Illustration by Lena Chandok

In the baking heat of summer 2010, in the dusty yard of a Spanish farmhouse, a neglected pony is favoring her deeply wounded right foreleg, while a woman on the phone engages in heated conversation.

The woman, newly arrived to this quiet Spanish town, found the brown pony abandoned in the yard next door, entangled in a rope used to tie her to a tree. A wide red gash cuts deep across the pony’s lower foreleg, evidence that she has remained cruelly ensnared for days. The woman makes a call for advice on how to treat the gaping wound. On the other end of the line are Sue and Rod Weeding, British expats who moved to Spain in 2001, then gave up their sunshine-and-relaxation retirement seven years later to launch a horse rescue shelter. They hand over the number to their trusted vet, Dorothea Dudli von Dewitz.

“Dorothea goes there and starts rubbing and scrubbing and basically all the flesh just falls away from the leg,” Sue Weeding says. “It literally just falls away. You can imagine the reaction.”

The rope had been wound so tightly around the pony’s leg that blood ceased to circulate, causing lacerations to run so deep that snow-white bone is now visible. Dudli von Dewitz believes the pony will die from infection within two days if left untreated. The woman who found the pony panics. She cannot afford expensive treatments and doesn’t want a broken-down mare. She makes another call to the Weedings, begging them to take the pony. They call in the police to grant official transfer permission and the horrified officers pledge to hunt down the pony’s original owner.

The Weedings christen the pony Faith, and on August 27, 2010, they bring her home to their Easy Horse Care Rescue Centre in the small town of Rojales, along Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Their four-year battle to save Faith the pony has begun.

*   *  *

The first few weeks are an awful roller coaster of hope, desperation, and brushes with death. There are bad reactions to antibiotics, a case of colic, a rush to the animal hospital. “We had a little horse that was severely malnourished, obviously in shock…Whatever we were trying to do to save her caused another problem,” says Sue Weeding, a short, tanned woman with closely cropped blond hair and a distinct British twang to her voice.

They refuse to give up, just like they fight to save the other sixty-plus horses, ponies and donkeys in their care. “When you love an animal, you fight to save it. More so, I suppose, because they’re so needy,” Weeding continues, her eyes beginning to glisten with tears. “They might be old crocks and broken down and disabled and whatever, but for the abuse that they’ve suffered and survived, they deserve a chance.”

Sue Weeding leads Faith out of the trailer on her first day home after the operation. (Photo Courtesy EHCRC)
Sue Weeding leads Faith out of the trailer on her first day home after the operation. (Photo Courtesy EHCRC)

Eventually their little pony, standing just forty-four inches high, stabilizes and they begin coaxing her injured leg back to health. Each night her trio of supporters gather in the makeshift stables Rod Weeding has built by hand from old wooden pallets and secondhand sheet metal, carrying flashlights as the sun sinks low behind the surrounding mountains. Faith raises her bad leg and the painstaking daily treatment gets underway: Remove the old plaster cast, inspect the leg, inject antibiotics, clean the wound, bandage it up, apply another plaster cast and dry it with a hairdryer.

They try to speed up the healing process with an experimental homemade stem-cell treatment Dudli von Dewitz whips up herself. Sue Weeding, fifty-seven, and Rod, sixty-four, are already throwing thousands of euros from their hard-earned retirement fund into Faith’s care on top of the center’s already hefty daily operating costs, and cannot afford expensive laboratory-prepared creams. So twice a week Dudli von Dewitz draws a little of Faith’s blood, takes it home, spins out the stem cells in a centrifugal machine, extracts the healing cells and creates an ointment to daub across the wound.

It is arduous yet it seems to be working — four months later, just a thin line of bone remains exposed.

Then, just before Christmas 2010, Dudli von Dewitz notices the skin is healing over, then perishing, healing over, then perishing. It is a bad sign. “Basically our worst fears were coming true,” Sue Weeding says. “Faith was developing bone disease.”

Kneeling in the straw beside little Faith, Sue and Rod Weeding beg their veterinarian for answers. She tells them there is only one option left: Cut off the leg completely.

“There’s nothing else I can do,” Dudli von Dewitz says. It’s a life-or-death decision: amputate and give Faith a small chance of living or put her to sleep immediately. Sue Weeding knows amputation is rarely attempted and often results in failure but she cannot give up on this pony, cannot choose death while knowing an unexplored, albeit risky, option exists.

“Well, all right, we’ll amputate then,” she declares. Dudli von Dewitz pauses, then says, “That’s the easy bit. Anyone can cut the bone away, but it’s what do we do afterward. No one’s ever done it in Spain.”

*   *   *

Sue Weeding’s stout-hearted approach to seemingly unsolvable problems stems from a rough childhood growing up in urban Norwich, in eastern England. She quit school at fourteen and left home a year later, all but illiterate. She was always deeply passionate about horses, her interest sparked by the opening of a horse rescue center near her family home. However, with little money, she contented herself by sketching their figures. At age thirty she realized something about herself: “I was never going to marry anyone with money, so I must make it myself.” She tried her hand at business and discovered a natural flair for sales, launching several successful furniture stores before meeting Rod Weeding, a tall, soft-spoken construction-company owner who loved horses just as much as she did. His fascination began at age three, watching the majestic beasts pull carts, ploughs and other machinery around his father’s farm.

