SAHA’s mission: To provide as many neglected, unwanted, slaughter bound horses with a second chance at life and love.
When Amanda Vella, the founder of the charity Save a Horse Australia, got engaged last Christmas, she put in on Facebook, definitely the modern way to communicate important events in our lives. But for Vella the announcement wasn’t made to a few dozen, or even a few hundred, or even a few thousand people. It was made to an astonishing 20,000 people who follow Vella, her steadfast band of volunteers and the stories of the horses she rescues on a daily basis from her home at Beaudesert.
But despite the overwhelming support and congratulations from those who support her and her organization, there are only a few who know the full story behind the engagement and fewer still who know Vella’s personal story of love lost and love gained.
Vella grew up in the small country town of Narrandera (population 3,871), on the banks of the Murrumbidgee in the Riverina district of southern New South Wales. “I always loved horses,” she says. “I was just born with a love for them. I borrowed a neighbour’s pony, and I got my own pony when I was 11. I was in Pony Club for a while, but I got kicked out for being naughty – I was a bit of a rebel.”
But the rebellious streak was not surprising. Vella lost her mother to cancer when she was seven, and her father, who didn’t cope well with her mother’s death, committed suicide when she was 13. Vella, caught in a maelstrom of loss and grief, turned to horses even more. At 14, she rescued her first horse, Gypsy.
“I paid $75 for her from the horse sales,” she says. “I had her with me in Narrandera for three months, and I adored her. But I knew I had to get away from home, and when I was 14 I made the decision to move to the Gold Coast to sort my life out.” For Vella, who has older and younger half-brothers and sisters, but was the only child to her parent’s marriage, the Gold Coast was one of the few places she knew that had happy memories. “I’d been taken there on a holiday by a family friend,” she says. “When things got difficult with my family I was living with my grandmother, who was not able to keep me permanently, so it was a question of going into care or leaving Nerrandera.”
Vella chose to leave, selling her childhood pony, Sandy to raise her bus fare, and for almost a year, lived, as she puts it “rough”, until with help from the Miami school principal, Jim Baker, she got an orphan allowance from Centrelink, and Austudy to go to school. “Mr Baker actually became my legal guardian at the time because I couldn’t even go to school unless I had a legal guardian because I was under 16,” she says. “I rented a caravan near my high school, Miami High, and I worked part-time – at Bernie’s Burgers, Sizzler and Toys R Us.” (She tells me this almost casually, as if it’s an everyday occurrence for 14-year-olds to move thousands of kilometres away from home, live in a caravan, study and work three jobs.)
It took Vella some months to feel secure enough to send for Gypsy, who was being looked after by a friend in Narrandera. When Gypsy arrived Vella was overjoyed – until disaster struck again. “I’d only had her up here for a few months when she was stolen from the property where she was agisted a 30-minute drive away from where I was then living.” she says. “I was completely devastated, at that time Gypsy was my life – I looked everywhere and advertised for her return, but nothing. I never found her, and I worried about what had happened for years, until only fairly recently I finally managed to trace her to a lady who had got her from the RSPCA so obviously the thieves couldn’t or didn’t keep her. This lady owned her for years until she was put to sleep – and I only missed her by a few months, but at least I knew she had been well looked after.”
It wouldn’t have been surprising if Vella, still traumatized from her emotional roller-coaster ride, had given up on horses at this point, but far from being deterred by Gypsy’s disappearance, Vella rescued her second horse, an emaciated bay Thoroughbred called Buddy she heard about from a friend. “My friend called me and told me about someone he knew who had a really skinny horse, so we rang him, and he told us to come and get him. He was in North Brisbane when we collected him, and after he’d recovered his weight we adopted him out to a lovely lady in the Lockyer Valley.” For Vella her trials have simply reinforced that this is her calling. “I’ve heard people say that they’ve been brought to earth to do a particular job,” she explains, “and that’s how it is for me. I was born to do this. I know that, and I’ve always known it.”
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and watching Vella at work – organising to pick up a surrender case, speaking with the local RSPCA, confirming the care requirements of a particular horse, and telling me she’s had to make the heart-rending decision to euthanaze a horse that isn’t going to make it, I wonder whether she feels that the loss of her parents – and of Gypsy – actually in some way prepared her for the life she leads now, a life in which she witnesses again and again the best and the worst of human behaviour and where she has to handle the prospect of a horse’s death on an almost daily basis.
“I think it definitely gave me an ability to cope,” she says. “Not that the decisions I have to make are easy, but at the same time what I do feels urgent and necessary and so I just get on with it.” (In a sad postscript to her Buddy story, his adopted family had him for many years until he and three other horses were drowned in the massive 2010/11 Queensland floods when the waters swept through the Lockyer Valley.)
Despite her long-term ambition to own a horse-rescue centre, even as a teenager Vella was canny enough to know that it would take money, and working her way school and university, she became a business development manager, earning enough to self-fund her horse rescue habit through her salary. “I started my charity the opposite way to most people,” she says. “I had 15 horses in care, and I was still working full time and self-funding all the horses. I finally decided to register the charity in 2009, and self-funded that for a long time as well. But then it gradually started to take off. I started up a Facebook page, and that just went crazy, and now a lot of our pledges for support come through Facebook, and last year I was able to start working full-time for SAHA.” Examples of goodwill towards Vella and her charity include a woman recently donating $10,000 to pay for an urgent operation needed for a rescue horse, vets donating their time whenever possible, and thousands of people donating money on a daily basis. “Everything helps,” says Vella. “Even five dollars makes a difference, and I am thankful for every dollar people give us.” (At the time of writing SAHA has 47 horses in care, and Vella says over 700 horses have been through the centre, although sadly not all of them make it, and even during the course of this article several horses had to be euthanized for various health complications.)
