Elle passed away on Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012. Read her inspiring life story below.
Belgian Draft Horse
Birthday: January 3rd, 1985
Arrival at TGMR: 2008
She’s large, even for a horse. At 1,300 pounds, Elle could easily frighten someone standing too close. But she’s friendly and gentle, nudging you to be stroked and petted. She loves the attention because she never got any in her previous situation. Elle is a Belgium cross, draft horse, the type of farm animal that works long and hard, just as she did for 23 years. Elle spent her days pulling a plow and performing other feats of exhausting labor on an Amish farm somewhere in Lancaster County. Day in and day out, she worked, no matter how good or bad the weather, until she was too old to do more. So, it’s nice to imagine that the farmer would have turned her out into a grassy pasture to live out her retirement in ease. Well, it didn’t happen that way.
Elle was sent to the kill pen, the last stop before the slaughter house.
Elle was tired and worn through but there was still a spark in there somewhere and it was noticed. At a last-chance livestock sale, the owner of the kill pen decided to try to sell Elle to be ridden, perhaps in kiddie rides. This is where Kathryn Gress of The Gress Mountain Ranch came in.
Kathryn was at this horse rescue with one of the Gress Ranch volunteers. The volunteer was hoping to buy a horse for herself and had asked Kathryn to come along. Buying her own horse was the last thing that Kathryn had imagined. But then Kathryn saw Elle and learned the horse’s history. It was apparent from Elle’s physical condition and how slow she moved that this animal was old, overworked, and suffering from arthritis and other age-associated problems. Katherine thought that Elle deserved a rest and wanted to rescue the animal from the additional work that a riding horse suffers even if it is only being ridden by children. So Kathryn got in line to bid on the horse but the man in front of her was already inspecting Elle and trying to strike a bargain.
Having been saved from the slaughter house, Elle’s luck held once again. The man decided that the horse was not up to his demands and Elle went home with Kathryn. Even though the veterinarian who examined her thought Elle was a “train wreck,” under Kathryn’s patient care, Elle became The Gress Mountain Ranch therapy horse. It didn’t take long for the other ranch animals to appoint Elle the gentle matriarch of the group. As the largest and oldest of the animals, Elle spent her days grazing among the goats, donkeys, llamas and other residents. Elle didn’t mind when the goats ran around and under her, trying to cause a stir. Elle didn’t think it strange when Jo-Jo, a male miniature Mediterranean donkey, fell in love with her. And when a second horse later came to live at the ranch, Elle just assumed that it was her job to watch over the new gal’s progress too.
Elle’s position as matriarch was tested when the new horse somehow got loose from the fenced pasture. Realizing freedom was just around the bend, the new horse took off at top speed down the lane toward the heavily-traveled country road. Within seconds, Elle grasped what was happening, ran to the fence and neighed as loudly and insistently as she could. It worked. The new horse returned, humans responded and a bad situation was avoided.
For four years, Elle’s comfortable retirement has been augmented by a second career: Equine, therapy horse. Elle works with humans who need help addressing their psychological problems in many ways. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes of communicating up close and personal with a large but gentle animal to get a reluctant talker to open up. In other situations, grooming a horse can help a person gain self confidence in their own skills. A client who is afraid to try something outside of their comfort zone might be more encouraged to do so after feeding and watering a horse for the first time.
Over the past four years at the ranch, Elle has learned how to unlock her stall and get out into the pasture when she wants to rather than on the human’s schedule. This delights the goats to no end because they can then scoot in after she exits to finish up any leftover horse food. Elle has also made it obvious to her human companions that she loves to be sung to and takes great pleasure in an oatmeal bath. Elle has also taken the lead position in the herd that she has formed with the various other animals on the ranch. This mixed herd is a good example of how creatures that are very different from each other can still get along so well. It’s an example that hopefully is not lost with the many clients, visitors, professionals and volunteers who come to the ranch.
Now at 27 years old, ancient for a horse, even a draft horse, Elle’s age is catching up with her. Her arthritis is chronic, her gait is scuffling, and she moves very slowly. It’s difficult for her to get around and if she falls, she can’t get up. Unfortunately this is exactly what happened recently. Kathryn found Elle on the ground balanced on her forelegs with her hind legs in front of her. This is not a comfortable position for a horse but Elle was stuck; she couldn’t get up. Coaxing didn’t work and lifting was out of the question, so 911 got the call. The Weisenberg Chief of Police responded, soon realized that this unusual situation was beyond his abilities, and called for more help. As Elle grew more uncomfortable, weaker and more scared, teams of rescuers showed up: CART (Lehigh Valley Animal Search and Rescue) the fire departments from Weisenberg and Tri-Clover, veterinarian Dr. Lutz, the Lehigh County Special Operations Unit, a Northern Valley ambulance, machinery and volunteers from Pennsylvania Lawn and Landscaping and Stone Haven Supply Company, as well as many of the Gress Ranch’s friends and volunteers. It took hours but the patience, trial and error, and the concerted efforts of the many rescuers in attendance resulted in getting the tired and frightened horse to her feet. Without the proper equipment for lifting a horse, Kathryn says that these communities of helpers were able to perform a miracle.
Elle’s distressful situation has had a silver lining though. It has provided valuable learning experiences for the local animal rescue organization and fire departments. It has given those who need related training and equipment the incentive to acquire some. It has brought diverse members of the community together in an emergency and shown them how to work well as a mixed herd. And as evidenced by the many, many calls and letters from concerned county residents, Elle’s adversity has brought the good work of the Gress Ranch before the public like no other story ever has before.
She’s a an old gal who won’t be with us much longer so we treasure every minute we have with Elle, the gentle and inspiring matriarch of The Gress Mountain Ranch.