Taking the Reins


Volunteering with retired rescued horses restores hope and renews a childhood love
By Andrea Gates

The Wagazine changed my life. 

About six years ago we moved from Southern California to Rochester to be closer to my nonagenarian parents. Because of my husband’s career, we have moved around a lot, and we’ve thrived every place we landed. I grew up in Southeastern Minnesota, so imagine my surprise when moving “back home” proved to be my one unhappy transplant.

Rochester can be a tough place to put down roots; the soil can be pretty rocky and impenetrable. I started to lose touch with the happy and successful person I had been. Life began to feel grey and without possibilities. A chance encounter with The Wagazine in a doctor’s office helped to change that.

Back in the saddle

It is a late Tuesday afternoon as I step into the quiet of the barn. The smell of hay and horses relaxes me, helps me shift gears and feel grounded and optimistic in a way that has mostly eluded me of late. 

It is my favorite part of the week: volunteering with This Old Horse, a non-profit organization that provides a home for retired horses. 

I learned about TOH from an article in the fall 2018 Wagazine. I have loved horses since I was a little girl, but over the years had drifted further and further from my deep-rooted connection to them. It was one of those things that happened so gradually that I didn’t even notice. As I read the article I realized how much I missed being around them. 

In addition to my general feeling of hopelessness, my father had recently died. I thought that reconnecting with horses would be a way to start climbing out from under the weight of sadness and grief. 

So I began the process of becoming a volunteer. 

A day at the farm

To start, one fills out an application explaining one’s interest in and experience with horses (no prior experience needed, as there are roles that allow volunteers to learn on the job.) 

There is an online educational piece. Horses are big beasties, so the organization wants to make sure you know how to read their behavior and how to interact safely with them. I’d had a horse for years, but that was a long time ago, so I was happy to have the refresher. 

Finally, there was an orientation at the TOH headquarters, Wishbone Ranch, in Hastings. 

I signed up to work at Eaton Farm near Cannon Falls (TOH has various worksites) as part of an afternoon feed crew. It consists of filling water buckets, bringing the horses in from the pasture, giving them their evening grain, and “picking” (cleaning up the fresh manure in the pastures closest to the barn to reduce flies). 

Kathy Oney, the farm manager, let me bring in only the quietest horses at first, until she felt confident that I knew what I was doing. After volunteering for a couple of months and getting to know the horses, I started doing some grooming as well.

Working at the farm only once a week, I had worried that the horses and I wouldn’t really get to know each other. But I’ve come to know them as individuals with unique personalities, and they know and trust me. I know this because they interact differently with me now than they did in the beginning.

Happy hour

Though I love them all, I have my favorites. Spot is a big beautiful gelding who can be spunky; he is a little ADD and a bit of a clown. 

Tiz and Stormy tug at my heartstrings. Their owner died suddenly last winter and their world was turned upside down. They were lucky to land at Eaton Farm. Tiz was pretty comfortable and affectionate from the get-go, but Stormy was more high-strung and stand-offish. Over the months they have settled in and are enjoying life at the farm. Stormy has relaxed and now clearly enjoys attention. 

In addition to their interactions with humans, it is also fascinating to observe the horses relating to each other. They have assigned pastures and pasture-mates with whom they form bonds. 

Tiz and Stormy share a pasture and have stalls across from each other and derive comfort from this. 

Spot shares a pasture with three mares, and his stall is next to Button, one of his pasture-mates. After coming in from the pasture they continue to hang out together, both snacking from Spot’s hay bag, like they are having pre-dinner cocktails. 

It is fun giving the horses their grain; they make eating oats sound so yummy that I almost want to join in. 

New direction

Then it is out to the pastures to scoop the poop. Not the most glamorous or pleasant of tasks, but not really so bad either, and it is a good reminder that caring for horses is not all fun and games. 

After that we top off their water buckets and I say good-night to the horses and my fellow volunteer, Katie. It has been another wonderful evening at the barn. 

As I drive the 45 minutes home to Rochester I am filled with contentment and am already looking forward to next week when I get to do it all again.

Even though it is only a couple of hours a week, spending time with the horses has changed my outlook on life. I think maybe it’s that the horses have helped me get back in touch with the wild-at-heart girl I was, to see that there are possibilities beyond the grey and to look forward to being a wild-at-heart older woman. 

So thank you Wagazine and This Old Horse for bringing sunshine back into my life. And thank you to the Eaton Farm crew, Gretchen, Kathy and Katie, for taking me in and making me feel valued and appreciated.  

Andrea Gates lives in Rochester.