'This is home': Sisters aim to provide 'forever home' for teeny equines
Happy Little Hooves Pony and Donkey Sanctuary is located near Estevan, Sask.
A group of little donkeys and mini horses gathered in a circle, nickering and huffing around their afternoon snack.
The hay didn't last long in the front yard pen.
Ponies in the adjacent lot whinnied in jealousy, seemingly forgetting the fresh carrots they had just eaten.
Wind whipped Poker's hair around as Laura Stock gave him a pat and explained that it was "Pokey" who inspired her and Rhonda Stock to make an old dream a reality.
Poker could hardly walk because of his overgrown hooves when he arrived on their farm in 2018.
Now, Poker acts as the welcoming committee and is a relentless force of friendliness when new animals arrive at the site, regardless if they kick him.
The sisters formally opened Happy Little Hooves Pony and Donkey Sanctuary as a non-profit in January.
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It's meant to be a "forever home" for neglected, abandoned or unwanted animals.
"This is home. This is where they're going to stay. This is where they can make their friends and just live out their lives in peace and happiness," Rhonda said.
The sisters have 15 sanctuary animals at the site, but they hope to expand as the demand for their services grows.
They say they fell in love with donkeys after receiving Henrietta and Horton in 2011.
Laura said it's heartbreaking to see the animals at their worst.
"They can be so scared and so hurting that you just want to want to snuggle them and help them, but you have to give them their time," Laura said.
Helping to educate animal owners
Rhonda said they want to promote education in addition to helping animals.
"The ideal situation is that you can help other owners to be able to still look after their own animals."
She said neglect leads to trouble with these animals.
For example, she said donkeys are bought for herd protection because they have more "fight than flight." But the little ones aren't good protectors against predators.
"People will get them because they're cheap and small, and they figure that it's just easy to throw them out there."
Neglect can cause long, twisted feet and behavioural issues because of a lack of social interaction.
It's a similar scene for the minis and ponies.
"People buy them because they're fun pets for their kids," Rhonda said.
"They think that they're going to be easier to take care of than a larger horse."
Improper diets — and resulting obesity — are often the cause of hoof issues for ponies and mini horses, she said.
Laura kissed Echo on the nose as she explained the red mini mare was one of the worst cases they've seen.
"She couldn't walk, so when we unloaded her from the trailer she actually fell out," Laura said. "She would lie on the ground and just eat a circle of grass from around herself."
Now Echo frolics in the pasture with the other minis and donkeys.
"As we trim their feet and get their health under control, you can see their personality just exploding," Laura said.
The devastating loss of Dumpling
Rhonda said her work will forever be inspired by Dumpling: her first little donkey.
There was terrible flooding in the area in 2011, and the donkey got stuck in the creek that runs through the pasture while Rhonda was away for the weekend. She said he had swam through the creek before, trailing after a horse, but the water was unnaturally high. Dumpling drowned.
"I was just absolutely devastated," Rhonda said.
"There's so many things that I would do different now," Rhonda said.
The sanctuary has been outfitted with additional safety measures and security cameras that can be viewed on the Stocks' phones. The little ones are not allowed by the creek.
"We've learned so much," Rhonda said.
Rhonda often thinks of Dumpling as she's out petting the animals in the pasture, and in a way they help her cope.
"All these little guys, they're such good therapy," she said.
The sanctuary is at capacity for now because the Stocks are looking to be caretakers for Animal Protection Services. The organization said a partnership has not been formalized; however, it has completed one inspection of the sanctuary and plans to do a follow-up.
Laura walked to the edge of the front pen and looked toward the pasture land across the road.
A group of keen animals sauntered behind her, eyes locked on the bag of carrots in her pocket.
"We would like to expand our pastures and eventually we would like to buy more land so that we can take in more," Laura said, "make sure that more of them can be happy."