Horse power

On a farm in Virginia, rescued horses teach young people to take the reins of their own lives.

Courtesy of Ed Wennerstrom
Brook Hill Farm has given more than 420 horses refuge and a guarantee of lifelong care, while helping kids with learning disabilities.

The calendar says it’s after Labor Day, but an early September heat wave makes it feel more like July. In the fields of central Virginia’s Brook Hill Farm, horses that Jo Anne Miller has rescued are clustered under shade trees. Miller and assistant farm director Tracy Russler invite a visitor inside a low-slung building where a golden retriever lies panting on the cement floor and two industrial-size fans blow around hot air.

Miller, a member of the Rotary Club of Bedford, explains that she started Brook Hill Farm 14 years ago, partly because of her experience working at a racetrack when she was younger: She saw once-valued horses sold at auction after they had become injured or simply gotten old. As the years passed, she worried about the fate of those horses. Eventually, she decided to buy a dilapidated 60-acre former hog farm where, with the help of a local veterinarian, Ronald Fessler, she could save the horses no one wanted.

Today, Brook Hill Farm is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. It has given more than 420 horses refuge and a guarantee of lifelong care, either with new owners or at Brook Hill itself. Miller is proud of that number but wishes it were higher: Each month, she is asked to take in 40 to 50 horses, but can only accept one – “if we’re lucky” – with the farm’s limited budget.

Miller keeps before-and-after pictures of her horses, and as Russler presses a button on a projector, an image appears of a horse so thin its ribs are showing.

“We deal with a lot of cases of starvation,” Miller says. Click. “We also deal with malnutrition. This horse had owners who were feeding him lettuce and potatoes.” Click. “We get a lot of cases of neglect.” Click. “This horse was left in a field to die with a broken leg.” Click. “Arthritis is another problem. An owner put a horse here in an 8-by-10-foot stall for a year. They’re not meant to live that way.”

But Brook Hill Farm’s focus extends beyond four-footed creatures.

“Our mission is twofold: It’s to help the unwanted horses, and it’s to help the kids,” says Miller, who is certified as an equine specialist in mental health and learning, and has a degree in education with a focus on teaching kids with learning disabilities.

“The kids” are mostly teenage girls who help care for and rehabilitate the horses, and in the process find a measure of healing themselves.

“Like the horses who fall through the cracks,” Russler says, “they’re the kids who fall through the cracks.”

Some know what it’s like to be unwanted, and they find acceptance in Brook Hill’s Equine Facilitated Learning program.

“Kids like Shannon who said, ‘I have epilepsy; no one will let me ride anywhere,” Miller explains. “Or Katie, who has juvenile diabetes and anorexia; you can’t ride with those conditions at a regular barn. Julian: metal plate in leg, ‘Insurance won’t let me ride.’ Claire: legally blind. She came to me and said, ‘I want to ride horses, but nobody will let me because I can’t see.’ And I said, ‘The horse isn’t going to bump into anything. It’s not really an issue.’ ”

Other kids who come to Brook Hill are considered “at risk” because they’re having a hard time getting through school or staying out of trouble. Miller ticks off some of the most common issues she sees: “We have kids who have been bullied, kids with Asperger’s, bipolar, anxiety, abused kids, kids with emotional disorders, sexual abuse.”

Through school officials – or sometimes through juvenile court – they join United Neigh, a nurturing but tough-love after-school program at Brook Hill, where they receive tutoring in academic subjects, carry out barn chores, learn about equine care, and as a reward for good performance can ride and call a horse their own.

“Studies have found that small after-school groups are successful at keeping kids in school,” Miller says. Since 2002, every one of the program’s 103 participants has graduated from high school and pursued some form of continuing education.

But there’s no magic bullet in what Miller, Russler, Fessler, and the staff of volunteers do. The kids benefit from the farm’s “structured environment,” Russler says, where “everything is in its place.” It’s a reassuring sense of order that many don’t have at home. They gain self-esteem as their grades improve with tutoring by volunteer college students, and they gain maturity by talking with adult volunteers.

But at the center of everything is their interaction with the animals. Miller explains that horses are “congruent” – they feel what their handler feels.

“Horses mirror the feeling behind the façade. So the horse is going to mirror the child’s persona. An angry young lady with angry body language who approaches a horse will find the horse reacts with ears back. If she is coming at this horse like this, he’s worried: ‘If you’re going to be angry, I’ll be angry.’ The horses teach the kids to think, ‘How is my body language received?’ So we teach the kids to make changes to their behavior to get successful outcomes with the horses.”

Over the years, Miller has learned to pair the right horse with the right person. She has matched abused kids with horses whose owners hurt them, and given girls with anxiety horses with nervous dispositions.

Sid was a rail-thin horse on the verge of starvation when he arrived at Brook Hill. Sara was an anorexic girl who weighed 73 pounds. “We paired Sara and Sid together, and we talked to Sara about what Sid should eat,” Miller says. “We also brought a dietitian in to talk to Sara about her own diet.” Both made a full recovery. Sara finished her once-abandoned high school studies and graduated from community college.

There are many similar stories at Brook Hill Farm.

Belle, 19, has Asperger’s, depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder. She says spending two years in United Neigh turned around her failing grades, focused her mind on the future, and made her into a competitive show horse rider. Miller is helping her apply to community college, after which she plans to teach equine therapy.

“Coming out here has helped me so much with all my disabilities,” Belle says. “My anxiety-depression disorder isn’t as bad as it used to be. There are girls out here who have the same issues I do, and it’s so nice to relate to somebody, to talk to someone and have them understand me. I feel like I belong here with everyone, and the horses. Because all the horses have problems too. My horse has been through a rough patch, and so have I, so we work perfectly together.”

Anna, 17, came to Brook Hill after spending time on probation because of trouble at school.

“Before I came here, I didn’t see myself going anywhere,” she says. “Now I see college, a job, the whole nine yards.” Leni, 15, suffered panic attacks, had no friends, and hated school. Now she’s enrolled in early college classes and plans to become a veterinarian.

Despite its success in rescuing horses and helping kids in need, Brook Hill Farm struggles with funding. Most of its operating budget comes from individual donations of less than $100; Miller and Russler largely live off their personal savings. The 112-year-old classroom building is bare and unheated. There’s no indoor riding ring, and Miller says the fields are in rough shape because she can’t pay a full-time farm manager.

But she’s found support since joining the Bedford club about a year ago. Ed Wennerstrom has become Brook Hill’s unofficial photographer and provides free prints to the kids. Roger Henderson has donated more than 500 hours of labor to improving the barn and fences and serving as a mentor. A group of Rotarians devoted an entire day to putting double walls on the horse stalls.

“I joined Rotary to get to know other people in the community who were also service-oriented,” Miller says. “And I’ve learned that it’s a really active club, and there are so many opportunities to get involved in the community and even worldwide. Our club is partnering with other Rotary clubs in the area on a Habitat for Humanity house in Lynchburg.”

As they arrive after school, the kids crowd around Miller. At one point, she walks over to a girl named Molly, who has told her she is often bullied at school. As Molly brushes a horse’s neck with long, gentle strokes, Miller asks if she had a good day. Molly shakes her head and smiles. “No. I’m just happy to be here.”

This article originally appeared in The Rotarian, the official magazine of Rotary International. Rotary connects 1.2 million members of more than 34,000 Rotary clubs to provide humanitarian service and build goodwill throughout the world through addressing issues such as disease prevention, maternal and child health, literacy, peace and conflict resolution, economic development, and clean water. The Rotarian challenges readers to become more involved in service to their neighborhoods and to the global community. It's found on Twitter at @therotarian and @Rotary.

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