Drought is causing horses to be abandoned

(CBS News) BEECHER, Ill. - When you drive down the bumpy drive to Tony Pecho's place in Beecher, Illinois, the white picket fences and tall corn on either side of his horses are deceiving.

Thanks to the drought, the corn never developed any ears, and the beautiful horses behind the fences don't belong to him -- they are rescues. Some of them were found abandoned on the side of the road, their owners unable to take care of them.

"We are rescuing horses day in and day out," Tony says, shaking my hand with a firm grip. The grip, the barrel chest, and his brisk Chicago accent make him seem much more like a Chicago police officer than the owner of a horse rescue operation. "We get calls every single day due to the drought, because they can't afford the hay, prices are going up so quickly."

His feet crunch in the gravel as we walk toward a meticulously clean paddock at the Illinois Horse Rescue of Will County. The red and silver of a historic barn and silo mark the end of the massive corn field in front of us.

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"How many calls are you getting in this drought?" I ask, watching a boney charcoal collared mare happily munching on hay. It's so quiet out here in the country just an hour south of the city, the crunching can probably be heard at the silo.

"We're getting between 10 and 20 a month," says Tony.

"How many did you used to?"

"Four," Tony says. He reaches out to pat the mare. She leans into him obviously happy to see him.

"This is Ashland," he says, introducing the mare. The pride is obvious in his voice and his face. "She was found wandering on Ashland Ave. north of here. "

Tony has the before pictures and they are the kind that make you sick to your stomach. Ribs as defined as if there was no hide on them, hip bones as sharp as a cow's horns, and a drooped head as wilted as a tulip right before it dies.

"She came in at about 500 pounds," he says. "And she's got another 200 pounds on her now." He looks at her with pride and then his eyes squint. "The vet figures it's a three-month starvation to get her like that. They pull out to the side of the road and let them out of horse trailers."

And Ashland is not the only one. Among the beautiful chestnuts and palominos given up by owners who couldn't afford them there is statuesque and proud Muzzley. He's very friendly, which makes it hard to do an interview because he's always sticking his nose in your business hoping you will pet it. That makes it hard to believe that he was skin and bones when he was found.

"He was abandoned, he was just walking along completely abandoned," Tony says stroking his strong arched neck.

When you look at his before picture, it was all matted hair and skeletal ribs, and a neck still slightly arched as if he is fighting to show the world he will survive.

"It's a very, very upsetting situation," says Tony, obviously emotional. "There's no reason for it, there is no reason for it at all." Tony says they have been able to place all their horses and he is confident he will find a home for Muzzley.

But Illinois isn't alone when it comes to drought causing an increase in horse abandonment, a crime in Illinois. They saw it in Texas and Oklahoma in record numbers during last year's drought. When the land is so parched there are no pastures to graze, no hay has been produced, so prices sky-rocket, and the price of keeping a horse per month doubles. And Tony is worried that it's going to get even worse this winter as owners go through their winter hay -- high prices will go even higher -- and many rescue organizations believe more owners will give up their horses.

He shows me a picture of a horse who has lost its hair, the bones seem visible in its translucent skin, and it is unable to stand.

"Did this one make it?" I ask trying not to feel queasy.

Tony looks down. "We had him three days and he didn't make it.

"It's heart wrenching. It's just not necessary. The majority of the, they're real sweet, they're not trying to hurt you, they're not mean horses. That someone would have a horse like that happen to him." His jaws set like a police officer whose just rolled up to a murder scene and looks away.

Donna Ewing, a trim blond grandmother with a western belt around her pretty purple button up blouse, runs another hoofed animal rescue operation, but the price of hay has her unable to take in anymore rescues.

"How many calls are you getting a week?

"We are averaging about 15 calls a week," she says. "I have to just close my ears and say we're up to capacity, we're over capacity. "

"You're cupboard is bare?"

"My cupboard is bare. And our bankroll is dwindling." And she hugs the beautiful roan horse standing curiously by her side, her bright blue eyes get brighter as they fill up with tears.

Back at Tony's, a rare big smile stretches across his face as he tells me he believes he will find a home for Ashland, who is still munching on hay as if she hasn't a care in the world.

"It means the world to take a horse that you didn't think was going to make it and be successful with it." He runs his fingers along the healthy shine of her fine coat. "It's so rewarding to me, it's better than any job. I've done a lot in my life but it really fills your heart."

Ashland picks up her head, looks at him briefly, and goes back to eating hay.

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