Rescued from an equine hell


The rather handsome chap in this picture is called Zippy. He is a Gelderlander, a breed of horse developed in the province of Gelderland in the Netherlands. These horses were originally bred to be stylish carriage horses, yet versatile enough for farm work, but the breed declined in popularity during the middle of the 20th century. Zippy lives at the Ada Cole Rescue Centre in Essex, one of four Visitor Centres operated by Redwings, the largest horse sanctuary in the UK. At the age of just seven years, Zippy can look forward to a long and contented life at Redwings, where all his needs can be met. Sadly, just over five years ago, his outlook was decidedly less positive as he faced a very short and bleak future.

Zippy was one of the many horses, ponies and donkeys removed from the horrors of Spindles Farm near Amersham in Buckinghamshire in January 2008. A visit to the farm by RSPCA inspectors revealed more than 125 equines in a state of utter neglect, with many close to death. The remains of 32 dead animals in various stages of decomposition lay amongst those still alive. A massive rescue operation was launched on 9th January involving the RSPCA, the police and a coalition of equine welfare charities including Redwings Horse Sanctuary. Redwings alone contributed 30 staff and 8 horseboxes to the operation. A total of 115 equines were taken away from the farm, but sadly a number of others were too far gone to have any chance of recovery and had to be put down on site. The operation hit the national media headlines and provoked outrage and disbelief amongst many members of the general public. 21 of the equines were taken to Redwings on the evening of the rescue, with the others being dispersed to a number of other sites around the country.

In June 2009 horse trader Jamie Gray, the owner of Spindles Farm, was sentenced to six months imprisonment, fined £400,000 and banned from keeping horses for life, the maximum penalty available to the court on charges of causing unnecessary suffering to animals and failing to protect animals from pain, injury, suffering and disease. Other members of the Gray family received lesser sentences. With the court case out of the way, ownership of the rescued animals was transferred to the RSPCA and other charities involved in the rescue operation. In addition to the equines that first came to Redwings, a number of others were transferred from RSPCA boarding facilities. In total, Redwings now has ownership of 66 equines associated with the rescue, although this does include 6 foals born to animals taken from Amersham.

After investing a great deal of time, care and patience into the surviving Amersham rescue animals, all have gone on to recover physically. However, many of them still have complex psychological issues and still require ongoing work from the caring staff at Redwings. Some of the animals that are physically fit, but not suitable for re-homing have been added to the popular Redwings Adoption Scheme. Hence, Zippy the Gelderlander now has a permanent home at the Ada Cole Rescue Centre at Broadley Common, where he has become a very firm favourite with visitors, and recently celebrated his birthday on 18th August. The picture shows the 16hh gentle giant with one of his greatest fans, Monika Korsak. Monika regularly drops in to the centre to say hello to her friend.


As mentioned above, Redwings has four Visitor Centres across the country. In addition to the Ada Cole Rescue Centre (EN9 2DH) there is the Caldecott Visitor Centre in Norfolk (NR31 9EY) the Oxhill Rescue centre in Warwickshire (CV35 0RP) and the recently-opened Aylsham Visitor Centre in Norfolk (NR11 6UE). Entry to all of the Visitor Centres is free, but there are seasonal opening times so please check the Redwings website for details if you are thinking of paying a visit. Redwings HQ is at Hapton in Norfolk and is not normally open to the public. It does, however, open for two special weekends each year. The next open weekend at Hapton is on 7th/8th December 2013. Again, details of this can be found on the Redwings website.

(This article was first published in “MK Pulse” magazine in October 2013.)


Dumped – and left to die? (First published in the “Phonebox Magazine” in June 2013)

With reports to the RSPCA cruelty line coming in at a rate of one every 30 seconds and a network of just 300 inspectors nationwide, it is inevitable that our longest-established animal welfare charity should have to prioritise incoming calls. Fortunately for one tiny foal, a call received on Friday 19th April produced an immediate response and an inspector arrived rapidly at the scene.

A member of the public had spotted the foal struggling in a stretch of the River Lea in Essex, close to a point where the river runs past a waterworks. Following a call to the RSPCA the inspector soon arrived at the scene, along with 3 appliances and 14 fire-fighters from the London Fire Brigade. The fire-fighters got to work to rescue the foal, who they had named ‘Steve’, from the ice cold waters. Having got the foal onto the bank, he was shivering so intensely that he then became ‘Shaking Stephen’. There was no sign of a brood mare anywhere near and no obvious indications of how the foal had got into the water, so it soon became apparent that he had been deliberately dumped in the river and left to die.

