Therapeutic Horses of Saratoga
In the heart of Saratoga Springs, New York, there’s a special place where horses and humans come together, creating a holistic and restorative environment. The brainchild of Dr. Erin Christopher-Sisk, Therapeutic Horses of Saratoga (THS) rescues retired racehorses and gives them a second career.
Dr. Christopher-Sisk had always incorporated dogs and cats into her therapy practice. After becoming a racehorse owner and learning that these majestic animals had few options once their racing days were over, she envisioned a new path forward – for the horses and her approach to therapy. Soon, she purchased a farm and began to offer a unique healing modality, using horses as the centerpiece.
“Equine therapy takes traditional talk therapy to an outdoor, therapeutic environment, unrestricted by office walls,” explains Megan Koloskie, development manager at THS. She says the approach can be used to help a variety of mental health issues, from anxiety and depression to autism and ADHD, and has shown particular promise with veterans and service members struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
In 2022, THS offered more than 400 equine therapy sessions, including its first eight-week program geared specifically to the military community. Koloskie says the veterans who participated in this inaugural effort offered plenty of positive feedback. Among the comments, participants said it helped them “look inward and reflect on themselves,” was “calming and surprisingly effective,” and noted that friends and family noticed “a drastic improvement in my self-awareness and attention.”
Bolstered by the initial program’s success, THS launched the Freedom Rein Project, supported by an adaptive sports grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. This funding enables THS to provide free equine therapy to service members and veterans.
“This type of care isn’t covered by insurance, and cost has been a barrier in the past,” Koloskie says. “Many service members struggle with PTSD, a lack of connection in civilian life, communication issues and more.” She says the unique brand of equine-assisted therapy offered at THS was developed to help address these challenges.
“I’m grateful to our founders, who poured their hearts and souls into establishing this farm and turning it into a true sanctuary for humans and horses,” Koloskie adds. “I feel privileged to be part of THS and working here makes me feel like I am contributing in some small way to making a difference in the world.”
Strongwater Farm Therapeutic Equestrian Center
Strongwater Farm began when founder MJ Marcucci transformed an old cattle barn into an equine therapeutic farm. A lifelong horse lover, Marcucci knew horses held a special power to promote healing. The program initially focused on hospital patients, but later opened its services to the wider community.
Today, the facility serves individuals from all walks of life, catering its unique approach to therapy to those with special needs, disabilities and other conditions. Program Director Kassandra Kehoe says she was hooked the moment she set foot on the 12-acre farm.
“I was looking for an alternative to traditional clinical settings and boy did I find it,” she says, with a laugh. “This place and its holistic approach to therapy changed my perspective of what I could do with my degree.”
Kassandra credits the idyllic farm setting and its team of equine assistants for the program’s success. “It’s easier to meet goals when it doesn’t feel like therapy or work,” she explains. “Clients achieve their individualized goals at a far more rapid pace than in a clinical setting.”
Since its inception, thousands of children and adults in the greater-Boston area have benefited from the non-profit’s care, including Lindsay, a survivor of a brutal domestic assault that left her in a coma for nearly a year.
“When I woke up, I was essentially a new baby all over again,” Lindsay recalls, noting that she had to relearn how to walk. At the recommendation of a rehab therapist, Lindsay connected with Strongwater, with the aim of improving her core strength. Two years later, the 32-year-old is no longer wheelchair bound. She credits Strongwater and a horse named Karl for the transformation.
“Riding him changed my core strength for the better and helped me understand my own body movements,” she explains. “I am so incredibly thankful for Strongwater and the positive impact it’s had on my unexpected road to recovery.”
Chelsea had nowhere to go. She’d finally left an abusive relationship, but the only shelter with an open bed wouldn’t allow her dog unless he was vaccinated.
“I wasn’t going to leave him behind,” she recalls. “If we couldn’t stay together, I was going back.”
That’s where Ruthless Kindness stepped in. The California non-profit offers free mobile veterinary care to community members in crisis. Soon the organization’s co-founder, CEO and licensed veterinarian Sarah Reidenbach was at Chelsea’s door. “She gave me a hug and told me it was going to be okay,” Chelsea remembers. “Then she examined and vaccinated my dog, clearing the way for us to get into the shelter together.”
Chelsea’s experience isn’t an outlier. Most homeless shelters won’t allow pets, and those that do require documentation affirming that animals have up-to-date vaccinations and no other medical conditions. Though it sounds simple, this often poses a significant barrier for many escaping an abusive situation.
“We know half of all domestic violence victims won’t leave their abuser unless their pets can escape, too,” Reidenbach explains. “Many of our clients don’t have the money, time or transportation to go to a traditional vet clinic. We provide our services free of charge, using a mobile unit that can travel to them.”
In addition to vet care, Ruthless Kindness also offers free pet food and supplies, conducts animal-assisted empathy education programs for youth impacted by trauma and more.
“There are so many innocent people and animals who are going through unthinkable pain, and we have the power to do something about it,” Reidenbach insists. “We help the vulnerable — people who are without a home or are housing insecure, people trying to survive in extreme poverty, people who have been victimized and abused – and the animals they love.”
Paws for Purple Hearts
Booth is a two-year-old black lab with a smile that makes your heart bubble and a helicopter tail that looks about ready to take off. She’s also a service dog, with a mission to help veterans struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries and similar trauma-related conditions.
Booth is part of Paws for Purple Hearts (PPH), a first-of-its-kind program offering Canine Assisted Warrior Therapy® for wounded service members and veterans. The non-profit was founded and continues to be led by Dr. Bonnie Bergin, one of the world’s leading researchers in service dog therapy.
Today, PPH is a national organization with seven facilities across the country. It is accredited by Assistance Dog International and is one of three programs invited to participate in the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members Act pilot program – an initiative launched by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Dogs are far more intuitive than people often give them credit for,” notes Danielle Stockbridge, a marketing and communication specialist with PPH. “They can pick up on the emotional state of a Warrior before the Warrior can sort out how they’re feeling themselves. The dogs provide comfort without judgment.”
A recent session with Booth offers a prime example. The black lab had taken a liking to one of PPH’s clients. While the veteran has worked with several dogs, her connection with Booth is special. “Booth makes her feel calmer and less anxious,” Stockbridge explains, recalling a recent incident where the intuitive canine put her training into action. “The veteran was having intrusive thoughts. Booth picked up on it, nudged her and laid across her lap to provide stress-reducing pressure.” With a little help from the canine, the veteran was able to break free from dark thoughts.
These moments – big and small – are daily occurrences at PPH. “Through our canine-assisted therapeutic programs and Assistance Dog placements, I get to see Warriors lives changed every day,” Stockbridge adds. It’s a program she wishes had been available to her grandfather, a veteran who struggled with flashbacks, anger and alcoholism. “It’s my goal that no family has to suffer the way my mother’s family did, and that every Warrior is able to get the help they need.”
DreamCatchers Ride Inc.
Bullied and shy, “Z” rarely made eye contact. “A” struggled with anxiety and was often overwhelmed by her emotions. But the two girls found their voices at DreamCatchers Ride Inc., a Nebraska-based non-profit that offers a specialized brand of horse therapy.
As its name implies, founder Jodi Freeman credits a dream as the inspiration for the now five-year-old organization. She explained, “It helped me realize my horses were a gift and I needed to share them with others.”
Now a certified peer support specialist, Freeman and her equine partners help clients navigate and recover from a range of emotional traumas. She explained, “Often, the people who come to DreamCatchers have tried all sorts of other methods to address their emotional needs. We provide support in a way that doesn’t feel like therapy, helping them stretch their emotional intelligence and address emotional needs in a way that feels safe and very individual.”
