Heleen’s happy horses

The Algarve isn’t the best place to be a horse. They’re better off in the green lush valleys of Kazakhstan, where they are considered vital part of the culture. Or Iceland, where they are honoured and admired. Here in the south of Portugal, horses are more likely to be abandoned, tied up with no water or forced to pull a cart which is too heavily loaded. Luckily, there are people who care for these four legged creatures and do everything to make them happy and healthy again. One of them is Heleen de Jong.

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve magazine October 2015

Carrying a wheelbarrow loaded with buckets and followed by her dogs, Heleen de Jong (62) walks out to feed her 10 horses. Seeing as the animals have to be able to graze all day long and no grass is growing on the dry ground in Foupana, she feeds them five times a day. Three times they get given hay, the other two, a mix of special horse nutrition (consisting of Farello, Luzerne and SF), sugar beet, carrots, carob beans, oil and bread. This food is measured and mixed by Heleen for each horse in their separate buckets; the amount of care and preparation she puts into it not unlike a chef in a five star restaurant, adding even supplements such as algae and brewer’s yeast for a better health. And just like a chef, Heleen will eat later, after the work is done. “Horses are creatures of habit. You can’t just change their feeding time, it’ll unsettle them.” It’s no small job for one person. With Heleen, the animals come first.


Riding here in the Cerro da Cabeça mountain area is amazing; it gives you the feeling of being the only person on this planet

This doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want though. As Heleen walks in the fence, it just takes a few shouts, ‘move it’, and all horses go to their own place, where they’ll stand not so patiently waiting for food. Even when the buckets are emptied out on the ground they don’t start, but instead wait until they’re clicked to their headpieces, allowing also the slowest eater to finish their meal in peace. “With horses, it’s important that you are the boss. A nice boss, of course, but they have to have rules, just like children and dogs. They have to wait until you tell them to. One of my horses, Paulo, I got from people who couldn’t handle him anymore and that’s when horses get dangerous. He’s a sweetie though,” Heleen says.

Unlike the brown gelding Paulo, most of the horses now living in Foupana were found wandering on the streets or rescued from the butchers. They got to Heleen by word of mouth, as many people in the south of Portugal know of her way with animals. Originally from Holland, Heleen has been living in the Algarve for 19 years now. “I came for a holiday and thought: I want to live here. So soon afterwards I moved, with my two children, two cats, two dogs and three ponies.” Two of them, Bonita and Kimmy, are still alive and regularly join in the lessons or hacks in the countryside. “Riding here in the Cerro da Cabeça mountain area is amazing; it gives you the feeling of being the only person on this planet,” she enthuses.


In Olhão for example, a drinking place for horses has now been created so they have access to water at all times

But ask her about the situation of horses in the Algarve and Heleen is silent for a bit, thinking how to best choose her words. “In the years I’ve been here a lot has already changed for the better, also when it comes down to how gypsies treat their horses. In Olhão for example, a drinking place for horses has now been created so they have access to water at all times,” she starts off positive. “But horses need to have way more freedom here,” she soon continues. “Take the Festa da Pinha in Estoi for example, for some horses this is the only time of the year they’re let out of the stable. That’s not good, they need regular exercise. And there’s a lot more that needs to improve.”

The horrible conditions some Portuguese horses are kept in have caused public outrage and in October 2014 a new Portuguese animal protection law came into effect. Animal abuse or mistreatment is now punishable with hefty fines and prison sentences of up to two years. Still, this doesn’t mean all horses have a great life now. The online petition ‘Stop the cruelty to horses in Portugal’, which started last year, has already been signed almost 25,000 times. There are people stating they won’t visit the Algarve anymore until something has been done against the cruelty and others who report they are disgusted by the barbaric way the starving animals are being treated. Also Heleen is sometimes moved to tears by what she sees. “If there’s cart full of gypsies on the street, which is pulled forward by a scarily thin mule, iron shoes half off, one eye half blind, I just can’t look. It’s so sad. I don’t stop, as I can’t take in every horse or donkey, but it makes me sick to my stomach.”


