As the gate swings open at Equine Rescue and Adoption Foundation (ERAF) in Palm City, visitors might take a moment to notice a horse swimming in a fountain. Emma, a 14-year-old quarter horse, is enjoying a cool dip on a hot Florida summer day at the new home where she and her daughter, Lucy, now live. Watching this majestic equine frolicking in the fountain, it’s difficult to imagine that she and the 37 other horses that currently call ERAF home have endured a heartbreaking journey to get here.
“Horses don’t feel sorry for themselves,” says Melissa Muller, communications and development coordinator at ERAF. As she walks along paddock fences, Muller points out horses of all different sizes, colors, and breeds. Each one has its own story.
Founded in 2000, ERAF is a nonprofit devoted to the rescue, rehabilitation, and adoption of horses, mules, and donkeys. The organization takes in equines that have been abused, abandoned, neglected, or surrendered by their owners, as well as former racehorses retiring from the sport. Since its inception, ERAF has rescued more than 450 animals.
The farm sits on 8.5 acres of land off Southwest Martin Highway. The property comprises 24 stalls, 9 paddocks, and 2 quarantine paddocks. With a staff of just two full-time and six part-time employees, ERAF relies mostly on its 75-plus volunteers to care for the horses, maintain the property, staff events, and handle the day-to-day management of the organization. Many volunteers eventually take on larger roles, end up adopting an animal, or both.
“When I came to ERAF in 2018, I had just lost my mom,” says board member Robin Doniger. “She was my best friend.” Doniger started caring for Gucci, an Appaloosa who was recovering from a traumatic leg injury at the time and eventually also lost both eyes. In January 2020, she adopted him. “Horses are magic,” she says. “They know just what you need.”
Gucci’s former owner had been advised to euthanize the horse. Instead, he brought him to ERAF. Watching Gucci root around in Muller’s hand looking for peppermints, it’s apparent that this horse is quite content at his new home.
Gucci’s story is not unusual. When horses first arrive at ERAF, they are often malnourished, mistreated, or suffering from any number of health problems. “It’s hard to see horses
in this condition,” says Muller. “Rescue takes a special breed of person.” That special breed of person is Nancy Dunn, ERAF’s full-time barn manager. Dunn is described by those who work with her as something akin to a horse whisperer. “Nancy has an innate understanding of how horses think and react,” says Doniger.
Dunn, who grew up in a small, rural Pennsylvania town, has been around horses her entire life. “I was raised on a horse farm, but rescue is a whole different facet of the industry,” she says. At ERAF, she fields calls daily from law enforcement, animal care and control, and concerned citizens about horses in need and formulates the best plan for rescuing them if warranted. A call can involve anything from feral horses running wild to abuse situations to seizures by the sheriff’s department. Over time, and through much trial and error, Dunn has developed a routine for capturing horses. This process involves setting up gates and fences to eventually coax the horse into a trailer for transport to ERAF. Rescuing horses requires patience, persistence, and quick reflexes. Dunn notes the time she narrowly missed being kicked in the face by a horse she was trying to rescue.
Getting the animal to ERAF is only the beginning of what can be a long road to recovery for many horses. Dunn points to a horse peeking her head out from the end stall of the stable. The sign on the door reads: “Please admire me from afar! I am still learning not to be shy.” Her name is Eve, and she is a young Florida Cracker who was severely abused and found running loose on the prairie in Okeechobee two years ago. Dunn has put in hours and hours with Eve, trying to gain her trust. “Sometimes it starts out with just sitting in a paddock with them,” she says. At this moment, a volunteer is standing in front of Eve with her hands behind her back while the horse tentatively nuzzles her arm. “She wants to be with people, but she’s not good with hands,” explains Dunn.
Dunn says Eve is her most challenging horse yet, but she is determined to get her adoption ready—the ultimate goal for all horses at ERAF. The process begins with learning the history of the horse, if possible, and completing a medical evaluation. Then the animal is treated for any health issues and brought up to date with deworming, vaccinations, and dental care. ERAF has a longstanding relationship with Harbor Ridge Equine in Palm City. The veterinary clinic, which specializes in equine services, sends vets out to the farm to treat the horses.
