MEGGETT — Not far from Highway 162 on Church Flats Road there’s an iron gate with the shape of two horse heads on each side. The gate opens to a dirt road that leads past white-fenced pastures where horses graze.

It’s calm and quiet. The only sound is the whispering of wind passing through the trees surrounding the 165 acres.

Where the road forks, there’s a large statue of a horse. It appears to be in a protective stance, standing guard in front of the stables where abused and neglected horses have been housed for the past few years by the nonprofit group Livestock Equine Awareness and Rescue Network.

Those horses will have to find new homes after the owner of the property decided he could no longer let LEARN use the grounds, said Elizabeth Steed, who leads the organization.

“I’m not angry at all,” Steed said. “I’m sad. I’m disappointed. But how can you be mad at someone who’s done such good?”

Joe Bartone, the owner of the land and stables, allowed Steed to house horses there for free while he tried selling the property for the past few years, she said.

But now Bartone needs his land back for a new business venture running cattle. On Thursday, empty pastures where Steed’s horses used to roam were filled with cattle.

Volunteer Theresa Owens escorted their horses into a pasture that was still empty. As she walked by the stable doors, she pointed to a dark-brown horse. “This one’s my favorite,” she said. “Jude is a rascal.”

Jude was brought to LEARN after he was found malnourished in Colleton County. He belonged to an Alzheimer’s disease patient, Steed said.

Last week the 28-year-old horse was eating some hay and glanced up as Owens approached the gate. “He was so skinny before. When we first saw him, I had tears in my eyes. It’s been so great seeing him blossom.”

Moments later, Steed arrived at the stables and broke some news to Owens, whose 10-year-old son also volunteers with LEARN. “We’re putting Jude to sleep tomorrow morning,” Steed said.

Owens eyes misted over. She listened to Steed tell her how Jude’s broken knee had just become too painful for the old horse.

Steed’s eyes too began to water as she talked about Jude. “It’s going to be hard to let him go,” she said.

The horse spent about a year with them trying to rehabilitate. But it had become too much for his age, Steed said, and his death comes at the worst possible time for the organization scrambling to find homes for their horses.

Helping horses

Ninety horses have been housed on the Meggett grounds during the last four years, Steed said. After finding out about the move, six horses have been placed into foster care and nine remain.

Whisper, who was found last year starving, maggot-infested, and marked with kerosene burns, will remain with Steed on her nine-acre farm, where 11 horses are permanently housed.

Whisper almost made it to Willie Nelson’s Texas Ranch last summer. But after agreeing to take Whisper and another horse found with him, Amy Nelson, who runs her father’s horse rescue operation, backed out on the offer when it became clear that Whisper needs ongoing special care. He can’t be in the sun because of his burn scars, Steed said.

LEARN ended up on Bartone’s farm in 2010 when the organization took in 33 horses after 47 were seized from a Colleton County Bible camp. Animal control workers said they found a host of undernourished horses. Bartone called Steed and offered the farm, where LEARN has remained since.

Because of that generosity, Steed said she has no hard feelings. “He does not owe us anything. He has been tremendous,” she said.

Christmas miracle

Owens hasn’t told her son yet about the news of LEARN’s quick departure from the farm. She knows it won’t be easy. They’ve fallen in love with the farm, as have the horses.

“It’s very peaceful and the horses feel it. They really thrive out here,” she said. Without the space, and amid rising food costs, Steed knows she needs to find homes for the remaining six and fast. It’s difficult for her to say good-bye to the horses she’s brought back to health, some from near starvation. Each of them has its unique story.

As Steed strolled through the stable, she told the life story of each horse: One is a Charleston Cup winner, another was rescued after ending up in an auction where it was sold to a meat buyer, another was adopted out but returned 200 pounds under weight.

“Almost every one of the horses here has a compelling story,” she said.

As she approached one stall, she introduced Goose Feather, an imported horse from Holland that was almost blind when it arrived at the farm.

“He was our Christmas miracle last year. We had him for about six months when around Christmas, his eyes cleared up,” Steed said. “And it never fails. Every Christmas we have a miracle. It may be a small one and it may not mean much to some people, but to us, we look for them now. It’s kind of become like a tradition.”

With Christmas about a month away, now more than ever before, Steed can only anxiously await what this year’s miracle may bring.

Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.