Peaches, at 35, is the grand old lady of the Wishbone Ranch in Vermillion Township near Hastings, home of the nonprofit This Old Horse Inc.
The small palomino quarter horse had been a brood mare and lesson horse, but when she got old, there was nowhere for her to go.
Painter was used for therapeutic riding, but his working life was cut short because of a stiff shoulder from an old injury and an anxiety disorder. He’s semiretired but is a perfect part-time lesson horse for beginners because of his smooth-as-silk trot.
One-eyed, sweet Fiona was a rescue that came to the ranch a year ago, bone-thin, bullied and bitten from head to toe by her larger barn mates. She’s now a happy, healthy mare with a penchant for carrots.
These animals are among the 38 at This Old Horse, a sanctuary for retired, rescued and recovering horses. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit was founded in 2012 by Nancy Turner, 58, a woman in perpetual motion who doesn’t like to take no for an answer.
On Saturday — Kentucky Derby Day — the second annual Run for the Roses 5k will be held at the 43-acre ranch to raise money for the nonprofit. Participants don’t need to run or even walk, though. The event will include a zero-k couch potato run, a virtual run for those who can’t make it to the ranch, a silent auction and plenty of interaction with staff, volunteers and, yes, the horses too.
The original mission of This Old Horse was to provide a retirement home for working horses, those that provided therapeutic riding for mentally or physically disabled riders, lessons, breeders, racehorses. Some would continue to work part-time as lesson horses. All would have homes for life.
After the seizure of more than 100 abused and neglected horses from a ranch near New Salem, N.D., in January 2013, Turner got a call asking if the nonprofit’s barn had room for two more.
The two, Hope and Faith, came to live at This Old Horse last April.
“As soon as they got to the farm, they both took a huge sigh of relief,” said Kate Nelson, executive director of This Old Horse. “It’s like they knew their lives were going to be better.”
Of the ranch, “It’s like having 1,500-pound toddlers,” Nelson said, laughing.
It costs about $15,000 a month to maintain the horses. There are food costs (the price of hay has doubled or tripled in the two years the ranch has operated), medication, vet and farrier bills as well as the mortgage, taxes and insurance. One-third of that comes from boarding fees, another third from lessons. Donations and sponsorships make up some of the rest, but when more is needed, it comes from Turner’s pocket, she said.
The horse barn and arena aren’t insulated or heated. That’s the first item on the wish list, but in the meantime, it means that lessons are curtailed during the winter months. Fundraisers like the 5k help make up the difference.
The first 5k last year raised $17,000. Turner and Nelson hope for $25,000 this year.
This Old Horse couldn’t survive without its network of about 100 dedicated volunteers. A few come only once a year. Some come regularly to groom, clean stalls, wash food bowls and spend time with the horses. Others come two, three, even four times a week to help feed the animals. Special events, like Run for the Roses, bring in about 100 additional volunteers.
The ranch has just four part-time employees, three stable hands and Nelson, who is half-time.
Turner owns Axis Minnesota Inc., a company that operates eight group homes in Ramsey County for intellectually disabled adults and children. She and her partner, Tom Rhode, live in Afton, where their horse barn has 12 residents, including two from This Old Horse.
“I had room in my barn,” she said nonchalantly. “If you’re feeding 10, why not 12?”
A pivotal wishbone
Turner said she was volunteering with We Can Ride, a therapeutic riding program in Minnetonka, about three years ago when she came up with the “great idea” of starting a business that would provide a home for the horses after they age out of work. She was shot down immediately.
Still, she persisted, even drawing up a business plan. But the money just wasn’t there: Groups that use horses as tools can’t afford to feed two when only one is working, she said.
“I gave up, I put it away,” she remembered.
It was a wishbone in a rotisserie chicken that changed her mind.
“When you make a wish with a wishbone, you can’t do it by yourself,” she said. “That was so powerful to me. I said people will help. You look at it and it can’t work. But what if people helped?”
When Fiona arrived at the ranch with a horribly infected eye that required surgery, Turner said she had no idea how she was going to pay the vet bill. The same day the bill arrived, a large donation for almost the same amount arrived in the mail. What Turner calls other miracles followed.
“I think some people need a barn in their life the way some people need a church in their life,” she said. “It’s a community, a common goal. People love horses. The horses only have expectations that they’ll be kind — and feed them. It’s kind of magical here. It’s not fancy, but it has so much heart.”