Some of these horses were raised for the thrill of the racetrack. At the call of the starting bell, they burst from the confines of the gate, the roar of pounding hooves rolling away from them like thunder into the stands.
Others spent day after day, night after night, under the open sky. They never knew a full belly. When they shivered, scars shimmered across their hides.
Sometimes, their stories were unremarkable, and their ultimate plight was simply a bi-product – collateral damage of bad times falling on a good person.
Regardless of their breeding, their age, their talent, or their resilience, the horses Leila Hertzberg scrolled through on the auction sites had one thing in common: If someone did not buy them, they were going to die an unnatural death.
Hertzberg, 57, was born in Arlington, Virginia to an American-born Jewish woman from Philadelphia and a Christian man who immigrated to the U.S. from Latvia after joining the U.S. armed forces in WWII. Hertzberg didn’t grow up in a horseback-riding family. Her father used to ride his family’s farm horse to the market as a child, and her mother loved horses but stopped riding after a scare with a runaway horse in Rock Creek Park in Washington.
“I have always been obsessed [with horses]; I can’t really tell you why,” laughed Hertzberg. “It’s in the blood.” It was an unseasonably pleasant morning for July – balmy with a breeze – and she sat outside on her five-acre property on a gently rolling green hillside in Gaithersburg.
Out beyond the stables and the horse ring, the green of the open pasture was only hemmed by more green: a wooded park complete with horse trails. Crickets and tree frogs were producing a lively drone so loud, it was overwhelming for the first minute and then, strangely, added to the sense of peace about the place.
In 1994, when Herzberg and her (now ex) husband bought Greystoke Farm, she left her career as an international business consultant to offer horseback riding lessons and focus on raising a family. She also began selectively breeding a stock of ponies, aiming to produce a perfect first riding animal for children.
“When I first saw this property, what I liked the best is that when you look out the kitchen window, you get to see the barn and you get to see the park,” said Hertzberg. “It’s very nice; it’s very peaceful.”
Today, Hertzberg runs the farm with her fiancé and barn manager Jack Dean, offering lessons to 25 to 30 students. Amelia, a 16-year-old riding student, led over a prime specimen of Greystoke Farm’s breeding program.
Meet Rascal: Bred from a Welsh pony and thoroughbred horse, Rascal is approximately eight years old, dark chocolate brown and of the large pony class (the distinction between horses and ponies is based on height). His given name is Greystoke’s No Foolin’ because he was born on April Fool’s Day. Amelia fondly referred to him as a “good puppy”; and indeed he gave such a distinct impression of both friendliness and calm. He came across more like an extremely well-adjusted Golden Retriever than a 14-hand pony. Petting his velvety nose was like taking a mild sedative.
“He is exactly what I set out to breed: a beautiful athletic pony that can do well at shows and can take care of the kids,” said Hertzberg. “He’s very kind and he loves people because he’s been handled from birth.”
Most of 19 horses and ponies presently living on Greystoke Farm are not homegrown, however. The farm is home to Lifeline Horse Rescue and Rehabilitation, a nonprofit volunteer-based organization Hertzberg started two years ago.
“I’ve been rescuing horses my whole life, so starting Lifeline was going to make it easier for me to help more horses,” she said. “There are definitely horses we’ve been able to help that there was no way I’d be able to do that without the nonprofit.”
Lifeline serves as a community resource for abused, neglected or unwanted horses and ponies. People contact Hertzberg about horses in need, or reach out to her for placement if they can no longer care for their own. “I’ve always been known as the person to call if you have a horse that you don’t know what to do with,” even before starting Lifeline, she said.
“People know me. I have a soft heart,” she laughed.
Hertzberg also scours the auction websites of “kill pen” brokers, who purchase unwanted horses and try to make a higher profit before selling them to meat processors in Mexico and Canada. According to the Human Society of the United States, more than 80,000 American horses and ponies are slaughtered abroad each year for their meat, which is then sold in dog food or for human consumption in other countries. While commercial horse slaughter is illegal in the US, members of Congress are still attempting to pass legislation to outlaw the inhumane transport practices of kill pen brokers and the sale of horses for slaughter abroad.