The couple married in 1995 and later set up a livery yard for fifteen horses, before retiring and moving to Spain in 2001. Their combined skills — the retail know-how, the construction experience, the expertise about horses — would later prove critical to the success of their rescue shelter.

It all began in October 2008 with Luceiro, a two-year-old stallion they found locked in a filthy and dark stable, his left eye badly injured and rotting, hurling himself repeatedly against the bars of his filthy stall as flies drove him crazy. The Weedings had gone to the private yard intending to deliver rubber stable matting, but everything changed once they laid eyes on Lucerio, who was considered too crazy to handle and would soon be sent away for dog meat. “I looked at Rod and we knew our lives would never be the same again,” Sue Weeding says.

The Weedings had moved to Spain to ease into retirement but, unable to walk away from such a distressing case of animal cruelty, they brought Luceiro home and unwittingly gave away their easy life to launch a refuge. Rod Weeding put his construction skills to use, building stables and horse yards on the five acres behind their farmhouse from whatever bits of wood and scrap metal he could scrounge up cheaply. Still, the cost of building something from nothing was astronomical. “We’ve put in at least €200,000 [$270,000] of our personal money, our retirement money, probably more,” Sue Weeding says.

Sue Weeding with Luceiro, the stallion who started it all. (Photo by Koren Helbig)
Sue Weeding with Luceiro, the stallion who started it all. (Photo by Koren Helbig)

Soon animals that had survived incomprehensible abuse were coming in from all over the region. One horse had been bashed over the head with a hammer and suffered such severe brain damage he had to learn how to walk again. Two little donkeys were found imprisoned in a perpetually dark garage, slowly starving in their own excrement. The ongoing financial crisis in Spain, which has left more than a quarter of the nation jobless, has also sparked involuntary abuse and neglect, like the skeletal white horse tethered to a sign on a patch of wasteland, his ashamed owner so poor he could barely afford to feed his own family let alone the animal.

The Weedings’ farm grew to include a menagerie of other rescued animals: nine dogs, nine cats, two parrots, an elderly cockatiel, peacocks, chickens, geese, Ernie the turkey and Isadora the pig. “We’re not an eccentric couple of lunatics collecting all these animals,” Sue Weeding says. “People come to us and I feel it is only right and fair to help these animals when nobody else would.”

She hates that animals have become disposable, an item to be tossed away when broken. “Nobody wants the horse that can’t be ridden, nobody wants the old horse. Faith was going to be a riding pony but the minute something was wrong nobody was prepared to do anything to help her. I would rather help these guys that nobody else cares for anymore.”

Yet this night just before Christmas 2010, facing the reality of an amputation that has never before been attempted in Spain, Faith seems beyond help. Then, like a flash, Sue remembers an e-mail she once received about an American pony named Molly, a casualty of Hurricane Katrina, who was later attacked by a dog and lost a leg. Her New Orleans rescuers, Kaye and Glenn Harris, fought for Molly and eventually found a local team willing to gift her a prosthesis.

The next day, Kaye Harris connects the Weedings with Rustin Moore, then a veterinarian with Louisiana State University, who performed Molly’s amputation. In a strange stroke of luck, Rustin is old friends with Gasper Castelijns, a skilled Dutch vet living in Barcelona. Castelijns served Spain’s 2012 equestrian Olympic team and has helped the Easy Horse Care Rescue Centre with specialist cases before. He and Moore confer over Faith before Castelijns agrees to see her and assess if she’s up to the enormous challenge.

“Most horses wouldn’t mentally be able to handle something like this,” Sue Weeding says. “But we all knew that Faith was a very special little pony. A bit like Molly, she was smart. She wanted to be helped.”

*   *   *

It’s February 22, 2011, time to take Faith to Castelijns’s Equihealth Veterinarios clinic in Barcelona. Faith clatters up the horse trailer ramp, her legs clamped into special supports. Rod Weeding drives her north along a highway snaking beside the Mediterranean coast, a three-hundred-and-fifty-mile, twelve-hour journey that would be grueling even for a healthy horse. Plucky little Faith arrives safe and sound.

The Weedings ride the familiar wave of hope as Castelijns makes a last-ditch attempt to save Faith’s leg by regrowing the bone. Then, disappointment as the procedure fails. The time to amputate has come.

“It isn’t something you do lightly,” Sue Weeding says. “It wasn’t like we thought, ‘Let’s chop her leg off and this will be great for publicity.’ Far from it. A lot of research, a lot of sleepless nights, and a lot of soul searching actually went into the decision because I had to be sure in my own mind that I wasn’t doing it for myself.”

On February 28, 2011, Faith is anesthetized and her team of two surgeons, along with an anesthetist and a nurse, work meticulously for five hours to sever her right foreleg three inches below the knee. They worry about how she will wake from surgery, how she will react to her bandaged stump and the temporary plaster cast leg, with its rough chunk of wood fixed to the bottom.

