Written by Landi Groenewald
There are few people who understand the bond between a horse and its rider/owner. So it’s hard to explain the horror and fear that strikes when something happens to your beloved horses…
A love of horses
As a young farm girl my love for horses was clear from a very young age. The farm working horses were, however, all big 16hh (hands high) horses, and my uncle thought that a nine-year-old girl should have her own pony with which to explore the farm. So, in September 1996, a handsome three-year-old chestnut pony arrived at our Free State farm, eyes wide and unsure of this new place and new smells and new horse friends much bigger than he’d ever seen before. He was promptly named Ginger.
Through the years, our friendship grew together as the two of us explored the farm, chasing adventures and made-up stories over weekends when I came back from boarding school.
In my high school years, I was introduced to Arabian horses and got my first registered Arab mare. After finishing university, I secured a job abroad and decided it best to rehome the Arabs, keeping the last filly born in 2010, a grey Arabian named Anisa, and, of course, Ginger.
Ginger was the gelding used to wean the babies, since he was good at teaching them manners without hurting them. This means that he filled a parental role to Anisa and has been her companion after her mother and siblings went to new homes. The two horses are therefore quite close (although Ginger wouldn’t dare show it!).
I’m a professional photographer based in Cape Town, but I visit the farm several times a year. It was by coincidence that I was in the Free State to cover three weddings when I discovered I had to undergo unexpected surgery scheduled for the 26th of June. My stay in the Free State was therefore prolonged.
On the morning of the 23rd of June 2019, the groom, who is the horses’ primary care giver since my parents moved to Bloemfontein, called us in a state: Anisa and Ginger had been stolen.
He’d tracked their hoof prints, along with five sets of human shoeprints, for 10 kilometres before losing them when they crossed a steel bridge and disappeared on a tar road. He walked all the way to town, on the border of Lesotho, to report the matter to the police. As soon as we got the news, we drove straight to the police station.
Two people with drones came out the next day to help search the surrounding area from the sky. We hired a private investigator and I started a Facebook page for Ginger and Anisa that spread like a wild fire. We searched the area from the sky for hours without success, and we approached the local sheep and cattle herders in the surrounding mountains to ask them if they’d seen the horses.
A few of them had sighted the horses, and it was confirmed that they’d been taken in the direction of the rural and rugged country of Lesotho.
Three weeks went by
Knowing that my surgery lay ahead and that I was physically limited to go and search for my two beloved horses, the worry was growing strongly and fast inside me.
People from all over the country sent messages of support, offering help, searching with me and keeping an eye out. We translated a Facebook-sponsored post into Sesotho (Lesotho’s main official language) and targeted the nearby Lesotho towns and surrounding areas to spread the word.
One of the first police officers on the case was a Lesotho officer at Tsupane who promised me he’d do everything in his power to help bring the horses home. He kept reassuring me via Facebook messages that his informants were out searching daily.
Three weeks dragged by with not much news; many leads that ended cold or were false. In the meantime, I’d had my surgery, but it was so far from my mind that I scarcely noticed most of the pain or discomfort. I was too busy trying to find and locate my horses from my hospital bed.
My heart was broken
I wished there was a way I could tell my two ponies that their mom was coming for them; that they should stay strong.
I was so worried about Ginger, who is 26 years old and has lived his whole life showered with love on the farm. My heart was broken knowing he was being ridden with his arthritic joints after being retired for years already. I wept for nine-year-old Anisa, who I knew was probably separated from Ginger shortly after being stolen and that she’d become anxious without him.
I was sad knowing they were starving with the limited access to food and water in the rough mountain terrains of Lesotho during its harsh winters. I wished the thieves could have at least taken Ginger’s arthritis supplements with him to ease the pain.
But all these thoughts just motivated me to never give up. After 23 years of loyal devotion to his little rider, I couldn’t give up on Ginger in his old days. It was my duty to do everything to find him.
On the 11th of July 2019 I received a phone call – the call I’d been waiting on for days: Ginger had been found! I received a photo from the helpful Tsupane police officer confirming it. I couldn’t believe it. I burst out in tears, knowing that it should be so much easier to find Anisa as well.
Half an hour or more later, I received the second message from the same officer with a photo of Anisa. Both horses found on the same day.
They’d travelled over 200km on foot within 19 days.
Fetching my ponies
We left Bloemfontein bright and early the next morning to go and fetch my ponies. On our arrival, I saw both horses together but tied up separately a few metres apart with no access to water.
I whistled, and both horses’ heads shot around and they neighed in greeting. I was on crutches, so I first hopped over to Ginger. Anisa, being an Arab, is prone to being skittish, so I didn’t want to scare her by approaching her first while on crutches, which she’d never seen before.
While I was standing beside Ginger and putting his halter on, Anisa kept calling and giving little nickers. I then slowly hopped on over to her, gave her a small bit of bread (their favourite treat), and let my father and an officer help with taking off the halter she had on and replace it with her own. Being on crutches made it hard to handle the horses.
