It was a big day for Emmy.
She wasn’t always a healthy and happy mare. When the now-8-year-old, chestnut-colored mare first arrived at the Equine Rescue & Adoption Foundation three years ago, she was skinny and wild, having been abandoned on the streets of Indiantown.
“When she first came in, she was a handful,” Marilynn Vannucci, the foundation’s board member and treasurer, says. “She was so thin that no one thought she was pregnant, but she was.”
Once Emmy gave birth, she began the required health and training regime for all horses that come to this not-for-profit facility in western Palm City. But all the groundwork and veterinary visits paid off: Today, Emmy was heading to her new home.
Krystal Washington, an 11-year-old blonde with a horse T-shirt, a shiny horseshoe-shaped pendant necklace and little cowgirl boots, opened up Emmy’s stall door and gently tied a rope halter around the horse’s muzzle. Emmy was eager to be led down the stable walkway to Krystal’s mother, Terri Washington.
“We’re so excited,” says Terri Washington, who lives in Fort Pierce. “She’s so docile, sweet and gentle, and the two of them connected right off the bat.”
Emmy – whose name Krystal changed to Riley Ray with plans to build up her muscles for trail riding and barrel racing – is yet another success story for the Equine Rescue & Adoption Foundation, which saves an average of 12 to 15 horses every year.
As part of a large network of support for horses that have been abused, neglected or abandoned, the charity (known as ERAF) is certified with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries to provide foster care, rehabilitation and adoption services for these special creatures coming as far away as Ocala, Okeechobee and Miami.
“The economy was in such a state that people didn’t have the money to care for horses, so they would abandon them or they were neglected,” Vannucci says. “Horses are not inexpensive to care for.”
So, ERAF, which relies solely on volunteers and donors, works with the local sheriff’s offices, animal control departments and local residents to improve the health of these horses and provide the training necessary to find forever homes for them throughout Florida.
Room to train and grow
Founded in 2000 in Jupiter Farms, ERAF at first was just an agency to connect neglected animals with foster barns. In 2005, the not-for-profit collaborated with the Pegasus Foundation and opened a facility off Markel Street on a property known as Caring Fields.
But when that property was sold earlier this year, the group had to search for a new home and ended up purchasing Triple E Ranch off Martin Highway. They held a grand opening in May.
With nine separate pastures, 14 stalls and room to grow, the foundation is poised to help when multiple horses are in need of immediate help.
“It’s a huge step up in the facility,” says Stephany Fish, a guest trainer who runs Serendipity Dressage. “It’s much more inviting to the public to see what we do. These aren’t broken-down old horses. They are looking to get adopted.”
Last year, sheriff’s deputies found 11 horses in a Martin County pasture left without food and barely surviving. Now, with the help of ERAF, most of those horses are already being loved by new owners.
Chelsea Meadlock, who was visiting recently from Orlando, says she will only consider adopting a horse that has been rescued.
“I was looking for a horse I could trail, and I believe rescues give you more loving than other horses, more appreciation,” she says, leaning on the fence of a round pen.
Inside the pen, Fish was leading a horse named Rupert around on a red lead rope. Trotting around in a circle, Rupert, a Florida Cracker-Quarter mix with a shiny brown coat, was responding to Fish’s gentle clicking of her mouth.
For horses, which are naturally a prey animal, it can be difficult to develop trust in humans, who can be seen as predators. This is especially difficult for horses that have been abused.
Meadlock says she discovered ERAF through an Internet search. Rupert, who displayed a confidence and calm he didn’t have when first brought to ERAF, caught her eye.
“I need a horse I can count on to not get hurt when I’m alone in the woods,” she says.
Nurturing a pleasant “horse-ality”
Safety is the No. 1 concern for the horses and those who may one day ride them, because the goal is to find forever homes for the gentle beasts, says Erica Polvan, the foundation’s barn coordinator.
“Trust is the basis for everything you do,” she says. “Each horse is at a different level of training, so you have to start them slow.”
But before training takes place, Polvan oversees an extensive process to ensure the animal is healthy.
Every horse is first quarantined to ensure their shots and vaccines are up to date. Most haven’t had a hoof or dental care in quite a while, so veterinarians visit to bring the horse back to health.
