, 58.
Holme, a native of Nottingham England, said her affinity for horses began when she was about 10. "My mother would drop me off at the stables and I would stay there all day. I would clean stalls to get a riding lesson," said Holme, who owns two horses.
The organization, a division of Project Halo, an animal rescue organization in Charlotte, offers need-based food and veterinary assistance to horse owners and, in severe cases, it acts as a sanctuary for abused and neglected horses. Holme, a former nurse, provides veterinary care, supplies and food for these horses through donations and by selling Healing Horses T-shirts.
Using her medical training, Holme prepares an individualized plan of care for each horse, whether it remains with the owner or is taken into foster care.
Horses taken into foster care receive a full veterinary workup, often donated or heavily discounted by local veterinarians. The horses then begin rehabilitation, which can take weeks to months.
Since its inception, the organization has rescued dozens of horses that were severely traumatized or near death.
Healing Horses got its start two years ago, when Holme began a feed bank to help area horse owners feed their animals.
"There was a severe hay shortage brought on by the drought. I was going around delivering hay, and I was coming across horses that were starving to death and people didn't want them," she said.
Today, Holme said she gets calls about neglected horses nearly every day. Sometimes it's an owner who cannot care for the horse. Other times, it's people who see neglected horses, she said.
Holme said often horses suffer neglect when owners fall on hard economic times. "When people can't afford their house payment, they can't feed their horses," she said.
A spike in hay and horse feed prices has compounded the problem, Holme said.
"Prices have tripled since last year," said Delpa Eddinger at the Farmer's Exchange in Rock Hill. Hay, once about $2 a bale, now runs $5 to $9 a bale, depending on whether it's purchased from a farm or a store.
When grass dies down in the fall and winter, a horse's diet must be supplemented with hay, Holme said. One horse eats about two bales a week, said Eddinger, who has five horses.
One horse also needs a 50-pound bag of of feed each week, and the cost of feed has risen to $11.50, said Eddinger. "Nobody wants them now because it costs so much to feed them," said Eddinger.
Along with the drought, rises in fuel prices and fertilizer have contributed to the price increase of hay, said Lancaster rancher Horace Porter, who donates hay to Healing Horses.
Joel Hinson, director of the Lancaster Animal Control, said another problem is that sometimes people who buy horses don't know what they are getting into.
"Right now at auctions, horse prices are real low. A lot of people are getting horses that don't know how to take care of them," Hinson said. "There is so much you have to do for them. Like if their bite isn't even, they can't grind up the grain properly to digest it. It's not just like getting them and putting them in a pasture and riding them. There's a whole lot more involved."
A pair of 20-year-old Tennessee walking horses that Holme recently rescued suffer from severe malnutrition. Their spine, ribs and hip bones are clearly visible beneath thin skin.
Holme said both were about 200 pounds underweight when they arrived at the ranch. They tire easily and have been slow to gain weight, Holme said. Their digestive and other organ systems have been damaged by starvation.
"They would eat trees, rocks, clay, rubbish, insulation, anything to stop the pain of starvation," said Holme.
The male, a white horse Holme calls Small Boy, has tumors in both eyes, resulting in complete blindness in the left eye and partial blindness in the right. Small Boy finds his way by following his mate, Sundancer.
"She's his eyes; she guides him," said Holme.
Small Boy will soon have surgery to save his right eye, but first he must gain more weight, Holme said.
Holme had left the pair to wander out into the pasture while she tended to another horse, 13-year-old Autumn, who suffers from an abscessed left foot.
When she returned two hours later, the pair had traveled only a few hundred feet in the direction of other ranch horses.
"There's a mare that looks out for them, she's down there under that tree," said Holme, rubbing Small Boy's side. He turned his head to look at her with his right eye.
"A lot of shame comes with neglect," she said. "I don't think people mean to do it. I try not to judge them for what they have done. It's not my place. The horses say it all, really."
Healing Horses T-shirts will be sold at the Larkspur Ranch horse show Oct. 25. Gates open at noon and the show starts at 2 p.m. All proceeds from shirt sales will benefit Healing Horses. For details on the horse show, visit the ranch's Web site, www.larkspurranch.com.