Former client and current volunteer Addison knows the organization’s value firsthand. “The environment created by DreamCatchers made me feel safe, loved, included and heard,” she says. “The skills I developed through this program allowed me to take on leadership roles in other aspects of my life and become an example for those around me.”
She adds, “Animals don’t judge. They don’t bring preconceived notions to a relationship. Instead, they sense the good inside of a person and bring out your true self.”
Clearly, Freeman’s original dream has taken root, as she helps people leave their past trauma and pain behind, all with a little help from her equine partners and their incredible power to connect.
February Star Sanctuary
Angela E. never imagined parting with her beloved mini horse Lexi, but after her husband lost his battle with brain cancer, she was forced to sell their farm. Enter February Star Sanctuary (FSS), a rescue, rehabilitation and permanent refuge for horses and cats in need.
“It gave me peace, when I had lost everything, knowing she was happy and loved,” Angela says. Lexi continues to thrive at FSS, and Angela admits to occasionally browsing the non-profit’s Facebook page for a glimpse of her favorite mini.
Phyllis Smith, the organization’s co-founder, didn’t set out to run a rescue – but when she and husband David purchased the 124-acre farm in 2009, they discovered two horses and a pony had been left behind. Then came the cats.
“It was during the recession, and there was an outpouring of community requests for us to take in animals that they were no longer able to care for,” Phyllis recalls. Facing a snowball of owner surrender inquiries for both equines and felines, she soon added adoption services to complement the thriving rescue. The final piece, community outreach programs, came last – but Phyllis thinks it might be the most important piece.
“Teaching our children to respect and protect even the smallest among us is one of the most important life lessons we can pass on,” she insists. “Our goal with this sanctuary is to give the unwanted a home and to teach children compassion – building a generation of animal advocates, one child at a time.”
It’s a sentiment that clearly aligns with the non-profit’s motto: “Rescue: It’s not just a verb, it’s a promise.”
Pilots to the Rescue
When aviator Michael Schneider embarked on his first mission to rescue a litter of puppies slated to be euthanized, he likely never envisioned how far the journey would take him. Eight years later, the non-profit he founded, Pilots to the Rescue (PTTR), has saved more than 1,000 animals from certain death.
“I’d been looking for a sense of purpose and fulfillment for a very long time,” Schneider reflects. “It only took COVID-19 and 44 years to realize what I wanted to do when I grow up.”
While Michael formally launched PTTR in 2015, he upped his commitment during the pandemic, turning his side project into a full-time crusade. Today, the non-profit’s volunteer pilots travel the country, transporting animals in need. Already this year, the organization has coordinated 32 rescue flights that have connected 371 dogs, cats and the occasional turtle with new forever homes.
“Most of the animals come from precarious situations – hoarding, abuse and neglect, or other unhealthy environments,” Schneider explains. “But all you really need to do is love the animal, and it will come back to you tenfold.”
Schneider, PTTR’s self-described “Top Dog,” says the animals with the biggest needs are the ones he remembers best. He quickly rattles off a few names: Hopper born with cerebral palsy, Surf born blind, Cye the one-eyed cat who was a victim of gun violence, and Maynard, a three-legged lab mix. Schneider adds, “The thing that amazes adopters of these animals is they are unaware the animals are different. Their resilience is admirable and a learning lesson for humans – be happy with your health and respect those who are less fortunate.”
Sixteen-year-old Candace loves Purpose Farm, a place where she can set her hurt aside and feel the unconditional love of animals. She says being at the farm makes her happy and helps her release anxiety and stress. That’s exactly what Founder Sandra Seabrook envisioned when she launched the unique mentorship program 14 years ago.
At Purpose Farm, youth with emotional issues stemming from neglect, abuse, bullying, and similar challenges connect with the farm’s animal and human mentors. As they assist with chores and bond with the animals, the children find purpose, experience love, build confidence and gain empathy.
“Most of our animals come from a neglected and abused background, too,” Sandra explains. “These animals, once lonely, hurting, and looking for affection and a friend, are now cared for by children who are often in the same position.”
It’s a powerful combination, and one that volunteer Lynn Fofi says gives the participating youth confidence, skills, and experiences that will support them throughout their lives. “Purpose Farm is working to improve the lives of so many kids that wouldn’t otherwise know that life is good,” she explains. “Simply by giving them opportunities to love and care for animals, they see how they can make a difference in the world.”
Unbridled Thoroughbred Foundation
When Susan Kayne found Fudge Ripple in a North Carolina feedlot, she was headed for slaughter. Aged, emaciated, and blind in one eye, Susan raced to save her. Today, the granddaughter of Triple Crown Winner Affirmed has gained 200 pounds and sports a shiny coat, safe and loved at Unbridled Thoroughbred Foundation’s horse sanctuary.
Stories like Fudge Ripple’s are what prompted Susan to launch the nonprofit, which strives to protect thoroughbreds from cruelty, exploitation, and slaughter. Since its founding in 2004, Unbridled has helped dozens of discarded thoroughbreds find loving homes. But the organization is more than a horse rescue. According to volunteer Caitlin Colwell, it’s also a place of advocacy and education.
Unbridled’s Read to the Rescues program is a great example of how the nonprofit works to bring greater awareness to the plight of thoroughbreds while impacting the lives of youth and equine alike. On summer weekends, young readers line up outside the stalls of Unbridled’s thoroughbreds, eager to share a story with one of the majestic horses. Run by teachers like Caitlin, the program encourages literacy and provides children with the opportunity to learn the stories of the horses they read to. In its first year, more than 400 students participated in the free program.
“As an English teacher, I’m eager to help kids see the power in stories, to uncover truths about systems of power, and to show them the way to be advocates in society for things they care about,” Caitlin explains. “It’s hard to put into words, the way that these horses inspire me, but suffice it to say that being in their presence is breathtaking.” Through Read to Rescues, Caitlin hopes to encourage future generations to advocate for fair and humane treatment of horses, too.
“All you need to do is hear their stories, and if you’re lucky enough to visit Unbridled, look into their eyes,” she says. “You can feel all they’ve been through and know that we must do all that we can to help these horses.”
Caring People Alliance
At a Boys & Girls Club in North Philadelphia, there’s a small animal zoo that’s doing big things. Run by the Caring People Alliance, the zoo’s bunnies, guinea pigs and pet rats teach youth about responsible pet ownership, build compassion for animals, and provide a space for troubled kids to relax and reset.
“Every day, I feel like I am making a difference, both to the kids and the animals,” says Jessica Bachrach, who serves as the coordinator for the program, called Caring Paws. “Sometimes we talk about the animals, but other times, we’ll talk about things that are going on in the world or in their lives.” Often, the animals serve as a bridge to important life lessons.
Given the animals’ relatively short life spans, nearly every child experiences the sorrow associated with saying goodbye to a beloved animal friend. “For some kids, it may be their first experience with death; for others, it’s an opportunity to talk about the death of a friend or family member,” Jessica explains. “We work through all those hard feelings together.”
When the children talk about how Caring Paws has impacted them, many say that it’s fun or they like helping to care for the animals. But some find bigger lessons, too. Before Sophia started participating in Caring Paws, she was afraid of rats. Now, she’s discovered that it’s not fair to judge animals based on their reputation. “I learned that not all animals are what they seem to be,” she explains and admits that the pet rats are now among her favorite Caring Paws critters.
That’s part of the magic at Caring Paws, where kids learn as much about themselves as the animals they care for. “Animals have a unique power to impact the lives of people,” Jessica emphasizes. “They depend on us for everything, so taking care of them can be empowering.” No matter your age, it seems we could all learn a thing or two from the kids and animals at Caring Paws.
