On a warm spring day, the silence hanging over the hills of Ball Ground is dotted with braying and neighing from more than 160 horse ranches clustered in the area. At the Show Me Farm North -- 35 acres of pasture and woods just off highway 20 -- another sound rises up in the early morning chorus.
"Gracie," coos Miaka Palmieri softly as she coaxes the dapple gray horse to the gate of a half-acre fenced-in home. Gracie moves forward with such a steady gait it is hard to notice the immovable joints of her right front leg. "She is so pretty, but she is a brat," Palmieri said. "We're to blame because we baby her."
Three years ago, Gracie was found by the roadside in Rockdale County with a broken leg when fate put her in Palmieri's path. Gracie needed someone to save her and Palmieri needed someone to rescue.
Palmieri was working as an office administrator and paralegal for an industrial engineering firm. It was a good job, but not fulfilling enough to convince her to leave her Roswell home and move to South Carolina when the company relocated. She was looking for something more -- a place where she could make a real difference.
As a volunteer at Northside Hospital, she toted a clipboard through the maternity ward and asked new mothers what they needed. She fielded phone calls for the American Red Cross. But still, something was missing.
"I felt like I wasn't really giving back all that much," said Palmieri, 47. So she changed gears. "I had always loved animals and wanted to work with them," she said. With no experience other than a childhood ride at a dude ranch, Palmieri decided to rescue horses.
Since 2006, Congress has prohibited the use of federal funds to inspect horses intended for food, effectively banning the domestic slaughter of horses. State and local governments and animal welfare groups have reported an uptick in horse neglect and abuse as a result of the ban, with states such as Colorado recording an increase as high as 60 percent.
By 2009, about 18,000 of an estimated 180,000 unwanted horses each year were being housed at 430 rescues nationwide, said Ericka Caslin, director of the D.C.-based Unwanted Horse Coalition.
"We have a huge issue of people needing to give up horses," Caslin said. "Now the rescues are full and we can attribute that to the plants closing and the downturn of the economy."
That was the landscape when Palmieri met the four women who would become partners in her journey. Sheelagh Cafferkey, Kathy Ivy, Gretchen Kronz and Lisa Setser were fellow volunteers at a local horse rescue. Only Cafferkey, who grew up on a farm in Ireland, and Setser, a former horse owner, had real experience with horses. Ivy had volunteered at rescues for years.
Gracie limped into their lives with grim prospects. A facility in Kentucky had decided the horse's injuries couldn't be fixed, but the women sought a second opinion. Dr. Dean Richardson in Pennsylvania thought he could help. With $1,900 in pooled funds, they transported Gracie to the New Bolton Veterinary Center where the surgery to repair her leg was successful. The women were elated, but the $20,000 medical bill posed a problem. How in the world would they pay?
"We didn't have the money," Palmieri said. Their only choice was to raise it.
They founded "For the Love of a Horse," (FTLOAH) a nonprofit dedicated to rehabilitating critically ill horses that would otherwise be euthanized. An ad on Craigslist led them to the farm where they would hold stables for their charges. Then, they combined their talents. Palmieri made jewelry of semi-precious stones and crystals and Cafferkey made handcrafted greeting cards. They added candles, T-shirts, tea towels and more to the mix, paying for materials out of pocket and donating 100 percent of sales from local craft fairs back to FTLOAH.
Within nine months, Gracie's bill was paid off, and the women had found their calling. Farriers, veterinarians and horse owners heard what they were doing, and their list of equine clients grew.
"We found a special niche working with people who loved their animals but [the horses] were critically ill and the owners couldn't afford to sustain them," Palmieri said.
In some ways, they became a rescue for rescues. They claimed Bishop, a miniature paint pony, when the farm housing Whisper Ranch in Murrayville fell on hard times. Bishop had been tied to a tree while the owner performed sterilization without anesthesia. The pony ripped away from the tree in pain, severing his ear and part of his lip. Bishop recovered at Whisper Ranch where he healed well enough to make visits to nursing homes. He now continues those visits to the elderly and to children through FTLOAH's community outreach program.
"With all he has been through, he still loves people," Palmieri said. "[The elderly] get such a kick out of it. It really stimulates their minds."
On average, FTLOAH helps six horses each year by securing medical care ranging from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. The goal is to return a healthy horse to its owner or find a suitable home for the animal if the owner is unable to afford the horse's care.
Social media led them to Belle, a Belgian draft horse from R Ranch in the Mountains in Dahlonega with a tumor in her eye. Lisa Richards, treasurer at R Ranch, reached out to Palmieri on Facebook. FTLOAH arranged a consultation at the University of Georgia.
"We figured we would be bringing her back that day," Richards said. "I was thinking, ‘Oh God, it will take us months to raise that money and that is if we can have a successful fundraiser and in this economy, you don't get that kind of money.'"
To her surprise, the ladies at FTLOAH told them to leave Belle for the surgery and they would cover the $2,600 surgery to remove her eye.
Belle recovered at R Ranch with regular visits from her friends at FTLOAH. When her eye was healed she went back to pulling hay rides and Santa's sleigh as she had for years.
"There wasn't anything that could be done for that eye except surgery and without FTLOAH it wouldn't have happened," Richards said. "They gave a 20-year-old horse a new lease on life."
To cover the costs of maintaining the FTLOAH horses as well as to meet the needs of a growing number of ill horses, the women have had to increase their fundraising efforts. In addition to attending 10 festivals each year to sell their crafts, they have hosted an annual yard sale, a bowling fundraiser, and in June, they will hold a golf tournament.
Over the years, Palmieri has had moments of concern about devoting herself to volunteer work, but no matter the problems swirling in her head, when she arrives at the stables, her worries seem to float away -- pushed from her mind by a gentle nudge from a happy and healthy horse.
For The Love of Horse Charity Golf Classic
8:30 a.m. June 15. $100 to $2,500. The Trophy Club of Atlanta, 15135 Hopewell Road, Alpharetta. 678-685-1526. www.fortheloveofahorse.org.