It takes a lot of people to run a rescue operation based around our largest domestic animal, and Vella now has around 35 people working with her – volunteers, committee members, foster carers and adoptive homes as well as an additional army of horse vets, dentists and farriers. What’s more, this is no glamorous get a gorgeous horse for free outfit – as Vella wryly puts it – “we’re not talking Olympic champions here.” Even running a charity, and with the massive amount of supporters she has, she’s found that, as she says: “Most people want something for nothing. And the horses we get are mainly old, or younger ones with particular problems, or horses that have been almost starved to death. Re-housing them is very difficult, and often we have to keep the very old ones ourselves. With the younger ones, once they have been rehabilitated, they are trained, and then fostered out before they are offered on lifetime adoption contracts.” (As well as the numerous amount of foster carers on personal properties, SAHA has two permanently leased properties – one of 20 acres in Beaudesert, and a 12-acre-property at Wongawallan in the Gold Coast hinterland.)
Because of the extraordinary numbers of horses that end up at knackeries – close to 40,000 per year according to Vella, she has had to narrow the focus of SAHA to something achievable. “It’s hard to actually quantify the exact number or horses that are killed every year,” she says, “because no government body keeps an exact account, but we know there are two official production plants that kill 700 horses a week each in order export the meat overseas for human consumption – one in Caboolture and one in South Australia, and there are 33 licensed knackeries in Australia, so even guesswork makes it a huge number of horses that are killed every week.” The charity’s decision was to bid against the ‘doggers’ as they are called, at the sales, and therefore save lives. “Once the slaughter men have bought them they are not allowed to sell them on, so we try to outbid them once we’ve decided which ones to try for,” she explains. And that, in itself, is a heart-breaking process. “We have to ignore the ones that we know cannot be helped, and that we would have to euthanaze straight away,” she says. “But other than that we don’t discriminate at all. Fortunately at many of the smaller sales, the younger horses in good condition – young ex-racehorses for instance – are often bought by people looking for a horse, which leaves us free to bid for those horses that need a second chance, but sometimes we will buy a young healthy horse to stop if from being slaughtered.”
There are a few things that make Vella angry and one is the idea that saving broken-down or old or sick horses is not valid. “Sometimes we get comments on Facebook about it, as we also do about the people who have let the horses get in this condition, and also about the guys that run the ‘kill’ lists and buy horses on a kill quota from the abbatoir,” she says. “I am absolutely firm on the fact that every horse deserves a chance at life no matter what their condition, and those of us that run the charity make the choices for good reasons about which horses to save. There’s no point in making accusations about people – stuff happens, people get in bad situations, or they simply don’t know, and the kill guys are just doing their job.” It’s a credo that she takes into her social media, frequently stopping negative lines of comment with a firm hand.
The day I visit the sanctuary I meet one of the stars of SAHA’s recent rescues. The completely adorable Trixie – a small (13hh) grey pony who arrived, having been bought by SAHA at Grafton sale for $100 so emaciated she was basically a terrified bag of bones. When horses are this sick they have to be introduced to food extremely slowly, and little Trixie was touch and go for a while. Because she was in such poor condition, she contracted a chest infection that required massive antibiotics, and just as all of her growing legion of FB fans were breathing a sigh of relief, she was affected by a paralysis tick, and again, being so small and thin it was a life-threatening situation. For three days she was kept in a stable with mattresses on the floor, and around the walls, so the 24-hour-volunteer roster could turn her every few hours. When she finally got up and walked and started eating again, there was an almost palpable sigh of relief from her thousands of followers. A few months later, she’s well, happy, putting on weight, and has learned to trust the human race again. With her little pink outfits (even a pink playball in her stable), she walks herself into her stable at night, and tucks herself up for the night. “Worth saving?” says Amanda. “You bet – and if she continues to improve there’s a good chance she’ll find a forever home.”
With all of this going on you would hardly think Vella would have time to look for romance, but it found her in the strangest way possible. “When I was at high school in Narrandera I had a boyfriend, Mark, (Davies) but we were young, and when I moved up to the Gold Coast we lost touch,” she says. “Then for Christmas 2012 I went home to see the family, and I met Mark again, and basically we just reconnected. What was so strange was that he was living and working in the Gold Coast too – we’d been living near each other for years, and had no idea, and then we met up at home again.” The romance quickly became serious, and Davies, who works in a quarry at Beaudesert has thrown himself into the SAHA work, helping Vella out at the weekends and whenever he has time.
It was a year later to the day that Davies proposed, and a delighted Vella accepted. Their long-term ambition is to move further out of the Gold Coast to Beaudesert or to the Lockyer Valley in order to open a horse sanctuary on their own property. Just to contemplate what this young woman has done with her life in the past 20 years is to know that there is absolutely no doubt she will succeed – and in the process she is not only, as she says, “making horses better and giving them a second-chance,” she is giving many of us who are horse lovers a chance to be better people.