Following the rescue, the foal was transferred to the care of the Galley Hill Equine Surgery, a two vet practice in nearby Waltham Abbey, for veterinary treatment. It was estimated that the young foal was less than two days old. Stephen was treated for hypothermia and also given a dose of colostrum, which is vital for many newborn animals. Foals and many other mammals do not receive antibodies via the placenta before birth, and so the crucial antibodies must be ingested in the form of this early milk produced by the mother. The colostrum, whether from the natural mother or a donor, must be ingested during the first hours of life for the maximum transfer of antibodies to occur.

The vets at Galley Hill then attempted to bond Stephen with a surrogate mare but he showed no interest in her, so they decided to approach Redwings Horse Sanctuary for help. Redwings has a proven expertise in handling orphaned or abandoned foals and it was agreed that he could be transferred to the Redwings Veterinary Hospital at Hapton in Norfolk. The hand feeding required to rear a young foal is immensely satisfying, but also very demanding. It is normal practice to feed a foal from a bowl rather than a bottle as this seems to reduce the risk of ‘imprinting’, where the equine grows up believing it is a human! Whilst great fun, this process can be incredibly messy! Things were touch and go for the young foal for a day or two, but following a plasma transfusion on Thursday 25th April his test results indicated that he had a good chance of recovery.


I visited Stephen in quarantine on Friday 26th April and watched him being given one of his regular feeds. He was amazingly lively and full of energy following the transfusion. He is also rather adept at ensuring that a sizeable amount of his feed goes over the person feeding him and anybody else who happens to be near. Whilst it is possible to hand rear a foal in this way it is always important to get the animal bonded with a suitable mare to ensure that they learn how to behave like a horse, so work was under way to find a suitable candidate. It seems that Stephen will have every chance of a full, active and happy life as a result of the intervention of all of the wonderful people involved in his rescue and rehabilitation. Those of you who subscribe to Facebook can see pictures of the rescue and his early treatment at the following pages: –
Following the rescue an RSPCA spokesperson said: “It is appalling and heartbreaking that a young foal like this could be dumped with no thought to his care or wellbeing. This is indicative of the sort of serious neglect of horses that we are increasingly seeing. We are grateful to Redwings for taking him on and caring for him.”

Senior Welfare Coordinator for Redwings, Rachel Angell, said: “More and more often we are seeing young colts like Stephen being deliberately abandoned as their value is so low and yet so many continue to be bred who are just not wanted. In Stephen’s case it is looking increasingly likely that this was deliberate as no owner has come forward. It is heart-breaking that anyone could do something so cruel. His rescue really was a case of teamwork and we’d like to thank everyone involved for bringing him this far. We will give him the best start in life we possibly can, and hopefully get him recovered from his ordeal as soon as possible.”

Aylsham beckons

The past year has been a very challenging time for all of the major equine charities in Britain. There have been unprecedented numbers of horses at risk, with illegal ‘fly grazing’, indiscriminate breeding and financially overwhelmed owners all resulting in horses that need to find new homes. All of the main equine charities that provide sanctuary care are full to capacity, but it is estimated that there may be at least 6,000 additional animals that will require some form of intervention during the winter months ahead. Redwings Horse Sanctuary, the largest horse sanctuary in the UK, is one of those operating at full capacity, yet has still managed to squeeze in over 90 needy new arrivals so far this year. Over half of these arose from a massive operation that took place in South Wales between January and March. Many of the equines rescued in these large-scale round ups have serious health problems, such as strangles, putting an even greater strain on the financial and veterinary resources of the organisations that take them in.


Redwings Horse Sanctuary has been very busy establishing additional capacity and has recently opened a new farm in North Norfolk. The new site is just on the outskirts of the market town of Aylsham, about 9 miles north of Norwich. The Aylsham site is the charity’s ninth sanctuary farm, but is also open to the public as a Visitor Centre. The past few months have been spent fitting out the site for its new role, including the installation of miles of new fencing and water mains. An formal opening planned for early summer had to be put on hold because of difficulties experienced with building work on the Visitor Centre itself, but this has not deterred the loyal supporters of the charity from making donations towards the cost of the project.

Redwings supporters had an early opportunity to see the new site at first hand with a special open weekend held on 6th/7th August 2011. That weekend enjoyed glorious weather and attracted large numbers of existing supporters, as well as a great deal of interest from potential new supporters in the Aylsham area. A number of Redwings adoption equines are based at the new Visitor Centre, including Gulliver. Gulliver and his mother, Cinders, were rescued by the RSPCA when he was only a few days old. They had been abandoned and left to fend for themselves at the mercy of the elements. Cinders was painfully thin, having used the little food that she could find to provide milk for her foal. The RSPCA asked Redwings if both Cinders and Gulliver could be given a permanent home within the sanctuary. Gulliver proved to be so popular at the Aylsham Preview Weekend that the decision was made to include him in the Redwings Adoption Club.


