The 19th century has been called the “Golden Age of the Horse,” because of the widespread use of horses in many aspects of daily life. The horse was indispensable for providing the power for transportation, farm work, fire-fighting, and industries such as mills, foundries, machine shops and breweries. The horse also provided people with entertainment through sports like horse racing, hunting, and driving.
For many of the horses themselves, however, this era was far from “golden.” As there were no laws to protect animals in those days, horse owners were free to treat their faithful helpers in any way they chose. Sadly, this often meant abuse in the form of overwork, malnutrition, and merciless beatings when exhausted horses were unable or unwilling to pull their heavy loads. Extreme tightening of the bearing rein on carriage and cab horses caused the horses to break down at a young age due to neck and spine injuries. The average streetcar horse had a life expectancy of only about four years, and many overworked and mistreated urban horses often dropped dead in the street in the middle of a day’s work. The Atlantic Monthly in 1866 reported that Broadway in New York City was clogged with “dead horses and vehicular entanglements.”
Most people who witnessed such maltreatment felt helpless to intercede on the horses’ behalf. But some compassionate and determined individuals were instrumental in bringing about important changes in the treatment of animals in the United States. In 1877, Anna Sewell wrote the now-classic novel, Black Beauty, to promote awareness in the general public of the plight of the working horse and the need for more humane treatment of them. Henry Bergh, nicknamed “The Great Meddler” because of his outspoken advocacy of animal rights, founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866.
In Philadelphia, a petite, feisty, but kindhearted lady could also be considered another “Great Meddler” on behalf of the working horses of America. Anne Waln-Ryerss was descended from a prominent Philadelphia family who constantly pursued opportunities to improve the lives of helpless animals. In 1866, Morris Waln donated $10,000 toward the establishment of the Pennsylvania SPCA. Anne followed in the footsteps of her ancestors in being an active advocate for the welfare of animals, especially horses. Anne’s husband, Joseph Ryerss, a successful businessman, was also from a family of philanthropists and animal rights activists. Anne’s stepson, Robert Waln Ryerss, a Philadelphia attorney, was instrumental in helping create the Pennsylvania SPCA and the Anti-Vivisectionist Society of Pennsylvania. The Ryerss’ Burholme estate featured a pet cemetery and many portraits that the family commissioned of their beloved animal companions.
Anne, like Henry Bergh, made a practice of stopping the owner of a horse who was being mistreated to point out that the animal was in distress. She would then persuade the owner that the horse would greatly benefit from a rehabilitation period at her own farm in Burholme (now part of the Fairmount Park Commission in Philadelphia). In some cases, the horses never recovered enough to go back to their arduous workload, so they stayed on at the farm under the loving care of the Ryerss family for the rest of their lives.
Upon her death in 1888, Anne bequeathed $30,000 to establish a hospital for “ill, aged and injured animals,” and an additional $40,000 was placed in endowment to maintain the farm. To fulfill the terms of her will, Anne’s stepson, Robert, purchased an 80-acre farm at Meetinghouse & Krewstown Roads in the Bustleton section of Northeast Philadelphia. On Sept. 17, 1888, “Ryerss Infirmary for Dumb Animals,” as it was originally named, was incorporated as a charitable institution whose objective was “to provide a permanent home for old favorites whose owners, instead of destroying or selling them, desire to place them under good treatment for the remainder of their days.” The first horse, noted as “old, blind and weak,” arrived on June 11, 1889. Ryerss’ early residents were old hunters, ponies and workhorses from the Philadelphia area, and approximately a dozen retired horses that had been used to pull the city’s fire engines. Robert Waln Ryerss served as the first President of the establishment until retiring in 1895.
Due to financial considerations, the property in Bustleton was sold so the farm could be moved to a less expensive location. Ryerss leased the Packard Laird Farm in Chesterbrook, and in June 1927 the horses were moved to their new home. During the Depression, the buyer of the Bustleton farm was constantly in default of his mortgage, and in January 1933 the Ryerss Trustees voted to foreclose. So, in the spring of that year the horses were moved back to the Bustleton location. In May 1956, Ryerss purchased a 108-acre farm on King Road in West Whiteland Twp. This property featured a barn with 40 box stalls (one of the largest in the county at that time).
The King Road farm served as Ryerss’ home for the next three decades, until the Board of Directors decided to seek out property in a less densely populated area, and Ryerss acquired the present-day location on Ridge Road in South Coventry and Warwick Townships in Chester County. The property, Soleil Farm, consisted of three smaller farms, totaling 363 acres. In November 1987, thirty-four horses were moved to their new home. Ryerss Farm purchased an adjoining property in September 2000, adding an additional 20 acres. Approximately 330 acres of Ryerss Farm were placed into the Chester County Agricultural Land Preservation Program on February 21, 2001. In October of 1991, the Ryerss Board of Directors changed the name of the farm to “Ryerss Farm for Aged Equines,” to more accurately reflect its mission.
A century and a quarter later, Ryerss Farm for Aged Equines is the oldest non-profit horse sanctuary in the United States and continues to provide a haven for horses of all breeds, sizes, and walks of life, thanks to the far-reaching vision of a bold and determined lady named Anne Waln Ryerss.