In the District, Heather Freeman is best known for her 25-plus years at the helm of Heather Freeman Media & Public Relations – with an impressive list of hospitality industry clients including Blue Duck Tavern, Ambar, Cuba Libre, 2941 and the brand-new Brasserie Liberté, among many others. But while her work is rooted in the nation’s capital, her home is a 13-acre farm in North Carolina inhabited by a variety of pets – especially horses.
Once Freeman discovered the inhumane ways that unwanted horses are sold, shipped and slaughtered, she turned her love for helping horses into a charitable 501c3 organization. The mission of HERD, which stands for helping equines regain dignity, is to rescue and rehabilitate horses so they can be placed into loving forever homes.
With the help of donations and volunteers, HERD has transformed from a small grassroots rescue group into a national organization. Since 2016, the rescue has saved hundreds of horses from the slaughter pipeline to Mexico and Canada. Now, she seeks to educate the public about the cruel practices affecting American horses. Read our conversation with Freeman to learn more about how she turned her passion into a successful philanthropic effort.
On Tap: What is your personal history with horses? When did you first develop a love for them?
Heather Freeman: I’ve been crazy for horses since I was 2 years old and climbed up on a relative’s Saddlebred horse. I started riding ponies when I was barely able to walk. I took riding lessons as a young girl and always dreamed of owning my own horse. My grandmother got me my first horse when I was about 12. I’ve been riding, showing and competing for many years.
OT: When did you become aware of people using horses for meat and hides? What kind of revelation was that for you?
HF: [I realized] about four years ago when a local [horse meat dealer set up shop in] North Carolina. I saw all of these beautiful horses standing in mud up to their knees and ankles. There were many former show horses and children’s ponies. I never knew where horses went when people sold them at auctions or on Craigslist. I found out really quickly that they were being shipped for slaughter mainly to Oklahoma and, in some cases, Mexico.
OT: How did you go about establishing HERD? How long did it take before you became a fully operational program?
HF: I started HERD on my own farm saving 12 horses a year. I paid all the bills. I got some neighbors to help me. I would go get the horses and do it all. Within months, I had people in the community helping me, coming to see the horses and spreading the word. One woman named Stuart Evans saw [one of HERD’s rehabilitated stallions] and said, “You have got to get your 501c3 if you want to have a bigger impact.” Within a year, HERD was a 501c3 and had gone nationwide.
OT: Was there anything like this before you started? How is HERD different from other horse rescue organizations?
HF: There are other people like me, but what’s different about our group is that we get them [trained] and super healthy and adopt them out to new homes. A lot of the horses that we’re saving end up going on and winning at horse shows and events because we put so much into them. We don’t just stick them out in the backyard and leave them there. What also sets us a little bit apart is that we take in younger horses, some of which have never been ridden or are too young to be ridden.
OT: How many horses has HERD rescued? How do you find the horses in need?
HF: We usually rescue about 100 horses a year, sometimes more than that. It depends because I have to raise the money to rescue them, which is a big undertaking. How I find them is sometimes through interception on Craigslist or somebody contacting me saying, “If somebody doesn’t come buy this horse today for $300, I’m taking it to the auction.” And “taking it to the auction” mainly means [the horse] is going to go to slaughter. There are some kill buyers that I watch online who send me pictures of thoroughbreds they’ve gotten. We get them in a myriad of ways.
OT: Do you think kill buyers are a problem that people are unaware of? How does HERD go about educating the public?
HF: We have a closed group on our Facebook page. We have members. I go and speak to riding clubs. You’d be amazed at the number of people who ride, show and own horses that have no idea that this goes on, and I was one of them up until four-and-a-half years ago. I didn’t know. I try to tell as many people as I can what’s going on. I encourage people to write to their congressmen and senators and tell them, “Stop slaughtering American horses. Stop sending them for live export. Stop doing that.” Knowledge is power. By getting people the information, you help them. If there was legislation was passed to stop the export of these animals, something would have to be done. But right now, [America] gets rid of all their unwanted horses by sending them to another country.
OT: What does the future of HERD look like?
HF: I’m hoping that I have been enough of a role model that as I age and won’t be able to do the strenuousness of this – riding and handling all of these horses – younger HERD members and supporters coming up behind me will help step up and keep HERD going, or start their own [charity] like HERD.