Dogs for Better Lives
Canines who become assistance dogs are pretty special – just ask Amy Hogue. She relies on her hearing assistance dog Mindy to be her ears, alerting her to specific sounds and situations.
“With Mindy at my side, I don’t feel anxious about what I’m missing out on because of my deafness,” Amy says. “Before Mindy, my world was sedentary and gray. Then she came into my life, and it’s as though it exploded in technicolor. In so many ways, she has taught me how to live and experience life.”
Danielle Kempe, a development manager for Dogs for Better Lives (DBL), never tires of stories like Amy’s. Since its founding in 1977, the nonprofit has worked to professionally train dogs to help people and enhance lives. Today, it specializes in hearing assistance, autism assistance, and facility dogs, and is the only accredited service dog organization that serves the entire U.S. Along the way, the nonprofit has rescued and placed more than 1,300 dogs.
“Our assistance dogs can be a powerful tool for restoring autonomy and independence for individuals living with a disability, and a welcome addition to many families and support networks,” Danielle explains, emphasizing that DBL trains and places rescue dogs at no cost to the client.
The group’s hearing assistance dogs learn to alert people to household sounds that are necessary for everyday safety and independence. Its autism assistance dogs enhance the safety of children with autism by acting as an anchor and preventing the child from bolting. Its facility dogs work with professionals such as physicians, teachers, counselors, police officers, and child advocates, providing a calming, accepting and comforting presence, often in difficult times.
For more than 40 years, Dogs for Better Lives has been enriching the lives of both canines and clients, and Danielle says DBL looks forward to continuing this mission for another 40 years. “Too often, individuals living with a disability are forced to sacrifice a measure of independence to navigate their lives safely,” she says. “Our assistance dogs make a huge difference in their lives.”
Broome County 4-H
Fifteen-year-old Reanna is a big proponent of 4-H, America’s largest youth development organization. She credits the program for developing her love of animals, while also honing her public speaking and leadership skills.
“The education you gain in this program can’t be learned anywhere else,” she insists. “4-H changed my life for the better and I truly believe I would not be the person I am today without 4-H and agriculture.”
Brian Aukema, associate director of agriculture for Broome County’s Cooperative Extension service, concurs with Reanna’s enthusiasm. That’s why he’s working to start a Livestock Rodeo, an event that will teach local youth about animal care, nutrition, showmanship, and grooming.
“Less than 2% of our population are directly involved in livestock production and farming, but one in ten jobs deal with agriculture,” he explains. “That’s why it is very important for organizations like 4-H to thrive. It provides youth the opportunity to develop that passion to feed the world.”
Brian hopes the Livestock Rodeo will inspire more youth to join the program. “4-H has a special meaning for everyone, but for all of us, it’s a place to explore our interests and build our own identity,” he maintains. “It’s a supportive community to help youth take on new challenges and reach their full potential. Working together, youth and adults find they can create a powerful change in the world around them, help local communities thrive, and develop their own spark.”
For Reanna, that spark started as a five-year-old showing a few bunnies and grew into a desire to study agriculture in college. “I had no idea that joining 4-H would have the impact on my life that it does and would help me grow in so many ways,” she says. “Now, there is nothing I love more than advocating for the livestock industry. 4-H is truly life-changing.”
Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
Joey arrived at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) severely malnourished, covered in fleas, and nursing an old ankle injury sustained at the racetrack. No longer fit for racing, he was abandoned in a field with no access to food, water or basic care. Volunteers at TRF, the nation’s oldest and largest equine sanctuary, gave Joey a second chance – just as they’ve done for thousands of other retired and discarded racehorses.
Founded in 1983, TRF initially set out to save horses like Joey. That’s still core to its mission, but along the way, founder Monique Koehler saw an opportunity to help inmates in need of a second chance, too. She teamed up with the State of New York’s Department of Correctional Services to design, staff and maintain a vocational equine care training program for inmates. Today, the TRF Second Chances Program operates eight such initiatives, spread across seven states.
“This program has been very successful in reducing recidivism and providing inmate students with the skills they need to find gainful employment upon their release,” says Patricia Stickney, executive director for the non-profit. In addition, program participants also gain confidence, compassion and a sense of empathy.
Testimonials tell the story best. “The biggest, most important take away for me was the sense of empowerment and courage I found at Second Chances Farm,” explains Jamie, a graduate from TRF’s Ocala, Florida, program. “So much so, that if I were released tomorrow, I could walk out into the world knowing I can take on any challenge or hurdle I may experience in life.”
While not every TRF rescue horse becomes part of the Second Chances program, all are assured a loving, lifetime home. Some find new forever homes through adoption; others enjoy a dignified retirement at TRF. As the TRF team emphasizes, it’s all about giving horses and humans second chances, living out their motto: “Saving horses, saving lives. Every day.”
Animal Rescue Rhode Island
Reeling after the loss her husband, and a short time later, her beloved dog, Katie found herself overwhelmed with grief. Then, she visited Animal Rescue Rhode Island (ARRI) and met Frida – a lovely, but scared, lab mix. Drawn to the timid canine, Katie welcomed Frida into her home. In the months since, Katie and Frida have provided solace, comfort and healing to each other.
“Katie’s family will never be the same, but it’s now complete in a different way,” says Liz Skrobisch, executive director for ARRI, a private shelter dedicated to rescuing companion animals. “Their story highlights why we go to any length to nurture and revitalize the animals in our care, in order for them to become successfully adopted pets in loving homes.”
With roots in the community that date back to 1938, ARRI has served as a haven for countless dogs, cats and other companion animals. The shelter takes in abandoned, abused and surrendered animals without geographic limitation. In addition, it follows a philosophy where no animal is ever euthanized because of time, space, breed or a humanely treatable condition. In 2020 alone, ARRI found forever homes for more than 600 pets.
“There’s nothing more rewarding at the end of the day than knowing that a pet was given a second, third, or fourth chance,” says Liz. “Watching the animals flourish under the care of our staff and trainers is gratifying beyond words.”
DJ’s Words of Hope
Hear how Carl E Dahl House transformed DJ’s life for the better after hitting rock bottom and the words of encouragement he would tell anyone else who is struggling right now.
Why Brady Finally Made a Change
Brady shares his journey to recovery following 25 years of addiction and what finally made a difference for him. Hear in his words what he got out of working with the animals at Carl E Dahl House.
What Carl E Dahl House Is and Who They Serve
Hear staff share what makes Carl E Dahl House at Cass Farm so special. Plus, the crucial difference between them and other traditional recovery programs and the biggest thing that changes their clients for the better.
The Transformative Effect of Animals
Facilitators at Carl E Dahl House at Cass Farm explain what it’s like for their clients in recovery to come to the farm for the first time and exactly what the animals can uniquely offer that the human staff cannot.
AJ’s Breakthrough at the Farm
Hear AJ, a former addict, explain how the animals at Carl E Dahl House made a major difference in his recovery. And find out exactly what it is that made this experience so vastly different from the many other substance abuse treatment programs he’s tried in the past.
Rhythm of the Rein
Imagine a place where people with mental and physical limitations could remove the “dis” from disability. That was the vision when Dianne Lashoones founded Rhythm of the Rein. Twenty years later, the Vermont-based non-profit continues to use her special mix of adaptive riding, hippotherapy, and therapeutic driving to help clients from all walks of life find their true abilities.
Erik Kindestin is a graduate-turned-volunteer for the program. As a young child, he spent many years at Rhythm of the Rein, rehabbing from a prenatal stroke. “Although I still have some residual effects, this program gave me the confidence and physical abilities to pursue my goals,” he says. Today, the biology major loves hiking, marching in the university band, and volunteering.
