When Luke arrived at Days End Farm Horse Rescue in 1999, the Lisbon farm's owners, Kathleen and Allan Schwartz, hoped the starved, parasite-ridden Arabian horse would build muscle over his protruding rib cage, regain his energy and be adopted to a good home.
Last year, Luke and his new owner, Kim Orr of Frederick, won the third 50-mile race he ever ran, and Orr hopes he will soon be a contender at national and international endurance races.
Along the rural edges of suburban Baltimore, growing numbers of horse lovers have been playing out their own dreams in recent years only to discover that owning a horse can be a daunting economic and emotional challenge.
That fact is testing the capacity of Days End and other Baltimore area horse-rescue operations.
More people are moving to rural areas, getting 3 to 5 acres and buying horses, said Kathleen Schwartz of Days End, but "they may not know everything they need to know."
County officials estimate Howard's horse population totals more than 10,000, and recreational horse ownership is growing. A census is under way to determine the county's burgeoning horse population.
There is a growing problem as people buy horses with good intentions and no idea of the amount of care they require, said Tracy McKenna, managing editor of the Maryland horse publication The Equiery.
Keeping a healthy horse requires thousands of dollars a year, the Maryland Horse Council estimates. Horses require grain and hay, fencing, bedding, hoof care, veterinary care, dental care and equipment that adds up quickly, plus attention and physical labor 365 days a year to keep them clean, healthy and happy.
Some people don't plan realistically, and they buy a horse they can't control, Schwartz said. They might avoid the horse out of fear or frustration, leading to neglect.
"Some people think you can get a horse and throw it in a field and that's it," said Susan Carlson, a Howard County Animal Control officer. "People just don't know."
In most cases, Carlson said, the county works with owners to improve the way they care for their horses.
But when education is ineffective, horse rescues play an important role. Just transporting and boarding horses that need to be impounded "is a huge job," said Carlson, and the agency doesn't have the equipment or space to do it. "We depend on [Days End] a lot," she said.
Days End works closely with animal control agencies in Howard, Baltimore, Carroll and other counties. The organization refers complaints to the agencies and cares for horses that the counties seize. The Schwartzes also lend equipment and expertise if a horse is trapped or injured.
They encourage owners to sign over neglected animals to the farm, and they testify in court when necessary. They also train animal control officers about horses.
Most important, they rehabilitate horses with medical care, food, exercise and training and find them adoptive homes. In cases of the most disabled horses, they locate sponsors to help pay for the animal's care at the farm or another location.
"We're very lucky they're there," said Nicky Ratliff, executive director of animal control in Carroll County. "Most animal control agencies don't have the experience and time to manage the animals" from horse cruelty cases.
Other horses come directly to Days End and other farms from people who are experiencing financial or personal difficulties or who can't care for a particular horse.
Days End is caring for about 45 horses. The owners say nearly 1,000 horses have been helped by its rescue and education programs during the past 13 years.
The Schwartzes keep photographs of their arrivals, showing hoofs grown so long they curl up in the front, skeletonlike bodies, sores and scrapes, and missing teeth. Horses may have digestion problems, parasites, allergies, horse asthma (called the heaves) or other disorders. But with treatment and care, many recover and capture the hearts of new, carefully screened owners.
Other area rescue operations do their part.
Horse Rescue and Rehabilitation in Parkton has 20 horses, and 10 more on its waiting list. President Debbie Frank also runs a riding stable and horse breeding and training operation on her farm to pay the bills. HorseNet Horse Rescue in Eldersburg has 34 horses on three sites, but only a few volunteers. It relies on homeopathic medical care to cut costs.
Some people will take a couple needy horses if they are asked by animal control agencies or individuals. Some groups focus on helping a particular breed of horse.
McKenna, who formerly coordinated volunteer efforts for the American Horse Protection Association, said she has seen plenty of rescue operations come and go over the years.
As the need has become apparent, people have stepped in to help, she said. "People try with all good intentions," she said. But "they often find themselves in over their heads."
The Maryland Horse Council has been discussing standards for care and adoption practices for places calling themselves rescues, said Beverly Raymond, a member of the council and inspector for the State Department of Agriculture.
She and others are concerned that some "rescues" are not nonprofit and do not offer an appropriate level of care.
But getting the horse community and government officials to agree on standards could be difficult.
Strict rules could also deter new rescues that are struggling to get started, said Allan Schwartz.
The Schwartzes know how hard it can be to get started. They invested tens of thousands of dollars of their money, cashing in retirement and insurance policies. Both now work full time on the farm. They rely on volunteers for much of the labor and are constantly seeking donations to cover their $600,000 annual cost of operation.
"We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into," said Kathleen Schwartz. "But the animals are worth it."
One important community benefit comes when Days End opens its doors to people in addition to horses.
With 35 regular volunteers, hundreds of occasional helpers and numerous tours for families and groups, the farm might help prevent problems by introducing people to the realities of horse ownership.
Lisa Bowerman, 13, had taken riding lessons for many years when she decided to volunteer at Days End. Since January last year, Lisa, who lives outside Damascus, has spent more than 300 hours helping at the farm.
When she started, she had to learn to muck stalls and clean the barns. As she has put in time and participated in training sessions, "they have trusted me with more things," she said.
"I've always wanted a horse," she said. "This really prepares me for when that day comes."