She was afraid I’d take the water away if she’d stop drinking.

She does take in a lot of rescued animals; for example Tobias, a horribly abused donkey that was found on the street. As a result of its traumatic past, it attacked everything and everyone who dared coming close. Even Heleen had to run to safety a few times in the first days she fed it. A couple of months in her care though and he was as good as gold. “Afterwards Tobias went to the Refúgio dos Burros, the donkey sanctuary in Estombar where he found a friend on the first day. Now those two donkeys are inseparable,” the Dutch horse whisperer says with a huge smile on her face.

Knowledge and education are key in order to improve the situation in the Algarve, says Heleen: “People shouldn’t think too light about having horses; animals are for life, not just for Christmas. And they have to be properly cared for. Those who have more experience with horses should pass on their knowledge. For example, everyone should know that horses always need water, it’s even more important than food.” Sadly, the previous owners of Pearl, a horse that was found in Olhão, didn’t adhere to these basic rules. “When Pearl first came here, she drank and drank and drank until she couldn’t anymore. She was afraid I’d take the water away if she’d stop drinking. The first few months here she’d run up to the water bucket every 10 minutes, checking that yes, there still was water in it.” When she arrived in March, Pearl looked bad and thirsty. Now, half a year later the beautiful white mare is well-fed and part of the herd.


Next to her horses, Heleen also has five dogs, all from the street, and Mia, a cross between a horse and a donkey, one of four foals that have been found walking loose on the N125, without their mum. She’s now cared for by Heleen, who has bought a goat to keep her company. The poor animal isn’t healthy; she’s got a blood disease, tick fevers and serious problems with the tendons in her legs. The mule looks like she’s in a very bad state and thus isn’t good advertising for Heleen’s riding school, but Heleen doesn’t care. “If people would look just a bit further, they’d see a lot of healthy horses in the other field.” Vets have already given up on Mia, but Heleen hasn’t, sometimes spending her nights next to the animal giving her homeopathic medicine every 15 minutes. “Mia doesn’t give up, so I don’t either!”

Horses have always played an important in Heleen’s life. “I had some problems with my hips when I was 9 years old. My uncle suggested horse riding.” From the first moment she sat on a horse’s back, Heleen was sold. “I liked everything about them: their smell, the way they look, the sound they make when they’re eating hay.” She started teaching other children how to ride when she was 12 and later on even taught Dutch dressage champion Anky van Grunsven, back when Anky was very young.


If I were a millionaire, I’d have a thousand happy horses here!

Giving riding lessons and organising pony camps is how Heleen pays for the food of the horses, as she doesn’t receive any government support. She’s known in the Algarve as the person who can get anyone back in the saddle. “If a kid has lost its complete trust in horses, then the parents usually send their child to me and I’ll have him or her back on horseback enjoying, riding with fun.” She immediately shares the credit: “That’s also because my horses are so sweet, they don’t do anything wrong. My horses feel everything. They feel it if you’re angry, or happy, or sad.” She pauses to think. “They mean a lot to me.”

And off she is again, tending to her dogs and loading bales of hay into her wheelbarrow for the horses’ evening snack. One last question: why she has devoted her life to making the lives of horses better? Then answer is simple. “Because the horses haven’t asked for their bad conditions. Also, because they can look you in the eye, silently asking ‘Please, can you help me?’. How can I say no to that?” she adds. “If I were a millionaire, I’d have a thousand happy horses here!”

To book a lesson in the paddock or a hack in the countryside, call Heleen on (00351-) 965400159. Rides are catered for all levels, from absolute beginners to experienced riders in both jumping and dressage. Riding caps are provided.

Pictures by Marijke Verschuren and Kyle Rodriguez


See original article in Enjoy the Algarve magazine October 2015

Posted in Features, People.

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