“Somewhere…somewhere in times own space, there must be some sweet pastured place, where creeks sing on and tall trees grow, somewhere where forgotten horses can go…” reads a sign at the entrance to the Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary.
Author’s Note: I wrote this article two years ago for Petside.com when Proud Spirit was located in Arkansas. My first visit was so wonderful that I visited my friends again this year at their new location in Georgia, and it was no less amazing. I cherish being around happy and healthy horses and inspirational people dedicating their lives to helping animals. I can’t wait for my next trip to meet their new addition—kitten Sunny, who I’m happy to announce is named after me (my last name).
Home to more than 50 horses, Proud Spirit is one of the longest running and most successful horse sanctuaries in the United States. Melanie Sue Bowles and her husband Jim Bowles founded the sanctuary 21 years ago and the duo has intervened to help more than 400 horses, in addition to donkeys and dogs in need. Melanie’s heartwarming and remarkable animal rescue stories featured in her books inspired me to visit the 320-acre sanctuary in Arkansas in 2011, where the rescued animals live out their lives in peace.
Since then, the sanctuary has moved to beautiful Lincolnton in Georgia where the horses roam freely on 150 acres of green pastures and wilderness. Having visited both locations, I can say that no matter where they are, the place is truly magical. It’s a temple of healing for the animals who come to live out their lives, and for the people who visit. I feel blessed to have spent time with Melanie and Jim and their animals, including the pigs, ponies, and puppies.
Proud Spirit: Beginnings
Right after getting married, Melanie and Jim moved to a house with five acres in Florida where they worked as professional firefighters. Melanie, who knew nothing about horses, developed a fascination with her neighbors’ horses. It was when she began her search to buy a horse that she learned about the horrible abuses that go on in the equine world. She saw and heard about horses that were overworked, kept for endless hours in dark stalls, starved and (even worse) destroyed after they have worked their entire lives.
Melanie’s first horse Cody turned out to be a difficult Thoroughbred teenager. Many experts and vets advised her to get rid of Cody when she wouldn’t let Melanie ride her. Cody was ridden most of her life, her feet and teeth were in horrible shape and she suffered from mouth ulcers. After helping Cody recover her health, Melanie educated herself by reading books and talking to horse people.
She realized she needed to communicate with Cody in a way she’d understand. Horses are social herd animals and have a pecking order. One day, to get Cody to move out of her way, Melanie imitated a dominant horse by walking steadily with her arms tight by her side and thrusting her chin towards Cody. This time Cody responded and things began to change for the better. But Melanie lost interest in riding. Seeing how joyful it was to help this previously abused horse become vibrant and healthy again, she set out to help other horses.
Melanie never hesitated to aid a horse in need—whether it was a retired racehorse, a miniature horse who suffered at the hands of an abusive owner, or an emaciated one near death. The animals recover under her diligent care, and thrive at the sanctuary where they form bonds in the comfort of the herd and roam freely. There are no pony rides and no one gets adopted out. The horses come to Proud Spirit to stay.
As their herd grew, Melanie and Jim packed up their belongings and their animal friends and moved from Florida to Arkansas in search of wide-open spaces.
Horses of Proud Spirit
“There are no pony rides here. They’ve given enough”, said Melanie, looking over her happy herd.
“Go ahead, let him smell you,” Melanie suggested as I neared a horse named Tuxedo. He is a Standard bred off-the-track who found a safe haven at Proud Spirit after escaping a fate of being put down due to an injured tendon that made him unfit to compete. I touched his soft nose, and ran my hand along his muscular neck, surprised at how smooth his skin felt. Tux gracefully turned his giant head toward me with his forelock waving in the wind. My heart began to race, but I knew this gentle horse wouldn’t hurt me. He simply liked the attention.
Then Biscuit, an adorable donkey with a smooth snout, walked over, and proceeded to smell my shirt. I chuckled as I pet him too, blessed to be around these beautiful creatures. Jim spread out hay in the distance, and all the horses trotted towards it with their tails swinging.
“Look at the scars on this guy’s lower legs,” Melanie pointed me towards a gray horse chomping away. She said that pin-firing and nerving (the injection of acid to numb injured areas) was used so that horses could continue running without feeling pain. I am glad he no longer suffers.
Dogs of Proud Spirit
Over the years, Melanie and Jim have also opened their hearts and doors to numerous dogs, and helped place over a dozen canines with loving families. I read their stories in the endearing and often hilarious The Dogs of Proud Spirit book, and I was thrilled to meet them.
“There is always a dog at your feet,” said Jim as I maneuvered my way around their living room where 13 dogs of all sizes and breeds sprawled over on the couches, under chairs, and on top of cushions.
Gunner, a mixed Corgi breed who spent his first two years locked up in a shelter; the beagle mix sisters Trixie, Daisy and Trudi who were found by the side of road as puppies; and the fluffball purebred Corgis, with their blue and brown eyes, destined to be euthanized or spend their lives in shelters because they didn’t meet breed standards, are all now a part of the Bowles’s family. There is plenty of love to go around at this sanctuary.
One morning during my visit, Melanie heard of some starving horses in a neighboring town, so we set out with hay in the back of the truck. The open landscape was dotted with cattle and horse breeding farms.
“So many breeders out there, when the existing horses aren’t taken care of…” said Melanie.
Upon arrival, we were in shock. The 11 horses in a fenced in area had nothing to eat. A muddy watering hole was used for drinking. Two mares looked pregnant, and one had an infected leg. Worse was seeing two severely emaciated dogs covered in mange that needed immediate medical attention.
“How could anyone do this?” I wondered, fighting tears. Their owner was nowhere to be found. Melanie acted fast and placed calls to authorities and concerned friends to get help to these neglected animals. That evening, as we looked out to the pastures of Proud Spirit, I asked Melanie how she stays calm and continues her rescue work despite witnessing so much animal cruelty.
“I survived for 20 years in the trenches because I accept that there will always be wrongdoing,” she said. “Instead of wondering why it happens, I put my energy into making things right for the lives I’m able to touch and rejoicing the successes. We focus on ‘right now’… this horse is here, and he is safe and his future is secure.”
I am forever changed after my time with these amazing individuals who have dedicated their lives to animal rescue and sacrificed so much for the sake of animals.
The world needs more of such saints.
How You Can Help
Purchase Melanie Sue Bowles’s books The Horses of Proud Spirit, Hoof Prints: More Stories from Proud Spirit and The Dogs of Proud Spirit, available wherever books are sold. Proceeds go towards animal care.
Visit www.Horsesofproudspirit.com to learn more and make a donation.
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