When Holly Plunkett, then Holly Johannsson, played with her My Little Pony dolls in the sultry heat of Qatar and Saudi Arabia as a child, she could hardly imagine that two decades later, she’d be trudging through winter snow to tend to a mare with a sore hoof.
Yet she was, and does every day, as the sole worker at Plunkett’s Ranch Rescue between Erskine and Alix.
The Red Deer native moved with her family to the Middle East when she was only seven years old, and didn’t return until 2004 when she decided to go to university in her barely remembered parent country.
“I’ve got a few things to say about snow,” Plunkett said with a laugh.
She fell in love at a young age with horse toys, and when overseas managed to convince her parents to put her into riding lessons. From then on, it was all about horses for Plunkett, who went on to ride some dressage, though it was jumping that captured her passion.
When she returned to Canada to study, she only fell more in love with equines, which were now more than simply a riding companion and jumper, but a working horse.
That passion led Plunkett to start training horses and offering lessons, but the cost of acquiring horses for her lessons, horses that were mild mannered and properly trained, was financially beyond her means.
The search for the right equine companions led Plunkett to rescue – which Plunkett stresses doesn’t always mean something traumatic or terrible has happened to the horse.
“There are two facets to rescue,” Plunkett explained. “Some of it is awful, abused and neglected horses. Others are animals surrendered by their owners for various reasons, and not all of those reasons are bad ones.”
Purchasing and training rescue horses, usually the ones surrendered by their owners, was Plunkett’s entry into the world of horse rescue. That started about a decade ago, but for the past three years, she’s been the owner and operator of not-for-profit Plunkett Ranch Rescue.
It was simply a natural evolution to what she was already doing, Plunkett explained.
“I was already buying, training and finding homes for these horses,” she said. “It made sense to make it official.”
In the past three years, Plunkett has seen a lot of the surrendered type of rescue cases come to her ranch. She’s also seen a handful of neglect and abuse cases come to her for salvation.
Those stories don’t always have a happy ending.
“Sometimes we have to euthanize them,” Plunkett said of the battered, broken horses. “We’re really lucky that we have a good partner at Stettler Veterinary. They help us get through it. But we’d rather have these horses die with us, with love and dignity, than where they were.”
Other cases are heartbreaking for other reasons. One time, Plunkett was ready to head on a long drive to get a small herd of five neglected horses, one of which was nothing but skin and bones. The horses had been dumped on an elderly woman’s property, and she had gone to the effort to “rescue” them officially, so she could in turn seek help for the animals.
The neglectful owners, however, reclaimed the horses and there was nothing that could be done.
“I’d be really surprised if that one horse is still alive,” Plunkett said.
While there’s plenty of heartbreak, sorrow and frustration with the job, there’s also moments of joy.
The ranch is also home to a donkey, which came to the ranch after its owners decided they could no longer own animals. They sought Plunkett’s help in rehoming the equines, but the donkey was something that Plunkett just couldn’t part with.
“He’s a pretty fantastic guard animal,” Plunkett said, noting no brave and brazen coyotes can get past him. “He’s also a very good animal for teaching young children about how to act around farm animals.”
Another good news story to come out of Plunkett’s ranch is that of a young Arabian gelding rescued by Plunkett.
“We got him earlier this year,” she said. “He was very sick. He was underweight, had a snotty nose, and we didn’t think he’d make it.”
While researching the gelding’s past, Plunkett found out this wasn’t the first time the animal had been rescued. No, it was the horse’s unfortunate second time.
“We found out this was his second time rescued,” Plunkett explained. “The first time was part of a mass seizure of neglected horses.”
For a while it seemed that while he might physically recover, the mental condition of the equine may make him unsuitable as a riding companion.
Yet, eight months on, he’s now happy at his new home, a trail riding horse.
With only one or two rescues at a time, Plunkett can focus all her attention on helping heal the bruised, battered, or otherwise unwell guests at her ranch, before embarking on a training routine designed to help them fit in at their new home.
That costs money, though – money Plunkett has coming from her own pocket, or covered by donations.
The costs include feed, veterinary costs such as medical, farrier and chiropractic.
A new intake, depending on condition, can cost between $500-$700 in veterinary costs alone.
To help offset the costs, Plunkett offers affordable riding lessons for people of all abilities, starting as young as four years of age.
Even with the financial burden, the broken hearts and long worried nights, it’s nothing Plunkett said she’d change.
“They need us, and we love doing it,” she said.