Since she was three years old, Susan Wagner was besotted with horses, riding them in Van Cortlandt Park in her native Bronx and in the Catskills, where she spent summers with her grandparents at their cottage. At a young age, she made an interesting observation about these contrasting locales: “In the city, I would see the horses tied up in stalls; upstate, I would see them roaming through pastures. These different images made a profound impression on me,” recalls the founder and president of Chatham-based Equine Advocates.
These fond horseback-riding memories inspired Wagner to embark upon a 15-year career on the racetrack circuit — “not to be a breeder or to cash a bet, but because I loved horses” — most prominently at Belmont. Afterward, she started working at a zoological organization, where, in 1994, she heard disturbing news that would transform her life. Rumors swirled that Gandalf, a stubborn horse at a children’s zoo, was going to be slaughtered for meat. Wagner was aghast. “It was all so secretive. All those years I had worked at the racetrack, yet I had no idea these horses were going to the slaughterhouse after outliving their usefulness,” she says.
Taking matters into her own hands, Wagner bought Gandalf and provided him a safe haven at an ex-boyfriend’s 10-acre farm in Maryland. At the same time, she learned of a miniature horse on Staten Island slated to suffer a similar fate. Buoyed by these two successful rescues, Wagner knew she must devote her energy full-time to ending horse slaughter. She spent 18 months becoming acquainted with the nonprofit realm and then founded Equine Advocates out of her Queens apartment in 1996.
Those beginnings were rather humble, Wagner admits, but her fate changed when she discovered the Columbia County land that is now home to Equine Advocates. It allowed the organization to evolve into a full-blown bucolic sanctuary for more than 80 rescued horses (there are also ponies, donkeys, and mules) and an education center. Under Wagner’s leadership, the organization boasts a number of accomplishments — from having rescued 46 pregnant mares in Canada whose urine was meant to be used for the making of drugs like Premarin, to the 2012 launch of the American Equine Summit, an annual event that led to Vice President Joe Biden adding language to the 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act to defund horse-meat inspectors.
“A big part of Equine Advocates’ mission is to teach people how to become responsible horse guardians and how to recognize cruelty and report it,” Wagner explains. “It’s the first step.”
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