Ginger was unsure of the horsebox, even though he’s been in one a few times before in his life. The excited shouts and laughter from the local people about the events made him nervous and unsure. He kept resisting, and being on crutches made it hard for me to lead him in. Luckily, he’s such a “bomb-proof” gentleman that, with just a bit of pushing and guidance from behind, he was in the box.
Anisa’s loading process was a tragic disaster. Arabian horses in general, although very attention friendly, are very hot and skittish in temperament. Due to my own injuries, I wasn’t allowed to load her, and my advice on how to load her and the methods that should be followed to calm her down were all ignored. Sudden movements or sounds can spook them dramatically, and I kept warning the officers and helpers about this, but to no avail.
My worst loading fear came true when I saw her panic, jump up into the air and crash straight into the door latch. A deep cut ripped into her chest and blood began flowing rapidly. I struggled to stay calm for her sake, but I was devastated.
I dropped my crutches and led Anisa away from the box to try and calm her down. Giving the lead rope to the videographer who came with us to capture the reunion, I ran to my car where I had a five-litre bottle of ice-cold water. I rinsed the wound in the hope that the cold water would slow the bleeding.
We finally got a break when my phone, which the whole day hadn’t connected to roaming services, finally connected by itself so that I could call our vet. Unfortunately, because Lesotho is a separate country, she isn’t allowed to work there as a vet, but she was able to organise emergency calming syrup and painkillers at Ladybrand Animal Clinic for us.
The videographer stopped filming, leapt into my car, and sped off on the hours-long journey to Ladybrand. The police officers decided to go on lunch while waiting for the medical supplies, so now it was only my dad and I left with a dehydrated old pony in a horsebox and an agitated, injured Arabian horse.
I stayed close to Anisa, talking to her and calming her. Every 10 to 15 minutes I moved further into the horsebox, and although she followed me calmly several times, as soon as her hind legs stepped in she’d reverse out again. At one point I finally had her in, but then there was nobody there to close the ramp behind her. I felt defeated, knowing she had to be evacuated immediately for medical care but knowing that we were stuck there with no help.
Waiting for those medical supplies was the longest four-and-a-half hours of my life.
The videographer returned after 4.5 hours of driving as fast as he legally could; the officers only returned shortly before he did. After we administered the emergency medication, Anisa climbed into the box like an angel. And, finally, we were on our way back home.
We arrived on the farm way after sunset and unloaded the horses, but the vet couldn’t perform any surgery due to limited light and the amount of stress the horses had already sustained. We were so grateful that it was a cold, frosty night, as this helped to stop the bleeding.
Before the sun even peeked out the next day, I was at Anisa and Ginger’s paddock. My heart just melted into another puddle of tears when they greeted me with happy nickers and whinnies.
The vet arrived bright and early. While Ginger’s checkup showed that he was severely dehydrated, malnourished, and he had a urinary tract infection, the vet was confident that he’d make a full recovery. Anisa’s wound was more challenging, as some of the skin had by now died due to the wound already being over 12 hours old, but she did her best and, finally, Anisa was all stitched up.
We were blessed with a massive donation of 12 bales of lucerne and 12 bales of teff, and both horses were slowly placed on a recovery diet. Anisa bounced back to her old condition in no time, while Ginger’s condition also started picking up but at a much slower pace due to his age. Slowly but surely, life got back to normal for them.
What the future holds
Ginger and Anisa have both made a tremendous recovery. They’re under 24-hour surveillance while their stall door is being fitted with an alarm and camera to guard them at night.
At Ginger’s old age, it was decided that he’d be happier to stay on the farm where he grew up, instead of being moved down to Cape Town, where I now live. The move to a new climate and environment and smaller paddocks would be extremely stressful on his body and mind. We therefore decided to increase the security on the farm rather than move him.
Anisa is waiting out her African Horse Sickness Vaccination before she’s allowed a travel passport, so we’re not making any hasty decisions about her future. Because we’d hate to separate them, we’d rather they stay where they are and put measures in place to secure their safety.
I’d like to thank every single person who followed their story and who prayed and wished for their safe return. I truly believe that the universe listened and brought them home after hearing a whole country’s prayers for their safe return. Everyone who contributed to the search, rescue and recovery in any way – I know that somewhere in life, the favour will be returned to you. May you all be blessed and your pets and animals live long, happy lives.
Special thanks to Margie Joubert for sponsoring AHFS products for their recovery. Also, a big thanks to Elizabeth Nel for offering Equirapha products for the wound healing. Massive thanks to Carl Viloria from The Spiffy Chap for helping to search from the air with his drone and documenting the entire rescue operation and compiling it in a very professional and diplomatic manner. Without you coming along that day, I’m not sure what we’d have done without someone being able to drive all the way to the nearest vet for medical assistance. Thank you!
Watch the video of the recovery process after my stolen horses were found in Lesotho here. Please note that some footage may be disturbing to sensitive viewers and viewer discretion is advised.
(Note: Horses are frequently stolen to be used for illegal horse racing in Lesotho. Three men have been arrested for the theft of Ginger and Anisa.)