Remarkable Woman: Gail Vacca


(Personal note – Admired and respected among all except those against whom she fights, Gail was the prime driver for shutting down the slaughter of horses in Illinois. One of my fondest memories of her was sitting on a back porch late at night in deep discussions after a long day in DC trying to convince our Representatives to actually represent the people that put them in office. She’s the best friend a horse can have and the nightmare for those who make money from their death. )

By William Hageman, Tribune Newspapers, February 17, 2013

The classic 1946 movie “Black Beauty” and the Anna Sewell novel from which it was adapted were pivotal influences for Gail Vacca. “The book and movie affected me deeply as a child and (were) likely partially responsible for developing my interest in animal welfare. ... My favorite quote listed on my Facebook page is borrowed from Anna Sewell: ‘My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.'“ (Scott Strazzante, Chicago Tribune)

The classic 1946 movie “Black Beauty” and the Anna Sewell novel from which it was adapted were pivotal influences for Gail Vacca. “The book and movie affected me deeply as a child and (were) likely partially responsible for developing my interest in animal welfare. … My favorite quote listed on my Facebook page is borrowed from Anna Sewell: ‘My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.’“ (Scott Strazzante, Chicago Tribune)

Gail Vacca can pinpoint exactly when her love for horses began.

She was 4, on a family vacation in New Jersey, and her horse-loving grandfather asked her if she wanted a pony ride.

“I still remember it,” says Vacca, founder and president of the Illinois Equine Humane Center (, a horse rescue based in Big Rock. “It was a black pony named Buttons. We went back the next day and I rode another one, Chalks. (My grandfather) had created a monster.”

She got her first horse at 5, by 6 was taking lessons and competing in shows, and at 8 was jumping with a big thoroughbred that her grandfather had bought her. When she was a teen, she and her grandfather frequented Rockingham Park racetrack in Salem, N.H.

Enter Cracklin Ruby, a 2-year-old filly with a fractured knee.

“My grandfather said they were going to send her to the glue factory. That’s what they said back then. My grandfather wondered if I’d want to take her in and try to fix her and save her life.”

Vacca not only rehabilitated Cracklin Ruby, but also retrained her to become a successful show horse. That set Vacca on a path that led to a career in racing as an exercise rider, hot walker, groom and finally a successful trainer. Her work brought her to Illinois in 1988, but her career took a sharp turn in 2002. She wound up leading a successful fight to end horse-slaughtering operations in the U.S., and has become a vocal advocate for better treatment of horses. In 2008, she helped found ILEHC, which leases about 20 acres in Kane County, and where relinquished and rescued horses are rehabilitated and re-homed. It currently cares for 15. Following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: What turned you from an industry insider to an activist?

A: I was home (in DeKalb) on Easter Sunday in 2002, out in the barn, taking care of my horses and listening to the radio. They said the Cavel horse-slaughtering plant in DeKalb had burned down the night before. I ran back to the house and said to my boyfriend, “The radio says a horse slaughtering plant in DeKalb burned? In DeKalb?” And he said, “Didn’t you know?” It deeply disturbed me. So I started investigating what these places were and what they entailed. It doesn’t take long to realize it was an absolutely, grotesquely inhumane practice.

Q: How widespread was it?

A: At the time there were only three: one in DeKalb and two in Texas. But they killed 100,000 horses a year. I thought, well, at least the one in DeKalb burned down. But then the plant said they were going to rebuild. No. No. Over my dead, cold body.

Q: And the fight began, first in Illinois, then nationally, to end horse slaughter.

A: I took it on with great naivete. … It was going to be a no-brainer. We don’t eat horses, and once people know we’ll get it stopped. But it took a lot of work on our side. I quit training in ’02 and was commuting almost weekly to Springfield, lobbying. The first two or three times the bill came up, it lost. Who knew it would take five years to get it passed? Finally in 2007 we passed the bill (banning the slaughter of horses in Illinois for human consumption).

Q: But that wasn’t the end of your work.

A: I started going to these low-rent auctions, to get horses, especially racehorses, out of this slaughter pipeline. (The horse-processing operations moved to Canada and Mexico.) I’d go to the auctions and see the abuse the horses suffered on the way to slaughter. In the beef and pork industries, they have a vested interest in keeping the animals well cared-for. In the horse slaughter industry there’s … no interest in keeping the horses in good condition. We have documents we obtained via the Freedom of Information Act that detail the abuse at those three plants in the U.S. People have no idea what they do to horses.

