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Life with Gracie: Once a ‘walking skeleton,’ rescued horse shows kids what love can do


When she arrived at High Meadows School late last year, no one expected the thoroughbred to survive.

She had no color. Her hair was almost all gone. Her hoofs were overgrown. She was at least 400 pounds underweight.

“She looked like a walking skeleton,” said Walt Knapp, head horse trainer at the Roswell school. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

No one can say exactly where the horse had been or why she’d been neglected for so long, but this is the kind of story that makes your blood boil and your heart leap all at the same time.

The dark bay thoroughbred arrived at High Meadows, an independent International Baccalaureate school, soon after Knapp received a text message from a friend.

The text, sent sometime around mid-July, included a photo of two emaciated horses.

Because she traveled so much, Knapp’s friend said she couldn’t take them. Could he?

He hesitated at first but then he remembered Little Moon, the campus Shetland pony, had fractured his right rear foot and the school needed another pony for its riding program.

Knapp reached out to his partner Nanci Levine, animal care leader at High Meadows. What did she think of adding a horse to the program?

RELATED: Atlanta police use horses to build bridges between cops, kids

They met with the school staff to consider the pros and cons. The downside, they decided, was the horses could die. But on the other hand, they could actually nurse the horses back to health.

They decided to take them both, but weeks later on Aug. 13, a trailer arrived at the school with only one of the animals. No one knows what happened to the other horse, but Knapp couldn’t believe his eyes.

The condition of a horse is based on its body weight. On a scale of one to nine, one is really emaciated. Nine is fat. This horse was a two. Her ribs showed through her skin. Her face was sunken.

She struggled to put weight on her feet. They struggled to get her off the trailer.

“We got some foam pads and duct-taped them to her feet to walk her to the arena,” Knapp said.

They put her in a stall alone, but that didn’t work. It was obvious to Knapp she needed a companion. He let Little Moon in and continued pumping the thoroughbred with hay. He gave her meadow time so she could eat grass.

One student took pictures every day to document her weight gain. All of them, from kindergarten through eighth grade, did their best to help take care of her. They brushed her mane. They fed her. They built her own private pen and kept it clean.

They named her Bella Luna, Spanish for beautiful moon.

“We wanted her to know and feel how beautiful she is,” said Madison Kaul, one of the students who helped nurse her back to health.

When the abscess on her right front foot healed and her nails grew out some three weeks later, Knapp started an exercise regimen, 30 minutes a day, seven days a week.

“She started to fill out pretty well, getting up to 1,320 pounds,” Knapp said.

To redistribute her weight into muscle, he increased the exercise to an hour.

In February, he got a veterinarian to come take a look at Bella. Knapp wanted to know if she could take a saddle. The vet gave him the OK but he took it slow. He dressed her in the saddle, but no one rode her. For the next two weeks, they let Bella get used to the saddle, then started putting professional riders on her, a half hour a day at first, then an hour.

By March 1, Knapp was sure she was ready for his students.

“That was our big day,” he said. “We put eight kids on her. She did extremely well, so she’s ready.”

On March 8, nearly six months after she arrived, Bella Luna officially entered High Meadows’ riding program.

On March 16, she will be included in the after-school equestrian classes, giving students the chance to learn how to ride and care for a horse. And beginning in June, she will be part of the school’s summer camp activities.

John Dovic, director of camp and auxiliary programs, said animals and their care have long been a part of the curriculum at High Meadows, formerly a 40-acre family farm in rural Roswell.

When the school was established in 1973, Dovic said its founders decided to keep the “farm” as a part of the program.

“They felt it was important to teach children the significance of farm life and the history it played in early America,” he said. “Children learn that wool comes from sheep and goats; that these items in turn become our clothing, bedding and important household items. They see that eggs are laid by the chickens, are collected and used in cooking, and not just purchased in a grocery store. They learn how to be safe around large, heavy animals when they brush and groom the ponies and come to pony rides. They learn that kind, respectful behavior earns them trust and calm behavior from the animals.”

Madison Kaul, the 12-year-old sixth-grader who helped nursed Bella Luna back to health, said that for her, being around animals is like what yoga is for other people.

“They help me relax,” she said.

Being able to interact every day with Bella and the other farm animals at school, Kaul said, makes High Meadows all the more special.

And it was particularly cool “to watch how Bella went from this horse that had been neglected to this beautiful horse I get to ride,” Kaul said. “After winter break, she looked like a totally different horse.”

Bella, who sports a dark bay coat, a tan nose and three white feet, is the fourth horse the school has acquired. In addition to Little Moon, there are Koda, a black and white pinto, and Bentley, a Welsh pony with a club foot.

Thoroughbreds are generally antsy animals, so Knapp was concerned Bella, whom he estimates is about 15 years old, might have “blow-up” problems, but not so far.

“I’ve been around horses all my life, and she is the most gentle I’ve ever been around,” he said. “She’s proven a tremendous success. Her ability to go from where she was into our riding program is phenomenal. The life expectancy is 30 years, and we believe we’ll have her at least that long.”

Just goes to show love can cover a multitude of sin.



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