Brown horse Pilgrim affectionately standing face to face with his owner

Horse rescued from troubled past

At Blue Cross we sadly deal with the aftermath of animals who have suffered truly horrific abuse, but it’s not often we are able to bear witness to the events as they unfolded.

Grainy CCTV footage documents the moment Pilgrim’s life changed forever, and it makes for very distressing viewing. Two figures, their identities obscured by hoods, pour flammable liquid over an innocent horse tied to the railings of the garden, and set him alight.

The attack, which took place in north Dublin, Ireland, is deliberate and calculated; meant as a warning message to the horse’s owner amid a bitter gang feud, the Irish police believe.

In a matter of moments, the undeserving and wholly innocent Pilgrim – aged just two years at the time – becomes a victim of truly horrendous suffering. His face, ear, neck, flank and hind quarters all suffer horrific burns. No one has been prosecuted in connection with the attack.

But now, two years on, Pilgrim is not only safe from harm, but he is loved, thanks to being found a home by Blue Cross.

Brown horse Pilgrim standing in a field next to his owner, who wears a blue and white striped jumper.
Pilgrim is now safe and loved

When we took a call from Claire Owens, Equine Welfare and Rehoming Manager at the Dublin Society for the Protection of Animals (DSPCA), asking for assistance to find a home for the horse they had taken in and rehabilitated, we knew we had to help.

Claire wanted to find a home for Pilgrim well away from the location of the attack to give him a fresh start. She was one of the first to meet Pilgrim when the charity’s inspectors – who operate similarly to RSPCA inspectors in England and Wales – brought the injured horse to the DSPCA shelter. She remembers: “His head was very, very swollen and he was just completely shut down.”

The DSPCA veterinary team worked closely with equine vet specialists from the University College Dublin veterinary hospital to help manage his wounds due to their complexity. Injured in the summer, his burns were at real risk of serious infection, so for the first four weeks the team kept him stabled for his own safety. But feisty Pilgrim felt the strong call of the outdoors, and so for his welfare, the vet team and Claire made the decision to turn him out during the day; meaning he needed constant monitoring to prevent infection.

Brown horse Pilgrim walking across a field with his owner, who wears blue jeans and blue and white striped jumper
With his burns no longer painful, Pilgrim has found sanctuary with his new owner, Carol Hunkin

Treating his wounds with medicated cream was stressful for Pilgrim – he must have found it so painful – but Claire discovered he loved to be groomed on his unaffected side and used this to gain his confidence. Slowly but surely, and with Claire’s tenderness and care, Pilgrim began to trust humans.

Claire says: “He’s a horse that taught me an awful lot of patience, and his saving grace was his love of people and despite the burns, he loved being groomed, where it wasn’t sore. That’s how I taught him to stand, and was able to get a headcollar on; I just did that basic handling.”

Pilgrim travelled over to our Blue Cross Burford rehoming centre in Oxfordshire, where our dedicated team continued his rehabilitation and began the search for his new home.

Now, Pilgrim has found sanctuary in the south of England with new owner, Carol Hunkin. His burns, no longer painful, have turned to scars that only hint at his sad beginning, and he is happy. Part of a five-strong herd of rescue ponies, Pilgrim is free to enjoy a carefree life.

Brown horse Pilgrim stands in a field munching grass next to light brown horse
Pilgrim is now part of a five-strong herd of rescue ponies

Carol says: "A four-year-old with his kind of medical history, which means that he might never be able to do anything else in his life, needs a secure home, I think. I thought it would suit him to come here where there was never going to be any pressure for him to do anything other than be a horse and be happy, which hopefully is what we’ve achieved.”

Thinking back to his arrival, Carol remembers thinking he was more confident than she had anticipated, but having been in his home for six months, she has noticed a change in his behaviour. He is more relaxed, less fidgety, and seems truly at home. Carol had been wondering if he would show signs of having gone through trauma in the past, but none have emerged. Pilgrim is remarkable.

Carol says: “How could you not fall in love with him? I mean, he’s just gorgeous, isn’t he? He’s got such a lovely, open, forgiving nature despite what’s happened to him. Also, his story made me think it’d be right to take him on because ponies can come here, and I just want them to live as naturally as possible. I don’t necessarily want them to do anything else.

Brown horse Pilgrim standing in a field munching on grass
Pilgrim now lives a carefree life

“They already do a job for me by coming here and being themselves, and getting me outside, exercising, and spending time getting to know them. They heal us really!”

And now, Carol is encouraging others to take on a rescue animal. She recommends keeping an open mind, being patient, and speaking to others with experience of behaviour management; particularly if the animal has had a traumatic past.

Carol says: “Most of all, definitely do it! What it brings is incredible.”

We couldn’t agree more.