LISBON – No vacations. No days off. Early mornings. Backbreaking labor. Huge expenses. No pay.
It’s a way of life for Janet Tuttle, who runs a shelter largely at her own expense for abused, neglected and unwanted horses. Old, blind, lame, unruly, sick, arthritic, she takes them all.
And would she give up this demanding life? Tuttle wouldn’t think of it.
“As long as I live and as long as I breathe, I will fight for every animal here,” said the 51-year-old grandmother, acknowledging that she couldn’t do it without help from her husband and a few other helpers, including five youths from the AmeriCorps program in Lewiston.
Tuttle runs Rockin’ T Equine Rescue, a 33-acre farm that takes in unwanted horses at no charge mostly from owners in Maine, although she’s taken some from elsewhere in the Northeast.
It’s no small task. The 32 horses must be fed and watered each morning, seven days a week. Then their stalls must be cleaned out. At noon, their hay is freshened, and they receive more water.
On Maine’s iciest mornings, the horses must be watered more often. And Tuttle recalls the sweltering Fourth of July last summer, she and her husband were at her 33-acre farm making sure the horses had fresh, cool water all day long while their friends escaped to camps for the holiday.
Each horse will require 300 bales of hay until next spring, and the animals consume 35 bags of grain a week.
Then there are the additional expenses of 22 cords of wood shavings for the stalls, blacksmiths for trims and shoeing, and veterinarians’ fees, which alone added up to $3,000 this year. Total expenses came to $32,000 last year.
Tuttle spends all of her working time taking care of the horses. “I’m a professional muckologist,” she said, referring to the tons of horse manure she shovels from a pair of barns that house the animals.
Her husband, Andy, works as a pipefitter at a paper mill in Skowhegan and often works overtime to help with the expenses. As for the rest of the money, “I don’t know where it comes from. There must be an angel upstairs.”
Although she is consumed by her job, Tuttle did make a point to get away from the shelter in mid-December to join a caravan of more than 80 empty horse trailers in a demonstration against animal abuse.
The procession was organized in response to the killing of two horses as they grazed in Pittsfield on Nov. 25. Two teen-agers, from Waterville and Pittsfield, were being held on several charges.
While she was angered and distressed, Tuttle was committed to horses long before the shootings. She grew up around the former Lewiston harness racetrack and owned horses since she was a child.
Over the years, she has seen case after case in which owners decide to get rid of their horses because the animals get too old, become injured, or become too great a burden. Some are discarded because they can no longer turn a profit racing.
Walking through two barns, Tuttle stops at each stall while AmeriCorps workers drop bales from the hayloft to the hard ground below.
There’s Dirty Dottie, a Shetland pony that’s not friendly with children. And a 29-year-old Standardbred with enlarged veins around its eyes, which Tuttle suspects resulted from drugs it was given during its racing days.
“This horse made mega, megabucks,” she said.
There’s Mr. Slammer, who is recovering from two broken leg bones. Tuttle paid $160 to save the horse that she says was in the worst shape of any to come to her shelter. Lame since it was a colt, it was riddled with bugs and sores when it arrived.
A black steer that calmly mingles with horses outside the older barn is also a member Tuttle’s family of equines. “He thinks he’s a pony,” Tuttle said.
Tuttle started her rescue operation in 1993. For years, she lugged 16 or more buckets of water twice a day to her horse barn across the road from her home. A water line has since been extended there to spare her the drudgery.
But there are other hazards.
While helping a mare to deliver a foal, Tuttle suffered a herniated disc in her back, which required surgery. The back injury still leaves her in pain and without sense in one leg, but her enthusiasm is not dulled.
To Tuttle, horses are almost human.
“People don’t understand that they have feelings, they they’re giving creatures if they’re allowed to be,” she said.
“I’d as soon sit out there on a bale of hay and talk to them than talk to a person,” Tuttle said. “They talk with their eyes.”
Tuttle will let families adopt horses she has taken in, but she always maintains ownership, just in case they change their minds. Many people take the animals with good intentions, but become overwhelmed with the work involved.
Those horses go back to Tuttle’s shelter until she finds someone else to take them. But she won’t let an animal go to more than three homes, saying it confuses the animals. So they retire at her farm for good.
Hers is not the only shelter for abused and unwanted horses in Maine. Maine state Veterinarian Chip Ridky said there are at least five licensed shelters for horses, though there might be more.
“It’s a lot of work, no question,” said Tuttle. “It’s an act of unconditional love to take an animal that’s abused.”
AmeriCorps volunteer Mandy Morin knows what Tuttle’s talking about.
“I love it so much I’m seven months pregnant and I still come out here,” Morin said. “It’s something about animals that are hurt.”