NEENAH — Twelve rescue horses, decked out in Christmas finery, paraded through neighborhoods near Neenah High School on Saturday, Dec. 1, carrying riders who were similarly decked out and cheerfully singing Christmas carols.
It has become an annual Christmas tradition in the Neenah-Menasha-Fox Crossing area, thanks to A Second Chance Equine Rescue, which was organized to save horses from slaughter.
Julie Perkins, a member of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish and a volunteer with Second Chance, started the holiday equestrian parade three years ago with the help of Tina Opinker, who runs Second Chance and owns Trailview Farm, a horse boarding farm in Larsen.
“This is something we used to do in Iowa when I was a child,” Perkins said. When she moved to Wisconsin and met Opinker, they started a neighborhood ride in Larsen. “It got bigger and we moved it into Neenah and Fox Crossing. We do it to raise awareness for these slaughter-bound horses.”
Each year, the riders select a different area in which to spread their holiday cheer. Next year, Perkins said, it will likely start at St. Gabriel Church. “We need a spot that has a parking lot big enough to accommodate our vehicles.”
Also new this year was the addition of a karaoke machine to aid the carolers. “This brings a little cheer and happiness to the neighbors on the route,” Perkins said.
Growing up in Davenport, Iowa, Perkins said her parents bought a farm and boarded horses, so the animals and their well-being have long been important to her. She joined Opinker in the rescue effort and estimates they have rescued over 450 horses, 83 that have gone through the rehabilitation program in that time.
The fate of horses sold at auction, or even those stolen from pastures and sent to slaughterhouses, is anything but an uplifting holiday story. She said the horses often are sent to Mexico for slaughter, an especially inhumane process, and sent to foreign countries to be used as meat for human consumption.
Opinker raises funds through online auctions and takes donations on her Facebook page. She bails the horses directly from the kill pens and brings them back to Trailview Farm, where they are rehabilitated and offered for adoption to loving homes.
“It is so sad. These horses are so scared,” Perkins said. “You can see it in their eyes. They may have been in kill pens for a while and it can take six weeks to months to rehabilitate them. We ride them at Christmas to show there is nothing wrong with them. They have been rescued and this is a second chance.”
For the parade, the horses are decorated with a Christmas theme — bells, Christmas blankets and lights. “It is something that makes me feel good, especially when little kids come out and feed the horses,” she said
The horses may take all the commotion in stride, but Perkins’ own rescue, Onyx, is a “bit of a diva,” she said. “She knows she’s pretty and wants everyone else to know it.”
Onyx’s rescue story is also a little different from the others. She was born on a farm to a mare whose owners kept her to collect and sell her urine. The urine is used in a hormone pill made from the urine of pregnant mares, said Perkins. “I have owned her for 13 years now and I thank God every day I have her.”
Perkins’ Catholic faith plays a role in her humanitarian efforts for God’s four-legged creatures.
“I think God is happy we’re rescuing these horses,” said Perkins. “I look at it from this perspective: What if your dog or cat got to be 5 or 6 years old and you didn’t want them anymore so you sold them off to be food for someone? I think there are something like 300,000 horses sent to slaughter each year.”
She has been aware of kill pens since she was a young adult because her family went to horse auctions. However, the kill pens gained more national attention in recent years through social media. “People running kill pens know what they are doing and know they can make money by buying and selling more horses. But, the ones we are able to rescue, we know won’t be going back to that fate,” she said.
Perkins, who has taught faith formation for 15 years at St. Gabriel, credits her family for giving her a good faith foundation. “My family has a strong faith-based background,” she said. “My parents, who were very involved in their church, set a good example.”
Since Christmas is the season for “bringing holiday cheer,” she is grateful to share it with rescued horses.
“It is the Christmas season when we thank God for what we have. Hopefully, we’ll encourage others to get out and do things to make people smile,” she said.
The Second Chance program and Trailview Farm depend on volunteers to feed, clean and rehabilitate the rescued horses. “Some of the horses are terrified,” Perkins said, “and to see the change in their eyes from the time they come until the time they leave is awe-inspiring.”