When horse rescuers first waded into a dilapidated Elgin-area barn last month, the manure was so high it sucked their knee-high boots right off their legs.
Things didn't get much better from there.
The rescuers from the Barrington Hills-based Hooved Animal Rescue and Protection Society removed five abandoned and starving horses from the barn that day, saving them just days from death, according to the group.
"The animals were covered in so much dried-on feces we couldn't tell what color they were," said Donna Ewing, the founder and president of the nonprofit organization referred to as HARPS.
The rescue effort started Jan. 30, when Ewing received a call from Kane County Animal Control about horses that had not been out of their stalls in six months, when their feeding and care had stopped.
The horses were found in various states of starvation and neglect, standing in nearly a foot and a half of rancid manure and urine, according to Ewing. One buckskin mare was so covered in caked-on manure that her color was nearly undistinguishable. A six-month-old colt was lying helpless in the corner of his stall, too weak to stand. Two bay mares and a young filly were wallowing in the deep muck.
Under their long winter coats, only skeletal frames could be felt, Ewing said.
"On a scale of one to 10, some of these horses were a one or two," she said. "They were absolutely terrified of humans, and many were a day or two away from dying."
Ewing's crew blanketed and haltered the four mares while the young colt -- too weak to move -- was lifted to his feet.
According to Ewing, a man who rented the barn on McDonald Road, west of Elgin, was grooming the horses for a rodeo but left them when he could no longer pay for their care. Officials with the Kane County Animal Control Department couldn't be reached Friday to comment on possible charges against the man.
Since that day, the condition of the horses has improved to the point they are nearly ready for adoption. They've been eating five times a day and exercising in an indoor facility, Ewing said.
Soon, the horses will have dental work done, and the manure will be soaked off.
"It's just been too cold," she said. "It's so caked on, it would pull the hair right off. It would be too much of a shock to their systems."
HARPS's mission is to protect and rehabilitate horses and other hooved animals through investigation, impoundment, legislation and education. Ewing started the first such facility in the United States.
Anyone interested in adopting one of the horses or donating to the organization should contact HARPS at (847) 382-0503 or visit www.harpsonline.org to see photos of the horses and view adoption requirements.