In December 2020 a pony was spotted not far from a hiking path in the Mourne Mountains. The following day it was out of sight. A few days passed and it was seen again, foraging on the ground that had been already extensively grazed by sheep. At the pony’s side was a donkey. A walker seeing this donkey raised concerns to the nearest landowner. Fearing for the welfare of these animals the landowner contacted the sanctuary and explained about their appearance on the mountain, the donkey’s overgrown hooves, and the pony’s generally poor condition.
Immediately we asked if they could get photos while we reached out to our closest volunteer to see if they could do a visit to see the animals for themselves. When the landowner eventually tracked down the pony the donkey was out of sight once more, having traveled further up the mournes. The photo clearly showed a straggly pony on land with little to no grazing and a very low hanging belly.
Immediately we shared among the senior staff, and discussed options; could we help? Did we have room? Could we afford this? With so many mouths to keep fed, it is such an important question to ask but it’s a question we often find ourselves ignoring the answer to; because how could we turn them away? We had room, we could work it out, male or female? We had no idea but we would work it out. We had to.
Our volunteers visited and they too were greeted by the pony but no donkey; they were able to agree with our fears over the pony’s condition. It was clear the pony needed help as soon as possible, with or without the donkey. The landowner and volunteer tried to encourage with food but the pony didn’t recognise it, and wouldn’t let them close enough to even assess sex or full condition under the winter coat. They tried to run but only for a few seconds before exhaustion would have them on the brink of collapse.
We knew we needed to make a move. The landowner hiked up the hills with feed to try and lure the donkey back into sight while staff made plans back at the sanctuary; formulating the best course of action for rescue while arranging transport. The Mournes aren’t a small place for a pony to run loose, and we had high concerns that if we didn’t act fast we would lose our chance; equally, we knew that to rush things we could scare them away, or stress them beyond their bodies capabilities.
We arranged for Monday the 25th of January; volunteers and staff on standby; then we got the call; the Donkey had been sighted and the landowner was going to try and lure them into the same area as the pony. We were pleased to hear that the donkey at least recognised food and wasn’t afraid to follow the people down the mountain. We moved up the rescue date; not wanting to take any risks waiting over the weekend; of course, there were weather warnings and with lockdown there were voices heard to question if what we were doing was even allowed.
We couldn’t leave them forgotten though. Having first-hand knowledge as well as photos of the pony we knew they needed our help, sooner rather than later. The donkey for us was an unknown but what we did have was the words of that first hiker who spotted them; ‘that donkey isn’t going to survive’.
We packed up the jeep and trailer, arranged to meet our transporter there, and took off with feed, hay, lunge lines, ropes, pens, gates, headcollars, and more; anything we could even think we could need to get them safely. It took about two hours of traveling; leaving the sanctuary in the snow and ice and arriving at the seaside town of Newcastle and feeling like we’d entered another country with the sun shining and the sky blue. Perhaps this was a sign of the day ahead?
Rumbling up the stoned and grassy lane we took in the beauty of the land around us, the sea to our backs as we drove. It was a beautiful place, but clearly not suitable for this pony. There was hardly any grass; the majority of what we could see being hedges, trees, and rocks. The landowner and our volunteer led the way and we took in our first sight of the donkey standing at a gate; like he’d been waiting for us. Pulling up nearby we could see the pony pulling at bits of grass, they didn’t even lift their head to look our way.
One staff member approached, taking their time to assess the situation. Immediately the donkey regconised food; and even showed recognition over a headcollar. The staff member greeted them like they were old friends, affectionately calling them Cyril; although at this point we didn’t even know the gender.
After a moment they let us quickly slip it over their head; barely flinching as we checked him over, going as far as to lift his tail and check his sex and even letting us lift his poor feet. They were a mess and it was clear he was tired. It was also clear he had done this all before, he’d known a home at some time before he found himself abandoned and neglected on the Mournes. Checking his teeth it was clear he was in his teens, late teens at a guess. We wondered how long he’d been out on the hills, roaming around?
His feet were in poor condition but his coat wasn’t terrible, although running our hands across his skin we could feel signs of sores and rain scald. It was clear he’d been getting something to eat, enough to survive; although his belly still showed signs of worms he was sturdy under his fluffy coat. He honestly looked happy to see us, happy for the attention. He didn’t push, didn’t barge, just stood eating and listening.
His companion wasn’t so sure. We ascertained the pony was a female and had a prayer of hope that that heavy belly wasn’t holding another life. It was clear even from her tail that she wasn’t much more than a baby herself; definitely no more than 2 years old. 2 years old and looking at us like she wasn’t sure what we were, what food was, what was happening, or why.