Atop a horse, clients like Erik find new abilities, building muscle tone, motor coordination, and balance, all while developing important social and emotional skills too.
Board Member Sue Martin credits the organization’s team of highly trained horses with the program’s success. “While the human part of the therapy team is extremely caring and compassionate, it’s the equine connection that produces the magic,” Sue insists. “The most spirited horse will immediately calm when introduced to someone with a severe disability, knowing their special cargo needs to be provided with comfort and patience.”
Carl E. Dahl House
Situated on a 40-acre hilltop in Athol, Massachusetts, the Carl E. Dahl House represents a departure from traditional approaches to substance abuse recovery. Here, residents learn to care for livestock and reconnect with the earth, while also receiving clinical support and recovery education.
Patients still receive individual counseling, group counseling and develop individual treatment plans, just as they would in another program. However, instead of sitting in classrooms or on therapists’ couches, these sessions happen in barns and pastures. As a result, the unique therapeutic farming program facilitates healing in a setting that feels more like a large family than a sterile clinic-based recovery program.
“The animals on the farm are the secret ingredient in our equation,” says Katie Follett, the therapeutic farm coordinator for the Dahl House. “Our animals don’t judge. They make no assumptions and have no interest in the mistakes a person has made in the past. Instead, they seek companionship and love.”
Purpose is built into every day, as residents combine counseling sessions with daily farm responsibilities. Farm staff provides all the necessary training and support, enabling clients to go to bed each night with a sense of accomplishment.
“Tasks that at first look like chores such as feeding, watering, grooming, and walking soon become expressions of empathy and compassion for another living being,” Katie explains. “Our animals play a vital role in helping our patients rediscover their self-worth as together they learn how to depend on each other.”
Like any working farm, at the Dahl House there are no days off. “It’s great practice for a person in recovery,” Katie insists. “Just as the farm and animals need care in rain, snow, or blistering heat, people in recovery must work their program every day, no matter what.”
Furry Friends Foster and Rescue, Inc.
Gemma was found tied to a doorknob in an empty house. Her ears had been cut, her teeth filed down, and she had a tumor that had spread to her lymph nodes. As a senior pit bull with a tumor, Gemma had three strikes against her. But Furry Friends Foster and Rescue stepped up, arranging the medical attention she needed, then finding her a loving forever home.
Gemma’s story is just one of the hundreds of dogs rescued by Furry Friends. Since its founding in 2014, the Connecticut-based nonprofit has given hundreds of canines like Gemma a second chance. The group’s current president, Leslie Rich, explains that’s the organization’s mission: to help the dogs who need them the most.
“There are so many dogs in this world who, for lack of knowledge, money or humanity suffer unthinkable cruelty and harm,” she explains. “It’s emotionally taxing to care for these animals, but that toll is small compared to the joy that comes from watching them heal – both physically and emotionally – and learn to trust again.”
Every dog rescued by Furry Friends is assured top-notch medical care, and if needed, provided obedience training and behavioral assistance. They’re placed with volunteer foster families, where they receive the extra care they need to become happy, healthy dogs.
For Leslie and the volunteers who make Furry Friends possible, the rescue is truly a labor of love. “We’re all so very thankful that we are able to get up every morning and create the safety net that these dogs need so desperately,” she says. “We are rescuers; it’s in our hearts and souls.”
When Justin arrived at Purpose Farm, he was emaciated, bruised, and swollen, the victim of years of abuse and neglect. But according to Sandra Seabrook, founder of the New York-based nonprofit, the quarter horse’s difficult life story makes him the perfect partner for the youth mentoring program she and her family run.
At Purpose Farm, they pair youth ages 6-18 struggling with emotional trauma from neglect, abuse or bullying, with animals that have been rescued from similar circumstances. “They overcome their traumas together as they work at the farm,” Sandra explains. Today, 40-some animals call Purpose Farm home. Most, like Justin, are rescues.
At the farm, the animals find a loving, forever home, and new purpose as mentors for troubled children and youth. Sandra says the healing flows both ways. “The youth respond so quickly to our animals,” she explains. “In just one session, they’ll go from being quiet and emotionless, to smiling, asking questions and helping care for the animals.”
It’s all part of Sandra’s mission: to make a difference in the lives of both humans and animals. “If I can let these kids know that what they are going through now is not the way things will always be, give them hope for their future, confidence to live it out and love them to the other side, then I have fulfilled my purpose.”
Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center
What if a horse could help the doctors, nurses and other front-line healthcare workers, struggling under the daily stress of providing care during a global pandemic? That’s what Emily Aho asked, after her own father died of COVID-19 earlier this year.
A retired registered nurse, certified Equine Assisted Life Skills facilitator, and founder of the Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center, Emily realized that she was uniquely positioned to help these hardworking heroes.
“I had the ponies, and as the child of a COVID victim and former RN, I could really relate,” Emily explains. With her mission in hand, she partnered with True Hope Therapeutic Horsemanship to bring the one-of-a-kind program to life.
Emily is quick to point out that it’s the critically endangered Newfoundland ponies that are the heart of the program, serving as four-legged therapists for those in need. “Who wouldn’t enjoy having a fuzzy sweet pony as their teacher, teammate and life coach?” she asks.
Who indeed! Under Emily’s watchful eye, healthcare workers partner with the horses to complete a series of objective-based exercises, an experience participants’ find empowering, relaxing and fun. “Self-care is often overlooked in healthcare, because we’re so focused on taking care of others,” admits Cathy T., a recent Heal for Heroes participant. “Since attending this program, I’m taking more time to stay in the moment and enjoy the little things, instead of going until I just can’t go anymore.”
“It’s hard for me to put into words how much Heal the Heroes helped me during this difficult time,” she continues, “but I will never forget this experience.”
Operation Delta Dog
The numbers are staggering. According to Department of Veterans Affairs estimates, 100,000 service members in Massachusetts struggle with disabilities today. At the same time, 80,000 dogs end up in state shelters; nearly half will be euthanized. The founders of Operation Delta Dog saw those two desperate needs and realized they could tackle both problems at once.
“Our service dogs have been used to help treat depression, reduce stress and manage the panic attacks often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury,” says Charlotte Troddyn, development officer for the non-profit. “We find canine candidates from shelters and rescue groups, then train them for a new life filled with purpose and affection.”
Depending on the veteran’s need, Operation Delta Dog trains the canines to perform a variety of tasks, including providing stability for those with balance issues, offering comfort during night terrors, serving as a physical barrier in crowded spaces and providing comfort during anxiety attacks.
It’s a win-win operation. “The dogs get the loving homes they need, and the veterans get the support they deserve,” Charlotte emphasizes.
War Horses at Rose Bower
For Barbara Luna, establishing War Horses at Rose Bower was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. A trainer, racetrack publicist and writer, Barbara has a deep affinity for these majestic, spirited animals.
“My time on the racetrack taught me that these horses need a safe place when their days of racing are over,” she explains. “They’ve earned money and served as entertainment. In their retirement, they deserve to be cared for by those who respect their competitive spirits, big hearts and intelligence.”
Since founding the non-profit in 2013, War Horses has provided aftercare to dozens of retired racehorses, offering them sanctuary, rehabilitation, and in many cases, new careers. “Our retirees have proven to be therapeutic for youth-at-risk, senior citizens, military veterans and those with autism,” Barbara notes. Yet without the program, she says many would have nowhere to go.
“At War Horses, we can help them through their injuries, let them relax after years on the racetrack, and reschool them so that they can be adopted to safe and loving homes,” Barbara explains.
Cheryl Kaletka started Fellinlove Farm for her daughters, who both have serious health issues. She wanted a place where they could learn about work and responsibility, practice socialization and just have fun. As she watched her daughters thrive, and as the Fellinlove Farm animal community grew, the Kaletka family decided to share their unique farm setting with others.
