Pat Rogers stooped in a Loudoun County field and wrapped her hands around the knee of a former racehorse called Wajee, cooing sweet nothings to keep the thoroughbred calm.

Wajee's knee, broken in a race years ago, looked like a tremendous black knot. Because it kept Wajee from running competitively, the horse was abandoned to starve last year at a suburban Maryland farm. It was a classic case of horse neglect, Rogers said: leaving an already gimpy animal to face starvation or diseases without food, shelter or veterinary care.

"An owner didn't feel the horse was worth taking, so she left it behind," said Rogers, 54. "When he finally did break down {as a racehorse}, what good was he to them?"

In a metropolitan region with 50,000 horses, serious neglect of the animals happens all too often, despite the great care most owners give their horses, Rogers said. To temper the problem, Rogers has started the Equine Rescue League on a Leesburg farm devoted solely to rehabilitating abused horses. It is the only outfit of its kind in the Washington area that mends all types of horses broken down in races, shows and suburban back yards.

There is no precise information on the number of abuse cases each year in the Washington area. Rogers said she counted 300 cases in 1989, when she toured horse auctions in Fauquier County and Front Royal while working with humane officers.

"People say to me, 'No one abuses a horse. They're so beautiful,' " Rogers said, her voice tense. "There is abuse. We don't want it. We don't like it. But it happens."

A Virginia state humane investigator said she receives about 50 complaints every winter about starving horses, including one last week in Great Falls. "I get so many calls on abused horses, you wouldn't believe it," said investigator Bettijane Mackall, who already has delivered two horses to Rogers. "A horse will go down in a hurry if it is not fed . . . . Why does anybody do it? They just don't care."

The rescue league sits in the middle of a region that prides itself as horse country. Loudoun, Prince William, Fairfax and Montgomery counties have dozens of farms that raise thoroughbreds. Middleburg is considered the fox hunt capital of America; hunting is so common that paths are cut through high weeds and rock walls are reinforced for horse jumping.

The rescue league farm, called Churchland, has 65 acres, 23 stalls and three barns made of cinder block and rough-sawn cedar. It has space to quarantine horses suspected of carrying diseases and an intensive-care stall connected to the farm's dusty office.

Shirley Sindelar, the Churchland Farm owner, is renting it to the rescue league for $1 a year because she supports its efforts. The league, which has raised more than $20,000 in donations, started using the farm last month.

Mark Fowler, league president and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, contacted Rogers last year after he saw what she was doing. "I'm in it for life," he said.

Rogers said most of the horses will come from seizures made by animal control officers, most of whom don't have the space to care for an abused horse. When the horses become healthy again, they will be available for adoption, she said. So far, the rescue league has 12 horses, including Wajee, several mares, four wild mustangs, and a waist-high pony.

Rogers's daughter, Cheryl, a professional rider and trainer, just moved back to Loudoun from a South Carolina horse farm to help manage the operation. Cheryl Rogers, 26, said she and her mother have long pined for the chance to open a farm to help horses. With the donation of Churchland and help from contributions, they have reached that goal, she said.

Dressed in muddy boots and a muddy winter jacket, Cheryl Rogers said she and her mother recognize there are other problems in the world besides horses. But they don't know how to solve those problems, she said.

"Why let them be abused and neglected?" she said. "We feel like we owe it to them . . . . This is a passion of Mom's and mine. We're trying to help horses. What we are educated about, what we know about, is horses."

They say most horse abuse stems from neglect. Because nearly all horses are domesticated, much like cows or dogs, they need care and attention that costs a lot to provide. A horse left in a field to feed on grass and drink from a pond will quickly lose weight and show signs of neglect when a pond freezes and the grass, dormant in winter, disappears.

Tracy McKenna, of the American Horse Protection Association, estimated it costs $2,000 a year to keep a horse healthy. She said it costs as much as $300 a month to board a horse in Fairfax. When winter coincides with an economic downturn, she said, some horses are likely to suffer. But many cases of neglect are never reported.

"A lot of people don't want to get involved," she said. "The horse is the first thing to go when times get tough."