Hertzberg and her network of foster homes rehabilitate and retrain horses with the goal of finding them forever homes by adoption. Taking the time to train animals right instead of fast eats into the farm’s bottom line, which was a big part of why she started the non-profit two years ago rather than continue rescuing horses privately, she said.
She’s brokered four adoptions for Lifeline horses so far. Some rescued horses find their permanent home at Greystokes Farm. For instance, Moonspell, a former racehorse, is staying on at the farm as a Lifeline ambassador. Hertzberg is training him to participate in her equine therapy program for military veterans.
Hertzberg prides herself in judging “a good gamble,” identifying horses with an impressive pedigree or special talent that will increase the odds it can be adopted, according to Craig Bober of Randallstown. Bober, 55, is currently fostering his second horse through Lifeline. Feeling Super is a five-year-old thoroughbred mare, daughter of a Kentucky Derby winner.
“Somehow, someone put under Leila’s nose that this horse was at the kill pen to be put down,” said Bober. “‘This horse should be saved. Look at her bloodline.’”
Like Hertzberg, Bober is Jewish, but he verbalized the analogy she never mentioned.
“It’s the ‘Schindler’s’ List story,” he said. “Who do you save?”
Bober was reaching out to other rescues about fostering when Hertzberg responded to his ad on Craig’s List. Bober has decades of experience with horses, from training to barrel racing and more. Bober and his wife, Rachel Burgan, agreed they weren’t going to own a horse, but when someone suggested fostering, he looked into it.
“It’s a shorter-term commitment than ownership. And honestly, it has tax benefits. It’s a write-off,” Bober said. “If you foster, the expenses of owning a horse are tax-deductible.”
Bober and Burgan live one house off of Liberty Road in Baltimore County, and the couple board Super at a property three doors down.
“I understand the horse I’m working with now was a racehorse and she doesn’t want to run anymore. She just shut down,” Bober said. “I was working with her and got a little bit of an insight. She stopped yesterday. She wouldn’t move anymore. Then I figured it out: I think she just got bored.”
“It’s like therapy a little bit,” he mused.
Bober sees his role as preparing these horses for their forever homes.
“My goal with the horses is to retrain them so that they can be adopted,” Bober said. “The first horse that I worked with, Midnight Star – Star for short – had a trust issue. She was abused, beaten. [Training] started off with getting her to respect who I am and building that confidence that she could trust people.”
Star, then 20, was an Amish buggy horse, 16 and a half hands and all black with a beautiful mane, recalled Bober. And she was in bad shape when she came to him.
“I remember taking out my pocket knife and cutting the knots out [of her tail] and putting detangler in so I could finally brush her tail out,” he said.
Bober takes his rehabilitative role seriously.
“It’s hard to … swallow what people are capable of,” Bober said. “I know the stories. There are places that you board your horse, [then when] people stop paying board, [the borders] send them to the kill pens.”
Helping these horses is a mission to Bober. He worked with Star until she listened to commands and trotted through her paces. By the time it came to begin getting Star accustomed to a rider, Bober had an adoptive owner lined up.
“I felt, ‘Wait, I can do so much more,’” he said.
Bober is recruiting family members to the cause. His sister, Amy Schennerman-Bober, lives in Reisterstown and used to work in fundraising for The Associated. Schennerman-Bober is now working with Hertzberg to plan a fundraiser for Lifeline for November 11. The fundraiser will include an open house and silent auction, and will be open to the public.
Hertzberg moved among the horses in their stalls with the confidence of a senior nurse in a hospital ward: the one who knows each patient’s history like the back of her hand, offering a no-nonsense attitude but with a reassuring touch.
Not all of the horses were “puppies” like Rascal, either. Hertzberg had colorful words for rescue Boston’s disposition, as the giant black mare shot a wide, seemingly baleful eye from over her stall door.
Eventually, Hertzberg hopes to move onto a larger property in Frederick, where, in addition to continuing to rescue horses, she could open a wellness center. She wants to reach even more people.
Hertzberg approaches her students with the same intentionality with which she raises her herd and rehabilitates her rescues:
“I’m not just teaching them to ride. I’m teaching them about life skills; I’m teaching them about partnering; I’m teaching them about confidence; I’m teaching them about self-defense; I’m teaching them about assertiveness,” she said. “Each of these kids that I’m teaching – I’m giving them something. And to me, that is really important.”