“Opening the farm to our volunteers and guests has allowed us to share the intense joy experienced from connecting with these amazing, diverse creatures,” Cheryl explains. Visitors have a chance to meet pigs, goats, cows, horses, donkeys, llamas, dogs, cats, bunnies and more.
Make no mistake, this is no ordinary petting zoo. Drawing on her experience as an early childhood special education professor and teacher, Cheryl created educational programs that allow guests of all ages and needs to enjoy the farm and its many animals. By far, the most popular is the farm’s adaptive field trip program.
In devising the program, Cheryl worked to make the farm and its many animals accessible to all. For those who struggle with anxiety in new environments, Fellinlove Farm offers an interactive virtual tour, enabling guests to see a “preview” before their planned visit. Wheelchair-friendly paths open the farm to guests with mobility issues. Plus, each adaptive field trip is tailored to the group’s unique needs, taking into account preferred learning styles, impairments, emotional and behavioral concerns, and more.
Cheryl’s commitment to inclusivity, aided by the farm’s 150 animal ambassadors, has made Fellinlove Farm a popular destination for school groups, families, and senior care facilities throughout western Michigan. “Through hands-on interactions with our gentle animals, we provide dynamic experiences for people of all ages and abilities,” she explains. “These intimate, individualized animal-human connections promote social, physical, mental and emotional benefits – and they’re a whole lot of fun, too.”
Making Strides Therapeutic Horsemanship
Kimberly Childs has a dream – to open up the world of equine therapy to people around the globe. As the founder and chief cheerleader for Making Strides Therapeutic Horsemanship, she’s doing her part, one client at a time.
Joining her on the journey: a stable of predominately retired racehorses, embarking on their second career. As Kimberly explains, the program benefits the horses almost as much as the clients they help. “Providing second chances for thoroughbreds who are retiring from the track gives them a sense of value,” she points out.
Making Strides follows the Equine-Assisted Activity and Therapy model, teaching riders life skills through activities that encourage cognitive, physical and social skill development. For 8-year-old Ally, it’s just fun.
“Ally is always very excited the night before her lesson; she loves all the horses,” her grandfather explains. But while she’s having fun, she’s also getting stronger and improving her balance – benefits that stay with her long after her riding session is complete.
Volunteer Allison Langlitz, a physical therapist at a local hospital, sees those positive impacts repeated every time she enters the Making Strides barn. “It is incredibly rewarding to watch a child talk and sing and interact while on a horse, and to see their improvements in strength and balance,” she says. “Horses are magical animals and it is great to be able to share this magic with others.”
It’s not just the clients who benefit from PBJ Connections, an equine-assisted psychotherapy and behavioral health program based in Pataskala, Ohio. The volunteers and staff insist the unique program contributes to their well-being too.
Consider Ruth Tippett, a long-time “horse buddy” volunteer. “When I first started going to the barn, I was mentally and emotionally drained,” Ruth recalls. “But at PBJ, I’m able to leave some of that stress behind. The horses accept me as I am – no questions asked – faults and all.”
Beth Rolland, who serves as the group’s development director, says Ruth is not alone. “As a session co-facilitator, I’ve seen firsthand how we are literally saving people’s lives by providing them with the professional mental health services they need,” she explains.
Unlike many horse therapy programs, no one saddles up at PBJ. Instead, all the work happens on the ground. Since opening in 2006, the nonprofit – and its therapy horses and mules – has touched the lives of more than 900 individuals. The facility offers a wide range of mental health services, from “A Pony,” a program that partners with schools to help behaviorally challenged children to “Save a Warrior,” which works with veterans and first responders.
While Beth says she sometimes witnesses big breakthroughs, it’s often the little moments that stay with her the longest. She remembers one such encounter with Waffles, a shy mini horse, and an older woman, who was visiting PBJ with a group of senior citizens.
“The woman would sit on her walker, resting her forehead on his – just breathing together,” Beth recalls. “After several visits to the farm, she bravely decided to take Waffles for a walk.” Slowly, the two shuffled around the arena as she held his lead rope and used her walker for balance. Later, Beth learned the woman practiced walking every evening in the hallway of her care facility, just so she would be strong enough to walk with Waffles.
Whether it’s children from a local elementary school, learning to manage challenging behaviors and building communication skills, or veterans addressing post-traumatic stress or suicidal ideations, the PBJ therapy animals have a way of breaking down barriers and helping clients build positive connections.
United Disabilities Services Service Dogs
A working dog can transform the life of a person in need, serving as the arms, legs, ears or eyes for someone. But as Lori Breece witnesses regularly, they don’t just open physical doors for the clients they serve.
“Our dogs can change a person’s life, empowering clients once afraid to leave their home with the confidence to go to the grocery store, get the mail or head out into the community on their own,” she explains. They also help combat loneliness and deliver other social benefits.
Lori serves as the manager for United Disabilities Services’ (UDS) Service Dog Program, based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. For 20 years, the program has been training service dogs, and more recently, facility dogs that work in school classrooms, counseling offices and similar environments.
UDS volunteer Colleen Pavlovec can attest to the impact these four-legged companions have. She serves as facility dog Duncan’s main handler. She’s also the principal at Leola Elementary School, where Duncan works with students that have special needs. “He picks out the students experiencing stress and calms them down, and helps those with stability issues find their balance,” she explains. “Our school has become a much better educational facility, just because Duncan is here.”
Lori says the key to the program’s success is making sure the right dog is placed with the right client. “When that happens, it just works and miracles can happen,” she maintains. “These dogs are helping people gain independence and live fuller lives.”
Lifting Spirits Miniature Therapy Horses
The tallest of Toni Hadad’s miniature horses may stand just 36 inches, but he – and the rest of her miniature herd – is all heart. Since Toni founded Lifting Spirts Miniature Therapy Horses, Tonka, Banshee and the rest of her mini gang have travelled all over New England, spreading joy, hope and love to children and adults of all ages and abilities.
“I’ve witnessed so many breakthroughs,” Toni explains, “from nonverbal Alzheimer’s patients who begin to talk and interact with the horses, to children with autism inspired to pet an animal for the first time. But what’s really amazing is how everyone’s faces light up when we enter a room or walk down the hallway.”
Toni and the Lifting Spirts horses currently bring their unique brand of animal therapy to more than 60 hospitals, Veterans Affairs’ homes, schools, rehabilitation centers and hospice facilities. But it’s not just the school children, residents and patients who benefit, Toni insists that both she and her six minis gain a lot from the program too.
Many of the Lifting Spirits minis were rescued from neglectful homes, kill pens and auctions. Under Toni’s loving care, these once discarded horses find new purpose, bringing smiles to the faces of all who meet them. As for Toni, she says: “Life can take you on amazing journeys and this is the path I am following now. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Tails of Valor, Paws of Hope
It started with a simple conversation with a homeless veteran, recalls Heather Lloyd, executive director and founder of Tails of Valor. As they chatted, the Army vet shared how he had rescued a dog, which in turn, had become his best friend.
At the time, Heather was running a high-end kennel. The veteran’s story so moved her, she was inspired to start Tails of Valor, Paws of Hope, a non-profit program that trains rescued dogs to become service dogs for veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and physical disabilities.
All the dogs, rescued from local animal shelters as puppies, are named in honor of military personnel who were killed during or after military service. As Heather explains, the program helps two lives – the rescued dog and the veteran.
The puppies typically are 8-10 weeks old when they’re rescued, and they undergo training that becomes specific to the veteran they’re paired with. It may include door opening, switching on lights, fetching items, bracing or nightmare intervention. Upon competition of their personalized training, the service dogs are given – at no cost – to veterans.
