From certain death to a place of honor
Lawrenceville couple has a dream for rescued horses
By Carole Townsend
Felix is a born leader, tall and broad-chested. His eyes tell a story that he will never speak; dark and soulful, framed by long feathered lashes, they are both forlorn and, as of late, hopefully trusting.
As many say is true of an animal that has been rescued from a life of abuse and neglect, Felix also seems to know that he has been given a second chance.
Felix and his companion LeCroy are both horses, rescued from a kill farm in Colorado. They were both facing the cruel fate of being trucked under horrific conditions into Mexico, where they would have been slaughtered for human consumption. The majestic creatures were rescued by Lawrenceville police chief and wife, Randy and Wanda Johnson, whose love and passion for animals compelled them to step in and save the starving horses from a horrible fate. But the rescue was just the beginning of the story, the launch of a dream that has never before been realized.
Felix, a Percheron/Friesian gelding standing about 16.1 hands tall, was named for fallen Fulton county firefighter Felix Maurice Roberts. Roberts lost his life in the line of duty while battling a structure fire at a home in Johns Creek in 2007. While performing a search and rescue mission in a heavily-involved fire, Roberts was caught in a flashover. The Desert Storm veteran left behind a mom and four siblings.
LeCroy was named for Georgia State Trooper Cpl. Chad LeCroy, who was shot and killed in 2010 in Atlanta after a vehicle pursuit. LeCroy had served with the Georgia State Patrol for two years and was posthumously promoted to the rank of Corporal. He is survived by his wife, two sons, parents, and siblings. “It was when I was watching Cpl. LeCroy’s funeral, so sad and yet so moving, that I got the idea to name one of our beautiful rescue horses LeCroy, in his honor,” Wanda said. Interestingly, LeCroy has a white, heart-shaped mark on his forehead.
The families of both Felix and LeCroy granted permission, with their blessings, for the horses to be named in honor of their lost loved ones.
The naming of the two rescued horses for fallen Georgia heroes was no coincidence; not only do the Johnsons observe a deep respect for those who serve and too often pay with their lives, they also plan to rehabilitate the rescued horses to honor the fallen in what will be Georgia’s first caisson unit. “What a fairy tale story, to rescue these beautiful animals from a horrible fate, and for them to honor fallen heroes by drawing the carriage (caisson) that holds their caskets,” said Wanda.
“Knowing that the North Carolina caisson unit currently travels to Georgia to perform the duties for our fallen heroes, we got the idea to form our own unit after watching Cpl. LeCroy’s funeral,” Wanda said. In fact, the Johnsons have formed friendships with the officers who comprise the North Carolina unit, and they have received some much-needed information and advice from the team.
Currently, there are only four caisson units in the United States of which the Johnsons are aware: Arlington Cemetery (by far the most familiar to Americans), one in North Carolina, one in Texas, and now this one in Georgia. The North Carolina unit travels to Georgia to pay last respects to our fallen heroes; in fact, they perform more service here in Georgia than they do in North Carolina. The story, however, is the horses themselves, what they faced then, and through a kind twist of fate, what they have to look forward to now, if they only understood.
Speaking softly to the massive geldings, husband and wife lead them gently to the open pasture that holds Pearl, Wanda’s beloved spotted draft horse, and Arrow, the newest addition to the massive black horses that live comfortably on the Johnson’s beautiful 14-acre farm, just east of Lawrenceville. Arrow came to the farm from New York, thanks to the generous donations of two parties who wanted him to be in the care of the Johnsons. It’s no accident that he, Felix and LeCroy are black geldings, and Sasha a black mare. The tall, broad and stout horses, with magnificent long manes and feathering around their hooves, are well-suited to places of honor in military, police and firefighter funerals. The Johnsons’ dream is that the three regal horses, and eventually a fourth, will become the Georgia’s first caisson unit.
Felix and LeCroy graze on the plentiful grass in their new home, unaware of the Johnsons’ plans for their future. For now, all they know is that they have plenty to eat, and that their owners and handlers are kind and mean them no harm. They do seem to know those things.
Both horses have gained 150-200 lbs. since arriving in Georgia in August. Sasha, a female rescue that looks very much like Felix and LeCroy, has also gained much-needed weight. Still in quarantine following her rescue from the contemptible circumstances and the same fate that faced the males, Sasha is actually bigger than her male counterparts. She is a beautiful mare and soon, she will be introduced to the other horses so that they can all find their places in the hierarchy, as most animals will do.