Often times, this step includes substantial feeding to increase weight. For Rupert, the vet recommends a slurry of food with a fiber supplement because he tends to choke on hay. Like humans, digestion problems can occur and must be attended to.
Once the horse’s health is stabilized, training begins to make it adoptable. Polvan, who moved from North Carolina and started at ERAF in August, uses what is known as Parelli natural horsemanship.
“They call it ‘horse-ality.’ Rupert, for example, is a left-brained extrovert,” Polvan says. “So you have to train to his ‘horse-ality.’ It works. I’ve used it on so many horses.”
Training includes teaching the horse to pick up all four feet, as well as being still and accepting when the vet or trimmer comes to visit. They also need to be comfortable with annual teeth floating, a process that involves filing a horse’s teeth, which never stop growing.
Tools for training are everywhere in the stables: harnesses, long reins, lead ropes, rope halters, bridles, saddles and blankets hang in the cool feed room, not far from where Polvan’s dogs, Ella and Layla, look longingly for attention. There’s a barn cat named Onyx on property, too.
Meanwhile, Fish moves Rupert out of the round pen and into an arena, where she works with him to canter in circles at the slight movement of a whip on the ground.
“The initial process is so time consuming,” Vannucci says. “They really do look for leadership.”
Finding a forever home
Once a horse is deemed adoptable and a match is made – like with Rupert and Meadlock or Emmy and Washington – there is more work to be done. The potential new owners are vetted thoroughly, including seeing pictures of where the horse will be kept. Barbed wire or hot wire fences are not OK.
“You want to make sure the horses aren’t going into another deplorable situation,” Vannucci says. “You’d be amazed at how many people get a horse and have no idea how to handle them properly.”
So for 30 days, the potential owners work directly with the horse and Polvan to learn how to best handle the animal. Once the 30 days is complete, the horse leaves to its new home.
Many horse lovers also attend the frequent, educational “Lunch and Learn” series at the barn, too. Learning proper techniques is crucial to long-term success.
“I’ve loved horses my whole life, and I’ve always wanted a horse,” says Krystal Washington, as she posed for pictures with Emmy. “I was begging my dad for years.”
Horses, it seems, create an obsession and passion for some unlike any other animal.
Denise LeClair-Robbins, the president of the board, had been riding since she was a teenager.
“I always wanted to own a horse, but I traveled and own my own business,” she says, referring to her art gallery in Jupiter. So LeClair-Robbins simply adopted a horse, which she named Rio, and boards the former racehorse right on the property.
Telling their story
With an average of 12 horses on site at a time, keeping the operation going is quite an undertaking. Volunteers are dedicated to helping with the barn chores, feeding, grooming and training.
Randy Ferguson just started recently as a volunteer handyman. Already he’s fixed the golf cart and worked on some fences that needed mending. Boy Scouts have also helped mend fences, while Girl Scout troops have done substantial landscaping and weeding work on the property.
“It’s all about the horses,” Ferguson says.
Out in the pastures, horses like Tinkerbell, a 3-year-old mare who was so skinny at five months old that she had to be carried into the pasture, munched on “nibble nets” filled with hay to keep their minds occupied and bellies full. There were wooded, shaded areas, pine trees and lakes for hot days, too.
LeClair-Robbins says the foundation’s budget is in the “six figures” and depends heavily on grants and constant fundraising.
In February, their gala, called the Mane Event, will include music, heavy hors d’oeuvres and auction items to raise funds to keep the horses healthy and trained before being adopted.
They also maintain a website (eraf.org) and maintain a Facebook page.
But keeping up with the ever-present needs of the horses on property can be a challenge; even at a reduced rate, veterinary care for a sick horse can run upwards of $1,000/month.
So along with fundraising, the ERAF board plans on adding new stalls to their stables to increase their ability to board horses on property. They also hope to rent their lighted arena for private events.
Volunteers often attend local public events (frequently with the mini horse named Rozlyn, which fits in a mini-van) to educate the community about their mission and hopefully attract new donors.
“She attracts a crowd and allows us to tell our story,” Vannucci says.
The goal, along with caring for their creatures, is also to purchase the five acres along the back of the property, which will connect the facility with dirt roads for trail riding.
At the heart of the mission, it is all about the horses.