She was tiny, her coat hung on her heavy and in patches; with mottling of colour, mud, and dust. Staff started the slow job of gaining her trust, taking their time until she let them closer, one step at a time.
Eventually, she held long enough for a hand to reach her. It was clear in her eyes she was scared, but she didn’t have the energy to run, and part of looked like she just wanted to give up. Her eyes pleaded with us to go away and let her be, but her body screamed to help her. We told her with our words that we were there to help her, that we didn’t want to cause her pain or suffering, that we wanted to heal. Evermore she grew in confidence with us, each minute opening another chance for staff to reach her. In many ways a game of pressure and release, of giving and take.
We had the option of backing up the horsebox, placing the pen and gates, and then chasing her up. It would be quicker and in some ways less stressful. But to do that we would put her on the defensive and the process of trust would take even longer; even if it did hurry our day along a bit. We were constantly assessing where the limit was; what moment would be too far; or too much. She soon realised human hands have an incredible benefit; they can scratch those hard to reach itches. She leaned into the staff on this realisation and her eyes rolled in joy at finding a release. Meanwhile, the staff shivered at the sensation of crawling, able to see the lice thick on this little pony’s coat. There wasn’t an inch of her not physically crawling.
Through scratches and time, the pony accepted a headcollar to her side, and then slowly across her body; so slowly we worked on getting it around her neck. We say ‘we’ but we mean a single staff member; so as to not overwhelm her. We often say when working with animals; rescues especially that you need four hands, but not two bodies. So the staff member struggled to continue her light scratches working a headcollar on and keeping her footing; while the rest of the team stood on the other sides of the gates and watched.
It felt like forever we watched her learn to trust, but it wasn’t that long at all. We joked that the experience of these staff is what makes them so good and why they are always the first sent into the muddy, wet or dangerous situations; it isn’t a joke though, they really are incredible to watch and so dedicated. We are so very lucky to have them on the team.
The little filly for, probably, the first time in her short life was wearing a headcollar, and soon after a lead rope was attached. She stood a little shell shocked and confused, most of all she stood exhausted. She wobbled on her legs, and it was here we were really able to assess her. Feeling down her coat we counted every rib, felt the spine and hip bones. There was nothing of her; she was as light and as fine as a little bird. Her winter coat gave her an appearance of a child dressed up in their mother’s old coat. She looked tired, and she looked old beyond her years; well beyond.
It was around this moment we knew that she couldn’t have waited any longer; she was barely on her feet; her fight the only thing keeping her going.
The trailer backed up and we began the process of loading; a process neither seemed too happy with; the donkey’s reluctance to load could have been down to previous experience or just a donkey’s nature. In the end, it was a series of physically moving each leg until he stepped closer. As we tried to load him the filly decided the box looked safer than out with all the strange people. The donkey followed not long after.
We secured them inside and checked them out; the pony was hanging but after the stress of the last while she pooed. Among the poo, we saw the proof of the worms we had already guessed. A huge roundworm among dehydrated poos. This little filly was quite literally eating on the outside by the millions of lice; while the worms worked on the inside.
We have rescued many animals over the years; many of whom have come from worse conditions; many who have come from those same hills. This Donkey and filly are very sadly not uncommon, but we are so very glad that these rescues aren’t the norm. As straightforward as this rescue may have been, it still shouldn’t have had to happen.
Robyn, our little bird of a pony, is a pony who is aged beyond her years. Her coat is dirty, dusty, and patchy. Her skin is rough and thin and crawling. Her bones are prominent. Her tail is fine but hangs and drags along the ground when she walks. Her teeth are damaged and malformed; with little grind and pockets where food has built up causing stagnation and infection.
We syringed the build-up out; the stench enough to make you retch. It is impossible to know how long some of it has been lodged. When she chews she foams while she fights to eat the hay. What little she does eat her body is throwing back out, either through quiding or in her poos.
On arrival she collapsed against the wall, her legs crossed over while she leaned there; too weak to stand on her own. She looked at the food with no interest and no clue. Many of us left that night expecting to hear she had passed in the night or that the vet had to be called. Lyn the manager checked on her every other hour, checked on them both, but focused on the filly. Eventually, on Saturday morning we saw progress as she started to eat the warm mash, if slowly.
By the evening of Saturday, she had begun to lift her head and watch us when we arrived. She has taken to helping the donkey finish his dinner; considering his weight is fair we are happy for them to share. Multiple small warm mashes to help build her up; without overloading her system. She is standing on her own, and her poos have moisture in them; although still has a way to go.