At This Old Horse, everyone has a past.
Ruger is a retired therapy horse.
Bhaldi was an accomplished dressage competitor. George was a family’s faithful show animal. Gigi and Big are thoroughbred royalty, descended from Triple Crown champions.
Some have sadder tales. Talia and Nadia, two matched Arab mares, were abandoned and left to survive on their own. Rhomi was so thin, at one time you could count her bones through her coat.
Past and future converge
But the past isn’t the end of the story.
“No one’s history defines them,” says Nancy Turner, founder of This Old Horse and chair of its board of directors.
“Here, now, these horses are well-fed. They are happy. Many of them continue to work at a capacity that suits them. And all of our horses have someone who gives them attention and love.”
Established in 2012 to provide a caring environment for retired horses 15 years and older who had served in some professional capacity—therapy animals, racehorses, jumpers, show horses—This Old Horse has grown to also serve as a peaceful space for neglected and mistreated horses. It’s been named a Certified Rescue Program by the Minnesota Horse Council and is one of only 30 rescue programs in the U.S. accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
Once they arrive at This Old Horse, most of the animals remain with the organization for the rest of their lives.
Not a place. A community.
The idea for This Old Horse was sparked when Turner adopted two retired therapy horses and was impressed by their temperament, energy and abilities.
“I was struck by how these horses didn’t have to work that hard to still benefit the people around them,” she says. “They certainly had value.”
Turner pitched the concept of a program for retired horses to a therapeutic riding program. They weren’t interested. Toying with the idea of doing it herself, she created a business plan and ran the numbers. It didn’t add up, and she couldn’t see a way to make it work. But then Turner thought about it in a new way.
“My whole business plan had been about a place: a barn, stalls, acres, hay, number of horses we could house,” she says. “But what if it wasn’t about just one place? What if it was about community instead?”
She took a leap of faith and invited others to join her in building a nonprofit organization focused on older horses.
Since then, This Old Horse has included more than 1,800 volunteers, a board of directors and a small group of paid staff to fulfill the organization’s goal “to create a sanctuary where all horses and the people who support them are respected, honored and nurtured.” And the group does it all on private grants and donations.
Wishbone Ranch is the organization’s main campus. A 43-acre property near Hastings, Minn., it’s home to about 50 horses. But This Old Horse reaches far beyond the ranch. Horses also are cared for at five other farms the organization manages. In addition, This Old Horse partners with more than 100 foster hosts throughout the region to provide homes for horses.
“People who already have horses often are willing to take one or two more,” Turner says of the foster farms. “But the horses still belong to us. If circumstances change and a foster family can’t keep them, they come back to our barn.”
In total, This Old Horse now houses about 200 horses, with approximately 100 more waiting for placement.
“We’re always expanding the network, always willing to have new folks join our community to help these horses,” Turner says. “People want to place with us because they know their retired horse will go to a loving home where they are well cared for. They want to do right by them.”
Forging deep connections
The caring spirit that pervades This Old Horse can be clearly seen in the time and devotion volunteers invest in it. Crews appear at the barns twice a day to feed the horses, move them to and from their pastures, and clean out the stalls.
Volunteers maintain the grounds, organize the barns and represent the organization at special events. A group called the Hands On Horses Club makes sure each animal receives tender care and affection. Another group called This Little Horse works with miniature horses to provide pet therapy and service work in schools, libraries and health care facilities.
But it’s the individual love given and received that often makes the biggest impact—on both the horses and the humans.
One retired law enforcement officer learned that when she started volunteering with This Old Horse. She considered signing up for the miniature horse program. With her background in K-9 work, she thought it would be a good fit.
But a little blind mare named Gypsy had other ideas. Neglected and isolated before she arrived at This Old Horse, Gypsy rarely engaged with other horses or people. The officer took notice. She searched for ways to connect but didn’t make much progress at first. Then she began reading out loud to Gypsy, sitting beside the horse’s paddock on a lawn chair, working her way through childhood favorites. Gypsy slowly began to come closer, listen, interact.
Today, if you visit Wishbone Farm, you may see a woman and a small brown horse together in a shady enclosure under a tree, the retired police officer softly stroking Gypsy’s neck, the two of them sharing a quiet moment and just enjoying time together—as friends.
Tracy Will is a Rochester-based writer who was charmed by everyone she met during her visit to Wishbone Ranch—both horses and humans.