Brenda Thompson admits running her Whispering Hearts Horse Rescue in Hagersville, Ontario, is a ton of labour, stress and worry. But seeing horses return from the brink of death to lead healthy, happy lives makes everything worthwhile. “I thrive on watching the horses come back. Fourteen years later and it’s still the ‘wow’ factor,” she said.
Brenda is the 2020 Horse Canada Heroes of the Horse award winner. She’s lauded not only for her rescue and rehabilitation work at Whispering Hearts, but also her significant animal welfare advocacy efforts in recent years.
“It’s an honour to win the award,” enthused Brenda, 54. “I’m excited. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. And it makes the people that voted proud – our Facebook group and our online supporters. They’re the ones that keep me going. The support is phenomenal – the moral support, the comments. The win is my way of saying, ‘Look what we’ve done everybody!’”
A Rescuer from the Start
As a little girl, Brenda took in and cared for injured birds and animals. She also loved horses and throughout her teen years would do barn chores at a local stable in exchange for rides. As an adult, the inclination toward rescue continued, as she brought home auction horses, rehabilitated and rehomed them. Then, in 2001, she became an animal-cruelty agent with the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “We would get calls to remove horses and there was nowhere to [take them]. The rescue base wasn’t what it is today,” she noted. “I wanted to start a horse rescue that would give enforcement agencies a place to go and do critical care of those horses. That’s where the idea was born for Whispering Hearts Horse Rescue.”
In 2006, Brenda and her husband Dave bought a 48-acre farm in Hagersville, about an hour southwest of Hamilton. In 2007, they opened their doors. “We needed an advocate for horses. You’ve got different commodity groups for all other animals, whereas in the horse industry, there’s not one solid voice that protects horses,” she said. “That’s what I feel we’ve become. We really are considered a critical care facility and are recognized by the provincial government and various agencies. But we had to earn that over the last 13 or 14 years. We’ve developed a really good intake program. It’s really, really thorough. The horses come back very quickly. They really do respond well. It’s not rocket science, but you have to know what to do.”
However, Brenda stressed it’s also extremely important to know when to euthanize a horse. “I believe in quality of life and I’ve been known to bring horses here to give them six months of love and then put them down. I have no problem doing that. It’s a gift to be able to it for them. It’s not easy, but it leaves room for the next one in line waiting to come in.”
Mind, Body and Spirit
In an average year, the rescue, a registered non-profit with charitable status, takes in 40 horses and adopts out between 30 and 40 through a rigorous application process. It’s also a safe landing spot for permanent residents with chronic health conditions, trauma or other issues that render them unadoptable. Currently, 10 such horses are living out their lives at Whispering Hearts. A sponsorship program helps fund their upkeep.
The Whispering Hearts ethos is “rehabilitating the mind, body and spirit” of the animals that come through the barn door. In addition to providing physical care, Brenda breaks through what is often many years’ worth of abuse and/or neglect at the hands of humans.
Brenda follows Chris Irwin’s training philosophy and instructs all her volunteers to handle the horses using these techniques. “His methodology is basic horse psychology. The understanding that the horse’s language is body language and how we are predators and they are prey animals. It’s non-resistance training with mutual respect,” she explained. “I get horses that have never been human-touched at 20 years old. You have to have some type of understanding to approach these animals and these cases take time. You’re not going to bring a horse like that in and three weeks later adopt it out. It could be here for two years, five years. It may never come around.”
Miracles Do Happen
Of all the horses that have come through Whispering Hearts, there is one in particular that stands out for Brenda due to his fortitude and spirit in the face of trauma and neglect.
Milagro arrived at the rescue in November 2012 with a body condition score of 0.5 – essentially on death’s door. The six-year-old Quarter Horse arrived on a Thursday in November and was put inside the indoor arena. “Friday morning, I came out and he was down,” recalled Brenda. She called her vet immediately, covered the horse in blankets and started feeding him warm beet pulp. “He was still eating, but he couldn’t get up.” When the vet arrived, Milagro’s temperature was 33°C. “He was dying, really, he had no body fat to stay warm.”
Brenda’s vet warned her the situation was dire. “Honest to God, the minute Milagro heard that, he tried to get up.”
The vet administered a warm intravenous solution and said she’d be back in a few hours. “Little did I know, she planned to come back and euthanize him,” said Brenda. “I got my electric blanket off my bed, plugged it in in the barn and kept him warm. I kept feeding him warm beet pulp to get the sugar into him. Well, within an hour, he was really trying to get up.”
