A Horse Community at Work
Story and Photography by Gary Knoll
In 2010, Chris Miele and her husband moved from New Jersey to Aiken to retire. Their home is not far from the rescue, which is at Haven Hills Farm on Aiken’s Southside.
“I had always worked in an office my whole life,” says Chris, “And I really wanted to enjoy more time outdoors. When we first moved here, I joined an old ladies knitting group, but it really didn’t do anything for me. I walked around my neighborhood every day. I saw the beautiful horses at the farm on top of the hill. I really wanted to see what was going on over there. It took a lot of courage for me to go there, something usually way out of my comfort zone, but I did.
“Tell how you first touched a horse,” says Jim to Chris.
“I was scared to death,” Chris admits. “It was hard for me to do at first and now I’m much more comfortable around the horses, and I really feel I need to come out here every day. I love it!”
It wasn’t long after Chris started helping at Equine Rescue that she felt a bond growing between herself and a black mare named Shadow. Chris puts a halter on Shadow and takes her for walks and to get brushed, whatever else she needs to have done. When you see Chris with Shadow you can tell they are both very much at ease in one another’s presence.
The main mission of Equine Rescue of Aiken is to find new homes for horses that need them. The rescue works with federal and local agencies and local horseman and horse owners, providing horses in need with a safe place to live until they can be adopted into forever homes.
“Not all horses are adoptable,” says Jim. “We understand that, and those that make it here will always have a safe place to live.” Although some horses are adopted right away, some will spend the rest of their lives at the rescue.
Rescuing horses might sound like something you would find on a dream job list, but it’s not quite so simple.
“We have about 60 or 70 horses here right now,” Jim explains. “We also have dogs, and miniature donkeys. Most of what we actually do is re-homing, or repurposing animals. By far, most of our animals are just simply regular horses of every size and breed imaginable. Their old owners are just like everyone else – financial or family circumstances make getting rid of their animals a necessity. It can be a devastating event for all parties. We also deal with Thoroughbred racetracks across the East Coast and are continually finding homes and new jobs for off-the-track Thoroughbreds. The first step is to bring the horses in. Then they are evaluated by our staff, and our army of volunteers and given whatever attention they need.”
With 60 horses on the property the amount of daily work involved is incredible, but Jim’s team of volunteers are a force. As many as 20 people a day contribute their energies. Some do jobs such as feeding or cleaning water buckets. Some brush and talk to shy ponies. Some pick up poop, trim grass or load hay. When you are at Equine Rescue of Aiken, the first thing you notice is how nice it is for the horses, and how many people you see doing so many different things all to make sure the horses have a chance to find a new job, a new life and a new person to love them.
“Down the centerline,” a man says from the side of the arena. “X, halt. Salute.”
A stocky chestnut mare with a golden red flowing tail and intricately braided mane, Mary trots down the center of the arena towards the judge’s box. The judge, a blonde woman, watches the horse and rider as they make a sharp left turn and then another. She whispers comments and scores to the scribe sitting next to her. The rider, dressed in a dark red polo shirt, breeches and shiny black boots, is a very quiet rider, and the pair moves with great purpose. As the mare picks up a right lead canter, her ears prick straight back and then fling forward, as far forward as ears can go. It is obvious that this is a practiced pair - they are not perfect yet, but they both have a sense of calm determination. The pair completes the dressage test and the rider, Lauren Admire, exchanges a few cordial words with the judge before turning and walking back up the centerline. She pats her horse on the neck and looks up at the man reading the test, her husband Steven. The two smile. Lauren wins the class.
“Mary wasn’t always so solid,” says Lauren. “She was a neglect case. When she came to the rescue, she was extremely malnourished and in generally poor condition. My husband and I had just relocated here and I was volunteering at Equine Rescue. There was an immediate bond and I ended up adopting her. I board her at the rescue - it’s such a great place to keep your horse. We have spent this year competing in intro level dressage classes all over and we have quite a few blue ribbons. It’s been amazing.”
Life at the Rescue
Jim Rhodes and his wife Debbie live at the rescue and are devoted to animals. In addition to rescuing horses, they also work with dogs and have adopted out over 100 puppies over the last year. This fall, they are finding homes for dogs and horses seized in a raid on a puppy mill in Edgefield. They always have new horses coming in, and expect to bring in more off-the-track Thoroughbreds over the winter. A number of Aiken’s polo players know to look to the rescue for their next polo prospects. Eventers know this is a good place to find horses with the ability to run and jump.
“We have just completed a pretty major upgrade to our facility,” Jim says. “The rescue is growing and we are looking at new ways to fund our efforts. We put in all new run-in sheds, and a new barn with its own paddocks. We have added a temperature-controlled tack room and hot and cold wash racks for boarders. We have miles of trails, a lighted arena, jumps. We now have more room and facilities for full time boarders, and can offer great places to keep your horse for people coming to Aiken for equestrian events. It’s a fun place to board your horse, with groups of friendly horse loving people around.”
“We have the greatest community of horsemen in the country,” continues Jim. “What makes our community work so well is its professionals. When we have a horse come into our rescue for whatever reason, an incredible group of people band together and do whatever is needed. Dr. Jamie Carter takes care of our worming needs. Dr. Sabrina Jacobs of Performance Equine Vets, Dr. Sarah Thompson from Estella Equine Vets, and Dr. Lisa Handy from Carolina Equine Clinic take great care of our animals, many times for free or at greatly discounted rates. We could not survive without their knowledge, generosity and charity. Much of our feed and hay is donated or sold to us at discounted rates. Merchants and horseman like Charlie Herrick and his company Banks Mill Feed, Pace Kneece of Aiken County Farm Supply, Boots Bridles and Britches, Lydia Rose at Aiken Saddlery and so many more, allow us to feed and care for our animals with the very best products available. Daren Haeusler, our blacksmith, comes in and takes care of hooves and shoes. Julie Robins of Julie Robins Natural Horsemanship works closely with our horses and volunteers, helping them become better horses and horseman.
“Equine Rescue of Aiken is one giant community of horse lovers. We are so lucky for all the blood, sweat and tears our community gives us for the care of our horses. None of this would be possible without the unbelievable vision and generosity of Isabella and Dick Furland, the owners of Haven Hill Farm, who let us use their magnificent property to help horses.”
Equine Rescue runs on volunteers and donations, and there are many different ways to contribute. Money, time, a bag of dog or horse food – anything helps. Most of the local feed stores will add a bag or two of feed to their customers’ bills to give to Equine Rescue. Everyone is welcome at the rescue, from experienced horsemen to people who are just curious about horses.
“You can adopt, or foster a horse or a dog, sponsor one, volunteer,” says Jim. “And if you are coming down for the winter, or you’re just looking for a nice place to keep your horse, we’ve got the perfect setup for boarders. Rent our new barn and be close to everything - Hitchcock Woods, Highfields, and all the eventing and polo facilities. It’s a great place to be.”
“I have always had horses,” says Michelle. “My kids and I love to ride. I was on the Internet looking for a horse for our son, something he could trail ride and show in local shows. I found Equine Rescue of Aiken, and we found Sara there. We adopted her in 2008. Then, in 2010, I called Jim and told him we were looking for another horse, and now we have Diamond.
“We love our horses, there is no way to gauge how much we get from having them. They have have been on trail rides, horse shows and even in parades. Equine Rescue does such a wonderful job - I can never say enough about how much they do to help the horses.”
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.