Q: As someone who comes from the racing industry, are you better able to campaign for changes?

A: People will listen to me, not to PETA. After 20 years of beating the racing industry over the head, writing blogs, being in magazines and newspapers, going on TV, saying the industry has to be responsible for caring for their animals, it’s starting to sink in. More racing jurisdictions are coming around, funding aftercare for horses, and working with rescues.

Q: Has the recession meant more horses in need of rescue?

A: Last year was tough. It was the perfect storm: More people had to give up horses because of financial problems, the drought caused the cost of hay to increase, donations are down because of the recession. And now we need to look for a new location. The land we lease as pasture land is being converted to crop land. That makes it much more expensive to lease. So we need to find a new home. We think 2013 is going to be a sink-or-swim year for us.

Q: Does ILEHC take up all your time? Do you have hobbies, for example?

A: I work seven days a week, so any time off is spent trying to recoup. My significant other and I go to movies. We hang out together and with our two dogs, Bella and Titus. They’re Cane Corsos. It’s like having two little ponies in your home because they each weigh 140 pounds. We take the dogs swimming or to the park, take them on our vacations.

(Read more and comment here)

The Illinois Equine Humane Center ( always has room for volunteers, even those without equine backgrounds; it also has horse sponsorships and needs homes for adoptions or fosters and is looking for land to lease for its horses.

AUTHOR: Jerry Finch
  • BlessUsAll

    Your personal memories part at the top scared me, Jerry; I was relieved, upon getting to the interview, to learn that Gail is alive and well — and in her usual fighting-for-the-horses form. Whew!

    So many names and bill numbers and memories paraded through my mind as I read the first part of this Q&A (couldn’t access the rest without subscribing to ChiTrib’s “digital plus”).

    Chris Heyde at AWI. John Hettinger (RIP). Daniel, our equine “saint” in Spain. The 2003 DeKalb vigil. Sacia, our Illinois nemesis. Goodlatte, our scourge in DC. AVMA and AAEP and AQHA, the four-lettered hydras. Donna, the two-faced “rescuer.” Canadian horse Montana, Barb at Lazy Maple Equine Rescue, and Dr. Lydia Gray of the Hooved Animal Humane Society. Fully and Rollie (RIP). Veloce. Rodney and Burrito (RIP). Cilla and Catzilla. Titus and Bella. All those cute cats! Obama and Blago — before they were world-famous. Snickers and Willie. The Sugarcreek Six and Anne Russek. And so many more knights in shining armor…. starting with Mary Nash.

    So many joys. So many tears. All in all, so much for which to be grateful. Thank you for being part of my life, Gail. For introducing me to the world of equine activism. And for remaining an inspiration.

    February 18, 2013
  • aslansgirl4ever

    Gail is an inspiring woman. She is smart, articulate, tough and tender and she is a hell of a horse woman. Her love for horses is demonstrated in every part of her life and she is a fierce defender for them. When my son was very small, he was very interested in knights and kings and heroes. When I told him what Gail was doing for horses and her fight for what was right, and he deemed her a “warrior.” And that, in a word, is just what she is. The world needs more just like her.

    February 18, 2013
  • Gail Vacca is a true hero for the horses. Her unwavering commitment for humane treatment of horses has made a huge impact on the racing industry. She has stood on the front lines of the horse slaughter battle and devoted herself to horse rescue. She is a woman of great compassion and integrity!

    February 18, 2013
  • Mustang man

    Gail is one of the most wonderful and dedicated horse advocates. I personally would love to see her and Sue Wallace in a boxing ring though I dont think Bloody hands Sue would last more then about 12 seconds against Gail

    February 18, 2013
    • BlessUsAll

      That’s funny, Mustang man. And I think you’re right! I thought of you last night when I watched this gorgeous new video, “The Path of the Horse,” that Denise Brown provided the link to on R.T.’s blog yesterday:

      And the reason I thought of you is that whenever Stormy May interviewed one of these respected horse whisperers, her camera invariably showed a squared-corner shaped pen — not a round pen. “Aha,” I thought each time. “Mustang man is right!” 🙂

      February 18, 2013