“Our mission is to provide holistic, non-medicinal rehabilitation therapies to improve veterans’ quality of life,” explains Jana Spess, the program administrator for Tails of Valor. “At the same time, we’re giving our rescued pups a chance at a really great life.”
At Team Velvet, a trio of horses help children build self-esteem and resiliency in the face of overwhelming stress and childhood trauma. Velvet, the organization’s namesake, serves as the primary therapy horse for the New Jersey-based nonprofit.
“I purchased Velvet when he was just a foal, drawn to his intuitive ability to read people,” recalls Dr. Susan Edwards, a licensed psychologist and founder of Team Velvet. “I knew right away that together, we would have a shared purpose of working with children.”
Eleven years later, the duo remains the heart and soul of Team Velvet’s equine-facilitated mental health services program. For Susan, incorporating horses into her treatment program was a natural fit. “I’ve always been amazed at the power of a loving heart, in people as well as animals, because it has such a strong healing effect,” she explains. “The love offered by these therapy horses is a powerful strengthener of what is good and resilient in the children we help.”
Make no mistake, this science-based program is no riding camp. In fact, participants never leave the ground. Instead, they work with their therapy horse partners Velvet, Precious and Lil’ Annie to play interactive games and activities. Along the way, they build critical communication skills, increase self-esteem and foster resiliency.
“Every day, children experience the death of a loved one, witness violence, are victims of crimes or intense bullying, are disfigured by accident or face other traumatic events,” Susan explains. “In the extreme, this childhood trauma can cause flashbacks, blackouts, and even make a child want to die. At Team Velvet, we offer a unique service to help.”
It started with a single, stray black cat. Then another. And another. One by one, Katrin Hecker took the abandoned felines into her home. At eight cats, she realized her town of Hudson, N.Y., had a problem – one she was determined to help solve. In 2000, that vision became reality when the registered nurse-turned-animal-advocate founded AnimalKind.
Fast-forward to today, and the nonprofit animal welfare organization rescues more than 1,200 animals each year, places more than 1,000 canines and felines in loving, forever homes, and works to end overpopulation of unwanted animals through its spay/neuter programs. (Last year alone, AnimalKind assisted low-income pet owners by providing more than 2,000 such surgeries.)
Those numbers alone are impressive, but there’s more to the AnimalKind story. The program prides itself on going the extra mile to help pet owners in need, from its well-stocked pet food bank and emergency boarding services to its free- and reduced- cost veterinary care. Once, the shelter even provided temporary housing to a homeless, but devoted, cat owner.
“Every year we serve more than 5,000 animals in need through our various programs, reducing suffering and saving countless animals from euthanasia,” Katrin emphasizes. “Together, we are making significant progress protecting the animals in our community.”
Animal House Project
The statistics are sobering. Every four seconds, a companion animal enters a U.S. shelter or rescue. That cold reality adds up to 7.8 million pets left looking for new homes, annually. Sadly, nearly half of those animals will be euthanized. MaryBeth Yannessa of Animal House Project (AHP) envisions a world where more owners can keep their pets at home and out of shelters. A big key, she says, is providing pet food and pet care services to families in financial straits.
“Poverty is the number one reason why most of our families feel the need to surrender their pets,” MaryBeth explains. But thanks to organizations like Animal House Project, help is available.
The non-profit group operates three pet food pantries in southeastern Pennsylvania, distributing more than 14,000 pounds of pet food each month to families in need. Some are senior citizens and retired military personnel living on fixed incomes, others are families reeling from job losses or layoffs. While the causes of their financial challenges are varied, all of Animal House Project’s clients live well below the poverty line.
Their stories are heart-wrenching. MaryBeth recalls one middle-aged single mother, struggling to care for three children and two German shepherds. “She was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer and found herself choosing between paying for an experimental medical treatment for herself or feeding her dogs,” Mary Beth explains. “She chose the dogs.” AHP stepped in to cover the dog food, enabling the woman to afford her clinical trial medications.
Cats and dogs are the big beneficiaries, but AHP distributes all kinds of feed. “On pantry days, we give out feed for horses, cats, birds, hamsters, chinchillas, rabbits, ferrets – you name it and we’re feeding it,” MaryBeth says with a smile. The organization also helps pet owners with low-cost spay/neuter surgeries, vaccinations, pet supplies and wellness services.
“My fervent hope is that all pets can live in a loving, forever home with uncompromised care,” MaryBeth insists. By providing food and basic veterinary care, Animal Health Project makes that hope a reality for hundreds of clients each year.
Victory Therapeutic Horsemanship
John Zanella knows all too well the struggles many veterans face. During his lengthy military career, the 20-year Army veteran suffered numerous physical injuries, several traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“It was only through a therapeutic riding program that I found the will to keep fighting,” he recalls. Now John strives to bring those same benefits to other veterans through the non-profit he founded, Victory Therapeutic Horsemanship (VTH).
“In many cases, participants have an easier time interacting with animals than they do with their fellow man,” John explains. “Bonds and trust are often easier to form with an animal that has no bias or judgement.” However, while the work starts on the back of a horse, the positive effects extend far beyond the farm gate.
Studies have repeatedly shown that therapeutic riding offers significant benefits for combat veterans struggling with PTSD, TBI and other physical injuries. VTH volunteer Rebecca Davison admits that using equine therapy with veterans is still relatively new, but says the effects are “profound, immediate and lasting.” She adds: “People may not fully understand the concept, but our program not only transforms the veteran’s life, but the lives of those around him or her.”
The central Pennsylvania program is one of the few such organizations in the nation to serve veterans exclusively. For John, it was a natural decision. “I know firsthand the advantages of these programs,” he says. “Now I can bring my experiences as a disabled vet, rider, program volunteer and instructor to my peers.”
Journey of Hope 4 Autism
There’s not much a grandmother won’t do for her grandson. Just ask Victoria Bryant why she started a non-profit that brings equine-assisted services to children with autism.
“My grandson is my inspiration,” she says, explaining that after he was diagnosed with autism, she began working with him on horses. After seeing the change it made in his life, Victoria felt called to offer the same help to other children, and soon, Journey of Hope 4 Autism was born. Situated in rural Virginia, Journey of Hope provides a safe space for children with autism to learn and grow.
“Around our horses, the children get a sense of peace,” Victoria explains, adding that the calming effect can last for hours or even days. “They build muscle and body awareness, while also gaining self-confidence.”
Most of the animals that call Journey of Hope home are rescues, which Victoria and her dedicated team of volunteers rehabilitate and retrain to work with children. The kids get to be part of that process, giving them a chance to learn about compassion and second chances.
Ragan Wiseman is one of those regular volunteers. She admits it takes a lot of hard work to keep Journey of Hope going, but insists the time and sweat she invests is worth it. “Animals can make a difference in ways that people simply cannot do,” Ragan says. “They connect with these kids cognitively, emotionally and physically, and love them unconditionally.”
Victoria concurs, reflecting on the many lives that her horses have changed since the non-profit first opened. “We’ve seen miracles that parents and teachers never thought possible,” she says, “which makes being hot, cold, tired and achy so worth it.”
Sam and Forest
Jessica knows that being a mother of a child who is on the autism spectrum comes with unique challenges, especially considering that no two children with autism will have the same challenges. Different things can be obstacles, and different things can help. For Jessica, it seemed like she had tried everything to help her son, Sam. After years of therapy and other programs that had varying degrees of success, she decided to apply for a service dog through Service Dogs of Virginia.
From the first night, she noticed the impact that Forest was going to have on Sam. He immediately knew that Sam was his to help. Now he puts his training to use to comfort Sam whenever he needs it. He defuses situations that would have previously been difficult for Jessica to deal with alone. And Sam has a new companion.
