One day in late June, thoroughbred racing fan Joyce Berk was doing her usual online perusal of news involving her favorite sport when she came across a story about a herd of horses abandoned on a Mercer County, Kentucky, farm by former trainer Maria Borell and her father, Chuck. Berk knew who Borell was from the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup and the publicity she received before and after champion Runhappy’s record-setting performance in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (GI) at Keeneland.
A resident of Windham, Maine, Berk has always found solace in two things — her love of horse racing and her faith. The two converged as she read about the conditions of the Borell horses and, while the professional pet/house sitter knew the easy thing to do was to donate money, she also knew from personal experience that praying would give her the answers she was looking for.
“I read the stories and went to the Fox Hill Farm site and saw the photos,” Berk said. “I knew Victoria Keith from way back and was shocked at the condition of the horses. I felt like I really wanted to help out, but I didn’t want to just make a donation. I got (lead volunteer) Angie Cheak’s number and called her and asked her if there was anything I could do. She told me the industry had stepped up to help with supplies and feed and things, but she needed volunteers.
“So I prayed about it and God told me that I needed to get there and help. I started checking on ways to get there and made the arrangements and here I am.”
Last week, Berk boarded a bus in Maine and, after two days and nights and 1,100 miles traveled, she arrived on Saturday in Kentucky where she started her ten-day vacation working alongside Cheak and the dedicated team of volunteers caring for the horses every day. Berk hadn’t even arranged for a hotel room and figured she’d find something in Harrodsburg when she arrived, but Cheak opened her home and Berk has been bunking at Cheak’s house.
“I asked God, ‘can I go? I don’t even have a place to stay.’ Then Angie said I could stay at her home, so clearly this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Expecting to see the worst when she got to the farm the first time, Berk was pleasantly surprised at the horses’ and their trust of humans, even though after a month of proper care many were still in pretty bad shape.
“I had no idea what to expect,” Berk said. “I would have thought they’d be a lot worse and despite how awful they looked even after a month of proper care it really was a testimony to their spirits and wills to survive. God really did show me the power of faith and prayer.”
So far, Berk, 61, has helped out feeding and watering and bathing and cleaning, and has enjoyed interacting with the 29 horses remaining on the property. Each day she delights in feeding the horses treats, which include carrots, peppermints and portions of sweet potato. She knows it’d been a long time since they’d received any treats or special attention and the reaction she gets makes the long trip and hot days worthwhile.
“It’s so rewarding when they come up to us, happy to interact and puzzled as if to say, ‘who are you nice people?’” Berk said. “When we give them baths, you can’t describe their expressions. They are in ecstasy, they love the water and the baths and the attention.”
Currently the 29 horses remaining on the farm continue to make progress. Donated supplies continue to come in and the horses remaining in the most serious condition continue to gain weight and improve. Horses with abscessed feet are healing and the severe cases of rain rot are also progressing as they lose the scabs and slowly grow new coats despite the summer heat and humidity.
“Southern Equine has donated 30 round bales of hay since this all started so the horses in the paddocks can eat at will, and it’s good quality hay,” Cheak said. “They come all the way from Midway with a flatbed and a tractor on that flatbed so they can put it in the paddocks for us. It’s amazing.
“We have three aged mares who are arthritic and get around slower, so we’re doing what we can to help them. They go outside, but slowly. Some wouldn’t go outside we think because they hadn’t been outside regularly for so long and also out of pure fear from not going outside regularly. Not anymore. There’s a beautiful chestnut mare who wouldn’t go outside at first at all and she had two bad abscesses in her front feet. Now that they’re better, she got out and was so happy, jumping around and playing in the hose when I sprayed her in the heat. All the horses love to be sprayed in the heat and play in the water.
“Our biggest worries, though, are one horse who either has EPM or Lyme disease, one who has swollen tendons and the mare with the sarcoids. Some days, in the morning, the one with EPM or Lyme can barely walk and, then, that afternoon and for the few days after he’s fine, so we watch him closely. And the one with the tightening and swollen tendons just is not getting around well. We’re watching him too. And the vet is monitoring. And we still have the filly with the enormous sarcoids. I thought she was going to go to a clinic for them to be removed, but she’s still here. The sarcoids aren’t any worse, but they aren’t any better either.”
Cheak’s biggest concern for the long term, however, is when the public attention on the case dies down and the stream of volunteers finally dries up. She doesn’t know how long the horses will remain on the Mercer County farm and nobody from the state has yet communicated with her about it, but she’s determined to stay until the very last one has been placed in a loving, caring permanent home. Volunteers, Cheak said, are the core to making sure the horses continue to improve and she knows that not everyone can commit long term.
“We’ve been blessed with all the people who have been helping — some since the beginning and more who came on after reading about it who have been here either every day or every weekend. People like Mary Kelley, Teresa and Michael Mills, Barb Schroeder and Sharon Culbertson are there every week in the hottest conditions and these horses are doing as well as they are thanks to their commitment. And Joyce and Leah from Bonnechance Farm and Heather Paige Sneed from Pennsylvania — really good people. But I know it can’t go on forever, so I hope people don’t forget them.”
Chuck Borell, who was arrested on 43 misdemeanor counts of second-degree animal cruelty on June 29 and subsequently bailed out of jail on a $4,500 bond two days later, is expected to face a judge for the first time in Mercer County on Aug. 1. The location of Maria Borell, who has a warrant out for her arrest after being charged with the same 43 counts, is still undetermined. Sources say she is aware of the charges but has no intentions of returning to Kentucky.