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.”