The horse is also evaluated for level of training and emotional status. Dunn explains that they meet each horse where he or she is—a horse with serious health concerns, abuse issues, or little to no training is going to take some time. “Eventually, through many patient hours, getting closer to them through feed and positive reinforcement, I can touch them and start to build a relationship,” she says. “They learn to lead and be comfortable being touched all over and groomed.” The process can take anywhere from weeks to months to, in rare cases, even a year. The horse decides the pace.
Not all rescue horses will be able to be ridden, but those with potential are slowly eased into the activity by experienced riders. Staff member Jessica Archuletta and volunteer Karen Goodberlet work carefully with those horses to ensure that prior to adoption the horse is safe and rideable, whether for competition or leisurely trail riding.
To date, ERAF has completed more than 425 successful adoptions. The organization’s success is due in large part to the numerous accreditations it maintains. “Accreditations make us unique,” says Muller. “There are a lot of boxes you have to check to get these accreditations.” ERAF is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and is an Adoption Partner with the ASPCA’s The Right Horse Initiative. They are also accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. Many Thoroughbreds are relinquished to ERAF after their racing careers are over to be retrained for post-track life.
These accreditations, as well as ERAF’s membership in the United Horse Coalition and EQUUS recognition as a Guardian Partner, all help advance the foundation’s goal of ensuring a caring home for every horse. Sometimes that means providing monetary assistance, food, or supplies so that financially burdened owners can keep the horses they love.
“A lot of our horses come from owner surrender,” says Muller. “We would rather assist an owner in keeping a horse in their own home.” The current economy is causing an uptick in owner surrenders, she notes, and ERAF is working to implement a safety-net program designed to keep horses with their owners.
Board President Elaine Hines is a passionate advocate for this program as well as programs that educate the public on responsible ownership. “We need to educate individuals on caring for horses and stop the cycle [of abuse and neglect],” she says. Hines, who lives in Jupiter, first came to ERAF as a volunteer in 2010. Rediscovering the love that she’d always had for horses, she now uses her position on the board to advocate for better awareness, education, and collaboration among rescue organizations.
“I want ERAF to become known in Florida for its ability to facilitate and help individuals and other horse rescues become more effective in rehoming these unfortunate horses,” says Hines. She explains that there are a lot of small horse rescues in Florida that don’t have funding and are forced to close their doors, leaving their horses homeless. More support from larger players is needed, she says, to address a growing need. “I’d like to see ERAF be able to work toward building alliances with larger organizations to educate the public and advance the mission.” Hines’ goal is to form a coalition of equine rescues throughout Florida that will work together to increase awareness, raise money, and collectively gain better supply pricing and better placement of rescues. ERAF receives no government funding, relying on individual donors, private foundations, fundraising events, and wills and bequests to support their programs.
Individuals looking to adopt a horse from ERAF can expect to undergo a thorough screening process. On this particular day at the farm, we meet a mother and daughter duo, one of whom is blind, who have recently been adopted and are awaiting transport to their new home. Conversely, there are two horses still in need of homes who suffer from anhidrosis, a not-uncommon condition that makes horses unable to sweat. These animals would be better suited to an adoptive family in a cold-weather climate like Minnesota or Wisconsin.
“We are looking to make the right match,” says Dunn, who meets with each potential adopter to evaluate whether they will make a good horse owner. “Sometimes I know they are not ready and suggest they come out and volunteer first,” she adds.
That has proven to be a pretty good strategy. Not only did Doniger adopt Gucci after volunteering, but Muller also co-adopted a pony named Logan with a friend. “I always wanted a pony,” says Muller with a laugh.
Equine Rescue and Adoption Foundation is located at 6400 SW Martin Hwy. in Palm City. If you are interested in volunteering, donating, or adopting, visit eraf.org for more information.
On November 17, The Lyric Theatre in downtown Stuart will hold a special screening of The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses. The film, executive produced by Robert Redford, tells the story of America’s wild horses and their need for protection. Proceeds from the screening will benefit ERAF. To purchase tickets, click here.