Imagine a beautifully set-up and maintained equestrian property, where old and retired horses and ponies could go to live, free of charge, and be loved and looked after for the rest of their days.
Such an idyllic facility actually exists; the unique set up of De Paardenkamp (which translates to The Horse Camp), in the town of Soest in central The Netherlands.
I was in the country visiting family, and a friend suggested we go and visit De Paardenkamp, which celebrated 55 years in 2017.
Horses are a very important part in the lives of many Dutch people, but for many, it’s not an option to keep their old friends in retirement. The Netherlands is just a sixth of the geographical size of New Zealand, but has a population of 16.5 million people.
So back in 1962, De Paardenkamp was founded by Cees ’t Hart, who was the secretary of the Animal Protection Department in Soest. He was a conservationist, and often visited the abattoir to collect food for the dogs and cats at the animal shelter.
One day there, he saw an old, discarded horse one day, ready for slaughter, and that gave him the idea to start a retirement home for horses. He believed that horses, after an active and subservient life, deserved a peaceful old age.
Horses were used in a variety of roles in the Netherlands in those days, including on farms, pulling milk, bread and rubbish carts, and often whole neighbourhoods would get to know and love them.
One of the stories told by our guide at De Paardenkamp was about a little grey Welsh Mountain mare called Zippy, who used to pull a waste food cart through the Jordaan area of Amsterdam in the late 1960s.
One of the local residents, a Mrs Bastiaans, heard through the grapevine that Zippy, at the age of 22, was considered too old to work and was therefore to be sent to the works.
Mrs Bastiaans was very upset, and collected money from around the neighbourhood so she could buy Zippy, and send her to De Paardenkamp instead. Zippy had a wonderful retirement there, living for a further 15 years, and since that time, Mrs Bastiaans has been a loyal annual donor to De Paardenkamp.
To start with, most of the horses were retired work horses like Zippy, but there were also police horses, military horses, and even a circus horse. One very special resident was Elsie, who for years had pulled a pony cart in the zoo in Amersfoort, and lived until her 50th year; she was the oldest horse in the Netherlands ever.
Today, most of the horses at De Paardenkamp are private sport or recreational horses, as well as retired riding school mounts.
The oldest horse there at the moment is Ferry, a Polish warmblood who is nearly 40 years old, and the part-Arab Jasir has been there the longest – he is 36 and has been at De Paardenkamp for 16 years.
De Paardenkamp takes horses from the age of 20, and owners who would like their horses to go there can put their names on a waiting list.
Once accepted, the trust that runs the facility becomes the owner of the horse, and takes over the complete care.
De Paardenkamp runs entirely on donations and gifts from animal lovers; there is no government funding. Often substantial sums are received from bequests, wills and estates, which fund renovations and new buildings; while much of the work is done by volunteers.
New residents are admitted twice a year during special open days; and visitors who come to those days don’t just get to meet the new horses, but also hear about how the farms work, how new horses are introduced, and about the nutrition and care of older horses.
Many of the residents have problems chewing and digesting regular feeds, so have special diets.
The extra care and attention, obviously, comes at a cost, and one of the ways this is paid for is via the De Paardenkamp shop, which sells donated tack and equipment.
More than 500 horses of many different breeds, from small Shetlands to Friesians and warmbloods have spent their retirement years at De Paardenkamp since its foundation. Cees started with an old farm shed on a tiny piece of rough land, but nowadays De Paardenkamp manages three beautiful farms with grazing and stables for 120 horses. Two of the locations are open to the public, and admission is free.
One of these is Vosseveld, which has been owned by De Paardenkamp since 1965. It has stables to accommodate 65 horses and ponies; each has their own private box with always a thick layer of straw in them. There are two smaller paddocks for grazing and a large sand paddock, where the horses are turned out while their stables are being mucked out. The horses that live at this farm are the ones who need more intensive care.
Just 200 metres down the road are large paddocks for grazing. The horses are turned out every week day, and they are very well looked after by a team of around six permanent staff and a group of volunteers. Visitors can get a tour of Vosseveld, buy refreshments or browse the small shop.
The second farm, Het Gagelgat, was inaugurated on June 23, 2012, and is a beautifully restored farm that is often used as a location for filming and photo shoots.
Of course it is the home of retired horses, but in addition there is an exhibition space, a shop with local produce, and a vegetable garden. The interactive exhibit allows visitors to experience three centuries of peasant history, and there are rooms available to hire for meetings, weddings, receptions, events, training sessions and exhibitions. There are also facilities for day care and other social projects. All proceeds, obviously, benefit the horses and ponies of De Paardenkamp.
Finally, farm Birkhoeve has been in use by De Paardenkamp since 2004. The expansion was necessary, because the waiting list grew enormously during the 1980s. Thanks to a considerable legacy, a facility was built which includes four barns: large, spacious areas with ample straw, which each hold groups of approximately 15 horses over winter.
Keeping them in this way promotes social contact for the horses, and benefits health and well being. The bedding does not get removed for the whole winter, but clean straw is added all the time, so the footage is thick and soft for the often-arthritic horses.
- This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of NZ Horse & Pony