Learn more about the dogs at Service Dogs of Virginia.
Dylan and His PTSD Dog, Ren
As an explosive ordnance technician, Dylan disarmed explosives and weapons in some of the most dangerous places on the planet. That kind of stress can stay with you, and it can become something that drags at your life. As Dylan puts it, he was coming unglued. He sought help, and he found it in the forms of therapy and in a service dog named Ren.
Dylan and Ren are practically attached. Ren goes to work with him. Ren goes to therapy with him. Ren goes everywhere with him. Dylan knows that he could get by with the other therapy and supports he’s put in place for his life, but he also believes it wouldn’t be the same without Ren.
Before Ren, Dylan was surviving. Now he’s thriving.
Learn more about the dogs at Service Dogs of Virginia.
Service Dogs of Virginia
Service Dogs of Virginia operates out of Charlottesville, VA. They train dogs to act as a support and serve as a tool to assist in therapy for people living with PTSD, autism, and more. At any given time, they have volunteers and trainers working with puppies, adolescent dogs, and dogs who are close to placement. The trainers find that some dogs have personalities geared more toward work as PTSD or autism assistance dogs, and some toward work as assist or medic alert dogs.
But finding the right placement for the dogs is only one piece of the puzzle. The dogs also need to be placed with people who are ready for them. Staff, volunteers, and clients of Service Dogs of Virginia all stress the importance of putting yourself in the best possible position for a dog to make an impact before being paired up. The people who receive dogs, especially for things like PTSD and autism, put in hours of therapy and try to grow in other ways to make sure they’re in that position.
Together they form a beautiful relationship where the dog and the person both count on each other.
Learn more about the dogs at Service Dogs of Virginia.
Road to Independence
Success takes on many forms. For the differently abled clients served by Road to Independence, it might be leading a donkey through an obstacle course, cleaning out an animal stall, or maybe just getting up the nerve to enter the barn.
“Who would have thought that stacking wood could be a team-building activity, or that mastery of a pitch fork could bring self-confidence?” asks Margaret Coulter, director and founder of Road to Independence, a New Hampshire-based pre-vocational training program for individuals with mental and physical challenges.
Donkeys are a big part of the program, animals known for their cautious demeanor. “While horses might run, donkeys are more apt to choose to stand and not move,” Margaret explains, noting their reputation for stubbornness. “To work with the donkeys, our participants have to establish a relationship with the animals based on trust.”
Clients learn to halter, lead and care for the group’s nine donkeys. Along the way, they also build critical life skills, including communication, team work and the ability to follow directions. For many participants, working at Road to Independence may be the first time they’ve been in charge of anything. “If they’re leading the donkey, they are making the decisions, directing the donkey where to go,” Margaret notes. “On the outside, it may look like we are just visiting with donkeys, but often the interactions for our participants are life changing.”
The New Hampshire-based non-profit regularly takes its clients and donkeys on the road, visiting area senior care facilities, attending the local farmer’s market, walking in numerous parades and participating in donkey shows. In these community settings, the clients are the experts, showcasing their skills and knowledge.
“There are few other avenues in the community where individuals with developmental disabilities can actively participate on an equal footing with their able-bodied community members,” Margaret points out. But the best part, she says: “Witnessing the joy on a participant’s face when the task at hand – however simple or complex – is completed to the best ability possible.”
Potsdam Humane Society
For the unwanted, discarded, homeless and hungry cats and dogs of New York’s St. Lawrence county, Potsdam Humane Society (PHS) is a beacon of life. Each year, the no-kill shelter delivers services and protection to more than 1,200 furry companions.
It’s a daunting task, but one Alysia Maynard, the organization’s executive director, fully embraces. “Growing up, I always wanted to work with animals,” she explains, but it might be her work with people that ultimately delivers the greatest impact.
From education programs in area schools to providing low-cost veterinary services (and a well-stocked pet food pantry), PHS serves as a valuable resource for pet owners. Still, Alysia worries about the growing need.
In 2017, PHS housed an average of 89 cats and kittens, and 24 dogs and puppies per month. While they averaged 480 feline and 240 canine adoptions annually, the shelter has a persistent waiting list for voluntary surrenders, and the number of days when it reaches maximum capacity continues to increase. Those realities make services like PHS’ low-cost spay and neutering all the more important, as a tool to combat pet overpopulation.
Despite the challenges, Alysia remains hopeful. “The compassionate, humane care PHS provides makes our community better,” she explains, “as the kindness we extend to animals will inevitability influence our lives in immeasurable ways.”
West Virginia Horse Network
When Summer arrived at the West Virginia Horse Network’s (WVHN) rehab facility, she was emaciated and hobbled by split front hooves, a clear case of long-standing mistreatment and neglect. Yet with medical attention, a proper diet and plenty of love, it wasn’t long before the resilient mare was ready to move to a foster farm.
Abigail Rhodes, a then 16-year-old volunteer, become her foster – and it was on the Rhodes family farm where Summer showed the extent of the abuse she had endured. “She would lash out, kick and bite, whenever I tried to work with her,” Abigail recalls, but with patience and tenacity, Summer grew to trust and respect the young trainer. It turns out, all that hard work wasn’t just for Summer’s benefit.
“With Summer in my life, my laundry list of mental health issues and suicidal tendencies were reduced to almost nothing,” Abigail explains. “Summer saved me just as much as I helped save her.” Given their special connection, it’s no surprise that the teen went on to adopt Summer. “No matter how hard things get, I know she’ll always be there for me,” Abigail emphasizes.
Since its inception in 2014, West Virginia Horse Network has helped rehabilitate and find homes for more than 50 horses. While rehabilitating rescued horses is the organization’s primary mission, they also engage in community outreach, offering beginner horse camps, “Read to a Rescue” day and a Barn Buddies Leadership program, which teaches youth about confidence and leadership by working with rescued horses.
People of all ages and backgrounds are drawn to West Virginia Horse Network. “Whether they have a wealth of equine experience or are just learning about horses, our volunteers benefit as much as the horses they’re helping,” contends Nicky Walter, one of the founding members of the non-profit group. “We’ve witnessed volunteers overcome anxiety, depression – even addiction – as they give their heart to rescue horses and to our mission of saving them.”
Overseeing the organization’s operations often means long nights, but Nicky knows she’s making a difference. “Seeing the horses transformed during the rehabilitation process, then connecting them with caring, adoptive families is the greatest gift,” she explains. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
A Sanctuary for Animals – Big and Small
It started with a single horse named Andi. When Rosa Buonomo first met the 20-year-old mare, she was in serious trouble, struggling to fight off a raging infection and suffering after years of neglect. “I called every rescue organization I could find, but no one would help her,” Rosa recalls, “so, I ended up taking her on myself.”
It proved to be a transformative decision, leading Rosa to launch SBF Animal Rescue in 2014. Four years and 87 horses later, Rosa continues to open her heart – and her farm – to abused animals of stripes. “Our motto is ‘big or small, we take them all,’” she says with a smile. True to her word, SBF has been home to pigeons, deer, peacocks, emus, geese, ducks, chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, cats, cows – even pheasants and a fox.
For Rosa and the volunteers who help keep SBF going, the goal is to rehabilitate the abused animals, then place them with caring families. But, she admits, some animals are just too damaged to leave SBF. “I’ve had horses that are so starved, they can’t even walk,” she laments. Fortunately, most animals that find their way to SBF thrive under Rosa’s care.
It’s not just animals that flourish on the 26-acre farm. In 2017, SBF partnered with the local school district to connect special educations students with the organization’s work. Katherine, a school social worker and SBF volunteer, helped create the “Helping Hands” program, which combines classroom learning with on-site visits to the animal rescue farm.
