HASTINGS, Minn. — It takes many pairs of hands to keep This Old Horse going.
Seven hundred and twelve of them, to be exact.
That’s how many volunteers have worked with the Hastings sanctuary for retired horses since it started keeping formal track in 2014. Without them, founder Nancy Turner is positive she couldn’t keep Wishbone Ranch, This Old Horse’s 43-acre farm about 30 minutes south of St. Paul, up and running. The organization has just five paid employees — a program director, a barn manager and three stable hands — and none of them is full time.
Volunteers are what Turner was counting on when she started This Old Horse in 2012. Turner, who runs a business managing group homes for vulnerable adults, had noticed a problem with horses that grew too old for full-time use in therapeutic riding programs; they were often too expensive for owners to keep but had nowhere to go. She calls such horses “unwanted, not unloved.”
“I took two, three then four of those horses into my own barn, and I felt I had an embarrassment of riches,” she said.
Turner said she checked with other rescue groups but found that most concentrated on horses that had been neglected or abused. She tried to work out a business plan for feeding and sheltering old horses without much of a revenue stream but determined it just wasn’t feasible.
And then she changed her mind.
“All of a sudden, it was like ‘What if people helped?’ ” Turner said. “We just jumped off the cliff.”
It’s quite a cliff. There are 30 horses at Wishbone Ranch, and 33 have been placed in foster care at nearby farms. Turner estimates about 150 horses have gone through This Old Horse in its four years of operation. Most have grown too old for work in mounted police or therapeutic riding programs. Some are show horses or racehorses who came up lame or aged out of competition; others had to be surrendered because their owners could no longer afford them. Although This Old Horse concentrates on “retirees” — its motto is “Thank you for your loyal service” — it also takes in rescue horses as the need arises. Turner said she gets about 20 calls a month regarding horses she doesn’t have room or money for. The waiting list to surrender a horse is usually around 50.
This Old Horse has an annual budget of $330,000. Boarding 10 horses at Wishbone Ranch brings in a little revenue, as does taking donated equipment to tack swaps, but Turner estimates 80 percent of it comes from fundraising and donors.
Turner describes funding This Old Horse as “a pinch every month.”
“I just hate to see that,” she said with a small laugh as she walked past a dwindling pile of hay bales. “Because that means another call to the hay vendor and then another bill.”
Events like This Old Horse’s May 7 “Run for the Roses” 5K and Minnesota’s statewide Give to the Max Day help. Some people who have surrendered their horses also help — one donor couldn’t afford to maintain a horse any longer but contributes $100 a month to its upkeep and visits regularly.
‘A great model’
The volunteers are what keep This Old Horse functioning.
“I think (Nancy’s) got a great model, and she’s got a huge network of volunteers. She brings a real genius to getting people engaged and invested,” said Stacy Bettison, vice president of the Minnesota Horse Welfare Coalition.
Michelle Hoffman, the program’s volunteer director, said most volunteers work on feed crews, brigades that handle the twice-daily undertaking of bringing all 40 horses in from pastures for hay and grain. Volunteers also make sure each horse is groomed at least once a week and perform barns chores, like mucking out stalls and cleaning water pails.
For every 12 hours of volunteering, a participant earns a riding lesson. Turner said riding lessons often cost $45 to $50 an hour, so the option of earning them with service is especially attractive to families.
“The moms are crazy for it, because when else do you get three hours with your teenage kid and then have something in common to talk about in the car on the way home?” she said.
Turner thinks a love for horses also prompts people to volunteer. She’s noticed many people are interested in horses but don’t have the time, space or money to have their own.
“We created a community here,” she said. “We wanted to gather people who love horses or think they might love horses and get in one place.”
Pete Swentik found This Old Horse after he went through a divorce and his former wife kept the horses they had together. Now, he’s the organization’s barn manager.
“Everybody wants to feel needed, and when you hang out around a horse, you feel like, ‘I need to be here. It needs me,’ ” he said.
Ashenmacher writes for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service partner
To make a donation to This Old Horse, go to thisoldhorse.org or call 651-437-1889.