By Sarah Colson
Elan, a 26-year-old quarter horse, spends her days happily grazing grass and munching hay with her friends, both donkeys, Willy and Jenny, on a 45-acre farm in Telford. While the three graze and play, barn swallows dive hastily from nearby trees to Elan’s stall and a red-tailed hawk soars overhead looking for a meal amongst the rolling hills below. Unfortunately, life has not always been this picturesque for Elan.
“She was pretty much near death,” Lucinda Grandy, president of the Humane Society of Washington County, said. Elan was found abandoned in the back of Bonnie Grindstaff’s barn. Grindstaff is a mother of two and special education teacher at Elizabethton High School who has kept and cared for horses her entire life. One evening in September of 2014, she went out to check on her horses to find an emaciated Quarter horse left in a stall.
“She took my breath away,” Grindstaff said. “I’ve seen a lot of stories online and on Facebook and ads with horses that are underfed, but she was quite literally just bones with skin hanging on her. She was a skeleton with hair.”
Elan had rain rot on her back and the tops of her legs from being exposed to the elements as well as extreme protruding bones from her hips, ribs and back. Her body had started shutting down so much so, Grindstaff said, that her legs “swelled up like telephone poles” and most of her teeth fell out.
After the initial shock wore off, Grindstaff called her friend and her former teacher at East Tennessee State University, Cindy Chambers. Chambers also serves on the board of the humane society. Chambers then contacted Grandy to ask for help. Within the hour Chambers and Grandy had veterinarians knocking on Grindstaff’s door with hay, special feed, bedding and more.
“When the vets (veterinarians) went out,” Chambers said, “you can rate a horse from 0-10 and she rated as a one. And zero is death.”
Through some investigation, the team discovered that Elan originally belonged to loving owners, one of whom trained and raised horses. Allegedly, Elan even held some show titles herself. The couple divorced, leaving one of the owners with the decision of what to do with Elan. Elan was then sold twice to different owners and the original owners eventually lost track of her whereabouts. The third exchange saw Elan traded to a new owner in exchange for cutting trees.
“Then Elan came to live at a mobile home park in Unicoi County where she was neglected,” Chambers said. “It was probably a short amount of time, like through a winter, maybe four months. She didn’t have shelter, didn’t have grass, no necessities.”
Unicoi County Animal Control had been called, Chambers said, but Elan allegedly had food and water when they would arrive. Months later, Elan’s last owner abandoned her at Grindstaff’s barn.
Grandy pursued legal action, bringing pictures of the emaciated Elan and other evidence to the district attorney in Washington County. There was some confusion about where any potential crime had been committed—Carter or Unicoi County, and Chambers said that’s where the charges have remained. So far no legal action has taken place.
“We pursued it as far as we could,” Grandy said. “It’s very frustrating.”
In the meantime, Elan was healing in the hands of Grindstaff for a few months before finding a forever home with John Abe and Vickie Teague, owners of the 45-acre farm in Telford. Elan had to be monitored closely, as she was so malnourished that eating too fast could send her body into shock. She was fed around the clock, every few hours, starting with just a handful at a time.
When the Teagues got her, they continued the same routine, eventually working Elan up to spending an hour at a time grazing in the field. Vickie said it was all worth it. Vickie met Elan just after her 35-year-old horse, Mohican, had been euthanized after being unable to recover from colic. Just going down to the barn became a heart-wrenching task for Vickie.
“I just felt like that was a sign,” Vickie said of the text message she got from Grandy asking if the Teagues would take Elan. “She was something that couldn’t replace Mohican, but could give me something to do so that I didn’t dwell on it … I had had him for 19 years. It was hard. But Elan’s doing fabulously. We’re keeping her here and letting her eat, run and play. We’re just going to let her be a horse until she dies.”
Grandy said a couple thousand dollars went into the care and recovery of Elan, funds that materialized “thanks to the generosity of our community.” Unfortunately, Grandy added, the issue of large animal neglect is becoming “more and more common.”
“The bigger issue here is that legislation doesn’t protect any animals well,” Chambers said. “So if you’re looking at Elan’s condition early on, you could see the deterioration of a horse, but it wasn’t bad enough to address. Why do we have to wait until it’s bad enough?”
Despite difficulties with legislation, Chambers and Grandy said Elan’s story touched the lives of community members, giving the humane society hope for the rescue and care of other animals down the road.
“This issue is also reflective of the type of community we are becoming and really caring and responding about animal issues,” Chambers said. “Bonnie had a horse abandoned in her barn. Her life completely flipped upside down to make sure this animal was taken care of. We’re seeing more and more individuals who are passionate about the humane treatment of animals.”
So far, Elan is living up to her name (‘elan’ means flair, energy or enthusiasm), which Grindstaff said her first class of students helped her choose.
“I wanted it to be uplifting,” she said, “even though she looked so terrible, her spirit is just so lively. So my co-teacher who’s also a poet said, ‘she dances with elan. It means lively.’”
Grindstaff also said Elan’s story helped her connect to her students.
“As a teacher, a brand new teacher,” she said, “it gave me an opportunity to talk about it with my kids and they would ask me questions about her. It bridged some relationships between me and the new students. It was a good experience and I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out. Everyone had all these questions about where she came from and legalities, but I just said, ‘I’m just here to feed her. I’m here to take care of a horse’ and that’s what I did and it turned out to be a really good story.”