“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
The Winston Churchill quote is a beloved expression among horse enthusiasts, yet it’s likely the opposite is also true—there is something about the outside of a human that can be equally good for the inside of a horse, especially a horse in need.
Estimated in the thousands, there’s no accurate count of the number of unwanted horses in the U.S., nor their age, sex, breed, or most recent use. However, one thing is certain: The number of unwanted horses exceeds the resources available to care for them. In response, A Home For Every Horse (AHFEH) was established in 2011 by the American Horse Council’s Unwanted Horse Coalition and the Equine Network (of which H&R is a part). AHFEH is committed to helping find homes for America’s horses in need of care and shelter. The alliance provides resources and support to 501(c)(3) horse rescues; through the partnership, the organization connects rescue horses with those searching for a horse.
AHFEH has assisted rescues in placing countless horses in new homes across the United States. Among them are Skipper, Matina, Smokey, Red, and Ruby, whose stories we’ll tell here. Read on to learn how these horses arrived in a rescue and later found a second-chance home.
Rescuing the Rescuers
Careers, children, and the Army National Guard Reserves propelled Chris and Robbin Watson of Guthrie, Oklahoma, through their daily routines. Though the couple enjoyed horses when they first met, it’d been almost 20 years since either one had owned or ridden a horse.
In 2013, the couple decided the two-decade hiatus from horse ownership was 20 years too long.
After a third tour of active duty in the Middle East, Chris was boiling with anger. “My feelings of anger at another driver on the interstate were threatening everyone around me,” he shared. “I experienced increasing moments of anger, irritation at my surroundings, and frustration at not being able to control my environment.” Wisely, he exited the highway, and no one got hurt that day. But, he also realized something had to change and that he needed help.
Hoping a return to horses would help Chris heal, the couple visited Horse Feathers Equine Rescue, also in Guthrie. Skipper, a 7-year-old gelding, was one of the horses in need of a home. Chris immediately fell in love with him.
“Cheri White Owl (Horse Feathers founder) told us she received a call from the sheriff, who’d found the gelding undernourished, living in a trailer park,” Robbin said. “When Cheri arrived to pick him up, he skipped right onto the trailer—so he was named Skipper.”
Initially, Chris believed Skipper was the one who needed all the work. “This handsome introvert, Skipper, needed attention and solid leadership in ways that I very quickly realized I could provide, he said. “I didn’t want to claim the effects of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) because there were others who went through worse.”
Not wanting to admit his time in the deserts had taken too much from him, Chris focused his energy on improving Skipper. Over time, he found that Skipper was also helping him. “I discovered in my journey with Skipper that there was a lot of work to be done on myself,” he said. “When my wife told me that Skipper was the best thing to happen to me in years, I began to realize that PTSD was what I was dealing with.”
Less than one month after adopting Skipper, Robbin was volunteering at Horse Feathers when she spotted an 11-year-old Paint mare named Matina. She’d been raised by an elderly woman, and when the woman died, Matina and other horses needed a new home. The horses weren’t malnourished, but Matina hadn’t been worked with. When other potential adopters learned she was pigeon-toed, they balked at taking the mare. Chris agreed a second horse would give him and Robbin an opportunity to reconnect as a couple.
“The horses brought us back to who we are individually and who we are as a couple,” Robbin said. “Our daily trip to the barn is like having a date every night.”
Paying It Forward
Made popular by the movie based on a novel of the same name, “pay it forward” encourages an act of kindness in response to a good deed done on one’s behalf. When someone “pays it forward,” he’s not repaying the person who did something nice for him. Instead, the individual does something nice for someone else.
Unaware of this “do good for others” concept, Smokey, a 6-year-old buckskin Appaloosa gelding, is paying forward his good fortune of finding a nurturing home. Under the care of Cathy and Larry Brown, from Marietta, Georgia, Smokey is in training to become a mounted search-and-rescue horse. Once his training is complete, he’ll carry Cathy deep into the woods, off the beaten path, and across unfamiliar terrain to find missing individuals.
“We’d put the word out that we were looking for a Quarter Horse gelding that was calm and easygoing,” Cathy said. “Friends told me to check out a horse at Trinity Horse Rescue (in Acworth, Georgia).” Friends suggested a Quarter Horse mare named Noelle.
When the Browns visited the rescue and explained what they were looking for, rescue founders Cynthia and Joe Heaton encouraged them to consider Smokey, who was off the property at a trainer’s in Alabama.
The Browns learned Smokey was the product of an accidental breeding. He was born a cryptorchid, with testicles retained in his abdominal cavity, and his owner couldn’t afford the surgery to geld him. When the boarding facility he was kept at fell on hard times, the property owner said the young stallion had to go—either to another home or to be euthanized. Trinity Horse Rescue responded to a plea to save Smokey. The Browns agreed to visit when Smokey returned from the trainer.
“When we went to meet him, he was making these silly little faces and twitching his lip,” Cathy recalled. “It looked like he was saying, ‘Hey, watchya doin’?’”
The Browns adopted Smokey last March and began his training as a mounted search-and-rescue horse. “We’ve taken him off trail a few times, and he plows right through and doesn’t care if a limb touches his side. We call him ‘Tank’ because he pushes his way through anything,” she said.