The town of Aylsham has a population of around 6,000 and is the northern terminus for the Bure Valley Railway, a fifteen inch gauge heritage line connecting the town with Wroxham. Additional tourist attractions in the area include Blickling Hall, the reputed former home of Anne Boleyn, which is about 1.5 miles away. Aylsham has a number of other claims to fame, one being that it became Norfolk’s first plastic bag free town on May 3rd 2008! It is also claimed that the Aylsham branch of Tescos (is nowhere safe from them?) is the ‘greenest in the world’.

The new Redwings Visitor Centre at Aylsham also has some worthy green credentials. There are two established ponds which help to attract a wide diversity of wildlife, a fact not lost on the many visitors who enjoyed walking around the site during the Open Weekend last year, and extensive tree cover. Of all of the Redwings sites, it is certainly one of my favourites and I look forward to many people enjoying all it has to offer over the coming years.

The new Redwings Aylsham Visitor Centre has the same range of facilities as the existing three centres at Oxhill, Nazeing and Caldecott Hall. Admission to all Redwings sites is free of charge and there is also free parking, including parking for those less able. Each Visitor Centre has a well-stocked gift shop and also offers a wide range of refreshments. Dogs are welcome at Redwings, but must be kept on a lead at all times. The Visitor Centres also have designated play areas for children.

The main headquarters of Redwings is at Hapton, about nine miles south of Norwich. Hapton is a working farm and is not normally open to the public. However, the farm does open for two weekends every year, one in July and one in December. These weekends always prove to be very popular with supporters, even in the occasionally inclement weather! This winter Open Weekend this year was on Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd December and we had an excellent attendance despite the somewhat challenging weather!

Opening times for the four Visitor Centres can all be found on the Redwings website at

A Star Is Born! (First published in the “Phonebox Magazine” in September 2009)

Gizmo, a tiny piebald Miniature Shetland foal, started life at Redwings Horse Sanctuary in Norfolk just weeks after her mother was signed over to the charity by her owner. Gizmo’s mother, Nooky, was in poor health when Redwings found her. Not only was she heavily pregnant with Gizmo, Nooky also had conjunctivitis and sweet itch. In addition she had deformed and overgrown hooves and was suffering from hypothermia. Redwings were very concerned for Nooky’s welfare, particularly as she was in foal. Working in partnership with the RSPCA the mare was seized. Her owners were located, but admitted that they had not been managing to provide the care and attention required to get Nooky back into good health.

In circumstances such as these, the Animal Welfare Act allows organisations like Redwings to work with owners and intervene to prevent suffering before it really takes hold. The owners eventually agreed to sign over the mare to the RSPCA, with Redwings offering her a permanent home. Nooky has made excellent progress following her arrival at Redwings HQ in Norfolk and has become a very firm favourite with the staff as she has a very sweet nature and a rather endearing overbite. She now has a healthy, happy baby foal as well, following Gizmo’s arrival into the world in early August. This year has actually been quite an unusual one for Redwings Horse Sanctuary. Gizmo is the 23rd foal to be born at Redwings since January 1st 2009! So far this year, the charity has taken in more than 180 horses, ponies and donkeys and has now had 18 foals born from rescued mothers.


A Press Release about Gizmo attracted a lot of media interest, including a visit from Anglia TV on Wednesday 12th August. Broadcast Journalist Serena Sandhu arrived to carry out her first location assignment for Anglia TV. Imagine the scenario – your first job involves filming a 10 day old foal in a glorious location in the Norfolk countryside! Can it really get much better than that? Serena was filming a piece for transmission on Anglia TV that evening. After a few indoor shots from Redwings’ veterinary unit, mother and foal were led outside as preparations were made for an interview with Redwings’ Chief Executive, Lynn Cutress. At this point we noted that Gizmo was distinctly less than impressed with a large puddle which had formed following heavy rain earlier that morning!


The majority of the 1100 equine residents under Redwings’ direct care tend to be mainly older or infirm animals, so this year’ influx of foals has provided some interesting experiences for the staff. Despite the fact that many of the rescued mares have often come from situations of neglect or cruelty, the foals born at the sanctuary have tended to be generally fit and healthy. They will therefore eventually be found new homes, as they are not in need of specialist sanctuary care. Gizmo has become a very firm favourite with all the staff at Hapton and no doubt there will be some sad faces when she is eventually found a new home.


(Redwings Horse Sanctuary was established in 1984 and today has grown to become the largest horse sanctuary in the UK, working to save horses, ponies, donkeys and mules whose future would otherwise be bleak. Its work has three themes: rescue & rehabilitation, specialist sanctuary care and prevention through education. Its horse care & welfare hotline receives typically 3,000 calls per year. In 2009, Redwings celebrates its Silver Jubilee. The sanctuary currently provides more than 1100 horses, ponies, donkeys and mules with specialist sanctuary care and has 500 horses out on loan in Guardian homes.)