However, Milagro kept slamming back down to the ground with every attempt, so Brenda and her husband Dave fashioned some straps to their skid steer to help lift him up. He remained limp. Brenda said they were likely going to have to euthanize him and asked Dave to move him closer to the door for deadstock to access. “As soon as I said that, his legs started flying and we got him standing up. We left the skid steer connected to him for a good two hours because I didn’t want to take him off until the vet came,” said Brenda, who sat with the horse while he ate greedily from a wheelbarrow of hay. When the vet returned, she couldn’t believe he was standing.
He never went down again save once, about a week later. Brenda did everything she could to get him up, finally asking Dave to get the skid steer again. As soon as the machine came around the corner, Milagro stood.
Three years later Milagro (‘miracle’ in Spanish) was adopted to a loving home. “He’s stunning, he’s beautiful,” Brenda said.
Big Red is another horse that stands out for Brenda. The stallion was seized from a property where it is believed he lived alone for five years. “His feet were literally 12 inches long, like slippers and he couldn’t stand. When we went to get him, we got him up and we managed to dig him out of the barn through four feet of manure.” Two years later, Big Red walks well in nailed-on shoes and his feet look normal, although the internal structure remains compromised. He has been gelded and “is living a great life and is king of the farm,” said Brenda. He’s even enjoyed some time in the limelight, when CBC posted a video featuring Big Red that received more than four million views.
The Pandemic Affect
Brenda currently runs the rescue with her husband Dave managing operations when he’s not working full-time for the local municipality. Normally, Brenda is assisted by approximately 30 volunteers, but in 2020, due to COVID-19, she cut back to between eight and 10 people. “I can’t have COVID come in here because I’ve got a lot of animals relying on me,” she said. Brenda has recently made the decision to hire one of the volunteers, who will be the first official paid staff member since the rescue began.
COVID-19 also impacted a critical aspect of the rescue – fundraising. All events that bring in money were cancelled. The biggest hit was not being able to hold the July open house, which usually raises $25,000 and brings 2,000 people to the farm. “We’ve had no fundraising and that’s our only income,” said Brenda.
The biggest expense is hay. They go through about 1,400 round bales a year, at a cost of about $50,000. A hay drive in July brought in “some really good donations,” said Brenda, who, as of press time, was just set to launch their yearly feed drive, which she referred to as a “big, big program.” For every 10 bags the public buys, Purina, one of the rescue’s biggest sponsors, will donate one bag. For the first time, she’s taking this program, and other Christmas in-person money-raisers, fully online.
Despite the difficulties the pandemic has brought, the rescue is “in a good position,” said Brenda. “We’re doing okay. We have a great base that supports us and we’re managing.”
She attributes this at least partly to the fact that she’s forced to plan into the future, even at the best of times. “I never know, when it’s all donations and fundraising,” she said. “It’s about $210,000 a year. We don’t live pay cheque to pay cheque. We can’t. I always have to be thinking six months ahead. We’re in a good position, but it’s taken years to get there and our own money goes into it. We just do whatever we have to in making sure the animals get fed.”
As busy as she is at Whispering Hearts, Brenda is also involved in broader advocacy work relating to animal welfare, particularly as it relates to horses. She was a member of the industry working committee that developed a document Ontario Care Guidelines for Equine Rescue Retirement and Adoption/Rehoming Facilities. Released in 2017, the guide, recognized by the provincial government, provides information and support for individuals and groups seeking to rehabilitate and rehome unwanted horses.
Brenda also spearheaded a move to improve animal welfare enforcement in Ontario. She established a group called Animal Welfare Watch, which, after petitions, protests, rallies and meetings with officials such as the Solicitor General throughout 2019, was instrumental in bringing about significant changes to animal welfare legislation. The Provincial Animal Welfare Services Act came into effect in January, replacing the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. The more comprehensive legislation has the strongest penalties in Canada for those who violate animal welfare laws. Enforcement is strictly government-mandated and funded.
All in all, it’s certainly not an easy life. Yet, Brenda can’t imagine herself doing anything else. “It’s in my soul. I can’t explain it, but I can honestly say I’m doing what I was meant to do,” she said. “I’m living my childhood dream. The key is I’ve never strayed from my original intentions and integrity. Never. It’s all about the horses.”