In the baking heat of summer 2010, in the dusty yard of a Spanish farmhouse, a neglected pony is favoring her deeply wounded right foreleg, while a woman on the phone engages in heated conversation.
The woman, newly arrived to this quiet Spanish town, found the brown pony abandoned in the yard next door, entangled in a rope used to tie her to a tree. A wide red gash cuts deep across the pony’s lower foreleg, evidence that she has remained cruelly ensnared for days. The woman makes a call for advice on how to treat the gaping wound. On the other end of the line are Sue and Rod Weeding, British expats who moved to Spain in 2001, then gave up their sunshine-and-relaxation retirement seven years later to launch a horse rescue shelter. They hand over the number to their trusted vet, Dorothea Dudli von Dewitz.
“Dorothea goes there and starts rubbing and scrubbing and basically all the flesh just falls away from the leg,” Sue Weeding says. “It literally just falls away. You can imagine the reaction.”
The rope had been wound so tightly around the pony’s leg that blood ceased to circulate, causing lacerations to run so deep that snow-white bone is now visible. Dudli von Dewitz believes the pony will die from infection within two days if left untreated. The woman who found the pony panics. She cannot afford expensive treatments and doesn’t want a broken-down mare. She makes another call to the Weedings, begging them to take the pony. They call in the police to grant official transfer permission and the horrified officers pledge to hunt down the pony’s original owner.
The Weedings christen the pony Faith, and on August 27, 2010, they bring her home to their Easy Horse Care Rescue Centre in the small town of Rojales, along Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Their four-year battle to save Faith the pony has begun.
The first few weeks are an awful roller coaster of hope, desperation, and brushes with death. There are bad reactions to antibiotics, a case of colic, a rush to the animal hospital. “We had a little horse that was severely malnourished, obviously in shock…Whatever we were trying to do to save her caused another problem,” says Sue Weeding, a short, tanned woman with closely cropped blond hair and a distinct British twang to her voice.
They refuse to give up, just like they fight to save the other sixty-plus horses, ponies and donkeys in their care. “When you love an animal, you fight to save it. More so, I suppose, because they’re so needy,” Weeding continues, her eyes beginning to glisten with tears. “They might be old crocks and broken down and disabled and whatever, but for the abuse that they’ve suffered and survived, they deserve a chance.”
Eventually their little pony, standing just forty-four inches high, stabilizes and they begin coaxing her injured leg back to health. Each night her trio of supporters gather in the makeshift stables Rod Weeding has built by hand from old wooden pallets and secondhand sheet metal, carrying flashlights as the sun sinks low behind the surrounding mountains. Faith raises her bad leg and the painstaking daily treatment gets underway: Remove the old plaster cast, inspect the leg, inject antibiotics, clean the wound, bandage it up, apply another plaster cast and dry it with a hairdryer.
They try to speed up the healing process with an experimental homemade stem-cell treatment Dudli von Dewitz whips up herself. Sue Weeding, fifty-seven, and Rod, sixty-four, are already throwing thousands of euros from their hard-earned retirement fund into Faith’s care on top of the center’s already hefty daily operating costs, and cannot afford expensive laboratory-prepared creams. So twice a week Dudli von Dewitz draws a little of Faith’s blood, takes it home, spins out the stem cells in a centrifugal machine, extracts the healing cells and creates an ointment to daub across the wound.
It is arduous yet it seems to be working — four months later, just a thin line of bone remains exposed.
Then, just before Christmas 2010, Dudli von Dewitz notices the skin is healing over, then perishing, healing over, then perishing. It is a bad sign. “Basically our worst fears were coming true,” Sue Weeding says. “Faith was developing bone disease.”
Kneeling in the straw beside little Faith, Sue and Rod Weeding beg their veterinarian for answers. She tells them there is only one option left: Cut off the leg completely.
“There’s nothing else I can do,” Dudli von Dewitz says. It’s a life-or-death decision: amputate and give Faith a small chance of living or put her to sleep immediately. Sue Weeding knows amputation is rarely attempted and often results in failure but she cannot give up on this pony, cannot choose death while knowing an unexplored, albeit risky, option exists.
“Well, all right, we’ll amputate then,” she declares. Dudli von Dewitz pauses, then says, “That’s the easy bit. Anyone can cut the bone away, but it’s what do we do afterward. No one’s ever done it in Spain.”
Sue Weeding’s stout-hearted approach to seemingly unsolvable problems stems from a rough childhood growing up in urban Norwich, in eastern England. She quit school at fourteen and left home a year later, all but illiterate. She was always deeply passionate about horses, her interest sparked by the opening of a horse rescue center near her family home. However, with little money, she contented herself by sketching their figures. At age thirty she realized something about herself: “I was never going to marry anyone with money, so I must make it myself.” She tried her hand at business and discovered a natural flair for sales, launching several successful furniture stores before meeting Rod Weeding, a tall, soft-spoken construction-company owner who loved horses just as much as she did. His fascination began at age three, watching the majestic beasts pull carts, ploughs and other machinery around his father’s farm.
The couple married in 1995 and later set up a livery yard for fifteen horses, before retiring and moving to Spain in 2001. Their combined skills — the retail know-how, the construction experience, the expertise about horses — would later prove critical to the success of their rescue shelter.
It all began in October 2008 with Luceiro, a two-year-old stallion they found locked in a filthy and dark stable, his left eye badly injured and rotting, hurling himself repeatedly against the bars of his filthy stall as flies drove him crazy. The Weedings had gone to the private yard intending to deliver rubber stable matting, but everything changed once they laid eyes on Lucerio, who was considered too crazy to handle and would soon be sent away for dog meat. “I looked at Rod and we knew our lives would never be the same again,” Sue Weeding says.
The Weedings had moved to Spain to ease into retirement but, unable to walk away from such a distressing case of animal cruelty, they brought Luceiro home and unwittingly gave away their easy life to launch a refuge. Rod Weeding put his construction skills to use, building stables and horse yards on the five acres behind their farmhouse from whatever bits of wood and scrap metal he could scrounge up cheaply. Still, the cost of building something from nothing was astronomical. “We’ve put in at least €200,000 [$270,000] of our personal money, our retirement money, probably more,” Sue Weeding says.