Faith takes to it immediately. “She actually walked out of the theater with the leg on,” Sue Weeding says. “She used the leg from the word ‘go’ and they were just absolutely amazed. She’s never failed to amaze them, that little horse. She’s just incredibly strong. She’s determined; nothing phases her.”

Faith with her new leg. (Photo Courtesy EHCRC)
Faith with her new leg. (Photo Courtesy EHCRC)

The surgery is a success but a new problem immediately presents itself as Spanish prosthesis companies balk at making artificial legs for an animal.

Claudio Nomen, a partner at Equihealth Veterinarios, vaguely recalls his aunt Mercedes once made artificial limbs with her company Neofrak, and he calls her. “They made this artificial leg with fiberglass and Velcro and all the leg components for kitchen cupboards,” Sue Weeding says. “It was very, very basic.”

Three months later, in May 2011, three-legged Faith is welcomed back to the Rojales shelter with fanfare, as television crews and packs of camera-snapping journalists jostle to cover the story of Spain’s first pony with a prosthetic leg. Faith’s fame has catapulted animal welfare into the public spotlight.

But the makeshift leg is problematic; it wears down quickly with use and must be replaced every fortnight. Something more permanent is needed. Once again, a call is made across the Atlantic, this time to Dwayne Mara at the Bayou Orthotic & Prosthetic Center in New Orleans. A skilled prosthetist, Mara made the artificial leg that saved Molly the pony’s life back in 2006. He agrees to take on Faith’s case, the beginning of a three-year partnership that continues today.

Months of back-and-forth discussions between Spain and America ensue as Mara tries to design the perfect leg for Faith. Like human amputees, over the first five years Faith’s stump will change shape and swell in hot weather as her body adjusts to the loss of a limb. Unlike human amputees, Faith stands day and night and her prosthesis must bear the bulk of her weight, as horses rest about two-thirds of their mass over their front legs. Friction sores are a constant worry. Countless models of different sizes with different socks and gel pads are tried, even one that bends at the knee. Faith hates that one and refuses to walk in it. It’s a €1,200 ($1,600) mistake, yet trial and error is the only way forward. In November 2011, Sue and Rod decide to send Faith back to Barcelona, where the weather is cooler and she has twenty-four-hour care at Castelijns’s veterinary clinic.

In the midst of all this, Sue Weeding falls ill and an eight-inch tumor is found on her ovaries, thankfully benign but necessitating surgery and weeks of recovery. She’s too weak to spend hours at the end of a shovel each day, mucking about twenty-nine stables, and Rod cannot cope on his own.

Sue and Rod Weeding in the Easy Horse Care Rescue Centre stables. (Photo Courtesy EHCRC)
Sue and Rod Weeding in the Easy Horse Care Rescue Centre stables. (Photo Courtesy EHCRC)

Over the next year, she falls back on her business knowledge, launching secondhand charity stores across the Alicante province that soon pay for two full-time stable hands and bring in the €3,000 needed each week just to keep the horses fed and watered, supplementing ad-hoc donations that rattle in and the small amount the Weedings earn selling horse supplies and equipment from an English tack shop run from the farm. The illness has been a blessing in disguise; it has secured the center’s future.

Sue Weeding also uses the time to pen a children’s book about Faith’s story, which she hopes will serve as inspiration for people with disabilities. She wants Faith’s story to raise awareness, too, about the treatment of animals in a country where they are routinely chased, maimed, and killed for entertainment. She is sowing the seeds herself by sharing the harrowing stories of her horses to every tourist, local and school group that visits.

The authorities are increasingly on the rescue centre’s side, as evidenced by the response to the case of Captain and Hope, two skeletal horses left to die inside a black garage in 2010. Their dreadful condition attracted major media attention, and amid intense community lobbying, police finally acted. A man was later jailed in what is believed to be the first such prosecution in Spain. Yet it’s unclear if Faith’s owners will ever face punishment.

Faith remains in Barcelona and, while it’s hard being separated from a pony she loves so much, Sue Weeding doesn’t dwell on that. She has no immediate plans to bring Faith home. The weather is kinder on her and she still requires daily attention from a specialist. “A lot of people would love it if I brought her back here. Yes, we’d get crowds coming to see her, but she’s not an attraction,” she says.

The Weedings have adopted a stoic attitude regarding the criticism they occasionally attract surrounding their decision to amputate, from people who suggest it was all a giant waste of money.

“The amputation was the right thing to do,” Sue Weeding says. “It’s given her a wonderful life. She lives in five-star accommodation, she’s loved and cared for, and I suspect there’s lots of very healthy, four-legged little miniature horses that would love to have this life.”

*   *   *

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist living in Spain. She blogs about sustainable living at The Little Green House and tweets at @korenhelbig.

Lena H. Chandhok is a Pennsylvania-born, California-raised, Vermont-educated cartoonist and illustrator. You can usually find her in Brooklyn in real life, and at lenadrawscomics.tumblr.com on the Internet.

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