As the rain pelted down outside a rural Pennsylvania barn 30 years ago, the song playing on the radio was the hit “Wildfire.” The family, gathered to watch their Appaloosa mare give birth, named the foal after the song. They later invited a friend to come by to see the black colt with the white spotted hindquarters.
“As soon as I saw him, I totally fell in love with him,” said William Faust, Jr., who bought the colt six months later. Called Fire for short, he joined Faust’s horse Injun, another stallion, in a barn in Pottsville.
Faust dreamed of starting a business to breed and show his two stallions, but the auto-body shop he owned consumed all of his time and energy. Still, for more than 30 years, he visited the horses twice a day, every day, to give them attention, feed, and water.
Recently, Faust lost his auto-body business to the recession. Injun died, and Fire, now alone, went into a depression. Finances forced Faust to sell the barn, which was in serious disrepair. He searched for a place to keep Fire, or a rescue to take him.
“I was going down country roads and knocking on doors,” Faust said. “I was told no, no, no. I called every place I could think of. People said nobody would take a stallion.”
On a weekend in April, Rebecca Schafer, a Pennsylvania Humane Law Enforcement Officer, went out to investigate a horse cruelty call. She saw Faust feeding Fire when she arrived. Realizing this was not a cruelty case, she listened to Faust’s story and decided to help.
“I called everyone I knew at nearly 50 different rescues, and no one would take him,” said Schafer, who is with the Tamaqua Area Animal Rescue in Schuylkill County. “As soon as I said stallion, they said no.”
An employee at one of the rescues told Schafer about a research study regarding fertility in older stallions. Working with a grant from the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, Dr. Regina Turner of Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center is studying the decline in fertility in horses due to advancing age. Dr. Turner was very happy to learn about Fire.
“It’s really hard to find and obtain testicles from old horses,” Dr. Turner said, explaining that male horses that are still stallions by the time they are 30 are often valuable genetically and are not candidates for castration.
“Horses are one of the few livestock animals that breed well into old age,” she said. “But here was a case of an older stallion that would benefit from castration. It was a chance for us to help a horse in a tough situation and also gain valuable information for our research.”
Through her research at the Hofmann Center for Animal Reproduction at New Bolton Center, Dr. Turner has confirmed that fertility problems in older horses are due to defects within the testicle itself, rather than problems with the larger endocrine environment. Later experiments showed that the presence of young testicular cells can improve the condition of the older testicles.
“In the presence of young cells, the old cells did better and survived longer,” Dr. Turner said. She now is working to isolate cells from young testicles to discover which cells are responsible for this effect.
Although this research is a long way from translating into human medicine, Dr. Turner said it is a possibility. “If we can find solutions in horses,” she said, “it is very likely that similar findings could apply to humans.”
In exchange for the donation of Fire’s testicles for research, Dr. Turner offered to have Fire’s surgery and care performed at New Bolton Center, with the surgery funded entirely by the research grant. Fire’s testicles would be the oldest in her study.
As a gelding, Fire would have a better chance of finding a home. So Faust agreed, and Fire received the best possible care and attention from New Bolton Center’s renowned team.
Dr. David Levine, staff veterinarian and board-certified surgeon, performed the castration. Dr. Bernd Driessen, Section Chief of Emergency, Critical Care, and Anesthesia, performed the anesthesia.
“A surgery like this can be risky in an older horse like Fire. So our team took every precaution,” Dr. Turner said. “With the expert care that Fire received, there were no complications during the procedure and the horse recovered well.”
Dr. Mary Utter, Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology, examined Fire’s eyes. He had lost sight in one eye, which had collapsed, but was not painful. His other eye had corneal ulcers that were treated with antibiotic ointment.
Dr. Caitlin Rothacker, of New Bolton Center’s Field Service, filed Fire’s teeth and recommended a new diet that would help Fire put on weight. He also was vaccinated and dewormed.
Patrick Reilly, Chief of Farrier Services, trimmed Fire’s hooves.
Fire had to have a place to go after the surgery. Schafer contacted Lisa Shotzberger, Animal Welfare Manager at Ryerss Farm for Aged Equines in Pottstown. A nonprofit founded in 1888, Ryerss Farm accepts older horses, along with a “dowry” fee of up to $7,500 to cover the anticipated cost of care. On occasion, rescue horses are considered without the fee, and sponsors are sought to cover basic costs.
After hearing Fire’s story, Shotzberger pleaded his case to Ryerss Board of Managers President Samuel Griffin, who accepted Fire, once gelded, and waived the fee. Fire now has two sponsors, each paying $30 a month to help pay for his care. Faust agreed to pay for his medication.
“This is such an incredible story of people coming together,” Shotzberger said, noting that she once worked at New Bolton Center. “Fire is fitting right in at the farm. He was relatively thin when he arrived and he’s been steadily gaining weight.”
Schafer said she is relieved that Fire is well-placed. “When you do animal rescue, you see so much cruelty, so much pain, and so much sadness,” she said. “When you get a happy ending to a story, it makes everything worthwhile.”
Faust said he hopes to visit Fire as often as possible. “I miss him,” he said. “I had a special bond with my horses. They helped me out. But I’m so glad to know that Fire has been cared for by the best doctors and is now with other horses.”
Learn more about the Hofmann Center for Animal Reproduction.