“We found these three on a kill lot in Colorado” – Wanda Johnson
A kill farm, sometimes referred to as a kill lot, is essentially a graveyard for animals that are still alive, some barely. Kill farms are not reserved solely for horses; dogs and other animals have been found on these horrible lots. Just recently, a farm in Palm Beach County, Florida was raided and shut down, and 700 animals rescued following a sting operation conducted by Animal Recovery Mission. ARM calls the raids “the largest tactical strike on extreme animal cruelty operations in U.S. history.” Horses were being slaughtered and steaks sold in the U.S., which is illegal. Additional charges including animal cruelty and causing cruel death have been levied against six men.
“It’s a third-degree felony in America to slaughter a horse for human consumption. Sasha, Felix and LeCroy were all rescued from the same kill lot in Colorado, and they were headed to Mexico under horrible, cruel conditions to be slaughtered. They have been through hell in their former lives,” said Wanda.
“All three horses were starving to death. They were so scared; they want to be loved and worked with. They crave our attention,” said Wanda. While Felix has warmed right up to the care and attention of Randy and Wanda, LeCroy still isn’t quite as sure, but he is coming around. Sasha, still quarantined, is a little skittish, though she has warmed to the Johnsons and will now eat out of their hands. These horses are three of the lucky ones.
How do horses end up on these lots?
“Unfortunately, kill buyers, or meat buyers, shop at horse auctions. They also get horses off of Craigslist,” said Wanda. “Of course, people have to get rid of their horses for many reasons. Sometimes they just can’t afford to feed them any longer. Sometimes they lose their land. Sometimes thoroughbred race horses, once they have outlived their usefulness to their owners, end up in these awful places. I know that people want to think that their horse is being sold or given to a loving owner, maybe a child or people like us. But the reality is, these horses are bought and sold for their meat. They are priced by the pound. That is the only value they have to these kill buyers.”
How can these horses be trained, if they can’t even trust humans?
Trust is earned, and the Johnsons are taking things very slowly with the rescued horses. The animals need the attention of a veterinarian. Their hooves need care, a “mani-pedi,” as Wanda called it. Their teeth need attention. Right now, the horses are so fearful of letting the farrier tend to their hooves, sedation is required. The same is true for their teeth. But trust is being earned, one small step at a time.
The rescued horses, so starved and weak when they arrived in Georgia, are very near their desired weights, according to Randy. They are being fed a diet comprised of 12 percent protein grains, and a specific type of hay, and right now, they are on an all-you-can-eat diet. Pearl and Arrow, on the other hand, are already at good weights; eating what the other horses eat would make them too fat.
The protein in the grain helps build much-needed muscle, muscle that, once trainers begin riding the horses and running them, will give the horses their tell-tale appearance, the magnificent muscled lines for which the breeds are known. The feeding, the talking and gentle leading, the companionship with other horses, all of these things work to gain the horses’ trust. When the time is right, still more trainers will be brought in to work with the animals in paired teams. They are working animals, just as many dogs are working breeds. They are happiest when they are doing what they were bred to do. To work, they must be healthy, strong and confident. To become a member of the caisson unit, a horse must learn to stay calm and focused under sometimes stressful circumstances.
“Think about it,” said Wanda. “There will be sirens, lights, flags flying, taps being played by a bugler, and lots of people at these funerals. The horses have riders on their backs as they pull the caisson. Then, there is a long time during which the horses must remain still, when the casket is being removed. That all requires training.”
Still, the Johnsons are realistic about the possibility that some or even all of the horses they have rescued to date may not be suited for caisson duty. “And that’s O.K.,” the couple said in unison, smiling. “If that’s the case, then they will live out their lives in a beautiful pasture with lots of love, plenty of food and other horses around them. They will never go back to the hell that they came from,” said Wanda.
While the ultimate goal, other than plucking as many horses as they can from cruel abuse and death, is to develop horses suitable for Georgia’s first caisson unit, that goal is in the distant future. Right now, on the “Big Johnson Farm,” as the Johnsons laughingly call their 14-acre plot, the immediate goal is to care for these beautiful, gentle animals, to get them back to their best health, to help them along to becoming the powerful, glorious animals they were intended to be.
“Anytime an animal and money are involved, the animal will always lose,” Wanda said sadly. But she and “the chief,” as she lovingly calls her police chief husband, are going to change all that, at least for as many animals as they can.
For more information about the Georgia Caisson Unit, visit www.gacaisson.org. “Funeral services will be free for any fallen hero in Georgia, whether public safety or military,” said Wanda. Also visit the group’s Facebook page, . To help the Johnsons continue to care for these rescued horses and (hopefully) more – horses eat a lot and right now, they require frequent veterinarian care – click the DONATE NOW button near the top of the page. “We also have some fundraisers planned in the near future, so please continue to check both places often for updates,” Wanda said.