Glossy Raven, shaggy Ruby and timid Oscar could not have known it, but they owe a lot to the dozens of people strolling the aisles of their large barn at Spruce Meadow Farm and spooning up steaming soup Sunday.
The 8th annual Soup's On event, held in conjunction with the farm's winter horse show, is one of several fundraisers Spruce Meadow owners Karla and Alan Deacon run to help fund their horse rescue organization, Phoenix Rising Equine Rescue & Rehabilitation.
Fifteen of the horses curiously poking their heads out of the barn's roomy stalls are rescues, often saved at the last minute from feedlots in New Jersey or Pennsylvania where they are sold for slaughter in Canada or Mexico.
"It's awful to think of," said Karla Deacon.
The typical cost of a horse offered for slaughter is $500 to $900, and the veterinarian and feed bills to restore such a horse to health can be much higher.
Ruby, a former Western ranch pony who still bears a brand; Raven, a gorgeous dark bay; and Oscar, who Karla Deacon describes as "almost feral," are just three of the horses the rescue organization has saved.
"There are some that are beautiful, and there are some that are old and lame, and I assume nobody will want them," said Karla Deacon. "We wait to see if anybody else will take them, and if not, we will call and do it over the phone a minute or two before the deadline."
Other horses wind up in rescue because their owners can no longer care for them for one reason or another.
On Sunday, some of the horses were active, swinging their heads around or rattling their feet against their stall walls in a bid for attention as Deacon and her helpers ladled soup, stew and chili into bowls for chilled, hungry visitors.
"In a lot of the farm events, we try to do something for the rescue," she said.
Once the horses are rescued from the feedlots – or as Karla Deacon puts it, "bailed out" – they are examined and quarantined until they are certified healthy. They are fed well until they gain enough weight, and evaluated to see if they might be used in the stable's lessons or programs. If not, they are simply considered retired.
One of Deacon's happiest stories is about a blind horse named Kira who was adopted by a family, along with another horse from the rescue. "I thought, 'Who would want a blind horse? But the family just fell in love with her,' " she said.
"I'd eventually like to have all the lesson horses here be rescues," she said.
Karla and Alan Deacon have owned the farm since 1989 but incorporated Phoenix Rising in 2009 as a charitable nonprofit. "Before that, we had always done rescue here and there out of pocket," she said.
Michele Hillebrand of Williamsville suggested the soup fundraiser eight years ago when her daughter, Mary Katherine, was riding at Spruce Meadow. Although Mary Katherine now rides at a different stable, Michele Hillebrand showed up Sunday to savor some soup and support Spruce Meadow.
"Warm soup and cold weather go well together," said Hillebrand. "It was also a way to show people that no matter the weather, cold or warm, the horses need feed and care. In fact, they need more feed and care in the winter." Hillebrand hoped to show visitors that "this is a phenomenal program and a wonderful place."
Michael and Deb Rogers of Williamsville and their children, Anna, 9, and Joseph, 5, were enjoying both the horse show and the soup. Anna Rogers, who has been riding since October, collected four ribbons in the show, and Joseph got to pick out a noodle-filled tomato soup. "He was very interested in the food today," Deb Rogers said of her son.
Near the table stocked with homemade desserts, including some in the shape of horses, Alan Deacon greeted friends from his motorized wheelchair. He said, "You can quote me as saying, 'My wife loves horses and I love my wife.' "