“Horses and kids are a good combination, both for learning and healing,” Katherine explains. “The horses perk up when the school bus comes, and the kids made huge gains behaviorally, socially and emotionally.” As part of the program, the children planted a garden, learned about animal anatomy and health, and even wrote letters to their horse “pen pals.” But the biggest benefits went beyond academics.
“Too often, these kids feel like no one believes in them, no one hears them,” Katherine continues. “But coming here, they realized they had a purpose: to care for and become advocates for these animals. That was the surprising takeaway for me, the kids found a place where they really belonged.” The neglected animals who are nursed back to health at SFB Animal Rescue would surely agree.
Big Dogs Making a Big Impact
After many years training animals for film and television productions, Carlene White decided to use her considerable talents to transform Great Danes into service dogs for individuals with mobility challenges. Eighteen years later, the organization she founded – Service Dog Project (SDP) – has placed more than 160 specially trained Great Danes with veterans and other individuals in need of assistance, all free of charge.
“I’ve carved out the one thing that people need the most, help getting around and walking,” Charlene explains. While canes and walkers have their place, there are limitations. “If you’re walking with a cane, you’re bent over to get your center of gravity over the cane,” she points out. One wrong move could land the disabled individual on the ground. In contrast, she says holding the service dog’s harness handle provides greater support, without cumbersome equipment.
SDP is one of the few service dog organizations to use Great Danes. While it’s more common to see Labrador and golden retriever service dogs, Charlene insists Great Danes are ideal for balance support work. In addition to their sturdy size, the dogs have a friendly and patient demeanor, making them well suited for home and office life.
Each working service Dane changes lives for the better. As evidence, Carlene points to Bella and her service dog George. Bella has Morquio Syndrome, a rare metabolic disorder that makes it hard for her to walk. Before she had George to lean on, Bella relied on crutches and a wheelchair to get around. With George at her side, Bella’s strength and mobility have improved, as has her confidence and independence.
Being a mobility service dog like George requires extensive training, which SDP begins when the pups are just three weeks old. As they grow, the young dogs learn to be steady in harness, match their gait to their handler’s speed, and halt and brace if the handler should fall and require assistance to stand. Daily outings into the community teach the dogs to concentrate amid noisy children, enticing smells, taunting squirrels and whatever else they might encounter.
Intensive training aside, Charlene contends her Great Danes intuitively provide support beyond their puppy hood lessons. “These dogs really become tremendously observant of their person,” she explains. “They can sense when a person struggling with PTSD is getting anxious and needs some help. It’s not something we teach them, they just know what to do, and it makes a tremendous difference in people’s lives.”
Semper K9 Is on a Mission to Provide Service Dogs to Military Veterans in Need
Semper K9 Assistance Dogs trains rescued canines to aid military veterans struggling with physical disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues. Founded by Chris and Amanda Baity, the couple brings a unique perspective to what has become their life’s work.
Chris served in the Marine Corps through four combat deployments, running kennels and training dogs to detect weapons and explosives. However, each time he returned stateside, he found the transition back to family life was fraught with difficulties, especially as he struggled with PTSD, as well as drug and alcohol use. Upon leaving the military, Chris realized he could use his acumen for canine training to give his life greater purpose, help other veterans and give shelter dogs a second chance.
While many organizations provide service dogs for veterans, Amanda says Semper K9’s family-inclusive approach is unique. “As a military family ourselves, we felt it was important to include the entire family,” explains Amanda. “We view this as journey together.”
Toward that end, Amanda and Chris developed specific training programs for family members, to help ensure the service dog makes a smooth transition into the home. In addition to learning basic commands, their time at Semper K9 provides time and space for military families to reconnect. “Many veterans struggling with PTSD isolate themselves from their families,” Amanda explains. “We help bring them back together.”
Semper K9 rescues dogs from high-kill shelters and trains them to be service dogs – all at no cost to the veteran. Grants, like Nutrena’s Feed it Forward program, and a dedicated army of 120 volunteers, make it all possible. It can take up to 18 months to transform a rescue dog into a service animal. But the benefits to the veteran and his or her family make the work worthwhile. As Amanda explains, “We replace despair with hope, and you can see the change right before your eyes.”
These Horses Open Gateways to New Beginnings
Fannie and Rimtianna aren’t your typical therapists, but at Gateway Horseworks, the duo is part of a unique herd of horses that provide critical stepping stones toward healing for trauma survivors, including women escaping human trafficking, justice-involved youth and inmates preparing to re-enter society.
Like the clients they serve, some of Gateway’s horses once faced uncertain futures. Fannie and Rimtianna were adopted from the University of Pennsylvania’s large animal hospital. They could no longer be ridden, but at Gateway, they’re starting the second chapter of their lives – just like many of the program’s human participants.
All of Gateway’s programs follow the EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) model of equine-assisted psychotherapy, which pairs a licensed mental health practitioner and an equine specialist alongside clients and a group of horses. “There’s no riding and we don’t teach horsemanship,” explains Kristen de Marco, executive director and co-founder of the non-profit group. “Our clients and horses meet on the same footing.”
As part of the therapy program, participants are given specific exercises to accomplish with their horses, designed to develop skills like non-verbal communication, problem solving and creative thinking. The horses, nonjudgmental by nature, provide an emotionally safe place where clients can build those critical life skills and work through their mental health issues.
Sometimes, the simplest actions lead to the biggest breakthroughs. One client, a survivor of human trafficking, was frightened of the horses, afraid to even reach out her hand from the other side of the fence. The horses, though surrounded by a pasture of lush grass, just stood by the gate. After a couple of sessions, the woman finally entered the pen. “She was terrified,” Kristen recalls, “but the horses just moved toward her and stayed with her throughout that session. That’s what our horses do, they accept people that are struggling and help them find the courage to face their biggest fears.”
The Horses of Second Chance Thoroughbreds
Taking a thoroughbred all the way from its racing career at the Finger Lakes Race Track, to a forever home. That’s the goal of Second Chance Thoroughbreds in Spencer, NY.
Started by a group of horse-loving friends who saw the need of these majestic athletes, Second Chance Thoroughbreds offers a change of pace, and a change in outlook, for the horses at the end of their racing career. By providing a soft landing at their retirement, the team is able to rehabilitate any injured horses, retrain the horses for a riding career suitable to their individual needs and abilities, and then work to ensure they each have a successful adoption. Each adoptive home is carefully vetted and matched to ensure a lifelong partnership – but if it doesn’t work out, Second Chance will take them back again.
Each year, some 20 to 25 horses will pass through the facilities in Spencer, but they do more than just recoup and find their new forever home. Second Chance Thoroughbreds offers riding and horsemanship programs in the summertime, as well as volunteer opportunities throughout the year. This connection to the local community is important in moving towards their goal of spreading the word about just how versatile, willing, and sensitive these Off-the-Track-Thoroughbred (OTTB) horses are.
One of their success stories, a retired racehorse named Cannot Stop, is reaching beyond the local community, with the help of his forever owner. He first survived the 2017 hurricane in Puerto Rico, then was shipped to Florida, and retired to Second Chance Thoroughbreds, where he was matched up with his forever owner. They are now participating in the Thoroughbred Makeover Retired Racehorse Project, and will compete in the event at the Lexington Horse Park in Kentucky in October of 2018.
Regardless of how Cannot Stop performs in Kentucky, the volunteers that staff Second Chance Thoroughbreds know that he, along with all the other horses that have come through their barns, are true winners. Their heart, athleticism, and desire to please are what drive the motto of the organization: Ride an OTTB Today!