by Sebastian Langenberg
In the 1970s, Monique Koehler read an article about an English trainer, Daphne Collins, who was desperately trying to find homes for racehorses whose racing careers were over. Koehler knew she had to help and decided to form the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and started looking for donors.
TRF first needed a location to house the rescued thoroughbreds but could not find anything suitable in New York because the real estate was too expensive. In 1984, they found their answer.
“One of the directors was a state senator from New York,” said Diane Pikulski, TRF’s director of external affairs. “He used to drive by the state’s Wallkill Correctional Facility and saw there was a dairy farm there at one time, a few pastures and an empty barn. So he had the idea of putting the horses there, having the inmates renovate the place and learn how to take care of the horses.”
With this initial concept the Foundation was rooted in helping people as well as horses.
“Our program sort of opened the door to that,” Pikulski said. “We really started to see that the biggest value was not necessarily that the inmates were getting job skills but that they were getting human social skills or learning to tap into the part of their psyche that is about kindness and leadership through love. And being trustworthy, because horses need to trust you. Being fair, being dependable.”
Today, TRF has 850 horses under its care. The closest sanctuary farm to Middleburg is just down Route 50 in White Post. The foundation is also working closely with Virginia Tech to have a program at the M.A.R.E. Center in Middleburg, although nothing is official yet. It would be a public outreach program for people to come and learn about horses and get involved with TRF.
Pikulski believes Middleburg would be a great place for this kind of project.
“One of the beautiful things, to me, about Middleburg, because I travel to horse communities all around the country, is that the love for horses is so pure there,” she said. “They love every horse. It doesn’t have to be successful. They have an intense sense of stewardship for the land, and for the horses.”
About half of all the horses that TRF receives are permanently retired, but the other half are re-trained to continue on in new careers. Many are adopted out, and most become low level Three Day Event horses. Others become hunters, jumpers, and compete in dressage.
The adoption process is very thorough. Applicants must provide references and TRF visits the farm where the horse will live. There are follow-up visits after the horse has been placed in a home. They work hard to match the right horse with the right person.
Among TRF’s most rewarding endeavors is their therapy horse project. The foundation has provided horses to many therapy groups, including Boulder Crest, the retreat for veterans located in Bluemont. Boulder Crest works to help veterans overcome trauma they received while serving, and any trauma they might have that occurred before that.
“The thoroughbred, particularly the off-track thoroughbred, is just so good in a program like that because their attachment to people, intense relationship to people, how astute they are, and sensitive they are,” said Pikulski.
Suzi Landolphi is one of the therapists at Boulder Crest Retreat and said she personally used horses to overcome her own hurdles.
“For me, my healing journey started by learning to be gentle to horses,” Landolphi said.
Boulder Crest uses horses to help teach the veterans form a more congruent way of living. They try and make their thoughts, feelings and actions one.
The retreat is “for veterans, by veterans,” Landolphi said. “It started one night with Julia Falke drinking wine with friends and she drew the initial concept on a napkin.”
Falke’s husband, Ken, a retired Navy ordinance demolition expert, was spending time with wounded soldiers at Walter Read Military Hospital in Washington. He could see many of them needed a break from their numbing hospital routine and began inviting them out to the Falkes private home near Mount Weather in Bluemont.
Boulder Crest has grown from that first invitation to a large facility with cabins for housing and multiple programs that involve the veterans and their families. Boulder Crest reached out to TRF to adopt two of their horses from the White Post sanctuary for this program.
Landolphi works with the veterans to get them comfortable with the horses.
“They feel like they can’t connect,” she said. “The horses give them the first opportunity to connect, after the staff.”