“A horse doesn’t have to be used to have value,” wrote Melanie in Hoof Prints, a sequel to her book The Horses of Proud Spirit about starting a sanctuary for neglected and abused horses 20 years ago. Melanie and her husband Jim founded Proud Spirit while still working as professional firefighters in Florida. Today, located in Lincolnton, Georgia, Proud Spirit is one of the most successful and longest running sanctuaries for horses in the United States.
Melanie never backs away from helping an animal in need- whether it’s an elderly unwanted retired horse, a miniature horse with an abusive past or an abandoned emaciated dog- she comes to their rescue. With Jim and Melanie’s diligent care and the comfort of the herd, the dogs, donkeys and horses that find their way to Proud Spirit recover their health, and become a part of their family. The 58 current resident horses of Proud Spirit get to run freely on 150 acres playing in the sparkling lake and living their lives in peace.
During my visit to this amazing place where I spent time in the company of so many happy and much loved animals, I had a conversation with Melanie about the sanctuary, rescue work and what we can all do to help animals.
Lavanya Sunkara: Proud Spirit is celebrating its 20th year this year, and no doubt you have saved hundreds of horses. How did it all begin?
Melanie Sue Bowles: I have to be honest and tell you that I avoid using the word ‘celebrate’. The fact that animals even need to be rescued can’t be celebrated and I actually wish that Proud Spirit was out of business. But we started the sanctuary because we saw a need; abused, elderly and neglected horses needed a place to go where they could heal. We began with just one horse on five acres of land. Over the years we’ve evolved into an award-winning facility and we’ve intervened on behalf of nearly 400 horses.
LS: What motivates you every morning to do the work you do?
MSB: The short answer is, the horses. The longer answer is that I believe we are most happy in our life when we take the focus off of ourselves- what we have, what we don’t have, what we wish we had- and instead find ways to give back without expecting anything in return. In that regard, I get much more from our rescued horses than they get from me.
LS: You treat all animals that come into your life as family, you nurture them, communicate with them and they seem to bond with you right away. What is it about horses that you think most people misunderstand?
MSB: One of the biggest things that most people, even seasoned equestrians, misunderstand or disregard about horses is their emotional well-being. Horses form very strong ties, they become family to one another, but we sell them and trade them and shuffle them around from owner to owner, breaking up bonded mates and taking babies from their mothers way too young. It’s heartbreaking. Even sadder is all the horses that are forced to come and go through show barns and industries like Thoroughbred racing. Horses are herd animals, they desperately need each other to thrive, but those horses never even have a chance for that essential bonding.
LS: How do you stay positive with all of the animal abuse and neglect you witness in your rescue work?
MSB: I’m not always positive! Anyone who does rescue work sees the worst of mankind. It can be exhausting. But I think I’ve survived for 20 years in the trenches because I accept that evil has existed since the beginning of time and there will always be wrongdoing. For me, it’s a waste of time and energy to lament this fact, or to constantly question how or why abuse and cruelty happens. I’d rather put my energy into making things right for the lives I’m able to touch and rejoice the successes. When we bring a new horse into our fold we don’t dwell on his or her past or rail on about the abusive former owner. We focus on “right now”… this horse is here, right now, and he is safe and his future is secure.
LS: I read your book, The Horses of Proud Spirit, and I am touched by the stories. Each time you brought an emaciated horse back to life, tears welled up in my eyes. You are truly a blessing for these animals. What else would you like to see happen?
MSB: We aren’t taking care of the animals already here, and everyone who brings another colt into the world or another litter of puppies or kittens is guilty of adding to the burden. No man is an island and irresponsibility affects us all. Before you breed, or buy from a breeder, consider rescuing an animal instead. Imagine a day when we aren’t sending millions of animals to their death. I would like to see stricter laws regarding animal abuse, but these laws must be enforced. The laws serve no purpose when authorities turn a blind eye to the suffering of powerless animals.
LS: I bet your house is never dull with all the rescued dogs and horses. Any memorable or humorous moments in all these years?
MSB: Oh, there’s lots of funny stories, and I recount many of them in all three of my books. But one incident comes to mind that’s not in the books: One afternoon we had let several horses into the yard around our house so they could munch on the grass. It was a lovely fall day and we had all the windows and doors open. Jim and I were in the den doing something on the computer. Suddenly, we heard, CLOMP, CLOMP, CLOMP… one of the horses had walked into the carport which connected our house with the barn. We weren’t concerned as there was really nothing they could get into, and we just continued on with what we were doing. Then that distinctive sound of a horse’s hoof on concrete changed. It sounded more like a horse walking on tile. Jim jokingly said, “It sounds like someone is in the house.” We both laughed, not really believing that one of them would walk through the (for a horse) narrow back door. But then we looked at each other and hurried into the kitchen. Sure enough, there was Dancer, a beautiful elderly Appaloosa we had recently rescued, standing at the center island of the kitchen, just as calm as could be, as though he was ready to help us prepare dinner. My first thought was, “Please don’t potty!” My second thought was, “How in the world are we going to get him turned around?” But there were no mishaps and he walked around the entire island for us, and right back out the door.
LS: Any advice for people who want to do rescue work?
MSB: Your vision regarding why you’re doing this should be very clear. Rescue work takes an extraordinary amount of commitment and sacrifice. It goes back to my statement about finding ways to give back to the world around you without expecting anything in return.
To support Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary, purchase Melanie’s books The Horses of Proud Spirit, Hoof Prints: More Stories from Proud Spirit and The Dogs of Proud Spirit or make a donation at