Despite Smokey’s laid-back, easygoing nature and willingness to travel off the beaten path, the Browns are taking it slow with his training. Search-and-rescue horses must be comfortable standing tied to a tree along with other horses and amidst commotion. “During a rescue right before Thanksgiving, helicopters hovered at tree level,” she explained.
The couple anticipates that Smokey will begin participating in search missions this summer. “Smokey has a great future ahead of him. Our friends and family can ride him, and he’s been a good addition to our family. We hope others will consider a rescue horse, too,” Cathy concluded.
Hesitant to participate in trainer challenges, Todd Feaser of Top Shelf Ranch in Newville, Pennsylvania, decided he’d try the 2014 Equine Comeback Challenge in his home state, sponsored by A Home For Every Horse. “People can sometimes get the wrong idea or expectation from these types of challenges,” he said.
However, the Equine Comeback Challenge is different. The competition pairs rescue horses with trainers, who then demonstrate the horses’ progress during a special event, in Todd’s case, at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show last October. “I decided it was something I needed to do to raise awareness for rescue horses,” he added.
Todd was paired with Red, a Quarter Horse cross from the ANNA Rescue Center in Erie, Pennsylvania. “She was seized along with 31 other horses that had been starved. The rescue thought she was 3 or 4,” he explained.
Red was timid and suspicious. “The first week or week and a half, she wasn’t very trusting of people,” he said. “Then she started bonding with my 9-year-old daughter, and I knew she was going to make a nice youth horse.”
During her first 30 days of training, Red proved she was a quick learner. “I started her in reining and then decided to back off because she was becoming a little too sensitive for a young rider,” Todd said. Instead, he focused on desensitizing the mare and promoting her good mind.
A few weeks before competition, Todd encouraged clients David and Michelle McBride to consider Red for their three daughters—Aubrey, 9; Ava, 7; and Alyvia, 5. The novice 4-Hers needed a horse. The family was skeptical, unsure they could trust a young rescue horse with a rough background.
About a week before the event, David called Todd and bought the horse, but it was to be kept a secret. Todd, David, and Michelle would make the surprise announcement at the Comeback Challenge. When the event concluded, Red was named the winner and the McBride family joined Todd in the arena to accept the honors. The girls were handed Red’s reins and congratulated on their new horse.
“Red and the Comeback Challenge opened my eyes. In the past, we got kind of caught up with the fact that we have a stallion and sell high-quality foals,” he said. “Connecting clients with rescue horses is something we’re looking at down the road for those who don’t need a big pedigree.”
Providing a Brighter Future
Professional trainer Erin Zellefrow has worked with hundreds of horses during her career. Working out of her facility, Revelation Training, LLC, in Erie, Pennsylvania, she’s trained numerous horses that have come from rescues. “I’ve seen them go on to great homes with a brighter future,” she said.
Erin first became involved with rescuing horses through the ANNA Shelter in Erie. “The director is a close friend and asked what I thought about branching out into a horse rescue,” she said. “I was excited and supportive of the idea.”
When Erin learned of the Equine Comeback Challenge, she jumped at the opportunity to endorse the potential of rescue horses. She was assigned Ruby, a 6-year-old Paint mare rescued from the fate of auction by Second Chance Thoroughbreds in Spencer, New York.
Erin traveled five hours to collect the mare. “When we arrived, the caretaker said, ‘Let me show you her in the pasture first, so you can see how nice she is,’” Erin recalled. Evidently, the caretaker knew that once caught, Ruby would display a lot of “dancing and hollering.” Ruby pawed in the trailer all the way from New York to Pennsylvania; wouldn’t eat; and upon arrival at the training facility, circled and screamed, not caring what or who was in her way.
The mare was given the weekend to settle in. She quickly earned the nickname “mare-be-go-round.” She couldn’t stop moving. The only thing Erin could do for weeks was move the mare’s feet where she wanted them to go and incorporate lots of changes in direction. It was the only means she had of showing Ruby she was somewhat in control.
Once Ruby calmed down, Erin moved on to desensitizing, building trust and encouraging the mare’s confidence. Erin’s patience paid off, as the mare now rides Western or English, executes soft transitions, and is supple and responsive.
“She’s talented and loves a job, but requires an experienced rider, as she’ll take advantage quickly if given the opportunity,” she said. Though Ruby didn’t win the Equine Comeback Challenge and hasn’t been adopted yet, Erin is certain Ruby will make a nice show or trail horse for the right person. “With more miles, she’s going to make a heck of a horse, and she’s enriched my life,” she said.
If you’d like to investigate equine adoption opportunities, check the listings at AHome
ForEveryHorse.com. Horse enthusiasts unable to adopt a horse of their own can still help. The Unwanted Horse Coalition (www.unwantedhorsecoalition.org) estimates it costs $1,800 to $2,400 annually to provide basic care, such as hay, feed, routine veterinary visits, and regular farrier visits. Your donation to a specific 501(c)(3) or to the Unwanted Horse Coalition can help defray the expenses.